Quadri­lat­eral Cow­boy

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Set­ting up a good workspace is cru­cial in Quadri­lat­eral Cow­boy. In front of you, you’ll place your deck. This jerry-built lap­top – con­structed by you, since you find and in­stall its mem­ory, CPU and other com­po­nents – fea­tures a key­board and screen to dis­play a com­mand-line in­ter­face, and it’s your most prized piece of equip­ment, used for hack­ing into ex­ter­nal net­works and to con­trol var­i­ous amaz­ing tools.

To the side you’ll place your CCTV unit. Its two­screen dis­play feeds video from some of those tools, so you’ll an­gle it so it’s vis­i­ble as you type com­mands on your deck. One feed might be from Nell, your Weevil, a four-legged re­mote bot that’s small enough to get un­der pipes and through vents. Af­ter you’ve con­nected to it us­ing WEEVER.EXE you might tell it GO 150; TURN 90; GO 50, com­mands that tell it to move for­ward, turn to the right and move on again. Then you’ll ham­mer out DATAJACK 0 to ac­ti­vate a node on the wall, which might switch off laser fields, per­haps, or open a win­dow. An­other video feed could be from your Auto Case, a briefcase that you set on the floor and which trans­forms into a gun. Run AIMBOT.EXE, zoom in the view with CAMZOOM 10, then TURN -15; PITCH 30 to po­si­tion your laser guide on the tar­get.

Not on a hu­man, of course. This isn’t that kind of game. The Auto Case is all about hit­ting but­tons from afar with FIRE. The ob­ject of Quadri­lat­eral Cow­boy is to per­form a se­ries of sim­u­lated heists from your com­pany’s stu­dio, for­mu­lat­ing and prac­tis­ing elab­o­rate raids on sur­real banks, fu­nic­u­lars, lux­ury apart­ments, space sta­tions and mov­ing trucks, be­fore get­ting out again, prefer­ably with­out set­ting off alarms. The what and the why of a heist isn’t im­por­tant; it’s the how, since this is es­sen­tially a puz­zle game in which you fig­ure out how best to use the tools at your dis­posal.

As you’re steadily granted more, learn­ing what they do is a thrill. You ini­tially fum­ble around, re­sort­ing to typ­ing HELP into the deck, read­ing sticky notes at­tached to it, and open­ing the in-game man­ual un­til, even­tu­ally, you master them. Get­ting Blink is a mo­ment when you par­tic­u­larly be­gin to feel that mas­tery. By pre-pro­gram­ming Blink with chains of com­mands, you can per­form them with­out hav­ing to set up your deck, al­low­ing you to ma­nip­u­late the en­vi­ron­ment as you go.

Quadri­lat­eral Cow­boy takes place in en­tirely dis­crete lo­ca­tions, but it feels like it’s part of a wider world, one spun out from a greater uni­verse Blendo Games es­tab­lished in its pre­vi­ous games, Flotilla, Grav­ity Bone and Thirty Flights Of Lov­ing. The char­ac­ters are sim­i­larly blocky and the en­vi­ron­ments just as sim­ple, but de­tails are ev­ery bit as ob­sessed over. This is a game of in­ci­den­tals, where ev­ery book in ev­ery book­case has a dif­fer­ent ti­tle; ev­ery func­tion­ing ob­ject has a name and has warn­ing stick­ers and op­er­at­ing notes; ev­ery drawer opens and ev­ery tap and toi­let flows. It’s a tac­tile game, tak­ing plea­sure in pre­sent­ing you with three-stage air­locks to ne­go­ti­ate and com­plex ma­chin­ery that springs into life with the press of a but­ton. It’s ev­i­dently in love with that part of the ’90s when en­vi­ron­ments in games such as Duke Nukem 3D and Deus Ex be­gan to re­spond in a re­al­is­tic way to your pas­sage, feel­ing like slices of co­gent greater worlds.

And yet Quadri­lat­eral Cow­boy also feels en­tirely ar­ti­fi­cial. You’re aware you’re ex­plor­ing sets, each painstak­ingly com­posed so it both gives you a cleanly pre­sented puz­zle to solve, com­pris­ing alarm sys­tems to bear in mind, sight­lines be­tween win­dows for your Auto Case, and vent sys­tems to send your Weevil into, and also works on a vis­ual level, able to tell a story of what this place is and to also look great from ev­ery an­gle. The very sub­stance of Quadri­lat­eral Cow­boy is in some ways a ru­mi­na­tion on the way games are worlds built in com­put­ers. There’s the pro­gram­ming you per­form as you play, and also the fact it’s built in Id Tech 4, Doom 3’ s en­gine. In Quadri­lat­eral Cow­boy it gives clar­ity and a noirish vis­ual drama to each scene, and it also harkens to the mod­ding com­mu­ni­ties that sprang up around Id’s en­gines. Blendo Games’ Bren­don Chung has al­ways been very ac­tive in them, us­ing Id Tech 2, Quake II’s en­gine, for pre­vi­ous re­leases.

If all this wasn’t enough, there’s also an af­fect­ing story go­ing on of a hacker and her two friends es­tab­lish­ing a com­pany, Im­pala So­lu­tions, build­ing up their tech and tak­ing on jobs. Be­tween lev­els, through Blendo Games’ trade­mark crash cuts, we ex­pe­ri­ence vi­gnettes of their lives, vis­it­ing their homes and play­ing bad­minton with them. The finer points are told through de­tails, there to no­tice if you care, in con­tracts and cer­tifi­cates, with time com­mu­ni­cated through a plant steadily grow­ing and sea­sonal dec­o­ra­tions in the of­fice.

With so much go­ing on, all of it so care­fully re­alised, some­thing had to give. Quadri­lat­eral Cow­boy isn’t long, and by the end of its 11 lev­els you’ll feel you’ve only scratched the sur­face of the chal­lenges your many tools and abil­i­ties can pro­vide. Most lev­els feel like tu­to­ri­als, sin­gle­mind­edly ex­plor­ing a sole abil­ity with only one clear so­lu­tion, and only a cou­ple give you a chance to put them all to­gether. Some ideas are pre­sented and thrown away en­tirely a level later, in­clud­ing a Su­per Time Force- like time-ma­nip­u­la­tion me­chanic.

On the other hand, it keeps Quadri­lat­eral Cow­boy fo­cused and more broadly ac­ces­si­ble. Your friends’ best times are there to goad you into ex­e­cut­ing a bet­ter plan faster, so there’s some re­playa­bil­ity, too. And be­sides, Blendo Games’ am­bi­tions seem to be on an­other plane. Quadri­lat­eral Cow­boy comes with a guide to mod­ding, so per­haps its po­ten­tial will be fully re­alised by its play­ers. For a game so de­light­fully pre­oc­cu­pied with the magic of its mak­ing, that’s ac­tu­ally pretty fit­ting.

By the end you’ll feel you’ve only scratched the sur­face of the chal­lenges your many tools and abil­i­ties can pro­vide

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