Bot Colony Preview - Asimov, Eat Your Heart Out

Published: March 7, 2017 9:00 AM /


Bot Colony Cover

I tried, I really did. In the four hours I've spent with Bot Colony, I must have restarted it twenty to thirty times due to crashes, authentication screen hangs, disconnects from the server, and because the game got so confused trying to parse its own logic that it rendered me unable to move forward at all. I've had to verify the integrity of my files twice and even uninstall and reinstall the game to reset bugs. Bot Colony has been in the works for about seven years now and it is still stuck in Early Access with only two very short playable episodes. Its progress throughout the years has been static at best, and unless the developers overhaul most of the current programming, Bot Colony will be a dead-in-the-water flop.

Bot Colony's big gimmick and selling point is that you can talk to robots. To do so, you can use a microphone with speech recognition, or you can just use a keyboard. Communication with the robots often takes the form of asking who/what/when/where questions, issuing simple commands, and teaching them new facts. In the two episodes available in the build I played, Intruder and Arrival, I interrogated a robot, defused a bomb, played 20 Questions, and solved a glorified "spot-the-difference" puzzle. If any of that sounds fun, I regret to inform you that it is, in fact, the opposite of fun.



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Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share


Let's start with the interrogation. In the first episode of Bot Colony, which is also the tutorial, which you can also skip entirely just by turning around and clicking upon loading, you must first ask the robot Jimmy about the events that occurred in his owner's house in the past 48 hours. His memory contains fourteen short video clips that provide the information, but none of them are actually required to progress. This is a good thing because in the half hour I spent on this section alone, I was only able to reveal three. See, Jimmy wants you to be very specific about the times and places you ask about. For example, "What happened yesterday at 1:00 AM in the living room?" may actually yield results, whereas "What happened yesterday?" is too vague. Sure, that makes some sense, but it also means that you basically need to possess the intuition to know that something happened yesterday at 1:00 AM in the living room. It's like playing a game of Clue and trying to guess the killer, weapon, and location right off the bat. Meanwhile, nothing else is happening. You can direct Jimmy to move around the house, but aside from that, you're meant to do nothing more than hold a steady conversation until the interminable point when you have all fourteen videos.

Of course, you can just press End to mercy kill that part of the tutorial and move on to something vaguely more engaging. Now you have to send Jimmy around the house and compare the state of each room to photos showing the way it looked before the crime that took place. Using Jimmy's manipulation commands, players move items, close doors, and rotate pots... and that's about it. He knows a number of different manipulation commands, but Bot Colony falls prey to the "Scribblenauts Effect," which is that the most boring, basic solutions, are also generally the easiest. Pick up, rotate, close, and switch will get you much better results than "align," which introduces all sorts of planes and axes that over-complicate things.


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I taught Jimmy that "Alarm clocks are birds" and it broke his brain



Here's where things get buggy. The first issue I faced trying to complete Intruder was that I pressed the button that toggles a dialogue box with your personal assistant, but after I was done speaking to her, pressing the toggle button again did not remove the dialogue box. I could not reestablish my connection to Jimmy no matter what I tried, so I had to restart the entire episode. Even quitting the game proved difficult since menu options randomly disappeared and then reappeared every time I paused the game. Then, when I finally restarted it, I found that the "point" mechanic no longer worked. Sometimes, when Jimmy is confused (as is often the case), he will ask you to left-click on the object you want him to interact with. Before then, pointing worked fine, but after rebooting, I suddenly could not point.

Being more specific in your instructions rarely helps either. In some cases, it's because two items are identical. In the child's bedroom, there are two white and green cabinets, one of which you need to put a toy on. Jimmy is not programmed to distinguish between them, even if you say "Put it on the cabinet with the night light" or "by the board games." Other times, Jimmy arbitrarily refuses to act without pointing.  "Rotate the saute pot," I commanded. "Which one?" he asked. "Rotate the sauce pot on the stove," I commanded. "Which one?" he asked. "Rotate the sauce pot on the stove in front of you," I commanded. "Sorry, there is nothing directly in front of Jimmy," he said.



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I taught Jimmy to call me the Cake Boss, and that's probably the only highlight from this game


Moving on to Bot Colony's second episode, Arrival, your first major task is to use a baggage claim robot. First, you must find your own luggage, and then to find a briefcase containing a bomb, all while no one else, human or robot, shows any noticeable concern. Like Jimmy, controlling the baggage robot is not difficult when you understand the commands he is best equipped to execute, but the trial-and-error to learn those commands is a drag. I also had to turn off my microphone for this part, because it requires you to sort the baggage by its city of origin, and that's its own can of worms. Some of the locations are pretty exotic, so dialectical differences may confuse the speech recognition. It also doesn't help that Bot Colony tends to prioritize common nouns over proper nouns when deciphering speech.

Once you disarm the bomb, your last (and most difficult) task in Arrival is to get a vacuum bot, Charlie, to open the garage door for you. Only, Charlie is obsessed with playing 20 Questions and not doing his job. In essence, he manages to violate all three laws of robotics: by constantly asking me to play his inane games he caused me great mental harm, he did not obey my direct commands both when I agreed to play and refused to play, and he did not protect his own existence, because by the end of our fruitless conversation I was ready to smash him into a junk pile. I imagine the 20 Questions game was meant to show how smart Bot Colony's AI is, but I've had pocket-sized LCD games better at it than Charlie. He asks you to think of something you've seen in the airport, and my mind jumped to the first thing that stood out: the bomb I had just defused. After minutes of aimless guessing, Charlie gave up and asked me what I had in mind. I answered, "Bomb." He told me there was no bomb at the airport and called me a cheater, at which point I exited the game, uninstalled it, and moved it to the "Junk Pile" category in my Steam library.



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The robotic arm has a tendency to knock everyone else's baggage all over the place when picking something up


Bot Colony certainly has some interesting tech behind it, but it is not even a remotely functional game. I would prefer a simple, cohesive tech demo to this shabby mess masquerading as an adventure game. The only thing accurately simulated by Bot Colony is the extent to which a game can frustrate a person, and boy does it accomplish that in droves.

Bot Colony was previewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.

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June 16, 2014 (Calendar)
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