After being banished to a protracted sentence in development purgatory, The Red Star at last emerges from the ether. Initially, the date was set for 2004, with publication and distribution handled by Acclaim, a company once on a personal mission to uphold every crappy stereotype of the video game industry. One of their final games, BMX XXX, nicely encapsulates the Acclaim standard: a soulless license, excessive violence, filled with horny people, all of it reeking of publicity stuntiness. What's more depressing: that Acclaim kept this up for decades, or that it took Rockstar only one game to make the idea appear credible?
The Red Star then is an anomaly. It has no blood, no foul language, and Maya, a foxy pigtailed heroine, never lifts up her shirt. I wager it'd take a few Jack Thompsons (throw in a Pat Robertson or two) to find enough in-game naughtiness to crusade against, so rather than let you play it and clean up their image, naturally Acclaim would rather go out of business. Two years later, XS Games picked up the pieces (magazine reviews had already started appearing when Acclaim went bankrupt) and, peering past the unusual circumstances, this is hands down the best American shooter in a very long time.
It's set in a kind of neo-Russia, where sorcery and big tanks coexist, and is about to be taken over by Troika, a mechanical reaper the size of the Chrysler. You are resolved to battle Troika as an elite member of The Red Star. Or, maybe Troika's group is called The Red Star. Or maybe the name has nothing to do with anything. It's confusing. (Hell, the average player will be clueless to the obscure comic book series it's based upon.) While the artwork's alluring and gorgeous and the universe compelling, there's little attempt to introduce the characters or ease off on the pronoun-happy nomenclature. But since it's all a pretext to the game's stylish carnage, it doesn't really matter.
What does matter is that the selectable characters are balanced. Perfectly balanced, even. This can't be stressed enough. Surface-wise, it's an easy task: have three characters, one fortified with strength, another with speed, and the last as the in between vanilla. Me, I choose the latter archetype whenever I can (Ryu, Mario, the uncomplicated warrior guy in Diablo). It's the perfect way to learn the ins and outs of a game without grappling with the weaknesses of a specialized character. Once the game's more familiar, theoretically that's the perfect time to switch around and experiment. But by that point I'm so ingrained in my gaming habits that other options seem weird and bewildering. (Really, after the clean simplicity of Ryu who wants to figure out Dhalsim and his eccentric charge moves?) If a game gets you to recognize the strength of other options, that's nothing. When something like this comes along which compels you to abandon your preferences, then it becomes a big deal.
Before we get into that, look at the similarities that tie the three heroes together. Regardless of whom you choose, the path remains the same: 19 levels of waved assaults from the gazillion-strong opposition. Besides moving about shooting wildly, the gun has two aimed attacks: one is lock-on, good for maneuvering around and bullet molesting a single target. The other has you revolving around fixed in your spot, best reserved for Dawn of the Dead-ish situations. And when your personal space gets violated, melee attacks and combos are at your disposal.
Or you can choose to block. Initially, the shield feels slow and cumbersome, but shielding isn't a twitch move like in other shooters. Enemies move in predictable patterns and only have one or two attacks, each with individual windows for counterattacks. While this sounds terrible, try keeping track of all this when a dozen robots are attacking at different times in different ways. The shield system becomes a subtle trick: The Red Star conditions you to recognize you're about to be overwhelmed; it integrates the shield as part of your attack plan, rather than as an emergency period of grace. While both designs have their merits, this one is suited to The Red Star's meticulous action.
During bosses, the camera zooms way out and the game turns into a manic shooter, going into full-on bullet hell mode with sheets of neon spheres pumping out of mechanical monsters. The presence of a life bar is two-edged since most shooters employ the one-hit-and-you're-out methodology. Arguably, life makes players lazy, shuffling through these grandiose firefights rather than learning and weaving through the bullet patterns. Yet, also arguably, life stunts the frustration of getting a Game Over after thinking your character's hit box was two pixels tinier than it actually was. Knowing that you can withstand a few hits, good developers will become inclined to go more overboard when dreaming up ways to decimate you. And it's done here. The Red Star: it's the combat of Gauntlet, the run-and-gun of Contra, and the ornery robots tossing tons of shit at you of Ikaruga, all in one. And you didn't even need to hit up the pirate carts kiosk at the mall.
At this moment, I am on my seventh playthrough of The Red Star and as much as I love action games, I almost never look at them again after seeing the credits roll the first time. And also consider that this game is long. While new enemies are continually introduced (even on level 18), some levels are tacked on seemingly only to address the stupid complaint that shooters are too short.
And it's the characters that keep The Red Star perpetually fun. Kyuzo the brute is as slow as a trackless Soviet tank, but his ability to kabob a guy and toss him back into an oncoming enemy group never fails to satisfy. Makita is the spry character, but without making the levels feel rushed or the character weak. And Maya is a challenge: she's almost entirely projectile-based, but is the only one who's able to heal. Every time I think I have my signature character pegged down and I'm done for good, I switch to another and the argument for that one comes back. And The Red Star, once nearly dead and forgotten, wills itself back into existence.
20 July 2006