[27 March 2008]
Right around the time that Mutant Storm Empire hit, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I need to separate myself from the whole top-down 360-degree shooter thing. I mean, there is not a game in this genre that I haven’t enjoyed, to some extent. Smash TV was and is a hoot, Geometry Wars is one of the most addicting, infuriating games ever made, Undertow does neat strategic sorts of things with the genre, and Mutant Storm Empire, well…it didn’t do anything new, really, except offer an insanely high level of difficulty for those who fancied themselves skilled enough to take it on. And yet, I loved it. Honestly, other than Guitar Hero III, there’s not a single game I played more in the last few months of last year. This, of course, probably means I have a problem.
As such, going into a new game in the whole “use one analog stick to move, use the other one to shoot” shoot ‘em up genre was filled with a sort of trepidation. Is Rocketmen: Axis of Evil, Capcom’s latest Xbox Live Arcade offering, going to be another timesink the way that Mutant Storm Empire was? Am I going to find myself addicted again? Am I ever going to be able to look at a game in this genre with a subjective eye?
Interestingly, the answer to all three turned out to be “yes”.
Rocketmen does a lot of things right, and the core gameplay elements that make other games in the genre so appealing are all present. It’s one little dude (or dudette—you get to control a highly customizable character, which is a nice little touch) against a whole bunch of bad dudes (and conspicuously few dudettes), armed with only a pathetic little pistol to start. As needs to be the case with a game in this genre, there are copious power-ups spread throughout each level, as our hero can pick up all manner of guns, missiles, proximity bombs, and whatnot in the interest of clearing his way through wave after wave of enemies. The environments are colorful and varied (if occasionally confusing, what with the number of see-through floors that there seem to be in space), and the play is hectic but never all that overwhelming. In addition to blowing away the baddies, there are other missions to be undertaken as well, most of which involve running up to trigger points and, as the game so humorously puts it, “pounding on the ‘A’ button”. It’s all pretty basic, but any member of this genre almost needs to be.
Still, there are problems that exist in Rocketmen that simply don’t exist in other games of the genre. Namely, it feels really odd for a game like this to be on pseudo-rails. The camera sort of scrolls where it wants, and while you have to walk into certain places to convince it that, yes, now would be a good time to continue the process of scrolling, it’s not always clear when or where you can do this. Worse, you sometimes have to run right up to the edge of the screen to convince the game to let you proceed, and when the camera then starts moving, enemies are waiting just past that forced horizon waiting to shoot you into oblivion. So not fair! Most egregious of all is the fact that the secondary goals are impossible to revisit once you’ve passed the point in the level where they occur; you’ll just have to start over to achieve them. When you’re talking about levels that last longer than a half an hour, this becomes annoying very, very quickly.
There are other issues with Rocketmen: Axis of Evil as well; for one, the cutscene art style is just…odd. Static three-dimensional hand-drawn-looking people converse with one another through speech bubbles and voiceovers; a little more animation in these cutscenes would have been appreciated; even if there wasn’t room for such animation given Xbox Live Arcade’s restrictions on the size of the game, the art style could have been changed to make it look a little more comic book-like (see Joe, Viewtiful) and less awkward. The leveling-up process takes an awfully long time as well, and I have to admit, genre constraint or not, I am getting tired of blowing up random boxes and barrels for money/experience/titanium.
Still, the multiplayer portion of the game is addicting and hilariously hectic when four people get involved, and the single player certainly isn’t bad enough to keep someone like me from coming back. If you think that overhead shmups are the bees’ knees, then you’ll do just fine with a $10 download of Rocketmen. If you’ve been thinking since the first paragraph that I’m just this side of nuts, well, Rocketmen isn’t going to help my case with you. It really is for diehard fans of the genre, but those fans will likely have a blast.