Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Vice: Project Doom - Review

This game was either created as an homage or a rip-off of Ninja Gaiden. Either way, it comes off as not quite having the polish of the series that inspired it. It isn't bad, indeed I mostly enjoyed myself while playing it, but just a little bit is missing. I don't think I can write this review without several comparisons to Ninja Gaiden - not because I love that series so much (which I do), but because this game takes so much inspiration from it.

The story of Vice: Project Doom has a decidedly Blade Runner feel. It is the future and bioengineering and robotics have created all sorts of new beings. Unbeknownst to anyone, the world's largest mega-corporation is responsible for creating clones and hybrids. One of these accidentally gets loose and starts causing chaos in the city. You play detective Hart, dispatched to the scene to investigate. Throughout the game you attempt to discover where this creature and weapons it had came from, taking you from the city, to factories, to the jungles of Central America, and finally to the mega-corporation headquarters.

Now, I don't think that an action game like these needs a good story in order to be good. If, however, you are going to make story such a big part of the game by using the innovative cut scene conversations that Ninja Gaiden helped pioneer, then the story should be interesting. The story does start off decently, having a creepy guy talking during the prologue (reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden II) and then quickly introducing your character and throwing you into an action sequence, and then not actually showing the main title screen until after that. This is a great addition to the movie-presentation style of Ninja Gaiden.

Unfortunately, that is as good as it gets. First of all, since the game is focused on its story, all of the story should be in the game. That doesn't happen and if you don't have the instruction booklet, you don't know that aliens crashed on earth and took over the mega-corporation making clones of themself to keep running it or that Hart's partner recently went missing. Since none of that is introduced in the game, when suddenly the game makes reference to those things, you have no clue what is going on (who the hell is Reese?) Another bad point for the story is the poor translation (at least I assume so - it is possible the original script was poor). I mean, it tries to take a sort of futuristic film noir detective story tone, but there is more style than substance and it is hard to figure out exactly what is going on. There is very little character development and while I guessed there were romantic undertones between Hart and Cristy, the dialogue made it impossible to tell until she blurts out that she loves him when she is dying (sorry, spoilers).

Okay, so the story is kind of annoying, but what about the game? Well, it plays just like Ninja Gaiden as a side-scrolling platformer where you attack bad guys. You move and jump, but there is no clinging onto walls like Ninja Gaiden. Instead of using a sword, you have a whip. It is a bit shorter than a sort but it also hits enemies immediately behind and above you. Besides the whip, you can use a very limited range gun or lob grenades. You have a limited number of bullets and grenades, but plenty of enemies drop them when defeated (and also if you run out, you seem to regenerate a few after a couple seconds). Most of the game you will use the whip. The gun is useful in a few situations to hit enemies and for the second-to-last boss. The grenade I only ever found useful for the final boss (where it was the only way I found to damage him). Enemies also drop coins (collect 100 to get an extra life) and health power-ups. You can take about 16 hits before you die, though bosses usually do more damage to you than regular enemies. The control is crisp and doesn't feel slippery or stiff, although there is an odd delay in between when you can throw grenades.

The level designs are pretty nice and one of the better parts of this game. The placement of enemies and platforms requires precise jumping and attacking at just the right time, which is what you expect of a game like this. Except for one level, there aren't many times when enemies are attacking you as you are jumping, so you won't often get hit and then fall to your death. The enemies have quite a bit of variety, from simple guys that walk back and forth, to those that shoot projectiles, to birds and robots that fly at you. Some levels have environmental hazards like conveyer belts and rushing water that pushes you along or occasional blackouts. It all combines to form some nice platforming gameplay.

Besides the side-view levels, there are also driving levels and shooting levels. The driving levels are right out of Spy Hunter. You drive a car with front mounted guns and have to avoid obstacles and other cars on the road while shooting enemies. You can also switch gears and this apparently speeds you up, but I couldn't notice any appreciable difference. The driving levels are pretty fun, which is why it is a shame there are only two of them. The shooting levels take place from a first-person perspective and are straight out of Operation Wolf. You have a crosshairs that you move around the screen and press B to fire your gun and A to lob a grenade. Enemies still drop bullets, grenades, health, and coins and move pick them up by moving the crosshair over them. These sequences are merely okay, and again there are only two of them in the game.

There are ten levels in the game, divided into two or more parts. At the end of each level is a boss battle. These again are very reminiscent of the Ninja Gaiden boss battles. The boss moves in some sort of pattern, hurls some sort of projectile at you, and then you need to get close enough and whack it with your whip a couple times. Generally, it is pretty easy to dodge the projectiles and the boss battles aren't too challenging, but they are usually fun.

One area where the game comes up short is challenge. Sure, the Ninja Gaiden games are notorious for their challenge, but I was able to make it to the second-to-last level in about an hour of playing this. Sure, the game has unlimited continues, but I really didn't need to use them that much - at least not for more than stupid mistakes. One problem with the challenge is that I don't remember any enemies in the regular levels doing more than one damage. When you have a health bar with sixteen bars and no enemy does more than one hit, it is very hard to die from damage. You are much more likely to die by missing a jump or getting hit with an enemy in the air and falling to your doom. Even these deaths don't happen that often, except on one level. The bosses, with the exception of one and the final bosses just aren't that hard either and shouldn't take more than two tries to beat. The car levels are also very easy because you have a health bar - no one hit deaths like in Spy Hunter.

Probably the biggest area where the game shines is its graphics. This game has some of the best NES art, certainly on par with the Ninja Gaiden games that inspired it. The art is dark as befits the atmosphere of the game, but detailed. The backgrounds in the levels are exquisite and the sprites are also well-refined. The cut scenes also feature very nice graphics and good effects. I don't have the same praise for the sound. While the sound effects work well, the music is nothing to write home about. It is unmemorable, repetitive, and uses few instruments. I don't fault it for not being up to Ninja Gaiden's amazing musical standards, but really the best thing I can say about the music is that it is not annoying.

I love Ninja Gaiden and so I wanted to like this game. At first I was put off by how much it copied Ninja Gaiden, but then I realized that really wasn't my problem with the game. The problem is that the game is flawed. The story is incoherent. The driving and shooting levels are only used twice. The other weapons in the game are nearly useless (if only the gun had a longer range!) The game is not very challenging.

Despite these flaws, the platforming sections are enjoyable and flow smoothly. The bosses may be easy, but they are well-designed and fun to fight. There may only be two driving sections, but they are a blast to play. There is definitely good in this game. In fact, I was torn as to whether I would consider this game to be good, or merely above average. Finally, the decision came down to whether I would ever be tempted to play this game again. I had fun with it, but I don't see myself touching it now that I've beaten it.

Rating: 6 / 10

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