Monday, October 06, 2008

Monster Madness: Grave Danger demo review for the PS3

I picked up the demo for Monster Madness from the PSN on Friday and gave it a whirl. Its concept is a simple mash-up of those two classics Zombies and Gauntlet - four characters roam around an isometric town killing the zombies who pop-up out of the ground.

The opening menu screen sets the tone with bright cartoony shots that reminded me of the box art for Day of the Tentacle while a zombie lurched its way across the bottom of the screen. With the options presented of Adventure, Challenge, or Online I picked the single-player Adventure. The humour is now made clear in your choice of 'hero', The Geek, The Goth, The Skater, and The Cheerleader, who all make a stereotypical response to your selecting and deselecting them - Up and Atom/Rejected again, Oh Boy/As if I care, Dude/Oo burn, It's about time/Wait until my daddy hears about this. There's enough of these to make it amusing to try and cycle through them all before you pick a character to start. Yes I chose Carrie the Goth girl, big surprise.

When you do you have the standard difficulties - Child's Play, Thriller, Horror, [Locked] though each selection once again produces its own sound effect. The default is Thriller so I stuck with that.

You're beamed onto a standard street scene with the camera set at a 45 degree angle, the controls are a Robotron setup with the left stick controlling movement and right controlling the direction of fire. You're equipped with three rough types of weapon - melee, guns, bombs, you have one permanent melee weapon swung using the Circle key, but you can also temporarily pick up other weapons or items by pressing the Square key they in turn can also be thrown. As mentioned guns are aimed and fired using the right stick with the R1 button choosing the exact weapon you want to use. Bombs are selected using the L1 button and thrown using the L2; annoyingly Dodge is mapped to R2 so you don't want to get those two mixed up. Oh and jump is Cross or Triangle I forget which exactly.

So off you roam hitting zombies, shooting zombies, picking up bins and throwing them at zombies etc. all so Gauntletesque with the occasional run in with a bigger boss type zombie. As the astute might have noticed I didn't mention camera controls in the preceding paragraph, this is because you have none. The camera is automatic and as any gamer knows an uncontrollable camera can lead to serious frustration; fortunately this seems to be largely averted here. The first possible problem - losing track of your player in scenery, is dealt with by making any object between the camera and the character semi-transparent; the second possible problem - camera angle switch, has been averted by rarely moving the camera.

Saying that though I did notice some delay between my character heading into cover and the object becoming transparent and during one boss fight I got a nasty hit when the camera did a 180. I did only say largely averted though, the big bugbear of a fixed camera does rear its ugly head in that you can lose track of your enemies. The transparency that kicks in for you doesn't for them so you can stand next to a tree thinking your'e safe when the zombie standing behind it takes a swipe at you. Likewise during your first boss battle it's possible for the big bad to vanish off-screen, as he has a rush/sprint attack keeping track of him would be useful.

But here's the strange thing - in two later battles, where you have to kill a set number of enemies, little boxes with arrows appear around the edge of the screen to tell you where they are. So it shows they can do it, but they just didn't in this instance.

Onto graphics. This is a seventh generation game and is using the Unreal Engine, so what went wrong? The zombies are great, the houses and cars are fine, as are your characters; you just can't admire this (except in cut-scenes) because you can't zoom-in. But then you get the niggles, the car you can't jump onto (when you can with other similar looking ones), getting stuck on scenery, the horrific vertical tearing at times when there's not even anything on screen except yourself; oh and finally the serious slowdown when too many zombies appear. Just for fun in the Park of the second stage I tripped the appearance of the zombies in the car-park and the football field and watched the game trying to cope. If you can't handle that many AIs then have some burrow back into the ground once the distance between them and the player increases too much.

Gameplay itself. Each character has a different favourite melee weapon, which are located in different places in each stage, although they all act the same except during their 'special move'. Each character uses the same gun set, and the same bomb set; the quips they make differ though as do the names of the upgrades, although the way they affects the character are the same.

The screen information is clear, although I'd have liked to be able to see the number of each type of bombs I had displayed at the same time rather then just the selected one that's only a minor niggle. Your health is easy to keep track of via your portrait that fills in as red and turns into a skull and crossbones. Your weapon ammo is also very easy to track as every weapon uses the same 'bullets' just varying quantities per shot for each; that in itself deserves a huge round of applause, as it kills both the habit of hoarding better weapons and being frustrated at the wrong ammo type pick-ups.

Although there's no map your destination is indicated by an American style yellow road sign that flits around the screen as you move, though I did get lost at one point as it had disappeared behind my portrait.

I did dislike the tutorial hints that popped-up and covered the top third of the screen in a semi-transparent way until they timed out, but they can be turned off. Oh and the AI isn't that bright with zombies getting piled up behind benches and trees, then again they are zombies.

Health and ammo can be replenished at vending machines for dollars or at Larry's truck where you can get upgrades and buy bombs; and they're well positioned game-wise.

Okay it's fun, the cut-scenes are well-done for both the comic-book type and the sepia game-engined ones, the demo levels are really straight-line alleys, but with enough cul-de-sacs to give you some space to roam. Sure the AI isn't brilliant, but that just plays into the concept. It's a little repetitive at times, but in a good Gauntlet way. Most importantly you might get killed, but you have to concede that most of the time it's your fault rather then the game 'cheating'.

So as one of these downloadable games like Bionic Commander or R&C Quest for Booty at a cost of £10-£15 it's well worth it... shame then that it is in fact being sold as a full game at an RRP of £49.99. Heck even Amazon has dropped it straight to £27.98 on the day of release. [my error - a month after release it's just taken them this long to get a demo out]

My apologies to the developers as I really want to say "Buy this game" as it really is fun, but there are issues here that would disgrace a PS2 release and while something like The Force Unleashed suffers in similar ways it gets away with it because of its sheer scope. If this had indeed been released at the download price point I'd say that the niggles are something you accept for this price and go get it, but full game price; nope sorry.

[Update - 12/10. Just to demonstrate how good this game is neither Game, Gamestation, Woolworths, WHSmith, Comet, Currys, or PC World have it on their shelves despite it being released on the 5th of September]

[Update - 13/10. It is in fact worse playing as non-online multiplayer. It's difficult to pick out your own character on the screen if you take your eyes off them to see where the other is, and the camera changes are worse as you suddenly find yourself in a different relative position. Oddly although tearing was still ascendant slow-down didn't appear]