Version tested: Xbox 360
Don't let its twin-stick control scheme or whimsical steampunk charm fool you. Gatling Gears, the latest from Greed Corp developer Vanguard Games, fancies itself as a manic, eye-watering, bullet-hell 'shmup'.
Sure, it's slightly more restrained and approachable than anything you'd find in an average Japanese arcade hall, but the meandering rockets, distinctive bullet patterns and screen-flooding ordnance all tread familiar ground.
Elsewhere, the game borrows its ideas from the litany of top-down, twin-stick blasters that have cropped up since Geometry Wars exploded into a glitzy neon hit. You've got schizophrenic analogue sticks, a butt-saving smart bomb that wipes the screen of foes and a handful of different weapons to choose from.
Amidst this chaos, you play as Max Brawley, a moustachioed war veteran with his own personal mech, an infinite supply of machine gun bullets and a colourful history with a nasty bunch of industrialists.
When these Earth-spoiling cads pop up to wreak havoc with the environment - ripping up trees, causing earthquakes and spoiling the lush countryside with unsightly power stations - Max hops in his walker and starts to fight back. What follows are 30 levels of endless shoot-outs, split into six distinct locations, and broken up by the odd ingenious boss battle.
While it mostly succeeds in emulating those masochistic eastern shmups, Gatling Gears doesn't really have any of the hooks or gimmicks that make those games so compulsive. The latest DoDonPachi on iPhone amped up the scoring system with a smart mix of defence and offence, for example, while Ikaruga toyed with duality and colour to keep you on your toes.
Gatling Gears definitely doesn't have a cool concept like that to fall back on. The combat is basic and predictable, the buyable upgrades just add more power and range and its score system is preschool stuff: a multiplier that rockets up when you collect scattered cogs, left behind from downed foes.
You can mix up the constant rata-tat-tat of the Gatling gun with the odd rocket or grenade, but it quickly falls into near-tortuous repetition. As you endlessly dodge bullets, kill the same few enemies and cumbersomely stomp on to the next predictable battlefield, Gatling Gears' one-note gameplay wears out its welcome before its lengthy campaign is even close to finishing.
From minute to minute, it's enjoyable enough. It's got that cathartic fun that somehow rises from chewing up nuisance enemies with a torrent of bullets. This is demonstrated best when you pick up a rare booster power-up which transforms your spluttering Gatling gun into a showerhead of sparky death, your limp rockets into staccato barrages of death and your bouncy grenades into, well, you get the picture. Death, basically.
Gatling Gears also encourages zesty, upfront play. Your machine gun has a meagre range of fire so you'll need to get into the action to actually hit anything. It's more aggressive and intimate than hanging around the baseline like most space shooters. Plus, having a tight grasp of the game's three different weapons leads to some satisfying brawls: lobbing a grenade so it explodes just as a wave of enemies pass over is pretty darn gleeful.
The boss battles are definitely some of the game's most impressive moments. These massive, gear-driven automatons cycle through different attack patterns and defensive phases, making sure that you keep moving and forcing you to try different strategies and approaches. They're a rare burst of creativity and ingenuity amongst a drab cast of drone-like foes.
Everything is more fun in co-op, of course, and you can play through the entire campaign with a buddy over the web or on the same machine. Once you've finished the storyline, you can also try out some wave-based survival challenges, which work best with a pal.
But when it comes to the main storyline, there's nothing to break up the brain-crushing monotony, and Gatling Gears offers little to keep you playing for more than a couple of levels in a single sitting. There are only so many times you can weave through a curtain of bullets and lay into a tank before your trigger finger gets restless. The new worlds you'll unlock don't offer much more than some different environmental hassles, and the new enemies rarely bring anything to the battlefield other than some extra hit-points.
There are plenty of niggling annoyances, too, that further drag down the fun. Outside of the bullets, bombs, explosions and enemies, your view is also obscured by snow flakes or rain, hulking great helicopters, ally fire, pillars of smoke and the organic backdrops. It's easy to get completely lost amongst the haywire jumble that obscures your view, and enemies often hide under scenery or off camera.
Plus, who thought it was a good idea to make the tank-propelled shells and skittering foot soldiers the exact same colour? And the camera! How can you get a camera wrong in a top-down shooter? It constantly lingers behind if you try to push on, meaning you've either got to wait for it to catch up or trot on without any idea of what enemies lie ahead.
Gatling Gears certainly has a startling aesthetic. If you're not bored of steam-punk yet, the creative vehicles and set pieces have a charming, toy-like look. Its tiny tanks look like painted miniatures, and the rolling hills resemble those felt landscapes that train-set nerds drape over their paper-maché mountains.
The dynamic backdrops and changing scenery constantly surprise too, with mammoth dropships casting imposing shadows, or a cargo train rocketing past on an overhead bridge. On one level, as the industrialist buggers bore into the snowy mountain tops, huge chunks of landscape topple into the abyss.
But it's just smart set-dressing for an otherwise mindless game. The cute visuals quickly go away to let you get on with the main event: churning through enemies and dodging bullets. Gatling Gears' reliable controls and punchy feel offer up a very satisfying way to do that, but it's a brainless brand of enjoyment that can only last for so long.
By bringing nothing particularly new to either genre that it borrows from, Gatling Gears fails to justify its inflated price of 1200 Microsoft Points, and is far from an essential purchase. If you fancy a bullet hell shmup or a twin stick shooter, Xbox Live Arcade and other such digital storefronts are hardly running low on stock.
5 / 10
Gatling Gears is now available on Xbox Live Arcade. PS3 and PC versions are planned for Q2 2011.