Version tested: Xbox 360
Is it better to stick with what works, or make changes for the sake of change? Playing through this follow-up to the 2006 Live Arcade hit, it seems that the still wonderfully named Wanako Games couldn't decide one way or another. Thus we get a sequel that is almost exactly like the original, apart from the bits that are suddenly nothing like the original. These parts, somewhat inevitably, are poo.
The first Assault Heroes was a decent enough top-down shooter that delivered enough action to make it worth a look, but not enough personality that you were compelled to rush. So it is with the follow-up. Once again you're at the wheel of a dinky little space-jeep thing - not unlike Halo's Warthog - and must traverse the levels using its upgradeable rear-mounted weapons to obliterate a ceaseless swarm of alien foes. Much like every top-down blaster these days, the left stick handles movement, the right stick directs your fire. Grenades can be deployed with the right trigger, while the left detonates a nuclear smart bomb. In another Halo-esque nod, if you avoid being hit for a short time then your damage recharges but, should the jeep get destroyed, you have to survive on foot while you wait for another ride to respawn.
So far, so familiar. This being a sequel, however, there are some new bits pasted onto the old chassis. You get a new weapon, for instance, in the shape of an ice gun. Working much like the flamethrower - except, you know, cold - you can use it to freeze and shatter enemies. Not exactly original, and ultimately rather pointless, especially since a fully powered-up mini-gun/flak cannon combo is still more than enough to cut through pretty much everything in the game.
While on-foot you can now perform a rolling move, which is more useful in theory than in practice. With so many bullets and enemies whizzing about, it's all too easy to roll straight into harm's way, rather than out of it. The underground exploration sections return, and are a lot less annoying than last time - if still ferociously tough. It's easy to lose all your lives down there, so it's a good thing these side-missions remain entirely optional.
Also new is the ability to hijack enemy vehicles, but don't get too excited. You can't just hop into anything you find, GTA-style. You can only ride in three specific vehicles - a helicopter, tank and mech-suit - and they can only be found when the game wants you to use them. The helicopter is apparently made of tin foil and balsa wood, and therefore of negligible value, while the mech-suit only appears once, right near the end of the game. The tank is therefore the only really useful transport addition, since it packs a serious firepower wallop and is pretty much bulletproof.
Sadly, just when you're getting used to them, there are obstacles placed in your way to prevent you from taking these vehicles into areas where they might prove too useful. They give you a small change of pace, but having included these options the game seems at a loss as to what you should do with them. As it is, you end up taking them for a spin just for the sake of it, not because there's any specific obstacle that requires their use.
There is a fourth vehicle but, much like the boat section in the first game, you don't get any say on when you use it. It's a spaceship, which I suppose might be a spoiler of sorts since the second half of the game takes you off-planet to battle the alien mothership, first from outside and then from within. Trouble is, while you're in a spaceship the game basically becomes just another vertical shoot-'em-up - and a pretty dreary one at that. Mix in some horribly misconceived into-the-screen 3D sections and you've got one of those foolhardy attempts to force change for change's sake I mentioned at the start.
Still, for the most part the additions to the Assault Heroes template are positive enough, even if they're hardly laden with imagination. It's still not quite enough to elevate the rote material to the point where excitement might start to build up though. Much like the original, this is decent but nothing more. The graphics are full of detail and clever little physics moments, but despite this the tiny characters lack charisma and the act of mowing down a dozen enemies with your cannon curiously lacking in impact or spectacle. I've actually been playing this concurrently with Capcom's upcoming and broadly similar Commando 3 and, at the risk of spoiling that review, personality really does go a long way.
Tom complained that the original was too short, but I'm going to confuse everyone and complain that this second effort is too long. It's almost twice the length of the first game but, blighted by the same uninspired level design and often repetitive gameplay, the effect is to turn the game into a long-winded slog. This is especially true of the game's second half, set on the alien mothership, in which you scuttle around an apparently endless series of identical corridors for over ten interminable levels. Rather than an expertly conducted crescendo of excitement I reached the final stage on auto-pilot, in the sort of distracted fugue state that uninspired blasters always seem to conjure up.
This problem also afflicts the boss fights. The bosses are undeniably more impressive than last time, including a giant robot scorpion and a giant robot tortoise. There are even giant robot elephants which, confusingly, aren't as giant as the scorpion and tortoise. None are particularly hard to defeat though, since their enormous flashing weak spots mean that success is simply a question of dodging the onslaught long enough to wear them down. This can be a thankless, drawn-out process and, just like the game itself, it carries on too long after you've mastered the formula, leaving you going through the motions, draining your excitement as it goes.
This sort of frag-happy shooter can be deliriously entertaining, but only if the developer understands how to pace the action. Despite wrong-headed gamers judging the value of every game based on how long it goes on for, brevity shouldn't be a dirty word - particularly where this sort of action-packed experience is concerned. It's no sin for a game to be only a few hours long provided those hours are thrilling, memorable and endlessly replayable. Assault Heroes 2 has no such pacing - it just keeps on going and going, repeating the same elements over and over, until it suddenly stops and you're rewarded with one screen of text (and no Achievement) for your trouble. For all its relentless action and constant shooting, the engagement that comes from a truly great and balanced arcade game remains frustratingly elusive.
Assault Heroes 2 is therefore basically more of the same, with some decent new bits but precious few fresh ideas. Of course, those who enjoyed the first game will doubtless get the same pleasure from this one, especially in the better-by-default co-op mode. I certainly don't resent playing it through to the end but nor do I feel compelled to go back and do it all again any time soon. Good, then, but still nothing special.
7 / 10