The Red Star

It's not often these days that we get to play scrolling beat-'em-ups or scrolling shoot-'em-ups. In The Red Star, we've found both.

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Although plenty of comic book properties have made the transition from paper to game disc or cartridge over the years, only a few stick in the mind as being any good - and at this particular moment, we can't seem to find their sticking spots. In other words, we can't think of any. Fortunately, The Red Star, based on a comic drawn by a chap called Christian Gossett, seems to be heading in that direction though, so if we're ever forced to retread this meandering introduction at any point in the future, hopefully we'll know where to go. (What were we talking about again?)

Shooting Star

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The idea behind The Red Star is simple - we're following a trio of ex-military types on a quest to find a lost husband and bring down a tyrannical despot. What's slightly unusual is the setting - the URRS, an alternate [dyslexic? -Ed] future version of Russia, in which the dominant Red Fleet controls the skies with their advanced technology and weaponry, and Sorcerers using 'protokol' (er, magic) savage anybody who steps out of line - by moving the floor out of from under them and replacing it with fiery doom, judging by the slick comic-tinted introductory movie.

It's into this world that our trio is thrust, and the result is a bit like a cross between Streets of Rage and Ikaruga, if you can imagine such a thing. Not in the sense that there are black and white alternating roast chickens lurking beneath barrels suspended in the air; rather that we get to control one of the three characters as they trek through a series of side-on and top-down levels - some of which mesh views together - slashing at hordes of enemies and dodging lasers and bobbling plasma projectiles as battleships and turrets attempt to strafe us out of existence.

It's a curious mix; an enjoyable hackandslash and an enjoyable shoot-'em-up all at once, borrowing some nice ideas from both camps. The controls are simple - with just lock-on, melee, projectile, block and spell buttons to worry about - and building up combinations using simple three-stroke attacks and more devastating juggle attacks all comes very easily. But in a sense it's not really about combos - it's more of a question of methodically dispatching hordes of enemies decked out with distinctive attack patterns.

Dancing in the starlight

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In some cases, enemies have shields that need to be broken down before they can be destroyed, and charge attacks that can be devastating if you don't keep track of when to block; others have projectiles, whether that's straightforward repeating lasers (often easily repelled with a few blasts from your gun) or something more individual like a rotating lance that pummels you repeatedly if you don't keep your distance. But none is an enigma for long and all can be read and dispatched efficiently with a little practice.

Best of all, doing so is fairly entertaining, particularly as it isn't so much broken up by shoot-'em-up segments as thoroughly integrated. At first, you'll tackle things separately - melee combat against a few foes will keep you going, as you scythe through them with the cumbersome but powerful Kyuzo's lance or slash them repeatedly with the fleet-footed Makita's blades, and occasionally hurl them up into the air and smash them down again, getting in a few more hits while they're on the ground. And then every so often you'll have to stay on one screen as a battleship or another larger foe encircles you with various instruments of death and you're forced to dodge streams of neatly organised projectiles whilst hammering weak points with your own ranged ordnance.

Before long though, the two styles start to overlap, and you're trying to tackle roaming enemies - impaling them on Kyuzo's lance and hurling them at others to try and knock them off aerial walkways - whilst simultaneously dodging neatly arranged laser blobs and trying to shoot out turrets. This is where The Red Star seems most ingenious and fresh, and where it best rekindles your interest in the genres that developer Acclaim Studios Austin clearly picked over for inspiration.

Hack and Smash TV

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As a result, and thanks to some rather stingy health pack placement, the game can be a little tough at times, even early on. But once you settle into the rhythm of not simply mashing the melee attack button whenever an enemy walks onto the screen (clearly we picked up some bad habits from that abysmal Turtles game), and start to treat enemies as they need to be treated, the combat is almost balletic - particularly when you have a pair of players co-operating, and attacks influence one another mid-execution for fierier results.

There's also a third character, Maya the sorceress, to take into account. Once unlocked, she's quite a handful - relying almost solely on magical abilities (even her ranged weapon is some sort of ethereal gun she conjures out of the air). And with pages and pages of upgrades to unlock depending on your performance - like the ability to decrease your gun's recharge time, add a better rate of fire, grab a new attack, and so on - it seems like The Red Star could have a fair degree of replayability about it, although it would be nice to see some individual stages for each character rather than simply recycling the same ones. We're also told that the developer is chucking in a Smash TV style arena mode, which would be super and, er, great.

One thing we can't accuse Austin of recycling, however, is the visual side of The Red Star. Polygonal, highly detailed - it looks like the sort of scrolling fighter or slasher that we would be playing if the world and its dog weren't trying to sell us third-person action games at the moment. The explosions are frequent and, well, explosive, the crispness of the texture work elevates the occasional heat haze or depth of field effect to prominence, and the environments are fairly atmospheric - also thanks to some mazy camerawork, which sees the game switching from one perspective to another fairly regularly.

Red fiction

It's not the most inventive game we've played this year, then, but at this stage it's blending favourable ideas in an absorbing manner. It's easy to pick up, responsive, nicely thought out, and unashamed of its simple arcade ideology, which is, as the makers of Viewtiful Joe or Ikaruga might tell you, sometimes the best way to be. If there's anything negative to say, perhaps it's that we fear for its sustainability, and - ironically, given that we knew virtually nothing about the game other than its comic plot before we picked it up this week - that the presentation of the storytelling is a bit scattershot. On the whole though, The Red Star is gleaming. We just hope the rest of the game manages to shine.

The Red Star is due out on PS2 and Xbox this autumn.

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