Version tested: PlayStation 2
You probably haven't heard much about War of the Monsters, which is good, because the game works best when it comes as an unexpected sock to the mouth. It's like a subtle blend of Powerstone and Rampage, inspired by 50s and 60s drive-in monster movies - and at times it's unlike any other beat 'em up we've played.
The action takes place in huge cityscapes, military bases and so on - each far from abandoned - and the player controls one of a dozen or so eight-storey-high behemoths, from giant insects and gorillas to lightning-based humanoids and saucer-headed robots. The idea is to conquer your enemies, using the subtleties of each monstrous environment to your advantage, impaling them with spikes, avoiding their laser gunfire amongst skyscrapers and dive-bombing craters to cause volcanic eruptions.
You control the action with the directional pad or left analogue stick, stomping around the environment, strafing with L1 and R1, jumping (whether rocket/wing-assisted or not) with X, climbing buildings or picking up and throwing objects with a tap of circle, lashing out or firing weapons with square or triangle, and blocking with R2. Square and X pressed together perform a short-range special attack, which sends out a metaphysical bubble, thrusting enemies away (useful for getting out of tight spots and repeated beatings), while triangle and circle pressed together perform the long-rage special attack. All of this comes remarkably naturally, as do the game's various built-in combos - specific to each creature - and you can also lock onto a target by pressing L1/R1 together - a vital skill, particularly as the camera has designs on annoying you from the start.
Attack of the B-Movie Monster
For single players, there are adventure, free-for-all and endurance modes, but adventure is where single players will probably spend most of their time to begin with, as the other two are skirmish modes of sorts. Adventure takes you through the game's "story", in which Earth is invaded by aliens, B-movie style, who are defeated by an ultimate weapon of sorts, only for their saucers to crash to earth and cover the world in beastie-expanding radioactive green ooze, propelling gorillas, insects, robots, castles and even molten rock into monstrous form. Meanwhile, the aliens regroup and continue their invasion, as the US army (who else?) and their chums struggle to mop up the monster menace.
Each level involves overcoming a monster or series of monsters, with various hazards like the armed forces, sentry guns and electric fences to contend with. You do this by attacking with your basic attacks and objects (cars, buses, small planes, water towers, bits of crumbling masonry, boulders, etc), and stringing together combos which send them crashing into walls, buildings (which start to crumble and eventually fall - something you can tend to yourself if you like), and the aforementioned environmental hazards. Pointed objects like radio antennae can be used to impale enemies, rendering them dizzy for a short period of time, and a particularly intense clobbering will often have the same effect.
Apart from various arrays of enemies from the selectable roster, you also face three rather nasty bosses, which vary in difficulty - the final boss took plenty of attempts, but handily the game lets you continue trying a level without restarting it a number of times, before you eventually run out of lives and have to start it afresh. Or not so handily - the adventure mode took us roughly two hours to polish off with the Joe Young-derived gorilla, and although you amass plenty of 'Battle Points' to unlock new costumes, levels for multiplayer, and mini-games, and get to see a character-specific end sequence, it isn't something you're likely to do regularly enough to justify £40.
Clash of the Titans
Fortunately there's plenty more to the game if you can find a likeminded PS2 fan willing to engage in some two-player. Although limiting the game to two-player multiplayer is an obvious oversight (particularly with firewire and online networks available or nearly available), it's relationship-threateningly addictive and pretty well handled. Because the nature of the game often has enemies at complete opposite ends of the map, the game camera tries to keep you both on-screen where possible, and splits it off into two sections if you drift too far apart, like Incog's previous efforts in Twisted Metal Black. It's a much better alternative to having the camera zoom into outer space, and although occasionally the two overlap, and you can't help feel a little more tweaking is needed here and there, it's a good system.
The multiplayer is worryingly addictive too. Rounds last anything from minutes to hours depending on the quality of the players involved, and things can get very strategic. Say you're low on health - do you scamper around looking for green health pick-ups, and risk straying into the path of your robotic adversary's staccato laser volleys? Do you rip down the nearest building for the pick-ups within, thus flattening the landscape and giving your enemy a better shot at you? Or do you keep your distance and wait for some to respawn? There are a million and one things to keep track of, not least of all your own health and energy bars, which need regular attention.
Even if you're on your own and can't be bothered with the adventure mode though, there's still plenty of fun to be had - a testament to the quality of the computer AI. Enemies don't just chase after you until they're pummelled; they seek cover, go after health pick-ups just as frequently as you, and even team up with their mates. What's more, they will often wait on the sidelines until you're under attack and then jump in to catch you at a disadvantage. It's refreshing to actually come across enemies with a bit of skill and guile, even if it's frustrating to have one scamper away and rejuvenate itself after a tough battle.
Far from strings and puppets
Of course, a game like War of the Monsters wouldn't be much fun without visuals to match, and fortunately Incog has managed just that. Each level is brimming with detail. The Las Vegas level, for example, is an orgy of flickering neon, with casinos, skyscrapers, traffic zigzagging all over the place in chaos, and even a giant, replica Excalibur sword to rip out of the grounds of a hotel and pulverise one another with. Even simpler levels like the Area 51-inspired military installation - venue of the first boss fight - with its giant ant's nest (no, the boss isn't an ant), canyon-like surroundings and hulking great boulders are ornate enough to keep you entertained for hours. The arenas bask in a superfluity of elements, and virtually everything contributes to the battle in some way, with only a handful of pixels wasted - and usually wasted to some grin-worthy effect.
You could argue that the textures and geometry aren't much to shout about, but buildings disintegrate to leave a huge variety of scattered remains, the dioramas are always vividly imagined and never look shabby, the draw distance is great, the framerate is almost uniformly solid and there's great variety throughout. There were only a couple of stages we didn't get on with, one set on a UFO and one in a volcano - but the rest we loved. Incidentally, our only real concern with the graphics at all was the character animations, which seem less varied than their surroundings. That's not to knock the characters themselves though, which would look totally at home in a drive-in, black and white stompy monster movie, and is probably just a product of our playing the same characters for hours on end and getting used to them. We can hardly complain about the mighty gorilla, who swings his arms around and roars just like the real, eight-storey-tall version when celebrating victory. Or something.
The sounds, too, are equally good, with screams, gurgles and plenty of crash, bang and wallop-worthy noises, and the soundtrack is almost perfect in its rendition of the dun-dun-daaaan wannabe grandiosity of B-movie intensity.
Aaaaand he gets the girl
War of the Monsters is, like Powerstone before it, a beat 'em up which does enough to be new. It's not a new concept really, but it's very well executed, and everybody will enjoy its monster movie stylings. It's a shame that there isn't more variety in the single player adventure mode, with only the end sequence changing for each character, that there aren't more characters, and that the (very expensive) unlockable mini-games are less endearing than the barrel and car slapping antics of Street Fighter II a decade ago, but most of our criticisms are because we've spent hour after hour wearing it all thin. If you want a serious complaint, then we'd like the combo system to be more accessible - this is definitely one of those engaging but restrictive games, which demands endless hours from players, perhaps even beyond what's genuinely entertaining. All the same, we want another War of the Monsters, and we want you all to seriously consider buying this one in the meantime. Roar!
8 / 10