Rocketmen: Axis of Evil

Putting the sigh into sci-fi on PSN and XBLA.

How hard is it to create a decent top-down shooter? I only ask because once upon a time it seemed quite easy - we gleefully played along with Zombies Ate My Neighbours and Alien Breed, never suspecting that they would still represent the apex of their genre some fifteen years later. Monster Madness tried - and spectacularly failed - to cash in on our goodwill for Zombies, and now here's a sci-fi themed spin on the same formula that could, if you squint a bit, be an attempt to replace Alien Breed in our affections.

Except Rocketmen is an often depressing runt of a game that seems purposefully designed to confuse and annoy.

Based on a card-based strategy game by Wizkids which hasn't been updated since 2006, you're thrust half-heartedly into the middle of a generic space war between the multicultural Alliance and the evil Legion of Terra. The story then unfolds in the form of static cel-shaded scenes which are presumably supposed to evoke a retro 1950s sci-fi feel, but look more like those awful stiff digital comic books that were briefly popular in the '90s. It looks downright tacky, with cheap-looking characters and poorly-spaced speech bubbles where the text goes over the lines. The game hasn't even started and it's a genuine surprise to find something this slapdash bearing the Capcom logo given its usual presentation standards.

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As always with sci-fi games, you won't go far wrong by shooting the green ones.

More problems quickly become apparent. Most troublesome is the hideous scrolling, which lurches forward as you progress down your strictly linear path. Sometimes you'll be running to keep up, others your character will almost vanish off the top of the screen. And once the screen has scrolled in one direction, it won't scroll back again. So if the camera rolls just past something you wanted, tough. It's gone. There's no going back. This even applies to secondary objectives, which aren't actually explained in detail until after the level, but should you see some item of interest that can be interacted with, you'd best pounce on it before the camera jerks you away from it. It's an absolutely baffling decision, one that serves no creative or technical purpose, yet it makes you battle the game itself right from the off.

Those hoping that the action will compensate are doomed to disappointment. Combat is relentless and devoid of strategy or nuance. Enemies swarm about, and you earn a point multiplier for each time you avoid being hit. Sadly, they can often lie in wait just off-screen, only popping into existence as the scrolling triggers them, making it all too easy to stumble into their line of fire as you wait for the scrolling to settle down.

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The first reader to find the three human players wins a biscuit. Or a picture of a biscuit.

To deal with this threat the expected arsenal of weaponry magically appears on the ground, but each weapon can only be used for a limited time. Not a limited number of shots, mind you. That would make sense. No, each gun immediately starts counting down to oblivion as soon as you pick it up, regardless of how many shots you fire - or not, as the case may be. The result is a game of mostly frantic bullet-spraying as you use up every weapon you can find rather than be left with the feeble default pistol. Secondary attack options can also be chosen and deployed with the shoulder buttons, ranging from missiles to remote gun-turrets. These actually prove quite useful, even if accurate use is a hit and miss affair in the middle of a chaotic melee.

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