Version tested: Xbox 360
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.
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.
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.
Some enemies are tougher and come with a life bar. Others can only be damaged at certain points. Not that this matters, since the game gives you neither the space nor incentive to adjust your approach to anything more inspiring than endless blasting with whatever gun has appeared at your feet. Enemies and scenery spew shiny collectibles when destroyed which (provided you can get to them before the camera banishes them to the forbidden off-screen void) can be picked up or sucked towards you by using a Loot Vacuum. Not that this actually sucks the pieces up, it just pulls them slightly closer. Then you have to press it again. And again. In the end you might as well have run over to the bloody things and picked them up the old-fashioned way.
Come the end of each level, you can use the various pick-ups to upgrade a broad array of stats, including the suction power of your pointless Loot Vacuum. Each weapon type can be improved in multiple areas - damage, spread, speed etc - while your character can also be levelled up, increasing your life bar, your ability to dodge enemy fire, even the speed with which you must mash buttons to interact with every item of interest.
Armour can be purchased, as can secondary fire ammunition, and there are bonus costume items that must be claimed before a timer runs out, or they're lost forever. Why? No idea. If you want info on the upgrade choices you're considering, you have to call up a poorly-formatted window and scroll through page after page until you find the bit you want. All of this faffing will no doubt be heralded as offering RPG-style customisation, but to do so would be to confuse complexity with depth. In practice it's a needlessly fussy and piecemeal system in a genre that thrives on simplicity and grace.
There's also the much-heralded four-player co-op, usually something to cheer about but, with such a litany of half-baked gameplay concepts crudely tumbling around, the addition of three more human players is far from enough to compensate. In fact, when it comes to things like the bizarre forced scrolling, it can make the cramped and confusing multiplayer even more annoying than the solo campaign.
Looking back, I'm uncomfortably aware that this review reads like a laundry list of gripes and not the puckishly structured critique I usually aim for. Sorry about that. I hate games that make me write reviews like this. Games that should be so good, yet muck the important bits up for no good reason, leaving me with little option but to simply tick off the boxes and catalogue the missteps in as much detail as bearable. Needless to say, the problems blight both the PS3 and 360 versions of the game that we played, as they're absolutely identical.
A fast-paced sci-fi themed top-down shooter should be the bread and butter of a service like XBLA, yet Rocketmen fudges its enormous potential in almost every area. It's a crude and unappealing game, marred by at least three design decisions (the scrolling, the time-limited weapons, the long-winded upgrade system) that immediately make the gameplay a grind rather than a blast. Here's hoping Worms has been a big enough hit on Xbox Live Arcade for Team 17 to give serious consideration to bringing us a revamped Alien Breed. There's an itch that needs to be scratched, and this clumsy effort certainly isn't going to hit the spot.
3 / 10