Version tested: Xbox 360
Wartech is one of those 2D shooting games that's unlikely to trouble the upper reaches of western sales charts, in spite of the rave reviews it received in its native Japan. Originally developed for Sega's Naomi arcade board, then given a few upgrades, then released on Xbox 360, it's now coming out over here thanks to Ubisoft's impressive eye for quality.
And in spite of the new name, and some slightly ugly new boxart, it's pretty much exactly the same game, because Ubisoft has taken the wise decision to keep its localising zeal to a minimum. There are none of the crappy American voices here that have plagued games from Shenmue to Yakuza, just subtitles. Which, actually, is perfect, because it preserves the big-eyed anime aesthetic and the slightly shrill, slightly perplexing sense of style.
But what does the game actually involve? It's basically like a beat 'em up meets shoot 'em up. Visually it's got the small sprite appeal of something like Bangai-O: like Bangai-O, it's a quirky shoot 'em up, featuring tiny big robots. Like Bangai-O, while it looks like a conventional 2D shoot 'em up, it's not. And like Bangai-O, it's pretty brilliant, but it won't appeal to everyone. But the comparison to Bangai-O is only partially instructive.
A better comparison, and the game it most closely resembles (as about a million other people have already pointed out) is Virtual On, but from an overhead perspective. And for anyone who doesn't know one big robot game from another, what that means is that you control one or two big robots who circle around each other in an arena, trying to shoot each other out of the sky. Except in this case the big robots are small, and viewed from overhead.
Structurally, it resembles a beat 'em up: you pick one of eight characters, each with their own particular strengths and idiosyncrasies, and then play through successive stages to reach the end of the (frankly inexplicable) narrative, or to achieve a high score. Towards the end of the game though, there are a few stages where it does play like a conventional top-down shooter - you memorise patterns of incoming bullets, and devise the best strategy of dodging them to target enemy weak spots.
And it's a shame there aren't more of these, because they're very entertaining. But that's almost missing the point, because the main part of the game is pretty enjoyable too - as a direct result of the very fact that you're not confined to memorising patterns and a limited range of manoeuvres. Instead you've got a massive range of tactical options.
At the most basic level you've got the tactical option of switching between your primary and secondary weapons, each of which reload at different rates. You've also got access to a shield, to protect you from incoming fire, and a dash to dodge it, and if you get in close enough you can perform melee attacks (though these feel less precise than the rest of the combat). And like any self-respecting beat 'em up, pressing certain combinations performs special moves (although, annoyingly, there doesn't seem to be a movelist in the game, even in the training section).
The most important tactical option, however, and it's probably the key feature of the game, is B.O.S.S. a rather convenient acronym which stands for 'Booster of Over-armed Shell System'. In actual English, it gives you the option, two or three times per bout, to transform into a screen-hogging boss character.
The key tactical advantage is that you can fill the screen with projectiles, but it also stops the clock and refills some of your health bar when you transform back into a regular robot. And if you transform at just the right moment, just before you're about to die, it's even more powerful. It works both ways though: your opponents can also transform. And they can also use it to recover their health. So you'll find yourself constantly jockeying with your opponent for the best time to unleash your over-armed shell.
Perhaps the most appealing thing about the game is the way each of the various characters are differentiated from each other. Start out as Mika (who, appropriately enough, is a rather effete young man) and you'll quickly settle into a rhythm of quickly alternating between your standard weapon and your homing sub-weapon to set up a devastating combo, making use of your over-armed shell only to recover health, or to prevent your enemy using it to recover theirs.
But switch to a character like Karel and you'll need to devise a whole new strategy, to get the most out of his massive damage but limited rate of fire, by dashing around the screen and picking off your opponent, or making better use of special moves, for example.
It's possible that the AI does err just a fraction towards the cheap side: it's certainly possible to devise a single-use strategy that works almost every time for some of the characters. But then that's always been the bane of the beat 'em up, and the real acid test of the game's balance is in multiplayer.
Unfortunately it wasn't possible to test the game's Xbox Live connectivity, but the game does contain an offline versus mode which works perfectly. Just as well, given that the continued indifference of western gamers to games like this will probably make it relatively difficult to get a game on Live anyway.
And as usual, it's their loss. It's not got a long, involving narrative, or thousands of levels. But it has got a comprehensive list of unlockables, from concept art to the original arcade mode. Most importantly, it's got that utterly absorbing hypnotic je ne sais quois that all the best games have, and it's that which will keep you coming back for more and more, checking out all the characters and all the play modes, and devoting an unhealthy amount of time in the quest for dominating other players, both online and off.
8 / 10