Assault Heroes is best played with a friend. As it turns out, it's best reviewed with a friend, too. Said friend: "I see it's doing that thing with the controls."
"Yeah, the Robotron thing."
"The what thing? With the two sticks for moving and firing? I thought Geometry Wars invented that."
And if YOU thought Geometry Wars invented that, then you might enjoy Assault Heroes more than I did, and not sit there wondering why most of the levels are rubbish and why Wanako Studios (excellent name, by the way) thought it would be a good idea to do things like have instant-death ambushes hiding a few pixels off-screen. YOU might find it novel, not insane and stupid.
Oh I'm just messing you about, Assault Heroes isn't that bad. It's a top-down old-school arcade shooter with modern, 3D graphics and explosions, and it looks a bit like Total Annihilation with its bright blues and verdant greens and shiny robots. Pushing you along gently with its largely forced scrolling, it sends you from beach to town to ocean to island to secret lab, presenting ever more elaborate nasty things in ever more bigger numbers at which to direct your arcs of lead. It makes no apologies for the fact it's just a shoot-'em-up, preferring instead to mock you, with two entire screens of text devoted to the story in the entire game. Lovely.
Control is pretty economical, with movement and firing mapped to the sticks, while the bumpers cycle the three main weapons (you can also call upon them with face button shortcuts), and smart-bombs (nukes) and target-able grenades are bound to the triggers. There's also a co-operative dual-attack, which you can employ when both players press X.
The twist (or perhaps squirrel) is that you're in a buggy or a boat, rather than a super-manoeuvrable spaceship, meaning that going left isn't simply a case of tugging on the analogue stick and expecting an instant response. If you're facing that way already, then fine, but if your buggy or boat is heading off in another direction, it has to turn first. This adds to the general fun of evading, forcing you to constantly consider your own orientation as well as the streams of bullets being fired in your direction.
Another twist is that you don't immediately die when you're shot a few times. You've got a health bar, which can be topped up by collecting wrenches (obviously), but if it's diminished then your vehicle flashes for a bit, with a small recharge of health available if you avoid further damage. Playing on medium difficulty, you get a gradual rebuilding of health if you're able to sit still for a bit, too. If you aren't, and you're shot to death, you don't completely die then, either; you just lose your vehicle. This forces you to pootle around on foot (or on a jet-ski), something that lowers your speed and strength but generally heightens your manoeuvrability. Hang on for a bit, and a new vehicle spawns. During a boss battle, it can get very hairy, and co-op games tend toward paternal instinct when one player gets whacked, as the other circles trying to block attacks and draw the fire away. (Well, in theory - sometimes I just let my friend die in order to teach him a lesson about NOT STEALING THE UPGRADES.)
Enemies vary from infantry and mechanised infantry (you know, rocket-tossers) to tanks and even weird rocket-launching bulldozers on land, with lots of different types of floating nasty out to sea. Nothing overstays its welcome. Plus of course you've got helicopters, and jet bombers, and beach-landers, and all sorts of other things. Later on you encounter weird spinny electric enemies that seem to have been let off the leash of Mario 64's first boss level walkways (perhaps), and mech walkers, while most levels play host to the brilliantly daft suicide bombers, whose war-cry you'll soon be chanting whether they're on-screen or not.
And obviously there are bosses, whose weak spots need to be targeted and whose sweeping arcs of fire, stampy legs and lunging attack patterns can be devastating if you're not quick to react. It gets a bit surreal towards the end, though, not to mention purple. More purple in games, developer people.
All the elements are there then, along with some others - like one-time underground bits, accessed through lifts, where you can't afford to die even once in your frail human form. These test the mettle of your exoskeleton in a way that calls to mind Contra's tunnel sections or, my friend informs me, Unreal Tournament mod Alien Swarm. There's some neat strategy to it all as well. Not just the variable manoeuvrability, but also the constant need to juggle weapons to hit particular things. Mastering the flak cannon, for example, involves being able to direct a single-bolt shot without the usual crutch of an existing stream of fire to redirect. The weapons are meaty, too, with upgrades to collect, while the grenade-targeting is great for bosses, and the nukes are great for last-ditch survival.
On the whole it's a bit too short, taking less than two hours to finish completely, although there's a hard difficulty level if you fancy more of a challenge. Either way, it's never quite bullet hell, which might be a product of its being fancy-pants with the graphics - there's even a bit of slowdown in places. The achievements aren't bad, though, with a "Peace Maker" effort that calls to mind Geometry Wars' famous Pacifism effort, except in this case the idea is to finish a level without killing more than 50% of the enemies. Not a simple thing to do in a game of restricted scrolling and enemies who like to hang about. Not to mention suicide bombers and landmines.
Good though most of the elements are, however, it's never quite essential. The problem's level design, more than anything. Of the five zones (comprised of 17 "areas"), the watery one and another where you're caught in a hillside downpour are jolly good, with neat enemy design and visual effects. The ocean level is a particular favourite, with changes in vehicle physics and a water effect that gives the impression of zooming across the surface of a Monet. Likewise the boss, with its mock-Jaws music and gradual reveal, is a highlight. But elsewhere things are weaker. The last level is dreadfully dull, and as the game wears on the developer starts doing annoying things like hiding swarms of enemies just off-screen, so that as you try and edge forward you're ambushed and immediately killed by their insta-fire. It only happens a few times, but it's a few times too many, and it's indicative of a lack of imagination when it comes to scaling up the challenge.
The co-operative mode saves it though. Playing alone, I found myself a bit bored by the end, but tagging along with a friend, fighting over upgrades and working together to amass no-lives-lost achievements and other small victories, it's a pleasurable romp. It's playable over Xbox Live, too, although don't expect to find new friends through it - better to arrange some time with somebody you already know.
Not quite the new Geometry Wars then (or the new anything-older), but a solid effort, and definitely one of the best original Xbox Live Arcade titles since Bizarre's opener. Ditch the pub, grab a friend, and it's a solid evening's entertainment. Indeed, I could do with more of this, please, developer men. Why not try a platform game next? There's only been one, right? Tomb Rider? Or something? Hello?