I went into Apocalyptica ready to give Konami the benefit of the doubt. I don't know about you lot, but the idea of sending a futuristic army of holy troopers up against the dark lord's horde of foul beasts sounded interesting to me. The fact that the dark lord had changed his name to Neo-Satan had me a little concerned, but hey - at least he's 'down' with the kids as well as the arms dealers in the future.
Beneath Good & Evil
The tale Apocalyptica attempts to weave is an epic one. The story's beginning charts the rise of Satan on Earth and the war he wages on humanity, with only the Faithful managing to escape the ravaged planet on huge interstellar arks [Noah way! -Ed]. Angels then fought with Satan and his forces until he was finally beaten, but hope was lost for the humans that had remained on Earth. For centuries the remnants of the human race in the Faithful colonised new worlds and multiplied, until the inevitable in-fighting and civil wars broke out.
Satan saw this as his chance and rose again from Earth as Neo-Satan (quiet at the back), ravaging and devouring the souls inhabiting hundreds of worlds until he finally reached Nehemiah Major; humanity's capital world. In a last-ditch effort the humans constructed an army of warriors imbued with the DNA of their most holy of saints (a bit like the Master Chief), equipped them with incredibly advanced weaponry and sent them out to battle, attempting to halt Neo-Satan's advances.
Imagine it now: thousands of warriors fighting a bloody battle for good; horrific creations with pure evil pumping through their veins devouring the souls of the faithful; blood running down hills, forming glistening streams around the ankles of weary soldiers; mountains constructed from the bodies of conquered demons; stunning assaults against overwhelming odds. It sounds incredible, epic, awesome...
And yet Apocalyptica doesn't manage anything close to the vision of conflict I just botched together in my mind. It's nothing it should be, and everything it shouldn't be. The holiest of holy wars might just as well be a gang war fought in grubby LA, or a colourful jaunty little playground game for 7-12 year olds. Apparently the survival of the human race depends on fulfilling a number of painfully dull objectives pilfered straight from just about every popular multiplayer game ever made - Satan and the Lord apparently became quite the little pro-gamers while ensconced in their cosy domains, and reflected their pastime in their defences once war came a-knocking.
You have no idea what I'm talking about do you? No. Okay, well, pay attention. Firstly, you must choose one of four characters from four class types: nuns, templars, seraphs and robots, each with their own unique levels of agility, melee combat skills, ranged weapon skills and spell-casting skills. Then for each mission you're given a choice of up to four team-mates depending on the situation, and cycle through the available ranged/melee weapon loadouts for your character - you can only choose more loadouts once you find extra guns, swords and other melee weapons within the game.
With your choices made according to the mission briefing, you embark on your epic battle to quash Satan's war effort. This generally involves hacking and slashing your way through wave after wave of respawning identikit enemies while attempting to switch switches, transport bits of equipment through sewer systems, capture and dominate areas of a level, rescue and escort people, stop the enemy from capturing a decoder and escaping with it... stop me if you've heard this somewhere before.
Command and Flounder
The relentless hacking, slashing and shooting (depending on your character preference) wouldn't be quite as depressingly mundane if there were any kind of strategic approach beneath the frantic button-bashing. The game actually makes efforts in this direction, allowing you to hand out basic "Follow me" or "Guard here" type commands, and supposedly hiding melee combat moves in mouse button combos for you to discover and make use of. Unfortunately, I could only discover fast sword swings and slightly slower and more powerful sword swings, both of which were mentioned in the manual anyway.
The AI is also unpredictable, often bashing up against walls, falling from ledges or getting stuck in pits, and this totally ruins any hope of cobbling some kind of effective strategy together. Even if your team-mates were particularly intelligent, the action is far too frenetic and random to make any real use of them other than to back you up. On a mission in which you must capture and hold five switches and find the exit, asking your team-mates to defend an area so that the enemy doesn't change it back to their colour is almost completely ineffective, the end result being a cute little parade around the level endlessly flicking switches over and over again because your pals are too bloody stupid to stop the other team from doing so.
This level in particular is so badly designed it feels like the developer has absolutely no respect for the player, forcing them through this shower of rubbish over and over again until they either get lucky or die. I actually thought it was impossible to complete at one point, and that isn't because it's hard; it's because it has been designed with little or no thought as to what might be fun as well as challenging.
So, sorry, gobbling up a few multiplayer games, digesting their guts and spewing them back out over your intriguing little story simply doesn't cut it. The game tries to move the narrative along in briefing screens, but simply fails when it starts concerning itself with the details of putting a cog in a machine to open a gate. Bringing in the odd boss battle occasionally serves to revive the notion of getting somewhere, but even they are disappointingly bland.
Even though the single player game is basically multiplayer with shoddy AI bots scattered around the level, there are still Apocalyptica's dedicated multiplayer modes to consider. Let's break for a little quiz. Ready? Guess what the multiplayer modes are. I'll pop back in a sec with the answers...
Back. Here are your answers: Deathmatch? Check. Team Deathmatch? Check. Capture the Flag? Check. Co-operative play? Check. Well whad'ya know, full points! Of most interest to me was the Objective mode, which is basically Apocalyptica's version of Counter-Strike played on the 18 single-player levels, with one team playing for the guy above, and the other attempting to stop them completing the objectives. This is naturally going to work much better than the single player game, because humans aren't completely stupid. Most of the time. Bonus points for also guessing that nobody's online playing any of them, though.
The game's visuals are at least competent if a bit bold and brash, and the proprietary engine is capable of presenting some very large levels stuffed to the brim with enemies. It's a shame the unimaginative level design (it only took the second level to get to the sewers) and clunky character animation let it down almost completely.
Apocalyptica really is a game that ignores its own potential. As a bloke with a gun facing off against The Dark Lord of All The Other Dark Lords, you'd expect huge battles and the feeling of contributing to a massive apocalyptic conflict. At the very least you'd expect some Call of Duty-style scripting (or, hey, how about just AI that works and doesn't stumble on simple path finding stuff?), huge explosions and showers of demonic blood, and you'd certainly expect foul demons spitting fire all over the place and tortured souls screaming from the walls. What you actually get is a shoddy Unreal Tournament mod with the added evil of the odd timed mission thrown in.
It's a particularly bad sign when you complete a level in a game, and instead of feeling eager to get on and finish the next you debate with yourself over whether or not you'd want to put yourself through that again. Contrary to what ExtremeFX might believe, traipsing around a series of dull levels whacking a series of dull respawning enemies about the head and attempting to stop them standing on switches is not fun. And it never will be.
Apocalypse now, please
On the other hand, there is the possibility that all this soul-crushing Faithful versus Neo-Satan nonsense is just a ruse to weaken our defences. Although only an outside chance, Apocalyptica may well be the first wave of attacks that make up the coming of our own apocalypse - a sort of self-referential Trojan horse designed to rot us out from the inside. But whatever Satan's plans, as a game Apocalyptica's lazy design and sheer lack of imagination is more than enough to ruin any chance it had of developing the relatively interesting premise. Forgive Konami, father, for they have sinned.