Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds is one of those games that could go either way. It's not particularly good, but its numerous flaws don't really congeal rancidly enough to completely derail it. It's still just about fun, and despite some of the worst design we've encountered all year, you still probably wouldn't chuck 'er out of bed for the gaming equivalent of letting out rancid farts. In your face. Like the first, Collective-developed, game, it pits vampire-slaying ex-cheerleader Buffy Summers (sadly without SMG's voice over) and her Scooby gang of social misfits and demonic ne'er-do-wells (all of whom do enjoy the correct vocal support) against a vessel of striking evil, and with a mixture of occasionally chuckleworthy dialogue and kick/punch/stake combat propels them through a series of familiar and not-so-familiar locations, throwing in the occasional brain-mushing puzzle or boss fight to add a bit of colour.
What you'll get if you pick up Buffy (as some of you obviously have, given its No.12 placement in this morning's Chart-Track Top 40) is a straightforward sequel to last year's Xbox-exclusive slasher, but with a different developer at the helm and a lot less of the imagination that made the first a surprise success. Again we're dealing with a 'lost episode', this time from the fifth series of the show, and this time the action is split between the various characters in Buffy's crew, with Xander, Spike and Faith handled much like Buffy herself, Willow relying on witchcraft and the occasional crossbow, and a couple of odd turns for knee-high, possessed puppet Sid.
It's a game constructed very much in the spirit of the now sadly departed show, drawing all manner of characters and back-stories into the fray and using them to help shape some rather passionless missions; rescue and escort Giles through his shop, rescue Tara from Ethan Rayne, destroy streams of zombies to undo Kakistos' spell, etc, all of which seem to boil down to punching, kicking and staking your way through smack-talking vamps, flimsy zombies and larger more demonic beasties whilst looking for mystical objects, switches and doors. In fact, searching out and trying doors with the triangle button is one of the game's most prominent activities - a pity then that it draws attention to the way character models slide along the floor and snap to a door handle instead of actually reaching for it.
Combat remains very much the same as last time, and it's passable enough and initially fairly entertaining. Buffy (or whoever) can punch (square), kick (X), and jump (circle), blending these moves into various primitive combos until she's worked down an enemy's health bar sufficiently to stake them (triangle), which prompts a satisfying 'dusting' animation and sound effect. Along the way you'll also get your hands on weapons like the abovementioned crossbow, holy water and hellfire bottles (think grenades for the undead), holy water guns, flame-throwing gas canisters and all manner of shovels, axes, swords and other long swingable implements to supplement the melee combat.
But after a while the endless hack and slash-a-thon becomes rather tedious, thanks in no small part to the legions of identikit enemies who respawn at various intervals to make the necessary backtracking all the more arduous, and also thanks to the "must finish animation before allowing player to do something else" and "must use fiddly inventory system for juggling long-range/short-range weapons" school of thought that seems to have plagued Eurocom during Chaos Bleeds' development. It's a good thing original developer The Collective had an instant stake-selection button (L1), or we might have spent even more time fumbling over the D-pad trying to deselect a crossbow whilst being mauled by enchanted gargoyles.
However, in spite of this, the combat really isn't too horribly objectionable. It's nothing special and it certainly wears pretty thin after three or four hours, but it's not as hard to make progress as it was (we used maybe three continues during the course of the whole game), it's simple to pick up, and juggling a vamp with three kicks and then staking them in mid-air is still satisfying. No, if we're going to lay into Buffy (and we are), then we're going to get her on the issues of graphics, sound and design in general. Pretty much everything else in fact...
Take the myriad puzzles that break up the fighting, for example. They're all horribly contrived, and some of them just defy logic. (Solution alert) At one stage, you're tasked with finding the keys to a JCB digger so you can smash a hole in a cemetery wall and make some progress. Obviously zombies are springing from graves (and often the same graves, interestingly) and vamps are leaping out of nowhere all over the shop as you trawl the last chunk of level in search of a clue, but it's not until you take to kicking and 'using' every single item of level furniture that you chance upon the solution: a statue of a bird with a rotating switch for a head. It's completely implausible, and it's never repeated throughout the rest of the game, but pressing triangle next to the statue turns the head which in turn opens the wall of a nearby crypt (which had a locked door, obviously). Smash a few pots in here and you'll find the keys lying in the rubble.
Bring back Angel of Darkness
If that isn't silly enough for you, you'll love some of the puzzles towards the end. In one Xander level, you have to find a passcode to get past a couple of horrible plant beasts (which you'll need a computer, a Dictaphone and a UV-modified flashlight to uncover, obviously), then find five pentagrams drawn on the ground and leave magical bunnies resting on each in order to get past a force field, leading to a rather tedious boss battle with alter-dimensional Anya - although fortunately she is also susceptible to bunny-based attacks, which at least takes care of her quickly.
Eurocom has also seen fit to dilute the action here with some appalling platform elements. These are just terrible - the animations look awkward, the collision detection is rank, and the actual platforming is reliant on the level being catered to it. You can't just find an object and jump up to it here (and you can barely climb anything at all for that matter). Instead you have to jump through the developer's hoops to make progress. In one section, playing as Willow, it became obvious that to proceed we had to clamber on top of an articulated lorry and escape through an archway in the rafters. Fair enough, we thought, let's climb on this forklift truck and hoist ourselves up there. No go. The various heights and distances all looked right, but no go. Stumped, we hopped down, had a thorough look around and spotted a small, nondescript switch on the back of the forklift which, surprise-surprise, raised a crate that we could then jump to from a nearby platform and clamber up from there. Lunacy. Come back Lara, all is forgiven!
We could continue down this road and move gradually onto our complaints about objects that you can't pick up for a while (until you've seen the cut scene that creates an active objective out of them, forcing you to backtrack to find them again), hopelessly nondescript level design (elevators that actually go up and down with switches on both sides of the door - this one held us up for about 15 minutes), and the is it/isn't it interactivity of lockers, cabinets and other bits and pieces (one early objective requires a crossbow hidden in a locker, the first time you'll ever be able to kick one open), but we're getting sidetracked here. No, the next thing we've got to focus on is the engine.
Quite simply, Buffy looks rubbish. We suspect Eurocom had no time to design its own engine on such a tight deadline (and on that basis we won't hold it against them), but with a little bit of polish even the lowest-polygon, detail-free chunk-fest of an engine like this one can be made to look good, and there's just no evidence of that sort of effort here. Apart from the snap-to-door animation mentioned previously, you'll find that pushing and pulling looks worse than it did in Tomb Raider 1, that characters' weapons disappear from their hands as they pick up items, climb ladders or open doors, that enemies appear out of nowhere more than occasionally, and that you can't hit them until they're finished crawling out of holes or clambering to their feet, that sometimes a stake hits a vamp in the abdomen or even legs but still dusts them, that textures are dull and lifeless, that characters wobble worryingly as they try to climb anything, and that the camera is, at times, nothing short of an abomination, hiding crucial items from you, getting stuck behind doors, clipping through walls, showing you Buffy from the front despite your best efforts to lock it behind her, and worse.
Throw in a few glitches (like flashing/juddering zombies), woeful collision detection and generally boring and jumpy animations and it feels like it belongs in a different era. Although that doesn't stop the PS2 lurching this way and that and bailing frames out of the window when more than a few bad guys are on-screen together. Now, to be fair, the game does a good job of capturing the essence of each character visually, and it helps that there's a professionally voice acted script behind it all, but there's really no excuse in this era for most of the things we've just mentioned. And we'd love to hear Eurocom's explanation for the section late on where you take on a selection of vamps in broad daylight, because the game made no effort to justify it...
However the fact that Chaos Bleeds manages to stand up as a believable chapter in the long-running series is probably going to be enough for some (presumably male) Buffy fans, who will enjoy the mindless pasting of uninspired enemies, and the story that draws on many of their favourite characters (none of whom, at this stage, even flinches at the prospect of landing in another dimension or facing off against some truly horrifying beasts in the sewers or blood factories of Sunnydale), and it's for this reason that we've been deliberately vague about the plot details. Fans will probably care. Some of them (the gamers) will probably also struggle with a desire to boot the PS2 off the table and spit Buffy back at the retailer, but with plenty of cast interviews and other DVD style extras to unlock - and a passable, if ridiculous and fairly boring, multiplayer mode to contend with - Buffy is still going to be worth it to somebody.
And, as we said at the outset, this one could swing either way for most of us. Yes, it's a poorly-constructed game at times and some of the puzzles are bafflingly moronic, but if you're prepared to load up GameFAQs to get past the daftest ones then you'll make steady progress and probably get about 10 hours of gaming out of it. The fact that we actually did play it through to completion - despite the sort of flaws that have sent us flying off the handle in countless other reviews - is a testament to its continued accessibility and the continuing attraction of the Buffy franchise. But, on the other hand, if you're new to this Buffy lark, you'll almost certainly get more excitement out of a DVD box set. "Try before you buy," then, and let's hope the next Buffy game is more than a simple update.