No matter how predictable they are, no matter how much things move on there's always been a special place in our hearts for light gun games. Ever since Taito set the standard with Operation Wolf back in the days when we were still loading games in from cassette we've been strangely drawn to their magnetic charms. Crisis Zone may be one of the dumbest, most ludicrous, over the top games Namco has ever produced, but you can't stop coming back for more. It's gaming's equivalent of the three-minute pop song. Sugary, light, disposable, but oh so addictive.
You might imagine Namco had managed to milk the idea dry by now, but apparently not. Setting the game in modern day London (errr, which bit? Docklands? That's the only vaguely modern bit we can think of) it's got the kind of inane terrorist-based plotline that instantly makes us dissolve into laughter. It's almost a tradition that Namco wants to uphold; to take us back to that bygone era when all gaming stories were this cheese-ridden. Typically, you guide a generic unflappable hero through the Garland Square retail/office complex in a series of mini encounters before eventually duking it out with a maniac who apparently seems hell bent on nuking the capital city for no apparent reason at all, apart from perhaps that he can. Who knows? Or cares? You're shooting a plastic gun at literally hundreds of enemies for fun. Frankly the more ludicrous the scenario the better when it comes to these games.
Time Zone Crisis
Namco gun games have hardly got a reputation for being the most complex in the known universe: crouch behind cover, pop your head out, kill the bad guys and try to avoid their hail of lead. As ever, the on rails nature moves you automatically to the next section once you've cleared it, and so on until death or you eventually face the evil tyrant behind all this mayhem. But believe it or not, Namco evidently thought things should be simpler. Not only has it given you a machine gun by default, but it's got unlimited ammo. And in a further twist, Crisis Zone allows you to stand unharmed in a hail of bullets, alerting you to an oncoming threat with a high pitched tone and a big red circle! So, as long as you're alert to these and duck down behind your impregnable riot shield in time (no ducking behind crates and doorways anymore) you'll stay as safe as houses. Incredibly unrealistic, and all that, but hey, we're talking about the most over the top game to ever feature in the ageing genre. What did you expect? Rainbow Six?
There are occasional exceptions to this rule, with the odd blade slicing you close up, or projectile launched in your direction (in which case you lose one of your health slots, of which you have four to begin with, but they increase the more you play it), so death is never far away, but the key with any game like this is repeat play and memorising the sequence and get the hell out of their way before they rip into you. It really is no more complex than that, but in a way, this decision to take the RSI out of the equation allows you to focus much more on the actual aiming, and in turn allows Namco to really ramp up the number of enemies being thrown at you to even more insane levels than ever before.
At almost all times Crisis Zone is one of the most chaotic shooters of all time, with so much carnage, destruction and general mayhem occurring that it's got you constantly on the edge and rushing in that feverish way that arcade ports tend to do. The single most noticable change to this latest in a long line of arcade ports is the huge improvements to the graphics engine, allowing the player to literally lay waste to almost every object in sight to create the most rampant levels of mess we've witnessed in any game. Working through a department store or office, seemingly every fixture, every item on the shelves, every pane of glass can be blown to smithereens, while smoke billows from your weapon with every blast to create this cloud of chaos.
In a world of unlimited ammo
In terms of detail, Crisis Zone is a massive leap forward for a series that has always seemingly been rooted in that hugely outdated angular look of the mid-90s; gone are the sparse textures and rudimentary environments, and gone are the poorly detailed and stiff character models, to be replaced by a much more convincing and varied cast of foes, not to mention some huge tanks, helicopters, giant cloaked death robots, jet pack-equipped soliders and the usual array of improbable machines of destruction, armed to the teeth with enough explosive material to flatten London in an hour. All round, it really is a much more impressive visual experience than ever before, and in fact shows up previous efforts for exactly what they were - i.e. not all that. It's just frustrating, then, that there's still no widescreen support, and that you'll experience difficulty getting light guns to work properly on some modern widescreen TVs. For the purpose of the review we resorted back to a 15 year-old Sony, and so it's well worth making sure your TV is compatible before taking the plunge.
In terms of actual gameplay changes, there isn't a huge amount to report, and if anything there are more omissions than additions. For a start, gone is the split-screen two-player co-operative mode that proved popular in the past, particularly with system linkers who could get a screen each; and instead there's the dual wielding mode that Time Crisis 3 introduced, which sounds cooler than it actually is. As experienced players will attest, you arms soon feel the burn pointing two guns, and you'll go back to single wielding with your other hand steadying the aim very quickly. On the other hand, you could just give the second gun to a pal and play a single screen two-player co-op that way, but that's not really how they're pitching it.
The main bonus as far as arcade fans will be concerned is the whole new episode tagged on once you've conquered Garland Square's three levels (in whichever order you choose, which is a nice touch). It won't take too long to unlock, especially once the game starts spitting out extra continues and health (and if you're not humiliated at playing a game on Very Easy - trust us, it's never that easy). The second (entirely linear) mission set six months after Garland Square is essentially more of the same except harder, this time being set in what appears to have been inspired by Piccadilly. It's very much a case of no surprises, and although it's nice to have some more to get your teeth into the constant repetition does eventually begin to get a bit much. Beyond that, a special story mode unlocks and you can get to play it with pistols and a shotgun, but as far as actual extra content goes, it appears to be a bunch of extra Crisis Missions.
Crisis? What Crisis?
If you're really into your light gun games, then these side show Crisis Missions will definitely float your boat, giving you the opportunity to engage in some maddeningly tough one-off assignments, such as racking up a combo target, getting up ten floors, not killing your allies, destroying a set number of objects, killing everyone inside a ludicrous time limit and so on. The benefit here is seemingly limited to unlocking an even harder version of that particular Crisis mission. As for giving the player extra weapons once you finish both Story modes, we'd argue they should have been made available in the beginning, as some of the old school might find the 'easy shooting' nature of the machine gun a little too forgiving for their tastes.
Although there are evidently a ton of bonuses to unlock in Crisis Zone, the key problem with it is also its strength. It's a resolutely one dimensional game, lacking in any real forward momentum once you've seen both 25 minute, three zone story modes, so it's a genuine surprise that this archaic gaming style is still part of the landscape, getting prettier, but barely changing. Sometimes, though, familiarity and simplicity are exactly what's called for, and for those of you that just can't get enough of these dumb-arsed shooters, Crisis Zone has a certain cultish appeal that's just on the right side of admirable. But for those who've seen it all before and no longer have the appetite for destruction, this isn't likely to be the game to change your mind.
Crisis Zone is released exclusively on PS2 on September 17th.