The Story So Far
What do you get when you combine the weird world of sci-fi comic book Heavy Metal and the warped imagination of Kevin Eastman, creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? The answer is "Heavy Metal : FAKK2", a straight-to-video animated movie. The good news is that the game of the same name has little in common with the rather disappointing movie, apart from its bizarre imagery and the amply imbued heroine Julie. FAKK2 the game takes place thirty years after the movie, but luckily for us the planet Eden, on which Julie has settled with the other survivors of the film, is home to the fountain of eternal youth. After all, a third person action game in which your character is a saggy middle-aged woman would be something of a let down... Being a woman of action though, Julie finds all this sitting around drinking mineral water and staying forever youthful rather dull. Unluckily for her (but luckily for us) Eden's peaceful existence is about to be rudely interrupted by an evil demi-god by the name of Gith. The first part of the game consists of exploring Julie's settlement on Eden, and chatting with all the people you will see getting brutally slaughtered a few hours later. You will also find your way to the training area, where you will be guided through a fairly comprehensive tutorial which shows you how to select and use your various weapons and equipment, and how to control Julie. As in any good third person game your character has a plentiful supply of moves, with Julie climbing up, down and along ropes, dangling from monkey bars, edging her way along narrow ledges, and ducking and crawling her way under low obstructions, a move which seems to exist purely as an excuse for the developers to give you an extreme close-up of Julie's butt. The controls are very easy to get to grips with, and the moves are achieved using a simple combination of the various movement keys. Walking up to a low ledge and holding down the forwards key will make Julie clamber up on to it, while climbing along a horizontal rope or pipe is simply a case of jumping up to grab hold of it and then moving backwards or forwards, using the jump key a second time to lift your legs up over the rope, or the duck key to let go and drop to the ground. This is about as simple and responsive as third person gaming gets.
Which is lucky, because sadly large chunks of the game are given over to Mario-style jumping puzzles. You would have thought that after the horrible alien levels at the end of Half-Life PC developers would have learnt their lesson, but apparently not. During the course of the game you will find yourself leaping around bits of gigantic rotating machinery, bouncing your way through a lethal swamp, and running through a disintegrating surrealist landscape. Pixel perfect jumps and races against the clock abound, and some of the puzzles are frustratingly difficult, with the slightest mis-timing leading to instant death. Achieving all of this whilst being attacked by monsters is something of a challenge, and it's all too easy to be hurled to your death through no fault of your own, simply because the blast from a nearby explosion knocked you over the edge of a platform or ledge into a bottomless pit. One day somebody will realise that 3D platform games are not fun, but until then we'll just have to grin and bear it... Luckily the rest of the game makes up for the occasional lapse into console territory, with the focus very much on all-out action. Julie can carry a weapon in each hand and use them both independently, allowing you to target two different enemies at once. There is a wide range of weapons on offer, from swords and slings to rocket launchers and flamethrowers, and each of them is useful in its own way. Combination moves using the various swords are impressive and deadly, with Julie spinning and stabbing her way through the gibs as your opponents are reduced to their constituent parts, blood spurting tastefully from severed limbs. The range of monsters on offer is also impressive, although the mosquitos are a little annoying at times. Little tubby creatures wearing happy masks bounce along in swarms, getting more and more agitated as you kill their friends. Giger-esque fusions of weaponry and organic material spout napalm, fire chainguns and slash at you with blades. Birds dive bomb you from the air, while the harmless looking furry animals from the start of the game turn into evil faeces-throwing monsters when you drop them in water. Very Gremlins.
Where the game really scores though is in its atmosphere - from the opening cinematics which introduce you to Julie's settlement you can tell that a lot of effort has gone into creating a coherent and visually impressive world for you to explore. You are gently lulled into the story as you explore the town and talk to its inhabitants, finding out about the meteors that have been striking the shield surrounding the planet, and gradually realising that something is not quite right, leading up to the first boss encounter, after which all hell breaks loose. Coming back to the settlement later in the game to find it in ruins, with half its population enthralled by hypnotic "recruiters" (Gith's answer to TV envangelists) and the rest dead or vanished gives you a real reason to hate the enemy, making it more personal. All of this is supported by the incredible graphics, which really push the Quake 3 engine far beyond anything which id Software have accomplished with it. The scenery is far more interactive, the textures beautifully detailed, the levels vast and immersive, the special effects violently over the top, and the monsters imaginative and full of character. The in-game cinematics are excellent, with big swooping camera movements and fine attention to detail, although they fade somewhat later in the game. Voice acting in the cinematics is fairly good throughout though, and the context-sensitive music is suitably rousing during combat and set-pieces.
Please Sir, I Want Some More
The only real gripe I have with FAKK2 is that it's all over far too quickly, and the last section is something of a disappointment. It took me just three afternoons (about ten hours of play) to finish the game, and I was taking my time exploring the levels. After the beautiful town levels, the impressive underground machinery of the second section of the game, and the misty swampland of the third, the finale seems somewhat contrived and out of character as you fight your way through a series of nightmarish tests to prove your worthiness. The architecture of the levels is imaginative and looks like it has escaped from an HR Giger painting at times, but the actual gameplay is just a series of linear platform hopping and monster blasting exercises for the most part. The worst is saved for last though. Killing the final boss is very difficult, not just because it's technically challenging, but because working out how to kill it is nigh on impossible. After wasting half an hour blasting away at it to no avail I resorted to checking a walkthrough of the game, only to discover that you have to use a combination of weapons in the right order, with the finishing blow struck from a particular direction. Not the most obvious of solutions then...
FAKK2 is a beautiful but flawed game, with easy controls and imaginative design marred by a surplus of platform hopping puzzles and a disappointing finale. It's also rather short, although Ritual are about to release a free deathmatch add-on for the game, along with source code and tools for mod makers, which should give it some much needed longevity. It's an entertaining enough diversion for a weekend though, with that Heavy Metal feel of scantily clad heroines, devestating weapons, bizarre monsters and lavish settings. Good clean fun for all the family then...