Space used to be the final frontier. There was a time when we'd gaze up at the stars and say 'what's it all about eh?'. And then we'd finish that bottle of vodka. Not any more, though. The universe no longer holds any mystery to us - its secrets are secrets no more. Because while NASA are busy sending probes off to boring, dusty, real-life Mars, we've learned everything we need to know about space from games. And if Mace Griffin is anything to go by, space sucks.
Stars In Their Eyes
Considering how long this game's development was delayed for, it's appropriate that this review should be as late as it is. That's what I told Tom, anyway. But, seriously, if this is what Mace Griffin is like after over a year of 'tweaking', then the original version must have been an abomination indeed. Even having taken all the time they needed on this, Warthog still couldn't manage anything better than a below-average, utterly careless shooter that fails to add anything new to this, or any other genre.
And yet, despite this, the sad truth of the matter is that Mace could have been very enjoyable if not for a few major issues with the likes of AI and the controls. But then again, isn't that always the way?
Like most FPSs, the plot driving the game - in a 1985 Lada, probably - is poor. But the thing is, so is Halo's. (Yeah, you heard me, fanboys!) The difference between the two is simply presentation. While Mace's story feels tacked on and soul-less, Halo makes you a part of its story. Neither would win any awards for imagination. For the record though, a man named Mace Griffin was once part of a special police force known as the Rangers. During one particular mission with said force, he is framed for the death of his squad [by the Celtics? -Ed] and locked up for ten years. Upon his release, Mace vows to take revenge on whoever set him up. Once this vow is taken, a brilliant plot twist sees... no, wait, that's it actually. Oh well.
Mace becomes a bounty hunter in order to get his feet back on the ground - or in orbit, technically - and in turn the missions he takes lead him to the truth about his past. The missions themselves mainly revolve around two gameplay types; the first is a space combat section in Mace's ship, where you generally have to destroy a few enemies and then dock onto wherever the mission is taking place. The second are the FPS bits, which make up the majority of gameplay.
Mutiny On The Bounty
The ship bits are very standard fare, with the player given full, 360-degree control over the vehicle's movement, including the use of thrusters, rolls and lock-ons. While Mace takes control of a few different ships in the game, the repetitive dogfight nature of these missions takes away from the initial novelty of having such gameplay in a first person shooter. In truth, this aspect of Mace Griffin really annoyed us after a while.
If Mace were able to fly from mission to mission on 'real' space journeys, Freelancer-style, then we would have approved greatly. But instead, like many aspects of the game, the space combat sections feel tacked on. If they held any rewards for the gamer - like the ability to unlock new weapons for the FPS bits, for instance - then perhaps they might have been tolerable. Instead, we kept wishing we could skip them.
Unfortunately, the shooter sections aren't much better. This is down to a whole bunch of issues, but there are a few whoppers - especially on the PS2. For a start, the game has no stick sensitivity options, which is just plain silly. While we know it's not the only game to suffer from this, most other titles default at a decent balance between the left and right stick. Mace doesn't. Not on the PS2 at least. This isn't helped at all by the game's tendency to get sluggish on Sony's machine, which went a long way to ruining the game for this reviewer.
Still, even with the smoother Xbox version, there's plenty to give out about. For a start, the AI and level design is overly frustrating. Many of the levels feature large open areas with enemies dotted all over the place, ready to attack as one. So you might have an enemy hiding behind a crate a level above you, three in front of you, three more behind more crates in the distance, and so on. Sometimes, this is challenging in a good way - for instance, if one enemy starts lobbing grenades, three move in and the rest fire from distance. Other times, however, it's just plain crap. The guys behind the crates start hiding from you; the guys nearby don't know you're there until they're dying; grenades are welcomed with open arms (and, subsequently open bodies) etc, etc.
At one point we walked into a room with about six or seven enemies in it, then backed out again as they overwhelmed us. After a few seconds, one of them followed us around the corner and out the door, and we easily killed him. Then, one by one, each of the enemies proceeded to walk straight into our fire, killed almost instantly - like bloody Lemmings. And with a self-charging, Halo-style energy shield to protect us, there wasn't much chance of Mace dying. Half-Life 2 it ain't. Er, presumably.
If the weapons were fun to use then this would, of course, have helped matters. But (as if you haven't guessed already) they aren't. It's the same old boring, boring arsenal. Machine-guns that overheat; all manner of uncomfortable laser weapons; a shotgun; zoom-scope sniper rifle; rocket launcher - who cares? Not Mace, not the enemies, not us. Lots of FPSs could be labelled poor on this level, but with Mace it just adds to the overall sense that this game isn't trying very hard to be original.
Warts And All
You have to feel sorry for the art team who worked on Mace, too, because if the game had been on time it might have looked OK. Instead, it just looks dated, like a PC game from a few years back. The most striking downside to the visuals is the way levels often appear as if they were constructed with Lego bits - all edges and flat surfaces.
Still, Warthog deserve credit for at least trying to make an atmospheric game, even if they failed in their task. The game's first mission is very promising on this level, with some exciting explosions and a tangible sense of dread. It's all downhill after that though, especially in crowded missions where all you hear is "get the infidel" over and over.
Of special note, however, is the excellent music. The orchestral score attached to the game is really good when it gets going, even though it isn't used as much as it should have been. If they do a soundtrack CD, buy it.
It's AAALIVE! Comatose, but AAAALIVE!!
Mace Griffin is Frankenstein. Bits of his body were 'borrowed' from other games, but unfortunately those games must have been terminally ill at the time of donation. Because for all it brings to the table - space combat, Halo's shield, varied levels - not one single aspect is truly worthy of praise. A great console FPS needs to be comfortable to control and very atmospheric. Mace is neither. Of course, a brilliant multiplayer mode might do the trick, but, er, Mace has no multiplayer options. Even Fire Warrior got the basics right.
Mace Griffin is one of those games that tried too hard to be something, and ended up losing its shape entirely. Give us a NASA probe sim over this any day.