The moment you boot up Time Crisis 3, you know exactly what you're going to get: wave after wave of cannon fodder enemy, ludicrous amounts of ammo, on rails 'duck and fire' gameplay, cackling end of level bosses, bad English voiceovers; it's all present and correct. We could probably save you all a few minutes and tell you our verdict now; but we'd rather surprise you.
It's fair to say that Namco has broadly adopted the 'if it ain't broke…' mentality to the third in the long-running light gun series. But the while the template remains more or less unchanged since the likes of Taito's Operation Wolf burst into the arcades 16 years ago (goes misty eyed), we'd struggle to think of better exercise for our itchy trigger finger than Namco's latest.
Wesley, The Sniper?
For the latest adventure, new guns for hire Alan Dunaway and Wesley Lambert enter the fray, looking almost exactly the same as the chiselled duo in previous Time Crises. For reasons known best to themselves, the nefarious Zagorias Corporation has invaded the neighbouring Mediterranean territory of Astigos. Time for our VSSE operatives to put a stop to their plans, and basically go on a relentless killing spree without ever spoiling their hair.
In keeping with previous incarnations, the game offers an Arcade mode, which has a Story mode and gives you the opportunity to dive into one of the three stages - providing you've already unlocked them in Story mode first. Two-player split screen or iLink mode makes a welcome return, and there are a few options to customise the difficulty level (from Very Easy to Very Hard), change the number of lives, and so on.
The game also plays pretty much identically to any previous Time Crisis, with one major exception - the weapon switch system. As before, you start off ducked down behind cover, and have to hit the action button to poke your head over before you can fire at your target. But this time, while you're in the duck position you can now cycle through your weapons inventory by tapping the trigger, making the game much more strategic as you try and save your best weapons for when you really need them.
Armed And Dangerous
The weapons at your disposal are pretty basic; a simple handgun, machine gun, shotgun and grenade launcher are all you have, the latter three with limited ammo supplies. Mercifully you can carry all of them at once, allowing you to memorise your way through the levels and deal the really tough guys your more powerful arsenal when required. It's a simple but extremely intuitive and effective system that makes you wonder why Namco waited so long to introduce it, and it immediately adds a new dimension to the series. Although the game is still utterly predetermined and on rails, the simple ability to switch your weapon makes it all the more addictive.
As with all Namco shooters, the more you play it the more you're rewarded. As you plough headlong into the story mode, good performances will gain you an extra continue. At first you only have three, and even on the easiest settings you'll barely make it through the first couple of areas. With repeated play, and some knowledge of where the baddies are going to appear, you find yourself improving every time, and with a stock of continues you can slowing start to unlock each stage, and then eventually more lives, which in turn makes the continues worth more.
To begin with, TC3 only grants you a measly four lives, and in a game where one stray bullet can kill you, that doesn't go a long way. Once you're given the opportunity to up the life counter to nine, you can begin to up the difficulty level and tentatively give yourself a more hardcore challenge.
Strangely, the continual repetition of playing through the same levels over and over again doesn't really wane for some time. Each and every time we played it, we improved our game a tiny bit more, and coming through a previously shockingly hard section intact delivers a satisfying quick fix experience that many of today's games can't hold a candle to.
In terms of all out action, it's hard to think of another game that can deliver the adrenalin rush that Time Crisis 3 does. Maybe it's the unending novelty of waving a G-Con2 at the screen standing up arcade-style that does it, but by the end of a few sessions you'll genuinely feel comparatively exerted.
Unlike most action games, which deliver set-pieces at intervals, Time Crisis 3 never lets off the pace. Each stage is broken down into three 'areas', with the inevitable, almost indestructible boss to despatch at the end, and whether you're riding aboard a train, a jeep, or on foot ducking in and out of a destroyed tanker, you'll be tested like few other games dare.
With far more graphical power at their disposal, Namco has upped the ante on the action front, with all manner of craziness going on around you. Buildings explode and topple towards you, a tanker ship is split and begins to sink onto its side like something out of the Titanic movie, a giant gunship hurtles towards you all weapons blazing, a giant metal railway bridge gives way while you're busy hurtling along on a train, there's a man with a machine gun for an arm... it's a completely over the top, action-packed thrill ride that'll have you cackling at the insanity of it all.
Disappointingly though, the visuals don't exactly make the PS2 sweat, with some alarmingly basic texturing at times and pretty lazy scenery. It's the one small point that lets down an otherwise glossy package, although this no doubt has a lot to do with it the fact that the original arcade version was designed this way.
It's a shame that developing a PS2-specific Time Crisis that makes the most of the hardware isn't the priority for Namco, but isn't entirely unexpected after years of following this principle. On the other hand, a few exclusive additions have made it into the package, with an all-new Alicia Winston scenario, updated and enhanced versions of the Crisis missions from TC2, as well as the new Sniper system all making an appearance.
One other fly in the ointment is the two-player mode, which dispenses with about 50 per cent of the screen in order to preserve the aspect ratio. What you end up with is a tiny letterboxed play area that doesn't give you a hope in hell of aiming properly unless you've got a giant 4:3 screen. Stupidly, Namco has yet again failed to take advantage of the millions of 16:9 widescreen TVs in existence, and worse still, getting your G-Con(2) to work on them will take some messing around, especially so if you have a 100Hz TV, so those of you who've recently upgraded your TVs should make sure their guns definitely work first [updated - Ed]. On the plus side, the old G-Con works with it, as well as the G-Con2, so go and dust the old one off if you still have it.
If you fancy some utterly ridiculous, relentless twitch gaming action, full of drama, evil henchmen and a posse of minions to pump full of lead, then Time Crisis 3 stands as an essential purchase. It's by no means the longest game in the world, and might only provide a few days of entertainment, but for what it is, and what it does, it's the best reason to own a light gun.