Four Weeks In The Future
Ecks V Sever is the latest first person shooter to come to the GameBoy Advance, arriving just a couple of weeks after the release of Doom. But while Doom was a decidely old school run and gun experience, Ecks V Sever is attempting to be more of a thinking man's shooter. In a bizarre turn of events, it loosely follows the storyline of a movie which hasn't even begun filming yet. Set in the present day, you play either Ecks (an ex-FBI agent traumatised by the death of his family) or Sever (a Femme Nikita style NSA assassin, trained to be a killer in an agency-run orphanage). Each character has its own twelve mission campaign and the two run parallel to each other, usually showing you different parts of the same levels as Ecks and Sever carry out similar orders. For example, the game starts with the agents trying to access files on each other stored on laptops hidden in a warehouse. Sever then sets a bomb, leaving both characters dashing for the exit against the clock, before indulging in a running battle through the streets outside. Between missions you are treated to the transcript from an inquiry into these events, with the game itself effectively a series of flashbacks. It's a nice idea and the plot is typical Hollywood action movie hocus pocus, but the actual presentation is disappointing, consisting of page after page of repetitive long-winded text, most of it written in short stoccato sentences which make Max Payne's cutscenes look like a work of literary genius. The fact that your character describes the outcome of the mission to the inquiry before you even start playing it also leaves you feeling rather helpless and kills any real sense of suspense.
The Events Of Which You Were A Part
The missions themselves take place in a range of settings, from the inevitable warehouse full of crates to a hotel and bar. Objectives are varied, even if they generally do boil down to finding one or more keys and getting to the exit, and the occasional run-ins with your opposite number throughout the game will keep you on your toes. The bad news is that your opponent is invincible, brushing off grenades and bullets all the way up to the final showdown between the two agents. This means that, for example, if you choose to play as Sever your only hope is to run like hell when Ecks is chasing you through the streets in one of the early missions, because the game isn't scripted to let you fight him off. Unfortunately the level is (as usual) also packed full of FBI agents, security guards and SWAT team members, and as the game has a (vaguely) realistic damage model you're caught between a rock and a hard place. Try to fight your way out and Ecks will catch up and start peppering you with his machinegun. Try to run and the other enemies will kill you long before you reach the exit. Finding a balance between running and gunning isn't helped by the fact that you have no way of knowing what item an enemy will drop when they die. Even if a security guard is only using a pistol, when he dies he could inexplicably drop a vital shotgun or assault rifle, a life-saving bullet-proof vest or health pack. On the other hand, he might just drop some bullets for your default pistol, which is utterly useless against most of the enemies you will encounter. The only way to work out who is carrying what is to play through the level and memorise which enemies have useful items.
Weaned On Violence
Even the most absent-minded of players will have plenty of opportunity to work out which enemies are worth killing on each level though. Many of the missions are incredibly hard, even in the early stages of the game, and killing everybody is not always the easiest way to win. Ammunition and health are often in short supply, packs of lethal SWAT officers and NSA agents are scattered throughout the levels, and a few blasts from a shotgun will leave you sprawled on the floor in a pool of your own blood. Taking on multiple enemies at once is tricky to say the least, as even a guard's feeble pop gun can cost you 10% of your health if you get shot at close range. And given that your enemies usually have fairly fast reactions, if you get badly injured or run out of ammunition for your good weapons you may as well give up unless you can find some unguarded supplies nearby. To make things doubly frustrating, there is no in-game save option. In fact, there is no save game system at all. Instead you get a password at the end of each mission, although the developers have at least made them easy to remember if you don't have a piece of paper handy - every password is a real English word, with the Ecks mission codes starting with "ex" and the Sever ones an "s". On the downside, this simplistic system means that you can't carry weapons and ammunition from one mission to the next, even when they supposedly take place immediately after each other in the same location. As a result you start every level with nothing but your pathetic default pistol, which won't dent anything more powerful than the basic unarmoured security guards. It also doesn't help that at least two of the passwords (Excalibur and Survive) don't actually appear to work.
Was The Mission Successful?
This isn't the only bug either - Ecks V Sever gets the unenviable reputation of being the first GameBoy Advance title I've played so far which crashes, resulting in a garbled screen followed by much swearing and cursing as you reach for the power switch. It's not a very common occurence, but four times in as many days is still far too frequent. Even when they aren't getting garbled, the graphics are something of a mixed bag. Level design is mostly solid, if a little unimaginative in places, but it's let down by a lack of lighting effects and some poor textures. The NSA bunker towards the end is particularly bland, with washed out grey and white walls which look flat shaded from a distance. Sprites also lack the clarity of those seen in Doom, making them hard to identify at a distance and rather blocky up close. By comparison the weapon in your hand at the bottom of the screen is nicely detailed, with a selection including favourites such as the Ingram MAC 11 submachinegun and M16A assault rifle. There are also some rather nifty infrared goggles, but sadly these are only used in a couple of special unlit levels. The AI is rather unimpressive as well, apparently only reacting when it has a line of sight to you and ignoring sounds entirely. Shoot an enemy in the back and it will turn and fight, but if you shoot an exposed arm or leg peeking out from round a corner the victim will sometimes ignore you completely. You can also pick off enemies while their allies stand around watching them getting riddled with bullets, just as long as they can't see the person doing the shooting. If you're looking for some more intelligent opposition and can convince a friend to buy a copy of the game you can always take advantage of the multiplayer options, with Counter-Strike style missions - Assassination (one player tries to kill a VIP guarded by the others) and Bomb Kit (collect parts to make a bomb and then plant it in the right place) - as well as the standard deathmatch maps.
Ecks V Sever could have been a great little game, but instead it's more frustrating than entertaining. Semi-realistic weapons, short supplies of weapons and health, hordes of enemies and no proper save system all add up to make an incredibly hard game, and there's no choice of difficulty setting. This may be your idea of fun, but personally I found it to be too much like hard work.