Kill.switch is an extremely simple game to describe, so I was surprised to pick it up earlier this week without really knowing anything about it at all. Apart from the issue of Sony doing a deal with Namco for its European console exclusivity (which you can read about elsewhere), all I had to go on was a vague recollection about some revolutionary gunfight gimmick which lets you shoot round corners without looking. Well, never fear, because after a couple of days' research I've discovered what else you can do in Kill.switch. You can shoot round corners while looking.
The name game
Imagine a game that looks a lot like Metal Gear Solid 2. The main character Bishop behaves like Solid Snake and has a gun-toting Marine-ish look and posture about him, the identikit enemies you kill are all military or terrorist types with overly dramatic death animations, and most of the levels are dull grey military sites with lots of intricately detailed rooms that you can barely interact with. Also imagine a single solid gameplay mechanic for elaborate gunfights, which has you camped behind one of a million carefully placed crates or walls trying to coax a crosshair onto dozens of enemies peeping out from behind identical crates and walls further on. Now, imagine said mechanic repeated across a series of increasingly elaborate and ostensibly linear levels, throw in a bizarre plot about remote control soldiers laden with a few self-referential videogame jokes, chuck on a few more polygons with a close-up third-person viewpoint, and within two paragraphs you've got Kill.switch... Briefing over!
No, really, that is it. There are no puzzles (other than the story), no funny lock-picking mechanics to break up the slaughter, no bundling guards into storage lockers - in fact, no other gaming activities of any kind, unless you count holding the triangle button for a second while Bishop hits a switch. (Waaait a second! All you do is kill and hit switches. Kill.switch! It all makes sense now.) Simplicity itself, then, in terms of what we're used to, but here we find Namco's strict adherence to its central mechanic as the be all and end all of the experience has actually worked surprisingly well for them, presumably because they simply didn't have that many other things to worry about.
Each time you run into a new area, it's exactly the same pantomime - find something to cower behind, gently point the crosshairs wherever your enemy's head pops up, then either utilise the PR-friendly "BlindFire" approach of just holding R1 to spray bullets randomly, or lean over and squeeze off a few measured rounds that always find their mark. It should get boring. It has no right to be this engaging. But everything here has been fine-tuned to best serve Bishop's ubiquitous Peeping Gun exploits, and there is something about the cohesiveness of the experience that renders it satisfying even after several hours of non-stop play.
Sing me to shipwreck
There are problems here, yes, but mostly they just contribute inoffensively to the equilibrium. Death animations are repetitive and unrealistic, but flailing limbs are a clear visual indicator even at 50 yards, so they're more useful than tedious. Player movement is worryingly similar to Resident Evil in that Bishop can run, sidestep and back-pedal, but can't pull diagonally back on the left analogue stick and expect to run off in that direction. It sounds crap on paper, and yet once you get beyond the training area you quickly realise that it's ideally suited to the nature of the action. Enemies are clever enough to seek cover wherever they are, but the level design means you can pretty much guestimate where they're going to be whenever you have to replay a section, and the abundance of total cover means a little variation doesn't throw that big a spanner in the works anyway. It's quite free to descend into learn-'em-up territory (as it does in one instance in particular), and any claims of "advanced AI" are therefore pretty redundant and all for the better.
Heck, even the utterly repetitive assembly of crates, low walls, statues, pillars, trucks and other items to hide behind elicits an entirely illogical reaction. Under normal circumstances, this sort of behaviour would have us peering gloomily into every section, but here every crate is a potential lifeline, and every angle it can offer is a potential breakthrough in the midst of a gunslinging deadlock. The whole thing ought to be diametrically opposed to my gaming principles. In the end, Kill.switch is a videogame Siren, really. I'm entertained, sure, but ultimately I'm chewing on the very rocks I was trying to avoid!
Less rocky, perhaps, are the technical and narrative sides of the game. Graphically it's very much like MGS2 in a hundred shades of grey and brown, with a brief sojourn to the Middle East (which looks like Mogadishu) and some temple ruins thrown in, but the animation and texturing is mostly unobjectionable, the close quarter shootouts are lit up by spectacularly strobe-lit automatic gunfire, and on the whole it's perfectly adequate if completely uninspired. The story, meanwhile, concerns a brain-jacked soldier-type being piloted around stirring up World War III to some mysterious end - an intriguing little yarn that doesn't really have a point to make and leaves you just curious enough to continue, only disappointing in that the CG fight sequences are so much more elaborate and exciting than anything you do in the game, and that the end sequence is pretty brief.
Best Namco game in ages? No?
Why then, you ask, doesn't all this sound like a 'best Namco game in ages' review? Several reasons, which don't massively inconvenience the previous 'rubbish components somehow produce a masterpiece' train of thought but do at least shoot it in the foot. For a start, this game clearly knows it's being too clever for its own good. As a smug backhander aimed at folks who hate these mechanics, it's pretty clever, but it would have questionable staying power in the long run - as such, the final few levels pile on the difficulty by throwing in rocket launcher bad guys and dozens more foot-soldiers, and the archaic save system makes you replay the whole level again when you die (checkpoints, people, checkpoints!), but it's still over in a matter of six hours; three by the game's clock, three apparently spent replaying levels. And there's nothing beyond the single-player game.
There are also times when you die unreasonably and it's the game's fault, and given the abovementioned save system this can be extremely frustrating. The camera moves fairly slowly, so it's difficult to react quickly if you duck down behind a crate only to discover there are enemies on a gangway above and behind you. It's also far too easy to hide behind an object and reach the extent of the camera's turning arc while aiming over the top of it, having to readjust in order to target certain enemies. What's more, there were two enemies I encountered when I played through that wound up lodged inside walls for whatever reason, despite still being able to shoot at me, and in terms of sheer unpleasant design you can't really beat rocket launcher units firing directly at you as soon as you hit a switch. Finally, the fairly regular slowdown in the latter stages suggests Sony did more than just rob us of the GameCube and Xbox versions of this - they may have robbed us of the definitive version, too.
Despite these flaws however, Kill.switch remains a compelling experience that, while it doesn't do anything especially new or exciting, manages to keep you entertained with its action movie gunfight gameplay over five can't-tell-'em-apart 'chapters'. Picking up a later level I was replaying before I sat down at the keyboard, the action is still just as enjoyable and immediate. I still like to hunker down behind a pillar on a stone bridge, toss a grenade casually and accurately round the corner in the desired direction, wait for the whine of the flashbang and blinded guards' frightened screams and then lean out to pepper them with lead as they flail about helplessly. It's just... fun.
Hard to button
Not essential by any means then, and it's probably not worth much more than a weekend's rental, but Kill.switch definitely proves that even a depressing list of rent-a-mechanic gaming clichés can keep us happy when administered in the right amounts. If you want to see Snake's 'lean round walls' approach taken waaay beyond its logical conclusion, go ahead and pick up a copy.