Thursday, May 22, 2008

No More Heroes

No More Heroes is an interesting game with occasional moments of genius, but for every one thing it gets right it makes two frustrating rookie mistakes.

This is from developer Goichi Suda, also known as Suda 51, and his studio Grasshopper Manufacture. Their last prominent effort was the rail shooter killer7, which was deeply interesting but nigh-on unplayable. No More Heroes is a vast improvement, but is still a long way from perfect.

You play as Travis Touchdown, a California-based otaku with pretensions to being a professional assassin. When he meets the attractive Sylvia Crystal, he agrees to work his way through the professional assassin leaderboard by way of a series of lethal duels, all in the hope of possibly getting into Sylvia's pants.

By the time you get control of Travis the plot's already well underway. Actually, all of the set-up and character introductions happened in the game's promotional trailer - the game seems to assume you will have watched this on YouTube or something prior to playing. If you've got an American copy of the game you can actually find the trailer included as a bonus on the disc but if you're in one of the PAL territories you're out of luck.

While we're talking about the trailer, the Valley Girl voice acting first used for Sylvia Crystal has been replaced in the finished game by a ridiculous French accent. It's an inexplicable change, especially considering the thrust of the game's narrative.

In any case, the game's centred around a series of boss fights. You'll have to wade through a small and deeply unchallenging army of goons to get to each boss, and in between boss fights you get to drive around the town of Santa Destroy on your motorcycle, completing sidequests and suchlike.

Sidequests come in two flavours. There's assassination missions, in which you have to kill yet more goons, sometimes without getting hits. There's also side-jobs, which see you doing things like mowing lawns or exterminating scorpions. You need to do a certain number of these things between each boss fight in order to scrape up the "entry fee" for the next level.

The whole Santa Destroy bit is completely without merit. The town itself is very generic, so it's not as if you're going to enjoy sightseeing. Travis' bike handles like a pig and is prone to crash if you so much as clip a traffic cone. The side-jobs are initially amusing but are stupidly easy and lose their charm after around 90 seconds, and while the assassinations are mostly okay they vary dramatically in difficulty and will leave you wondering why they couldn't have just been worked into the main mission structure.

One of the chief frustrations with Santa Destroy is that assassination missions and jobs are given out from a couple of central buildings. After accepting a side-quest, you have to drive for a couple of minutes to get to the location where it occurs; if you then fail the mission, you have to drive all the way back again to re-acquire it. You can fail some of the assassination missions within seconds; having to do four minutes of driving to try three seconds of gameplay is the sort of thing you'd expect from a cheap movie tie-in, not an ostensibly A-grade game from a well-known developer.

Santa Destroy may be deeply lame, but once you get into the ranking fights the gameplay improves. Travis fights with a beam katana; you select a stance by holding the wiimote vertically or horizontally, and then bust loose on hapless goons by mashing the A button. Occasionally you'll stun an enemy, which gives you the opportunity to follow up with one of Travis' pro-wrestling moves, which will typically KO your opponent.

The fighting's fast and fun, although it's a little repetetive. It's one of the game's strongest points, and although it's good, it still doesn't measure up to something like God of War or Devil May Cry.

The goon sequences flow into the boss fights, which are the highest point that No More Heroes reaches. The big ranking fights are comparable to boss levels from Legend of Zelda or Metal Gear Solid. I say comparable, but they come off second-best in that comparison. You'll need to have mastered the fairly large repertoire of beam katana moves in order to beat the fights, but once you understand the combat system they're actually pretty easy.

No More Heroes probably would have been better if it had been content with being a regular game. The pacing is reasonably competent and there are a lot of good ideas in the action sequences. Unfortunately, it keeps trying to be clever, without actually succeding. It frequently pokes fun at itself, parodying its own gameplay and that of other computer games. It's not funny, though, which means that all it's doing is drawing attention to its own flaws. It has pretensions to commentary on violence and capitalism and media and... I don't know, something... but it totally fails to make its point or even provoke any thought.

The game obviously lost something in translation from the Japanese; it's entirely possible that it was better in its home language. But I suspect not.

On the Wii, No More Heroes really has no competition its strange little genre, which is the only reason that I can remotely recommend buying it. If you're looking for something action-oriented for your motion-sensitive win-machine then you'll probably find No More Heroes isn't quite so offensive as I'm making out. But if you've got more than one gaming platform at your disposal then you should know that this game doesn't even remotely make it into the upper echelon of what's out there. It's not nearly as interestingly quirky as it wants to be, it's not half the action game it could have been, and it's ultimately a sadly missed opportunity for everyone involved.

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