1995's Ghost in the Shell helped bring anime to the fore of American pop culture. It was released at a time when Japanese animation and culture were becoming chic in the West, and it featured everyone's favorite: naked cyborg women. Not surprisingly, the film was a hit in America. Almost a decade later, the Ghost in the Shell milieu is experiencing something of a revival, with a new film called Ghost in the Shell: Innocence hitting theaters and a new television series called Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex firing up on the Cartoon Network on November 6. Just a couple of days after that, PS2-playing anime fans will get a chance to play an action game of the same name based on the TV show. We've had that chance already, and so far Stand Alone Complex seems to mix the seedy cyberpunk flavor of the franchise with some solid shoot-and-dodge action.
The game version of Stand Alone Complex is more or less based on the television series, though you'll be playing through an entirely new storyline on the PS2, so you won't need intimate knowledge of the goings-on in the show to appreciate what's happening in the game. As fans would expect, the storyline capitalizes on the unique aspects of the franchise's universe--the integration of technology and humanity and the blurred line between reality and virtual reality. A routine investigation uncovers a mystery involving a dead college student who, it seems, isn't so dead after all. The game's missions are arranged in a sort of episodic format--you won't be going directly from one place to the next, but rather will be following up on new leads that take you to different areas. Between missions you'll get a decent amount of CG that helps to set up the overall story arc, and your support team (composed of characters fans will recognize from the series and films) will engage in plenty of radio chatter during missions to help you figure out where your next objective is located.
The main single-player component of Stand Alone Complex is a third-person shooter with pretty standard gameplay mechanics but some interesting additions thrown into the mix. You'll be able to play as both Major Mokoto Kusanagi and Batou, depending on the mission, and as you'd expect, Kusanagi is quick agile and can withstand relatively little damage compared with Batou, who's much slower but can absorb a whole bunch of bullets before he goes down. You'll even get to control a tachikoma (a quadrupedal robotic tank) in some missions. The character you'll be using in each mission is determined by the story--you can't just select one and play through the whole game--but from what we've seen so far, the game does a good job of mixing up the action by giving you different scenarios that call for the various playable characters.
Stand Alone Complex's controls actually feel a lot like Halo's, or those of most any recent console FPS--you'll run around and strafe with the left analog stick, and use the right analog stick to look around and control your crosshairs. There's a dodge maneuver that lets you evade enemy fire by quickly moving forward, backward, or to the side. Kusanagi performs this dodge by leaping high into the air, which is accompanied by some really graceful, stylish animations; the big bruiser Batou merely rolls to avoid incoming fire.
In addition to the standard assortment of heavy weaponry that you'll acquire--which includes submachine guns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and more--you'll have access to grenades, throwing knives, and other secondary weapons. Finally, both Kusanagi and Batou have a hand-to-hand attack that can be used up close to quickly disable a foe. Though you begin a melee combo with the L2 button, if you properly continue it with the square button, the game will switch to a stylish sequence that depicts your character beating the crap out of the enemy in slow motion.
One of the more interesting aspects of the game is the ability to "hack" into certain enemies, since many humans in the world of Ghost in the Shell use cyborg enhancements of various kinds. When you down one enemy from a unit, you'll often see a visual cue indicating that the character has a unique ID you can pick up that will grant you access to the computer systems of similar enemies. After this ID is obtained, hackable enemies will be marked with a blue triangle, and you need only line this enemy up in your sights and hit the appropriate button to initiate the hacking sequence. When you attempt to hack, you'll be presented with two rotating concentric rings, one inside the other. Both rings have teeth, much like gears, and the teeth on the two rings sync up once per revolution. You'll have to hit a button at the exact moment they sync up to successfully hack and thus take control of the enemy. Once this is complete, you can walk unmolested among these kinds of foes until you're in the perfect spot to drop a nasty surprise attack on them.
Though it doesn't use cel shading or any other such fancy graphical techniques, Stand Alone Complex does a good job of evoking the futuristic look of the films and television series with a variety of gritty environments and characters that are quite consistent with their anime counterparts. The most impressive aspect of the graphics that we've seen so far are Mokoto's animations, specifically when she dramatically leaps out of the way with the dodge function, and when she performs an especially cool hand-to-hand combo to take out an enemy. For a game based on such a stylish franchise, these are welcome additions indeed.
Stand Alone Complex will also feature a multiplayer deathmatch mode for two to four players. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot to this multiplayer component, since only free-for-all and team-based game types are available, but it ought to be quite serviceable for anyone who enjoys the game's fast-paced combat. Add this competitive gameplay to the lengthy single-player experience, toss in three difficulty modes and a raft of items to unlock after you've finished the game, and you have an action title that should satisfy anyone who's interested in the source material. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is slated for release on November 8, so stay tuned for more soon.