What does one have to do to get a good game of Contra around here? Midway's Assault: Retribution is a poor excuse for an action game, falling into innumerable design pitfalls that were supposed to have been filled long ago.
Konami's taken a lot of flak for the two Contra rip-offs its American office licensed to Hungarian developer Appaloosa. Assault: Retribution is just as miserable, if not more so, and doesn't even have the "Hey, this isn't Contra!" disappointment factor to amplify the game's flaws. You select one of two characters at the beginning of the game, each of which has four different guns at his disposal, gained by picking up the weapon power-up icons in the game. You have 100 hit points and a bank of energy to power your weapons. In addition to weapon power-ups, you can collect up to three orbiting weapon upgrades for each of your guns, weapon batteries, medical kits, and some kind of electric-spasm smart bomb equivalent. If your weapon battery or life bars are full, you can actually store a battery or medical kit for later use, an uncharacteristic bit of innovation. The gameplay is virtually identical to the two Contra games on the PlayStation: You blast everything from a mostly overhead point of view in a full 3D world. You can also angle your gun up or down using the controller's right shoulder buttons, but this is rarely required and more trouble than it's worth the rest of the time. A la Crash Bandicoot, Assault has a few forced-scroll levels in it, among them a Chain Reaction-inspired "outrun the nuclear blast on foot" scene and a generic hoverbike scenario. Unlike the PlayStation's Contra games, Assault includes two-player simultaneous play, an effort that could have been laudable had it been executed better.
While the basics may sound playable enough, Assault's problems are almost too many to list in this review. Like virtually every other 3D game that's tried to accomplish this sort of thing, shooting and judging distances in Assault are more difficult than they should be. A number of bosses seem to rely on this flaw, annoyingly hiding their weak spots from you. Due to the game's problems with aiming and the like, the developers have made it virtually impossible to die at the hands of the game's enemies on the default difficulty level. Regardless of how many enemies are on the screen, you shouldn't need to use any kind of strategy at all - running into the enemies while holding the fire button seems to work fine a majority of the time. As a result, annoying artifacts of the game's poor design manifest as the game's difficulty level increases- annoying jumps and poor control or camera issues will represent a majority of the players' deaths. Without these, just about anyone could complete Assault: Retribution in his first sitting. While cool-sounding on paper, the game's weapon system is flawed and annoying. After depleting a battery, you automatically switch to your primary weapon. While this saves one of the better weapons from certain death should you die, the lack of energy to power the weapon cripples you. The only way to rectify this situation is to run around and dodge enemies as best the current camera angle will allow while you wait for the battery to recharge. Finally, Assault gets a few brownie points for its two-player simultaneous gameplay. However, the game's technology seriously gets in the way in this case - the game can't handle two players without massive frame rate loss. A single player is likely to get farther than the team, as aiming and movement are much easier when the game's running at normal speed. Remember all of those places in Contra where you'd kill your friends, accidentally or otherwise, because the screen wouldn't scroll without you? They're back, and more annoying than ever - to prevent this from happening, the players need to be close to each other at all times.
Aesthetically, Assault is a mess. While the game's locales are constantly changing in style and appearance, they still fail to look good most of the time. The game's textures and geometry are chunky and unappealing, all while operating under a less-than-acceptable frame rate for this type of game. From the color palette to the models themselves, Assault looks like a first-generation PlayStation game. The game's music is over-synthed Euro-popish techno drivel, with the one redeeming factor of decently masking the game's extremely repetitive grunts and alien shrieks.
Lots of bad games are made every year, but not all of them get inexplicably picked up by generally well-respected publishers. Midway obviously dropped the ball when negotiating for this title - here's to hoping it learns from its mistake.