When did the overwhelming bias against video games that take place underwater begin? Did Art Dink's Aquanaut's Holiday yield such a tremendous blow to the collective gaming unconscious that players would never look to the sea for fun again? Was it earlier still? Whatever the case, SingleTrac's Critical Depth may be the game that changes that perception, combining the gameplay and control elements of the company's earlier hits Warhawk, Twisted Metal, and Twisted Metal 2: World Tour. Only this time, you're underwater.
The game begins with the disappearance of undersea explorer Douglas McKragen, the discoverer of five mysterious and powerful alien pod-shaped objects. Twelve different factions enter the sea to find out more about these forces and set a course to uncover their mystery, each for its own reasons. The game features three modes of play: a mission/story mode, where you (or you and a friend cooperatively) can battle your way through eleven levels; a battle mode, where you capture pods in a selectable level; and deathmatch, where you can play against the computer or another human being in a split-screen mode.
Like the Twisted Metals, Critical Depth delivers a wild array of characters. The playable ships are divided into factions, one of which you must align with at the beginning of the game. Once you do, a mix of the eleven other ships will constantly stand in your way. The game's cast and vehicles include the nefarious Dr. A. Pocalypse captaining the Armageddon (which can trap subs with a grappling hook); the revolutionary organization the VLO with The Anarchy (which drops spiky metal balls); several men-in-black types from the CIA with The Manta (which fires a deadly electromagnetic ray); the Soviet Die-Hards and The Stalingrad (a slow but strong ramming ship); the Indiana Jones-like Professor Armstrong and The Archimedes (which is a rapid-firing Jules Verne-type sub); Greenpeace wanna-bes Team Earth Hope and the Mean Peace (which shoots a dolphin-shaped torpedo); ex-children's show host Captain Cutlass with the Sea Dog (yep, it blasts cannon balls); the evil Mordrid Corporation and the Bottom Liner (which steals weapons); Jack "Lockjaw" Keon and The Lockjaw (a shark-like sub with a bite); Deadhead Joe Skullion and the Death Sled (which shoots trippy-colored discs that stun); the mystical Order of Nishroch and the Ohm (which casts energy blasts); and The French Oceanographers and the La Griffe (which has crushing mechanical arms). Also, as in TM and TM2, the ships can pick up assorted weapons, such as the Piranha Swarm (quick, ripping robot fish), the self-explanatory Remote Control Torpedo, and the Magnetic Sucker (which sits in place and draws enemies in).
In a break from the Twisted Metal theme however, the stages aren't simply about annihilating all your opponents, though the option is there if you want to try. Instead, the goal is to retrieve all five pods, which are scattered throughout the level, and find the escape gateway. It's not as easy as it sounds, as each pod imparts its holder with an extra power. For example, the Power Pod doubles your power bar, the Damage Pod allows for double damage, the Pickup Pod doubles subsequent weapon pickups, the Armor Pod gives you more health, and the Shaker Pod lets you fire double shaker missiles - the most coveted of all weapons because they shake pods loose from opponents' ships.
Those pods can make folks very popular, as SingleTrac has set the enemy AI in the game to go after ships depending on the number they're carrying. If you have no pods in your possession, you'll pretty much be left alone, while if you have all five, you'd better be heading for the gateway because everyone's going to be coming after you, shakers primed and ready to go. This strategic element adds much to the Twisted Metal-style gameplay. Certainly, you can try to hide from the computer opponents and wait until they've worn each other down a bit. But the downside of that is you could find yourself against a much stronger pod-enhanced enemy, or you might even lose the match to a ship that sneaked off through the gateway with all five pods in tow.
Also different from the Twisted Metal series are the game's combo system, shields, and bosses. Unlike TM2 (which initiated quick button-press attacks for the series), Critical Depth has four combos that use weapons not normally available for use: depth charges, surface mines, minefields, and stun charges. It's a minor point really, but it seems less cheap that you could keep on using an attack when you don't have the corresponding weapon in your weapon bay. Regenerating shields are also a new addition, bringing a lot to the gameplay. Holding on the triangle button will provide momentary respite from enemy attacks, and weapons like the Slow Poke missile (which triggers a "Lock-On" message for a ship but takes its own sweet time getting there) must, in turn, be used to wear down your opponents' shields. The diversity of bosses is also nice, with a variety of challenges instead of the average mid- and end-boss battles.
On the downside, quite a bit of draw-in is noticeable in the game's graphics, especially in the larger levels like the Pacific Rim's underwater city and the coast of Venganza. The frame rate is also fairly slow; however, since it supports the illusion of underwater movement, it doesn't really detract from gameplay. But even with both these problems and the obvious lack of originality, it's still fun.
Does Critical Depth save the beleaguered underwater gaming genre single-handedly? Not quite, but it does a workman's job of it. It's a worthy successor to SingleTrac's Twisted Metal line and fans of the series should be very pleased. Sony has its job cut out for it when it attempts to do the next TM game without the developer, as is the current industry scuttlebutt. SingleTrac's left some decent-sized shoes on the pedal.