In Infogrames' Slave Zero for the Dreamcast, you're a young rebel who has fused himself with the prototype unit of a giant bio-mechanical robot army that the evil dictator SovKhan plans to use to enslave the world. In typical giant robot fashion, you're soon stomping through a huge city, destroying buildings, smashing cars, and - when you finally stop playing with the environment and remember what you're there for - take on the forces of SovKhan.
In many ways, Slave Zero is a 3D version of classic 2D shooters like the first few Contra titles, though it starts off much easier than those games and never quite peaks as highly as they did. Timing is everything, between avoiding shots, firing back, and navigating the terrain all while moving your machine robot around using a third-person perspective. Your Slave unit is equipped with three different types of weapons (a rifle, an energy weapon, and a missile launcher), all of which can be upgraded by wonderfully lethal leaps and bounds. These upgrades are responsible for much of the game's charisma. For example, the energy weapon turns from a single shot to a cluster shot that will melt the environment from the point of impact, wiping out a corner of a wall or a strip of floor in a gorgeous display of destruction. And the final incarnation of your rifle, a gigantic rocket launcher that almost dwarfs your robot, is a wonder to behold and one that causes severe property damage. These weapons save the main chunks of each level, which do get a bit dull and repetitious.
Another positive element of Slave Zero is the boss fights. While the first few bosses can be defeated simply by strafing continually and firing until they're destroyed, the ones that follow offer a nice challenge and are fun fight. In one, you confront a flying Slave unit with a snake-like lower body while hopping around on a few building rooftops. The creature splits in two and the components bob in and out of the screen firing at you. When and if they fuse back together, the creature will destroy the building you're standing on. If you can't wipe them both out within the four buildings provided, you're toast. In another fight, you have to annihilate a different Slave model before the room you're in fills with acidic green water. In both, the timing is set to be enormously demanding, but not impossible. The only frustrating detail in these encounters is that if you die, you respawn a few fights back instead right before the main boss battle, but it's not too rough.
The graphics in Slave Zero are sharp, with crisp visuals, impressive explosion and weapon effects, and a complete lack of pop-up. The robots and levels are very well-designed, the lighting helps create a dark, oppressive atmosphere, and the sound effects work to support the visuals, though don't quite match or exceed them. The multiplayer Deathmatch mode is the best the Dreamcast has seen to date, with some slow-down not withstanding.. The view shifts from third-person into first-person making for a two- to four-player deathmatch. There are ten multiplayer-specific levels, which vary greatly in design and offer all the noteworthy weapon upgrades that require the duration of the single player game to acquire. While computer-controlled bot opponents aren't available, it's hard to tell which weapon you're using (and, more importantly, if you're out of ammo), and it lacks the depth of, say, GoldenEye 007 on the N64, the multiplayer battles will bring you back. Most of the levels are set up so that you can easily ambush an unwary opponent, which invariably leads to peals of nasty laughter among you and your friends.
So bear with it. It starts slow, but Slave Zero builds into a pretty strong shooter that's worth checking out for its guns, bosses, and multiplayer mode. Hopefully Infogrames will produce a sequel that brings more variety to the single-player game, incorporates the Dreamcast's net play abilities, and expands the multiplayer matches even further.