If you've been to an arcade within the past few years, you'll likely have noticed that they're now dominated by games featuring proprietary peripherals instead of joysticks. Elaborate cockpit-style driving games, those crazy dancing games, and, of course, light-gun games, have become the norm. The attraction of these games is that they make sense to the nongaming mind. The joystick and button combination is a pretty abstract concept, really, but driving a car or pointing and shooting a gun are things most people know about. But, contrary to the mind-set of many hardcore gamers, just because it's accessible, doesn't mean it's not fun. Take, for example, Time Crisis 3, Namco's latest, and arguably one of its best, light-gun games.
The narrative that drives Time Crisis 3 involves a pair of superagents sent to a small Mediterranean nation to beat back an invasion. The story isn't particularly impressive or engaging, but it provides enough context for your actions that it's excusable. As a sequel, the game doesn't mess with the fundamentals. Throughout the game, your objective is to shoot your way down a set path, using the "duck" feature to both dodge incoming fire and reload your pistol, all the while racing against a ticking clock. But the devil is in the details, and Time Crisis 3 adds a few twists to the gameplay, creating a more dynamic experience than was offered by its predecessors. Most apparent is the new weapon-switching system, which gives you instant access to a machine gun, a shotgun, and a grenade launcher, in addition to your standard pistol. Though these secondary weapons are more effective than the pistol in different situations, and don't require as much reloading, they also have a finite amount of ammo, unlike the pistol. The only way to replenish your armaments is by plugging a special yellow-suited strain of bad guy. The whole weapon-switching system, which requires you to pull the trigger while ducking, works itself pretty seamlessly into the existing gameplay mechanics and helps bring some variety into a genre plagued by repetition.
This should be a given by now, but in case you were unclear, do not play Time Crisis 3 with a standard PlayStation 2 controller. It's a light-gun game, it's meant to be played with a light gun, and the game is simply dumb without one. You can even buy the game with the GunCon 2 packed in.
More subtle than the addition of some new guns is the game's expanded use of scripted events. The Time Crisis games have always made good use of explosions, falling rocks, and other corporeal hazards to spice up the sometimes-predictable process of shooting bad guys as they slide out of doorways and pop up behind rocks, but Time Crisis 3 takes it to another level. There are some great set pieces where the environment around you changes dramatically, creating some thrilling action-movie moments. Take, for example, one sequence that puts you on a train while fighting guys with guns and ninjas--which, in and of itself, isn't that amazing. But, as the train crosses a bridge, a rocket blows the bridge out from underneath the train, leaving much of the train, including the part you're on, dangling over the river, hundreds of feet below. Now, you have to climb your way up to the bridge, dodging the bullets and loose containers. The game is peppered with great sequences like this, including an homage to Time Crisis 2 that replaces boats with jeeps, and it's this sort of inventive, enthusiastic level design that puts Time Crisis 3 head and shoulders above most other rail-based shooters.
Staying true to its arcade roots, Time Crisis 3 is very short--if you know what you're doing, you can blow through the story mode in under an hour. Though, the first time you pick up the game, it's highly unlikely that you'll get that far, thanks to the game's inherent difficulty, as well as its brutal credit system, which limits the initial number of continues you'll have. As you replay the game, you're gradually granted additional continues, making it easier to actually finish the game. It sort of artificially extends the length of the game, but the game is legitimately engaging enough that replaying the game is not only excusable, it's actually rather fun. You can also play the game in a two-player split-screen mode, though due to the letterbox presentation of the split-screen, you'll need a pretty big TV to really get a good sense of what exactly is going on.
Time Crisis 3 is the best-looking game in the series by a mile, and it's also one of the best-looking light-gun games period--the game just looks solid, top to bottom. The environments change radically from stage to stage, starting you off on a beach, then running you through the bowels of an abandoned ship, and down a deserted beach boardwalk, and that's just the first level. Though varied in content, the overall style remains consistent, helping maintain the feel that you're on a small Mediterranean island. The opponents you'll fight wear the kind of brightly colored, stylized uniforms that soldiers in an evil organization in a comic book might wear--let's call it the faux-Cobra look. The actual uniforms vary, depending on what sort of weaponry the enemy carries, but the overall look stays consistent, and all of the bad guys you'll face off with have great motion-captured death animations. The cherry on top for Time Crisis 3 is some really great explosion effects, which add extra satisfaction when you take out a jeep or a tank.
The sound effects aren't as impressive, but they're still passable. The in-game sounds of mayhem, ranging from gunfire to death knells, sound sharp, and they ride the fine line between realistic and cartoony. The action is underlined by a dramatic but forgettable orchestrated score, though when you're in the moment it really helps accentuate the overall action-movie feel of the game. Some of the voice acting found in the between-level cutscenes can be a little stilted, but it's far from being out-and-out bad.
Time Crisis 3 is a solid, visceral action game and an absolutely superb light-gun game. Instead of just resting on its laurels, Namco has introduced some genuinely interesting new mechanics, creating a game that's deeper and more action-packed than its predecessors, but without sacrificing accessibility. If you've never liked light-gun games, it won't change your mind. But, if you've grown tired of the genre, Time Crisis 3 might just bring you back in.