Previews of Slave Zero promised a game in which giant anime-inspired robots would do battle across a futuristic megalopolis. They would stomp through city blocks that teemed with ambient life, scaling or smashing any structure that stood in their way. The game would combine the complex, frenetic robot combat of Sega's arcade game Virtual On, multiplayer features that would put Quake to shame, and a strong story as well. But it turns out Slave Zero is just a mindless single-player action game more akin to a 3D reworking of a side-scrolling console shooter. And on that level, it's relatively successful.
At a glance, Slave Zero's most attractive feature is that it lets you play as a towering monster on a rampage through a city. Unfortunately, while your Slave (Slave Zero-speak for Mech) is ten times larger than the average human, the city you get to rampage through is twenty times taller and denser than Tokyo. Similar-looking, brightly-lit skyscrapers stretch far into the sky, completely blocking the view of your surroundings. You're dwarfed by the architecture and therefore end up feeling about as monstrously giant as you would lumbering around your own hometown on your own two feet.
Slave Zero attempts to enhance the illusion of your Slave's size by populating the city with tiny people and cars, but these additions don't help the illusion much. The vehicles look and move like small crates on a conveyor belt. The humans look somewhat better than the cars, but move just as stiffly and don't react to your gargantuan, flame-spraying presence in any satisfying way. You can pick up pedestrians and automobiles and throw them, but there's absolutely no reason to do this other than for a few short-lived sadistic thrills. Your Slave can't harm most of the city's buildings, though some smaller structures can be destroyed, resulting in an odd and unsatisfying collapse, during which the building emits a weak burst of flame then folds up like a cardboard box.
The game contains fifteen missions, and most have three distinct parts. The levels unfold strictly linearly. Even though you are ostensibly navigating city streets, there is never much of a choice as to which direction to go; you'll never find yourself at an intersection wondering whether to make a right or a left turn. Slave Zero's gameplay follows a classic pattern: Move ahead, destroy a group of enemies, save, then repeat this cycle until you reach the end-of-level boss encounter.Perhaps because they're mindless robotic drones, your opponents have specific movement and firing patterns rather than any suggestion of intelligence. Each type of enemy will tend to do one specific thing such as run straight at you while shooting, stand in place while shooting, make two perfunctory dodging rolls then stand in place while shooting, fly while shooting, or one of a few other maneuvers performed while shooting. Most of the time, you can win battles without much tactical thought - your best strategy is generally to charge right in and start shooting as well.
In spite of these faults, Slave Zero manages to get enough things right to be worth playing. The missing elements that keep it from being the great and innovative game it once appeared to be don't necessarily preclude it from being a perfectly acceptable arcade game. The combat isn't intricate, but in the tradition of the best side-scrolling shooters, it's frantic and filled with blinding explosions. Your Slave has three basic weapons: a traditional bullet-shooting machine gun, a laser, and a rocket launcher. Over the course of the game, you can permanently upgrade these weapons by walking over various power-ups, to the point where they become incredibly potent. It's a simple system used in many console games, but is no less effective or satisfying in Slave Zero.
However, it's Slave Zero's excellent boss battles that will compel you to continue playing. Even one unique and memorable boss conflict is generally too much to expect of action shooters anymore, but Slave Zero has more than a few. Each level ends with some kind of goal-oriented conflict that either involves destroying a large, heavily defended object or protecting some equipment from attack for a certain period of time. Every third level ends in an epic duel between your Slave and one of the enemy's giant Slave Commanders. These encounters are incredibly well staged and tense. Your goal is always clear, and you are given plenty of indications as to how close your opponent is to defeat, a seemingly obvious detail often overlooked in PC games. The third of these encounters typifies their quality: It takes place across the roofs of four skyscrapers. The Slave Commander Revenant Prime appears and splits into two flying metal serpents, which bombard you from the air. While shooting skyward at the commander's halves, you must leap from roof to roof, picking up ammo and health. Revenant Prime periodically reforms and fires a beam of energy at one of the towers, causing it to crumble into the city below, leaving you with less room to maneuver. Eventually, you're left standing on the only remaining roof, low on ammo and desperately trying to destroy the Slave Commander before it reforms for a final time.
Slave Zero is more a diversion than a revolutionary game. The graphics and sound are above average, but not exceptional. With no multiplayer options included, you won't be joining a community, and you won't be playing it again once you've spent the twenty or so hours it takes to solve it once. It's really just a solid and simple action game punctuated by some legitimately thrilling moments.