MDK2 Armageddon Hands-On

MDK2 isn't the first Dreamcast game with disappointing sales to look for greener pastures on the PlayStation 2 platform. Is this campy third-person shooter more than just a port?

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MDK2 is a great third-person shooter on the Dreamcast, but its frustrating difficulty and unintuitive control scheme, coupled with the fact that it's on a console with a small user base, limit the game's sales considerably. BioWare and Interplay, likely hoping to recoup some of the development costs from MDK2 on the Dreamcast, are polishing up MDK2 Armageddon for release on the PlayStation 2 next month.

MDK2 Armageddon's story takes place just three minutes after the end of the original MDK on the PlayStation. Just after returning from their mission to rid the earth of an alien presence, Dr. Hawkins, his janitor Kurt, and his bionically enhanced canine Max find that the aliens have begun a second wave of attacks. Dr. Hawkins decides to send Kurt, clad in a superpowered coil suit, down to the surface to put an end to the aliens' shenanigans. Once Kurt gets to the surface and destroys the first boss, he loses communication with Dr. Hawkins, and Max, the six-legged dog, becomes playable. As Max heads out to retrieve Kurt, the ship is attacked and Dr. Hawkins has some problems of his own. It's in this way that each of the three main characters becomes active for play.

Keeping in line with MDK for the PlayStation, MDK2 is full of toilet humor and off-color jokes. As such, it wouldn't be right to preview Armageddon without mentioning the tone of the game. The majority of the enemies have a flatulence problem and they waste no time letting you know it. The game also borrows directly from popular movies. One scene reenacts young Anakin Skywalker's entry into the Trade Federation ship from Episode I with a tongue-in-cheek twist. The antagonist of the game, a towering purple alien named Schwang Schwing, introduces himself by asking, "Who's your daddy?" A comic book cover featuring a parody of scenarios to come introduces each level.

Unique to the PlayStation 2 version of MDK2 are four difficulty settings, customizable controls, and in-game hints to help out in the most difficult portions of the game. These three features address the majority of concerns from the Dreamcast version and should help players of all abilities get more out of the game. Even with the enhancements, MDK2 Armageddon can present a respectable challenge. There are several points in the game where it's difficult to ascertain what needs to be done. This can sometimes result in relentless trial-and-error sessions and a great deal of backtracking.

With three playable characters, the conditions are perfect for a variety of gameplay. And that's just what Armageddon has. While playing as Kurt, you'll get to know the finer points of sniping. To progress, you must shoot cleverly hidden glowing balls that act as switches to unlock doors. They are also used as attack points when you're confronting bosses. Kurt must also use his ribbon chute to float down holes or ride the drafts from air vents to reach ledges perched on high. Max's levels are straightforward run-and-gun excursions with droves of enemies to mow down. He also has to use a jetpack to scale towering columns. While playing as Dr. Hawkins, the puzzles become the focus of the game. He must cleverly combine items to create new items for use in solving the puzzles. One scenario finds Hawkins retiring to the restroom for some inspiration and getting a special item by flushing the commode. No matter which character you play as, there are plenty of gadgets to keep things interesting. Blow-up dolls can be used as decoys, chameleon and cloaking devices help you blend into the surroundings, and the deadly black-hole bomb is always handy for the tougher enemies.

There are nine stock control schemes to choose from, or you may tailor the controls to match your most familiar setup. The controls take some getting used to no matter what configuration you choose. This is largely due to the sheer amount of control that you have. You may strafe, jump, fire, zoom in, fly, and float all at once. MDK2 Armageddon isn't just a corridor-heavy third-person shooter, either. Harrowing platform jumps are plentiful, and controlling some of the characters can be awkward at times. Ironically, the ability to manually swing the camera can often be your worst enemy. Helping things a bit, some of the platforms have been made wider and some of the jumps have been shortened to make them user-friendly. Minigames pop up infrequently. One short 2D side-scrolling segment has you piloting Max's rocket through an asteroid field.

Another noted improvement over the Dreamcast version is the graphics. The blurry low-resolution textures from the Dreamcast outing have been replaced with high-res texture wraps that display an extended color palette. While the structure and girth of the Dreamcast levels have remained unchanged, the enemy character models have been beefed up, and the game runs with a nice fluidity no matter how much action is taking place on the screen. Some of the enormous bosses are reminiscent in style to several of the bosses seen in Star Fox 64. Real-time cinemas with spoken dialogue are triggered before and after levels to move the plot forward and perpetuate MDK2 Armageddon's comical tone. There are 10 linear levels, and each has its own graphical style. Some levels take place in dank tunnels, while others transpire in psychedelic outdoor space environments. Real-time colored lighting is much more abundant in Armageddon, and overall, the PlayStation 2 iteration enjoys a much cleaner look. The only noticeable graphical problems in this preview build are some flickering background bitmaps and the fact that the characters are often very small on the screen.

This is one of those rare cases where the port of a game is actually better than the original. MDK2 Armageddon has everything that is exceptional about the Dreamcast version and lacks almost everything that isn't. Now that its difficulty is manageable and it's coming to a rapidly growing platform--the PlayStation 2--MDK2 may finally get the exposure it deserves. The preview build we received seems nearly complete, so MDK2 Armageddon looks to be on track for its scheduled release in the middle of next month.

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