Metal Slug X Hands-On

Metal Slug X follows in its predecessor's footsteps, improving on a proven formula simply by adding more of what players have come to know and love.

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Ask a former Neo Geo owner about his or her favorite shooters, and Metal Slug inevitably enters the conversation. Known for lightning-quick action and finger-blistering button-mashing sessions, this phenomenal title favored innovation through genre refinement, not revolution. It's fitting, then, that Metal Slug X follows in its predecessor's footsteps, improving on a proven formula simply by adding more of what players have come to know and love.

As usual, the game's circumstances find a lone soldier taking on a hostile superpower. Rather unexpediently though, this time the enemy has teamed up with extraterrestrial forces. Although both foes' motives are unclear early in the game, it rapidly becomes apparent that all is not as it seems. The background scenario is more sophisticated than anything previously encountered, and a reasonably intelligent plotline is uncovered as the adventure progresses. Levels that borrow heavily from sci-fi, horror, and adventure movies are but a few of the surprises you'll encounter. Also new are four playable characters, though they all play the same. Stereotypical white boy Marco, plucky Asian duo Eri and Tarma, and nerdy Italian recruit Fio are different only in their basic appearances.

Just because the lay of the land has changed doesn't mean the formula has, too. Alone or with a friend, you start out in Egypt with a Mt. Rushmore-sized chip on your shoulder. Survival hinges on your ability to gun down charging enemies posthaste. Although you're initially equipped with only a handgun and grenades, freeing the hostages scattered throughout the levels lets you pick up bigger and better weapons like rocket launchers, flamethrowers, bouncing shots, Molotov cocktails, and the always popular shotgun. As in previous Metal Slug games, victory depends on how fast you can eliminate the countless troops that attack from all angles. For once, an itchy trigger finger helps.

From humble beginnings, the levels quickly turn grandiose. Battles beneath the Sphinx eventually give way to conflicts in Asian towns, clashes on train rides across sunny countryside settings, and rumbles throughout snowy Arctic regions. Each stage features its own enemies and background themes, including unique treats like specialized vehicles. Picture riding a camel with mounted machine guns or hopping into a fully operable airplane as called for. The amazing selection also features mech suits with guns for arms and, of course, a metal slug mobile tank.

You'll be happy with the game's wide selection of firepower when you encounter some of the new baddies designed specifically to foul up your day. New enemies include mummies, bats, undead dogs, exploding mutants, and alien invaders. Many can perform special attacks that leave heroes in an almost incapacitated state, such as when corpses turn your gun-toting hero into a bandaged cadaver. What's more, all of the enemies feature greatly detailed animations and more-visible personalities. Opponents cower, charge, or duck and snipe depending on their temperament. Some even ignore battle completely, such as the sunbathing goons who sit idly by, sipping on booze while intrepid players slit their throats. Boss creatures also inspire awe since they're bigger and badder than ever. On the menu are spider tanks, rolling fortresses, and giant pincers that chase victims up a vertical slope.

If the affair sounds overwhelming, novices have an easy out. A combat school mode lets players practice skills in minigame-style challenges, which feature exercises focused on aiming and movement training. Additional bonuses range from an art gallery filled with anime sketches to the "additional mission" mode, which is a large selection of training courses. Serious collectors should strive not to miss out on the wealth of content crammed into the package, as shoot-'em-ups seldom contain so much interactive bonus material.

And of course everything looks snazzier than in past editions. The graphics still resemble hand-drawn comics, but they feature more frames of animation and livelier colors than previous offerings. Greater care was also taken to include inside jokes--there are lawyers who pester NPCs and valuable piles of poop that can be collected. The musical selections run the gamut from remixed Egyptian ditties to hyperactive neo-Japanese techno. Sound effects are also abundant, as screams, gunshots, and such fill the air when combat rages unchecked. Longtime fans likely won't feel out of place among such familiar fare.

With roughly a month left before its ship date and very few bugs apparent, Metal Slug X looks dressed to kill. Few shortcomings are apparent, save perhaps the length of the adventure, because the game relies on an already proven approach. fans of side scrolling shooters wouldn't be amiss if they got their hopes up for this addictive blend of trigger-happy action and platformer-esque romping. If any shooter shows whopping potential for long-term replayability, it's this one. Metal Slug X is currently slated for a March 2001 release.

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