Shiny has created another stylish, funny shooter with MDK, which lands solidly in the 3D shooting adventure gaming genre, with a heavy emphasis on shooting. You play Kurt, who is armed to the teeth and sent onto the orbiting spacecraft of aliens hell-bent on destroying the Earth, and race through room after room of jumping and shooting, with a little sniper-view action thrown in for good measure. With innovative graphics, great level design, and awesome special weapons, everything looks great on paper. A number of flaws limit the game's life span, though, and raise questions about what's really important in games - style, mood, and vibe or solid gameplay, consistent graphics, and a continual challenge.
From a design standpoint, the graphics are amazing: goofy, ugly, stupid-looking monsters; a hero in a skintight suit with a giant pterodactylesque head and huge, inflatable rings for a parachute; incredibly strange special weapons, like the inflatable plastic decoy dummy that draws enemy fire and then explodes; and a massive array of different styles of rooms and levels, from a Hoth-like snow arena, to a psychedelic room with iridescent mirrored walls, to a creepy Romper Room whose primary-colored, paint-splattered platforms and vacant, dark crevices often line up to form eerie skull faces. MDK packs a punch in the style department. In execution, the flaws show, and you may wish they'd traded a little of the game's visual inventiveness for some consistent graphical clarity. There's a ton of polygon dropout. And when things get busy, with dozens of onscreen enemies, projectiles, and explosions (which is in almost every scene), things slow way, way down, or animation frames disappear. Movement is smooth one minute and jerky and awkward the next.
Gameplay is fast, with relatively loose control. Shooting is easy. At long range, just coming close with the chain gun is enough to take out most bad guys. This is good because most locations have dozens of enemies to take out. Many have generators that you must seek out first, since they're continually creating reinforcement troops on the spot. Jumping with any accuracy is awkward and never feels quite solid. Get used to it, though, because many of the game's puzzles involve jumping from platform to platform, or working your way up a series of jumps and airlifts, all while under fire from enemy guns. For the first few levels it's a real challenge to clear out room after room, all with completely different layouts and types of jumps. After a while, though, you realize that if you never stop shooting and strafing, your success is almost inevitable. If the battlefield is large enough, you don't even need to strafe back and forth, just hold R1 (strafe right), and press the D-pad left (to remain pointed at your target), and you'll literally run circles around your enemy, who's too stupid to adapt to this level of tactical virtuosity. Of course, when there's a gun turret or something, you'll need to switch into sniper mode to remedy the situation, but aside from that, the same pattern works for about 80 percent of combat. In short, the game gets easy quick.
The game's sniper mode is a lot of fun, even if it's ineffective in most circumstances. It's great when there's someone menacing you from such a distance that, in normal mode, he appears the size of a single pixel. Hit the select button to activate the mode, and zoom in to find that what appeared to be an innocuous curve in the scenery is actually a gun turret with someone inside, busily preparing megablasts to hurtle your way. The mode also has a "bullet-cam", which shows the scenery rushing by from the perspective of the projectiles you fire. This is great for lining up difficult long-range shots, since when you miss, you can easily pinpoint the exact spot you hit. Unfortunately, there are only three cameras, and you cannot fire a fourth shot until the first three land. This dramatically slows your rate of fire, especially with the chain gun. It's also difficult to move while in sniper mode - not just because it's hard to see what's around you, but your movement is actually slowed considerably - and since continually strafing is essentially the key to survival in the game, you'll probably only use it when there's a really powerful gun to take out.
Rounding out the game is an amazing soundtrack by the inimitable Tommy Tallarico Studios. This time around, Tommy's been very tasteful with the score, creating extremely dramatic music that could have come right out of Escape from Alcatraz, the Great Escape, or Escape from New York. Very cinematic, it lends a sense of urgency to each mission, and there are no shredding guitar solos. The other sound effects, especially the whimpering complaints of your alien enemies, are awesome, too.
In all, MDK is something of a mixed bag. Amazing graphics style, but little graphical consistency. Awesome combat action, but little combat challenge. Great puzzles, but they're really pretty simple, and the whole game can be solved without using too many brain cells. You've got to hand it to Shiny, though, for consistently trying to come up with something different.