If you were to cross a third-person shooter with the movie District 9, you might get MorphX. Russian developer Buka Entertainment's shoot-'em-up makes some good use of this interesting blend of sources, but the whole thing falls apart due to a ton of design flaws and visual shortcomings that make the game look like something from the PlayStation 2 era. All of the intriguing ideas are buried under huge problems with things like spectacularly hard difficulty in the early going, confusing level design, and spread-out save points. So what starts out as an interesting twist on the standard console shooter soon turns into an annoying experience.
You know you're in trouble right at the opening cutscene, which is a dated piece of work loaded with some of the worst acting this side of a Mexican soap opera. That clip sets the stage for the single-player campaign (the only mode of play available), which deals with the apocalyptic aftereffects of nasty aliens destroying the planet. All that's left is a smoking ruin--even good old Moscow--where you and other people are being infected with some sort of virus that morphs people into insectoid ETs. As the game begins, you're on the run from this treatment and trying to escape some kind of alien base in the ruins of the city.
One of the most interesting aspects of MorphX is that the tough, tattooed protagonist is slowly transforming into an alien (arm first.) Nothing is explained very well, though. "Huh?" moments are dotted throughout the story. One moment, you're being coddled by human soldiers battling the aliens; the next, you're fighting both the humans and the aliens. Then, you're all buddy-buddy with the humans against the aliens. There might be an interesting story in here somewhere, but poor dialogue translation from the original Russian and cheesy dialogue (you'll hear "Damn aliens!" and comments about being a "freak" every couple of minutes during combat) make it hard to follow the plot.
It's even harder to follow the action, due to some serious issues with how MorphX is presented. The game sure doesn't make a good first impression. While the design is structured as a straightforward third-person shooter, with an over-the-shoulder camera perspective and basic controls for firing guns, punching enemies, and jumping, some of the game's more innovative aspects aren't explained well. As a transforming alien, you can make use of dead ETs and biomass power-up ports to acquire genes and DNA strings that give you on-the-fly boosts. These can also be strung together to give you special skills like health regeneration and shields. Whenever you kill an alien or spot one of these access ports, you just have to slam your arm into it to acquire the goodies.
But none of this icky stuff is properly explained. Red and green genes are connected with the DNA strings in a power-up screen that functions as a puzzle minigame, which you're left to pretty much figure out for yourself. Text help is available, but it's vague, and the text itself is presented in such small fonts that you can barely read it--even on a high-def 50-inch screen. After you figure it all out, it's actually kind of cool being able to work out how to best link things together and customize special abilities. In the early stages, though, you're completely in the dark about what you should be doing and are left to just experiment and hope for the best.
At the same time, extra frustration on the combat side of things is doled out by intense difficulty. In particular, the early stages of MorphX are ridiculously hard. Levels are packed with enemy soldiers who shoot you from behind walls and nail you with unerring accuracy over long distances. You're constantly sniped by unseen foes--either making impossible shots from behind cover or from far away--who are cloaked by the haze of the PS2-era graphics that make the surroundings a fuzzy, muddy mess. You aren't given any real options to fight these enemy gangs, either. There are no cover mechanics, and there is no way to even duck down behind crates (not that it would matter much because enemies can somehow shoot you through the edges of walls and objects, anyway).
Enemy troops respawn constantly, even popping into existence directly behind you in rooms that you just cleared. You regenerate health automatically and can pick up health packs and biomass boosts for extra assistance, but these respawning baddies always push you onward, which leaves virtually no time for you to heal up between firefights. Making matters even worse, ammo is in short supply. So even if you do decide to hunker down and take a break to regenerate, you soon run out of ammunition and get blasted to bits by the never-ending stream of soldiers coming up behind you. And as a final insult, save points are spread far apart, forcing you to replay huge swaths of these aggravating battles every time you get killed.
Confusion is another problem. Levels have been constructed like rat warrens, with lots of corridors and chambers in the ruined city. There are even puzzles where you have to power up generators in one area to be able to throw switches that open doors in other areas. The graphics are dated, too, at least seven or eight years behind the times; they more closely resemble what you would expect to see on the original Xbox or PS2 than a current-generation console. Almost everything is brown or gray and so gloomy that you can't see enemies who are more than a few feet away. It's far too easy to get turned around in the darkness and wind up backtracking or wandering around trying to get your bearings, which of course exposes you to additional attacks from respawning enemies.
After experiencing MorphX, you almost wish that you could give Buka Entertainment a mulligan so it could try again. There are enough innovative ideas here with the alien metamorphosis mechanics that could have made this an inventive, captivating shooter. But the design screwups are so blatant that they get in the way of enjoying the weird stuff with alien genes and mutant powers. Every time you start having a little bit of fun, some huge annoyance pops up to rub your face in the game's many flaws. This might be an interesting experiment, but it's not a game that you want to actually play.