There aren't enough games about giant monsters, and there definitely aren't enough good ones. Arguably, Twisted Metal: Black developer Incog's latest PlayStation 2 game, War of the Monsters, is the best such game yet. But then, this particular style of game has had precious few brushes with greatness, including Midway's 1986 arcade classic Rampage--and that's probably it. War of the Monsters is a fantastic-looking game that does an excellent job of capturing the appeal of classic movie monsters such as Godzilla and King Kong. But the actual gameplay is simple and somewhat problematic both as a single-player game and as a two-player game. War of the Monsters is still recommendable to anyone with an appreciation for the source material, but aside from its graphics, the game doesn't quite live up to its potential.
War of the Monsters is rather similar to last year's Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee for the GameCube. Like that game, War of the Monsters plays kind of like a fighting game in which you choose one of a number of different gigantic creatures and try to beat the stuffing out of any other creatures that get in your way. And it just so happens that most all of the fighting in War of the Monsters takes place in densely populated urban settings, complete with screaming crowds, and these highly destructible environments are a key part of the action. You'll smash through tall buildings, use sharp objects like radio antennae to impale your foes, and pick up and throw things like police cars, tanks, and helicopters. There are several single-player modes in which you'll take on one dastardly opponent after another--up to three of them at a time, actually. And there are two-player options as well, ranging from a standard versus mode on down to a few throwaway minigames that you'll have to unlock first. Sadly, the game offers no four-player Multitap support, and it doesn't feature online play. These things could have made War of the Monsters a much better, longer-lasting game.
You'll see 10 different monsters on the character select screen, two of which are initially locked away. Though all the monsters are original, they're inspired by the giant monster archetypes of public consciousness: You have your King Kong rip-off, your Godzilla rip-off, two different giant robots, a giant insect, and more. A couple of the guys in the lineup aren't so conventional, such as a stone golem with fire shooting out of its head and Kineticlops, a one-eyed thing made entirely of energy, but they fit in well with all the rest. The single-player "adventure" mode of War of the Monsters also sports several different multiple-stage battles against huge boss monsters, and these too look great. Starting with an alien-invasion intro, a slick presentation gives the game the style of an old drive-in movie or news telecast, and it really works well to accentuate the game's retro theme and characters.
It's easy to pick this game up and start playing. Each monster controls the same way, and while some are noticeably faster or slower than others, and a couple of them have a limited ability to fly, they're really not so different from each other. As any of the monsters, you can execute quick and heavy attacks, as well as reach out and grab whatever's nearby, whether it's a fire truck, a piece of rubble, or another creature, and use it as a projectile. You can block and repel most standard attacks, though the grapples are unblockable, and a few unblockable attacks have been included to prevent players from staying on the defensive for too long. Every monster can jump, climb buildings or other vertical surfaces, shoot a weak but effective projectile of some sort, and perform two types of supermoves--one that damages any opponents in the immediate vicinity, and one that's better for hitting targets from a distance. The properties of each monster's attacks vary somewhat, but all in all, the monsters differ in appearance much more than they do in the way they actually play. You'll wish, then, that there were more monsters to choose from or that they had more to distinguish themselves. Nevertheless, the faster characters, such as Congar the gorilla and Preytor the bug, seem to have a real edge over the competition, as their combos connect more readily and they do a better job of hightailing it out of a dangerous situation so they can recuperate.
What's a fearless giant monster doing hightailing it out of a dangerous situation, you ask? Well, each level in War of the Monsters is filled with power-ups that restore your health, energy (used for shooting, flying, and attacking), and supermoves. So, in stark contrast with the theme of the game, a hasty retreat frequently pays off in War of the Monsters, as you'll quickly learn from the game's vicious yet cowardly computer opponents. Computer-controlled creatures are surprisingly difficult to defeat at the normal difficulty setting. Give one of them a good thrashing, and you'll often see your enemy turn tail and run off. You'll then see the color-coded indicator representing its health turn from red back to green as the no-good beast makes a beeline for all the glowing green health power-ups in the level. You'll learn to use this same tactic yourself, and since health power-ups are plentifully interspersed throughout each level, the net effect is that you'll find yourself playing hide-and-seek nearly as often as you'll actually be fighting. But you know what? King Kong never tried to run.
The gameplay has a few other shortcomings, including just a few canned combos for each character, stages that feel a lot smaller than they look, and some highly irritating situations that force you to button-mash excessively. There's nothing wrong with having to jam on buttons once in a while, but freeing yourself from the clutches of an enemy or extracting a sharp object from your creature's body in War of the Monsters is an exercise in button mashing to the extreme. Some stages offer all kinds of pointy things that can easily be thrown into your foes, rendering them immobile for far too long as they desperately try to break free, only to get pounded by your creature's nastiest combo. These impaling attacks are overpowering, since you'll sustain a lot of damage and will be put out of the action for a while. Actually, you'll find yourself out of action often, whether it's because you've been impaled, you're sailing through the air after getting smacked around, or you're struggling to get back up after getting swept off your feet. It's easy to knock monsters down in War of the Monsters, and while this helps create the sense that each creature is immensely strong, it also makes you feel like these monsters can't take what they dish out. In any event, it's just not much fun to spend a healthy part of each match trying to get back on your feet.
With all that said, the core mechanics of the game do work well. The action has a solid feel to it, as you'll really get the sense that these monsters are laying into each other with all their might. Knocking your foe into a skyscraper, which usually pushes the structure to the brink of collapse, can be really satisfying, as can using environmental objects as deadly projectile weapons. You'll experience this sort of thing in most all of the different modes of play available, including the different scenarios of the adventure mode. There's no story here, but the adventure mode does consist of an escalating series of challenges in which you'll face off against all the other monsters in the game, and usually more than one of them. The adventure mode has a few cool surprises, but it unfortunately plays out the same way regardless of which monster you select. The free-for-all and endurance modes let you further hone your skills against the computer, but you'll likely have more fun with War of the Monsters' two-player modes.
That's largely because fighting games are inherently more fun with two players. In any case, you and a friend can opt to either beat the daylights out of each other or try to work together to smash computer opponents to smithereens. The game splits the screen vertically when your creature is far away from the other player's, and the split screen tries to seamlessly melt away when the two of you get close enough. However, the occasionally very fast pacing of War of the Monsters can get a bit ahead of the split-screen switching, causing you to become disoriented as your monster leaves sight. Two-player War of the Monsters can still be a great time if you get two or more giant monster fans in the room. Again, though, it's too bad only two of you can play at a time.
The look and style of War of the Monsters gives the game a lot of its appeal. Each monster has two different "costumes" available from the get-go, plus two unlockable ones, and these often dramatically change the creature's appearance. For instance, costume one for Preytor the bug is a green praying mantis, while costume two is a red ant. The monsters are all animated well and exhibit plenty of personality in their movements. They're way too agile to truly pass for the giant monsters of the era, but they otherwise capture the spirit of '50s and '60s B movies very well. The levels are even more impressive, as they're richly colored, highly detailed, and sharply textured places that look so pretty you'll almost regret how easily you can damage them. Almost. You'll likely love all the destruction you can cause. Buildings crack and crumble convincingly, and tiny people run, scream, and squash underfoot. Best of all, the game runs at a very smooth frame rate that almost never falters. War of the Monsters also sounds great, featuring the sorts of loud, monstrous roars you'd probably expect, as well as a perfectly fitting soundtrack that's as bombastic as the game itself.
Additional monsters, outfits, and minigames are yours for the unlocking if you slog through the single-player modes enough times, though War of the Monsters probably won't hold your interest for long unless you have some like-minded friends who are willing to play it with you. Even then, the rather simple gameplay might run out of steam on you right around the time you stop being impressed by the fancy graphics. War of the Monsters has lots of charm and character, and it capably handles a subject that ought to be a lot more common in games. Yet though the gameplay definitely has its moments, this one would just as well make for a weekend rental instead of a permanent addition to your library.