People in the 1950's were scared. The world at that time was a different place, and America had a host of things to worry about. Capitalizing on the feeling of imminent doom, filmmakers of the era played upon the things that kept people up at night and turned those fears into box-office gold. Concerns over rapidly advancing science materialized in the form of mutants terrorizing innocent townsfolk. Deep-seated distrust of technology surfaced in runaway robot features, and perhaps the largest phobia used as a theme was America's fear of Communism. However, in this case, Cossacks out of Siberia were replaced by bug-eyed aliens from outer space. In the current age of terrorism, devastating long-range weapons and threats of biological super plagues, the 50's almost seem like a good time by comparison.
While examining these films can tell us a lot about domestic culture at that point in history, they also work on another level: they're a great source of cheesy, nostalgic entertainment. Despite being rooted in serious issues like industrial transformation of the country and the possible fall of democracy, it's hard not to laugh at the wonky rubber suits, papier-mache B.E.M.s, and pet iguanas with plastic horns glued to their foreheads. Eliminating the subtext, capturing the cheddar flavor, and adding some rousing modern-day action, Incog studios presents...War Of The Monsters!
War Of The Monsters can be summed up as a mix between free-roaming 3D fighters like Power Stone and Ehrgeiz, and an extremely large dose of the venerable arcade classic, Rampage. Players have a wide variety of monsters to choose from, representing almost every type of Sci-Fi creature to terrorize moviegoers. There are eleven monsters total (eight initially open, two locked, one special case) ranging from your standard Kong-like ape, a spiky lizard in the Godzilla vein, the token giant preying mantis and an eyeball with a body made up of telekinetic energy beams. Taking place in various highly-destructible cities, secret military bases and even an orbiting spacecraft, the game's stars smash, pummel and beat each other senseless while laying waste to anyone or anything that gets in their way.
The game is generally seen from a behind-the-back perspective, and controlled with either the D-pad or Analog stick. All of the monsters handle similarly, with the differences being minor variations of strength, speed, and so forth. Two of the Dualshock's four face buttons trigger separate weak and strong attacks that can string together to form a small number of preset combos. Of course there's a button for jumping, but the last face button is a context-sensitive "do-all" used for scaling the faces of buildings, picking up and throwing any objects in sight, or for grabbing opponents.
Depending on the controller layout selected (out of three non-customizable choices) you'll be holding down either one or two shoulder buttons to activate the "lock-on" feature for keeping enemies in sight. It functions fairly well, but constant pressure is required to keep it active. Because you'll be spending the vast majority of gameplay locked-on, this leads to unnecessary hand fatigue that a "click-on/off" option would have eliminated. Otherwise, things feel nice and tight. The context-sensitive button is an especially nice touch.
The problem of overtired fingers aside, the combat system offers a surprising amount of depth compared to the average brawler. Any of the monsters can run, jump, throw objects, grab and climb. Two can fly. They can also catch thrown objects, counter attacks, and pull off dive attacks after a jump. This is really meaty stuff. The levels received an equal amount of attention. The arenas are graphically impressive, sufficiently large, and well stocked with interactive objects. Taking a cue from their previous game, most areas also offer environmental effects like tidal waves or volcanic eruptions. Incog clearly has a rock-solid technical base at the heart of this game, and the 50's theme is a perfect fit. Everyone knows that the thing big monsters do best is break stuff. However, War Of The Monsters suffers from a developmental imbalance between the excellent mechanics and the actual gameplay. The best example of this is illustrated by the difference between the superb two-player and the grating single player experiences.
If you have a live person to play with, War Of The Monsters is an absolute blast. It's great to impale friends with radio towers ripped from the tops of buildings, or to lift them over your head and send them on a home-run ride into the side of a mountain. Adding a few artificial intelligence (AI)-controlled monsters into the mix, you can partake in titanic team ups that will decimate cities and reduce skylines to rubble. It feels especially nice thanks to the game's effective, logical camera system. When players are in close proximity to each other, they will both be shown on a single, full screen. When a sufficient distance away, the game automatically implements a smoothly transitioning split-screen function. It's a slick effect that provides a natural and continuous flow to the action. But the fun I had with the multiplayer was proportionally inverse to the solo experience. Taking into account their other high-profile (and disappointing) effort Twisted Metal: Black, it's not surprising that the two games share some of the same weaknesses.
The biggest problem is the level of difficulty. It's hard—but even worse, it's annoying. You can certainly finish the game, but it's more frustrating than fun since the AI-controlled monsters apply intense pressure with constant barrages of combos and projectiles. Since you're facing two-on-one odds in most of the game, it's almost impossible to relish your monster's finer abilities when you're constantly struggling without a moment to breathe. It's especially irritating since the AI applies beat-downs by using one creature to get the drop on you while the other collects power-ups and returns to the fray fully replenished. I realize the game is about delivering action, but it comes off as too fast and too much.
Rather than reducing the number of two-on-one battles or tweaking the AI strategy, Incog has taken the somewhat backwards approach of treating the symptom and not the cause. With such a steep level of difficulty, the game gives the player a set number of "lives" per encounter. While this may sound like business as usual, the quirk of this system is that the enemies' life bars, even bosses, do not refill after you die and restart. It's as if Incog expects players to bite the dust regularly, and sets the encounters to be more about attrition than skill. Fighting prowess is also de-emphasized by the overly plentiful pickups scattered throughout the levels. With too many regenerating items available to restore life and energy (for both players and AI) on top of the three-lives system, the notably intricate and complex combat engine is drowned out in a blizzard of hyperspeed button mashing.
The other big flaw in the solo mode is that it's just plain boring due to its repetitious and unvarying structure. Regardless of which monster you pick, you will always fight the same enemies in the same stages...in the same order...every time. I was also dismayed at the lack of imagination and exclusion of precedent shown in setting goals. Every stage is all about smashing your enemies, and it's entertaining to a point. But when it's all you do for the length of the game, the novelty and motivation to keep playing wears quite thin. I had hoped that there would be opportunities to do things besides brawling such as having levels where the object is to destroy buildings, or eat fleeing crowds of people. Heck, maybe even a few timed challenges or tossing buses and gasoline trucks for accuracy. Anything along these lines seems like an obvious opportunity, and would have given the main game much more variety and replay value. With such fertile source material, it's disappointing that War Of The Monsters doesn't reach outside its limited scope.
If it sounds like I'm coming down on the game too hard, it's because a little more effort would have pushed the game from being "pretty good" to "outstanding." Nothing's as disappointing as a missed opportunity. Despite being a bit lopsided due to some obvious issues, War Of The Monsters still manages to provide a highly enjoyable smash-'em-up experience if taken in small doses. Incog is a highly talented group of people with some serious technical prowess. They've got a firm grasp on programming for Sony's Emotion Engine, and the PlayStation 2 hums with their beautiful graphics, smooth animation and sharp levels. They just need to set their sights a little bit higher in the gameplay department next time to avoid the tunnel-vision standard they seem so eager to cling to.