The PSP is still in need of a top notch first-person shooter.
Ask yourself this question, “Do handhelds ever usually define a genre?” Though there are some exceptions, most of the time, the answer is no. Titles on a portable system will usually just try to bring that genre to a different platform, but in a condensed form. First person shooters are rarely seen on handheld systems, primarily due to the limited control scheme and poorer visuals. However, with the industry continuing to grow and new technologies being developed for it, the chances for the shooter field to thrive have appeared. One such title of this genre appeared two years ago in the form of Coded Arms.
It was a commendable effort, but the randomly generated levels and lack of story really put a damper on things. Konami learned from their mistake and attempted to add a little more substance to their new series. And while Coded Arms: Contagion does excel in certain areas, it could’ve been a whole lot more.
This time around, Konami wanted to add a bit more to the franchise in terms of plot. The last Coded Arms seemed rather dry due to the fact that there was no story whatsoever. You played as a rogue agent who basically shot things and hacked machinery. Non-stop action certainly is a good thing, but Coded Arms just doesn’t have the right atmosphere for such a concept. Thankfully, the sequel offers a little more information on just who you are and what you need to do. Just like in the original, you take control of a cybernetic soldier by the name of Major Grant. What makes him stand out from the rest is his proficiency in weapon combat and hacking. The objectives you are given throughout the game all add up to entering A.I.D.A, a combat program gone wrong. You must download your very essence into the program to stop the simulation, and one wrong move inside the program can lead to death on the outside world. Definitely sounds like the Matrix doesn’t it?
Now, there is a little rumor going around that first person shooters and fighting games don’t play very well on the PSP for some reason. It wasn’t until I logged a few hours into Coded Arms that I realized why: the analog stick is very frustrating. Probably the most troublesome detriment right off the bat is the lack of a comfortable control scheme. Though several options are available, none of them offer an improvement over the default choice. Speaking of which, the analog stick will move you around, the face buttons change your perspective, the D-Pad reloads your gun, and the shoulder buttons help you jump and fire your weapon. Maybe it’s just me, but the placement of the stick and pad on the left side of the system just feels awkward, and may force you to adjust during tough situations.
Once you enter the simulation world you will find yourself thrown into the gauntlet almost immediately. Bug-like creatures, cybernetic soldiers, robots, and several other obstacles will make themselves apparent throughout your adventure. Unfortunately, no matter who you face, there is little challenge to speak of. Taking the control scheme into consideration, it is obvious that the developers compensated for it by making opponents a little less fierce. Though it isn’t uncommon to see a lack of A.I. in portable games, it would’ve been nice if enemies did more than stand still and fire in one direction. Bosses though, especially the ones in levels nine and twelve, will pose quite the threat and force you to think on your feet. Weapons are numerous and varied, ranging from grenade launchers and pulse cannons to machine guns and pistols. Alongside your firearms, there is also a scanning system that acts in a similar fashion to the one used by Samus in Metroid Prime. With the push of a button you can observe terrain and spot enemies hiding behind certain objects. The scanner does have a limit though, so knowing when to use it and where adds to the thinking portions of the title.
Battling isn’t the only thing you will be doing. Since the game takes place in a lot of underground corridors and factories, there are plenty of doors and terminals to hack. The hack system present in Coded Arms: Contagion is relatively easy to pick up and you will be unlocking those doors with ease early on. However, it is easily the most frustrating and repetitive aspect of the game. When hacking a door you will have two display screens, with numbers on both the left and right side. Your job is to find the number that is on both sides of the screen as quick as possible (you are timed).
As you come across higher security, the number of rows increases, forcing you to select multiple digits at an even quicker rate. Failing these hacks can lead to traps, more enemies, or even worse, having to do it all over again. Even though a lot of the aspects of the game sound a tad dull so far, there are a couple of surprises. The Upgrade system is new to the Coded Arms series and offers a way for players to double their firepower. As you progress from level to level you will find “upgrade points” that you can spend at the occasional save station. Depending on the amount you have, you can choose to upgrade your weapons’ firepower, clip size, rate of fire, range, and much more. It doesn’t just end there; your defense can get a boost as well through armor and health charges. Though you may not need all these improvements to get through the game, it is certainly fun having more options at your fingertips.
Tired of wading through waves and waves of aliens and bugs? Then head online for a little eight man, multiplayer action. Coded Arms: Contagion features both an Ad Hoc (local) and Infrastructure setup, which means that you can either connect directly with a friend or someone from the internet. With the lobby setup, similar to that of Halo on the PC, getting into games is relatively simple, assuming you can find someone to play with. Once you get a game going, you can choose a free-for-all or team match, as well as one of five unique maps. From my experience with the multiplayer, the lag differed from match to match, but was fairly consistent. Had a few disconnects, but then again that is apparent in all competitive games out there. Probably the only negative to take from this mode has to do with the earlier mentioned control scheme. The lack of lock-on and awkwardness of the analog stick usually forced players to get up close and personal. I don’t mind a good melee but the poor long-range combat just turned most confrontations into mindless “run-and-guns.”
You have to give credit to the PSP though. It certainly knows how to push the limits of what a handheld system can do and Coded Arms: Contagion is a prime example. Despite the overabundance of underground and hallway type levels, both the environment and character models are quite detailed. Objects can be destroyed, most notably boxes and barrels, which adds a bit more immersion to the adventure. There probably could’ve been a bit more variety in atmosphere from stage to stage, but for a portable title it is certainly forgivable. On the other side of the coin lies the audio aspect of the title and is where Coded Arms: Contagion shines the most. Guns, explosions, and death cries all sound as they should, but it is the voice acting that helps move the rather cliché plot along. One can’t help wondering why this series wasn’t placed on the Playstation 2, where the developers could’ve taken advantage of the higher processor power.
Coded Arms: Contagion just doesn’t do enough from its predecessors to really stand out. From the awkward control scheme to the lack of diversity among stages and adversaries, there isn’t really anything extraordinary to take out of the experience. The multiplayer is solid, as is the presentation, but that alone isn’t enough to make Coded Arms: Contagion anything more than mediocre. If you are a fan of the first, then give it a shot. The inclusion of a storyline and Upgrade feature makes things a little more interesting, and though it isn’t saying much, Contagion is better than the original. For the rest of you, just sit this one out and hope that a breakthrough title in the genre makes its appearance sometime in the near future.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.5 Graphics
Visuals are detailed, but lack of level diversity ruins the potential. 2.1 Control
The PSP’s analog stick feels really awkward here. Choice of multiple options helps, but none really offer that much of an improvement. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Sound effects and voice acting stand out for a portable, with the latter being quite impressive. 2.9 Play Value
Multiplayer will keep players playing a little bit longer, but the single player experience is disappointing. 2.9 Overall Rating – Average
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.