Are Three $20 Bills Burning a Hole in Your Pocket?
A videogame doesn’t have to be cutting-edge to be a whole lot of fun. A videogame does, however, have to be cutting-edge to justify a $60 price tag.
Were Zoids Assault an Xbox LIVE Arcade download (and it most certainly could be one, with a few adjustments), it would rank as a mediocre but solid title. As a full-price Xbox 360 game, it’s highway robbery.
The game, of course, centers around Zoids, the quarter-century-old animal-shaped “mecha” robot toys. They’ve been the subject of various games before, from Zoids: The Battle Begins for the Commodore 64 to Zoids Struggle for the PlayStation 2. There was even Zoids: Battle Legends, a fighting title, for the GameCube.
This one’s a strategy RPG. Players control a group of five Zoids, leading them into battle in the context of a poorly written, poorly voice-acted, way too time-consuming, and altogether skip-able story presented through text scrolls and occasional videos. It comes off like a children’s cartoon, only with lots of unnecessary “damns” and “hells” sprinkled in (they really wanted that Teen rating, apparently).
No matter how involved and ridiculous it gets, the plot always boils down to your metal monsters duking it out with (or at least staving off) enemy metal monsters, but here’s a quick summary. The Republic of Helic and the Guylos Empire fought a huge war. Maroll began the war as neutral, but ended up allying with Helic when Jamil attacked them; Maroll’s counterattack was highly successful. Jamil, still devastated years later (much like Germany in the wake of World War I) becomes aggressive, and tensions flare with Maroll. You’re on Maroll’s side.
The turn-based battles take place on a grid system, and, to be fair, the game really excels in battle mechanics. It’s remarkably easy to learn; whenever one of your machines has a turn, you’re shown the spaces on the grid you can move it to, and when you place the cursor over a square, it indicates which enemies are within range. Once you choose a location, you’re given in plain English (no icons) the options to attack an enemy, end your turn, or execute one of the machine’s special abilities.
There’s only one quibble to be had with the controls: when adjusting the view, pushing left on the joystick doesn’t look left, as an avid first-person shooter fan will be used to. Rather, it pivots the camera to the left and looks right, and there’s no way to invert this.
The battles can become incredibly difficult, with your machines facing wave after wave of opponents, and a thoughtful plan is necessary. There are a few interesting strategic nuances.
One is that the machines have different ranges, and when an attacking machine is in the range of the defending machine, the defending machine can take its turn early and strike back. This is very effective when the attacking machine is nearly dead (you can blow it up before another machine uses its turn to move over and repair it), but other times, it’s better to have your defender save his turn for attacking a different enemy. It also forces you to carefully consider which square to attack from, as shooting from the right square can put your attacker just outside the defender’s range.
Another quirk is the assist system. If you attack an enemy with one machine, and another of your machines also has a shot, he’ll take it, and it won’t cost a turn. This encourages players to keep their machines together to gang up on enemies.
Then there’s the EMP system. Your EMP bar fills as you wear down the enemy, and each third of the bar represents one charge. Any of your machines can use a charge at any turn. This will attack all the enemies in range and jam their systems so they can’t respond. It’s important to use these wisely, because the bar fills slowly; try to have your most powerful Zoid attack as many enemies as possible.
In each battle, you’ll also level up your Zoids and earn special abilities (like evasion) and new weapons. Installing these abilities is more tedious than it needs to be (you have to go through each area, like weapon, armor, and ability, for each character, separately), but the tinkering will likely appeal to fans of the toys.
Ingenious as these mechanics are, they rest on basic math: the vehicles sit on certain grid squares facing certain directions, each weapon does a certain amount of damage and has a certain chance of missing. The player controls nothing in real time. It doesn’t exactly tax the Xbox 360 hardware or push the limits of disc capacity. The graphics are a bit dull, as well, with cool-looking but not very detailed robots clonking around the screen.
Here’s the only reason, it seems, that Zoids Assault is a traditional Xbox 360 release: Whenever there’s an attack, the game presents the fight as a fairly elaborate cutscene, with the Zoids duking it out in high definition to aggressive sound effects. This can be mildly amusing at first, but the cutscenes are repetitive enough and far enough from a graphical accomplishment, to warrant constant (and passive) viewing. You can skip the cutscenes with the start button (an option to forgo them without prompt would be much welcomed), and that’s what usually happens.
Kill these scenes and you have a $10 or $15 download with a great battle system. It would remain a niche product, though, because everything about the game takes forever. There’s minute upon minute of cutscenes and text before the game even starts, and the battles can easily take half an hour, even skipping the fighting cutscenes. There’s nothing more frustrating than losing half an hour’s worth of work when you lose (though you can withdraw from a battle and keep the experience points you earned), which starts happening around the third of 14 missions. Add in the aforementioned updates to your Zoids between battles, and the whole experience just feels burdensome.
Another bizarre decision on the developer’s part resulted in the game having no multiplayer, online or locally. Such a feature should have been ridiculously easy to add; take the battle arenas from the single-player campaign and let another player take the place of the A.I. enemies. Given that nothing happens in real time, the game could allow any number of players to pass around any number of controllers, and online multiplayer wouldn’t suffer from lag. That would have made for some epic, strategy-focused battles. Not to mention adding replayability, something the game sorely lacks.
Finally, there’s the free downloadable content, which somehow manages to feel like a rip-off. When adjusting your monsters’ attributes, one notices that it would be nice to have a few more paint colors to choose from; this is possible, but only if you buy your copy from GameStop or Amazon.com. These games come with downloadable-content codes for more “skins,” which in addition to changing colors, also improve a Zoid’s performance. This feels not like a bonus, but like something that should have been included with the overpriced game to begin with and should not have been used to favor some retailers over others.
In its battle system, Zoids Assault has the germ of a great game. The idea is executed so half-heartedly, however, that it’s hard to imagine what the developers were thinking. So, many minor tweaks could have made this so much better. Factor in a price that’s at least quadruple what it should be, and it’s not just a bad game, it’s an insult.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 2.7 Graphics
The battle cutscenes look all right, but most of the time you’ll be skipping them. The rest of the game is mundane visually. 4.7 Control
Very simple to play for such a strategic game. The camera controls could use the ability to invert the left-right access. 3.3 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Cool explosions and gun sounds and inoffensive music. Terrible voice acting, however. 2.6 Play Value
Challenging, but everything takes too long, and it’s too expensive. 2.5 Overall Rating – Average
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.