The Red Star

Year: 2007
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: XS Games
Genre: Shooter
Review Date: 5/18/07
Rating: ****

Languishing in a dark and forgotten warehouse for nearly two years as a result of Acclaim going out of business, "The Red Star" finally sees the light of day. Unfortunately, the Xbox version was cancelled altogether, which is quite sad considering how enjoyable the game is. Loosely based on Christian Gossett's comic book series, the game follows a group of Russian freedom fighters who take on the might and fury of the Red Army, which is controlled by a dark sorcerer. You can play the game as one of two characters: the fast and agile Makita, or the slow and strong Kyuzo. Sorceress Maya Antares becomes playable upon completion of the game, but for me it's all about Makita. Being that I'm a huge fan of girls with guns, it's only natural that I would be attracted to both the comic book and the video game.

Gameplay in "The Red Star" is a wonderful blend of old school beat 'em up action and old school scrolling shooters, and the difficulty is INTENSE. It's a supremely challenging twitch game that requires you to meticulously memorize enemy attack patterns and deftly dodge relentless onslaughts of projectiles. Your arsenal consists of a default melee weapon, a variety of guns, a "protocol" (magic) attack, and a shield. Careful orchestration of all of these is necessary for survival as the guns and shields can overheat, and you only have a limited amount of magic energy. Additionally, some enemies are immune to weapons fire and must be dealt with in hand-to-hand combat. While I used to enjoy scrolling shooters, the time, concentration, and intensity required to play them was frustrating. You'd pour 2-3 hours into a game just to get to where you were the last time you failed, only to inevitably fail again and repeat the cycle. Thankfully, "The Red Star" employs a checkpoint feature that allows you to resume play on your current level, but reaching those checkpoints can still be a brutal undertaking. Additionally, health packs are exceedingly scarce and you only have one life to live, so caution, care, and strategy are of the utmost importance. Not to mention patience and perseverance.

Normally, games with this level of difficulty really piss me off, but "The Red Star" is different because it's actually fun to play and you can make incremental progress with enough practice and dedication. Also, the lack of an evolving storyline or any character development helps to emotionally detach yourself from the outcome of the game, so you can just pick it up and play without worrying about background details. If a game is story or character driven and too hard to play, not knowing how the story ends only leads to heartbreak and madness. It's as if you were kicked out of a movie theater during the final reel, even though you'd already paid the full price of admission. Which brings me once again to the topic of unlockable content, which these days is getting WAY out of hand. I've already bought the content, but most of it will never been seen because of the ridiculous demands placed on the player. Who benefits from this? Not the developer - it means more work for them and the rest of the product suffers for content that will never be seen. Not the publisher - they've already got their money from the sale. Not the player - they've been denied access to what they just bought, which makes them angry with the publisher and the developer.

Presentation wise the game looks great, although youngsters and hardcore gamers will probably complain about it looking too "last-gen." The characters are appropriately detailed and animate well, the combat is deep and responsive, the sound design gives a nice weight to the proceedings, and the music score is awesome. The futuristic Russian landscapes are delightfully cold and bleak, and evoke strong memories of Capcom's classic "Strider." Unfortunately, the game has its fair share of warts as well, most notably the frequent and lengthy load times that break up the gameplay. Additionally, the game desperately tries to tie into its source material by offering mission briefings from Urik Antares, but they only succeed in wasting time and being annoying. "The Red Star" is definitely a curious choice for licensed material, and one has to wonder how the decision to make this game came about. Amusingly, TWO of the six bullet points on the box cover mention that it's based on a great comic book, which has absolutely no bearing on the gameplay. I can't imagine anyone picking it up and saying "gee, it's based on a comic book, so it must be good!" Has that ever been the case? I'll never understand marketing people...

The game also features a two-player cooperative mode which is a lot of fun if you're playing with a skilled partner. It can also make the action on the screen so hectic that it's hard to keep track of yourself and your objectives. Curiously, the two-player mode exposed a very strange bug in the game, which is that it ONLY supports the DualShock 2 controller. If you plug a regular DualShock controller in, the game doesn't even see it.