When I first heard about Capcom's commitment to the Xbox Live Arcade I couldn't help but be excited. After all, Capcom is one of the all time legends when it comes to fun and exciting arcade games. The very idea that Capcom was returning to their roots made me happy, I couldn't wait to see if their new stuff could live up to classic games like Final Fight, Strider, Ghouls 'n Ghosts and Black Tiger. Unfortunately if Capcom's newest XBLA game is any indication then they still have a lot to learn before they return to their former glory.
This is Rocketmen: Axis of Evil, Capcom's take on the Robotron 2084 genre of shooters (I.E. - dual stick shooters). Of course, anybody that has been paying attention already knows that this is an extremely crowded sub-genre. Just in the last year or two we've had everything from Geometry Wars Waves, Everyday Shooter, Assault Heroes 1 and 2, Undertow and Blast Factor. With all of these other games crowding the field Capcom really needed to do something special in order to stand out from the crowd. Sadly this is where Capcom (or more specifically the developers, A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Games) fell down.
Rocketmen plays out like a sci-fi comic book, complete with larger than life characters, nasty aliens and a cinema style that resembles flipping through a classic comic book. The story involves you trying to keep the peace as two long-time foes are about to sign a possible peace treaty. Unfortunately the "Axis of Evil" has kidnapped one of the leaders and it's up to you to get them back. In other words, there's just enough story here to give you a reason to shoot hundreds of alien bad guys.
You start out the game by creating a character, something you don't expect from a lot of action games (especially the dual stick shooter genre). From there you'll learn the basics of survival and be off on your journey to kill lots of alien scum and rescue the hostages ... but mostly kill lots of alien scum. To its credit the game starts off strong, there's a nice cinema that explains what's going on and the first couple of levels are a lot of fun to play.
While it would be easy to compare this game to Geometry Wars or Smash TV, in truth Rocketmen actually has more in common with another old school Midway title, Total Carnage. Often considered to be the pseudo-sequel to Smash TV, Total Carnage featured a real story and linear levels that you had to explore. That's exactly what's going on in this 2008 Capcom game, instead of being stuck in only one location, your customizable character must journey through a labyrinth of halls until they ultimately find the boss, exit or both.
Unlike Total Carnage (and a lot of other dual stick shooters), your rocket man (or woman) has a health bar that slowly goes down every time they are hit. In a lot of ways this is good, since it's always frustrating to die from one single bullet or explosion. But then again, Rocketmen probably wouldn't need this kind of health bar if the controls were a little better. It's not that the game is hard to play, but the controls are just loose enough to make it difficult to be exact, a fatal flaw for this kind of shoot-em-up.
In all there are ten different levels, each of which is based on a different planet or space cliché. In one level you'll be infiltrating the core of Mars, while in another you'll be on a space station, a space ship and even an alien metropolis. For the most part the levels are different and unique, even though none of them are all that exciting or spectacular looking.
As you start each level you are given the basic weapon, a slow shooting phaser that isn't very good at killing your enemies. However, in true action game fashion, the levels have plenty of power-ups to pick up, including lasers, shotguns, razors (saw blades shooting guns) and other weapons. These weapons are definitely more useful, although you will quickly run out of ammo and have to switch back to your original weapon. On top of the extra weapons you can pick up along the way, Rocketmen also offers you a number of bonus weapons that you can cycle through by using your left and right bumpers. These weapons are especially good at evening the playing field, something you're going to need in the later levels.
Along with your main objectives, most of the levels come with secondary objectives that can extend the life (and enjoyment) of this game. These secondary missions aren't the most exciting things you'll run into, but you'll generally be doing a good thing (freeing captives) and earning valuable parts that you can use later. Unfortunately the fidgety camera makes completing a lot of these missions extremely difficult. Heck, the camera in general makes this game difficult. This is one of those games where you have a fixed camera, so from time to time you will lose enemies because of a bad angle and, worse yet, take some unfair hits just because the camera decided to do something weird.But the biggest problem with this game is the sluggish control. For whatever reason none of the aiming feels very accurate, especially when put up against games like Geometry Wars and Everyday Shooter. Not only is the aiming a little off, but the whole game feels extremely slow. If you are forced to shoot somebody behind you, you'll need to account for what amounts to a second or two of wait time as your character turns his or her entire body around to face and shoot the bad guy. In the early levels this isn't so bad, but by the end of the game the slow-pace of the game will really affect your enjoyment of this shooter.
While I have already complained about cheap hits and frustrating gameplay, the truth is that this isn't a very difficult game. For the most part you have unlimited continues, which can be handy if all you're looking to do is beat the story mode. When you die you will bleed out some experience, but it's easy enough to gain back ... and most of the people that play this game will have given up on the whole RPG element of this game by the time this game gets difficult. On one hand I kind of like having unlimited lives, but at the same time I wish that they could have come up with a more compelling continue system.
The graphics are also kind of strange. Don't get me wrong, there's a specific art style at play here (sort of an old school comic meets 2D cel-shading), but the lights and darks really make these characters look ugly. Maybe the style just isn't my thing, but I was never all that impressed with this game visually. The background graphics are generally pretty nice, even if none of the levels are that outstanding to look at. All in all the presentation is solid, but I kind of which they would have used a different visual effect.
There is fun to be had in Rocketmen: Axis of Evil, but you'll have to spend too much time putting up with annoying design decisions to really enjoy what fun there is. At this point there are too many me-too dual stick shooters on the Xbox 360 (and PlayStation 3) to warrant another half-assed one. Had Capcom (or rather, A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Games) actually come up with something brand new and original then we would be having an altogether different conversation, but as it is this is just another generic take on the Geometry Wars-style shooter.