First-person shooters are pennies per pound on consoles and PC, but the PSP is a brand new shop to stock that has allowed the developers of Coded Arms to be bold. Konami isn't known for its first-person shooters, aside from some European games with the company's name on the boxes as the distributor. Japanese game makers in general rarely take on the FPS genre -- even Namco's Breakdown on Xbox concentrates more on melee attacks than actual shooting. So it was interesting to see Konami take this partcular step forward. Here, the development had to set a mark for what a PSP FPS must offer in terms of visuals and gameplay. At the same time, the team aimed to put its own distinct stamp on the genre. Adding an aim-assist lock and a random level system might have been controversial on other systems; here, the PSP is a fresh canvas to experiment.
The best aspects of Coded Arms are its original ideas and risky style choices, stacked on top of decent FPS control (which makes do with the PSP's single-stick analog control about as best as possible, giving gamers lots of options to tweak it their way.) Its worst aspects are that the game doesn't have enough of that imagination implemented in this first-generation title. It's a fun and heated shooting experience, but not necessarily an awesome one. Coded Arms gets dry in some spots, enough that its gorgeous graphic style can't liven up the party.
The story takes place in a sci-fi setting, deep inside an overloaded network come to life. Following in the footsteps of movies like The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell, the character you control "jacks" into a cyber universe. You're something of a treasure hunter, seeking out government files that yield huge cash rewards. The only problem is that the program you're "hacking" into is a dangerous military training program named A.I.D.A. It was abandoned years ago, but wasn't quite erased or terminated. It continued to evolve in the cyber world, picking up new information through Earth's networks. Now, A.I.D.A. is a hacker's dream scene that has spawned dozens of security "programs", various bugs and anti-infiltration robots that are programmed to kill any trespasser who's crazy enough to come seeking the files A.I.D.A. has amassed.
This game is all about the aesthetic of the digital age. All the menus and scrolling numbers of code that fly across the screen are constantly reminding players that they're in a computer world. It's stylish, and all the graphical detail holds up. Coded Arms' constant barrage of graphic effects makes for one of the better looking games on the PSP system. On some of the rails that ran along the patios of the virtual buildings that dot the game's city level, you can see wet tee shirts left out to dry. It's a great detail that helps illustrate the urban landscape. When you go through a door, there's a cool digital lighting effect that dissolves in front of you to make it seem like the program is loading the next section into existence. The game's sense of place, even if that place is entirely virtual, bears the mark of its Japanese development roots, and the imagination this team has put into Coded Arms really shines through.
There are cool moments here worth playing for. In the Ruins, there are enemies called stinkbombs that spray toxic gas in into the air that hurt you if you're too close. They're more like obstacles than proactive killers. You can ignore them, but you risk running into them if you're suddenly overwhelmed by the other enemies that chase you all over the place. So a little bit of strategy comes into play, choosing between the spray-and-run approach of hitting the really dangerous enemies or else the tactical approach of eliminating the stinkbombs one by one to give yourself a better fighting chance against the bigger enemies. Sometimes a room is filled with both static stinkbombs and mobile enemies, and things get pretty interesting because you have to manage the different kinds of threats in the best possible way. Sniper rifles also give the game moments of tension, and since this is a game that's often overpowering you with multitudes of enemies, tagging baddies from afar is a welcome release of pent-up pressure.
Being the first FPS on PSP, the controls take a little getting used to. The face buttons control which way your character looks, while the analog nub controls where he walks. If the default setting aren't to your liking, you can map the controls out to whatever works best for you (including the much-requested swap of controls to use the analog controller for aiming, although the button layout doesn't let you "steer and run" on the analog stick the way some single-stick shooters like the N64 Turok games did.) If your character looks around too slow, you can speed up the axis movement. You can even tighten the auto-lock aiming assist to suit your trigger-happy needs.
The first run of the initial sectors isn't that difficult to get through. At this point, the challenges aren't that rough, so the frustrations with the controls aren't exposed yet. But once things step up to sector 2, things get a little more hairy. When confronting six or eight enemies, it was tough getting an accurate shot off from far away, even with the targeting assist. It also didn't help that there was some heavy slowdown in the gameplay with upwards of six enemies battling on the screen. It doesn't ruin the experience, but it sucked when I was running from a frag grenade that was just thrown at me and everything started crawling in slow-motion because of the overwhelming action on-screen.
If things get too tough and you want to quit back to the menu or blow off steam in multiplayer, be sure to manually save! Coded Arms unfortunately does not have an auto-save feature (something that probably should be a standard on PSP games), and while the stat screen at the end of each sector reads out data as if it's on your permanent record, it only saves to Memory Stick when you choose the save option. Although it's only a minor snag in the game (you'll learn quick if you make the mistake once), you'll want to be sure you don't "jack out" after playing for hours and passing a number of sectors without saving -- it's easy to miss on the menu, and it hurts bad if you lose your progress.
The graphic style and atmosphere in Coded Arms makes for an experience of being in the thick of this digital world, but I would have enjoyed it more if their was more of a story to sink my teeth into. It was tough at times to feel motivated and keep going because there was very little driving me to play. The experience meant simply going from room to room, clearing out the enemies, and moving on. Mindless violence is fun, but more character and drama would have made it better.
The game doesn't throw that many surprises at you. If the upcoming Ghost in the Shell game for PSP is the story- and character-based Half-Life type of handheld shooter, Coded Arms is much more of the pure firepower DOOM shooter breed. There was almost little variety in the shoot-or-be-shot formula. There's also little in the way of character development in the game. Coded Arms does have the evolving element of upgradeable weapons and gear to wear, but that's about it. There's not a lot to look forward to as you press on through the game, outside of the pretty environments. There is a nice variety of enemies to shoot, but the way they attack you doesn't change that much. No flanking or retreating, just forward attacks and sniping shots. Some leap toward you, while others just stand and shoot. Put enough of these creatures together in a room, however, and you do feel the heat. Especially when you have both airborne and floor-bound enemies swarming you, while gunmen stand back taking potshots, you will need your trigger finger skills to make it out of most encounters alive.
While the random level generator feature is novel, Coded Arms could have benefited from less reliance on that feature. The outdoor elements here shown in the concept demo two E3s ago (when the game was originally designed for PS2) had outdoor elements, and I really wish they were still in the game. Instead, we get lots and lots of square rooms and corridors that are disorienting even in levels that are permanently laid out. For the most part you're traveling from point A to B, with little variety or exploration in between. There's so much style in the game concept, it's disappointing that this same effort hasn't been put into making equally memorable stages.
The saving grace for me with Coded Arms is the multiplayer aspect. It supports up to 4 players over Ad hoc Wi-Fi. This mode is simply fun to compete with, especially because you have your own screen to battle on. There are three types of Game modes: Deathmatch, Keep the Mark, and Last Man Standing. The Deathmatch works well even though it's relatively simple. Part of this had to do with the fact that I knew I was shooting actual people. I'm was talking trash, building up resentment, and making enemies. Guess what - there's drama in that! After overdosing on nuking bugs and gunmen in single player, the multiplayer mode was a fresh blast. It's drama and it's engaging. I was motivated to keep playing because I wanted to devastate the competition. The fact that the environments remained square and nondescript seemed to evaporate, and the randomness here finally did its job of providing variety -- all I wanted to do was blow-up my rival with the napalm gun. The power-ups and ability to bring in your own collected weapon arsenal add to the fun. It doesn't have the bells and whistles of many FPS multiplayer games these days, but it looked good and its raw energy did me good for a small-screen shoot-out.
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