Hot off the heels of the 2007 release of Dementium: The Ward, developer Renegade Kid started on its next DS first person shooter, Moon. From the first footage it was obvious that the team was going for the same philosophy with this one – push the DS to its limits – while also trying a very different style of first-person game on Nintendo's handheld. We've taken Moon through its steps (or one, small step for man, if you will), and are back to report. Does Moon live up to Renegade Kid's first DS shooter? Is Moon the first undeniable must-buy for 2009? Read on.
First of all, Moon is very different game from Dementium: The Ward. It's an adventure game with shooting elements intertwined, and while Nintendo fans reading this will of course instantly think of Metroid, I'd put this as more of an adventure game over Metroid Prime: Hunters for DS. You'll get a few new weapons as the game progresses, but more than that Moon is about its story, the cinematic presentation, and the mood. Players take action as Major Kane, a member of a paranormal encounters force, so to speak, and when he learns of a mysterious hatch on Earth's moon, he's dispatched by the government to go investigate. Things to terribly wrong – as they often do in videogame intros – and he's left stranded and alone, with only a few comrades chirping in his ear via com-link as his guide.
It only takes one quick look at Moon to see just how much of a technical masterpiece this game is on DS. It runs at a silky smooth 60 frames per second, makes use of some gigantic level architecture, lots of animated panels and wall geometry rather than flat textures, and makes a great use of color and light to depict different modes within the game's dungeon-like hatches. During your frequent trips to the surface, stars light the sky, lens flares dance across the screen when looking directly at the sun, and the Earth looms off in the distance. It's a sight to be seen, and hands-down one of the most immersive games on the platform.
And while there's a lot to tell about the game, the single most important aspect to touch on is the flow and progression of the package. Yes it plays well, the guns are great, the story is well told, but you need to know what type of game it is before jumping in, or some players could get seriously turned off on this one. First of all, we've established that this isn't Halo, Doom, or Quake. It's an adventure game, and that means isolation, less of an emphasis on shooting (which some players will dig, after the enemy respawns and hectic Dementium in 2007), and exploration. Moon almost always throws in a few enemies to blast away at when checking out a room for the first time, but it's far from a run-and-gun experience. Oftentimes you'll walk down a long, narrow hallway, take a door into a new section, encounter a few floating security robots, blast them away, consult the map, and then continue on. There is a bit of a repetitious, almost déjà vu like element to the game (there's only so much you can do with DS space, so many areas look identical minus color changes and a few pieces of unique architecture), but if you approach the game as a slower, adventure game with shooting used to add stressful moments and break the monotonay, you'll find yourself enjoying Moon a lot more from the outset.
One aspect I do wish was different though, is the amount of enemy and boss re-use. You'll blast little floating security bots in the first encounter, and even in the final chapters of the game you'll still be blasting floating security bots. Obviously that's not the only enemy you'll see – Renegade Kid includes everything from ceiling guns to mobile turrets, gigantic walking robots, wall-crawling robotic bugs, and plenty of mini-bosses along the way – but if you're not down with ground-to-air robo-shooting, just know they're in there throughout the game in many different sizes, shapes, and AI patterns. On the flipside though, weapons are really well balanced, and the game seems to know what you're shooting with at all times, so if you dig the Muon Pistol like I did (one shot, one kill on most of those flying robots) you'll have the ammo you need to put it to good use. The team was also kind enough to add save points, chapter breaks, and ammo kits right before boss fights, so if you ever end up losing a few minutes of exploration, it's because you got your butt kicked in corridor combat, and not because you happened upon a boss you had no idea was there.
As another interesting design choice – and one I'm very happy with – there's no enemy respawns this time around, and all dropped items stay on the ground. That means you can be down to no health in the heat of a battle, and as long as you cleared rooms property behind you, and left health trails along the way instead of using them up for 5% of your health after a tiny battle, they're waiting for you when you run back in a suit-beeping, "Zelda-low-hearts" like panic.
Outside of the weapon balancing and general tech achievements, Moon really delivers in both puzzle elements and story. On the puzzling side of things, Kane's RAD (Remote Access Droid) allows players to driver though smaller vents and tunnels, working a sort of Resident Evil Zero "lock and key" mechanic where you're constantly switching between the RAD and Kane to leapfrog through areas. It bring out this great element of puzzling, since the RAD has s small stun gun but no real offense, and both players are active at the same time in a level. Later RAD sections have you driving next to the ankles of huge alien brutes while trying to activate a switch, and then hiding the RAD in a far off corner so you can run into the room guns blazing with Kane's rocket launcher equivalent. For players that want to work a bit more finesse into the experience, the RAD can also be used as a team-up weapon for Kane, driving quickly around a corner, stunning enemies, and the letting Kane rush in with the shotgun-like Lepton Spread gun, or fire from across the world with the Fermion Sniper rifle. For as much vulnerability as there is while playing as the RAD, you feel like a total badass paying the enemies back as Kane.
After pushing through a few interior levels – mostly following waypoints and moving from boss to boss, and room to room – Kane gets to stretch his legs a bit with the "LOLA" 4X4. Equipped with a top-mounted laser turret, the buggy can blast away at surface enemies, and is used not only in moving from area to area on the moon, but also in a few escape or race missions, driving against the clock to secure an objective. The controls are very lose, having the d-pad kick the back of the Lola out for easy fishtail moves, but once you get a feel for the half stylus, half d-pad driving, it can be a pretty fun aspect of the game.
We do have to mention though, that there's a crash bug during the first driving section with the Lola, and it's one Renegade Kid is aware of, has actually already fixed to our understanding, and is changing for a later release. For those who have (or are planning) on picking up the game right away, there's very little to worry about, since you're reading this review and will know how to avoid it, but should you hit the bug it'll require a game restart, which is about an hour or so into the game, so watch out. During that first Lola mission, players are prompted to go on-foot to a new hatch. Farther down the road (after driving past the waypoint marker and away from the objective) there's a garage which is actually used in a later portion of the game. I mistakenly drove there, slammed the vehicle to the very back of the garage, and rather than turn around and drive out, left the buggy on the lift and decided to walk back to the on-foot section from there. When exiting about 40 minutes later from that mission, players are prompted to drive the Lola into that garage and take the lift to another section. When I got back in it, the level ended before I was fully in the dirver's seat, starting off my next mission (a time-based race) with no vehicle. It's unfortunate that such an odd bug made it through testing, and crash bugs are never fun, but it's far from inside the main course of the game, and as long as you avoid that garage and drive where you're prompted to go during that first Lola mission, it's smooth sailing. For anyone that does want an updated build when it's fixed, it sounds like Mastiff is going to be pretty accommodating. For net-savy, hardcore gamers out there though, ignoring the garage and passing the bug is no difficult task. It's a rare instance, and one that the majority of players won't ever know of, or be affected by.
The final aspect of the game I wanted to touch on was the main story presentation overall, as it's a big accomplishment for the team, and one of the highlights of the adventure for me. The main quest will have players talking constantly with their allies via a com-link, but more interesting than that were the data logs found throughout the worlds. These terminals contain multiple mini-stories as the game moves on, taking the form of log entries by multiple points of view, both human, and otherwise. It's one thing to walk past a tank with a human body floating in it, but it's a whole other to get a step-by-step account of the abduction process, explaining why and how these humans are taken and "processed" in this strange, lunar facility. These moments are simple (just a paragraph of text each), but they help break up the monotony of doing puzzles, shooting a few baddies, and hitting up a boss. In addition, other little aspects of the game give it some legs, such as the ability to replay any level in quick play once finished (on easy, medium, or hard difficulty), lots of upgrades for health and weapon magazine size, and the artifact system, which rewards players for searching out three items in each of the game's main levels, which in turn open up bonus VR training missions similar to the ones found in Metal Gear Solid. Each has a different theme, set of available weapons, and strategy. Good fun.
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