Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Review: Spawn In The Demon's Hand (Dreamcast)

Spawn ITDH is a bit of an interesting beast. The main arcade mode is a time-attack where you and a buddy have to kill a number of bosses within the time limit. The gameplay resembles a combination of basic shooter & beatemup elements  and whenever you die you simply lose about 10 seconds off the clock. Also in each stage there are other thugs you can beat up(for no real reason aside from points I guess, though there's no score tracking in the DC version) and there are places to explore to find a huge number of hidden weapons/powerups (ever played Shadow Over Mystara? More than that). The other mode is a deathmatch/team battle affair where you kill people, get points, and go for the win.

Knowing what Spawn is really isn't important(then again if you're a fan of the comic go ahead and buy this game off ebay right now). From what I've seen it's a combination of everything people regularly dismiss comics over. The main character is some near-immortal assault-rifle wielding badass from hell who strangles criminals and demons with chains, all of the women have perfect huge breasts and wear all manner of tiny outfits to accentuate them(and of course they're either ultimate bounty hunters or angels...from hell), and the rest of the crew is filled with usual assortment of freaks and weirdos. From fat clowns that turn into monsters to soul-less creatures straight out of the devil's rectum it's no surprise that Spawn has seen to the release of a large number of games(it's also no surprise that all of these games have been trash).

It's really a simple concept when you get down to it. The focus of the main game is to simply beat the boss. This is not a new concept to arcade games(Warzard, Metamoquester, Monster Maulers all pre-date Spawn I believe) but Spawn takes it several steps further. 

-Huge stages. While these other games have been standard 2D affairs that take place on a single plane Spawn kicks it up several notches by having massive areas with many secrets to uncover. The trick is of course is that due to the limited amount of time there's only so much you can explore.

-Weapons. Nearly everyone in the game has their own exclusive set of weapons they can wield. Add in the large number of weapons found lying around throughout the levels(some of which are also exclusive to particular characters) and even a few that require an FAQ to figure out how to get and well...that's a ton of weapons. There's an incentive in this since you can carry over any weapons you're holding to the next stage(course if you die you drop your weapons and they can disappear after a set amount of time or when the boss is killed).

-Special abilities. This isn't related to special moves as there really aren't very many in Spawn(a couple button combinations maybe but nothing really deep). Some of these can drain health while others do this and that and so on. I'm not sure how much of this stuff is actually necessary but there you go.

-Power-up orbs. As you explore the stages you'll find a great number of boxes you can break to find these three wonders. Power orbs raise your attack, Defense orbs let you take more damage, and speed orbs make you faster. You can collect up to five for each stat but do know that the clock is always ticking. Course there's another incentive in that you get a small bit of health for each orb you grab. In fact since you drop an orb everytime you take certain hits you're bound to fall on you're just dropped orb and regain most of whatever health you lost(provided you have some seriously high defense). With all this in mind you could go through stages nearly invincible(except for again the time limit and/or falling in lava, which causes you to lose all of your orbs permanently). The best(?) part is that AI characters can't pick up the orbs. 

-Lots of playable characters. The thing about these prior boss-attacks is that there's only a few characters to choose from. I believe the original arcade release had at least ten, the DC version comes close to quadrupling that amount. But you know what happens when you have a ton of characters running loose in any game?

Oh yes the point of this review is about balance. Balance is essential to any game. As the player improves the game must always keep up(or at least for a reasonable length of time). Balance is the life-blood of any fighting game yet in any game we see its importance being maintained. Spawn however is not balanced. In fact I will go as far as to say Spawn is broken. A broken game is in my opinion the worst kind. It is when elements make so little sense that the game itself suffers. Broken games tend to be ones that attempt new ideas which aren't properly followed through. They can also involve aspects which should be appealing to the player yet realistically they should be ignored as they're detriminal to the experience. The worst however when it comes to a broken game is that when you play under certain conditions it feels like cheating and yet you can't tell the difference.

Like Guardian Heroes, many of Spawn's characters are either pathetic(wolves, green berets, Soldier As & Bs? yuck) or game-breaking(Spawn IV with his one-hit kill swings, Gatekeeper with his dash instant-kills, etc) Guardian Heroes at least had the foresight to shove all of this into a single mode where no matter what you did it didn't amount to anything. It's there simply for a "do what you like and go crazy" mode and not for any serious exploration of game design. Spawn however does not account for this. All of the characters are playable in all modes. In fact the game doesn't even recognize you're using a busted character by refusing to keep track of your best time in boss-attack mode. So even if I were to use the most obscenely destructive characters in the game it'd be just the same as if I was using the default ones which are of mediocre strength and ability.

Unfortunately it doesn't stop there. In the boss-attack mode on a certain stage the boss will actually jump into the lava and kill himself if you leave him alone. I've played matches where the AI opponents will be five feet away from each other and do nothing at all. There have been Vs mode matches where my ally would constantly commit suicide off a cliff thus costing our team tons of points. Also why is it that AI characters can't pick up power-orbs or weapons? It'd certainly go a long way to make the matches more interesting(and at least show some semblance of balance). There's also a handful of characters(the larger ones I've noticed) that fall extremely quickly to machinegun fire. They certainly weren't like that when they were bosses, so why this change? Absolutely terrible.

Another major offender is the team-based aspects of this game. They never really add up. You're expected to work together to take out the bosses(especially since if you try to play solo you only fight half the number of bosses you would in co-op) yet there are factors that get in the way of this. For one characters on the same team can hurt each other. Granted it's only a fraction of the damage but if you get knocked into some lava well that's that. Sure one could mix it up by having one melee-based character and one gun-based to balance it out but gun characters in Spawn are rather weak overall(god forbid you try to solo with them, you'll never get anywhere). You could try playing support and just picking off the grunts that try to interrupt the guy working on the boss but that isn't very much fun at all.

To add to this while the bosses are pretty simple to figure out(most of their attacks can be dodged simply by running away) they hit HARD. It isn't a stretch to assume that one or two good hits will kill your character. How exactly does one go about balancing this out? You can't simply lessen the damage bosses do without lowering the damage your characters dish out. Even raising the time limit to balance this out you're left with fights that drag out way too long. The only real way you're supposed to balance this is by collecting the DEF powerups. However with the time limit in place there's really little chance of finding them all or at least enough to survive more than a couple hits. If it were up to me I'd lose the time penalty for getting killed, bump the default time to three & a half minutes, and give the player something like three lives that are replenished after each boss. Cause hey if somebody dies three times they're already going to lose the battle because that's a good 30 seconds off the clock. So why not make it quick and to the point by giving the player enough feedback to know when to play it safe or go for the kill. In fact I'll go ahead and say that bosses should have slightly less health. By the first minute of the boss fight you've already seen everything they're capable of so why drag it out any further? 

Even ignoring that what's the point of even playing this game well? No scores are saved outside of the fastest time to beat every boss in the regular modes(which you can "cheat" on anyway). Playing this game on anything resembling a serious tournament level would have to consider so many restrictions it probably wouldn't be the same game any more. At least skilled players in Marvel Vs Capcom 2 could find success working outside the usual suspects of Magneto, Storm, Sentinel, etc. 

Maybe Spawn is just supposed to be fun. Nothing serious about it just old-fashioned rumble in hell fun. I find that quite a depressing idea of fun especially coming from Capcom, a developer which has hardly ever failed when it comes to game design. Maybe I simply take gaming too seriously...oh well whatever.

Next up it's possible I'll look at Illbleed. Another game with a bunch of problems that nobody plays anymore.

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