Contra: Shattered Soldier
One of Konami's hottest franchises is back, and hard as nails. With freshness lavished upon a familiar game concept, is Shattered Soldier worth a look?
If nothing else, Contra: Shattered Soldier was born out of necessity. The dismal failure, at least critically, of the two then next-generation titles in the franchise must certainly have been a hard pill to swallow, especially given that it was third-party developer Appaloosa Interactive, and not the original team members, responsible for the PlayStation abominations, Contra: Legacy of War and C: The Contra Adventure. Helmed by Nobuya Nakazato, the man responsible for Contra: Hard Corps on the Genesis, Contra: Shattered Soldier looks to redeem its heritage somewhat and remind players that visceral run 'n' gun action is still a viable alternative to the hundred-hour RPGs and adventure titles so prevalent these days. Indeed, the title pays homage to its predecessors, and in some cases, draws inspiration directly from them; a fact sure to please the long-time fans, for whom this title was ultimately created.
Familiar elements aside, players will find that the gameplay has undergone a handful of changes, the most important being that power-ups can no longer be acquired during combat. Instead, players are armed with three weapons from the start, all of which can be switched on the fly, and all possessing ancillary modes of fire. As you might expect, this introduces a modicum of strategy to the gameplay, as one needs to discern which weapon will best serve the situation at hand. In truth, it does lessen the anxiety somewhat, as past games had players (especially in two-player mode) scrambling to attain their weapon of choice, and thereafter having to cherish it for as long as possible. The second, lesser change is that levels no longer need to be completed in linear order, instead players are free to choose which particular stage to tackle of the four that are initially available.
The levels themselves feature far fewer 'running segments' as it were, and in truth those portions that do exist serve only to bookend the series of mini-boss and boss battles that permeate the worlds. Mild disappointment is tempered by the fact that these boss encounters remain wholly inventive, and yes, very difficult. A myriad collection of transforming mechs, submarines, trains and the occasional irradiated beasty they may be, but battles against these monstrosities are intense, prolonged affairs, many of which endure multiple transformations. And with each new version comes an arsenal of varied attacks and weapons to avoid. To surmount these challenges, players are afforded a meager three lives, and a handful of continues (should you get that far, you may continue from the mid-point of a level), all of which whittle away before your very eyes, despite your best efforts to the contrary. It certainly warrants repeating, Contra: Shattered Soldier is hard, nay, very hard. Like its predecessors, it requires equal amounts of manual dexterity and memorization to beat. Knowing what to expect, and more importantly where to expect it, is vital to your continued survival.
Contra: Shattered Soldier goes against many of the trends that have emerged in the industry over the years; it's unashamedly difficult, it offers a basic, almost non-existent narrative and it's very short. But it is also these elements that make Contra what it is, and for not 'dumbing it down' or diluting something that many of us hold in mild reverence, Konami should be praised. And though it seems scant assurance, dedicated players will glean far more enjoyment than the hour it takes to finish the game -- once mastered of course, many more hours are required to get to that point -- would seem to proffer. At the end of each level, players are awarded a ranking based upon various factors, the most important being the Hit Rate, a percentile derived from the carnage wrought throughout each level. Various hidden modes as well as an alternate ending can be unlocked through excellent play.
A 3D model here and a lighting effect or two there does not a visual tour-de-force make, but for what it is, an update of a classic 2D franchise, Contra: Shattered Soldier is pleasing to the eye. It's a solid package that sports sharp textures and effective, if basic, animation. Of considerable note is the lighting, especially that of flames and explosions, rather fitting for a title that is centered around wanton combat, methinks. It is also considerably darker than previous incarnations, and by that I mean the color palette moreso than the actual content. Yet, it's a style that I rather like and hope to see reused in future iterations.
Subtle is perhaps the last word one should use when describing the soundtrack that accompanies Contra: Shattered Soldier. A cacophonous wall of metal and guitar riffs slam your ears for the duration of play, punctuated only by the incessant rattle of gunfire; the deep rumbling of explosions and the whine of charged beam weapons that singe the very air they travel through. That's not to say its bad, mind you, not at all. I am in fact rather partial to it, the fact that I'm going to need a hearing aid by the age of thirty notwithstanding. The bass-heavy sound will assuredly please those with powerful sound system.