Review: We're gonna deathmatch like it's 1994
Back in the day, first person shooters were in their infancy, and though titles like Wolfenstein 3D, Quake, and Doom were intense FPS experiences, they were fairly straightforward 'corridor' shooters where the objective was to travel from room to room, kill everything in sight, use colored keycards to open doors, etc. Storyline wasn't emphasized though there was some attempt to explain what was going on. Aside from Bungie's Mac franchise Marathon (the forerunner of Halo, the similarities are uncanny), story had no place in FPS, it was all about the action. In many ways though, that's just how it was in gaming back then, especially since the FPS genre was all about deathmatching via the Internets or with friends at this time. Along the line, the FPS genre has been revolutionized ? games like Half-Life, Halo, and Riddick (amongst many others) brought the concept that you could kill lots of stuff and solve lots of puzzles while being immersed in a storyline strong enough to not be a backdrop or even a hindrance to all the shooting.
Why the history lesson? Blame Coded Arms, the very first FPS for the PlayStation Portable. Developed and published in Japan of all places by Konami, Coded Arms can only be seen as a throwback game ? while there's a basic storyline, it's all about shooting stuff and moving from room to room in old-school corridor style, and of course, deathmatching against friends who own a PSP. For some, this will be a refreshing, nostalgic experience, bringing back the days of playing Doom and shooting those damn aliens before they get you, and for others it will seem old, broken, and almost antiquated in comparison to recent entires in the genre like Halo 2, Half-Life 2, and Far Cry. There's no doubt that Coded Arms has a unique style, and the Matrix
like theme of 'jacking in' to a virtual reality is pretty neat, but your enjoyment of the game will largely based on whether you like old-school shootouts or new-school cerebral tactics. That, and of course, getting adjusted to the N64 style controls. If anything, it's a novelty ? a look at a genre dominated by the West, done in the artistic and gameplay-first style of the East.
Though the story of Coded Arms is far from emphasized and largely forgotten after the opening cutscene, it's at least there to explain why you're playing. Basically, a government-developed virtual reality battlefield for soldier training (think VR missions in MGS, I wonder if Raiden went through this training?) has gone haywire and malfunctioned due to hackers and viruses creating monsters out to destroy the minds of those who enter; like a game such as Xenosaga or a movie like the aforementioned Matrix
, those who die in the VR world after jacking in will live on in body, but their minds will be destroyed leaving them basically drones. But because there's a large reward for anyone who can repair the damage, brave souls continually try for said fame and fortune. Once your nameless, faceless, personalityless character jacks in (we're not talking Master Chief here), the story is almost forgotten about, as it takes a backseat to blowing the hell out of things at every turn. In addition to the single-player adventure, there's a deathmatch option for 4 players via Ad Hoc, as well as a Last Man Standing gameplay type. Unforunately, there's no actual Infrastructure online play, which would have given the game a bigger boost in the PSP community. Multi is still quite fun though ? with randomized maps, you never get a comfort zone in knowing the ins and outs of a particular one.
When Coded Arms first was announced, FPS enthusiasts likely raised an eyebrow for one simple reason ? controls. In this day and age, first person shooters have thrived on consoles, mostly due to the advent of dual-analog controllers, allowing for PC-style movement and aiming (though many hardcore PC gamers will surely scoff at that remark). Previously, the best way was the Goldeneye 007 method of using the analog stick for forward movement and strafing, with the 4 face buttons serving as the method for turning or looking up/down. Most certainly that didn't stop Goldeneye or Perfect Dark from being two of the most beloved console shooters ever, but at that time, it was the best possible thing out there until dual-analog configuration was possible...though technically it was possible in the PlayStation era once the Dual Shock released, it didn't really garner any notoriety until Halo blew everyone away in 2001.
So, back to Coded Arms. PSP fans know the one thing that's missing from the PSP that separates it from the home consoles ? a 2nd analog stick. Though it could have been done, Sony left it off for whatever reason. Because of this, Coded Arms ? already old-school in nature as it is ? will likely feel old in this regard. Using the analog nub to move and the face buttons for turning/looking is certainly not as natural or intuitive as a 2nd analog stick would have been, though thankfully it can be adjusted to your own devices. Many seem to favor a traditionally 'left-handed' scheme of using the face buttons to move and strafe with the analog nub being used for looking and turning. I wasn't really fond of that scheme though, since the d-pad is used for switching weapons and reaching like that is a bit weird. Any way you slice it though, Coded Arms has a control scheme that you can get used to, but it will never be as accurate or intuitive as that 2nd analog nub. I almost think they should have gone with a Metroid Prime style control system system; it would have helped the game tremendously and we wouldn't need to be having this discussion. Though, it would make the multiplayer a bit boring with the lock-on and shoot style.
Within the single player, the levels are split into 'sectors', each containing a set amount of maps to play through. At the start there's only a few maps per sector, but eventually there's a ton of maps you need to clear to advance to the next sector. Like the mutiplayer maps, they're all randomized, though if you die and continue the map remains the same. Regardless of sector, each map has a goal, to reach the blue marker that transports you to the next level. Sometimes the marker is always there, and other time you must 'unlock' it by completing an objective, be it clearing a room of enemies, defeating the 'gatekeeper', or some other task. Some maps have an 'escape' marker to return to the real world for weapon switching or just to take a breather and save, though you can save at any time and restart on whatever map you saved on. There's not a lot of unique aspects to any map, as Coded Arms is more about shooting stuff and blowing things up, but the random map idea is sound and means every time you play through the game (though it's arguable to whether the game is worth more than once playthrough) it will be a different experience.
Though the maps might be generic due to the random nature, the weapon selection is far from it. Coded Arms definitely has 'arms' to use, with 30 different weapons, from pistols to shotguns to sniper rifles to rocket launchers to various grenade types. And in Japanese fashion, there's even RPG elements to the weapons; as you collect 'files' off defeated enemies, your weapons 'level up' and become stronger and carry more ammunition. The ammo upgrade is vital, since this is not a game where it's easy to find bullets ? every shot counts if you want to get by a stage. Your character also levels up and gets better, stronger armor and an HP increase so you live longer in more difficult levels. Recovering ammo and health is pretty simple ? you get it from defeated enemies. However there is one annoying aspect to this ? ammo is marked with just one common icon, so knowing exactly what ammo you're getting is impossible. Health items are fairly plentiful, and so are 'virus' recovery pickups for when you get 'infected' by certain enemies. There's plenty of enemy types to boot, from 'altered' humans (likely those who died inside the VR), rolling turrets who commit suicide to harm you, giant...spider things, and whatnot.
For all its worth, Coded Arms is a puzzling little game that feels pretty good but ultimately has a lot of issues. While AI is not horrible, it's still flawed and simplistic even on harder difficulty levels ? it's more about how well you aim your weapon rather than dealing with challenging enemies, though thankfully there's always new enemy types as you progress. The nature of game is quite repetitive as well, since the basic gist is merely going from corridor to corridor, room to room and just shoot to kill. Unlike many first-person shooters from today, there's no interesting story or unique gameplay elements to immerse you into the game, instead every level, map, and sector is basically the same. Thus this is not the kind of game you play for hours on end, instead you play a few maps at a time to progress through the game, which is admittedly perfect for a portable system such as the PSP, where quick fixes are essential. Even load times are minimal, with just a few seconds loading between maps. Modern-day FPS fans will definitely turn their noses up at the game, while old-school FPS gamers likely will have fond memories of blasting from room to room.
Though it may seem limited in terms of color, Coded Arms is a very nice looking game. The VR style might seem drab and dull, but the artistic merit is strong, rendering a world that looks computerized and artificial. In a lot of ways the visual style reminds of other Konami classics like Metal Gear Solid (the original) and Zone of the Enders (the original, not the anime-esque sequel). Various touches remind of the virtual world ? when you miss an enemy and hit a wall or object it creates a weird effect that looks like altering of program code. When you defeat an enemy, it doesn't 'die', it instead disappears as if it were a program on a computer being deleted and thrown in the trash. There is some nice explosion effects when you shoot a barrel or any other potent item in a room, and in a gameplay sense it makes for a good time, hoarding enemies around an explosive barrel and getting a 2 for 1 kill sale. And best part is, the game keeps a smooth frame-rate throughout. The audio is minimal at best, with a looping action theme when you get into a firefight, but otherwise silence is the way of things with just the sound of your character walking around a map. Guns and explosions sound really nice and big, pushing the PSP's speakers to its limit.