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Gastronaut Studios
Gastronaut Studios
GENRE: Fighting
PLAYERS:   1-4
November 22, 2006
 Written by Glenn Wigmore  on December 07, 2006

Review: The illegitimate lovechild of Worms and Smash Bros. arrives on the Xbox Live Arcade in the form of Small Arms.

Small Arms comes to the Xbox Live Arcade as the first ?original? game in some time. There has been quite a stretch where only updated retro classics have been released (with the poor Totemball and problematic Lumines as the exceptions), and it was about time for something new and different to show up. Luckily, the wait has been worth it as Small Arms provides a wacky sense of style that complements the game's excellent online play.

As the tag says, Small Arms shares some stylistic and gameplay similarities to games such as Smash Bros. and Worms. Smash Bros. is a fairly appropriate comparison because Small Arms basically puts you into a battle arena with the same side perspective as that found in Smash Bros. In the arena, four competitors will punch, kick, shoot, stab, freeze, electrocute and bomb each other to death in order to be the sole survivor. The main difference from Smash Bros. is that the emphasis here is on shooting and distance fighting. Smash Bros. had this element as well, but was more of a close-up fighting experience. Small Arms reverses that and has the shooting and sniping take prominence, but the close-up action can still happen. This being said, Small Arms still plays very ?intimately,? and you'll be hopping around like mad just to put some distance between you and your enemies.

The action gets pretty hairy in Small Arms, and the crazy weapons available and the characters that wield them amplify this fact. The game features 12 different characters (not all available from the start), and they all have goofy costumes and bios. Pector El Pollo is a mutant rooster who was once a famous Mexican wrestler; he comes complete with a flamethrower with scythe bayonet. Mousey McNuts is a 19th Century ?ragamuffin? who looks every part the London chimney sweep, but he also carries two pistols that deliver devastating damage. Then you've got Mr. Truffles, a suit-wearing pig that carries a sniper rifle (doing his best Agent 47 routine). The characters found in Small Arms are quite original, and it helps that each one of them has a different starting weapon to differentiate them from the others. The characters themselves don't behave particularly differently while in battle, but some do move about in unique ways (the robot has jump jets as opposed to conventional jumping, for instance).

Everyone can use any weapon found within the game, but they will have to be picked up throughout the battlefield as you run out of ammo (you'll respawn after a death with that character's specific weapon). Other weapons include a ?goo? gun that fires globs of slime, a crossbow with explosive rounds, and a sweet-looking electricity gun that can fire Ghostbusters-esque ?streams? or charged up bursts. The guns all have secondary fire options so you'll be able to press the right trigger to fire the gun conventionally, but pressing the left trigger will usually deploy some sort of secondary firing mode or weapon (the sniper rifle carries the secondary fire of a mine, for example). Melee attacks are also part of the game, but in very specific circumstances. More often than not, you'll only resort to the punching and kicking when you're out of ammo or when you want to knock an opponent away from you when they're too close. The melee action works pretty well, and it's fairly amusing to use your gun to bludgeon an enemy to the ground.

Another variable to the action is the levels that you will play in. Just like Smash Bros., the levels in Small Arms all contain unique terrain, objects, and design. In fact, the design is very reminiscent of Worms, especially with the color palette of the levels and the goofy locales you'll be battling through. One level has the characters fighting on a speeding train, and the camera moves progressively along ? like certain levels in Mario games ? meaning you won't want to get ?left behind? as the camera pans to the right. Each level is visually engaging and interesting to try out, and you'll be battling near outhouses, in factories, beside waterfalls, and even inside a tornado (complete with flying buses, tires, outhouses, and buildings).

The characters control well enough, but there is actually a bit more of a learning curve than might be expected for a casual game. Maneuvering your character around with the left stick works similarly to Smash Bros., but the aiming actually handles with the right stick, almost like games such as Geometry Wars. Essentially, as you move the right stick, the character's gun points at the corresponding position, meaning you have to manually aim your shots and think about trajectory of certain weapons (like Worms). This does actually end up working well, but it is something that many players will have to work at for a few rounds to get used to. As for jumping, it works with a press of the A button, but you can also double jump with another press. The double jump is a bit dicey, as it isn't always clear when you have to press the A button to get a second jump, and this can result in some deaths or mishaps that sometimes don't seem fair. The Y button dash function can almost create a sort of ?triple jump,? as you can do the two jumps and then press Y to sort of dash ? in midair ? to the side and gain a bit more altitude. This dash move does create some dramatic saves as your character can grab onto ledges if he/she gets close enough. The controls definitely work, but you'll have to stick with them in order to understand the very specific way in which the game moves and plays.

The single-player portion of the game consists of a training mode, a mission mode, a shooting range, and a challenge mode. The training mode just takes you through the motions of controlling the game, and the shooting range allows you to practice firing the game's weapons at some floating targets up above. The mission mode puts you through various game levels while upping the amount and difficulty of your opponents. The challenge mode puts you against a never-ending stream of baddies while giving you occasional food pickups (the game's health item). The solo options in Small Arms actually present a reasonable challenge, especially since the game tweaks the amount of enemies you'll face and how competent they are. More often than not, you'll be running around avoiding three characters and trying to blow them away with what little ammo you have. Up close the AI isn't too bright, but none of the characters are pushovers, and the variance in weapons they carry will keep you on your toes.

The action for Small Arms really picks up when going online. You'll be able to compete in a battle mode with up to four players, and all of the same characters, weapons, and levels are available to you. The feature set online is actually quite deep, and you'll be able to assign bots to your matches if you don't have enough human players. Even when those human players do show up, they'll be able to drop into the game seamlessly, much like UNO does. Online plays totally smooth with no lag, and you'll be able to quickly setup your matches with minimal hassle. The amount of havoc and chaos going on with four human players is totally hilarious, and the interplay between the various weapons and the way in which people race to grab food pickups is silly fun. There are leaderboards available for small arms, too, and these help track your stats for online battles, as well as for your times in the challenge mode. Small Arms supports downloadable content, so presumably some new weapons, maps or characters will make their way to the Marketplace at some point.

The visual and audio presentation of the game is fantastic. The characters are all infused with lots of personality, and each of them animates very distinctly in the game's menu as well as in the game. The characters are done in 3D, and all of the levels have sort of a 2-and-a-half dimension look to them, pretty much like Smash Bros. and Worms. The weapon effects for the electricity, ice, fire, and gunfire look tremendous for a Live Arcade game, and equally impressive are the backgrounds and environmental effects such as those in the tornado or on the train. This is easily one of the best-looking Live Arcade games to date. The sound achieves a similar level of quality to the visuals, especially with the music. The beats in the game are simplistic, but they fit each level very well, and the selections work because of their simplicity (kind of like Marble Blast Ultra). The sound effects and voice quips are uniformly good throughout the game, as well. The characters all have little voice quips that give them some fun personality, and the weapons all sound distinct and satisfying when fired. On the visual and audio front, Gastronaut Studios managed to pack in a lot of depth and quality, the likes of which has rarely been seen on Live Arcade.

Achievements are used quite well in Small Arms, and you'll be rewarded for getting various kill combos on the opposition, winning online matches, and achieving a good score in the shooting range. Small Arms also has one of the new ?viral? achievements where you can only get the achievement by playing with someone who has been ?infected? with said achievement; these are sound ideas as they are creative use of the achievement system and they encourage online play of the title.

Small Arms delivers lots of frantic four-player action and plays very well online. There are a few control quirks that have to be understood (although the double jump is a bit janky, regardless), but the game is still very interesting to look at and very fun to play.

Bottom Line
Small Arms is entertaining because of its excellent presentation and over-the-top multiplayer hijinks. Additionally, the game benefits from a well-designed feature set that includes unique characters, bot support, drop-in and drop-out features for online play, and proper tutorials.

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