Review: You'll want to get caught in this undertow.
Undertow is like the Rodney Dangerfield of video games ? it gets no respect. It debuted on Xbox Live Arcade the same week as Mass Effect and only two weeks after Call of Duty 4 ? which needless to say is the absolute worst timing for any game to launch, especially for a small developer like Chair Entertainment (who no doubt had a few choice words about Microsoft's chosen launch date). It then suffered the further indignity of being the token freebie to make up for Xbox Live's horrid performance over the Christmas holidays.
Even though it gets no respect ? no respect at all, I tell ya! ? Undertow still manages to win you over with its fast frantic action and gorgeous graphics.
And I do mean gorgeous. The game uses the Unreal Engine 3 and it shows; the 3-D underwater environments are incredibly beautiful, filled with lush plant life, fish, caves, ancient ruins and buildings that have an eerie Bioshock look to them. The explosions look fantastic with fireballs engulfed in smoke-filled bubbles. Naturally, the texture detail and polygon count can't match a full-sized game but the impressive lighting and shadow effects do an excellent job of creating what is easily the best looking game on XBLA.
The audio effects are equally impressive with booming explosions and unique weapons fire that have just the right amount of underwater muffling. Trust me, when the action gets heavy your subwoofer will get a very pleasant workout.
Of course, good looks mean nothing if the game stinks; fortunately, Undertow doesn't have that week-old fish smell. At first glance it seems like any other of the gazillion arcade shooters on XBLA but once you spend some time swimming its waters, it begins to feel like a much bigger game. Best described as Battlefield meets Geometry Wars, Undertow is a class-based 2-D shooter that has two teams battling for control over capture points. These capture points also act as respawn bases so it's important to grab as many as possible. Each kill reduces the other team's ticket or ?lives left? count, and you win when your opponent's ticket count is reduced to zero or if you control every capture point, which prevents the other team from respawning.
Geometry Wars vets will feel right at home as you move with the left stick while you aim and shoot with the right. The right trigger gives you a quick dash while the left drops a huge depth charge (assuming you picked one up first).
You can choose from one of four classes: the fast but weak Marine, the slower but stronger Dragoon, the rocket launching Corsair, or the slow but devastatingly powerful Destroyer. You can upgrade your class to three levels, gaining speed and power with each increment. You can also switch your class when you respawn, allowing you to adjust your tactics as the battle situation changes.
The story takes place after an alien race attacks Earth and melts the polar ice caps, flooding the entire planet and forcing humanity to live underwater. Three races ? the Iron Marines, the Nemoidians (humans who follow a Bioshock lifestyle) and the ancient Atlantians ? are all fighting for control of the seas. The story is pretty basic and has more holes than a sea sponge but surprisingly, unfolds through actual cutscenes. Sure, the animation is jerky and the voice acting is horrid but the cutscenes are nonetheless a pleasant feature for a small XBLA game.
The single player campaign takes place across 15 unique levels that are filled with nooks and crannies for hiding or taking cover, tunnels that provide multiple pathways to each base, and tons of powerups to increase speed, firepower, shields and to supply you with those oh so handy depth charges. There are also health powerups but these are only needed if you are caught in a swarm; otherwise your health will automatically regenerate if you stay out of the line of fire for a few moments. Some maps even have death traps, including one where you can activate a massive nuke. Cool!
You'll need to bring your ?A? game because the enemy AI is very aggressive. They travel in groups, usually armed to the teeth with the strongest classes and will swarm your bases. This wouldn't be too bad if the friendly AI also worked together in groups but unfortunately, they just go wandering off on their own and end up as cannon fodder. This can make the single player campaign frustratingly difficult at times since you are essentially on your own. There are four difficulty levels and the easiest Casual setting is where you will want to start until you get a feel for the gameplay and different classes. The difficulty ramps up quickly as you move up the levels so for those looking for a challenge, this is it. Fortunately, you can tackle the campaign with a buddy as it supports two-player co-operative play but even so, the friendly AI is just too stupid to do anything but increase the enemy's kill count.
However, multiplayer is where you will likely spend most of your time. Supporting up to 16 players and two gametypes (deathmatch and Conquest), this is where Undertow really shines. The game plays like a poor man's Battlefield with similar strategies: do you rush forward and capture as many bases as you can? Maybe distract the enemy with a frontal assault while a small team flanks for a sneak attack? Or do you sit back and defend? Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 may be the shooter fan's current favorites but Undertow's frantic and fun multiplayer action definitely has enough to entertain even the most hardcore FPS gamer. And if you can't get a full room of people, you can fill the empty slots with bots.
There are a few shortcomings: although the maps are gorgeous, many of them look and feel a bit too similar. The gameplay can also get repetitive with only two game types. Also, it's very easy to lose track of your tiny character when there is a lot of action on the screen; this means you'll often end up shooting at the wrong target because you think you're another character, or you'll be frantically trying to attack only to realize you've been dead for the past few seconds and didn't realize it. You can zoom the camera in to make your character appear bigger, but you'll lose a substantial amount of long range vision. Overall, however, Undertow is a fun shooter that was a fantastic value at 800 Marketplace Points ($10) and even better if you grabbed it for free.