Thursday, April 27, 2006


Rampage: Total Destruction

It's easy to have a cynical view of the video game industry. Crappy games with popular licenses and characters get squeezed out year after year in the name of turning out a profit. It's hard to shake the feeling that there's an assembly line mentality in the offices of most game developers these days. Games are being produced with all the care and attention of a McDonald's hamburger. Where is the love? Where is the art?

It's still out there. You can still see it fromt time to time from Nintendo and Sega (even if they're just as guilty of rolling out cookie-cutter garbage). Even in this world where game studios swallow up smaller ones rather than come up with original content of their own, there still exist places like Natsume, who seem to survive on the strength of a single franchise that they tend and nurture as lovingly as the tomato plants that players plant in their Harvest Moon games.

Every once in a while, the cynicism cracks. A game comes out that doesn't look or smell or taste like a cash-in. There are no false promises or unfulfilled expectations, just a small, lovely piece of interactive media that feels like a gift, as if it came from someone who really, honestly cares about what they're doing.

It's the feeling I got when I played Rampage: Total Destruction. It's been in development for well over a year, and not a single aspect of the game feels rushed. It feels tight and organized like no previous Rampage game has. Both of the arcade Rampage games have been included as bonus content, and you can play with them immediately. And best of all, the game is sold in the US for only $20. Everything about it screams "labor of love". Professional reviewers haven't been very kind to it, but this isn't for them -- it's a gift for the fans.

The Beasts Who Ate New York

As lovingly explained in the game's opening cinema, you have been transformed into a forty-foot beast by Scum Soda, the latest consumer product to come out of Scum Labs. Since there's precious little entertainment for a forty-foot beast, you set out to destroy a few major cities as the military tries to stop you. You climb buildings, you smash buildings, you smash helicopters and cars and busses and tanks, and you eat people.

I was pleased that Rampage made the transition to 3D successfully. This is owed in no small part to the fact that the game is still presented from a fixed perspective and the player has limited depth to wander through. I'm glad they went light on the 3D aspects of the game; it's the sort of thing that can break your gameplay if you don't implement it just right. I'm not sure that the game would benefit from having free-roaming aspects. It'd take forever to clear out an entire city even if you had a modest six by six blocks to clear out.

Instead of offering up hundreds of small cities to smash through, Total Destruction offers only seven major cities to visit: Las Vegas, San Francisco, London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Hong Kong, and New York. While it sucks that most people won't get to play in a level named after their home town, the tradeoff makes up for it. Every city is broken up into 8-10 blocks, and you have to clear one block to move on to the next. The blocks are small, but they'll keep you busy. Unlike the arcade games, which crowded their streets with boringly similar skyscrapers, Total Destruction has a lot more custom-designed architecture and recognizable real-world landmarks to smash. For example, one of the blocks in Chicago is the Sears Tower, a single building. However, the thing is enormous, and it breaks apart in six pieces. In the last block of every city, there's a "boss" vehicle driven by the scientist who created you. You don't have to destroy it, but if it prevents you from beating the block within a time limit, you lose a life.

Frankly, I really like the change in scope. The arcade games droned on and on for hours, cities blurred into each other indistinguishably. Total Destruction is more compact and a lot more interesting to look at. It has fewer levels, but they don't wear out their welcome quite as quickly. You also get a much better sense of the size of one of these large cities you're destroying. It feels like much more of an accomplishment to waste block after block of a city rather than just knocking down a screenful of buildings. Besides, the whole point is to go after the big cities, am I right?

Gotta Catch 'Em All

The Campaign mode, where you travel from city to city to win the game, can be enjoyed as a mindless bashfest by one or two players. If -- and only if -- that gets dull, you can try and find some hidden characters who are being kept prisoner in cryonic tubes throughout the cities. Midway went above and beyond the call of duty to bring us thirty playable characters. George, Lizzie, and Ralph are all playable from the start, along with Ramsey the Ram, Rhett the Rat, and Gilman the Blowfish. The new characters have awesome designs -- I didn't much care for the new characters in Rampage: Universal Tour, but the creatures they've come up with for this game are imaginative and cool. There's a giant gator, a venus flytrap, a squid, a jackalope, an armadillo, an echidna, a cyclops, a bull, a lion, and on and on and on. To make sure you get as much play out of the game as possible, some characters can only be unlocked by a particular monster or monsters -- you can't just stick with your favorite character if you want to find them all, which means you'll need to get used to how the different characters handle.

That's right, monsters have unique abilities this time around. On top of statistics for speed, power, and jumping ability, some monsters have special abilities, like a cobra that's immune to poison items in buildings and a fire monster that gets healed by fire.

On top of that, there are four special techniques. They're the same for every monster, but you have to earn them for each particular monster by taking it through Campaign mode and succeeding at the special challenge presented in every block. Sometimes you have to destroy a certain number of tanks, sometimes you have to eat a certain number of businessmen. This isn't really a problem -- the challenges aren't really difficult, it just means you'll have to get some use out of your favorite character before he's fully charged. This can be sort of a bring-down for multiplayer though -- if your friend wants to play as a character you've neglected, he won't have the full choice of commands available.

Thankfully, you can choose any city that you have access to when you begin Campaign mode. No need to waste time in Las Vegas when you've found everything there already.

King of the Monsters

Two people can play cooperatively in Campaign mode, but you're restricted to four lives apiece. When you run out, you have to start the block over again. That can be kind of a drag when you want to play competitive multiplayer. Fortunately, there's two different modes specifically for multiplayer: King of the City and King of the World. King of the City is a contest to see who can destroy more city blocks than the competition. You can select any city in the game to play on -- even ones you haven't unlocked in Campaign mode -- and choose to play at day or night. King of the World is the same deal, except that you have to win more cities than the competition. You play for score, and players get unlimited lives. Up to four players can compete in the Gamecube version (only 2 on PS2). My favorite part: for the first time ever, you can include CPU-driven bots in multiplayer mode. It's really quite a bit like a giant monster Super Smash Brothers.

My experience with the game is still pretty limited, but it's been unquestionably positive so far. I think this may be the best version of Rampage ever. It really does feel like a gift for the fans. I can stomp around the roof of the Parliament building in London and gobble up mimes in the streets of Las Vegas. I'm feeling the love.


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