As I noted a little while back, from time to time I’ll be re-running some of my old (and long as hell, sorry!) reviews from a few dead sites I wrote for with no updates, but corrections and edits where necessary. Here’s one for a favorite Xbox game that still holds up almost ten years later as a great (albeit somewhat gory) gem you may have missed. Enjoy!
Ah, the mentality of the American gamer. Whenever a bargain game shows up on store shelves, only the bravest of the brave (or those cheap bastards like me who’re unwilling to pay full price for a name title) pony up the pocket change for most of these cheapies and figure “Well, it’s a budget game, but I need my fix!” as they go home, close their eyes and think of England (you’ll only get that joke if you’re older than 30 or are a bit of a history buff).
It turns out that some of these games are good, some are really good, and a rare few are of the “Wait… THIS cost twenty bucks?!” caliber. Majesco‘s new release, Raze’s Hell fits snugly into the latter category, and if you’re looking for a game that’s going to grab you by the short hairs and pull hard while smacking both your funny bones, disco down to your nearest game shop and bring a few friends with you- you‘re in for a treat…
Artech Studios has put together a super-tough 20 level long third person action shooter that takes a generic plot found in plenty of other games and pumps it full of references to current events. Skewering things like agenda led cable “news” anchors, a war designed around a hidden agenda, and a few other nicely subversive elements, any other game using these elements more seriously would probably never get away with such “shocking” relevant content in the current climate. The game also throws a superb visual monkey wrench right off the bat with the uber-cute Kewletts as the enemy, and the not even remotely attractive Raze as the one-man…er, monster army out to stop the slaughter of his people in the name of cuteness. Some folks who see the back of the package or look at screenshots will probably think this is a pre-emptive strike on Rare’s upcoming Conker game, but they’d be way off base. The gameplay styles and overall plot are quite different and gamers who know better than to criticize any title for a lack of originality will actually finish this one and seen the nice surprise at the end. Raze speaks not a word, can’t jump, his weapons are organic, and there are no bosses in the game until the end, and even that’s not a “true” video game boss if you stop and think about it.
If anything, the only things both games really share are real moments of crushing difficulty, especially if you’re expecting that twenty bucks to buy you a short and easy “run through a level and shoot stuff” romp where little fuzzies run away screaming as you blow holes in their cute little heads. You do get to do some of that, but it’s about 16 levels into a game where the AI is bordering on brilliant and emplaced guns and plenty of assorted Kewletts have robbed Raze of every drop of blue blood in his angry body a good number of times. But the game isn’t frustrating at all if you play it correctly. Simply running into a mission without scoping out the area and sniping faraway enemies is a huge tactical mistake that’ll cause untold frustration. Forget that the Kewletts don’t look dangerous at all, as they’re crack shots, can block, dodge and roll away from your attacks, and when they kill you, they’ll pose and flex over your corpse like gung-ho jarheads on an adrenaline high. The AI isn’t cheap here- you truly feel at times as if you’re taking on an entire army well paid to do their jobs.
Helicopter ambushes, small minefields that require clearing out any hidden and visible enemies before quickly and carefully traversing them, metal-clad Kewtenators warping in in increasingly frightening numbers, manned turrets that can cut you down in less than a second if you don’t move fast enough, and really annoying fat grenade tossing bears will have you swearing a little and planning more all will most likely kill Raze at some point. You’ll come across a few more enemy types, but I’ll let you discover them on your own (hopefully before they discover YOU, that is)…
But you’ll keep playing just to see what else the game’s designers and programmers have come up with around that next corner. The AI reacts to Raze quite realistically rather with easily memorized scripted responses. You’ll catch guys off guard every now and then, but once you’re spotted, its kill or be killed. There’s a way through each of the assorted situations the game throws you into- it’s up to you and Raze’s interesting weapons to figure out what to do. Raze needs to collect plant or insect-based ammo called squibs by slashing or shooting bulbous plants scattered around the landscape. You’ll also find squibs in small and large crates collected by the Kewletts for whatever reason. Are these spoils of war? Will they end up as decorative objects or souvenirs for sale in Kewtopia? They look like hard candy? This squib hoarding fetish isn’t explained in the game, but it’s the only real gaffe here in the game’s writing. Then again, Raze needs to find ammo somehow in the game as he can’t pick up and use discarded enemy weapons.
This dynamic actually makes parts of the action extremely tense. If you’re low on squibs and coming up on an area full of enemies, you’ll be trying to figure a way past them to a well guarded stash in an enemy truck or crates. You’re about to cut around to the right and sneak up on a Kewlett with his back to you, when a sniper you didn’t see spies you from afar and starts sending shots your way. Other, nearby enemies start firing as well, some Kewtenators warp in, and the fun begins. There are no med-kits spinning around or healing stations to raid here. Raze needs to feast on raw Kewlett meat to survive, and the game shows no mercy toward them, with plenty of M-rated gore and glistening bits exploding and bouncing about, sometimes spewing a small fountain of blood for long, uproarious seconds. That blood (and Raze’s) stays all over the maps it’s spilled on, making the battlefields look gorier than almost any other more popular action game I’ve seen recently.
Back to the writing for a minute- if you’re not laughing out loud at the initially happy-happy joy-joy good speak chatter that escalates into outright nasty name-calling and eventually a betrayal among the two talking head anchors in the game, you’re missing out on some prime satire here. The princess also has some choice screen time in the game, and as her initial deceptive cuteness gives way to far more sinister and hidden motives, you’ll be rooting for Raze or someone not swayed by her omnipotence to take her out (and I don’t mean to a really expensive restaurant). There are a couple of cool, albeit slightly disturbing plot twists here and there, but the cute/evil skew to things just makes the game all the more surreal and wickedly good fun. The other stuff about the resistance fighters and Raze helping them through their battles and rescuing members here and there is slightly less steady, but only because it’s pretty much standard issue action game material. But it links well in the end with the rest of the story, so it all works out in for the better.
The controls are very well thought out, and Raze controls like any solid 3rd person shooter with a 1st person shooter pad layout. As I said before, he can’t jump at all, but he can curl into an armored ball and roll through unsuspecting enemies, splattering them on your TV with a wash of blood and chunky bits. The great thing is that you can’t simply abuse the roll mechanic, as Raze is quite vulnerable while using it. Striking an enemy or some obstructions in the environments actually causes him varying degrees of damage, and he’s not bulletproof by a long shot. Raze is also not a fast runner (being armored and all), but that’s not really an issue as his weapons are pretty deadly. You’ll come across at least 11 here- 10 different squib types and the occasional blinding patch of fire from destroyed ammo dumps or lit Ignitor fluid, which can be inhaled and spit back at enemies as a short range flamethrower.
The weapons range from the machine gun-like Ripper and shotgun-like Smasher to the Bloater, a squib that inflates unarmored enemies like helium balloons until they’re popped by a well-aimed (or stray) shot, to the Lurker and Seeker, ground and air based guided explosives, respectively. The game is balanced enough that you’ll get to use each of the weapons in one way or another and come to have a favorite to fall back on in those tough moments. Sniping fans will appreciate the punch of charged Spiker shots as well as the Driller’s double zoom and one hit surety for most fleshy enemies. One excellent design choice by Artech was not to go the usual route of allowing players to find some sort of all purpose BFG mid game or for the end level to make short work of horded of enemies. Raze has to make do with what’s placed in each level, and if you’re foolish enough to expend all your ammo on some soft targets you could have used a melee attack on instead, prepare to restart from a checkpoint or the beginning of a stage.
Raze’s Hell is a pretty nice looking game that uses highly stylized visuals that really make you feel as if you’re on another world. While a quick glance at a screenshot may show things to be a little barren and some graphics whores may nitpick over what seems like a lack of detail, if you play around with the game camera in a quiet spot, you’ll see Artech has put a great deal of care into the game. Rocks and giant crystals give off a subtle sheen or shine, Raze and all the other characters in the game are lit impressively throughout the different maps, and the blinding smoke, fire, and clouds of dust here make for some almost beautiful battle sequences. Those pesky Kewletts die in any number of over the top histrionics, keeling over and flopping for long seconds while gasping out long-winded final words like “I’m coming back to haunt you…as…a…adorable…ghost”, or “So that’s what head trauma feels like”, among many others. The lighting deserves special mention, especially in the assorted caves Raze goes spelunking in (some great use of luminosity and filtered light) and the grim, yet stunning skies above ground. I loved the little rat/anteater looking creatures in the later levels (cute, but probably bad house pets), and the ugliness of the bipedal Schnows you’ll come across (one of which helps you get through a level).
Kewtopia is a complete and striking contrast, with bright colors all over, oddly shaped housing, that green, green grass with a weird cut to it, and all those dopey looking square cars that the Kewletts drive with hearts and flowers all over and those teeny wheels (too bad they’re not destructible, though). It’s a bright, shiny 8-bit world made over in full 3D, and you half expect a certain plumber to double jump his way past the gunfire at some point. For all the graphic coolness, the game takes a hit in the frame rate department with a bit of chug during really insane battles. This isn’t a game killer, but it’s noticeable enough to whine about in such an otherwise cool budget title. After playing through the game twice, I can safely say that you’ll never die because the action stutters a bit. On a more positive note, the music in he game is just incredible, ranging from dark, somber tones to the freakishly off-kilter themes that play throughout Raze’s Kewtopian shooting holiday. Oh, and the voices and rich sound effects just rock, period. You’ll spend loads of time just hiding nearby listening and laughing your ass off at the assorted quotes the Kewletts spout off as they take jabs at themselves, Raze, general nonsense and even video games as the game progresses.
There’s a split screen co-op mode here (as well as Xbox Live play) if you want to bring a friend along, but be aware that as in Halo, the second Raze isn’t explained at all. You just pop in a second controller and he’s there, ready for action. To keep things less confusing, Raze 2 is a different color, but has all the same skills. I think you get the same amount of resources as in the solo game, so you’ll need to commiserate with your partner to make sure you’re not fighting over ammo caches. There are also a series of challenging mini-games that range from stealth missions to survival maps and hilarious takes on golf and soccer, all moderated by a goofy announcer who you’ll love or hate (he’s a master of terrible puns). But you’ll forgive him for his horrible brogue because some of his jokes are actually chuckle-worthy.
Complaints are few here – the difficulty will turn some players off, as will the blood and gore, but these aren’t really gripes at all, just statement of facts. I was disappointed that those hideous Kewtopian cars are invincible to everything Raze or anyone else shoots at them, but those cargo-carrying trucks from earlier maps can be blown up with enough ordinance sent their way. One of the cool things I’ll grouse about a tiny bit is the wonderful bonus footage that runs after you compete the game. You get to see the original concept from 2001 and how it evolved into what eventually got put on the game disc. the running commentary (delivered in those crazy Kewlett voices) is a hoot as we see Raze go from a cute blue fuzzball with two thick legs and and a curly snout to a mean-looking laser shooting bipedal thing during the just over three minutes the clip runs. Unfortunately, you can’t access this as an extra at all,so you’ll need to beat the last level again to see it if you’re that curious.
Other than that, this one’s a total keeper and as noted, a STEAL at $20. I’m not sure what Artech is working on next, but this is one of those games with an ending that sets up some sort of sequel quite nicely. I don’t know if we’ll eve see it, though. At this price, I’m thinking even if it does well, Majesco may have shot itself in the foot for making so much game so little money. Then again, I’d gather they felt the best way to move a new IP was to keep the cost affordable for all. I can safely say that I had a great deal more fun with this one than I did with Halo 2’s rather abrupt campaign mode. Give this one a buy, I say and thank me later…
Score: A- (90%)