In the early days of Xbox Live Arcade, one game justified the existence of the entire service: Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, Bizarre Creations’ minimalist twin-stick shooter. It offered only tiny embellishments on a well-worn game genre, but by integrating its players’ friends lists into the scoring system it gave a tantalising glimpse at what was to come. In 2005, that was enough to get the juices flowing. In 2011, we require much more, but Gatling Gears isn’t prepared to offer it.
Vanguard Games was started by former employees of Killzone-creator Guerrilla Games. The studio’s first release, Greed Corps, did for real-time strategy what Gatling Gears is trying to do for the twin-stick shooter: a visually appealing riff on the form that strikes a good balance between accessibility and white-knuckle challenge. In truth, Gatling Gears is a success in both areas, but with so many viable alternatives available for considerably less money, its telling flaws prevent me from offering a whole-hearted recommendation.
The game is set in the steam-punk world of Mistbound, which provides a handsome backdrop for the ensuing carnage. You play as Max Brawley, who – for reasons fully explained in the game but far too cliché to recount here – must return to the bipedal vehicles he retired from piloting so many years ago and stop an evil empire from being, well, evil. In short: stop the bad man.
The gameplay is just as familiar: move with the left analogue stick, fire with the right, though there are peculiarities to take into consideration. The Gatling Gears don’t move with the pixel-perfect accuracy of Geometry Wars’ space-craft; they are machines, they have heft, and that’s reflected in the way they move. In addition, your standard weapon is a gatling gun, which is inexhaustible but basically useless at long-range, so you have missiles and grenades to redress the balance.
There are power-ups and ways of modifying the standard weapon-set, as well as screen-clearing single-use attacks, with an XP system to back it all up – XP determines your position on the leaderboards and can be exchanged for a largely spurious selection of rewards. Evidently, Vanguard Games is uncomfortable about hiding good content away from players who don’t see the appeal in chasing high-scores, and this idea is supported by the multiplier system.
Destroyed enemies will occasionally leave tiny gears behind, which, if you collect them, will add a multiplier to your score. This is Vanguard Games’ attempt to prevent more casually minded gamers from becoming alienated by all the bullet-hell confusion. It works, probably, but as a unique-selling point it’s somewhat unconvincing. The lack of compelling incentives to push on into the harder difficulty levels damages the experience for hardcore players, and I question whether the sacrifice will truly expand the audience for a game like Gatling Gears.
However, while Gatling Gears is slick and accomplished, the lack of any genuinely ambitious or innovative features makes repetition a problem. The campaign mode takes around 6 hours to complete, but I was tiring of the gameplay long before the end arrived. A sprinkling of memorable boss battles help to enliven the experience, but for the most part Gatling Gears offers little that you haven’t played a dozen times before, and works far better in short bursts.
There is a co-op mode – which performs its usual trick of making everything seem more fun – and a series of survival challenges for those hungry for a greater challenge, but on a fundamental level there’s just not enough here to get excited about. If you’ve never played a twin-stick shooter then Geometry Wars 2 or Everyday Shooter will provide better and cheaper entry points. If you’re an incorrigible fan of the genre then you will enjoy Gatling Gears in spurts, before wondering why on Earth it costs 30 percent more than most of its competitors. Either way, it would be best to think twice.