Metal Slug XX review (PSP)
Alert WoS viewers, who may find much of the text of this review oddly familiar (but do read on, for all is not quite as it seems), will already be aware of my range of views on the history of SNK's Metal Slug series. From a hugely refreshing beginning, the franchise rapidly degenerated into a cynical cash-milking business punting out lazy and increasingly inferior titles with ever-growing rapidity and desperation.
The nadir actually arrived fairly early, with the abysmal Metal Slug 3, and there have been a few flickers of hope – like the inventive Neo Geo Pocket spinoffs (now excitingly playable via emulation on PSP, finally solving the problem of the NGP's murky un-backlit screen and awkward controls) and the aforelinked GBA title, which came up with many of the ideas that have been more fully fleshed out in this latest release.
But mostly the announcement of a new addition to the Metal Slug family has been occasion only for some sad reflections on the latest half-arsed indignities to be inflicted on a once-proud name in the name of a quick profit. Metal Slug XX is a step back in the right direction.
While looking pretty much the same as Metal Slugs 1-6, and playing in an identical manner, MSXX (which is pronounced "Double-X", incidentally, not "X-X") has made one fundamental change in the gameplay which is the most welcome change in the series' formula since the original made its little-heralded debut in unsuspecting arcades back in 1996. (Yeah, it's now 14 years since Metal Slug. I'm afraid you ARE that old.)
The change is autofire. The most miserable parts of any Metal Slug game are those sections where you've used up all your decent weaponry and are left with only the pathetic, useless popgun pistol that your criminally-irresponsible superiors have sent you out with to face an army of massive armoured tanks, helicopter gunships, missile-firing jets and monstrous UFOs.
At such points, previously you had little option but to simply die, in order to be grudgingly given a heavy machine-gun and a few grenades with which you could actually make a small dent in the opposition before inevitably being reduced to your crappy little peashooter again, which would take about 20 minutes to destroy the average boss even if you were a superhuman gamer who could stay alive that long against endless waves of enemies who were all but invulnerable to your weedy attacks.
Metal Slug Anthology, the compilation released for the PSP, Wii and others, belatedly recognised this problem in 2007, and offered an option whereby holding down the fire button would make your pistol auto-repeat at a fairly speedy rate, turning it from an utterly useless weapon into a pretty respectable fallback which instantly made the games a lot fairer and more enjoyable.
In a truly stunning stroke of idiocy, though, the feature was enabled for every game in the compilation EXCEPT the previously-unreleased Metal Slug 6, immediately making the collection's main draw by far the worst game to play of Anthology's seven titles. (MS1-6 plus the "Metal Slug X" remake of MS2.) Mind you, MS6 is so bad it'd give MS3 a run for that accolade anyway.
That inexplicable brain-melt has been put right in MSXX (autofire was also implemented in Metal Slug Advance, but that's not a traditional-style Slug), and it revolutionises the entire gameplay, though it's not the only tweak to the formula. This is a leaner, faster-paced Metal Slug than we've seen in years, with no "zombie" sections and an end to some of the sequels' unpleasant habits of stopping dead in the middle of a level and assailing you with endless waves of enemies before it'll let you scroll on to the next section.
You also face more ordinary soldiers and fewer mechanised units designed merely to leech away all your decent weaponry. The player's vehicles are less fanciful this time around too – there no camels or donkeys to ride, mostly just the standard tanks and armoured walkers. Though there is one excitingly PSP-exclusive ostrich.
The ordinary troops are no pushovers, though – they come in several new varieties, with new skills and powers including forcefields and laser-firing jetpacks, but you have some new melee-type attacks to counter with and you can store two powerups at once, switching between them and your ordinary gun at will with the R button – all buttons, incidentally, are fully user-definable. You can also unleash super-strength "MAX" firepower by building up a stream of "combo" hits against any targets.
(All of these new offensive features are swiped from Metal Slug 6, but this time aren't crushed by an almost unimaginably terrible game.)
The lurid, squid-like alien monsters prevalent in most of the series are reduced to a very minor supporting role, giving MSXX a grittier feel that's amplified by the subdued graphical style. Most of the game takes place against a grey/brown/red backdrop of wreckage-strewn battlefields and mountains, with the scenery much less varied and colourful than usual. (It's a shame on the purely aesthetic level, but it helps keep the action clear onscreen, which is vital in the busier sections.)
Basically, though, the gameplay in MSXX doesn't stray very far from that of its predecessors. Taking its cue from Metal Slug Advance, XX is broken down into relatively short levels (seven in total), and focuses most of its main-mode replay value around the collection of prisoners for your Pokedex-style scrapbook. Prisoners, as with MSA, are rescued by finding them and then making it through the stage without losing a life. (The energy bar of MSA, incidentally, has departed again, with XX reverting to the classic one-hit-kill arcade model.)
You can also choose from six slightly different characters to suit your style of play – I, for example, always pick Fio, as she carries much larger magazines for all the weapons, making it easier to cleave a path through the heavier enemy attacks, but you might prefer Eri, who has a double ration of grenades, or Marco's more powerful HM-G attack.
There are three difficulty settings – you start off with Beginner and Normal, and Hard is unlocked by beating the game once. Metal Slug 7 (the DS game on which XX is based, and which mysteriously hasn't been mentioned in this review until now) introduced a brilliant limited-credits system which effectively broke the game down into seven separate mini-Slugs, each offering a decent challenge where you had to EARN your goal rather than just sullenly buying your way to it with infinite continues (but with levels short enough that even modestly-skilled players could manage to battle through most of them on Normal after a few attempts).
Sadly, Metal Slug XX throws that straight out of the window, with a standard infinite-continues model that instantly makes the game much less challenging and rewarding. It's interesting that this has been done for the PSP release – the PSP is generally regarded as the platform of the self-styled "hardcore" gamer, and as we know, what that actually means in the modern age is "feeble lazy wuss who MUST be allowed to see every level immediately without any effort or he'll cry and stamp his feet and throw a tantrum".
The "hardcore", then, will likely polish off the final boss on their first play, despite what appear to be slightly tougher difficulty levels than the DS game. (The most noticeable of these is the opening section of the last stage, which in MS7 put you in the cockpit of a jet fighter, albeit one flying just a few feet off the ground and mostly strafing infantry – the section is now firmly rooted in terra firma, with your jet replaced by a tank, which makes it considerably harder.) But the challenge of beating the game with one credit and rescuing all the prisoners will keep them occupied for weeks.
(As with Metal Slug Advance, prisoners you've rescued at the end of a level stay rescued forever, and you can then go back and play the stage again to get the ones you may have missed first time.)
But that's not the end of the replay value in MSXX by a long shot. Even once you've finished the game and rescued all the prisoners (or if you simply find the latter far too daunting a task) there's still Combat School mode. This is a fantastic and comprehensive set of "training" challenges, unlocked when you beat each level and which take place on that level. There are 11 or 12 training missions per stage (it varies), from simple Score Attacks to item collection missions, boss runs, prisoner rescues, attempts with only one life and so on, all of which get you ratings (C, B, A or S, in the now-traditional style), earn points which move you up in rank, and save individual high scores.
By nature the missions are short, sweet and addictive, and if you mess one up the interface lets you restart very swiftly with a couple of button presses. The ratings seem to be well judged, in that it's easy to get a B or C, an A will require a very respectable run, and the S ratings are elusive and cherishable.
In addition, there's yet more replay value in the shape of the opportunity to play the main game for one-credit high scores, made more interesting by a return of the gold coins from MS6. Shooting certain enemies releases the coins, which gather on the screen and don't seem to disappear (unlike powerups, which vanish after a little while). If you collect the coins in (very) quick succession, their value "combos" up from 10 to 20 to 40 and so on into the thousands, giving lots of scope for points-whoring by wiping out hordes of enemies before you collect the coins. (Don't leave it too late, though, as on some sections you'll be auto-walked to the next bit, missing out on any coins that were to your left.)
In other words, then, Metal Slug XX is going to keep you very busy and very happy. It's learned a lot from both the positives and negatives of Metal Slug Advance, and offers a lot more to attract the less-superhuman player than MSA did, while still laying down a fearsome gauntlet for Slug experts. Thanks to the rapid-fire pistol it's the most enjoyable and the fairest of all the games in the main series, and you'll very, very rarely feel frustrated or cheated. Basically it's stuffed full of everything you love about Metal Slug, but with none of the crap bits.
It's a pity, though, that it's not the game Metal Slug 7 is. While the only major gameplay difference is that you now don't get the map that appeared on the DS's second screen (nor the hidden hostages whose location it used to reveal), something which is compensated for by the addition of new secrets to find (for example, an alternative route to the end of Mission 1), the abandonment of the innovative credits system really hurts the game's metastructure. Infinite continues are basically playing a game in cheat mode, and all they do is rob poor or intermediate players of any realistic prospect of a sense of achievement.
(Seriously dedicated Slug players who stick religiously to one credit still get that sense every time they reach a new stage, and DS players got it when they reached one using only the fixed number of credits/lives available to them, without suddenly having to develop superhuman skills beyond their reach. But if you can just keep hitting Continue endlessly, what have you achieved by bludgeoning your way through? Nothing other than to waste a little sliver of your life mechanically performing a menial drudge of a task at which it's impossible to fail.)
So after doing such a fantastic job with Metal Slug 7, it's a shame SNK bottled it a bit for the PSP release. But then, who buys PSP games anyway?