Platform: Xbox 360 (Xbox Live Arcade)
Dual-joystick shooters, a genre that seemed to have peaked in the early nineties, have found a home in the Xbox Live Arcade. Geometry Wars, Smash TV, Mutant Storm and Crystal Quest have all found success on Microsoft’s online download service in the past year, and there’s no end to the parade of Robotron 2084 clones in sight. Now, Chair Entertainment, a company formed from the ashes of the Advent Rising team, offers up its entry in the dual-joystick shooter genre, Undertow.
Undertow is a side-scrolling 2D shooter rendered in 3D using the Unreal engine. The story goes like this: Aliens have melted the ice caps, forcing humanity to adapt to life under the sea. The human’s exile to the seas is seen by the Nemodian race as an incursion into their homelands. The massive climatic change has also awakened the long-dormant Atlantian race, who wish to reclaim the ocean floors that used to be theirs. This, of course, forces all three civilizations into a conflict to control the seas. In single-player mode, you start off as a human diver tasked with defending human control points while claiming opponents’ control points as your own. Oh, that and killing everyone in sight, though through the course of the campaign, you’ll eventually control all three factions in their own missions, giving the somewhat underwhelming story a little bit of variety. Your character has the ability to morph into any of 4 different soldier types, from the quick-but-weak Marine to the slow but deadly Destroyer, on the fly, adding a decent level of depth to the gameplay.
Just like in pretty much every dual-joystick shooter ever, movement is mapped to the left stick, while aiming and shooting are controlled with the right stick. There are also two kinds of boost at your disposal; the right trigger initiates a short, quick sprint, and holding the X button gives you an extended speed burst. Finally, depth charges are mapped to the left trigger, allowing you to deliver death from above. The controls are intuitive and responsive regardless of your chosen character class, and compliment the satisfying combat very well. You can only control one character, leaving your AI teammates to fend for them selves. Sadly, they tend to be a bit on the gung-ho side, often rushing into firefights with little to no concern for their own well being. In a game where scoring is modeled after Battlefield II, this can be a huge problem. The inclusion of some simple squad controls would have been a very welcome addition to the game.
Visually, Undertow is something of a mixed bag. The underwater environments are well designed and well rendered with nice clear textures and great use of lighting effects. The character models, on the other hand, are a bit on the blocky side, and resemble PS2 character models. The characters are so small on the screen that this is not really a drawback except in the cut scenes, but you’ll probably end up skipping those anyway because of the sub-par voice acting and feeble story. Explosion effects are plentiful and satisfying, creating a good sense of chaos during pitched battles.
While the single player campaign (which can also be tackled by two players) is plenty of fun, if a bit short, the real value in Undertow is found in the online multiplayer mode. Supporting up to 16 players, online versus battles tend to be extremely chaotic and fun, while still requiring a decent amount of strategy for success.
For 800 Microsoft Points, Undertow is an excellent value for fans of arcade shooters or online team play. Personally, I waited for Microsoft to offer the game for free, but that’s just because I’m a cheap-ass. For anyone who missed out on the free download, it’s still well worth the $10 price tag, and should offer many hours of fast paced competition.