"'I stand alone!' roar Godsmack in the head-banging title song from the film and the game of The Scorpion King (SK). "
'I stand alone!' roar Godsmack in the head-banging title song from the film and the game of The Scorpion King (SK).
'He sure does,' seems the only acceptable response here. After all, would you argue with The Rock? Or with one of those scary heavy metal singers? Hell no!
SK is a prequel to the events of the film The Scorpion King, which in turn was a prequel to the Scorpion King's cameo appearance in The Mummy Returns. The game is a third-person perspective adventure beat-em-up with the player in the role of the hugely beefy Scorpion King, standing, walking and even running alone against room after plateau after valley after dungeon of equally beefy and aggressive men and mythical beasts. The King lays waste by gauntleted fist, by foot, by enormous sword and by polearm, hurling guards around the joint like they were ragdolls, smashing and tossing every Grecian urn and piece of furniture asunder and basically laying down the smack. This makes for a very likeable and entertaining piece of large scale biff, and it's smoothly programmed for the most part, but on the other hand it certainly won't go down in the annals of gaming for achieving anything wildly original. It also makes a few incredibly unwelcome design choices right near the end of the game, hurting the otherwise good impressions it was leaving on the player.
The story of this episode in the future king's adventures, titled Rise of the Akkadian, is that Scorpie's fresh out of training and ready to be a paid mercenary in The Big Bad World. After a king he was hired to pop turns up already dead, he finds he's been duped and 'mightily wronged' (my way of avoiding a spoiler) by an evil sorcerer name Magus. And so begins another noble but EXCEEDINGLY VIOLENT quest for honour and revenge.
The story is original (as in it didn't exist before) but it's certainly not 'original'. Mercifully brief cut-scenes provide absolute stock-with-no-frills fantasy plotting to bump you from one enemy-filled locale to the next:
'To kill Magus you need the sword of Osiris! To get the sword you must go to Minos! The sword has been broken, find the pieces!..' etc.
It's all about the fighting. In every room or locale of the game, enemies swarm and outnumber Scorpie, often with cries of 'Bring me his head!..' and the door or gateway to the next locale won't unlock until they've all been eliminated. The locales are designed with brawling in mind, being spacious (verging on sparse at times) and not too complex environmentally, though with a decent quotient of combustible scenery. Braziers can be smashed to the floor, setting yourself or your enemies alight, boulders and wooden furniture can be lobbed about, and urns can be shattered to reveal bonus items – or more accursed flames or acidic content if you're unlucky.
Scorpie is able to beat folks down pretty well with his hands initially, but five power levels of gauntlet, shortsword, broadsword and polearm can be found in chests as you progress, and there is a set of attack combos to learn for each weapon class. Figure in another pair each of dash attacks, jump attacks and meter-fuelled stamina attacks unique to each class, and you have a whistle-worthy grand total of more than fifty attacks and combos available to the character, and plenty of technique. Though for me, it's a control gripe that you can't just pound in the correct string of A and B button hits at speed. Each one has to be hit as the preceding move is executed, and for the most part, this game is too hectic for anyone to be able to concentrate on that kind of timing.
The main liability to the action is the camera view. It's merely adequate at most times, and downright unhelpful whenever you enter a new room, when it's pointed right at you as opposed to 'through' you or over the shoulder from behind. This is a nuisance because the enemies always pour in from the front, so you rarely have time to see them coming, or get much sense of the scale or overall formation of a new assault. In fact it's always hard to deal with what's right in front of you, because, well, you're standing in front of it. The other main technical annoyance is that the dash attacks are too easy to trigger when you didn't intend, and because of the difficulty of aiming directly at things, miss too often. Missed dashes have a long recovery time in which you're super-vulnerable.
There aren't even that many different kinds of foe here ultimately, and most of them tend to just make a beeline for you before breaking into their own style of melee, but graphically they are all very expressive creations. Funky biker-looking meatheads and hooded swordsmen are the mainstay of opposition. There are easy-to-pop standing-still archers, and 'running away' archers who prove disastrous for your health until you can acquire some longer weapons. The throng is later joined by rapacious panther men (awesome sound effects on these guys), a range of Egyptian-inspired demons, and genuinely scary giants who plod stoically towards you to hammer you with enormous fists. The appearance of the martial arts dancing women near the end of the game alarmed me somehow – maybe just because their animation was so expressive and their laughter so evil – but they were are a cinch to beat for latecomers.
These baddies rush you by the handful rather than the score, but each assailant is a bona fide threat with plenty of hit points. It takes an average of two to three rounds of full melee comboing and 'floor-dumping' to finish off any one attacker. This makes for long, meaty battles, as you hack and throw your way through multiple attackers, start on their pals, then find the first guys have staggered back to their feet and are coming at you for another round. Jam down the L button and you can block incoming hits as well, with your 'hands' for half damage or with one of the many shields to be found around the place for a null-hit.
It's the juicy physicality and high sensory resolution of all this crashing, slashing and smashing which is the soul of SK (nobody's going to remember the game for the odd bout of lever-throwing or gong-hitting to open stubborn doors) so it's vital that this is all delivered as well as it is. You can see every spark of clashing blade, hear every metallic scream and feel every thunderous impact as you deliver your umpteenth grunting Anubis demon floorwards. This game was the first to make me really conscious that the extra technical clarity available to the 128-bit console generation can step the visceral factor up significantly in this kind of bash-em-up gameplay.
Some of the boss fights are pretty glorious, too. Leaping around a crumbling stone ring from which a towering serpent is emerging, or weaving about a shimmering temple pool in which the Gorgon strides (rather sexily) up and down, summoning snakes to do her bidding, prove to be memorable experiences of sight and sound, and also the main strategic challenges in SK.
Other boss fights are not so glorious. In fact, it's because of major boss pains that the game crashes and destroys plenty of goodwill during the last couple of levels. First, it makes you repeat the Minotaur boss fight... twice. One outing with this guy was more than enough, as the gulf of time which must be spent treading water waiting for each of his vulnerable moments has to be experienced to be believed. Three run-ins with him is 'chore and pain' territory, not to mention that the room in which these fights take place is the least camera-friendly in the whole game. I thought the concept of attrition had been taken to new levels here, but the final boss fight trumped even the Minotaurs for suffering. Battle Z must also be completed without any of your weapons, which is just a really anti-dramatic way to finish things off, and perhaps worst of all, the two and a half minute cut scene which precedes this challenge is not skippable. Every time you die on this fight, and you will die many many times, you have to ride out the cut-scene again. This just left me with a hateful sensation after what had been a generally entertaining adventure.
All in all, SK is a lengthy, earnest beat-em-up with good and sometimes great technical delivery of the wall-to-wall combat amongst its beefy screen-filling characters. However, a general tone of monotony in gameplay, pace and scenery prohibits much aftertaste, plus the game tumbles badly in likeability at the last hour, thanks to the Minotaur overkill and highly obnoxious final battle. In the way of replay motivation, collecting rubies hidden throughout the levels unlocks masses of game concept artwork, which adds a mild degree of compulsion to the journey in just giving you one thing to do other than bash enemies. But that's all it adds – a mild compulsion.
Ultimately, SK offers a good week's worth of fun fighting, but it's hard to sustain much excitement about the experience after the fact. The Scorpion King may stand alone, but he barely carved out any gaming territory that he could call his own.
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)
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