Neo Contra (PlayStation 2) review
"The third mission, for instance, places your character in a fortified canyon filled with knee-deep water and a shitload of opposition. Missile launching cretins rest in floating platforms, shielded soldiers with rocket launchers and sniper rifles pack the crannies of the rock wall, and swarms of blade carrying grunts pour forth from every direction; most would be daunted, but not this legendary commando."
Legacy of War blew, Shattered Soldier didn't.
If not wasting a paragraph on that crap felt good to you, this is your game. Neo Contra spends no time with the superfluous stuff such as jumping that bogged down earlier 3D Contras, and instead opts to place the limelight on what everyone came for: carnage. The manly Bill Rizer's diverse selection of weapons is a snap to use, and the six selectable arsenals pair up guns that range from the shotgun-esque spread shot to the whirling, twisting fireballs. Rounding out the packages are lock-on weapons such as homing missiles that allow you to hit elevated foes; see, camera control and vertical aiming have been omitted altogether. The fixed viewpoint often switches between a wide selection of angles, including an isometric view, an overhead view, a side view - hell, there's even a rear view reminiscent of the first game's base levels.
You'll also find such variety in the stages themselves. The third mission, for instance, places your character in a fortified canyon filled with knee-deep water and a shitload of opposition. Missile launching cretins rest in floating platforms, shielded soldiers with rocket launchers and sniper rifles pack the crannies of the rock wall, and swarms of blade carrying grunts pour forth from every direction; most would be daunted, but not this legendary commando. As he journeys through the crevasse, he swiftly and stylishly unleashes his lock-on lasers on those not man enough to face him eye to eye, and makes sure that those who do won't get to keep said eyes for long. Even the potentially painful boulders that begin to roll down the twisted passage fail to intimidate this cold killer, who actually manages to lure his foes into their path with carefully placed gunfire.
Thankfully, while run-n-gun segments such as these are more common than in the boss rush that was Shattered Soldier, impressively large encounters have hardly been forgotten about. Even the first monstrosity, a gigantic baby-headed venus flytrap (who's in like every Neo Contra screenshot gallery on the web), puts up a stellar fight. While he initially just tosses a horde of flies at you, his patterns eventually evolve into spewing a yellow-greenish vomit and dropping puddles of purple waste from the ceiling. Equally impressive duels occur throughout the game, ranging from a water-skimming vehicle that you chase across an azure ocean to a creepy alien butterfly that sends hordes of lesser insects and arcing projectiles in your direction. Also noteworthy is the magnificent final boss, a grotesque floating head who assaults you with a variety of spinning flames, screen-filling streams of bullets, and more.
Oh, and the duel takes place atop an escape pod that's burning up in Earth's atmosphere.
Unfortunately, most sections of the game aren't nearly as intense, as Neo Contra is often too afraid to litter the screen with bullets. I'd go as far as to call much of the game benign, and the lack of a harder difficulty setting is befuddling. Consider the brooding stretch of highway that you traverse with the help of an odd reptilian creature. While enemies wielding chainguns and landmines surge forth from behind, they take forever to actually mount an attack, and anybody with decent coordination will have them dead and buried before any unfriendly fire is returned. The lack of difficulty continues to hold true in the less gimmicky stages, too, as far too many encounters contain underwhelming amounts of projectiles that are simply and easily avoided. A few sections, like the fifth stage's alien-spider infested catwalks, are thoroughly devoid of risk at all.
Attempting to counter this lowered sense of danger is the conceptually excellent hit rate system. Neo Contra tracks all of the preplaced enemies you kill, and sometimes, it works. For example, the squid-like robot that serves as a midboss halfway through the game has a relatively passive quintet of cannons in front of him. Those simply looking to win can just destroy the main target, but those interested in scoring the highest hit rate possible will need to take those pesky cannons out, and as they falter, the hovering monstrosity emits a trio of lasers that erratically dance and weave about the screen. Unfortunately, such variable difficulty is rarely utilized, and the hit rate can occasionally turn the game into a lame scavenger hunt. One particularly bad plateau of alien goop mandates that you scavenge its every inch for giant worms should you desire a high ranking.
Luckily, most of the scripting is a far cry from such inanity, and can sometimes be quite cool. Standing before the fortress that looms over the mechanical city of mission one, for instance, you could individually eliminate the infantry in front, the rifle experts in the towers, and the robotic sentries that fly overhead. Wouldn't it be more fun, though, to just blow up the humongous tank perched in between them all and watch its shrapnel claim a dozen victims? The game isn't scripted to a fault like Shattered Soldier, however, and as a result, you'll also eke some fun out of totally random events. My favorite moment in the entire game was when a stationary jeep in front of me suddenly attempted to blitz me; thanks to a deft last-second roll, it instead went flying into a pack of deviants behind me, never to have a clean windshield again.
And boy were those blood spurts impressive. Neo Contra boasts an entirely new graphics engine that handles brilliant special effects with ease while avoiding the drab colors that plagued Shattered Soldier. From the crisp, calm, navy blue water that ripples about as you wade through it to the splattery yellow-green vomit that the baby headed monster employs, the visuals never fail to impress, especially for a PS2 title. The aural design also holds up its end of the bargain, as the catchy, frenzied techno/rock tunes fit the game like a glove. Of particular note is the song that plays while you battle the giant plant that lords over a small battle station. With its energetic bass lines, subdued drum beats and shrill beepy things, it's by far the highlight of an impressively loud soundtrack.
However, once the experience is over, you'll likely get the feeling that Konami should have put as much effort into the game itself, as Neo Contra is just too damn short. The paltry six stages take but thirty minutes to complete once you've mastered the game, and doing so won't take a very long time due to the sadly lacking difficulty level. Honestly, both the difficulty and length problems could have been tackled with the inclusion of a harder skill setting, and Konami's decision not to include one was just plain stupid. That said, there's a two-player mode that ends up being much more fun than Shattered Soldier's thanks to the less memorization-heavy gameplay, and the varying weapon sets make you adopt different strategies upon each playthrough.
It's not enough, though. This game could and should have been an exemplary run-n-gun shooter, but the one-two punch of a short length and a lacking difficulty snatch its potential status out from beneath it. That said, it's still an enjoyable game that's worth your time and money if you don't mind the fact that you won't be dying every four seconds. Its thrilling stages, sharply designed bosses, and splendid audiovisual package certainly make for an excellent experience, even if the game itself is a bit unfulfilling. More than anything, though, it's worth playing just to see that Contra can work outside the realm of sidescrollers; imperfect as Neo Contra may be, the next entry in Konami's esteemed series will certainly be one to watch.
Staff review by John L (November 07, 2004)
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