Restricted Area (PC) review
"Information exchanges hands like cash, body parts are put on the open market, and corporations hire mercenaries to do their bidding. As an outcast in an already downtrodden society, even you have signed your life away to the corporations with the slim hope of a brighter future."
Regardless of the medium, be it film, literature, or video games, working within an established genre can be a tricky endeavor. Essentially, genres are nothing more than compilations of certain conventions that audiences have come to expect. A skillful craftsman can utilize these conventions, play off them, and even reorganize them to create something that is entirely unique and creative while remaining familiar. In lesser hands, conventions are slopped together into a mindless lump of garbage. In making Restricted Area, Master Creating took on the formidable task of working within two genres simultaneously; the hack-n-slash style of gameplay, and the chaotic world of cyberpunk. It seemed like such a perfect combination, but Master Creating has proved to be the lesser hand.
By the year 2083, the Earthís environment has nearly collapsed and the remnants of humanity have sought refuge in massive, towering cities. Amidst the vertical mazes of steel and glass, corporations rule over the citizens that dwell within the everlasting darkness of the streets below. In a world where power is all that matters, everything, and everyone, is for sale. Information exchanges hands like cash, body parts are put on the open market, and corporations hire mercenaries to do their bidding. As an outcast in an already downtrodden society, even you have signed your life away to the corporations with the slim hope of a brighter future.
If you are a fan of the cyberpunk genre, the world of Restricted Area should feel instantly familiar. Itís just a shame that you will hardly get to see any of it. Utilizing an outdated hub system, you begin in a two-block section of the city, complete with a nightclub, gun shop, and clinic, and that is where you will end. With last yearís newspapers littering the corners, neon lighting up the stained sidewalks, and rubble from forgotten buildings, the neighborhood is incredibly detailed, but its function is completely utilitarian. You purchase and sell equipment, pick a mission from your corporate contacts, and then hire a pilot to fly you there. At one point I was talking with a local prostitute who wanted someone to teach her pimp a lesson, but the game doesnít let you do anything more about the situation. Itís like getting a new toy for your birthday and not being allowed to play with it.
Restricted Area offers four playable characters from the outset: a trench-coated gunman, a mysterious psychic, a martial-artist yakuza, and a sexy female hacker. The game manual states that, in the order listed here, each character is progressively harder to use and will make the game more challenging. In translation, they are listed in order of increasing uselessness. Since combat is a repetitious affair of shooting everyone as quickly as possible, there is no reason, other than the sake of variety, to not choose the gunman. As an example, the yakuza member is the only character able to utilize melee weapons, but getting close to enemies means a sure death. At the very least, each character has a unique skill tree that allows for a surprising amount of customization. As you gain experience, you are given points to buy new skills, such as faster movement, special attacks, and higher weapon proficiencies. Itís a nice addition to an otherwise stale aspect of the game.
After you have chosen your mission, you talk to the pilot who will whisk you away to a randomly generated level such as the generic desert wasteland, the generic underground complex, or perhaps even the generic aboveground complex. Random levels are good for replay value, but the result often entails a trek through room, after room, after room with nothing to break up the monotony except a wooden crate lying around. Upon completion, each mission offers up a cash reward as well as a reputation bonus. With seven major corporations vying for power, the reputation system would add an element of strategy to the process of selecting missions, if not for the fact that you canít actually see your reputation. You get to see how many points are added or deducted at the end of a mission, but unless you feel like writing it down in a notebook, you will never know where you stand.
Of course, no mission would be complete without waves of enemies to dispose of. From corporate security guards, to cybernetic soldiers, and acid-spitting mutants, Restricted Area offers plenty of potential for an action-packed experience, but the combat mechanics are not up to the task. Most of the time you will be relying upon firearms as your main source of destruction, and every gun has its own unique quality. Shotguns provide massive firepower at the expense of range, sub-machineguns can cover a large area but donít do as much damage, and pistols are always a reliable average. The main problem with combat is your inability to move while firing. Enemies inflict heavy melee damage so you never want to get too close, and even at a distance you need to be on the move to dodge incoming fire. Restricted Area promises intelligent AI with ďgroup tactics,Ē but all enemies do is bum rush you constantly. The only real strategy for combat is to take a shot, run back, take a shot, run back, and repeat as long as necessary. Boss battles are especially frustrating as this shoot-then-move style of play can easily turn them into 20+ minute ordeals.
Restricted Area also suffers from a large number of balance issues. Almost no aspects of the game seem to integrate well with one another. By the end of the first mission I had reached level 5 and gained some new skills, but this still left me underpowered to deal with the next mission. Enemies range from weak to overpowered, but they never seem to be at a proper level of difficulty. After this first mission I was also left with 4 pieces of cyberware that I had not used on myself and 13 guns to sell off. I am a serious equipment junkie when it comes to hack-n-slash games, but this is overkill. The excitement that I normally feel when new equipment drops was replaced with questions of how I was to fit all of it into my inventory. Then there is the matter of the stats for the equipment. Is a +5 to my weapon skill better than +5 to my accuracy? I didnít even know I had a separate accuracy rating. What about +5 versus +5%? Neither the manual nor the in-game menus can provide any answers to these questions.
Hack-n-slash games often get a bad reputation as being mindless, button-mashing, kill-fests. While some people still believe this stereotype, fantastic series like Diablo, Baldurís Gate: Dark Alliance, and Champions of Norrath have proven that strategic combat, deep character customization, and intriguing storylines can be woven into the genre with excellent results. Restricted Area attempts to incorporate all of these elements, but Master Creating does not quite grasp how to implement them. They took every feature of the cyberpunk and hack-n-slash genres they could think of, and tossed them together with no consideration of how they would mesh together. The result is a game that offers a dozen promises, and breaks every one.
Staff review by Brian Rowe (August 10, 2006)
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