Monster Madness – Next-Gen Goes Old School

February 4, 2007

Artificial Studios’ Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia has been a title that we at eToychest have followed with some fervor since it was first announced just following E3 in 2005. We now go hands on with the latest build for the Xbox 360 to see how the game is coming together for its April release.Artificial Studios’ Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia has been a title that we at eToychest have followed with some fervor since it was first announced just following E3 in 2005. Now in the march up to the games’ debut in April, we recently sat down with the latest build for the Xbox 360 to see how far the title had come since our somewhat lukewarm experience with it at E3 2006. Granted our experience at that show was perhaps colored by having to play the game in a sweltering hotel room that smelled of old pizza, but regardless that does not change the fact that after spending several hours with the game here in the office, things appear to have been turned around quite well.

Next-Gen Gameplay With Old School Charms

For the uninitiated, Monster Madness is a top down action shooter cast in a mold similar to arcade classics such as Gauntlet or Smash T.V. Only with more zombie chiwawas. Playable alone or with other players locally or over Xbox Live, Monster Madness offers both a story driven adventure mode set across five chapters and thirty monster-filled levels (for up to four players), as well as several cooperative and competitive deathmatch, capture the flag, and survival modes (for up to sixteen players).

In addition, while arcade style action games like this do tend to wear thin after a short while, Monster Madness does seem to inspire at least a few more repeat visits than would normally be expected in order to unlock all of the hidden content and build all of the game’s customizable weapons. The build we were sent contained just the game’s first chapter, as well as a healthy selection of competitive modes, and we’ve been cutting our teeth on it more or less nonstop since it arrived.

ImageDubbed ‘Suburban Nightmare’, the chapter shares more than a little in common with Konami’s Zombies Ate My Neighbors, a comparison that obviously has not been lost on the developers at Artificial, as the game even calls out that 16-bit classic by name just following the first level… sort of. Other chapters promised by Artificial include ‘High School Hell’, ‘The Shopping Maul’, ‘Cemetery Scary’, and ‘The Dark Castle’.

As the game begins, players take up the role of one of four high school stereotypes, from nerd and stoner to prom queen and goth, as they scramble to pick up anything that isn’t nailed down (and some things that are) in order to push back a seemingly endless stream of things that go bump in the night. For those of you who enjoyed the feeling of mowing down zombies with the lawnmower in Dead Rising, some of that very same visceral pleasure is here to be enjoyed yet again.

Each character has an affinity for certain types of weapons, and this is made clear with a ‘thumbs up’ icon that appears near the character when standing next to anything well suited to the teenager being controlled. Similarly, some weapons are simply not suited for certain characters, identified by a ‘thumbs down’ icon, and while these can certainly be picked up, they are simply not as effective in the hands of some characters compared to others.

ImageThis differentiation alone will make some players gravitate towards certain characters; for example, some may be more inclined to Zack and his nail guns, while Carrie’s swords are sure to make her a fan favorite, even if that ‘sword’ happens to be a rusty saw procured from Zack’s garage. Another plus to using preferred weapons is that these allow characters to build up and execute special attacks, which in a game as excruciatingly difficult as Monster Madness is shaping up to being, any extra ‘umph’ is extremely welcome.

Much like the games from which this title obviously draws inspiration, the lions’ share of Monster Madness’ difficulty comes from the sheer number of opponents that must be dispatched at any given time, with these manic fights punctuated by a few impressive boss encounters. In addition, the game will also occasionally throw various challenges at you as well, such as locking you within a smallish area until a certain number of baddies are destroyed – a manageable task with multiple players, a veritable nightmare when you are on your own.

In total, Artificial Studios notes that the final game will boast more than 50 different types of monsters, and although we’ve only seen a handful so far, what we have seen in just this first chapter leads us to believe that this figure is certainly plausible. While zombies make up the bulk of the game’s opposition, you can expect to also face off against giant spiders, flaming imps, demons, and even a headless priest. Oh my.

Let’s Get Physical?

Interestingly, while the game is certainly easy on the eyes, and has taken advantage of the graphical prowess afforded by Unreal Engine 3, for a supposed showpiece for Ageia PhysX, the game’s implementation of physics seems altogether subdued. This may simply be yet another case of seeing the game in an unfinished state, but while the initial level in Zack’s house is full of items flying and tumbling about in every which way, subsequent levels come off as positively frigid. It’s our hope that the final version will feature the same kind of physics-based gameplay illustrated in the game’s early goings, as this certainly adds an interesting spin to the title’s already crazed atmosphere.

However, while the game certainly has variety – and style – one of things that we found most worrisome at E3 2006 was the game’s controls, which seemed much too loose and imprecise for gameplay as frenetic as Monster Madness demanded. Now, thankfully, the game seems to control much tighter, feeling a bit like Geometry Wars in 3D space. The two thumb sticks control both movement and aiming, while the right trigger and bumper fire both the main and secondary weapons respectively.

This setup works quite well, freeing up your left hand fingers to cover the left trigger for special attacks, while pressing both it and the left bumper allow the camera to be rotated with the thumb stick in lieu of turning/aiming. This last bit is a touch odd, but in looking at the control setup, you almost get the feeling that the developers were running out of options, and seeing as Monster Madness does not support the Jaguar controller, I suppose Artificial did the best with what they had. It’s functional, and while the game can still be at times beyond manic, we seldom felt as if we were fighting the controls in addition to the denizens of the underworld.

ImageWhere the game does get a bit odd is when playing with multiple players. In typical Gauntlet fashion, all characters occupy the same screen, so uncooperative players or miscommunication can leave characters hemmed in behind obstacles or otherwise unable to help or be helped. There is not a split screen option in Monster Madness, though some help is offered as the camera pulls out allowing more space to be covered on the screen by the characters. Of course this has the adverse effect of making it more difficult to see the action from a greater distance, even on large displays, and with multiple players taking on the encroaching horde, many of us here have found ourselves actually ‘losing’ our characters in the fray.

Made To Order

One of the most interesting aspects of Monster Madness is the idea of item customization. While adventuring through the game’s many levels, you’ll routinely come across an assortment of junk in the form of screws, tape, pipes, and other odds and ends, and these, along with the various gems that are left behind when enemies are defeated can be used to purchase and build new and better weapons. At set points during a level, a redneck zombie hunter by the name of Larry Tools (who works out of the back of a camper) will take these items off your hands, and in exchange offer everything from a grenade slingshot, CD launcher, and railgun, to even and portable gun emplacement and healing items as well.

ImageLarry even sells an amulet that lets characters change into a rather speedy – and powerful – werewolf, and while this is the only transformation we have seen thus far, Artificial promises that the retail version will also feature the ability to turn into a mummy, vampire, demon, or even another zombie. And just to continue to change things up, the game also features a number of drivable vehicles as well, including go-karts, hovercrafts, mechs, and UFOs. Our experience thus far has been limited (only the go-kart and hovercraft were featured in the preview build), but everything so far has been just as deranged and entertaining as the rest of the game. Personally I cannot wait to hop into a flying saucer and obliterate demons from low orbit.

In total, after spending a good deal of time with Monster Madness, we’ve come away impressed. The game is still a couple months from being realized, but the developers have certainly tightened things up and are heading into the home stretch with a game that is shaping up to be tremendously entertaining, especially for multiple players. The competitive battle modes make for a tremendous party-style atmosphere, and with four players taking on the monster horde, the adventure mode invokes a sense of arcade-style fun that has not been commonplace in ages. In the most complimentary sense, the team at Artificial Studios seem to be well on their way to creating a near perfect blend of old school charm and next-gen gameplay, and we eagerly await the fruits of their labor.