Very quietly, beyond the Brain Trainings and the Cooking Guides, the DS has been enjoying a healthy subculture of hardcore gaming. This is especially true with the shooter genre, now banished to handhelds and download services as arcades go out of fashion and full price console games plough different fields. Nostalgics and twitch-fetishists can find comfort in Geometry Wars: Galaxies, Bangai-O Spirits and Contra 4 (still not released in Europe). Now, Metal Slug 7 can be added to that list.
The Metal Slug series made its name based on its detailed, well-drawn 2D art style and its punishing, patience-rewarding gameplay. At heart, it is a side-scrolling run-and-gun shoot-em-up like Contra, but instead of that games muscle-bound semi-seriousness, in Metal Slug the environments, enemies and items come alive with a bonkers sense of design and animation. Metal Slug 7 is the first numbered entry in the series to appear without an initial arcade iteration; it is also the first since the nostalgic overview Metal Slug Anthology on Wii, PS2 and PSP in 2006. This coincidence of circumstance positions Slug number 7 as a focus of attention, as the start of a possible new era for the franchise.
What we’re given is, for better or worse, more of the same. Series veterans will find few surprises in Metal Slug 7: the mechanics and characters are largely the same as the previous handful of installments – although some of the delicious eccentricities of the past have been trimmed away. You still choose from a cast of soldiers, each with slightly different abilities and advantages, and progress through levels of bad guys, tanks and boss battles, dodging bullets and avoiding one-hit kills. This time, however, the player won’t be faced with, or be turned into, mummies or zombies, and gone are the cityscapes and dusty towns.
Instead, the setting is very firmly based around the pseudo-Nazi military context of General Morden and his armies, with a brief foray through what seems to be a stargate at the end, resulting in a rather dull progression of stages. There are still some wonderfully designed boss battles, but a staggering amount of the game is created from recycled sprites and ideas.
This leads to an underwhelming amount of content. The main game features 7 mission stages, playable on 3 difficulty levels. Newcomers will be brought in gently with the Easy mode, and Hard mode will test even the most skilled of Slug fanatics. However, it is still a short serving, especially in relation to other games on the platform. Metal Slug has always been a fun 2-player arcade experience, and a real ‘hang out’ game, but the lack of wi-fi or wireless features in 7 makes this a solely solitary affair.
Outside of the main game, there is little to inspire real engagement – there is a set of increasingly difficult challenges in the ‘Combat School’, but these are retreads of stages based around time limits, item discovery and enemy hunting. This addition works in the game’s favour, as does a level select option, as it makes Metal Slug a pick-up-and-play experience for the commute. However, there is no real ‘reward’ for these at times frustrating challenges. A similar mode in Contra 4 allows the player to unlock full versions of the first two Contra games; progressing through the Combat School in Metal Slug 7 only seems to unlock a strange, dating simulator-style dialogue with the female drill instructor.
It all adds up to a package that is undeniably light on features; that isn’t a total failure, as the gameplay of Metal Slug has always been fast-paced, tight and fun. However, it is easy to see Metal Slug 7 as a missed opportunity. Fans will buy this anyway, and rip through the game, and probably enjoy it wildly – their hairs prickling as the lush new arrangement of the ‘Final Attack’ theme kicks in for the last boss. Although, even the faithful may feel a bit shortchanged in the end, especially as there is an announced, yet still undated Xbox Live Arcade release in the pipeline, which will be cheaper, and probably feature at least offline co-op. Metal Slug 7 is entrenched in its format, offering little in the way of bells and whistles, and simply doesn’t stand up to the competition.