Armed and Dangerous
IMAGINE sitting in front of the heads of LucasArts, trying to explain how their next great game will feature a mole, a self-aware robot who drinks tea, a dirty thief and a mad filthy old man.
It's not the most comfortable situation imaginable, but it's one that Nick Bruty, president, co-artist and designer at Planet Moon Studios, faced when he pitched the idea for his latest - and most gleefully explosive - action game. Armed & Dangerous. It's a third-person action affair, featuring a fairly standard mix of running, shooting, flying and blowing stuff up. But like every other game the nutters at Planet Moon have created, from Earthworm Jim through to Giants: Citizen Kabuto, it's far from ordinary execution.
Dark Side Of The Moon
For starters, how often do you see a game with a gun that fires sharks into the ground, which subsequently 'swim' towards enemies like Jaws and engulf them from below? A game in which you can turn the world upside down for a few seconds and then watch as enemies plummet from the skies to their deaths? Or one where you can stick a grenade on an unsuspecting penguin and watch as it runs panicked into a flock of enemies and explodes in their midst?
Unless you've been experimenting with a lot of illicit substances lately, the answer to all these questions is probably 'not very often'. And when you combine all this with a frantic pace and a world in which practically everything will explode given the right encouragement, you get one of the most frenzied, over-the-top and downright hysterical games to appear on the PC since, well... Giants: Citizen Kabuto.
I think we've been (slowly) honing in on exactly the type of game we like to make, explains Nick. Getting the balance between action/story/characters right and finding out just how different we can make it before we turn people off. With Games like MDK and Giants we were all dazzled by the possibilities of 3D games and we experimented all over the place. There are some bizarre and wonderful things in those games, but maybe a few too many bizarre ones. Now I'd say we're much more focused and tuned into exactly what is good about our games.
Having spent the past few weeks furiously playing Armed & Dangerous -the first playable version with all 21 levels and four bonus missions in place - I can only nod dumbly and agree. The game is just as whacked-out as MDK and Giants in terms of characterisation and storyline -more so if anything - but the overall experience is far more accessible. The humour has been pushed to the fore, and though the action is more straightforward than the likes of Giants, this is balanced by a distinctly improbable array of weapons (see boxout) and a level of non-stop intensity rarely found outside the arcade.
The primary gameplay objective for Armed & Dangerous was fulfilling the credo: every second is fun, grins Aaron Loeb, producer at Planet Moon. The goal was to have a game that never slogged on or weighed you down, but was constantly fun, over-the-top action. Now the game is almost complete, we feel like it's a resounding success, except for second 14,567 when that one dull thing happens. But it's only one second."
Murder Death Kill
The game casts you as Roman, East London native and leader of a wantonly motley group of thieves-cum-freedom fighters known as the Lionhearts (the aforementioned mole, robot and dirty old man). Through a series of loosely connected missions, you're given the taxing duties of running around shooting royal troops (ranging from goblin-like grunts to wild twiglets), blowing stuff up, occasionally rescuing a few ungrateful peasants and zooming through the sky on your rocket jetpack. Sometimes you work alone, sometimes the Lionhearts are with you, throwing their all into the fray.
And it's as simple as that. Except that while you're going about these tasks, there are thunderous explosions going off all around you, zeppelins shooting at you with underslung rocket launchers, snipers taking potshots from distant aeries, enemies parachuting in to reinforce their comrades, boulders tumbling from mountaintops, giant robots lumbering around with chainguns and, of course, sharks shooting up out of the ground eating unsuspecting grunts. It makes the Gaza Strip look like the Costa del Sol.
Indeed, the only respite comes when you pop in to your local pub (there's a friendly Grunt & Polewart on every level) to wet your whistle and restock on guns and ammo. In the pubs, which are decidedly British establishments, you'll invariably enter in the middle of conversation, only to hear a comment like, Right, who's for a pint and a shag?' and it's this type of humour that forms the whole comic theme of the game. All the enemies, who generally have plenty to say, boast some sort of silly European accent, be it Irish (Me poor beautiful arse"), Scottish (Ooh, right in tha scrotum) or a strained kind of Pythonesque French (I'll keel you and keel you some more).
The humour comes from the mind of our creative director, Tim Williams," informs Aaron. His inspiration is usually assumed to be Monty Python, but he insists he's really far more inspired by the events of his misspent youth in the opium dens of Calcutta."
Whatever the inspiration, it's a decidedly 'undergraduate' style of humour that prevails (read: bum and nob jokes). One memorable cut-scene plays on the scene from The Empire Strikes Back in which Han Solo cuts open a dead Tauntaun to keep Luke warm. Your mates Q and Jonesy are standing by a dead lizard thing, a frozen Rexus held confidently in Q's robotic grip. But just as Jonesy the mole is saying, Oh I've seen this done before, you're going to cut open the lizard and..., Q has already shoved the frozen Rexus right up the lizard's Gary Glitter. And sure enough it wasn't dead after all.
There's plenty of similar examples, and while it's all still a bit hit and miss at this stage, there's enough good material here to propel Armed & Dangerous into that rarefied realm of genuinely funny games. We were initially a bit worried that because a lot of the humour is based around British accents and stereotypes, it wouldn't go down too well here in the UK, but Nick seems unconcerned. As a bunch of us are Brits, it's quite important. I think you'll appreciate what we're trying to do. There's an aspect to the comedy that allows us to push quite far and get away with it. You don't have to be a Brit to 'get' it, but I hope you'll all laugh twice as loud."
She's a Looker
Another hugely impressive aspect of the game is the level environments. While they start off small and simple, with some snowy mountain villages to negotiate in linear fashion, they soon blossom into vast, lavishly detailed affairs, lent all the more charm by the fact that you can whoosh around them with your turbo-jump pack. By about the eighth level in, we found ourselves literally gaping at the beauty of some of the levels, which range from vast pseudo-medieval cities clinging to the peaks and ledges of grassy canyons, to grim early-industrial factories belching fire and smoke from every orifice.
After every three or four objectivebased missions, you're also treated to a tempo-breaking 'defend the town' level, in which you man a kind of turret-gun atop a wall and mow down wave upon wave of attackers. In the current build these are a bit unchallenging, but there's certainly a degree of fun to be had sending hundreds of bodies flying as they try to breach your defences. Says Nick: The key image for the game in our minds when we began was this: one man, flanked by a robot and a mole, standing on top of a wall with an entire army coming at him. The game has always been about overwhelming odds (and pints - many, many pints)."
While Armed & Dangerous is shaping up to be a hugely enjoyable game, there are definitely a few things that need attention. For a start, the learning curve is way too gentle. For a game that sells itself on non-stop frantic action, the opening levels are too sedate and linear compared to what awaits five or six levels in. The auto-aim is far too forgiving, offering you a massive cross hair with which to target enemies, and this inevitably makes the run-and-gun sections feel a bit sloppy. There's also quite a stingy limit on how many weapons you can carry.
Hard To Port
Clearly, however, most of these problems are merely a hangover from the Xbox version, which is running slightly ahead of the PC game in development terms. Gunning down waves of enemies is far easier with a mouse and keyboard than it is when you're wrestling with a tiny Xbox joystick, and the PC game needs to be recalibrated to account for this. Ideally, the PC version needs more enemies, more weapons, more stuff to blow up and, well, just more stuff in general.
There's a good few months left to fix these niggles, and we feel confident that Planet Moon will take care of business. They've never let us down in the past, and if they can just tweak the balance a bit this time, they'll have another sure-fire action classic on their hands.
Download Armed and Dangerous
You aimd your two companions stand in the surrounds of a peaceful, wood-built village, sited in a peaceful forest grove. Fronds of light filter through swaying foliage and bleating lambs gnaw at bristling grass. Birds settle on boughs, spring voices a-twitter.
But no, what's this coming to spoil this serene scene? A platoon of soldiers, half-man, half-animal, with evil intent in their eyes.
Retreating for cover as bullets zing about you, your finger alights upon your trigger. You press hard, releasing a slug of metal the size of a rugby ball which plops from the barrel into the earth, sinking immediately. A second later, a few yards from the point of impact, the cruel curve of a shark's fin pierces the ground, ploughing directly for your enemies. Panicking, they redirect their fire towards the subterranean predator.
But it's too late. Bursting from beneath the feet of its first target, the earth-surfing Jaws savages the bad guy, shaking his broken body like a baby's rattle. His comrades scream widely, the noise curtailed by a devastatingly well-placed salvo from your Vindaloo rocket launcher. Peace returns, especially to the sheep, now at eternal rest, caught in the conflagration caused by your curry cannon.
Armed And Dangerous isn't your average shooter. There isn't a team of US specialforces to lead, or an arsenal of real-life weapons to master and a savage Islamic terrorist plot to foil. Instead, we get characters with comedic accents, weapons that could only be the product of a link-up between Coco the Clown and Heckler & Koch, and a pantomime evil king to overthrow. It's a sort of Shrek with guns, Monty 'Colt' Python, if you like.
Gameplay-wise, A&D is a 3D, third-person shooter - an 'action-actioner' in the words of the creators (Planet Moon Studios, the brains behind the fondly remembered Giants: Citizen Kabuto). And as you may have guessed, the tone of the action goes way beyond tongue in cheek, all the way to out-and-out comedy. This is true from the cut-scenes that punctuate the missions, to the comments and asides of your companions, to the nature of much of the weaponry. The designers beavering away for the fabled LucasArts have obviously been busy fashioning a game that'll have you laughing at your workstations. Or that's what they hope, anyway. Have they succeeded? Partially.
You play as Roman, the hardbitten cockney leader of the Lionhearts, a gang of mercenaries and thieves. At your side for much of the action are Jonesy, a cynical, sarcastic Scottish mole-man miner (maybe someone should have told the Americans it's the Welsh who're renowned for being miners called Jones) and Q1 -11, an upper-class battle droid with a penchant for brewing tea. Also appearing is Rexus, the wise old geezer who's the brains behind the whole operation, though you'll only ever really see him in the cut-scenes.
Things begin with the gang setting out to pull off the biggest heist in the history of the land of Milola - stealing the Book of Rule, the most powerful artefact known to mole-man or beast. Soon after, though, Roman and the rest get dragged into a battle for freedom from the yoke of the evil King Forge. A cockney leader's work is never done, eh?
A&D has got its foot firmly on the 'action' pedal. In essence, what you do is traverse each level beating off football stadium-loads of bad guys, using a host of weapons - both bizarre and conventional.
At your side for much of it are your two buddies, Jonesy and Q1 -11. Although, with only two commands available ('stay* and 'follow'), they might as well be heavily armed Labradors than intelligent team-mates. No, apart from absorbing enemy fire and giving a little back themselves, these two are more important for the nonstop trickle of one-liners, put-downs, complaints and other such 'side-splitting' commentary. And we'll speak a little more about this constant stream of quips and japes from the posh droid and the Scottish dwarf cross-breed later.
Armed And Dangerous has been developed as a console and PC game simultaneously, but we recommend playing with a mouse and keyboard. For despite its third-person viewpoint, A&D could just as easily be a first-person shooter, such is the emphasis on nonstop combat. Consequently, the freedom mouse-look gives you is invaluable, as there will be enemies coming at you from all directions, and then some. The most basic of the 21 missions involve you simply getting from A to B. Navigation is never a problem, with little in the way of exploring to be done. Neither will puzzles bar your way, as the only riddling that needs doing is riddling your many opponents' bodies with bullets.
Though they're extremely multitudinous, the bad guys don't come in that many shapes and sizes, with the bogstandard Grunt (a half-man, half-beast soldier armed with a bow or a rifle) being your chief opponent right to the end of the game. Backing these humble foot soldiers up are their officers (armed with submachine guns and sometimes rocket launchers or jet-packs), battle droids, teleporting priests, gun emplacements and the occasional species of aggressive wildlife.
There's no doubt that, with its arcade-like momentum, this is not the kind of game where you should get anal about the enemy Al. Which is a good job, because over and above some primitive reactions such as running to man vacant gun emplacements, or diving away from grenades, the average Grunt in A&D displays the brain power of the side of him which is beast, not man.
Instead, what you tend to be confronted with are human wave tactics. At your disposal to tackle this constant, malignant flow is a truly unique set of weapons (though the Worms games must take some credit for inspiration), designed to create comic carnage. And using them is fun - no doubt about it. Along with the aforementioned Land Shark gun and Vindaloo launcher, we also find the Topsy-Turvy bomb (which sends nearby targets flying into the air before crashing back down again), and the world's smallest black hole which sucks enemies into its vortex.
With its ceaseless gunfire and designed-to-be-spectacular stream of explosions, Armed And Dangerous is a lively looking game. Much of what you see, from barrels to trees to buildings can be destroyed, and no doubt you'll oblige in this task. Okay, so it's never going to win awards for its looks, but the game is nice and smooth (vital for an actioner of this pace), with a solid feel to its environments.
Land And Freedom
There are five distinct landscapes to fight over, ranging from icy wastelands, to rocky mountain regions, to smoke-shrouded industrial regions. These go together to create a semi-believable settinc for the crazed combat, in a cartooney kind of way.
The designs of the houses, forts, factories and castles are all nice, with a quasi-industrial revolution feel to everything. Certain features catch the eye. such as the dense foliage, the wintry trees and the general draw distance - which in some vels allows for some extreme mge sniper combat levels allows for some extreme range sniper combat.
No Laughing Matter
At the end of the day, putting humour near the top of the list of your game's selling points is a risky business. It's not as if we all dig through our game collection for a good laugh when The Office and Phoenix Nights have finished. But Armed And Dangerous does just that, hoping that there are enough of us out there looking for an antidote to the uncountable number of po-faced RPGs, stern-looking shooters and earnest simulations. Me? I remain unconvinced.
A game's J first priority is to entertain in an interactive manner. If there's humour, we want to be a part of it. But to be honest, the comedy value of the weapons in A&D is all but lost in the fury of the action. The Shark gun is largely useless, the Vindaloo launcher looks like any other rocket launcher, and the real workhorses of the game are the humble and humourless machine gun, sniper rifle and sticky bombs.
Which is not to say the action isn't fun - it just isn't particularly funny. light hearted, yes. Hilarious, no. When Q1 -11 offers you a cuppa in the heat of battle for the 10th time, or when Jonesy starts singing Scottish songs again, the joke has already worn a bit thin. Regardless, most of your companions' in-game mutterings are drowned out by the rattle of gunfire, and your brow is too furrowed in concentration staying alive to register the ones that aren't. So take away the humour and what you're left with is a simple, undemanding and fast-paced shooter that veers from the gently amusing to a whole lot of fun. But when the fun cruelly comes to an end after a little over five or six hours, what are you left with? The humour. And since the gags wear thin quicker than the knees on Dennis the Menace's jeans, for laughs, give us Phoenix Nights or The Office any day.
Ah, Summer. Those halcyon days when fields and meadows beckon, and the sweet perfume of future memories are borne on gentle zephyrs. A time for blockbuster movies to transport their wide-eyed audience into another world of action and intrigue. What better time, then, to receive news of Armed & Dangerous, a bullet-riddled original title from the franchise-prone chaps at LucasArts.
Story, Bloody Story
Taking third-person action to a ridiculous extreme, Armed & Dangerous casts intrepid players at the command of a group of thieving, unlikely heroes. Led by criminal mastermind Roman, the diverse roster features such unsavoury types as a seer-cum-madman, a Scottish demolitions expert, and just to round things off, a robot who's attained inner peace through a studied love of tea. No, we haven't confused the fact sheet with that of a posthumous Douglas Adams novel or the new Futurama DVD release - this is spot on the level. Just to prove it, there's not an ounce of interstellar shipping involved.
The motley crew, known as the Lionhearts, has lined up a serious score: pulling the biggest heist ever, and right in the gullet of a war to boot. Fortunately, they're armed with enough firepower to blow the cooling unit off your new GeForce Ultra. Oh, and there's a bit about rebellion and a tyrant king in there, too. Now it's beginning to sound more like Martin Bashir's turned his cameras on the Hussein family.
But never mind that - think of the glory! Why, the redemption value on all those spent shells alone could finance an army. Rumour has it that Roman is an EastEnder, and in the hands of anyone but LucasArts that might be cause for fear. But knowing what those capable hands did with the accents in Grim Fandango, here's hoping that this antihero won't emerge sounding like Johnny Depp in From Hell. Even better, the development chores are being handled by Planet Moon Studios, who, in the early days of GeForce powered enlightenment, produced the entertaining and slightly twisted Giants: Citizen Kabuto.
The Drawing Board
While the publisher is certainly putting the emphasis on armament, anyone who played Giants should remember the skewed humour behind the game just as well as its insane weaponry and multi-faceted characters, and that's what's really got us salivating about this one. While the carnage is all very well and good, putting the comic sensibilities of the house that published Sam & Max Hit the Road and Grim Fandango alongside the demonstrably bawdy humour of Planet Moon seems like a great idea.
The first batch of screens we've managed to bring you here demonstrate that Armed & Dangerous will take advantage of up-to-the minute polygonal prowess, with detailed multi-level environments in which to make things go boom. Concept art reveals a world lying somewhere between that of Lucas and anime legend Miyazaki, with retro-styled robotic drones and majestic airships decorated with vanes and spires. Five types of environment will be in the final game, including lush forests, rain slicked mountains and snowy expanses.
And then there are the guns. Lots of guns. One has a forebarrel like the gaping maw of a shark, another, the Vindaloo Rocket Launcher, fires four projectiles guaranteed to make recipients feel incredibly uncomfortable. Regardless, all can be relied upon to deal out massive amounts of carnage. Of great interest is the Topsy-Turvy Bomb, which actually turns targeted areas upside down, reverting back to normal in time for affected enemies to experience a sickening fall. Turreted vehicles will also play into the lunacy, with an interface that will immediately be familiar to Giants veterans.
In fact, from the available evidence, A&D appears to be a big brother to Giants in more ways than one. The level designs, weapons and design sensibilities all bear the stamp of the highly creative Planet Moon team. The biggest change is that A&D sets adrift the notions of resource management in favour of full-bore action, though clever manipulation of your team mates will certainly be a prerequisite to success. The oddball characters all promise to be memorable too, as attention to detail is here in spades, with high-poly models seemingly designed to make you care... at least about how you blow them away. But first, please, take the time to look into the eyes of the Dr Moreau-reject Grunts, insane droids and, erm, Twiglets. Marvel at the unparalleled array of missions! (Well, there are 21.) Cower before the limitless arsenal! (OK, 17 weapons really, but who's counting?)
Thank the powers that be, also, for the fact Armed & Dangerous seems to be heralding a new age for the house that Lucas built. While all those Star Wars games keep the lightsaber-builders happy, it's been a long wait for those of us who were enamoured with the company's less glamorous, yet more satisfying titles. While there's no shortage of average, undergraduate humour in games today, really well-crafted undergraduate jokes are to be treasured, and this combination of talent looks like a shimmering well of unsavoury entertainment. Great action and great jokes? We can't wait.
Hell, I like blowing up as much as the next guy, but these days, mindless gunplay gets you only so far. Sure, Armed and Dangerous has some inventive weapons, but it's still a pretty basic third-person shooter--and one with dated graphics and a dopey sense of humor, at that. ("Oooh! Look at me! I'm Scottish! Isn't that quirky?!") The game has a bevy of huge, sprawling stages, but the level design is sloppy, and the same objectives pop up far too often. (If I live my whole life without ever having to blow up another house with a bull's eye on it or rescue another peasant....) Even with the occasional gun turret level, the gameplay still gets repetitive over time. Some multiplayer action would have helped, but there isn't any...at all. Maybe this is another "love it or hate it" LucasArts game like Gladius, but I'd rather Armed and Dangerous had fewer missions and a lot more polish.
It's one of the ugliest Xbox games you'll ever play (it's so...brown), and shooters don't come much stranger (fans of Giants: Citizen Kabuto (PS2) can expect similar har-hars). But fugly duckling Armed and Dangerous has a great personality that keeps you hooked longer than similar yet more blase blasters like Brute Force. Sure, I got tired of too many rescue-the-peasants missions, and the game needs a larger arsenal (plus more levels with the superfun jetpack). But the open-ended level design--and especially the nifty fortress-defense stages--made for many moments of shooter Zen.
Armed and Dangerous holds some of the greatest videogame weapons ever--the Black Hole bomb sucks, while the Shark Gun bites. These armaments complement delightfully frenetic gameplay that has enemies jumping out of windows to attack, buildings exploding with their roofs rocketing into space, and huge zeppelins falling to the ground in a twisted mass of metal. It's excessive carnage done wonderfully, broken up with great laugh-out-loud humor. Sadly, the game loses its punch as it wears on, presenting players with repetitive rail-gun shooting and mundane peasant-rescuing challenges.
Humor doesn't always work in computer games, but the laughs blend well with the non-stop action in this third person shooter set in an alternate Scotland filled with robots, projectile land sharks and portable black holes. Armed and Dangerous sends you through wave after wave of smart-cracking bad guys, blasting your way to the end of a stream of missions that will eventually have you take on the King Forge.
Most of the game is pretty straight forward, with the exception of the weapons and power-ups. There are a few levels that will have you soaring over the action with a jumper pack and other levels are completed with the assistance of two sidekicks, which can be directed to guard you or attack a specific area.
What really sets this game apart though is the humor. Besides the constant stream of jokes and one-liners coming from Roman, the lead in the game, the weapons and their effects are truly spectacular in a very humorous way. Take for instance the topsy turvy bomb. This device basically looks like a giant corkscrew, when you activate it, Roman screws it into the ground and then gravity is reversed flipping your screen over and sending all of the bad guys screaming into space. A few seconds later the screen reverts and you can walk around, but watch out for the bodies of falling bad guys. It's a great effect.
Another favorite of mine is the land shark gun. Just aim the gun at an enemy and pull the trigger, a full sized land shark jets across the ground leaps up and grabs the baddie, thrashing him back and forth until he is dead. It's a great homage to one of the best Saturday Night Live skits of all time.
Although many of the weapons have built in punch lines, the one you'll use most often is the machine gun. The game offers slight Xbox Live support with the promise of downloadable weapons and levels, something that could be hit or miss depending on how humorous it is.
Armed and Dangerous is a sold third-person shooter but gets a little old after awhile, the game's saving grace is its well-written plot and myriad of dialogue jokes. It's almost like playing a Monty Python script.
Snapshots and Media
XBox One Screenshots
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