• Wizkids’ extensible strategy game finally comes to XBLA – but it’s not what you’d expect.

    The high kitsch world of Flash Gordon, King of the Rocketmen and other hoary old 1930s and 1940s sci-fi serials may seem a long way from anything you’ll find on the Xbox 360. Rocketmen: Axis of Evil takes all the campness, the high drama and the cliffhanger endings of such serials and dresses them up in a cel-shaded homage to all things spacey.

    Rocketmen: Axis of Evil is actually based on a “Constructible” (sic) tabletop game by Wizkids, a company renowned for putting together games that evolve with play, and involve each player putting together pre-made parts in order to construct a turn-based strategy fantasy.

    Now that would’ve potentially been an interesting idea for an Xbox Live game, something where each player gets a say in how the gameworld is constructed, and how each of their characters levels up in a role-playing style but instead we get a rather potted version alluding to a few RPG elements, but relying heavily on the staple of Xbox Live Arcade offerings, the twin-stick shoot ‘em up. XBLA needs yet another title like this like it needs a month’s downtime, but let’s put the thing under the degenatron microscope and see what’s on offer.

    Rocketmen: Axis of Evil

    Rocketmen: Axis of Evil begins with a stark message. Earth is being invaded by its surly solar-system neighbours, with Mars making the first strike. Our intrepid heroes Nick Sion, Alec Mink and the freedom fighters of the Alliance of Free Planets must strike back against the Legion of Terra, who have sent wave after wave of their keenest, bloodthirstiest fighters against us.

    First you get to customise your in-game character, everything from butch brainless meatsacks on legs to lithe blue-skinned bouncing-boobied alien temptresses. Once done, you’re thrown right into the thick of the action and on the first level you must attempt to rescue one of the key members of the Alliance.

    The game is so simple that even a monkey with one arm could probably master the controls. In the usual fashion the left analogue stick controls your movement, whereas the right analogue stick controls your 360-degree field of fire. Primary and secondary weapons are fired by the right and left trigger respectively, ranging from guided missiles to mini-gunner drones which can make mincemeat out of the attacking opposition in double-quick time.

    The game feels instantly like that dust-encrusted arcade classic Super Smash TV, with cel-shaded graphics that keep the look and feel of the card series. You may be forgiven for thinking that things look a little simplified but that’s pretty much how the original strategy game looked. It works to a varying degree of success when translated into an action game but at times you will feel like you’ve time-slipped back to the SNES days. Although the action is pretty much on rails, with a few directional decisions thrown in from time to time (and annoyingly a camera that doesn’t always keep up with the rate of scroll, frustratingly taking bonus items out of your reach). The order of the day here is to decimate the massed armies of the Legion of Terra in all their forms.

    From time to time in each level you will be called upon to mash the A button to activate bonus tasks, rescue prisoners or deactivate cluster mines. Keeping the controls this simple pays dividends in that it means the game is very easy to get into. It also detracts somewhat from the game’s long term appeal because by the end of the third or fourth level you feel like you’ve seen everything the game has to offer.

    There are some quite spectacular boss battles though, punctuated by even more invading forces all trying to make sure you don’t achieve your goal of freeing those planets under tyranny, but motivation to carry on is at a bare minimum simply because the game feels so unrewarding, even when you get to spend some of your XP at the end of each level on some character and weapon enhancing goodies.

    One thing lifts the game above the usual XBLA dross, the fact that you can team up with up to three of your friends and work through the entire game in co-op mode. Ramp up the difficulty a notch and dive into the action over Live, and the game starts to feel like a slightly pepped up version of Gauntlet, with each team-member racing to nab as many bonus items, and all the best weapons in the game for themselves.

    For the single player though, it’s hard to find much to get excited about here. Even when the game tries to mix things up a little with some set-piece levels taking place aboard moving shuttle taxis and with ever-increasingly more ferocious opponents trying to toast you with their lasers, Rocketmen misses out on the essential ingredient the original card-and-polystyrene based tabletop game had in spades – that all important element of being fun to play.

    Such a shame, when you’ve got other fantastic games based around similar tabletop classics (like Catan for instance) the fact that the developers wimped out and just put together a by the numbers shooter feels a bit like cheating.

    Score: 4/10

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