In the world of videogames, every developer at one time or another has taken their own formula and re-used it for a sequel or off-shoot title, but how much "new" content does there have to be before it's enough to justify a release? This question came up often for me personally last year, a year which packed an incredible number of, shall we say, "return visits" in amongst the few fresh new ideas. Some were clearly better than others, but in my opinion, the general dearth of creative risk taking cast a malaise over 2003. It's true (and worth noting) that building on an established base is a big leg up and usually means a higher level of technical quality, but regardless of what publishing CEOs might say, if the end result is a repeat of the source material, is it worth it?
Such is the question I asked myself with Maximo vs. Army of Zin. It's one of those "clearly-better-yet-almost-too-familiar" games that treads the fine line mentioned above, causing me to stop and critically examine where my preferences as both a player and a reviewer lie.
Third-person action in its purest form, Maximo vs. Army of Zin stars our hero as he goes on a quest to stop the mechanical minions of the villainous Lord Bane. Starting in a small village and cutting his way across the countryside, Maximo boasts a well-rounded array of combat techniques and skills. Besides basic sword slashes and combos, power-ups like an enemy-freezing hammer or a magical dash attack can be found or purchased from traveling merchants in each level. Maximo can also double jump like every good platform character should, and his shield pulls double duty as both defense and a ranged attack. Finally, by collecting souls from fallen enemies, Maximo can turn into the Grim Reaper for brief invincibility and some wicked scythe swinging. It's a little hard to reliably perform some of the power techniques in the heat of battle (the analog stick isn't ideal for this kind of precise input), but the handling and collision is otherwise nice and tight.
The game's camera isn't quite as satisfying as the skull-cleaving, though. Controlled with the right stick, it can only pan horizontally during active gameplay, and a strange, vaguely "fish-eye" effect is used on-screen. It's a little disconcerting. Reminiscent of Sam Raimi's signature off-kilter camerawork (see his Evil Dead trilogy for further details), this unconventional approach skews depth perception just enough to make judging distances trickier than it should be. Jumping pits under these conditions isn't as fatal as it was in Maximo: Ghosts to Glory, but throughout the course of Zin, I lost more lives to bottomless black holes than I did to enemy attacks.
The camera can also be problematic in areas where you're fighting in an enclosed space. The majority of play happens in areas with lots of room to maneuver, but there are a few times when you're in one spot defending friends or eliminating objects before moving on. When this happens, the camera has serious problems keeping up and leaves you open for cheap hits. Pulling the camera back further for these scenes would have helped.
I certainly don't mean to sound overly negative, though. The same action sequences that ruffled my feathers with the camera also (quite ironically) provided some of the game's better moments in terms of freshness and intensity. In the midst of two levels, the game heats up when you're charged with covering the back of allies who fight alongside you. In other sections, you'll be frantically scrambling to get behind the controls of medieval-style gun turrets to mow down waves of incoming enemies, and just about every level in the game has a good number of civilians to rescue in return for a power-up or a bag of gold. Little diversions like these from the standard "run forward, kill enemies and proceed" formula were very welcome, and Maximo vs. Army of Zin has a fair number of them—though a few more wouldn't hurt.
Also positive, Zin's levels are much better than Ghosts to Glory'sin terms of artistry and flow. Beginning in a woodsy hamlet, you'll soon find yourself crushing beetles in an underground hive and eventually working your way through the cogs of a giant machine called the "Soulcrusher." The bombastic boss battles at the end of these areas are great too, and probably my favorite part of the game. Little warms my heart like dodging pattern-based assaults from huge, colorful enemies and giving them my blade in return. Maximo is a very likable character, and letting him run rampant is a pleasure.
However, this brings me back to my original question. As cathartic as it is to set my brain on "simmer" and give the square button a good workout, there's no denying that Maximo vs. Army of Zin could very well pass itself off as an "add-on" to the original. It's smoother and holds together better, but this is essentially the same experience I had the first time around. Though I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who hasn't tried a Maximo game yet, people who've played Ghosts to Gloryknow exactly what to expect. Between the two games it's true that Zin packs the superior adventure, but Capcom Digital Studios only moves our knight in heart-covered boxers a hair past what's already been done.
I spent more than the average amount of time coming up with a verdict on Maximo vs. Army of Zin, and even now I still feel somewhat torn. On the one hand, the developers have addressed and corrected nearly everything I thought needed a touch-up. The confusing hub worlds have been replaced with an appropriately linear layout, the save system is better; collecting power-ups is more forgiving, and so on. On the other hand, despite the game's solid action, the most significant issue I had with the first Maximo still exists—the concept stays a little too comfortably within the basics of run, jump and slash. After seeing the credits roll, I was left with the feeling that Maximo vs. Army of Zin is like a raw gemstone—precious and valued, but only a rough approximation of the full potential waiting within.