Welcome to the 12th installment of the Portable Project, a feature devoted to handheld gaming that gives Critics a chance to dish on smaller titles that might not otherwise get their fifteen minutes of fame. Unzip your soft case, make sure your batteries are fully charged, and get comfy with the current selections. This month, we cover M.A.C.H., Coded Arms Contagion and Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadown.
M.A.C.H. is one of those unfortunate games that sport impressive production values, smart design and a good difficulty curve without ever getting any traction at retail. Heck, I don't even know another PSP owner who's considered playing it, let alone brought it home from a shop. It's too bad really, because past the generic-looking box art and incredibly dull title, there's a pretty sweet experience to be had.
I'm not one for racing games in general, but M.A.C.H. had enough of a hook to draw me in; instead of pimpy imports, high-end sportcars or NASCAR snoreboxes, all racing takes place in the skies with fantasy aircraft capable of incredible speed and agility.
The mechanical design is quite good, with most of the jets striking a good balance between modern warbirds and sci-fi technology. Even better, after winning a few races, the cash earnings can be used to modify the cosmetics and performance of the vehicles. For players who don't care about clinging closely to reality, some of the upgrades are impressively crazy. By the end of the game, my standard-looking fleet became a flock of multi-turbine, reverse-wing predators.
One thing in particular I'd like to praise is M.A.C.H.'s implementation of weapons. Most games that blend attacking and racing tend to err in favor of offense. I don't have much patience for these titles since the AI usually skews towards "every racer vs. the player," and consistently blowing up into a fireball a few seconds from the finish line drives me absolutely crazy. In M.A.C.H., strategic use of barrel rolls can negate any attack in order to ensure the player retains some sense of control. The maneuver can't be spammed since it uses a portion of the plane's power gauge, so the proper checks and balances are in place. It's a smart system, and one I wish other developers would copy.
Although there are only five tracks, the repetition is broken up by dogfighting events and a few other modes that help spice up the formula. I would have liked to have seen more content overall; more locations, more upgrades, more events, but what's here is quite satisfying and an above-average first effort at getting a new franchise off the ground. It looks great, it feels great, and it's a perfect fit for a handheld system. It's too bad that the odds of M.A.C.H. getting a sequel are slim to none... I guess this is one example when flying under the radar isn't a good thing.
When I reviewed the original Coded Arms, I appreciated that the game attempted to spice up its standard FPS formula by wrapping it in a "hacker jacking into the Matrix" theme. It was something a little different, even if the gameplay was as average as could be. It was passable for a few hours, but I walked away from the game feeling that the developers didn't go far enough, and should have explored the concept in greater depth. Obviously, Konami must not have read the review. Coded Arms Contagion not only serves up the exact same by-the-numbers FPS action, but it actually backtracks and distances itself from the techno elements—the only thing that gave it some semblance of identity in the first place.
Contagion only pays the most superficial lip service to the idea that the player is a soldier transported inside a complex A.I. system. If the brief bits of dialogue didn't actually mention it several times, I'd be hard-pressed to tell that the game was set in a "virtual" landscape at all until the final three or four levels. Effectively identical to any one of the million other rote shooters that have come down the pike since Doom, Contagion sticks to the basics. Run and shoot in generic environments. Collect new guns and ammunition. Push a few switches, find the exit, and repeat until the game's over. It's flat and lifeless from start to finish.
It's true that enemies dissolve into rising clouds of digital data after being defeated and the weapons are described as "Plug-Ins," but that's about as far as the metaphor goes. Without a stronger hook to the gameplay, or at least in the setting, there's absolutely nothing to recommend Coded Arms Contagion beyond the fact that it delivers lowest-common denominator shooting action and controls well on the single-analog PSP. Unfortunately, that's not exactly what I'd call a glowing endorsement.
Though I still get the sense that the potential for a solid B-rank franchise is lying dormant here, a lot more care and craft will be needed before anything starts to bloom. Players still intrigued by the idea of deleting enemy programs inside a computer should skip Coded Arms and check out the Xbox's Tron 2.0 for an example of the same basic concept executed perfectly, with style and sense to spare.
Sony Bend has done it again. The first handheld Syphon Filter was a powerhouse, and its sequel, Logan's Shadow is no different. Series star Gabe Logan may not have the personality of Solid Snake or the instant recognition of Sam Fisher, but he's got them both beat by a country mile when it comes to portable action. Without a doubt, this is the small-scale action franchise to beat.
By far, Logan's Shadow's most valuable asset is that it moves like lightning and doesn't stop for a minute. The pace is set high, maintaining the same tense energy from level one to the ending credits. Plenty of hints and cues make sure that players are never left wondering what to do, and the cut-scenes and radio chatter do a great job of keeping the focus on the mission. No matter what I was doing, I always felt like I was making things happen and pointed in the right direction.
Syphon Filter's mission variety is just as perfect as the pace. While out in the field, Gabe tackles a surprisingly wide range of objectives and situations—of course there's plenty of combat (the kind where finding cover is essential) but besides straight-up shooting, several legs of the op give our hero a partner, and it's to the developers' credit that none of these escort missions drag the game down a bit. One section has Gabe taking cover behind a tank in motion while he calls out shots for the driver to pummel with the cannon. Good stuff, indeed.
There are plenty of other juicy segments keeping things fresh, and the new addition, underwater action, works beautifully. While most aquatic missions are something for players to groan about and trudge through, Sony Bend actually had me looking forward to them. One tight sequence set in a capsized tanker with the entire vessel on the ocean floor was fantastic; it's to their credit and a display of their canny design powers that it avoided every potential pitfall that the average developer would have most likely fallen into.
Last time around, I said that Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror was the best Syphon Filter game ever, but Logan's Shadow edges it out. Everything about the game has "top-quality" written all over it. The AI provides plenty of interesting moments, the save points are frequent, the story is accessible, the voice work and graphics are in the top tier on the PSP, the music is surprisingly haunting, and the entirety has been polished and delivered by people who know what they're doing. They don't come better.