When Hard Corps: Uprising launched in February, nearly every reviewer remarked that Konami had released a game that embodied Contra’s spirit, even if it didn’t carry the name. With Rush ‘N Attack: Ex-Patriot, it has done just the opposite, leaving all but the name on the cutting room floor.
The game starts out solid enough, with an opening cinematic done in the style of a motion comic and featuring a melodramatic voiceover to set the stage. It’s worth watching just to hear the phrase “ninja badasses” said with a straight face. The plot is simple enough. In the early 20th century, a meteor crashed in Russia. Now, in the 21st century, the crystals seeded by that meteor have grown and are being mined as a substance called “Ulyssium.” Your team is sent to retrieve as much Ulyssium as possible, assassinate a Russian general, and free an American soldier who was left to rot in a Russian prison 20 years ago.
At the end of the opening cinematic, your team is captured. Ninja badasses, indeed. OK. New plan. Break out, save your team, save the guy who has been rotting in prison, kill a mad scientist, kill the general, get the Ulyssium, and try not to worry about the injection of weird blue stuff that the mad doctor gave you. Well, the plot was simple.
After the exposition and players finally get control, the confusion starts to set in. This is nothing like the Rush ‘N Attack that was released back in 1985. That title was a frantic race to the end of the stage as enemies raced in from both sides, landmines littered the ground, and stage finales were a matter of survival against a seemingly unending crush of foes. Much like the original Contra, and so many other games of that era, there were no life bars. The first hit killed.
What we’ve been given in Ex-Patriot, is a Metroidvania game that apes Bionic Commando Rearmed and Shadow Complex while, in the process, losing nearly every differentiating quality. As in the original, the knife is the default weapon, with a variety of grenades and projectile weapons available for limited use. Additionally, there are consumable items in the form of body armor and health packs as well as night vision goggles and a gas mask. The former seems to be a convenience item while the latter is essential for making it through radioactive areas unscathed. This isn’t the only instance in which the developers show a lack of scientific understanding. The sniper rifle, for instance, is the slowest weapon in the game, but it is the most powerful. In Russia, ballistic science has gone horribly awry. Grenades are practically useless as the arc is so high and long that you almost need to be aiming at an enemy off the screen or right next one to score a hit.
As you make your way through the game, you’ll encounter a variety of enemies. Many of them, especially in the first stage, carry knives. Later on, you’ll run into smarter guards that have equipped themselves with machine guns, bazookas, chainsaws, and grenades. Your best bet is always to sneak up on a guard when his back is turned. Thankfully, the minimap shows your opponents’ fields of vision. It looks exactly like the Soliton radar from Metal Gear Solid.
By crouching as you approach, you might get lucky and get close enough to perform a stealth kill. Too many times, though, enemies seemed to sense my presence, leaving me exposed as I tried to close the distance and perform a quick combo. There are a number of moves that you can perform and they are unlocked sporadically throughout your playthrough with little rhyme or reason. One or two of them were useful, but I often found that the second half of the move wouldn’t connect properly, even if I scored a clean hit with the first.
Additionally, you can hide in open doorways and in floor gaps, surprising enemies. I was reminded of one of the original Rush ‘N Attack’s contemporaries, Rolling Thunder, with this mechanic. You can also hang from ledges, throwing enemies to their doom. Getting from the ground to a ledge is a matter of luck as the hit detection isn’t consistent. Also, you can’t drop into a hanging position from a ledge, nor can you quietly drop down behind an enemy.
Ladders are confounding, also. In most games, continuing to press down at the bottom of a ladder causes you dismount. In Ex-Patriot, you have to press left or right. This incongruity with typical control schemes caused me a few headaches and I never did get used to it.
All of this pales in comparison to the abysmal platforming sections. In the first level, you encounter a toxic pool with floating boxes. It’s hard enough to land on the boxes due to the jumping controls, but once you are on them, they bob and weave. They seem to be bucking broncos. This stretch continues for a while and the checkpoint is before the first pool. Needless to say, after 20 or 30 times back at the checkpoint, I was starting to get tired of the miserable controls.
Throughout the game, you’ll find a variety of hidden passages. In most Metroidvania games, these are often tunnels to hidden items. In Ex-Patriot, they are more typically used to circumvent the more challenging areas. That’s not to say you won’t find the odd grenade or collectible Ulyssium crystal here or there, but I was surprised by how off the mark the developers were in their implementation of this style of level design. Additionally, the game is split into three distinct areas. Again, flying in the face of the established Metroidvania model, you cannot return to previous levels.
Much like the gameplay, audio and visuals are mixed bag. The backdrops and environments hold up against Bionic Commando Rearmed and Shadow Complex, but also have the same issues. The soft focus of the backgrounds often obscures enemies and bullets can be difficult to see. Up close, the game is nothing short of ugly. Many times I found myself wondering how last generation’s club hands had made it into a 2011 release. Heads are boxy and the main character wears a mask, likely to prevent any type of mouth animation from being necessary (or, maybe, he has a mouth only Mileena and Baraka from Mortal Kombat could love). On the plus side, finishing moves and stealth kills are well-animated and enjoyable to watch due to a reasonable amount of variety.
On the audio side, sound effects are generic, but passable. Most often, you’ll hear radios squawking, knives slashing, and grenades bouncing and exploding. No one will be winning any awards for Ex-Patriot’s sound design, especially since music is all but nonexistent, even during boss fights. As for voice acting, once you get past the opening cinematic, there is almost none. Conversations are handled by poorly written and overly-clichéd dialog boxes. One boss has a few spoken lines and the closing cinematic is voiced, but other than that, you’ll be reading a lot of hackneyed lines.
The game also has moments of instability. At every checkpoint, my game froze for a few seconds during the autosave. In many instances, when the game caught up, I was in a slightly different place. A few times, though, this meant my untimely doom either due to a fall into electrified or toxic water or murder at the hands of an enemy. Additionally, with any more than two or three enemies on screen, I suffered significant slowdown. There aren’t many instances when you’ll be taking on that many enemies, but those few times, you should expect the frame rate to dial back significantly.
Let me be clear. Rush ‘N Attack: Ex-Patriot is, overall, not a good game. It has enjoyable moments that are buried under a frustrating control scheme, horrible writing, and a Frankenstein’s monster of mechanics that worked well in other games. In no way will Ex-Patriot evoke any sense of nostalgia once you get past the main menu. If you are eager to relive the 80s, there are plenty of other games from that era available for download on the XBox Live Marketplace, including the original Rush ‘N Attack.
Review copy provided by publisher.