Twin-stick shooters -- you know, those games where you move around with the left analog stick and shoot continuously by aiming the right, all while dodging ridiculous numbers of enemies and enemy fire -- demand the lightning-quick skill and reflexes of an Olympic ski champ crossed with a New York hibachi chef.
Okay, fair enough. But if, like Gatling Gears, a new, steampunk-flavored twin-sticker available on Xbox Live Arcade, you're going to ask my thumbs to bring their adrenaline-fueled A-game, it's only fair that I get to make a few demands, too:
Don't be cheap. When I'm plowing through a level, blasting away at enemies with my Gatling guns, hurling grenades and firing my not-always-accurate cannon at enemy tanks and soldiers, I shouldn't suddenly be getting dinged by something I can't see -- a heat-seeking rocket launcher, say -- that's crouching off-screen. This doesn't happen often in Gatling Gears, but when it does, it sticks out.
It's okay to overload on visuals, but make it clear who the bad guys are. Gatling Gears's top-down perspective looks gorgeous, the landscape packed with über-detailed bunkers, bridges, oceans and da Vinci-esque flyers. That's great, except that all the detailed beauty makes it impossible to tell the friendly Freeman tanks and soldiers from the evil Empire Corporation hordes -- that is, until they've swarmed the screen and bombarded you with missiles. We expect visual overload in twin-stick shooters, but it's usually a one-against-the-world proposition.
It's called "run and gun" for a reason. Where other bullet-hell types in this genre have trapped you in a box (i.e. the edges of the TV screen) and watched to see how long you could survive, Gatling Gears' game camera sneakily hems you in, using buildings, the terrain and annoyingly-timed screen-scrolls to hamper your movements or force you into the path of enemy's red rocket fire. It's not a run-and-gun game if you can't, you know, actually run.
Rope me in. To say that Gatling Gears' lack of a detailed storyline is a shortcoming seems a shallow ding -- after all, in an awesome twin-stick shooter like Geometry Wars, you're nothing more than a neon shape shooting at other neon shapes. Still, given that Gatling Gears draws on the Mistbound fantasy universe Vanguard created with their entertaining RPG Greed Corp., it's not unreasonable to expect a little back story with our scoop of guns a-blazing.
Gatling Gears just packs enough clever touches -- beautiful visuals, great boss battles and even cute lil' creatures you can unlock with experience points and bring along for the ride -- to offset most of its design-based missteps. If there ends up being a sequel, Vanguard will know exactly where to apply the spit and polish.