Anime-lovers are waiting with baited breath for the impending release of Bandai's Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a futuristic third-person shoot 'em up scheduled to come out in November for the PlayStation 2.
The game is based on the popular animated series of the same name. It's 12 missions will let players step into the shoes of either of two major characters: the kick-butt Major Motoko Kusanagi or her roughneck partner Batou. Both are advanced cyborgs with human brains and members of Japan's anti cyber crime unit. Set in 2029, the story revolves around the pair's efforts to stop a militant group bent on using cyborg technology to rule the world. In some levels, players will be backed up by one of a trio of CPU-controlled backup characters. In others, Motoko and Batou will climb behind the controls of deadly spider-like tanks called Tachikomas.
Anyone who has seen either of the Ghost in the Shell animes (the movie or the TV series) knows that the series has very intellectual underpinnings backed by a dark, cyberpunk look and erotic, pulse-pounding music. We were curious as to how well these aspects would translate into the game, so we asked Bandai to provide us with a playable preview build–and they did!
First off, we think fans of the anime will be happy with how Bandai has handled the look and feel of the game. The 3D battlefields closely resemble the decaying cities and bombed out urban areas from the anime (at least the four in our preview build do), and the music has the same bass-laden throb to it that the anime's soundtrack has. The final game will include more than 30 minutes of CGI-rendered FMV, along with dozens of English-subtitled dialogue scenes. Judging from the few FMV scenes and dialogue bits on our preview build, the story is told in the same deep-thinking and morally-righteous manner that the stories in the movie and TV series were told. The character models for Motoko and Batou are close replicas of their cel-generated counterparts, right down to the way they carry their weapons and fight in hand-to-hand situations. Motoko, the more lithe of the two, has a number of kung fu kick and punch combinations, as well as the ability to jump backwards off of walls and climb her way onto higher ground. Batou seems to be more down and dirty–just like his animated counterpart is–having only a single basic jump and a few brutishly strong melee attacks.
Despite the third-person, behind-the-character perspective, Stand Alone Complex is, for all intents and purposes, a first-person shooter that's not too far removed from games such as Red Faction or Halo. Players move Motoko or Batou around using the left analog to run and strafe and the right analog to aim and turn. Similar to the way Bungie's Halo was setup, both characters can carry up to two weapons (plus any number of knives and grenades) at a time, and swap new weapons for the old ones by picking them up from the ground. A crosshair tells you where your bullets and missiles will go. Just like other FPS games, the general idea is to kill all the enemies and reach the exit, but, in Halo fashion, doing so often involves using the buildings and cover in the environment to sneak your way past heavily-fortified positions.
The preview build we obtained included four levels: a startup room filled with objects to interact with, two basic training missions, and a level based around a Tachikoma tank. The control setup seems to be pretty fleshed out, a combination of FPS style gunplay with Metal Gear Solid style adventuring. Moving the left analog stick causes Motoko and Batou to walk forward-or-backward or strafe side-to-side. The right analog stick controls the aiming cursor, which also steers the characters. Pressing inward on the left analog stick will toggle between standing and crouching, while pressing inward on the right analog will toggle between the normal view and a sniper scope if you have a weapon equipped with one. By default, the L1 button causes the active weapon to be fired and the L2 button causes secondary weapons, such as grenades, knives, or kung fu moves, to be used. The R1 button controls a variety of different situation-dependent actions, such as backflipping out of harm's way, gripping onto and climbing up ladders, poles, and ledges, and dangling from and hand-walking across many of those same poles and ledges. The R2 button activates a jump move. The square button swaps between the two weapons Motoko and Batou are carrying, while the triangle button toggles between the various sub-weapon options. The X button reloads the current weapon and lets you pickup weapons from the ground. The circle button activates the "hacking" feature, which we'll get to in more detail in a paragraph or two.
It may seem like the controller is bogged down with so many different actions for all the different buttons, but it really doesn't seem to take long to develop an instinct for them. After the tutorial and a couple replays of the training missions, we were chucking grenades and gunning down enemies like second nature. One thing you may find is that the controls feel counter-intuitive, since, by default, the fire and action buttons are situated on opposite sides of the controller than they are in most other FPS games. No worries. There's a control editor in the options menu that will allow you to configure every button to your liking.
So far, our impressions of the game's overall play design, the environments, and the CPU A.I. are all favorable. Crouching makes Motoko and Batou hunch down while they walk, and slows them down quite a bit, but it also cuts down on the noise they make while walking. Cyborgs weigh more than 500 pounds, after all. Melee attacks generate less noise than weapons do, even though it does take longer to subdue enemies with punches and kicks than it does a few loud bursts from a machine gun. The levels in the preview build didn't have any areas where sneaking around had a significant positive impact, but we've been assured that the full game will include some situations where enemy guards are too numerous to allow a direct assault. Nonetheless, we were able to do some pretty awesome things in the environments in the preview build. In Motoko's city level, we were able to use barricades to sneak past enemies and use her jump move in combination with the action button to get atop balconies and overhangs high above the streets. Motoko also has the ability to perform multiple jumps off of nearby walls in order to propel herself higher. Batou's park level didn't provide much in the way of high ground, but it was chock full of barricades and trees to duck behind; not to mention the pair of rocket launchers just waiting to be used there. The A.I. seems pretty smart, although a little slow on the initial uptake. You can get extremely close before they lift their weapons, but they're real ball-busters when they do. They'll crouch or hide behind objects in the environment to gain cover and are smart enough to fall back or shout for reinforcements when the situation lends the opportunity. One really nifty feature is that enemies leave behind their weapons when they die, and you can just go right over and pick them up.
Judging from what we've already covered, you could argue that Stand Alone Complex is just another generic FPS game with the Ghost in the Shell license tacked on. In some ways, you'd be right. However, Bandai has thrown a few GitS-specific features into the mix that the company hopes will satisfy the urges of diehard fans. Weapons such as homing bullets and EMP grenades, as well as thermoptic camouflage outfits, are taken right out of the anime, as is the Tachikoma Tank. Controlling the tank is a hoot. It has machine guns and homing missiles, can jump, and has the ability to latch onto and walk up walls.
Hacking is another concept borrowed from the Ghost in the Shell animes. In the game, certain enemies have a blue tic-mark above their heads that indicates that they have a cybernetic conduit linked to their brain. By pressing the circle button, you can initiate a "hacking" mini-game and take-over their bodies for a short time. This lets you sneak right into the middle of entire groups of hostiles, who won't turn aggressive until you start shooting at them with their comrade's own gun. Motoko and Batou will automatically crouch and take cover behind the nearest corner or obstruction when a hack is initiated, but loose soldiers can still discover them and initiate gunfire. The screen gets all static-covered when that happens, letting you know to hightail it back to their position or tap circle again to cut the line. When you hack someone, their personality is erased; in effect, killing them; so when the hack time runs out or the line is cut off, the hacked soldier instantly drops dead.
Some features weren't present in the preview build, namely the CPU backup characters or the multiplayer mode. The complete Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex game will supposedly include levels that allow players to bring along a CPU controlled backup. The three backup characters–Ishikawa, Saito, and Togusa–specialize in hacking, sniper combat, and handguns (respectively). Bandai didn't design the game with network abilities in mind (ironic, considering the source material), but there will be a four-player split-screen multiplayer mode. All told, the final game will feature 12 complete missions, more than 15 different weapons, a dozen different multiplayer maps, and unlockable goodies such as costumes, anime clips, and secret missions.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex will hack its way onto store shelves on November 8, 2004 for the suggested retail price of $49.99.