We first got a chance to play the PSP version of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex at E3, but that build was half-finished and the menus and story were entirely in Japanese. Even so, the E3 build showed potential. As a first-person shooter, it certainly seemed to work better than Konami's Coded Arms, and in terms of story, we knew there'd be a lot to digest. After all,
is one of the most intellectual animated series ever produced.
So, we were thrilled when Bandai sent over an English preview build of the game last week. We've put it through its paces and have put together a dossier of info that should help you decide whether to add it to your shopping list when the game ships in a few weeks.
What is it?
First-person shooter, similar to Doom or Halo, set in the world of the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex animated series. The PSP game is NOT the same as the PS2 game that went on sale earlier in 2005. In the single player mode, players can control any of four different cybercops and team up with A.I. controlled Tachikoma tanks that provide back-up in battle. The game also includes an ad hoc (local) multiplayer mode with multiple game types, where as many as 4 players can battle it out controlling either a cybercop or a Tachikoma.
Although it shares the subtitle "Stand Alone Complex" with the TV series it's based on, this latest video game doesn't duplicate any specific story from the series. Instead, Major Matoko Kusanagi and the other members of Section 9 have a brand-new case to solve, one that will ultimately have them cross paths with familiar series characters and travel to locations that fans of the show will no doubt recognize.
It has been twenty years since Japan re-annexed the Far North territory, and secret documents containing details of that military action are about to be released to the public after all that time. A previously-unknown terrorist group isn't happy that those docs are being released, however, and has broken into the national archives to steal them. Matoko and Section 9 are sent in to stop the theft, and, in true Ghost in the Shell form, they discover a much larger conspiracy. The government intends to hold a celebration to observe the anniversary of Far North rejoining the country and the terrorists have planted bombs, kidnapped VIP's, and sent-in assassins to kill a former cabinet minister–all in an effort to derail the celebration.
But, why? And who is behind it all?
That's what Section 9 and the player have to figure out while playing through Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex for PSP. And we can assure you, that by the time the story reaches its conclusion, you'll have gone through as many plot twists and character shakeups that you'd find in a good half-dozen episodes of the TV show.
Each chapter contains a handful of missions. Most of the time, you can pick and play missions in any order you like. Some involve just killing terrorists or de-activating bombs. Others are trickier and involve sneaking past enemies using therm-optic camouflage or escorting a VIP to a pick-up point. In general, most missions don't take much more than a couple minutes to finish, which shows that Bandai has developed the game with the PSP's portable nature in mind.
Combat employs the usual first-person shooter standards–you shoot enemies, dodge their gunfire, and grab health kits as necessary. The control scheme is identical to the one used in Konami's Coded Arms. The left analog and main buttons are used for movement and aiming, the digital d-pad is used to change and reload weapons, the L-button makes your character jump, and the R-button causes weapons to fire. The whole firing process is simplified thanks to a smart aiming reticule that focuses shots on any enemy within the targeting zone. However, you can take down enemies quicker, and even score headshots, if you place the targeting crosshair over the enemy before firing. Tapping down on the d-pad activates an automatic lock-on that also further enhances accuracy.
Along with your own character, you also have a Tachikoma mini-tank accompanying you during missions in the story mode. You can't control the Tachikoma directly, but you can tap the Select button to assign it general orders. When the Tachikoma encounter enemies, it will open fire on them by itself… unless you've specifically told it to "hold fire." On some missions, you have to babysit the Tachikoma so that it doesn't accidentally kill a VIP or hostage with stray gunfire. Usually though, you can let it run loose and admire how it can absolutely slaughter enemies.
Enemy A.I. was a bit sloppy in the preview build we were sent. Terrorists are slow to react and can't seem to score a direct hit with anything but grenades or rockets. Mechanized enemies, especially automatic turrets, have better eyesight, although they're still not crack shots. When you factor in the massive stamina inherent to a cybercop's body, and the firepower unleashed by the Tachikoma, well… staying alive isn't a tough task. On the upside, some missions are packed with enemies, so, what they lack in smarts, they make up for in numbers and bullet showers. We hope the A.I. in the final game will be a bit smarter and faster though.
We also had a chance to play a few WiFi multiplayer games. Bandai sent us two copies of the game, and, as luck would have it, PSX Extreme's Editor-in-Chief, Aaron Thomas was in town to visit me for a day. We were only able to see how the game performed with two players, but everything seemed to work as advertised. One player creates a room lobby, chooses the game type, and then other players can join or leave at will. As many as four players can join a single game. Game types all basically revolve around deathmatches, although you can choose whether to control cybercops or Tachikomas, and select between free-for-all or team-based battles. The preview version we received included eight maps, each based on a location from the story mode. The maps seem large enough without being too large, and are designed with enough boxes, cars, stairs, and hallways to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, the multiplayer code in the preview version wasn't fully debugged yet, which meant that we experienced a bit of lag and "jumpiness" at times. We'll let you know if the final version suffers the same chugginess.
There are four different characters to control: Major Matoko Kusanagi, Batou, Togusa, and Saito. Most players will pick Major Kusanagi, because she's dressed in a skimpy outfit and because she's the star of the anime. Ostensibly, each character has their own specialty (Matoko can jump the highest, Batou is heavily armored, Saito is a sniper expert, etc.), but we really only found one or two spots in the game where these proficiencies made a difference. You can swap characters at any time prior to each mission.
Likewise, there are also four different Tachikoma tanks to pick from. These squeaky-voiced tanks differ mainly in their behavioral tendencies, which range from conservative to aggressive. According to information included with the game, the Tachikoma's improve and learn the more you use them. We haven't played enough yet to see if that's true, but they sure are useful even without later enhancements.
Each main character can carry three weapons into battle. The Tachikomas, meanwhile, have five attachment points that can be used for weapons or tools.
At the outset, you only get a dozen or so weapons to pick from–a few handguns, a couple sub-machine guns, and various grenades. However, you can gather new weapons by picking them up during a mission or as a reward for satisfying certain conditions. For instance, if you go into a mission with only a handgun, you'll earn a twin-handgun once the mission is over, along with whatever terrorist weapons you were carrying when the mission is over.
Tachikomas can also bring tools into a mission, such as high-frequency drills, recovery pods, and energy shields.
All told, there are more than 50 character weapons and more than 40 Tachikoma weapons/tools to unlock.
In-game, the environments are crisp and colorful, but don't exactly explode with detail. There are cars and crates here and there, stairs to climb and rooms to enter, and pedestrians in some levels, but that's about it. The environments are much livelier than those in Coded Arms at least, and the locations are believable. Locations include a few warehouses, a couple office centers, a subway system, a railway station, a seaside shipping dock, and a few small urban areas… and they look like you'd expect such locations to look. You can't shoot up the computers or plants in an office, but at least they're there.
Where Bandai skimped on polygons for the scenery, they put them into the characters. Matoko, Batou, the Tachikomas, and all of the other characters look identical to how they do in the show. Seriously–if you want to stare at Matoko's thong bunching up around her buttocks, you can do so.
What struck us the most was how much the game unfolds just like episodes from the show do. Between each mission, and sometimes during, the cybercops will report in and present their evidence to Chief Ishikawa, discuss possible leads, and transition from one area to the next. These FMV's are generated using game engine graphics, which means they're absolutely stellar thanks to the high poly counts put into the characters.
Plus, Bandai hired the entire voice cast from the TV show to provide voice work for the game. That adds a great deal to the overall experience. In fact, depending on which character you play during a mission, you may get a different piece of information or hear a different take on what's happening. Good thing you can replay missions over and over…
Fans of the show will definitely get the most out of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, since the video game is just as talky and convoluted as the TV show. However, FPS fanatics may just get their money's worth too. At the very least, the game is already 10 times better than Coded Arms was–and that opinion is based on unfinished preview code!
We'll bring a full review of the finished game once we get our mitts on it.