Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: February 01, 2006
This spring, a miraculous event will occur: a game will be released for the PlayStation Portable, as foretold by sages of old. Nah, we kid the PSP, but it's telling that Namco's Bounty Hounds was about the only upcoming PSP title we've seen recently. Fortunately, it looks like it will be worth the wait for PSP owners looking for something other than movie UMD to stick in their portables next year.
Bounty Hounds is a third-person shooter with a science fiction theme and a big emphasis on hack n' slash (or hack n' shoot, as the case may be). In our demonstration of the title we saw unusually crisp, vibrant graphics that achieved high resolutions without looking too muddy or blurred on the PSP's screen. Multiplayer is a major emphasis of the gameplay, although there is a single player campaign, and it will also support the PSP's Game Sharing function to let two players face off with only a single copy of the game between them. The single player campaign is important largely as the arena where you beat enemies to acquire randomly dropped weapon and armor upgrades, and also to level up and customize your character. The developers assured us that the final version of the game would include over 500 weapons and pieces of armor to collect.
The premise of Bounty Hounds is as politically incorrect as they come. You are a mercenary named Maximillian, hired by the human race to wipe out resistance on alien worlds they're interested in colonizing. Once the planet has been cleaned off, then settlers can move in. You pursue this goal on four different alien worlds over the course of forty different missions. Our demo only showed off one particular world, where the enemies approached in thick streams and had a metallic, insect-like look to them.
Your Bounty Hound can opt to fight with melee weapons like swords and axes, ranged weapons like machine guns and rocket launchers, or to use combinations of the two. We also got to have a look at a bonus in-joke weapon, a duplicate of the Soul Edge from the Soul Calibur series, and were assured that you could also pick up the Soul Calibur itself. You can have a maximum of six weapons equipped at any given time, three for each hand, and toggle between them using a menu triggered by tapping the right shoulder button. This lets you make sure you're wielding the weapons best-suited for the combat situation at hand, so you can blast at distant enemies with your rocket launcher, then switch to an axe when the enemy decides to get up-close and personal. You can also acquire gadgets that let your character cast buffs or protective energy shields around himself in a distinctly RPG-like fashion. Alternatively, you equip items that make your Bounty Hound cast a shield that weakens enemies who enter it. All of the weapons and items in the game can be customized, Diablo-style, by attaching weapons modules acquired while battling on the planet.
Although the action is handled as a third-person shooter, much of your efficacy is determined by character level and how you've chosen to upgrade your Bounty Hound. You can opt to make him fast, tough, strong, or boost his psionic powers by spending customization points in your ship's medical lab before beaming down to the planet below to start blasting alien faces in. You can also talk to NPCs here, trigger story events, and purchase items and weapons from the shop onboard. There's no word, of course, on whether or not the weapons you buy will be as good as the ones you get from random drops.
Another RPG-like element to the game is skill acquisition. Skills are bought using the classic Diablo skill-tree system, and reflect things like your character's combat proficiency and ability to use special maneuvers. You can buy a truly vast number of skills, but can only equip a handful before heading down to the planet. Hopefully different missions will call for different combinations of skills, so your Bounty Hound has a reason to change up his skill equipment from mission to mission.
Controls were in the general vein of PSP action titles, but unusually responsive. You controlled Maximillian with the analog nub, activating your field skills with the square button and bringing up defensive shields with the cross button. Normally the camera is automatic, but you can choose to make manual adjustments by holding down the left shoulder button and then moving the analog nub. This doesn't seem like a maneuver you want to try to pull off in the heat of battle, though, and that's often where camera systems are most likely to fail a player. Still, we saw no problems during our time with the game, so maybe Bounty Hounds has finally nailed making a good camera system for a third-person PSP action title.
We couldn't hear much of the game due to the noise of the event, but we were overall quite pleased by the game's look. The design sense of the game is gritty, space-age sci-fi, and the level we saw featured absolutely countless hordes of enemies rushing around onscreen. Managing this on the PSP without noticeable lag or slowdown is quite impressive. Enemies had a range of looks to them, sometimes looking like aliens in power armor, other times clearly being some kind of war-robots that we could tear apart with Maximillian's weapons. The action was definitely satisfying, so the multiplayer prospects for this title are good. Multiplayer and single-player campaigns will be entirely different and should emphasize co-op play over PvP, but taking out alien hordes with a team should be more than enough fun with a few friends.
The PSP has been sorely lacking for good action RPGs and third-person shooters, so Bounty Hounds will definitely fill a gap in the system library. Intense action and solid graphics recommend the title now, so we can only hope that the variety of weapons and skills helps keep us immersed when the game is finished. The multiplayer prospects for the game are promising, too. All told, we'll be looking forward to seeing what Bounty Hounds has to offer when it hits in February 2006.
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