Genre: Shooter / Platform
Developer: Gastronaut Studios
Release Date: November 22, 2006
Something just seems right about a chicken with a flamethrower. I'm not sure if it's the fact that the chicken hurls Molotov cocktails, or that he's throwing them at a mini-gun-toting cyborg cat, but I haven't felt this drawn to animals with guns since Beast Wars: Transformers was on television.
My love for Optimus Prime as a gorilla aside, we're talking about one of the original titles to hit Xbox Live Arcade this season: Small Arms. In addition to pyromaniacal poultry, the game's cast ranges from a buzzsaw-spitting mutant tree, to an alien pop singer reminiscent of Space Channel 5's Ulala, to a pig assassin who closely resembles Agent 47. Yes, the dozen characters are a tad silly, but the firepower they pack is pretty serious, and luckily, despite Small Arms weighing in at a manageable 800 Microsoft Points ($10), the game provides fairly heavy multiplayer fun.
If you're not familiar with the concept, Small Arms is best described as an amalgam of Metal Slug and Super Smash Bros., though it bears more resemblance to the latter in terms of level design and overall appeal. Playing as well-armed, cartoony characters, you and up to three other friends (local or online) fight battle royale from a third-person platform-style perspective, grabbing weapons, health, and ammo as you try to take each other down. It's a premise that's easy to pick up and play, which is what Live Arcade titles should offer first and foremost, and though Small Arms does have some shortcomings, all in all it's a nicely developed little game that will appeal to gamers who enjoy multiplayer shoot-'em-ups.
Control-wise, Small Arms plays similarly to a traditional shooter, with the left stick directing your character across platforms, and the right analog aiming their weapon independently. The right trigger kicks out shells, missiles, arrows, plasma blasts, or whatever your primary weapon might produce, while the left trigger unleashes a special shot specific to that armament. For the crossbow, it's an explosive apple attached to an arrow; for the sniper rifle, it's a proximity mine that sticks to the ground; and for Tyrone's ice shard shooter, it's a close-range chill that freezes opponents for a few seconds.
You'll also use the Y button for mid-air dashing that helps you reach higher platforms or spring across levels quickly, and the X button deals out punches and kicks in close combat. Unfortunately, the most troublesome button is the one that's fundamentally important to the action – jumping. Though it's twinned between A and both bumpers, leaving the right analog to tap A, or using the bumpers in unison with the triggers will find you tangled from time to time as you struggle to multi-task.
Beyond having a knack for the controls, knowing your weapon's strengths and weaknesses and utilizing your ammo well is central to success in Small Arms, as the game grants you only a handful of shots before having to reload. In this way, there's a balance formed between the characters, weapons, and levels – you'll never have enough ammo to take out everyone all at once, so you're compelled to take risks and move through the environment to pick up new arms or batteries to reload. At the same time, some characters excel in spacious levels because they're more mobile, while others fare better in the smaller settings because they can soak up more damage. Because these core components are genuinely diverse, the combat itself feels pretty dynamic, and though you'll develop strategies to deal with opponents, you won't find yourself in the same firefight twice.
Speaking of levels, there are eight of them, and while they aren't as spectacular as say, Hyrule Castle in Super Smash Bros., they get the job done. The Moonbase and Train levels are two of the better stages. The first has elevators and slides that make for very vertically oriented combat, whereas the latter has players fighting atop moving train cars. The Tornado stage is also pretty interesting; it draws from Smash Bros.'s "Pokefloat" level, as players are hopping between houses, giant tires, school buses, and other objects swirling inside a tornado as they transition across the screen, though the AI has some difficulty navigating the level without falling. We'll likely see more added as downloadable content in the future, and possibly new characters, too.
One of the strong features offered in multiplayer is the ability to combine local and online matches. Competing against online opponents and your friend on the couch simultaneously creates a kind of shared adversarial experience that's incredibly unique. Even though you can't create team-based bouts, adding a bot or two into the mix (but not in ranked matches) is a snap if you're somehow short on opponents. Further, you can allow local and online players to join on-the-fly during games. What's missing from multiplayer is voice support, as well as some additional customization options, like disabling health drops or restricting weapons. Lag was also an issue here and there. In the worst cases, the camera focuses on areas of the level that your player isn't near, which can impede your ability to fight, to say the least. In other situations, the effects of weapons was somewhat delayed; Tyrone's freeze blast might solidify an opponent a few seconds after it had clearly hit, for example.
In single-player, Small Arms's offering is admittedly shallow, and serves more as a training space to develop your skills. There's a brief tutorial, in addition to an eight-level story mode that doesn't have a story, a challenge mode (defeating as many AI opponents as you can before dying), and a simple target-shooting mini-game. All in all, it's pretty sub-par, but if you're expecting a lengthy, diverse single-player campaign in a $10 game, you might want to re-evaluate your expectations. Single-player does pour on a good amount of difficulty, though, especially in challenge mode. Getting past more than a dozen continuous foes on a mere three lives is tough to say the least, and it reinforces the fact that Small Arms is a title that requires practice to perfect your skills.
Gastronaut Studios, the four-person independent developer that made its debut with Fuzzee Fever (an arcade title on the original Xbox), was smart to focus on making Small Arms a visually appealing title, despite its budget price. The characters themselves, along with the weapon effects, are the stars of the show. The streams of electricity that flow from the lightning gun, or the way missiles float through the environment to their target is pretty impressive, and the character models, effects, and levels are all nicely polished. Backing these is a sharp selection of sound effects that highlight the weapons, and some generic music that serves its purpose.
With some significant hat-tipping to Super Smash Bros., Small Arms fits well in the shooter/platformer genre as an original title on Xbox Live Arcade. You can't beat animals with artillery, and it helps when they're packing such a diverse selection of weapons, all of which look, sound, and feel great to handle. The game is centered on multiplayer action and can't be recommended for its single-player experience alone, but considering the slim $10 price tag, if you're seeking some ballistic-based, compact multiplayer action to hit up between rounds of Gears of War, Small Arms is a good candidate.