Release Date: October 31, 2007
Mutant Storm Empire is the follow-up title to Mutant Storm Reloaded, one of the first twin stick shooters that debuted on Xbox Live Arcade shortly after the 360 launched. This time around, some definite changes have been made to the level design, but not much has changed with the gameplay, which is still focused on the formula of moving with the left thumbstick and shooting with the right.
Like the previous title, the enemies (and even your small shooter) are pretty unique in the world of shoot-'em-up games in that they neither resemble a spaceship, a person or anything else. As the name of the game implies, you'll be facing off against hordes of mutated monsters, some of which resemble real-life species to an extent, blasting away at wave after wave for a total of 16 stages. Mutant Storm Empire resembles Robotron or even Smash TV more so than it does Asteroids or Geometry Wars.
These 16 stages are divided up among four different worlds, at four stages apiece. Instead of simply warping you from room to room like in Reloaded, this game opted to allow the player to do the moving themselves, typically by clearing out a room of mutant monsters and then opening up a gate, which moves you into the next room full of spawning bad guys. However, the formula tries to switch itself up a bit, with some stages consisting of a simple, but large, boss fight, while other areas will lock you into place and toss foes at you in a side-scrolling shooter level.
For the stages that have you moving from room to room, they usually consist of five areas total. Depending on the world you're on, you'll be facing off against different types of enemies, but even though their skins might change from world to world, they tend to keep the same patterns and attacks. However, each world has a different visual theme, and it's great to see the consistency between the enemies and the worlds they inhabit.
When you begin Mutant Storm Empire, you start off with a set number of hit points, and every time you come into contact with an enemy or are hit by a projectile, you'll have one of these points taken away. When all of your points are gone, then it's game over, but thankfully, the game saves your progress through each stage, and you can usually pick up where you left off without having to replay much of the game again.
Scoring starts with a multiplier that depends on the difficulty you've chosen at the beginning of the game, with the hardest difficulty giving you a 5x multiplier for starters. You can boost this up to 10x in total, and that's not a small feat to perform, as it gets harder and harder to dodge the waves of enemies and projectiles as you advance toward the final levels. There are also score bonuses that can be achieved for taking out waves of the same enemies in a row, something that Empire makes pretty difficult due to how many different types of foes against whom you'll typically be fighting at once. A few of the Achievements revolve around this style of play as well, and it'll take a while before you're able to master taking out one color of foe without hitting anything else that's surrounding you.
Quite a few of the levels feature endlessly spawning enemies that can only be stopped by taking out a certain structure on the stage, usually something that resembles a generator or a large missile. Once you take out this item, the spawns will stop, provided you've destroyed whatever's on the screen at the time. Other foes are larger in size and take multiple hits to destroy, some of which have certain weak points that must be targeted first. For instance, in the water world, you'll come across a few, large squid-like creatures, including an incredibly huge boss monster that can only be destroyed by taking out all four eyes, and then focusing your fire on the mouth that pops out after you do so. However, this mouth is constantly spewing projectiles at you, so you really need to keep your fire focused in order to even hit the enemy, all the while dodging the projectiles vomiting from its mouth.
Besides your regular bullet-like attacks, you can also power up your shots using energy that builds up over time. These attacks are pretty limited, and they're definitely something that you'll want to use when you're feeling overwhelmed. Unlike other twin-stick shooter games, however, there's no screen-clearing attack or bomb that you can use, so you'll have to get used to dodging and weaving in and out of waves of opponents if you want to survive for a long stretch of time.
In addition to the single-player, there's also the option of tackling the game with a friend, either through one console at home or across Xbox Live. Be warned that there is a bit of lag here and there online, which is particularly troublesome when it comes to being able to effectively dodge bullets and enemies. There's no change to the enemies you encounter or how powerful they are when you're playing with another person, but you do share the same hit points, which adds to the challenge, especially if you're teamed up with an inexperienced player. Overall, the multiplayer experience is fun enough, but it doesn't really change much about the core game to make it something that you absolutely need to play.
Visually, the presentation is solid and flashy enough to appreciate on a High-Def TV, but it's not the most impressive-looking game in the XBLA library. You'll have no trouble picking out your small fighter from all the action on the screen, and that's definitely a good thing when the on-screen action gets pretty chaotic. Like I mentioned earlier, the enemy design is really good, and it keeps with the theme of whatever world you're currently on. Even the level design is well thought-out, and while quite a few of the stages feel small and confined, there's enough variety between them that they stay fresh and exciting for the entire game.
However, does Mutant Storm Empire do enough to warrant its own special spot in a genre that's quickly starting to feel old and tired, especially considering all of the recent releases that we've seen? It's not quite up to par with the best of the best, but it's still a solid, fun title that fans of the genre should apprecate. It's not going to be the most accessible title to newcomers, and while the learning curve isn't too severe, it's hard enough to put off some of the more casual players. The visuals aren't particularly outstanding, and the music isn't something that really stood out to me, but the overall gameplay is solid and engaging. There's not a whole lot of replay value outside of the leaderboards for each stage, and there's really nothing to unlock at the end of it all, so while Mutant Storm Empire is worth checking out, keep in mind that once you've finished the 16 stages, you've pretty much seen all there is to see here.
At 800 Microsoft points ($10), Mutant Storm Empire is definitely a title that I'll suggest to genre fans, since it would be easy to overlook in the quickly overcrowding market of twin stick shooters on the Xbox Live Arcade. Even if you played the original Mutant Storm Reloaded and didn't find yourself a big fan of the game due to level design or enemy patterns, give the Empire demo a shot and see if the changes they've introduced are enough to make you change your mind. I'm not disappointed with the title at all, but I'm not particularly amazed or blown away by anything that it does, either.