Gatling Gears is cute. In 20-plus hour cinematic HD console titles, that may be the kiss of death, but for an XBLA/PSN game designed to provide a few fleeting hours of original material and join in some local or online cooperative play with a friend, that's a pretty fair proposition. A fast-paced, dual-stick thriller with an endearing motif is hard pressed to go wrong, and Gatling Gears rarely does.
The arcade romp is held together loosely by a paper-thin plot, with presentation a bit reminiscent of a JRPG game that's two console generations old. But that's the beginning and end of any similarity with the role-playing genre. The ability to upgrade weapons and unlock skin-deep features like animation effects and, well, skins at Pirate Shops don't even begin to count as RPG elements. (As testament to the weak plot, it's not even particularly clear why they're called Pirate Shops; neither the protagonists nor the enemies are really pirates. Good thing that in Gatling Gears, a dense plot is entirely unnecessary to the notion of fun, engaging gameplay.)
This exceedingly simple shooter action is broken down into a prologue and five chapters. Each of these is further divided into five subparts that are tantamount to "levels" in the traditional arcade lexicon. I'd have been happier if they'd just called them levels and been done with it. Also faithful to standard arcade gameplay, there are no save points or checkpoints within each level. What you buy or unlock at the Pirate Shop near the beginning of each level is recorded to the main save that's updated between levels, but otherwise, you have to clear the level without exceeding your allotted number of lives, or you'll get the dreaded "game over" and have to restart the level. The number of available lives is determined by the difficulty setting you select at the beginning of a run through the campaign — easy, medium or hard — and although expending all your lives sets you back at the start of the level, while you have spare lives on hand, you'll continue on from the point of your most recent death.
In Gatling Gears, you pilot a machine that would be called a mech in the usual future science fiction setting. However, the backdrop for the game is the sort of alternative history world familiar to Xbox gamers from titles like Crimson Skies: art deco architecture and filled with vehicles, devices and structures that are crossed between clockwork machinery and advanced technology. Guided missiles are made out of brass and wrought iron, that sort of thing. Gatling Gears has a lot going for it in the art direction department, and the game's graphics are clean, neat and thoughtfully illustrated.
The basic premise is you've recently defected from the Empire over matters of conscience. Fighting on behalf of the rebellious Freemen faction, your mech piloting skills are put to the test tracking down the Empire's sources of electrical power and destroying them, as well as ferreting out and repelling Imperial forces.
Mechanically, Gatling Gears operates like any other dual-stick shooter presented in a top-down perspective. Move with the left stick, and aim and shoot with the right. There are only three weapons: Gatling machine guns, missiles and grenades, with grenades behaving like a short-range mortar. The basic three weapons can be upgraded to more powerful versions by collecting gold bars and spending them at Pirate Shops, and there are pick-ups on each level dropped by destroyed enemies that provide a temporary super boost to a weapon's power. Ammunition for the machine gun is unlimited, and the gun doesn't overheat or jam. Missile and grenade ammo can be tapped down to nothing, but after a brief interval, it begins refilling on its own. In a pinch, you can deploy a spark bomb that destroys everything presently on-screen. It's the usual arcade smart bomb with an electrical theme; one is available per level, and there's a score bonus for not using it, like the bonuses for unused lives.
Although I like Gatling Gears' musical score, the overall audio production and individual sound effects aren't memorable. There's not as much aural "oomph" as I'd like to underline the action. The sound doesn't detract from the game, but it doesn't add anything, either.
In addition to the campaign mode, survival mode is available on three different maps. As you'd expected, survival throws ever more menacing waves of enemies at you. Both the campaign and survival modes can be played solo or in local or online co-op. After an initial run through the campaign and tinkering around with survival mode, the principal reasons for coming back to Gatling Gears, besides the basic enjoyment of a well-executed arcade shooter, are better scores and earning XP to climb the Xbox Live leaderboards.
Scoring is most affected by achieving and maintaining a high multiplier. Your multiplier is increased by collecting gears left behind by destroyed enemies. Save for airborne foes, dropped gears aren't automatically attracted to you, and gears only remain on-screen for a limited amount of time. So it's a lot of running around and dodging incoming missiles — some of which will tail you pretty effectively — to raise your multiplier. You'll also want to dodge enemy fire to keep your multiplier high; taking damage incrementally reduces the score multiplier until it's back down to one.
In the Gatling Gears world, most structures are completely destructible. Other than making things go boom, the point of blowing up things that don't drop gears or weapon-enhancing pick-ups may not be immediately evident. However, the structures fall over or explode, or both. You can take out a bunch of hardy, potentially lethal enemy vehicles all at once by knocking out a nearby tower or electrical generator.
The gameplay element that creates a fondness for arcade shooters is the same thing often pointed as these games' greatest fault: repetition. Gatling Gears is a lot of it, too. Although the action is intense throughout, it becomes less exciting and more a matter of going through the motions the farther along you get, especially in the campaign. Each chapter consists of four standard levels and a boss level; the variety between chapters is mostly superficial. At 800 Microsoft points ($9.99 on PlayStation Network), Gatling Gears has enough content to justify the price, even if you run through the campaign scenario just once. The campaign is about six hours long on medium difficulty, quite reasonable for an XBLA or PSN title, and depending on your tolerance for fending off waves of enemies — either alone or with a friend — survival mode can offer a few or dozens of hours of entertainment.
Gatling Gears approaches a perfect basic concept for an XBLA/PSN game. It's not too short, and it doesn't feel slapped together, but it doesn't come across as a scaled-down disc-based game, either. In a market that often favors games less like movies and more like 19th century Russian novels, with lengthy mission-based campaigns or a couple hundred hours of competitive multiplayer excitement, the simple pleasure of an arcade shooter experience is easily overlooked. Without providing anything in the way of surprises or revolutionary design, Gatling Gears serves as an excellent reminder of why arcade-style titles remain relevant, even when they demand gaming sessions longer than 10 minutes.
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