Friday, July 19, 2013

Playing Hooky - War of the Monsters

For some reason I can still recall anticipating the release of War of the Monsters back when the PS2 was king and I was sporting some sexy, spiky gelled hair. I remember soaking up preview videos, news, and articles that came out about the game. Perhaps it was the little kid in me who grew up watching the animated Godzilla series that wanted so bad to wreak havoc in a totally destructible city. Or maybe I liked that it seemed as if a developers were finally making a fighting game for people who suck at fighting games like me. (I’m at step 5 of “Button Mashers Anonymous”). Whatever the reason, when War of the Monsters was finally released I went to the bank and realized that I didn’t have enough money to buy it. Therefore, I never got to play a game I waited months for… 
Until now! I recently made a trip to my local used game store and snagged this gem from the shelves for only $11* (a steal). For as much as I complain about being a real adult, it has it’s perks – for one, I have a job that pays well enough for me to buy all the retro games I never got to play growing up. I brought the game home and decided to invite my buddy Andrew over for a little gaming session to see once and for all whether War of the Monsters would live up to my 16-year-old self’s expectations.
It's about to get weird up in here.
First off, I’ll admit that my gaming session with Andrew was the very first time I cracked into this game so any unlockables and achievements are currently not included in this write-up. If I get around to these in the near future I’ll update this post accordingly. Instead, we took advantage of the basic game modes: free-for-all and elimination. Free-for-all is just as it sounds: you pick your own monster and the CPU’s, then duke it out in various locations. You can also select how many “wins” (i.e. – kills) you need to obtain to be declared victor. The game is basically a mix between Rampage and WWF Royal Rumble (two supremely awesome games that deserve their own sessions), except with totally destructible 3D environments. 
The elimination mode is similar to free-for-all but instead it’s a “two monsters enter, one survives” situation where you have a finite number of respawns. However, if you picked one of the weaker monsters, you’ll find yourself suffering a quick death (sure it’s the monster, not you…). Luckily, the game allows you to pick a new monster each time you die. This allows each round of fighting to be different instead of a bad case of deja-vu and it was a welcome breath of fresh air. It actually made dying less painful because I knew I could mix it up and try my luck with another character. 
Each game mode is a blast to play with a buddy, but the real star of the game is the attention to detail. I don’t just mean the graphics, but the homage to classic B-movie legends like Godzilla, Mothra, King Kong, and the like. Each character in the game is inspired in some part by some cheesy rubber suit monster, right down to special moves and monster screeches. You can just picture you and your opponents on some miniaturized city set duking it out 40+ years ago while model planes buzz around your head. Even the loading screens are based on classic movie posters and fake newspaper articles about monster attacks. The makers of War of the Monsters obviously took their fandom of the genre and proudly made a game to reflect their love for a bygone cinematic age. 
The game environments are also heavily rooted in the monster movie genre, from an island of atomic waste to a typical city teeming with people running for their lives beneath your feet. That right there would be enough to satisfy me as the backdrop for epic clashes, but each environment is littered with hidden weapons and power ups for you to discover. Fortune favors the curious in this game – destroying buildings just for the hell of it can provide a steel girder with which to pummel your opponent, or it may reveal a secret power-up instantly giving your monster extra energy for special attacks. Smashing any and all things in War of the Monsters is fun on its own, and even more so with the chance of a reward beneath the rubble.

Unfortunately, I did have a few problems with the game. For one, it was a straight up button-mashing affair. Now granted, I’m no expert in fighting games and button mashing is sort of my thing (seriously, play me in Super Smash Bros. any day for an easy win), but after just 30 minutes into the game it was painfully clear that “combo moves” consisted entirely of hammering triangle until your victim went flying across the screen. Rinse and repeat. There are variations on this, such as special distance attacks and aforementioned weapons (good luck getting that impaled antennae out of your chest, BTW), but the overall experience is dulled by favoring frantic thumb smashing.
Another issue is the AI response to itself – it’s essentially non-existent. The CPU monsters seemed to not know what the meaning of “free-for-all” and proceeded to mercilessly tag-team me and my buddy, forcing us to run for our lives rather than stay and fight. It got so bad at one point that Andrew and I actually forgot we were in free-for-all mode and were convinced we were on a team against the CPU. This should never happen, especially because it can quickly turn a fun game into a rage quit should you decide to team up with the CPU against your buddy(3-on-1 does not a rumble make). However, this is easily rectified by snagging a multi-tap and inviting at least one more friend to join in the slug-fest. (Who’s at the disadvantage now, CPU?! Stop hitting yourself!)
Lastly, if you’re going to make a button mashing arcade beat-em-up, character balance is a must, and War of the Monsters misses that mark. For some reason, some of the playable monsters had a feeling of cheapness about them. For instance, certain monsters are given longer reaches to easily pound their opponents while remaining a safe distance away. Others are given special powers that, although cool and fitting to their design, given them unfair advantages over others, like being able to fly and strike from above while all others are grounded. It’s a minor gripe, but it can be enraging when all you can do to stay alive is keep your distance and spam everyone with distance attacks, which in turn only pisses them off more, and causes them to hunt you.
Despite the issues, however, War of the Monsters is a great addition to your PS2 collection. I haven’t even started the single player gameplay yet, and I know that I have a game that’ll continue to get good mileage whenever I have a few friends over. So if you have a soft spot in your heart for old-school monster movies, need a fun and social fighting game that anyone can pick up and play, or simply love discovering new games that are good time wasters, you can’t go wrong with War of the Monsters.
*You can find complete copies of War of the Monsters online for decent prices. Check it out.

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