Game title: Contra: Shattered Soldier Developer: Konami Publisher: Konami 16:9: No 480p: No 5.1 audio: No Introduction Its been far too long. How else can you really describe the elation you will feel when playing the resurrection of one of the greatest shooter series in gaming history. Many a gamer has with bated breath awaited the day when Konami did right by the Contra series and that day is here ladies and gentleman. Unfortunately things were not as exciting for the Contra series in the days of the original Playstation. Two very uninspired sequels were created that fell far short of capturing the run and gun gameplay of the Contra series and moved the series into what many consider to be its dark age. Konami intelligently did not give up on the Contra series and chose to bring the latest and greatest to Sony's Playstation 2. Preserving the 2D platform aspects of the original games in a pseudo 3D environment, lets delve into exactly how well this new Contra truly is. Story You mean there is a story here?. Humor aside, Contra: Shattered Soldier is actually the most story driven game in the series. The game begins with a pulse pounding CG intro which introduces you to the main character Bill Rizer. Bill is one of the original soldiers from the very first Contra game. Accused and condemned of killing his partner Lance along with mass genocide on a global scale, Bill was cryogenically frozen to prevent any other "mishaps" from happening. Now there is a new threat to the world, a separatist army has declared war on the Earth's council and even worse they have allied with the alien forces that humanity has been struggling against for years. The council must do the unthinkable, release the most feared mass murderer in our history to deal with the alien threat. Along with a new female android sent to monitor his actions, it is up to Bill and his companion to defend the planet earth yet again. Gameplay I want to make something very clear right off the bat. I am a very big fan of 2D side scrollers in general and the Contra series brings back allot of memories for me. Put in the most direct way that I can put it, this is my kind of game. It appeals to my sensibilities as a gamer, though it wont have the same effect on many people. Contra: Shattered Soldier is designed from the ground up with an "old school" mentality. No other way to say it. The level design, the challenge, the pattern recognition and the numerous boss battles, it all gels together to create one of the hardest games to come out in the past couple of years. You will die allot but you will feel rewarded when you beat that hard boss, or complete that impossible sequence. This is vintage Contra gameplay folks and I'm sure many are happy to hear it. Shattered Soldier has a total of five levels for you to explore. Between these levels you will experience some short but interesting sequences that will progress the story along. With that you will also have access to three distinct difficulty levels that will affect how the game is played. The easy difficulty does not change the difficulty in the game per se, it simply supplies you with 8 lives per continue along with a nearly unlimited amount of continues for you to complete the game with. Normal on the other hands supplies you with only 5 lives per continue and only 3 continues for you to do business with. Finally let me just say that I have a better chance at becoming president of the United States than you will at beating this game on the hard difficulty setting. The controls are not in any way complicated which would have been a detriment to the gameplay. Here is the control layout for you to glance over: X: Jump Square: Shoot O: Alternate Fire R1: Switch weapon L1: Switch weapon R2: Hold character in postion L2: Hold weapon direction in position You'll notice the weapon change selections along with the alternate fire button. The biggest change to the Contra formula is the inclusion of a limited weapon system. The days of collecting various weapon upgrades are in fact over. This was a bit a dissapointment at first since that was an important part of Contra's charm but once you understand how the new weapons work you won't bother worrying about the missing power-ups. Upon entering the game you will be introduced to the first weapon in your arsenal, which is the standard variety Contra "Machine gun". It fires exactly like the standard weapon in the original games (Contra and SuperC) and Contra III The Alien Wars. By hitting the weapon change button you will be able to switch to your next piece of hardware, the powerful flame thrower which is great for up close and personal combat. Finally you will be able to pull out your most unique weapon, a homing grenade launcher. Its ammo fires in a arch type path and scrambles on floor like moving mine. Great for dispensing foes that are open to attacks from below. Along with these standard weapons you will also have access to an alternate firing mode for each. You can use this alternate fire mode by holding down the O button or by double tapping and holding the regular fire button (Square). The standard weapon shoots a small projectile that will open and let loose a 360 degree barrage of bullets. The flame thrower will "charge up" and fire a large fireball like attack. While the homing grenade launcher will fire 5-6 homing laser shots that will seek out your enemies and blow them to kingdom come. The limited weapon system heavily influences how Contra is played. You need to know which weapon to use at which particular time or you will die (allot). It adds a tactical element that was not in the original games while allowing the player to experiment with how to handle a given situation. The game is played from a 2D perspective while your character and the environments that surround him/her are 3D (very much like Klonoa 2). There are certain sections of the game where the view will change to accommodate a boss battle or a particular sequence (such as a snowboarding action sequence from the first level that is played from a forward perspective). These view changes are not too plentiful but when used give the game a good sense of variety. Speaking of boss battles, there are allot of them. You will be embroiled in sub-boss boss battles and full on boss battles throughout a large portion of this game. The bosses are absolutely grotesque and at the same time extremely difficult. All of them adhere to tried and true formula of recognizing thier pattern and dispensing with them soon after. In fact pattern recognition is what this whole game is about. Its a shooter through and through. Your memory is almost as important as your reflexes. You will need those reflexes too for the many platforming sections of the game. Even more to the chagrin of challenge hating gamers, allot of these platforming sequences are mixed in with the boss battles you'll have to contend with. You will need to worry about firing at the boss, jumping high onto a platform to avoid thier attacks and changing weapons when needed. Its can be an absolutely harrowing experience and I love it. Adding even more to the strategy element of the game is the position buttons. There will be times when an enemy is coming in behind you and you will need to fire backwards continuously. In this case you will want to use the "character hold" postition button which will lock your chacter in place and allow you only move the weapon in your hand. The second position button will allow you to lock the gun in whichever direction you are aiming. Say for instance you are shooting upwards at an enemy and want to have the gun locked in that upwards position. Simply hold the "gun hold" button. You will need to master using both of these gameplay elements as they can mean the difference between life or death. I also want to mention the games difficulty once again. This is not an easy game. It will not appeal to anyone that does not want to be challenged. When I say challenge I mean CHALLENGE. Beating the game on easy is not an accomplishment since you are given unlimited continues to contend with. Attempting to beat the game on Normal is where the the real meat of this game comes. It will drive you to the brink of insanity until you really start to recognize enemy patterns and memorize the levels.(and I'm proud to say that I have beaten the game on Normal, and yes Im tooting my own horn). Please keep this in mind if you are thinking about purchasing the game. Of course its always fun to bring a second player along. Nothing like having a friend to help you conquer this beast. Everything here just works. This is Contra the way it was meant to be. Konami didn't fool with the formula much and the result is one of the most challenging and outright fun games to play. I do want to mention a small "gripe" that may sway some gamers away from a purchase and more towards a rental. This is not a long game. The 5 levels in question are not large and if your playing the game on easy it will not take you an inordinate amount of time to beat Shattered Soldier. I cannot stress enough though that this game is meant to be played on a more challenging level and doing otherwise will result in a less lengthy and less satisfying experience in my humble opinion. On the note of length ,I also want to mention that after each level you are given a rating as to how well you did. This rating includes hit percentages, lives lost percentages so forth and so on. Getting higher scores will not doubt be a something many gamers will strive for and I think its worth mentioning that you will want to play through these levels again. Not so much for the higher ratings but just cause the game is so much fun to play. The replay value is there, but only for those that can really get into this type of game. Graphics Konami really comes through with a one-two punch here. Along with a fantastic gameplay experience you get some exciting and unique visuals. The games dark apocalyptic world is rendered beautifully with explosions coming left and right and some of the most grotesquely animated bosses in the history of videogaming. (The first level boss alone, a throwback to the "turtle" boss from Alien Wars, will make you want to vomit..BLECH!) The framerate is constant and never falters. The textures used in the game can vary from fairly bland to very detailed. Some of the droid and mechnical enemies in the game for instance can display some really ultra-detailed engineering, down to the nuts and bolts. While at the same time some of the backgrounds can be a little blah and in need of more interesting "fluff" so to speak. Sticking to the "old school" game design regiment I mentioned earlier Konami chose to animate its enemies and the main characters much in the way of the older games. Animation can appear to be a bit stilted at times but somehow this works in the nostalgiac sense. For example your main character still does the "flip" jump from way back in the day. Its still neat to see but some may be turned off by it. However your characters run animation is silky smooth and some of the bigger enemies will surely impress with some complicated movements that look very realistic. This is a great looking PS2 title. No doubt about it. Sound Contra features no voice acting at all. The story sequences are told with text which kind of cheapens the storyline aspect of the game for me. The music in the game consists of heavy metal guitar riffs that really compliment the action well. Your heart will be pumping while blasting away the alien threat. The game has no multi-channel support but the pro-logic soundtrack services the game well. The explosions and sound effects are suffuciently clear and defined but the game cries out for a more succint use of bass that would have really added to the atmosphere. Home Theater Performance Contra does not include 16:9 or 480p support unfortunately. This is ashame as the game would have benefited from the higher resolution of 480p. When displayed on my Toshiba 42H81 Contra looks quite smooth but a tad dark. I had to move my brightness up a few notches from my regularly calibrated game settings to get a better view of the action. Jaggies are not a problem on my set. It seems the more PS2 games that are released the less this problem arises (thankfully). The game does not look bad on the various stretch modes on my set but my preference lies with a straight up 4X3 display for this one. Not too much going on for the Home Theater crowd with Contra. Closing Contra: Shattered Soldier is pure gaming bliss for fans of the 2D action side scroller. I would recommed it whole heartidly for any fan of the original Contra games or any fan of challenging 2D gameplay. This one is truly heavenly. The difficult level along with the relative shortness of the game will no doubt put off many gamers out there but even still I would reccommend everyone to at the very least give the game a rental. Its too good a game to just abandon without at the very least playing it once. Contra is back ladies and gentleman and I can't wait to see what Konami does next with the series. Its been far too long indeed.