Blue Estate / 14th of February 2015
If there is one particular genre that has suffered in recent years-and by “recent” I mean the last decade or so-it’s the on-rails shooter, and in particular, the once beloved light gun game. Nintendo’s Wii prevented the genre from entirely disappearing beneath the surface, and with Capcom’s Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles and Sega’s utterly brilliant, Grindhouse styled House of the Dead: Overkill, it did so with some degree of success, yet ultimately, it was always going to be fighting a losing battle. When Microsoft released Kinect back on the Xbox 360, I thought that perhaps they too would utilise this technology to bring the genre home to Xbox fans, yet this was not to be, and even with the advent of the more powerful Kinect 2.0, no company has yet dared to even attempt it, until now.
Whilst strictly speaking, not an entry into this ever disappearing genre, Blue Estate, the debut game from independent French studio, HE-SAW, is certainly the closest thing that Xbox owners have come to this type of game since Sega released House of the Dead III on the Xbox in 2003 (it reached American shores during the previous year). And so it was that I was rather eager to get my hands on the Xbox One version of their game and quell the urges of my itchy trigger finger.
For those that do not know anything about the title, it is actually based on a series of comics of the same name, created by Viktor Kalvachev, whom some may recognise from his work with the ground-breaking French comic, Heavy Metal. In the game, player’s take on two different roles, that of the psychotic Tony Luciano-son of L.A.’s feared mob boss, Don Luciano, and the washed out ex-Navy Seal, Clarence, who has been brought in to clean up Tony’s mess, and what chaos he leaves in his wake. With Tony having plunged the family into a gang war against the Sik crew over a kidnapped stripper, it’s Clarence’s job to try to ensure that this conflict is brought to an end swiftly, before it threatens to take them all down with it. Now whilst Clarence may prove to be a magnet for small dogs to latch onto (literally), the gameplay remains identical throughout, and essentially, all it boils down to is shooting as many people in the face as is humanly possible. The narrative is truly inconsequential here, perhaps a tad odd for a game based on a series of comics, yet after Story Mode has been bested, most players will likely remain scratching their head wondering if there was a story there at all.
Along the way, the player is guided through some fairly expansive levels that vary from clubs and cemetery’s to sewers, utilising a variety of weapons to deal with the common riff raff, as well as the more taxing boss fights that come along from time to time. To break up the monotony of the gameplay somewhat, the developer has included a couple of interesting additions, such as a play on the “whack a mole” game, though in this case, a series of enemies appear, and are gunned down by the player, one by one. Another play on this sees a group of adversaries appear at once, the player is then tasked with scoring headshots on these opponents in a pre-set order demonstrated to the player when they first appear. Strong performances in either of these can net some pretty hefty bonuses for those seeking to work on their high scores.
Levels can be played out either using Kinect-utilising hand motions to target enemies, reload and traverse obstacles-or by using a more familiar controller option that sees the right analogue stick control aiming, whilst the left one is utilised for replicating Kinect gestures to open doors, pick up weapons and use items. When using Kinect, firing is automatic, weapons discharge as soon as the player lines up a shot, which may sound a tad too easy, but trying to do this quickly, particularly on increased difficulty setting can still prove to be rather troublesome. Using the controller yields an equally difficult control method, the sensitivity – especially to begin with – feels altogether too high, yet there is not an option to set it to a more suitable level. Using this control scheme sees players given a fairly large targeting reticule, within this (assuming that the player has targeted an enemy) there appears a small red cross which highlights whereabouts on the body of the player’s foe the bullet will hit. Given that the reticule is typically flying across the screen at break neck speed, this little addition makes it considerably easier for players to record accurate hits, particularly as the game demands a high degree of accuracy, especially in Arcade Mode.
The game’s Arcade Mode offers smaller levels that its “story” based alternative, these see enemies pop up quickly throughout, tasking the player with eliminating them as quickly and as accurately as possible. Sounds the same, right? Well, by recording a streak of headshots, players are rewarded with Slow-Mo, allowing them to record more accurate shots and generate bonus points that help the player reach one of the pre-set amounts required to earn an improved ranking. Netting the S-rank required to unlock a great many of Blue Estate’s achievements will require practically flawless play, recording a plethora of headshots and eradicating every enemy in the level. To make this a tad easier, good performances earn the player improved weapons as they progress through each level, starting off with either Tony or Clarence’s handgun, before moving on the shotguns, machine guns and even a magnum with explosive ammo. Points are awarded for using as many of these as possible, and they certainly make the game more interesting.
Visually, the game is certainly functional, backgrounds are mostly bright and colourful, and the team have added in some rather attractive segues that see comic book covers dissolve into the actual levels as the area loads up, it is a similar technique to that used in UGA’s Rez, which is certainly a welcome addition to the game. Of course, there are certainly problems here too, for instance, enemy character can be obscured or even completely hidden by the player’s gun, or environmental effects such as water, leaving only a yellow marker indicating that an enemy is in the area and preparing to fire. And on the topic of character models, each those found here is incredibly basic, and animated poorly, though to some extent, this gives the game a certain degree of retro charm.
Blue Estate’s soundtrack is generally non-offensive, there are no stand out tracks, but it’s probably what one would expect from a game of this kind, the same, however, cannot be said of the voice acting. A very patchy affair, the voice acting varies from average to downright abhorrent, the main character in particular, a violent, psychotic gangster sounds like Family Guy’s Peter Griffin, which alone should be enough to make any gamer ask themselves, “am I supposed to take this seriously?”.
Anyone coming into Blue Estate expecting a mature, narrative driven experience is going to be bitterly disappointed, and whilst the mechanics are certainly not the best, taking the game for the tongue-in-cheek experience that it is, it’s not actually that bad, besides, it certainly does offer a refreshing break from the norm. With Story and Arcade modes included, and co-operative play supported too, Blue Estate can offer up quite a few hours of play, which may just give it the potential to be something of a sleeper hit. It may not be Virtua Cop or House of the Dead, but it’s definitely worth a shot.