Take cover. Take aim. Take over.
This is the slightly overused (though somewhat catchy) marketing phrase used by Namco to promote their newest release, kill.switch for the Xbox system. The game’s claim to fame is the ability to make use of cover in the environment to take out hordes of machine gun toting bad guys. While kill.switch does add exciting new gameplay elements to the third person shooter genre and features a superior storyline, it’s annoyingly steep difficulty level, twitchy camera issues and four to five hour single player lifespan keep it from being truly great.
First and foremost, the game’s storyline is better than the average save the world stuff you will find in most typical shooters. You are in control, via a neural link, of a soldier who has been memory-wiped and trained to be a pure killing machine. What is even more intriguing is the fact that you are actually a bad guy who is trying to cast the blame of the various terrorist acts committed onto the United States, thus bringing about a third World War. Without revealing too much of the plot, I’ll just mention that things become interesting when the soldier you are controlling begins to regain some of his old memories. Despite the high quality of this storyline, it wasn’t given the amount of attention I would have liked, as the missions are fairly straightforward shoot-fests without any plot-related cinematics dispersed throughout. In fact, a few CG movies and pre-mission dialogues tell nearly the entire storyline.
As mentioned earlier, actual gameplay consists exclusively of shooting action as seen from a third person viewpoint (though you can stand still and use a first person aim by pressing in the right analog stick – this is mostly useful during sniping). Purposely sprinkled throughout each level are features like barrels, crates, cars and walls that can be hid behind to avoid enemy fire. Taking cover behind something is as simple as getting close to the object you want to hide behind and pressing the L trigger. Once in “cover” mode, you can shimmy back and forth behind the cover, step out and shoot at a target or stick only your gun out and shoot somewhat blindly (this last option is basically trading accuracy for safety). All of this becomes very intuitive after only about thirty minutes of playtime, but every so often the camera will position itself in a strange way, not allowing you to accurately aim.
When it comes to using cover, don’t think the bad guys won’t take advantage of it as they see fit: they will. In fact, they frequently use the very same techniques as you, even including sticking a gun out and spraying your position with bullets blindly. They also make use of grenades, gun turrets, rocket launchers and even helicopters in their efforts to bring you down. For the most part the AI in kill.switch is challenging and intelligent, but sometimes baddies will make bonehead moves like crouching partially behind an object thinking they are completely hidden. But they more than make up for these mistakes by employing advanced tactics like sending people around or throwing grenades to flush you out. It definitely pays to stay on your toes, even when hidden “safely” behind cover.
There are a good number of real-life weapons to be found as you progress through kill.switch, with guns such as the M1 shotgun, AK47 assault rifle and MCRT 300 sniper rifle all making appearances. Weapons can be scooped up off the bodies of fallen enemies, so if someone is firing an especially cool gun at you just go take him out and it is yours. There are also plenty of opportunities to man automatic gun turrets to mow down baddies, but I usually found that by the time I made my way to the turret, everyone in the area was taken care of. Regardless, the healthy number of weapons and tools at your disposal help increase the game’s overall appeal.
Crouching behind cars and other environmental features while spraying bullets at your enemies is incredibly fun, but the game loses “fun” points in another area: difficulty. You see, Namco decided to make the super soldier you control not so super – that is, he goes down with only a few well placed shots from the many gun-wielding baddies scattered across the levels. This was obviously a decision by Namco to force you to take advantage of the cover feature, as out in the open you are dead meat. The problem is, there is no way to save your game during a level, so if one bad guy at the very end flanks you the whole stage must be replayed. Because this is so extremely aggravating, you may try to rush through when you replay the mission, but guess what happens when you run and gun without hiding behind every piece of cover available? Yup, dead meat. So then you get even more pissed off and the vicious cycle continues until you stop playing the game or break something. It would have been nice if Namco had offered an easy mode to balance out the tough normal and hard difficulties.
Disappointingly, kill.switch can be completed in approximately five hours of play time and there isn’t any real incentive to go back and play through again. Well, let me rephrase that: beating the game will not gain you any new modes, characters, levels or other unlockables, but because the game offers such unique gameplay, you may find yourself popping it in even after the initial completion. It really depends on how hooked you become with the game’s unique “take cover” system, so I recommend giving kill.switch a rental to see if it grabs you before shelling out full price.
Visually, the game is quite appealing. The environments all look authentic and detailed, as do the characters. The actual texture quality is not too impressive when viewed up close, but because the game is a third person shooter you will never really notice unless you are a scrutinizing reviewer like me. The environments themselves have quite a few interactive features such as televisions, windows and other breakable objects that can be shot and destroyed. The glass found in windows is especially cool, because it only partially breaks depending on where the bullet passes through. One of the game’s strongest points graphically is a rock-solid framerate that doesn’t dip even during the most hectic of situations.
Character models in kill.switch are good quality all around, whether it is one of the thousands of gun-lugging bad guys or the super soldier whom you control. Animations can be a bit stiff though, especially when your character is running at full speed – he takes somewhat awkward-looking short strides. Death animations for the many baddies in the game are adequately varied and change depending on the area of the body shot. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: where’s the blood Namco?
The audio work in the game is good, but not stellar. Guns, death cries and other sound effects that make up the typical shooting game are all here and accounted for, and there are some nice touches like the dull ringing that follows up the detonation of a flash bang grenade. The voiceovers are handled by quality actors and help make the pre-mission dialogues more compelling. Oddly, the music in kill.switch is often upbeat and therefore doesn’t fit the action very well. It’s hard to have the patience to sit behind cover and trade fire with an enemy when the music is urging you to pop out and run through guns-a-blazing.
While by no means a bad game, kill.switch fails to live up to its full potential. The “take cover” gameplay elements are all intriguing and worth experiencing, but the occasional frustrations stemming from the unforgiving difficulty and finicky camera significantly take away from the game. Also, the game’s lasting value is questionable, with the short single player mode not offering any unlockables after completion. There are definitely plenty of fun moments to be had while playing though, so at the very least give it rental – you may find it a worthy purchase.