It was all a lie. Everything. The history of the world, the origins of religion, the development of modern civilization, our very existence. The conspiracy theorists were right; aliens not only exist, but they’ve been in contact with us all along. Watching, subtly manipulating humanity into what it is today. It’s kind of funny, in a way. They’ve been hiding in plain sight the entire time, but we could never reach them…until a few decades ago. The Apollo 11 mission to the moon was one of the greatest achievements of mankind, but it was nothing compared to the potential discovery those astronauts could have made. But in the colonization mission of 2058, researchers stumbled across what their predecessors had missed: a hatch leading into the cold, black depths of the lunar landscape. But while the implications are astounding enough, what really lay within the moon is far more sinister than anyone could have guessed.
Enter Major Kane, the leader of the Extra Terrestrial Encounter Organization. He and his team were called in to explore the inner recesses of the alien structure. But a few predictable plot twists later, the mission turns into a rescue operation with Kane left to fend for himself. Since the game is told through his perspective, the shocking revelations and overall progression come fast and frequent. The conspiracy is nowhere near as convoluted or complicated as the likes of Metal Gear Solid, but the little details that get unveiled are gruesome. In contrast, the characters themselves are bland and generic; Kane is the no-nonsense man of duty and action, his superior officer is emotionally cold and keeps things on a need-to-know basis, and his intel officer has no personality aside from his useful insights on all the technology being discovered. Thus the storytelling boils down to these boring characters reacting to the dark, brutal truths they’ll uncover as Kane ventures ever deeper underground.
There’s a lot to find, too. While the surface is nothing more than a bunch of craters and dust, the moon’s interior is crammed with hallways and facilities. After you’ve made the descent (which always includes a cut scene Metroid Prime vets will recognize all too well), you’ll gain access to some map data and destination point for you to wander towards. Most of the time the goals will involve collecting parts of a key to unlock a central door, or dismantling a power generator, or something equally unimaginative. Despite how extensive the tunnel networks are, there’s little chance of you ever getting lost; the map screen not only highlights your position, but keeps track of which areas you’ve already trekked through. What prevents this from being a Metroid knockoff, however, is the lack of emphasis on exploration. There are no jumping mechanics whatsoever, which means you’ll be walking down level paths or climbing stairs most of the time. Many of these rooms are straightforward affairs; you’ve just got to get from one door to the next or look for a save station to replenish health. Sure, you might find some health or ammo upgrades tucked away in a far-flung nook, but it’s not essential to complete a given mission.
Instead, it’s all about the combat. The folks who made this place don’t kindly to some generic protagonist waltzing into their compound, and they’ve got more than enough firepower to blast you into space dust. It’ll start off small, like miniature crab walkers and automated sentries. But as you get deeper into the levels, you’ll have to take down roving bands of flying robotic deathtraps, laser cannons, grenade launchers, and even a few platoons of heavily aliens. All you’ve got on your side are the handful of weapons you’ll procure throughout the campaign. There’s nothing particularly mind-blowing or original about these guns, but they are well balanced and easy to use. The Super Assault Rifle isn’t nearly as badass as it seems; despite having infinite ammo and burst fire, its ineffectual attack power will get you killed later on. The Muon Pistol and the Lepton Spread – intergalactic equivalents of a magnum and shotgun, respectively – will be your saviors in the latter half of the game. Along with a laser sniper rifle and severely watered-down BFG, you ought to be well equipped for whatever Moon throws at you.
The most interesting part of your arsenal, however, isn’t technically a weapon. Early on, you’ll acquire a Remote Access Droid. As its name implies, this little gizmo operates much like a remote control car you might have played with as a kid. You’ll be able to drive it through narrow passageways, underneath obstacles, and explore the inner workings of some of the walls. This represents what little exploration and puzzle-solving there is in the game; whenever your progress is hindered by a force field, it’s usually a clue that you have to let the RAD loose into the vents to dismantle it. The little robot is equipped with what amounts to a taser projectile that can temporarily freeze oncoming enemies and disable whatever is powering the nearby force field. That done, you switch back to first-person view, run forward before the barrier comes back online, and snatch up the RAD before your foes shoot it into scrap metal. You’ll have to perform this same basic routine several times throughout a given level, but enemy presence and level layout can make it tricky. However, it’s not all about exploration; the RAD works wonders with sneak attacks and stunning hard-to-kill targets. While the little robot maybe be simplistic in premise, its value in-game is undeniable.
Too bad the same can’t be said about the driving sections. As your crusade leads back onto the lunar surface, you’ll be granted access to the LOLA, which is the bastard love-child of the Apollo lunar rovers and the warthogs from Halo. Most of these sequences involve navigating curvy roads as you try to get to a given mission objective or hatch. You’ll have to deal with minefields, stationary sentries, and a handful of other annoyances that can be roasted with a well-aimed shot from the laser cannon mounted on LOLA’s roof. Your biggest enemy, however, are the slippery controls. Trying to drive that beast of a moon buggy will be a true test of your patience; it’s all too easy to fishtail into a cluster of proximity mines or accidentally get stuck against a wall be cause you didn’t negotiate a turn quite correctly enough. The awkward driving mechanics practically ensure you’ll have to take a few laser blasts before getting the hang of things. The fact that these missions are timed makes things all the more aggravating. While these few areas break up the monotony of all the underground gameplay, they could have been executed and developed far more.
Ironically, the regular gameplay controls are some of the best ever seen on the DS. The directional pad (or buttons for the lefties) is used for movement, while the stylus and shoulder buttons are used for aiming and firing respectively. It’s amazing how smooth and responsive the game runs; even with several enemies and laser blasts flying everywhere, the combat handles with pinpoint accurately and effectiveness. Moon takes the turning, aiming, and basic maneuvering mechanics of regular FPS games and adapts them flawlessly onto the DS. Even if Kane is just plodding around in his spacesuit, he can still dodge oncoming projectiles fairly easy. Keeping an eye on your position is one of the key aspects of your survival; since many of these rooms are small and offer little in terms of tactical advantage, you’re going to have to carefully place yourself out of harm’s way while still dishing out your own offensive. Switching weapons is as easy as tapping on the touch screen and highlighting whatever you want to unleash upon your hapless foes. Considering how well the touch screen and other controls are implemented, Moon works well as a handheld FPS.
It’s a shame that it all feels repetitive. The gunplay is the most impressive the DS has seen in a while, but much of the game feels recycled. Oh, it looks impressive – the hallways filled with pulsing light, the clanking and whirring of all the machinery, all the abandoned computer consoles and wreckage everywhere – but after a while you’ll get the sense that you’ve been in the same place before. The different color schemes and layouts might throw you off, but there’s little variation in terms of the level designs. It’s understandable given the context of the story, but it just seems unsatisfying. The same goes for enemies; the same crab walkers and sentries that plague the first area are still around in the last level. Aside from a handful of notably well-designed foes, several of the bosses are nothing more than minor upgrades of their immediate predecessors. Even if the boss fights are a blast to play, a little more variety would have been greatly appreciated. At least the game has an option to turn off the screeching, headache-inducing music; the silence does wonders for the overall atmosphere. Too bad the same can’t be said for the cruddy voice acting. But considering how smoothly everything runs, the presentation is a decent effort overall.
It’s about time. DS owners have been waiting for a FPS since that faint promise of one in Metroid Prime: Hunters. Moon executes the basics of first-person shooting incredibly well; the touch screen and stylus controls work wonders in terms of accuracy and speed. It’s just a shame that everything else didn’t get as much attention. With so much emphasis placed on the combat, the exploration aspects are underutilized. The remote control puzzle solving is an interesting way to spice up the gameplay, though. The story, while dark and gruesome, will come off as shallow and predictable to seasoned gamers. The driving sections are a bad joke. The game is visually impressive, but the overuse of some designs and repetitive enemies are not. But hey, this is still one of the most technically impressive FPS games on a handheld. The dark side of the moon never looked better.