You get the feeling that developers Buka and Targem don’t think much of their newest creation. MorphX has slipped onto store shelves without as much as a whimper, cowering beneath the likes of Dead Rising 2 and Halo: Reach, games that, prior to release, relied on extensive advertising and viral awareness to encourage a purchase. MorphX merely has its boxart, a man with a green eye and big claw, to speak for itself. To review something so unknown is a rarity and what MorphX presents is a strange dichotomy: monetary constrains have hurt the presentation and a lack of financial clout has ensured that no-one is paying attention. Yet, dismiss the game at your peril, for it has sparks of genuine and surprising creativity.
With a War of the Worlds-esque intro, we’re introduced to the “damn aliens” who swoon from the sky and swiftly dispel human resistance. People are forced underground and as the game begins, you usurp the reins of a nameless tattooed man who finds himself in an “incubator”. It becomes apparent that he has been harvested, but has retained a human’s personality despite the alien appendages transforming him. The claw comes first (very District 9) but it’s not long before our hero has the best of both worlds: the powers of an extraterrestrial and the voice of a gruff, chain-smoking coal miner. By midway, the tattoos are covered by alien hide and an energy cannon sprouts from our hero’s arm. That’s not to mention the chitin claws he can wield, reducing alien and human foes into itty gritty examples of dismemberment. It’s the traditional example of a game rewarding your progression with bigger and better toys.
Quite why this is happening is explained by ham-fisted cutscenes, but you’ll spend much of your time still in the dark, though the game does come with a much favoured line. “Damn aliens” is a phrase that proliferates the story and it’s so out-of-place that you can’t help but laugh. At one point, our hero tells us that the people were angry with the aliens, and then says, “damn aliens”, just to illustrate how angry. You’ll cherish the moment you come across the very same words written on a wall in bright red scrawl. You’ll cackle when a human shouts it in the heart of battle. If MorphX had a catchphrase it’d be this. Or, alternatively: “how not to translate a Russian game.”
“‘Damn aliens’ is a phrase that proliferates the story and it’s so out-of-place that you can’t help but laugh.”Truth be told, the story isn’t worth following and the lack of cohesion is particularly worrisome. The game begins with you fighting both aliens (damn them!) and humans, but an invisible line is crossed halfway through the story. Quite suddenly, these army-clad men that you’d been disposing of in the hundreds are now your friends. If you want irrefutable proof, the reticule changes from red (enemy) to green (ally). It’s about the only confirmation you ever get, because the narrative doesn’t bother to tell you what’s changed. Perhaps Buka worked on the first half of the game and Targem constructed the second, and they could never come to an agreement on whether our hero would work alone or not.
Still, there has been an agreement on the look and feel MorphX is striving for. It plays as a standard, linear third-person shooter, but its intent on sticking to the principles that framed these types of games back in the late nineties. Forget about a cover system akin to Gears of War, or even the option to crouch. No, the developers have opted for a bare-bones approach instead where button-mashing and repetitive fights are the order of the day. As aforementioned, you’ll slay both humans and the pesky invaders (I can’t use that catchphrase again) in a mix between traditional run-and-gun shooting and melee combat. Sadly there’s nothing noteworthy about either, though the gore is liberal, keeping with the expectations of bloodthirsty gamers the world over.
But even a bloodbath doesn’t shroud the fact that the likes of Prototype and Dark Sector have done this all before with the polish and visual fidelity we’ve come to expect. For it’s not only the execution of MorphX that comes off as passé, but the presentation too. The visuals are stuck somewhere between 2001 and 2003, and you’ll need to remind yourself that it is indeed an Xbox 360 controller in your hand. Animations are wobbly and erratic, cutscenes are poor and up-close, you can almost swear that the textures have come from a folder bearing the name: “Year 2002”.
MorphX clearly tries hard. Cutscenes allow our hero to stress the plight of the city. With an attempt at poetic prose, he awkwardly confesses his troubles. Buka and Targem want us to invest in both the story and the action. They remind us during firefights that an epic battle is afoot. Music is cued from a band clearly consigned to playing at empty bars during the ‘90s. It’s context-sensitive, and yet it doesn’t work. Buka and Targem clearly know games. Sadly, they don’t quite know what make games tick. Like a tribute band struggling to keep pace, they’re nearly always off the mark. This is Oasish, not Oasis. Even some of the sound effects are pure Half-Life. The smallest variety of alien – let’s just call it a critter – makes a noise identical to that of the headcrab. But while the headcrab proved a tense, awesome adversary, these critters are annoying.
Kick them critters!
They sound like headcrabs, only they’re considerably less fun. Yet, small, bug-like creatures that harass you throughout the game (called critters in the review) do serve one memorable gameplay purpose. By pressing the “B” button, your avatar performs a kick. And if you time the kick perfectly you can send one of these small fiends flying. It’s genuinely hilarious to watch them squeal and splatter against a wall in a hail of red and green blood. They’re annoying all the same, but giving them a good kick makes their presence in the game slightly more bearable.
Besides the critter, the aliens come in considerably larger forms. Gunners employ shields and are best killed using melee attacks while Spargs can cloak themselves and should be handled with prudence. There’s also a boss fight or two, a large-scale final battle and chaingun-wielding menaces named Terminators who… well, attempt to terminate you. The aliens are decent adversaries and the developers do ensure that there’s a variety on offer; sadly, the pacing of the game is poor and you’ll often round a corner only to be faced with another foe to kill. Games that temper the fighting work much better, and in MorphX’s case, there aren’t enough moments where you catch your breath and let your aching trigger finger rest. It’s almost as if, when stuck, the developers simply decided to throw another enemy into your midst. It doesn’t succeed. If anything, it makes the fights more of a chore.
It’s at about this point that I usually wrap up a review, slap on a “2” and move on to bigger and better games. Not so here. Strangely, amongst its considerate downfalls, MorphX has flashes of rare quality. The look and feel of the game is old-school, but it also comes with one, contemporary feature: DNA enhancement. The likes of Bioshock have toyed with this idea for years now, but few, if any, do it as well as MorphX. By harvesting biomass our hero builds up genetic building blocks – a pathway to improved abilities. It’s a simple, rehashed idea, but the masterstroke comes in the implementation of it. You don’t simply harvest the stuff and watch your avatar grow bigger and stronger. Instead, you play an active role in the shaping of your DNA.
By pressing the back button on the Xbox 360 controller, MorphX enters its customisation screen. Here you have a variety of abilities (they accumulate as the game progresses, of course) that you can enhance using the genetic biomass. Much like puzzle pieces, the genes can be flipped in several directions and what ensues is something of a puzzle-piece mini-game, whereby you attempt to connect red and green orbs using these building blocks. It’s a surprising amount of fun and some of the best moments in the game see you fiddling with your attributes, tinkering with the pieces and ultimately finding ways of joining the orbs in better, more efficient ways. It’s a good example of a feature that, while confusing at first, slowly makes sense to you. And once you’ve got the knack of piecing together the orbs you’ll genuinely appreciate what MorphX is striving to do. Thus, the first portion of the game is tricky. You’re still a tattooed grunt and the enemies inflict a considerable amount of damage on your human form. But as the attributes build up and the DNA modification takes effect, you’ll be able to breeze through many of the foes that once caused you problems. It’s a genuinely satisfying progression and the fact that you’ve played an active part in the change is all the more rewarding.
Quick off the mark
MorphX is no looker. The graphics are dated, the animations are poor and the art design lacks a creative pulse. Nonetheless, these visual deficiencies are a boon at times, for MorphX loads in a flash. From the main menu, continuing your game takes no more than a second or two. Upon dying, restarting from your last save is nigh-on instantaneous. And considering that you’ll be restarting often during the first few hours, it’s a relief that everything loads so quickly.
The other surprising plus point comes in the rare moments of nuance. Though much of the campaign involves tedious fighting, MorphX sits in the rarefied strata of games that actually make puzzles work. These aren’t puzzles to do with the customisation either, but conundrums that occur during actual gameplay. A sequence reminiscent of Half-Life involves tripwires and explosive barrels. Working your way through the tricky obstacle course you’ll immediately plumb for the first door that can be opened. Cleverly, the solution lies elsewhere, and MorphX’s level design is, at times, a considerable asset. Other puzzles involve using night-vision – named Alien View — and striking alien locks in the correct order to bypass shields and areas that have been cordoned off. It’s these slower, more thought-provoking moments that really make the game shine.
“Whether you’ll play the game more than once is not the issue. It’s whether you’ll play it at all.”As I said earlier, a strange dichotomy is at work. MorphX suffers from being a very substandard third-person shooter, but there’s clearly a lot of talent at the heart of Buka and Targem. Objectively speaking, this doesn’t deserve your attention. No amount of clever puzzle solving and engaging DNA modification can gloss over the hackneyed firefights and dated controls. On the other hand, MorphX doesn’t lend itself to objective judgment. Placing aside my cynicism, I actually quite enjoyed the game. There’s no multiplayer component; rather, bonus material attempts to elicit replay value. But whether you’ll play the game more than once is not the issue. It’s whether you’ll play it at all.
Quite frankly, you can do far worse than MorphX. With a bigger budget and the freedom to truly explore their inventive impulses, Buka and Targem could have crafted a truly outstanding game. As it stands, it’s merely serviceable, but the rare moments of genuine quality are just enough to see you through until the end.