Assault Heroes

Old-school arcade shooters have been given a swift kick in the ass popularity-wise thanks to Xbox Live Arcade, as the accessibility provided by Microsoft’s online marketplace and the cheap pricing afforded by skipping retail have provided thousands of modern gamers with enough incentive to take the plunge into some good old-fashioned, balls-out carnage. These games typically aren’t the deepest of affairs, but they can be pretty damn fun and addictive regardless – one need look no further than the success of Geometry Wars for evidence of their appeal. Now Sierra Online is throwing another grenade into the fray with Assault Heroes, an all-new IP developed specifically for Xbox Live Arcade by Wanako Studios. Despite offering little more than a traditional arcade shooter with a shiny new coat of paint, the game manages to crank out more than enough hours of action-packed fun to make it worth the 800 point price-tag.

The gameplay in Assault Heroes is as simple as it gets: shoot everything that moves and try to stay alive for as long as possible. Assault Heroes features scrolling levels that push the player forward, towards wave after wave of enemies and eventually a huge boss enemy. The scrolling element doesn’t really make the game any more or less difficult, but it does lend an added sense of urgency to the action. The overhead camera view provides a solid view of the action on all sides, so players always have a few fractions of a second to react to the appearance of an enemy or projectile. Even if the player doesn’t manage to react quickly enough, Assault Heroes features a more lenient health and continue system than most arcade shooters. It takes a decent amount of shots to lose a life, and once all the player’s lives are gone, they have the option to restart from the last checkpoint they passed.

The bulk of Assault Heroes is spent behind the wheel of a heavily-armed 4×4 that comes stocked with three primary weapons to choose from, as well as a few explosive secondary armaments. The default weapon is a mini-gun that boasts a high-rate of fire. The flak cannon fires a single fast-moving projectile that deals heavy damage but has a long delay between shots. The flamethrower is a powerful, short-range weapon that continues to deal damage even after the enemies have left the area of effect, but is prone to over-heating. Each of the weapons can be shot in all directions through the use of the right analog stick, while the direction of the 4×4 itself is controlled with the left stick. All of the weapons can be leveled up three times by procuring power-ups on the battle-field, and each one is best suited for taking out particular types of enemies (flamethrower for standard infantry, mini-gun for vehicles, flak cannon for turrets and bosses, etc). Additionally, players can toss grenades, launch missiles and fire screen-clearing nukes with the secondary fire, but these have limited ammo and should be saved for only the toughest situations or bosses.

The 4×4 can take a fair amount of damage, and can actually recharge lost damage if players stay out of the line of fire for a decent amount of time, but once the life meter runs out players will be left on foot and be unable to deal or take as much damage. If the player manages to survive for a certain amount of time, they’ll come across another 4×4 and be able to transfer all of their previously collected power-ups to the new vehicle. Players can also choose to exit their vehicle at any given time, although in general the only good reason to ever do so is to collect a power-up located off the beaten track. At certain points in the game players will be forced to fight on foot for extended sections of combat, and these actually offer some gameplay variety since survival is less dependent on firepower and more dependent on intelligent use of exploding barrels in the environment and pin-point accuracy with grenades. That said, these segments aren’t nearly as much fun as the 4×4 sections of the game, so it’s a good thing they don’t last anywhere near as long. The boat missions feel very similar to the 4×4 missions for the most part, and players have access to all the same weapons they do in the 4×4. The only major difference is that the shifting waves affect the direction of the boat and aiming of the weapons, so players have to learn to compensate.

Assault Heroes features online and offline co-op for two players. The gameplay is nearly identical to the single player campaign, but the addition of a second vehicle on-screen and the additional projectiles being fired can make keeping track of the action a little more difficult. On the other hand, the number of enemies and types of enemies encountered doesn’t change with the addition of a second player, so once players get a handle on keeping their eyes on their own vehicle, the boost in firepower makes the campaign a cake-walk. Furthermore, there are three powerful co-op special attacks that can be performed when both players equip the same weapon and press X. Regardless of the decreased challenge, the added social element of playing through the game with a buddy makes co-op mode the more enjoyable way to play through the game. All of the achievements can be accomplished solo or in co-op play.

Visually, Assault Heroes blows away most of the arcade offerings on the marketplace. Wanako Studios has made great use of bump-mapped and reflective surfaces to add some pop to the environments and vehicles. The game also uses a variety of particle effects, as seen in the dust kicked up the 4×4, the frothing waves crashing on the shore, and the fiery explosions that overtake the screen. These are the kinds of graphics that more XBLA titles should aspire to. The music in the game is somewhat forgettable and the sound effects are somewhat repetitive, although they do help to determine what enemy types lie ahead.

Assault Heroes stands right alongside Geometry Wars, Small Arms and Uno as one of the most enjoyable games available on Xbox Live Arcade. Shooter fans shouldn’t think twice about coughing up the 800 points for the download, and anyone with an Xbox Live account should at least give the free demo a shot.