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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by Infogrames/Rage

Ups:Great graphics and sound; two player simultaneous action; the only top-down shooter for the DC; very challenging. 

Downs:Lack of story depth; some play quirks; slightly repetitive. 

System Reqs:
Sega Dreamcast, VMU.

Remember when the first Contra game came out, and changed the way you felt about video games forever? Unlike the genteel turn-sharing of staid platformers like Super Mario Brothers, the game allowed you the dual perks of not having to wait for your turn as well as the ability to formulate team strategies. Well, the genre started off promisingly enough, and many of its 8-bit outings are still classics by any standard: Double Dragon, Gauntlet, Bad Dudes, and Ikari Warriors to name a few. But then something happened, something less evil than underwhelming. The 16-bit era of video gaming seemed either unequipped or unwilling to exploit the potential of a genre people had already devoted themselves to fanatically. Although a few standouts exist—namely Super C—the field can I think fairly be characterized as redundant, uninspired, and hackneyed prior to the advent of 32-bit technology.

If the format still had its problems—and it did, remember Contra 3D?—the genre as a whole received a new lease on relevance due to excellent titles like Apocalypse, One, and Loaded. The reasons were twofold—first and most obviously, the improved graphics and games mechanics created an indisputably new gaming experience. The advent of the "strafe" feature, for instance, revolutionized character control, and opened the games to a whole new type of strategy. Second, and more abstractly, the narratology of the games became central, allowing the once "twitch" genre to merge with more "adventure"-type conceptual paradigms. But still, there hasn’t been a Contra to speak of since the original. Expendable, the Dreamcast’s first foray into the top down shooter genre, is no exception, although its assets far outweigh its drawbacks.

In the first place, Expendable outdoes Apocalyse and One by bringing back the two player option—something that is not just a luxury in this type of game; it is, if you ask me, its heart and soul. With solid character controls and a well-engineered strafe button, the game mechanics allow for a great deal of two player strategy. Running around and killing everything you can will work for the first several levels, but as the enemies become more complex and less forgiving, you are going to have to employ a slightly more sophisticated approach to exterminating them. Certain enemies are only susceptible to certain weapons, and team play can maximize this game feature.

The weapons themselves are various and thoroughly gratifying. Everything besides your basic plasma-gun will appeal to your innate need to kill things with the most destructive tools possible. A brief but not exhaustive list includes machine guns, lasers, shotguns, particle beams, and grenades—all of which have power-ups. You can also pick up orbitals, as per R-Type, that follow you around and add to your weapon’s range and strength. And, it might be pointed out, the weapons look amazing. Combined with excellently mastered sound effects and superb depictions of alien injuries/death throes your rampage will delight every violent neuron in your body.

The stage backgrounds (I am told there are over twenty, but I still can’t get past fifteen) are equally impressive. If variety is the spice of life, it is also certainly an edge to a game attempting to transcend its ancestors. Each level is fully fleshed out and aesthetically rich—none of them really duplicate each other at all, from the arrangement, to the details, to the overall experience. All of the levels take place on various planets or space stations, but the climates and landscapes vary significantly, from the familiar "techno-wasteland" to jungles, snow-covered mountains, and rooftops. Rain, fire, and other elemental effects add richness and subtlety to the game. Texture effects, especially water, are better than anything out on the DC right now. Lighting is also superb—grenade flames give off shadows for god’s sake!

The enemies are less spectacular. At least the common ground troops are—the reason being that they are repeated over and over again ad nauseum. New enemies crop up every few levels, of course, and some of them (particularly the robot dogs) are nice surprises. But, more often than not, it’s those same pistol-whipping bastards that just keep coming and coming… The boss creatures, on the other hand, are incredible. Often they occupy a good deal of the screen, an impressive feat considering how small your character usually is. The enemies aren’t just big, they are also complicated, and require a certain level of strategy. Not to give too much away, but keep your eyes out for a gigantic mutated gorilla.

Okay, now to the downsides. First off, while Expendable does rate better than Apocalypse et al in terms of graphics, sound, and its two-player dimensions, it falls significantly short in terms of story. In fact, there is no story, at least, not one any more intricate than that underlying Defender or Asteroids. You are a bio-engineered proto-human, bred to kill and kill and kill. You have no name. You are expendable (get it?) A race of evil aliens is wreaking havoc across the universe on planets in which your government has some economic interest or else a compassionate one (yeah right). Because you have no identity—in fact, the game leads you to believe that when "you" are killed, a replacement is simply beamed down to take your place—"you" in actuality are playing the part of the political/military institution that is carrying out this war. All you are is a government puppet fighting against the puppets of another government for control of planets you are told nothing about except that you are required to fight for them. Where’s the ethos? This game is an interesting deconstruction of political and military ideologies, but, like all theoretical exempla, a poor story.

Second, the two player option often results in confusion. With so many things exploding all the time, and the two characters looking almost identical (one is slightly red and the other is slightly yellow) it is incredibly easy to lose track of where you are. There is an arrow to indicate your position if you happen to end up off screen, but the arrow is almost as hard to see as you are. The camera changes angles when it tracks you around some corners—trust me, this can be more than mildly disconcerting until you get used to it, and even afterward.

The biggest problem that I have with this game is that I haven’t found any cheat codes for it yet, and it is damn hard to beat with only eight continues (four if you are in two-player mode). There must be codes out there somewhere, and I advise you to find them immediately if you purchase this game. If you can’t find any, play as far as you can through it on "Beginner" mode to get used to the lay of the land before you try the real deal.

Anyway, Expendable is by far the best top-down shooter in a very long time. Despite its lack of any compelling storyline (and the unavailability of cheat codes) it is a nearly perfect example of what two-player-walking-around-killing-stuff games should be like. Replay value is high, and, unless you just don’t like games like this at all, you won’t be disappointed.

--Brandon Hall