After banishment into development purgatory, The Red Star at last emerges from the ether. Initially, it was set for a 2004 release. And instead of XS Games publishing, it was to be Acclaim, a company whose personal mission was to uphold every crappy stereotype of the videogame. One of their final games, BMX XXX, nicely encapsulates the Acclaim standard: a soulless license, excessive violence, filled with horny people, all of it reeking of publicity stuntiness. What’s more pathetic? That Acclaim kept this up for decades, or that it took Rockstar only one game to make the idea credible?
The Red Star, then, is an anomaly. It has no blood, no foul language, and Maya, a foxy pigtailed heroine, never lifts up her shirt. I wager it’d take a few Jack Thompsons (throw in a Pat Robertson) to find enough naughtiness here to crusade against, so Acclaim, rather than let you play it and clean up their image, would prefer to go out of business. Naturally.
Two years later, XS Games picks up the pieces (magazine reviews had already started appearing when Acclaim went bankrupt) and, peering past the unusual circumstances, this is hands down the best American shooter in a very long time.
Acclaim, rather than let you play it and clean up their image, would prefer to go out of business. Naturally.
The Red Star’s set in a kind of neo-Russia, where sorcery and big tanks coexist, and is about to be taken over by Troika, a mechanical reaper the size of the Chrysler. You are resolved to battle Troika as an elite member of The Red Star. Or, maybe Troika’s group is called The Red Star. Or maybe the name has nothing to do with anything. It’s confusing. The game makes no concessions that the average player will be clued in to the obscure comic series it’s based upon. While the artwork is alluring and gorgeous and the universe compelling, there’s little attempt to introduce the characters or ease off on the pronoun-happy nomenclature. But since it’s all pretext to the game’s stylish carnage, it doesn’t really matter.
What does matter is that the selectable characters are balanced. Perfectly balanced, even. This can’t be stressed enough. Surface-wise, it’s an easy task: have three characters, one fortified with strength, another with speed, and the last as the in-between vanilla. Me, I choose the latter archetype whenever I can (Ryu, Mario, the uncomplicated warrior guy in Diablo). It’s the perfect way to learn the ins and outs of a game without grappling with the weaknesses of a specialized character. Once the game’s more familiar, theoretically that’s the perfect time to switch around and experiment. But by that point I’m so ingrained in my gaming habits, and other options weird and bewildering (really, after the clean simplicity of Ryu who wants to figure out Dhalsim and his eccentric moves?), that I never do. Chances are you don’t either. If a game gets you to recognize the strength of other options, that’s nothing. When something like this comes along which compels you to abandon your preferences, then it becomes a big deal.