Reviews  |  Xbox 360


Guilty Gear 2 -Overture-
starstarstar

By Alex Kierkegaard / January 4, 2008


screenshot1_small

Overture joins Culdcept Saga and the Senko no Ronde port in the ranks of 360 games catering to those looking for something beyond the Action, Sports, FPS and "RPG" formulas that dominate the current-gen console market. It's absolutely nothing like I expected it to be, and that's a good thing as I was expecting it to be completely shit. On seeing the first batch of screenshots first thing I thought was that it looked "awfully generic", but looks can be deceiving. Case in point, the comments of four lamefaqs posters trying to make heads or tails of what the game was all about, shortly after its release:


Poster #1: It's ****in' Dynasty Warriors!


Poster #2: It's StarCraft meets Guilty Gear, not DW.


Poster #3: Ahahaha, no. It's more like Sacrifice + Dynasty Warriors + Guilty Gear.


Poster #4: It's Guilty Gear meets toilet.


Naturally, they are all wrong, though poster #4's view will no doubt be widely shared among the members of the fighting game community, and kudos to poster #2 for getting fairly close. The game that most closely resembles the Guilty Gear 2 experience is Herzog Zwei, the original action/RTS masterpiece. You've got two players starting out at opposite ends of a fairly small map, their goal being to destroy each other's home base. New units are manufactured in your base by expending the game's currency, and can then be sent to different spots on the map, either to guard your territory or attack your opponent's. Meanwhile, the players themselves control avatars who move around the map like regular units and get mixed up in all the fighting.


screenshot2_small

Does my comparison seem too far-fetched to you? You haven't heard the half of it. Just as in Zwei, a number of smaller bases are scattered on the map, and capturing them provides you a steady stream of extra currency. Your avatar can switch between walking and running modes (think Zwei's robot/plane modes), and can also pick up units and carry them around, exactly as in Zwei. Make no mistake about it: either this is the greatest coincidence in the history of videogames, or whoever pitched the idea for Overture to ArcSys was a huge Herzog Zwei fan.


Naturally, there are of course many minor differences between the two games, but there is also a major one. In Herzog Zwei the "action" part was rather limited. Your mecha could open fire at enemy units, but good players rarely did so as it was seriously underpowered. In Overture this aspect is reversed -- your avatar's a walking slaughterhouse, and using his fighting skills to the full is vital for success. An expert player can tear through half a dozen enemies in seconds, and almost instantly reverse the flow of an engagement.


screenshot3_small

But that is not to say the focus here is on the combat. Because even if you fully master the fighting aspect, you can still lose to a weaker opponent who's better on the tactical front. Whereas Herzog Zwei was more about strategy than action, Overture is balanced right in the middle of the two opposing disciplines. On the one hand your avatar is your more powerful unit, so it only makes sense to stay constantly in the thick of battle, killing as many enemies as possible. But since battles are taking place all over the map, which one should you join? And how long should you stay there, before moving on to another one? And how the hell am I supposed to switch to the command-issuing menu and guide my troops around the map, when I am locked in mortal combat against some madly skilled Japanese Guilty Gear fan, getting the snot beat out of me while totally awesome (though highly distracting) heavy metal music blares in the background?


Overture demands a lot from you, and for that it earns my respect. You must constantly judge when to personally engage the enemy, where to engage him, and for how long. Get bogged down in one place for too long and you can quickly lose a number of bases elsewhere, or even your home base itself -- and thus the whole match. The game has got a lot going for it: it's fast, it's frantic, it's unique -- but is it great?


screenshot4_small

Not exactly. Overture sounds more enjoyable on paper than it really is. No doubt some good times can be had online with it, especially if you join up with a friend and take on another team in the 2 vs. 2 mode, but I never felt like putting enough time in it to master it. The strategy aspect is too shallow to satisfy the RTS player in me, and the one-on-one fighting not developed enough for my 3D fighting tastes. It's true that in any art weird mixes can occasionally produce wonderful results, but not all mixes are created equal (just ask a musician or a chef).


Now I could have ended the review right here, but I've decided instead to press on and examine how the blend could be improved, while still retaining it's main characteristic (i.e. the combat-heavy focus). First thing to note is that Overture's fighting system is highly technical and can be very enjoyable -- but only when seen in the context of 3D brawlers (in other words: it's no Soul Calibur), and only when you are facing CPU-controlled enemies. This I realized while tackling the free "survival" missions which take place in a large open area against a constant stream of enemies.


On the one hand you have the running mode, engaged by clicking in the left stick, which sees you sprinting across the map faster than the vehicles in some racing games. This not only feels completely awesome, but also totally changes the macro-mechanics of combat, as it allows you to engage and disengage groups of enemies across the map almost at will. It lets you pick your fights, withdrawing occasionally to use items and heal yourself, or even set up traps. No other 3D brawler does anything comparable, and trust me when I say it's worth checking the game out just to see how it works. It's basically the coolest and most enjoyable 3D action mechanic I've come across since Gun Valkyrie's jetpacking boost antics.


screenshot5_small

And then you've got the lock-on mode, which gives you unprecedented control over your character's footwork. It lets you dash around your opponent or jump right over him, or switch between opponents and dance around them, slashing and comboing all the while precisely where you want to. It's hard to get right, but get it right and it's sublime; a world apart from the random, mindless slashing of all the Musou games and their ilk.


Then add all the extra skills (temporary power-ups, invisibility and the like) and items (stun grenades, bombs, decoys, and many more) that you can buy and use, and you've got the most dynamic and complex 3D action fighting system yet (though admittedly not the smoothest, camera problems and slowdown when fighting more than a handful of enemies being the main issues).


But the versus matches, which are the whole point of the game (the single-player campaign being little more than an extended tutorial), do not allow you to enjoy this system to the full. Enemy numbers are always limited, the fighting is by necessity too sporadic and too brief (since matches are divided into extremely short timed rounds), and the maps are basically interconnected corridors with no space to let loose and enjoy -- or properly exploit -- the cool sprinting mechanic.


screenshot6_small

The game's narrow scope is in the end what dooms it to mediocrity. So trash the stupid timed rounds, open up the maps, add whole armies and a more overarching strategy aspect (i.e. move away from micromanagement of small squads and towards more general commands), and cut the player loose to run around and reinforce parts of the battlefield he deems most crucial, and then you'll have an awesomely delicious mix of strategy and action. In other words take Overture's fighting system and stick it in the Kingdom Under Fire or Musou games, and you'll have something I can wholeheartedly recommend. I mean, hell, do all that and you'll have an instant classic videogame.



ArcSys has posted several demonstration videos on the game's official website, all of which include running commentary. Since they are bound to go offline eventually, I uploaded them here to preserve them for future generations. And by the way, yeah, there are currently no plans to release Overture outside Japan.