Undertow Review

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Publisher: Chair Entertainment Group
Developer: Chair Entertainment Group

Platform: Xbox 360
Reviewed on Xbox 360

The world is covered in water. An alien vessel crewed by water-dwelling extraterrestrial refugees has crashed into our planet and begun shaping it to be a more comfortable habitat. Water levels have risen, continents have been submerged, and the few survivors (unaware of the alien threat) are battling over the remnants of civilization in submarines.

The Iron Marines are the fighting force representing what was left of the surface-dwelling Western powers. They are battling Captain Nemo and his forces, kept dry and alive through Victorian submersibles and pneumatic cybernetics. Both are unaware of the Atlanteans, thawing from their icy prison that has kept them hidden for thousands of years. And none of the human forces are prepared for the alien threat that wishes to colonize our watery world.

Kyle Ackerman

As a small child, I feared that there was a large amphibian that lurked beneath the waves at the beach, pulling unsuspecting children to their doom beneath the surf. That creature was the undertoad. Really. (C'mon – I was just learning to speak.) When playing Undertow, I found myself wishing that childhood misconception would make an appearance. It would have been entertaining.

20,000 Spawn Points Under the Sea

Undertow is a multiplayer, arcade-style shooter in which players battle with a mix of underwater modern technology and 19th century sensibilities, with a few sharks and crustaceans thrown in for good measure. Matches revolve around capturing spawn points and killing enemies to reduce their available tickets, making Undertow a sort-of Captain Nemo visits Battlefield 1942 as a Victorian side-scrolling shooter.

As a multiplayer game, the concept should be sound. Three playable sides, each with four types of units battling for underwater supremacy – it should work. Unfortunately, at this point I was never able to find another player to engage in a match. That leaves me with Undertow as a single-player experience, and the single-player Undertow is... flawed.

Plenty of Tickets for This Show

Essentially, as a single player game, you play through 15 levels, most of which are multiplayer levels with bots taking on the role of your friends and enemies. To keep things interesting, you are outnumbered, making it a frantic race to keep your spawn points from being seized. The four units are nicely balanced, ranging from fast soldiers with long range weapons to slow vehicles with powerful and slow-moving shots, with a unit to fit nearly every play style. The different units even give themselves nicely to cooperative action, as the slow, powerful vehicles are sitting ducks unless accompanied by faster (and faster firing) troops.

Unfortunately, while there are three playable sides (the Iron Marines, Nemo's forces, and the Atlanteans), they are just different graphics for the same units. The Iron Marines look like a modern, underwater fighting force, while Nemo's forces have stylized and archaic looking submersibles, but they are functionally the same. And when you finally get to play as the Atlanteans, they ride sharks and hurl lightning, but still fulfill the same roles. There's even a fourth side you encounter at the end of the single player campaign that puts a new skin on similar battle units.

Because of the similarities between the sides, if you aren't playing against other humans, every battle is pretty much the same, with differing maps providing the only variation. There are a few halfhearted boss battles to break up the action, but these are particularly simple to defeat.

Friends Improve This Side-Scrolling Shooter

The game does support a two-player cooperative version of the single-player campaign, and that does a lot to redeem the game's problems. While by myself I was playing spawn point whack-a-mole with the 'bots, two players are more than a match for the AI – in an entertaining way. Co-op also makes the final level a lot easier. Given the uneven voice acting and hackneyed writing, the story isn't going to make you play Undertow, so having a friend to play co-operatively with is the best reason to play.

The game's physics are another bright point. The distinctive watery physics combined with gravity means that the battlefields are more interesting. Every unit has its own direct attack, ranging from harpoons to colossal missiles, but every unit also has a form of depth charge, an indirect-fire explosive that falls before exploding. Depth charges, water and gravity together give high spawn points a distinct advantage, and it's handy to drop a depth charge or two to precede your descent when trying to capture a control point at the bottom of the ocean. The map designers sensibly added fast pathways (thanks to water jets) to help balance out the advantage of high spawn points.

At this point, there are better ways to spend your $10 than on Undertow, unless you know at least seven other people eager to get together for regular matches, in which case Undertow should provide regular, inexpensive entertainment. With all that said, I really wish the game had involved the undertoad. It would have shaken things up and provided a much needed diversion from the endless bot battles. Maybe he would have eaten a few for me.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on January 15, 2008 4:50 AM.

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