The classic run and gun game is a rare breed nowadays. Perhaps our tastes have become more sophisticated, or maybe the genre has simply done its dash. Whatever the reason, side scrolling shooters of the Contra [or Midnight Resistance! - Ed] variety seem to have fallen out of favour. Developer Arc System Works has dusted off this blast from the past, giving it an anime-style makeover and introducing a new mode… but is it enough to lure a wider audience to a genre that has been in decline for some time?
Hard Corps: Uprising was inspired by Konami’s Contra: Hard Corps (1994), and there are obvious ties between the two. Fans will recognise the familiar game mechanics, and one of the playable characters is Colonel Bahamut (who may or may not be the villain of the same name from the earlier title). A former soldier, Bahamut leads an elite group of resistance fighters against the collective might of the Commonwealth, which rules the world through oppression and force. The futuristic tale (such that it is), is displayed in chunks of text during excessively lengthy loading screens, the first of which clocks in at just under a minute. Time enough for a quick trip to the bathroom… or at least twenty rounds of Paper Scissors Rock.
Beyond some basic information, there’s no tutorial or hand holding here; it’s pretty much a matter of ‘suck it and see’. Fortunately, the controls are simple enough to master, and games of this ilk generally have the same modus operandi: advance across the screen from left to right, running, jumping, dangling and climbing your way across each level, avoiding hazards and blasting anything that moves to kingdom come. Each area has an end of level boss which must be defeated, and there are usually mid-level mini bosses to contend with as well.
There are two game modes to choose from. Arcade mode is faithful to the old school style of play; three lives, no favours, no mercy (and nigh on impossible, too). If you're a purist or fancy a baptism by fire, Arcade mode is the place to be. The average gamer will find Rising mode more appealing, however; once you’ve completed a level, the next is unlocked as an optional starting point. You will also accumulate credit to spend on useful upgrades, such as additional health bar units, which allow you to sustain more hits before dying – that is, unless you’re the recipient of a sniper’s bullet, or some other ‘instant death’ attack. Other boosts include extra lives and actions; for example, the ability to deflect incoming fire, which relies on your reaction time to inflict payback with an enemy’s own ammo. Weapons upgrades can also be purchased, of course. These have little effect on the sometimes insane difficulty factor, but they will help you advance further into the game.
The selection of weapons offers some incentive to keep playing. It’s always fun to shoot a weapon pod out of the sky, simply to see what form of death-dealing goodness lies within. You only have two weapon slots, but it’s extremely satisfying to toast your foes with an upgraded flamethrower, or wipe out several at once with a homing laser or multi-projectile ‘spread shot’. It was interesting – and slightly amusing - to note that the characters’ guns eject the same cartridge casings, no matter what type of ammo you’re using…
There are eight levels in total, each with too few checkpoints for our liking, and some nasty surprises in store. Despite its cartoonish appearance, the game is very unforgiving of errors in timing. The action is relentless and combat is nothing short of brutal. Often you will find yourself fighting the environment as well as Commonwealth minions. Take the Ruins level, for instance: a harrowing run through a series of dark chambers and corridors. In addition to enemies, it’s packed with spike traps and rolling boulders – unlike anything Indiana Jones ever encountered, and culminates in yet another boss fight. You can expect to die many, many times as you grind your way through the game; this is where patience and perseverance will be sorely tested. During the more frustrating moments (of which there are many), we let loose with some creative cursing that would make a sailor blush, followed up with cheers and fist pumps whenever a tough boss was toppled. It’s like an emotional roller coaster ride, taking you from one extreme to the other. We found the two player co-op experience more enjoyable than single player, although there will be gamers out there who would rather fly solo. Whatever your preference, once you become familiar with each level layout and enemy behaviour patterns, you’ll begin to make some real progress.
The levels are all markedly different in appearance, with occasional lighting and weather effects thrown in for good measure. There’s an interesting array of enemies, and some of the bosses are as impressive to behold as they are difficult to defeat. Background music is pleasingly reminiscent of the old Contra games, but voice-overs are of poor quality, with some lines barely discernable. Perhaps this was intentional on the developer's part, but in this day and age there is no excuse for sub-standard audio. For its price tag of 1200 Microsoft points, Hard Corps: Uprising offers plenty of old school action with a fresh, new look and some genuinely exhilarating moments; however the game’s sheer difficulty means you may well give up on it before you get your money’s worth. Overall, Hard Corps: Uprising is a pretty solid product, but it would have made a better impression had it been a little less punishing.
And just for the record, the classic Konami code still works in some instances… but you’ll have to discover them for yourself.