It's taken a while, but the PSP has finally got a third-person shooter that really works. Chili Con Carnage is the follow-up game from Total Overdose creators Deadline Games, and they've taken everything that was good about that explosive thrill-ride and tailored it to be a perfect fit for Sony's handheld. While I was beginning to think that the PSP simply couldn't handle shooters, I now can't believe more games haven't used such a simple, yet enjoyable control scheme.
Fans of Total Overdose will feel more than a dose of déjà vu when playing Chili, but it's not a sequel or a remake. The development team decided to make a new game using the characters they'd already created and some of the story, almost as if this game runs in a parallel universe to that of Total Overdose. For the PSP game there was a real focus on what works best on a portable system, so the free-roaming city from Total Overdose is gone (although vehicles still make an appearance), giving way to numerous shorter missions and plenty of bonus challenges. Loco moves are still in though, so expect to unleash all manner of crazy special attacks.
You play as Ram, a guy who loses his father at the start of the game in the most unusual of circumstances: he's harvested into bails of hay. This sets up the revenge storyline, although for the most part the story only really serves as a comical sideline to the constant action. This is a game about shooting stuff and making things explode, and if you like the idea of that you'll probably like Chili Con Carnage. Exploding barrels and the like are often an overused video game cliché, but in Chili they're far more than simple decoration.
As well as moving through each level to progress in the story, Chili features a really impressive high score system, making replaying levels far more worthwhile than in similar games. The core of this high score system is your combo meter and multiplier. The multiplier increases as you take out enemies and works as you'd expect, but the combo meter is what adds that extra something to the gameplay. This meter gradually drains so it's essential that you keep shooting enemies and objects to keep it above zero and your multiplier from resetting.
At first you'll be able to string together combos in the region of 20 or so, but the levels have been designed in such a way to allow Ram to combo throughout. If there's a section without any enemies you'll have to target chickens wandering about in order to add tiny amounts of juice to the meter, or even run straight past guys in order to take them out later on and give yourself a better chance of reaching the next enemy in time. Combo meter time extenders can be picked up as well, but it'll take extreme dedication to build up large combos.
Scoring isn't as simple as shooting enemies either; flair plays a big part in the points you're awarded. By jumping to one side Ram enters a slow-motion dive, double tapping jump enters a reverse dive, jumping off walls makes him perform a Matrix-esque spin, and you can target and shoot enemies all the time you're in slow-motion. These stylish moves earn you more points, as does causing mayhem while wearing a hat dropped by a fallen enemy. It sounds complicated, but it really isn't. The controls have been designed in such a way that you'll suffer none of the usual PSP control issues.
All enemies are targeted by pressing the Right button while all environment objects are targeted by pressing the Left button. You then just have to vaguely aim using the analogue stick (which also moves Ram) and fire using the Square button. The result is a non-stop action game that is hardly ever let down due to awkward controls. Within a few levels you'll be flying through the air, taking down a room full of enemies by simply targeting the explosive crates and barrels, while wearing a Sombrero that you caught a few moments earlier. Your combo meter and multiplier will be sky high, and your point tally will be heading towards a new record.
All this is tracked too. On the level select screen you can view all the top scores for each level, plus lesser stats like hats caught and the time it took you to finish. Different players can then compete for the best scores on a single PSP. It's a small touch, but one that makes a huge deal of difference to the overall replay value. The main story won't take an awfully long time to play through, but then you've got the whole high score system, additional single-player modes and a couple of neat multiplayer games. A take turns score attack mode disguised as hangman is the mode most likely to get repeated play, but a deathmatch mode of sorts is also available if you can find someone else with a copy of the game.
It's technically excellent too. Characters aren't made of too many polygons but there are often loads of them on screen, plus numerous explosions and lighting effects. The frame rate bogs down now and again, but the lock-on control scheme means this is hardly ever a big problem. Music comes from numerous Mexican bands and fits perfectly, the voice acting is often spot on, and load times are some of the best on the system. The music even dynamically changes depending on your current combo, becoming more intense as your multiplier gets higher and higher. In terms of overall polish few PSP games can come close to Chili.
It's not often that I get excited about handheld games, particularly handheld action games, but Chili Con Carnage has completely blown me away and changed my view on what Sony's handheld is capable of. Total Overdose might have gained little in the way of critical acclaim, but Chili Con Carnage deserves to be a big hit. As an action packed shooter it's far and away the best the PSP has to offer, and there's enough depth hidden away to keep you playing for months.