Don't let the Cartoon Network graphics deceive you. Spyborgs, the two-player co-op brawler from Bionic Games, is hard. Bloody hard.
It's odd, actually, having a game look and sound the way Spyborgs does pummel you into oblivion every 20 seconds. It feels a bit like Ben 10 smashing your face in with Pokemon cards.
In reality the game's got more in common with God of War than a Saturday morning cartoon. The cool combo system, with, shock horror, well implemented motion controls, is easy to learn but hard to master. If you're good, and by good we mean Ninja Gaiden good, you'll be able to rack up a ridiculous combo count well into three figures. The pre-release record, from Capcom's combo guru Derek, is 350.
At the beginning of the game, Spyborgs asks you a simple question: choose from four difficulties - Novice, Casual, Core, and Adrenaline. Our egos drowning out rational thought, we picked core, given that the game says that it's "the mode Spyborgs was designed for" and, well, you know, we're well good at games and stuff. Turns out, not so much. What we failed to read was the small print (not actually small print, just underneath). It says: "Blocking and good use of special moves will be required". It's not wrong.
For each of the three playable cybernetically enhanced characters, sexy ninja Clandestine, the ape-like tank Bouncer and the gun-toting, chisel-jawed leader Stringer, the controls and the move lists are the same. B is your light attack, C is your heavy attack, Z blocks and A jumps. You begin with the ability to do the game's only two combos: light, light, light, heavy, which ends with a giant club that sends the enemy spiralling through the air and, hopefully, off of ledges, and heavy, heavy, light, which ends with a launcher that can be followed by air attacks and, if you're good, a heavy pound into the ground.
As you work your way through the game's many stages, however, battering countless Too Human-style robot enemies and smashing what feels like millions of destructible crates along the way, you collect red sparks which can be spent on upgrades. Spend some on moves, and you unlock more advanced, indispensable techniques, including dash attacks and dodges. Clandestine's dash attack is by a country mile the best, simply because it can be cancelled into her weak attack string (see, we told you the combo system is cool).
Spyborgs' hook is the co-op combat. We know this because it's all over the back of the box. By filling your power gauge with orange sparks you can trigger combo finishers. To do it you need to hold block, wait for your character to glow orange, then flick the Wii Remote upwards. This launches the enemy into the air. Then Spyborgs goes all Matrix. The background melts away, revealing a hazy blue environment. Motions are gestured for your character to initiate the first hit - flick the Wii Remote and Nunchuck up, for example. Then it's the second character's turn, finishing off the combo with a downward thrust, perhaps. Normally this is a one hit kill, and perfect for quickly dealing with the game's many strong enemies.
When you're actually playing with another human being, your mate needs to do the second motion, or the first, if he or she's triggered the combo finisher. It's quite good, actually. We found ourselves telling each other when we were going to use our full gauges, and telling each other when to save them. There's tactics in Spyborgs and everything.
The thing is, the game's so bloody difficult it'll have you tearing your hair out. Hollywood developer Bionic Games is obviously a fan of old school Capcom beat-em-up Final Fight, as well as the masochistic likes of Ninja Gaiden, because Spyborgs, at times, is just as hard as both of them.
Why? Because of the sheer number of enemies the game throws at you, that's why. The good news is you can master the combo system to the point where you can just about get by. Just. The game, in this regard, works. But the bad news, the punch yourself in the face throw yourself down a flight of stairs smash your Wii Controller over your skull bad news, is that the checkpoints have been laid out by Satan's very own spawn.
Death after death we can just about tolerate. Hell, some people even like that kind of thing (Mega Man mentalists, we're looking at you), but when you put 20 minutes into soldiering through a stage only to have to do the whole damn thing again RIGHT FROM THE BEGINNING - well, it's enough to turn the hairs on your head grey.
Bar this, Spyborgs isn't a bad effort at all. It looks nice for a Wii game, with some lovely fire effects and some screen-filling bosses; the combo system has some surprising fighting game nuances; and, like we mentioned, the motion controls almost always work (we reckon there are some detection bugs in boss fights). So it's a shame Bionic Games had to go and ruin things with the checkpoint system from hell. It's so frustrating that, halfway through the game, we had to drop the difficulty down to casual. This, we don't mind telling you, didn't sit well with our honed hardcore gamer ego. No sir.
Turns out, Spyborgs is still bloody hard, even on casual, and even with a real person playing with you. We can't even begin to imagine what Adrenaline difficulty, one step up from Core, is like. "Choose this and you will probably die frequently." Sorry, but we were dying frequently. There's even a secret, double hard difficulty that you can unlock. Good luck with that.
Frustrating checkpoints aren't Spyborg's only problem. All three playable characters have the same move list, so while one's weak but fast, one's slow but strong, and one's somewhere in the middle, it's not long before whacking the crap out of the generic enemies gets old. Proper old. Because of this, Spyborgs is in no way the Wii's answer to Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. The combat system simply doesn't have anywhere near the variety required to play in the same league as those two illustrious games.
Oh, and we haven't mentioned Spy Vision yet. This pointless feature allows you to use the remote like a torch, shining it over the screen looking for things to pull into the world with an upwards flick and then, typically, destroy for stuff. Usually it's a crate in among other crates that are actually visible. Sometimes it's a ticking time bomb crate - useful for killing enemies before you get close to them. And every now and then enemies themselves are cloaked and need to be pulled in before they can be attacked. At the end of the day, though, Spy Vision serves little purpose, and shouldn't really have made it into the final game.
Still, if you're a Wii owner you could do far worse. And for some crazies out there, the whole constant death replay entire stages thing will be like vanilla milkshake: aka as good as it gets.