Ninety-Nine problems

The button masher makes a comeback
By MITCH KRPATA  |  September 11, 2006

NEW GAMEPLAY EXPERIENCE?: Nah, just louder and glossier.

One of the pitfalls of developing for next-gen hardware is the temptation not to bother with new gameplay experiences but simply pump out louder and glossier versions of the same formula. Even so, Microsoft’s N3: Ninety-Nine Nights takes “more of the same” to ridiculous heights — or depths. Button-mashing combat is nothing new, but N3 populates the screen with so many enemies that the battles end up a Tazmanian Devil–like whirlwind of flailing limbs and exaggerated motion blur. You can’t even see your character most of the time. Yet despite the technical wizardry on display, the repetitive gameplay seems like the worst kind of throwback.

Which is not to suggest that N3 lacks ambition. It’s actually several games in one; you play as several different characters, each with a personal story line that dovetails with the others’. In the above-average cinematics, the characters are given complex relationships and motivations. I appreciated that the game bothered to have a point of view about the massive war it depicts among humans, goblins, and various other fantastic species. The slaughter is given a moral dimension — the characters aren’t simply slogging through.

But the player is slogging through. And the nuance of N3’s cutscenes doesn’t carry over into the meat of the game. Much as in Dead Rising, a running kill total is kept in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Given the volume of enemies you face, the tally quickly climbs into the thousands. As the on-screen text congratulates you for reaching each new genocidal milestone, it seems the only thing missing is a virtual Miguel Ferrer saying, “War: it’s fantastic!”

HOT TIP: Orb attacks don’t damage bosses much, but they’re great for clearing out all of a boss’s bodyguards.
The multitude of snarling foes is impressive, particularly when dozens of them come roaring out of the distant fog, or down a cliffside. Add to that a couple squads of your own allies and it makes for a busy environment. Perhaps because you can’t often see your character in all the hubbub, the combat system is simplified to the point where a monkey could probably mash his way through. Each character has a distinct set of moves, but there’s virtually no difference in how to execute them. You simply hit any combination of the X and Y buttons that suits you. There’s no real strategy. Even when fighting a boss, you don’t need to do much more than dash in, take a few swipes, get clear, and repeat.

N3 makes a point of giving you squads to command, but they turn out to be pretty useless. You can order your soldiers to follow you or stay back (they follow by default), and to attack or defend (they attack by default). The game would play no differently without this feature, except that it would be easier to tell where your enemies are. On the other hand, you could play this one with your eyes closed and still not have any trouble hitting something.

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