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Coded Arms: Contagion
Score: 88%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1 - 8
Genre: First Person Shooter/ Action/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
The position one takes for or against this new installment of the Coded Arms franchise on PSP will mostly be informed by the first game, since the list of comparable FPS titles on the system is pretty darn short. Other than WWII games and a smattering of original content, Coded Arms stands out in a small crowd. Coded Arms: Contagion is an improvement in almost every way from the first game's presentation. Some visual upgrades are obvious in cleaner textures, more detailed environments, and some nice lighting effects. The PSP speakers are woefully inadequate for conveying the sound and music in the game, so slip on those headphones immediately. With headphones on, there are some nice sound textures and effects and some decent music; there is a bad tendency for the music to shift dramatically during enemy encounters and then immediately switch off when the last enemy is eliminated. I understand the impulse for this kind of sound design, but it's just goofy. I prefer the school of sound design that goes for more subtle transitions during the battles with minor enemies and saves the big, sweeping change for boss battles or cut scenes. Another weak spot in this category is how sound in the game tracks to location. Enemies materialize with a fade-in lighting effect that is plenty dramatic and a distinctive sound. The problem is that it's difficult to figure out based on the sound where an enemy just appeared. This makes a big difference in areas where enemies will appear right on top of you or behind you at times.

I'm a fan of the way Coded Arms: Contagion looks and was pleased to see there are plenty of new locations to explore. The concept of the game, being at war with virtual enemies in a computerized world, allows for plenty of unrealistic elements. The designers instead chose to create a world that looks futuristic but plausible and seed it with elements that reflect the idea of a simulated environment. When you blow up items, they break down into little grids and bits. Item pickups have what look like file names, complete with suffixes to let you know you just picked up a particular type of ammo or special item. The lighting is especially well done, and creates plenty of atmosphere.

The big win for Coded Arms: Contagion is likely to be its multiplayer. It isn't often that I get a game in hand and find the online lobby jammed with players. Since up to eight people can connect for a fragfest online or through the Coded Arms: Contagion Ad Hoc mode, it wouldn't be unusual to think that it might be challenging to find enough folks to start a game. Too often, we find that the online features in games aren't being used... So it was a pleasant surprise to see multiplayer action alive and well for Coded Arms: Contagion. The game variations are simple enough and range from traditional Deathmatch to Team Deathmatch and Last Man Standing. Unlike the first two where you respawn and try to rack up a high number of kills, Last Man Standing enforces a kill and only crowns a victor when all but one player-character has been killed. The thrust of these multiplayer modes seems to be toward competing but it would have been interesting to see some co-op action or a more creative mode that stressed some of the exploration that makes its way into the single-player game.

Playing through Coded Arms: Contagion alone is the work of a long weekend depending on how you like your difficulty setting. The hardest setting will keep you perpetually occupied with some very capable enemies and unforgiving A.I., but the lowest setting is fine for one-and-all. Coded Arms: Contagion isn't FPS-lite by any stretch of the imagination. The parallels to something like Half Life aren't crazy since there is also alien action and some attempt at a story in both games. The story here is that the A.I.D.A. network is back up and running. You've been selected to join a team of soldiers that will enter and assess the state of things before the all-clear signal is sent. The training that we typically find in a game is incorporated into the first few levels of Coded Arms: Contagion, but the training that your soldier character is part of starts to go sideways. Once things get hairy in A.I.D.A. again, it will fall on your shoulders to find a way to clean the network or shut it down permanently. This assumes you don't end up shut down permanently. Missions are short and straightforward. There isn't much sense of exploration and almost nothing in the puzzle department apart from matching some numbers to "hack" doors and security systems. The strategy involved in upgrading parts of your avatar in Coded Arms: Contagion is basic at best. Weapons are easy enough to come by and points for upgrades are even easier to earn. An arbitrary "level" system constrains you from perpetually upgrading one feature of a weapon or armor. This is most likely a pacing idea, but why artificially limit the player? Unlike FPS titles - I'm thinking of Deus Ex - that truly use upgrades strategically, Coded Arms: Contagion mostly uses upgrades to keep your character in the game and give you a semblance of control over your future actions.

As you play the main game, you'll learn a lot about the world of Coded Arms: Contagion, but just in case you didn't get enough, you'll find some extras that include a theater for the in-game cinemas and a gallery of concept art.

Some of the foibles in this category were mentioned before, but the biggest gripe that any newcomer will have is the control scheme. Having two analog sticks was the most incredible advantage in FPS titles from the PlayStation days. Moving with one stick and looking/aiming with the other is where it's at... The kludge that is used to make the PSP act like a FPS controller is actually quite flexible and forgiving. If you don't find one scheme fits your style, you can change it by pausing play momentarily. You'll need all the control you can get in later parts of the game as enemies become more challenging. Ammo is plentiful for the most part, but health is not the most available commodity. Learning this early in the game keeps you aware of how important it is not to walk in front of any bullets or monsters. Both will put a dent in your health. The A.I. is good but not great; making noise or shooting a guard will bring others in the area running and messing up an attempted hack for a door or weapon will also alert guards to your presence. The most challenging aspect of Coded Arms: Contagion is the control scheme, by far.

Game Mechanics:
Lucky for us humans that Konami in all its wisdom saw fit to include several control schemes in Coded Arms: Contagion. There are control schemes for almost every conceivable scenario except the one where I want to assign my own buttons. This would save lots of pain and suffering. I chose the scheme with movement control on the buttons and looking/aiming on the analog stick. Aiming with small adjustments is a benefit and since shooting is tied to the right shoulder button in my scheme, I'm doing work on opposite sides. The choices for controls were smart, but the truth is that you'll learn to play a two-part Bach invention as quickly as you'll master the control scheme for Coded Arms: Contagion. Veteran FPS fans will catch on and find ways to implement all their favorite tricks, which grants them an advantage in multiplayer. Getting used to the controls won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it's necessary to success. Sensitivity on all movement (X- and Y-Axis) can be adjusted to how you like your shooting games to control. There are other tweaks such as the inverted camera that core gamers generally prefer and lock-on settings that make battling with single opponents easier. There are not too many things to do in the game, but an appropriate amount of management that you'll have to employ for your character. As the character develops, you'll have the option to cash in hard-earned points and upgrade weapons or armor. This helps to dispatch new enemies more quickly, but the game seems weighted so that you never have an extreme advantage until you return to a previous level for a better time or just to explore and find new items.

The items you'll find reflect the theme of the game, and everything feels like a fancy veneer over a completely computer-generated landscape. Ironic that a computer-generated landscape is exactly what Coded Arms: Contagion represents. Self-referential, or just coincidence? All that really matters is that Coded Arms: Contagion comes across as a credible title with some entertainment value. The controls don't get in the way and the story isn't so weak that it will seem annoying. Plot development comes in drips and drags but eventually comes, and you'll find the world of Coded Arms: Contagion appropriately spooky and full of surprises. It would have been a marked improvement to include more free-roaming gameplay to make this less linear. Carrying on a Deathmatch mode with seven other friends may be enough reason for many gamers to pick up a copy of this title and if multiplayer isn't your thing, you will still enjoy returning to A.I.D.A. again for some strange and deadly encounters.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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