Let's be clear here, No More Heroes was pretty much my number one reason to buy a Wii, based largely on the preview piece in EDGE magazine. This after playing Suda 51's previous effort, Killer7, and returning it within days for being weird to the point of discomfort (though now I want to give it another chance). I agonised over it's fortnight delay in the UK, but I think it's fair to say my excitement was vindicated in the end.
The game is stylish whilst so much of the industry aims for the uniformity of realism, and has a good control scheme that takes advantage of the remote and nunchuk without having the player jerking the remote furiously to defeat their every foe, or putting their damn elbow out the way Red Steel did. The basic controls are all handled largely with the buttons and stick, saving those big, satisfying swings of the remote for the big, satisfying kills, making you feel more involved with the stuff you actually play for. The main character designs are fantastic, combined with the rich cell-shading that shades shadow in almost complete blackness, giving a very distinct look, whilst arcade-retro style icons in bright primary colours appear around the game world, which besides looking cool probably makes some point about gamer mentality many of us missed.
But it is not a game without flaws, indeed, I don't think it's possible for most people to play the game in it's entirety to at least pick up on some of the more obvious, niggling problems.
Welcome to Santa Destroy
It's hard for me to pinpoint what the problem is with NMH's open world, Travis's home town of Santa Destroy, as compared to dedicated open world games like GTA, or others that use one as a setting and hub for a linear story mode like Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. I found, and I think others agreed, that the place is a bit sparse and bland, that moving through it is not terribly enjoyable and that one would rather just be at their destination right away. Aesthetically there isn't really much wrong, though it's not exactly a vibrant place, though I don't think it's meant to be. There just doesn't seem to be much to do in it, unless you have a specific task to do there you will likely just be out to find one. If you are not looking for the collectable items or the trivial amounts of cash that can be found out there, you are probably doing temp jobs to earn ranked battles or moving between said battles, or making the one trip you will likely make between each battle to each of the three or so shops you can visit. Their isn't much fun to be had just driving around as this is pretty well a world without consequence, hitting pedestrians doesn't even slow you down, much less call down the wrath of the Fuzz, and Travis won't be knocked from his ride even if he hits a car. The only time Travis is likely to fall off the bike is on hitting a wall, which probably only happens with any regularity when a botched hand-break turn puts you there.
Which brings us to the bike itself. In short, it just isn't much fun to ride, not especially fast and even slower if you have to slow down for every turn of more than a handful of degrees because attempting to get the twist motion on the remote for the afore-mentioned hand-breaks throws you into the afore mentioned walls. For some reason the game seems to have difficulty picking up which way you twisted the remote, so most of the time it just defaults to sending you right, forcing you to make sharp lefts by doughnutting 270 degrees.(Fact for the day: apparently “doughnutting” is a dictionary-recognised word) The fact that you will be called on once to use the bike to jump over barriers and once in a high-speed chase makes the rest of the time spent on it feel a bit more disappointing. It would also help if it didn't seem to get stuck in the terrain so frequently.
Get Sabre, Ignite Sabre, Kill.
The basic gameplay style of NMH, fighting hordes of near-useless grunts, punctuated by longer fights with more powerful and individual opponents, is one that is tried and true, and whilst in many areas NMH excels at it, through the compelling boss characters and the control method, it will become clear to most a few levels into the game that the regular enemies, though they may dress in suits, military uniform or street thugs, are essentially exactly the same, even with apparently differing weapons. You will find no real difference fighting people with fire axes compared to knuckledusters, no change in speed, their reach or, apparently, the damage they deal. Their AI is nothing spectacular either, for the most part you get close enough to them that they run at them, you swing at them until you take all their health or land a motion-driven quick-kill. There is a tutorial at the beginning of the game indicating that enemies can block low or high, which is what makes the ability to set your attacks to land high or low by tilting the remote useful, but the reality is they rarely block at all. Given the numbers of enemies you tend to encounter, I think a little more sense of self-preservation is warranted, having grunts flee from you on getting weakened or seeming many of their fellows taken down, or simply cowering behind that underused block function.
In fairness perhaps I am going a bit harsh on the variety of enemies since there are some which have guns, who fight quite differently, and actually do run from you to keep their distance, and this makes them bloody annoying since you can only catch up when they stop to shoot you again. There are also occasional grunts armed with beam-katanas like Travis's who are rather more dangerous, having the odd unblockable (but easily dodgeable) attack and I think they actually do block now and then. These guys do, however, look identical to all their mates. For some visual variety if nothing else, I would have liked the lumbering lunks that are slow and powerful, and the nippy blighters that are fragile but hard to hit., though the more I think about it the less I am bothered, I half expect that Suda 51 wanted the large majority of the games enemies to be essentially identical to make a point how gamers do not mind repetition too much, so long as something unique (mostly the bosses) break it up.
One of the best things about NMH is what is for the most part an excellent and well-thought-out use of the remote and nunchuk as an input device, and good controls in general that make the player feel involved in the action, from having them manually trigger the katana ignition at the opening of each stage to the motions for the big final strokes that will kill the handful of enemies ahead of Travis, and the series of motions required to perform the the wrestling moves. This does, however, make all the more apparent the few times when the controls are lacking. I have already mentioned the games only use of the twist motion on the bike seemingly not being able to detect turns to the left properly, but there is also, more frustratingly to me, a similar problem when playing the 'baseball' minigame. Travis is called upon, I believe two or three times in the main game and for at least two assassination side missions, call for the player to swing the remote like a baseball bat to strike a ball back at a line of enemies. Since most players of NMH will likely have played the Wii Sports packaged with their Wii, they will probably not find this too threatening. They will also probably share my irritation when them make their first swing and Travis doesn't move. If they are lucky, they will get Travis to swing once out of their three attempts, which will be grossly mistimed since the viewpoint we are given seems to make it difficult to judge this. The times this happens in the lead-up to a ranked battle this is merely a nuisance, you just get to kill them the usual way and probably loose a bonus. For the side-missions, however, after 3 tries the mission ends, and if you want another go you have to cross town to the agency, select the mission again and return to the stadium. This highlights the lack of “restart mission” option for these sorts of mission.
One of my favourite parts of NMH, that made me exclaim out loud to no-one in particular to be “sweet”, is getting a result on the slot machine after a kill giving me a temporary power up that essentially renders me invincible and lets me kill enemies in particularly brutal fashion through context actions. Travis only moves at a walk, makes sinister taunts when an incorrect button input is entered and there is a cool shader effect and ambient sound effect as Travis kills. Less good is when you get a power-up that is neither useful or fun, and worse still when you get one just after you cleared the room already and it stops you even opening the prize boxes that are left. More curious still is that a “Triple 7” outcome gives you a sort of smart-bomb attack, one that can be stored for later use, indeed a lucky player can store up to three of them. And I mean really lucky since this is the rarest outcome in my experience, having got it exactly once in one-and-a-half play-throughs. Seems to me that a better solution would be for players to be able to win a shot at the fruit-machine which they can use when they wish, giving a chance at one of these “Dark Side Modes” and letting players determine when it will be useful. That said, the projectile one is fiddly to aim and not very effective, I would tweek it so that it damages enemies in an arc or cone area ahead of Travis, so the player doesn't need to fine-position the cursor and can take out closely positioned grunts in one go. This also might not feel like quite such a wasted mechanic if it were available outside of the levels leading to ranked battles.
The bosses, or “Ranked Assassins” are the high-points of the game, after all, Travis's objective to to kill them and become “Number One”, everything else Travis does is to let him do that. And they are indeed pretty damn great, having cool designs brimming with character and distinct style of fighting and gimmicks. One of the few things they have in common with each other is also one of the most annoying things about them, that you can't interrupt their attacks, as you might expect you are supposed to, by belting them with your beam katana, which only results in a rather odd metallic sound. I can't help that think, especially since Travis calls the assassins his “own kind” that they should behave a bit more like him, guarding and dodging attacks in order to preserve their already plentiful health bars. Strikes me as a bit of “Fake difficulty”
, that instead we should have opponents that fight smarter, looking for and creating openings for their big moves. I think this would make beating them even more satisfying, rather than just a matter of surviving long enough to do enough damage, with the player likewise forced to find or make an opening by teasing an attack to dodge and capitalise on.
Continuing of the theme of satisfaction from the defeat of the bosses, it seems a bit anticlimactic that the player's last action against a boss will almost always be a regular attack, causing them to collapse and be killed in the pre-made cutscene with no input from the player. Even grunts are, for the most part, taken down with Kill-mode swings or wrestling move commands. What I propose is that the player drives the final exchange of blows through motion actions. Yes, I am essentially advocating a Quick Time Event, sorry, but they would be quick time events where you carve up some psychopath in a garish costume. Wouldn't even need to be that different from the non-interactive cutscenes that were in the game, just add a slice to bisect Destroyman or decapitate Death Metal, a jab to run Bad Girl through, maybe even carry over the existing grapple command to execute a Northern Lights Suplex on Shinobu., with failure resulting in either death or damage (for example from Destroyman's nipple guns) One of the cool things about the controls of the game is the feeling of satisfaction as you cut the redshirts in half, shouldn't that be carried over, even expanded upon for the bosses?
Presentation (or Azrael realises he can't think of an even slightly amusing heading for this bit)
The presentation of the game is superb, but good as the quirky, heavily pixilated graphics are, you will likely find they can actually get in the way, especially if you are willing to take the time in the open world to find all the hidden items. The Lovicov ball items, exchanged for advanced attacks and abilities, are represented as orange dots, with spots where you can dig for near-pointless quantities of cash (and I have just learned, collectable cards) being marked with slightly different orange dots. Worse, the mini-map, in keeping with the simplistic style of the HUD, doesn't rotate smoothly with the player's perspective, which can cause confusion when seeking such items.
Through it's unique and quirky style, the game makes good use of what power the Wii has, though at the same time we can see the failings of either the console or the game in the graphical department, mostly in the open world again. There are pop-up issues with things like trees and lampposts, which have to be very close to the player to appear, and the draw distance is not especially good. I can not say if it is even possible to fix this. However, some objects, including pedestrians, will disappear sometimes in the first-person look mode.
The music and sound is pretty great throughout, my only problem is the one J-pop song that seems to play in all the shops. Again, a bit of variety might have been nice.
No more heroes anymore?
I actually feel a little guilty complaining about things like lack of variety and a sometimes bland game world, since given the points made in Cowzilla3's excellent post on the matter
maybe this is the exact way Suda wanted it to be. Certainly it didn't stop me playing, and I didn't get so bored that I put it down for any great length of time before completing it, and maybe that proves his point. Maybe if I had my way the game would become overcomplicated and loose some of it's charm. In spite of the games flaws, Suda should be applauded for making a game that has a simple, undemanding joy to it, and which utilises the hardware as well as I have seen so far. He made a gamble by putting a game aimed at an older audience on the kid and casual gamer-centric Wii in order to implement the style of gameplay he wanted, where it may just have been “That one by the chap who did Killer7” on another console. Hopefully it will pay off, since his is an attitude that should be encouraged, if not by Japan, then at least by the western markets.
The only way I can think to sign off here is to thank Suda, Grasshopper and anyone who made this game possible, it shows that whilst games are not obliged to be art, they certainly can be, and for all the flaws I have tried to highlight here, I love the game dearly, it has validated my decision to buy a Wii. Hopefully the game will lead the way for things like Platinum's MadWorld, and show the right people that the market wants a No More Heroes 2, and maybe even Suda and Kojima's collaboration on the new Snatcher project will bear fruit for the Wii.
PS: I actually made a few more sketches that were simply unfit for human consumption. Have not been drawing for a while, so hopefully I will either improve or just drop the idea entirely. Hopefully I will also be able to work out how to make Gimp less of a pain to use and output half-decent quality jpegs. read