The Red Star PS2 Review

A casualty of Acclaim’s bankruptcy, The Red Star never made it to US shelves for its intended late 2004 release on Xbox and PS2, and the torch was handed to XS games who ensured the title didn’t slip away entirely into the abyss of canned-game obscurity. So first up, it’s important to note that this game is essentially about three years old, and that’s definitely something reflected by the graphical presentation of The Red Star. The design is pretty chunky and simplified, although this simplicity does give the game a distinctly sharp feel, what the character models lack in detail they more than make up for with brilliantly fluid animation.

The Red Star doesn’t need to be beautiful though, because it’s sexy as hell and filled to the brim with exhilarating moments, and not those borne of the inventive set-piece work that many games now rely on. The Red Star, rather than rewarding your skill with a segment of FMV story or unlockable junk to peruse, gives you nothing more than a genuine sense of satisfaction, and it’s all you’ll want for. Mercilessly battering the final enemy in a wave that caused you some serious beef gives you a fantastic sense of retribution, spotting an enemy about to hit your co-op partner and sharply dashing across to save them feels worthwhile, and important. Weaving your way around a shower of bullets on a sliver of health, the frantic few seconds of terror while you wait for your gun coolant to kick in, beating that end of level boss despite the odds being stacked against you; these moments and many more, they all feel nothing short of priceless.

Now, the one player mode is pretty damn fun for sure, but this is a game that comes into its own when playing co-op. Personally I’d bluntly put it that most modern co-op games are absolute rubbish, completely missing the point; A great co-op experience is about sitting down with a friend and struggling. It shouldn’t be about running through a game with ease, it should be about trying ‘one more time’, raising your game. This game isn’t a breeze, many of the levels took us a fair few tries to crack, some of the bosses in particular required us to stop and actually plan tactics in advance to ensure victory, but by god that victory feels good… For those familiar with the title (which is currently available on the Wii VC service, and is well worth picking up) The Red Star is as much fun with two players as Gunstar Heroes, a game that for more than ten years has been undoubtedly my favourite co-op game by miles. I’ll try and keep the gushing to a minimum here, but it’s safe to say that The Red Star is absolutely brilliant.

The game’s art style and ‘story’ are based on an apparently rather good set of graphic novels, although this is as much information you’ll get from me on the matter of plot as by all accounts it’s entirely superfluous; this is a game about shooting stuff and fighting, end of. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that whatsoever, in fact it helps keep the title focused, levels interspersed merely by a shop screen in which to spend your hard earned points on powering up your character before crashing back into the fray with a vengeance. Split neatly into two aspects, the game jumps between fighting off waves of enemies with a deliciously simple but adequately varied combo system, and frantic bullet-dodging boss fights with traditional attack patterns and weak spots. The manner in which the two have been executed and blended however is flawless, the camera angle shifting seamlessly throughout each stage to give every section a unique feel; be it Streets of Rage, Gauntlet, Asteroids, Ikaruga, or Smash TV to name but a few. Personally I’ve never been a fan of bullet dodging shoot-em-ups, but the use of one control system for these two remarkably different styles of play keeps the game feeling fresh, and when later stages of the game require fighting finesse juxtaposed seamlessly with bullet ballet, you feel like you’re on FIRE. The fighting sections in particular, whilst easier to master, are also more essential; the game’s a little tight when it comes to giving you health at times, and that means in the later stages of the game combo perfection becomes a prerequisite, ensuring you lose as little health as possible to improve the odds of beating that seemingly impossible boss. Health is something you’ll have to guard almost religiously too as you’ve got no extra lives to rely on, only the occasional medi-pack to top you up a bit; items which the game hands out in an increasingly frugal manner as you progress through the stages.

It’s this drive for perfection that makes replaying the same levels over and over seem constantly new, performing well on a stage is rewarded by huge amounts of points to spend on upgrades, which are absolutely essential if you want to be able to finish the game – personally I restarted the game twice to play through getting more S ranks, as you’re unable to replay earlier levels to gain more points if you get stuck later on. It’s a harsh mechanic admittedly, and few games can pull it off – but The Red Star manages it beautifully – I’ve already played through the game three times and it still never ceases to be anything less than amazing fun. The characters to choose from are varied, and the choices of weapons for them are also suitably varied; three different guns being unlockable for each. The boss design is some of the best I’ve seen in years, despite lacking any conventional sense of character and being largely mechanical cannons of some description they’re still memorable as hell, each requiring attack pattern memorization or trance-like focus.

The extra content isn’t anything spectacular, Arena mode offering some extra Smash TV-themed overhead blasting action, requiring you to survive an onslaught of more enemies than you can shake a stick at; whilst lacking the variation of the main game the sheer number of enemies it throws at you makes it a suitably frantic challenge, with cheats and extra modes unlockable for those able to persevere and gain an A rank or above.

The Red Star is a three year old game, but still shines ever so brightly despite this – quite frankly I just couldn’t put it down, even after dying on the same boss for the sixth time and storming off for a cup of tea I found it impossible to not go back for just one more go. There’s only one criticism I can make of The Red Star – sometimes the difficulty can be particularly evil, and the realisation that the only way you’re ever going to be able to beat the level you’re stuck on is by starting a new file over entirely is something that might be a real turn off for some. Although personally I found storming through the game again, replacing my early fumbles with S ranks an absolute joy, I’m aware that when breaking it to your co-op partner that it might be an idea to play through the first 14 levels again, they might have a tendency to look at you as if you’ve just pissed on their grandmother. Still, let them play through a few missions alone to get a feel for the game and you’ll soon be locked and loaded for a few days of techno-communist-button-bashing madness.

Sure, there’ll be a lot of people who’ll take one look at this game and write it off as derivative, repetitive, and plain; but they’re idiots. The Red Star is a perfect example about what games should be about: It’s a title that does nothing revolutionary, but the mechanics are so beautifully polished that you’ll be having far too much fun to really give a damn about innovation. Oh, and it’s a budget release title, which means you can pick up a brand-spanking-new copy for fifteen quid, which means you’ve got no excuse. For what it is, what it does, and what it costs – The Red Star is mere inches off perfection.

Dust off your PS2 and hire a friend, you’ll be pushed to have more fun with £15.

9.6 out of 10

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