First-person action gaming can at times appear rather stale and uninspiring. It seems that we, the players, are often made slaves to the genre staples established by games that were seen as being revolutionary over a decade ago. A great many titles released these days differ little from the norm in terms of theme, colour or expression and there seems to be a fear prevalent amongst many developers of enriching gamers' imaginations or exceeding expectations - a fear of scaring people off perhaps.
Of course, this is good enough if you want to guarantee a quick buck, but the end result is this: You could point most PC gamers in the direction of the latest shooter and they would know - without blinking - exactly how to deal with the nazis, terrorists or aliens that are inevitably going to attack in their hundreds. And those types of enemies, well, they all really equate to the same thing don't they?
So where is the sense of surprise or the excitement of exploration? Where is the continued thrill when it's always just you against identical evils with a gun?
And whilst we're on the subject of guns, anyone who has played a few action titles will already know what to expect. We've become amateur weapons experts. Yes, it's a very basic familiarity, but these sorts of items form a safety net within these virtual shooting galleries along with warehouses, crates, exploding barrels and the colour brown. How on earth would we cope without these genre standards?
It takes only a few minutes of play to realise that Zeno Clash is from a different galaxy to ours. Its feet are firmly on the ground, but its head is way, way up in outer space, scouting around for whatever weird shit it can find and pull into existence. And that's the first point of interest. Almost everything is alien here - not in the sense of spacesuits and laser rifles, but simply... unusual. The landscape, the flora and fauna, the weaponry and the characters are all captivatingly bizarre. It's a jumbled freakshow of a game where anything you see can be simultaneously beautiful and repulsive and rarely standard fare.
Zeno Clash is very much it's own creature, but the laziest way to describe the game's aesthetics would be to label it as cave-punk. It's a stupid term - I'm well aware - but it's inhabitants are often wild in nature, neanderthal and unkempt. The clothing they wear is striking and organic. Bones and animal parts adorn masks and helmets to make the whole world appear as if conjured by a voodoo priest on an acid high. It's so fantastically insane that even if the gameplay were appalling, the eye-candy alone would probably be enough to keep you pushing onwards until the end.
You play the part of Ghat, a human being and son of Father-Mother, a ten-foot tall crow-beast with a giant chip on its shoulder. The game begins with the death of this hermaphroditic monster and after a brief and amusing tutorial on the basics of combat you find yourself on the run from your kin, a motley crew of birdmen, ogreish humanoids and giant rats (to name but a few). The ensuing story is told through a series of intermittent, playable flashbacks as you explain your past to your female companion, Deadra, who bucks the gaming trend by not being at all irritating.
The storytelling is schizophrenic in nature, but the back and forth of the plot suits the style of the game. It's a decent tale and one that's tightly written and compelling enough without requiring any drawn-out expositions to explain what the hell is going on amongst the madness of the game world. The voice acting is also remarkably well-done considering the size of the team involved and whether the often absurd dialogue is down to poor translation or not, it only seems to add to the charm of the game.
The only sticking point for me is a significant lack of characterisation, especially in the case of Deadra, who says little of worth and explains even less about why she's actually following you and helping you out. I can only assume that this will be resolved in the next game, to which there is a feverish nod at the end of this one. So, to all you cliffhanger-haters out there: you may want to prepare yourself for the worst.
As you'll know if you've seen any of the preview videos, the gameplay is strongly focused around the combat system. A good old fashioned fist-to-the-face isn't something you often see done well in first-person games. It's a mechanic that's difficult to perfect, to recreate the brutal satisfaction of hand-to-hand fighting. Chronicles of Riddick is the closest comparison I can draw to what you'll see here, although that game seemed more geared towards portraying the violence of such confrontations than creating completely workable methods of attack and defence.
Zeno Clash handles it admirably. It's a solid enough system that allows you to lock on to an opponent, left-clicking for a sequence of blows and right-clicking for a more hefty thump. This simple control basis eventually opens up a variety of fighting techniques, allowing you to block or peform counter-attacks and once you've pummelled someone enough to stun them you can either elbow-drop them or launch them across the floor in the hope they'll take another down with them. The visual and audio feedback from each successful hit is fantastic, to such an extent that I often caught myself reeling backwards like a fool whilst winding up a powerful right-hook.
On the whole, the combat is well implemented and if you take the time to learn the moves and if your reactions are reasonably quick, you'll soon feel like a champion fighter. However, there's a strong chance at times that you'll find yourself battling the controls when facing multiple foes. The problems come infrequently, but are frustrating enough to mention. Targeting inconsistencies and the fact that the same key is assigned to locking on and picking up health or weapons sometimes means you'll lose tricky brawls because the controls got the better of you.
As a side note, for those players who do become adept at brutalising their opponents there is a seperate challenge mode that requires you to confront several tiers of increasingly tricky enemies. It's a nice addition and increases longevity of play with online scoreboards through which you can compete with your Steam friends for top spot. It's an unexpected addition and a great way to keep enjoying the game without having to retread the entire story.
During the main game, when you're not using your fists to hurt others you'll most likely be shooting things at them. Weapons appear periodically and if you can spare the time to pick one up and fire it before some oaf knocks it from your hands then it's useful for keeping enemies at bay. Ammo is thankfully unlimited, but the clip sizes are small and timing your reloading is crucial to keeping yourself standing up.
I have to say that the weapon models and animations are incredible. Technically they handle no differently from standard FPS pistols or rifles, but once you've hunted down a giant rabbit with a couple of fish guns in your hands you'll begin to wonder at what period in the history of gaming did most of the creativity, insanity and pure joy of playing get thrown out of the window.
Zeno Clash brings it all back with formidable style.
And style is where the true appeal of the game firmly rests. What many people may realise whilst playing the game is that the diversity of the visuals is not quite matched by the variety of play. With all the surface material stripped away it could appear to be, in part, a regular corridor shooter. The bare-knuckle and melee action is brilliantly implemented, but there is an awful lot of it, especially towards the end of the game when you'll be pelted with bosses or three or four nasties at once, several times in a row.
In this case the motivation to continue isn't only for personal pride and completion, but the prospect of exploring more of the world. With the environment shifting so much from level to level, it's a tour de force of artistic design, of locational beauty and wonder. For me to give away too many details of what scenes you're likely to explore would be detrimental to those moments of sheer awe that you'll encounter after turning a corner and being confronted by something magnificent, so I won't.
Zeno Clash, however, is not a simple case of style over substance. In fact, most of the game exposes its style in such a way that it becomes part of the substance. In much the same way that the Half-Life series deviates the player's attention from its limited walls, Zeno Clash uses corridor shooting to its advantage, opening it up with fantastical set-pieces and a creativity of design that puts most developers to shame.
Ultimately, Zeno Clash is something that I would encourage every action gamer to try, even if it does lead you to find every subsequent game you play to be somewhat lacking in imagination.
VERDICT: Barking mad and, in turn, an insanely enjoyable experience.
Zeno Clash is created by Chilean developers, ACE Team. It was released today and is available to download from Steam and Direct2Drive.