Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex review
Worth Shelling Out For


Video game tie-ins are nothing new and somewhat well know (even if such notoriety seems mostly from the stigmas of tie-in equalling a crap product). Anime itself gets tons of tie-ins too, but the difference is that Western markets normally don't ever see them outside of a select few. Aside from it taking time for such things to even reach us it seems that anime itself just isn't mainstream enough to risk such a venture. The past generation has seen a slight welcome change in this approach, as more of the big animes have gained related video games that somehow make it outside of Japan. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is one such instance of the game reaching our shores, and not only does it buck that particular trend but it also manages to be a pretty good game as well.

GitS:SAC is a third person shooter that puts you in the role of Section 9 operatives in what is basically a sequence of events that runs independent of the actual anime, which is nice as then it is not restricted by those events. The story initially picks up on a supposed weapons smuggling deal, but when their suspects keep turning up dead things take an unusual twist involving micro-machine rice and idealistic terrorists. The plot twists are somewhat predictable but there is a deepness to the story that hooks the gamer.

The delivery is a combination of CGI sequences at the beginning and end of missions that set the scene and fill in details, plus cybercom discussions that crop up throughout each mission. The cybercom aspect helps to match up with the source material quite well. You often also get amusing banter between the team members, like Ishikawa offering to record the results of Batou's training when he finds himself in the middle of an enemy's training grounds. These don't inform the gamer of any significant story details but they help to flesh out the team overall.

That said there are a few issues here. Some team members are practically non-existant for a start. The likes of Paz, Borma and Saito appear occasionally on the cybercoms but in total their communications are too minimal and insubstantial to have any real meaning. Also the way the story unfolds can be a little hard to follow for people who are not used to the way the anime works. It matches the setup but it's not all that clear to newcomers first time around.

The graphics are simply great. Character models for the various characters have been rendered well, with a sufficient level of detail gone into them. Alas we don't actually see 3D models for Section 9 outside of Motoko, Batou and a tachikoma, but these three really do look great. Enemy forces also have a lot going for them visually, and while they do give off a worrying sense of deja vu with their attack of the clones recreation they do look good. Animation itself seems pretty smooth and natural, going from the standard run, gun and jump to the more complex moves like wall jumping and evasive flips.

Effects for the most part are good. You have some of the more usual things like the flashes of gunfire, explosions (what good is an action game with explosions?) and sparks of bullets striking metal. GitS throws a few extras in too, like the themoptic camouflage that renders your character mostly invisible, spark waves from special grenades or the hacking visuals. Bullet time (where the action slows down and rotates the view for dramatic effect) is somewhat overused and a slight hindrance at times. Aside from it kicking it everytime you do a good combo attack the camera swivelling around can be rather disorientating. There is also some popup in the game, and while it only something you'll see when sniping it does make taking out distant targets a pain since you have to shoot what you can't see (oddly this only affects character models as there is no noticable popup with level objects).

The music suits the cyberpunk setting quite well, with a certain techno vibe working well with the futuristic Japan. It's not quite as memorable as the anime soundtrack (so don't expect anything along the lines of Run Rabbit Junk) and the lack of a decent opening song is a real shame but it does a pretty good job of providing some background music to compliment the action. Your collection of sound effects match up well, like the crackling of electricity or the thunder of automatic weapons unloading on the poor enemy bodies.

The game is fully voice-acted, and there is a lot of it too. Not just restricted to the CGI sequences, you get the full voices over cybercom and in some monologues during the missions. Even the enemy will yell out a few phrases when engaging you in combat. The final battle builds up the moment with an exchange between the Major and the boss relating the goals that were set. The devs even went so far as to use the actual voice actors from the anime (aside from the tachikoma and the unique characters) so there is definitely a sense of authenticity when colleagues make jokes between themselves.

When Motoko heard about it she just flipped.

The single player campaign gives you control of two main characters, in the form of Motoko and Batou (well, technically there's a third, but I'll get to that later). Control alternates between these two as you progress through the levels, and there are some differences between the two. Motoko as the nimble fighter as impressive evasive flips and can wall jump up to high ledges. Batou is more of a tank than his female ally and can make use of more powerful weapons.

The controls can be a little tricky at first though. Movement and aiming is handled by the twin analogue sticks and they work just great. Switching weapons is handled by triangle (primary) and square (secondary), although since you don't carry a lot of weapons at any given time the system works fine. Circle reloads and X is basically the action button. No, the strange part is the default settings for the shoulder buttons. Most shooters assign the fire command to the right side, so GitS feels weird having it on the left shoulder buttons. Jumping using the right shoulder also seems a little strange when I'm more used to using a face button. There is a degree of customising allowed for the setup, but really the defaults just take a little getting used to.

Both characters start with the seburo machine gun and sometimes some secondary weapons like knives (Motoko only) and grenades. By progressing through the levels you can claim extra weapons for both primary and secondary either by finding them or lifting them off the corpses of enemies you just cut down in a hailstorm of bullets. You're limited to 2 primary weapons at a time though, so it you want that tasty grenade launcher but your two slots are full then you can to toss one to get the new weapon. Secondary weapons don't seem to have a limit, but there's only four possible ones to obtain anyway. This limit really makes you consider your approach to the dangers. Do you grab the grenade launcher for the extra damage output, or is ammo enough of a concern that you'd want to hang onto the shotgun?

The weapon selection is good but with some bad apples. The automatics, spark grenades and shotgun are all great, and to be honest the automatics are usually the best ones to rain death upon the enemy anyway. The rifle has some uses in sniping some distant targets for instant kills when popup isn't hiding them but you don't get the rifle for much and zooming is a bit fiddly, since you only get two static zoom levels instead of freely adjusting by degrees. Explosive weapons lack the impact one would expect from such weapons. The blast radius seems fairly small, so a slight miss and your target may well be unaffected. Motoko's knives are the ultimate in useless. Instant kill if you hit, but she seems to have trouble actually hitting the target even at point blank range. Perhaps movement hinders her aiming there, but I don't feel like standing there trying to plant a blade in a guy's skull while he empties the contents of his assault rifle into me. You also have the option for charging in with melee attacks, which looks cool and saves on ammo but obviously impractical for groups or bad guys on ledges above you.

Not that it matters greatly, because the enemy AI is rather inconsistent. At some points I will be hiding in cover only to have enemy forces try to flank me from both sides. I've seen snipers trying to take me down from on high, soldiers moving about a lot to avoid taking hot lead to the face and others using cover to avoid my attacks. Then we have the dumbness factor, like sometimes an enemy will be completely oblivious to your presence despite engaging his pals in a fierce firefight just round the corner. At some points I walked right into guards and it took them several seconds to actually react. Clearly the enemy forces have some intelligence, so I can't fathom why at other times it appears that they had left their brains at home.

That doesn't mean things will be easy. Past the early stages and you'll have some challenging combat on your hands. Mobs of enemies will patrol areas and take you on. Snipers will instant kill you if you give them the time to line a shot up, forcing you to find cover and seek a chance to take them out. You'll even walk into ambushes or face off against more heavily armed bad guys like armed suits and think tanks.

There are some items to grab in addition to weapons. Optic camouflage hides you from sight, although it isn't used that often and feels more like a novelty than anything. Stun equipment increases your melee power by stunning enemies with attacks. The game also seems quite generous with health. As well as regenerating health automatically in some way there are a lot of health packs scattered around and sometimes even body armour for an extra layer of protection.

The levels present a fairly linear path in terms of where you have to go, but at the same time there is generally a choice in how to tackle certain problems. Faced with a mob of enemies? Do you chuck in a grenade, use cover to rip them apart with automatic fire or even hack one of their buddies and have him do the dirty work? This freedom gives GitS room to breathe and helps the gameplay to flow well.

The structure also keeps things interesting. Levels tend to extend in all directions, and the first level is a great example. What starts off as a simple run to the gate (dealing with the sleeping guards however you see fit) proceeds to leaping up and over containers and then activating a crane to act as a moving platform to reach the next section. Include some wall jumping exercises in a warehouse with rather questionable architectural designs, make daring leaps across the bridges high enough to kill even a cyborg should you slip and end up in a large container area with snipers above and patrols all around.

Oh wow, that's... some view. Don't slip now.

Jumping is handled fairly well. Thankfully the player has a degree of control in the air, and characters are generally springy enough. The level design also accounts for all this, as you will at times be required to leap about and grab onto ledges. One level involves grabbing ledges and shimmying across to the next solid platform, while slowly descending down to the lower areas to avoid a shell crushing landing. The game handily displays a red icon on your targetting cursor when you aim at an area that would kill you if you fell down to it, so there are no real leaps of faith since you can scope out the landing beforehand.

So far so good. GitS does also try to extend beyond the norms of the genre with a few tricks of its own, but these aren't quite as successful. First is the tachikoma, which is basically Section 9's think tank. At one point you are given control of it and can run riot around a spacious arena unleashing your chain and grenade guns at the targets to your heart's content. The issue is that is it. One level, and a fairly short one at that. A real shame because controlling the tachikoma was a lot of fun so I wish this was expanded on further. Well, there's always using it in multiplayer if you want, after unlocking it first though.

Then there is hacking, and this is twofold. Kill an enemy commander and you can grab vital information off him. In all cases this causes all enemies under that commander to have floating triangles above them, marking their positions even when objects otherwise block your view, which is very handy for planning attacks. The other side isn't quite so useful. Anyone with a blue triangle marker can be hacked. You begin a hack by lining up the sights and pressing X. You will then be taken to a screen where two circles with various bumps and gaps rotate in opposite directions, with the idea being to press X when these segments are lined up. There can be between 1 and 3 levels to breach and the time limit is always 20 seconds, with time lost for incorrect presses. The results are awesome, as you can use hacked enemies to kill their friends and even suggest suicide to them, but the process is too irritating to bother with and it's not used all that much anyway. The circles move faster as the level increases, to the point where level 3 results in button mashing because you can't possibly keep up with the speed of the spinning. Often it's faster and easier to just charge in all guns blazing.

The single player campaign is also a little short, so the experience ends before you're ready. You can go back and play any level you've already visited, multiple difficulties can entice the more hardened gamers (though with change being limited to damage taken and inflicted it's not that different) and some unlockables like choosing a starting weapon and unlimited ammo, so these things can tack on some lifespan.

He's a gentle guy when he's not blowing stuff up.

Once that experience wear thin there is always the multiplayer. Up to four players can duke it out in deathmatch games. For some reason it is actually necessary to unlock the major players Motoko, Batou and the tachikoma by playing the single player, and the other Section 9 members don't exist as options at all. Strange, because I honestly don't see the appeal of playing as random enemy grunt type A, whereas a full gunfight between Section 9 members would be of far greater interest. Oh well, missed opportunity, moving on.

In essence the multiplayer mode is a decent distraction but rather limiting. Combat is fun, especially when you get the chance to take on your friends in splitscreen mayhem, and the level design lends itself pretty well to the experience. Taking character types like the think tank, armed suit and guard robot certainly offer up some curious experiences. However, there are few game modes on offer, and really all this (aside from taking the more robotic characters around) has been done better by other shooters.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is a good shooter and a great compliment to the anime. Generally it's probably the fans that will derive the full experience from this, but it's a competent shooter regardless with some key moments but with a few shortcomings that prevent it from reaching the pinnacle of greatness. Worth a try at least.

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