Gatling Gears’ PlayStation Network debut had an interesting path to fruition. Released to Xbox Live Arcade nearly two months ago to generally positive reviews (read Nathan Steven's take), Gatling Gears was due to arrive on PSN shortly thereafter. Due to Sony's unfortunate global meltdown it was shelved indefinitely. Now it’s finally available for PlayStation 3 owners, and, surprise, for five dollars less than its Live Arcade counterpart.
Gatling Gears is a top-down twin stick shooter set in the steam-punkish world of Mistbound. Those who played Vanguard's (then W!Games) previous title, Greed Corp, might recognize the name, as both games are ostensibly set in the same world. The overarching theme is one of rampant deforestation and general genocide toward Mother Nature at the hands of an ultra-militarized megacorperation. Most, if not all, of the environments feature giant mechs ripping trees out of the ground or other military machines laying waste to serenity. Gatling Gears is a lighthearted affair and not intended to be deathly serious, but its carefree spirit actually enhances its premise. Rural Mistbound is bright, beautiful and almost cartoony, and putting a stop to the sadistic machines hell bent on mucking up the place is oddly endearing.
Mechanically speaking, Gatling Gears is fairly routine. Your Gatling Gear (read: mech) is outfitted with what you'd expect from a twin-stick shooter. The right stick is an infinite source of light machine gun fire with dismal range. Area-of-effect grenades and powerful canon are bound to buttons, each of which slowly recharges to full capacity. A last-ditch attack, which can only be used once per level, is the usual screen filling nuke lighting assault. Power ups are aplenty, with each weapon getting a huge temporary boost via a pickup, or a smaller permanent upgrade through a shop at the beginning of each level.
The campaign is broken into six chapters, each with four levels and a boss level. Level variety is uniformly linear in terms of both your path and your task; go along the trail and kill everything in your way. Early on it's fairly mindless, with enemies ranging from small and deadly foot soldiers (with huge missile launchers) to little tanks and tiny planes, but later levels feature generators that must be destroyed, giant trains ripe for obliteration, environmental hazards, and huge warships with giant canons. Occasionally a bit of strategy is injected with lasers that either paralyze your movement or render your weapons useless for a temporary amount of time. Various combinations of your aggressors gradually produce an all-out assault on your person, which is a by-the-book maneuver in the realm of twin-stick shooters.
Gatling Gears' frame rate seems stable enough to warrant precision movement, but player control often isn't exact enough to successfully manage sequences of missile dodging carnage. The titular Gatling Gears turn on a dime, but invisible barriers and random obstructions like bridges or other fixed paths sometimes render any sort of escape futile. At its best Gatling Gears can play like a bullet-hell shooter with the player dancing in and out of merging patterns of enemy fire, but the dodgy movement isn't always up for the challenge.
The game also seems to be at odds with its progression system. Finding gold bars is easy enough and, really, the only pick-up necessary for permanent upgrades. The rest of the bits and pieces filling up the screen are little collectable gears that add to your multiplier, which affects your score at the end of the stage. Sometimes enemies would explode into gears that were in unreachable places. Worse, the end of each level usually results in a ton of gears all over the screen, but the game only gives you a couple seconds to collect everything before closing the level. It's a bizarre oversight and I'm not entirely sure why it wasn't addressed, especially with the game's longevity relying heavily on leaderboards.
The boss levels seem to be where the development team spent most of their creativity. While normal enemies are often in tow for support, the general boss experience is wholly unique and a welcomed break from the occasional drag of the preceding levels. When bosses aren't filling up the screen they're pumping out patterns of lasers or missiles, or generally wrecking shop with unexpected mobility. They're also usually tied to the specific theme of each level, which can make for a fitting conclusion for each chapter.
The campaign can be played in both local and online co-op, the latter being a nice and unexpected touch to Gatling Gears. A wave based survival mode with three unique maps is also present, but I can't really say I was immediately ready for more of the same after playing through the campaign.
Gatling Gears' best asset is its surprise attention to detail. Parachutes from paratroopers fly toward the screen when jettisoned, impressive smoke trails stalk airplanes, and buildings crumble into an untidy mess of pieces. Perhaps the most impressive effect, sometimes huge sections of the earth quake and fall into an infinite abyss. The game also looks remarkably crisp and polished from every angle, and the variety in the aesthetic of the environments is equally impressive. It all leads to a suspicion that the folks at Vanguard aren't looking to merely pay the bills, and that they maintained an active interest in polishing their product no matter how derivative the mechanics may have been.
The music was also a rather interesting choice. It's not original, as evident from the mention of a royalty-free music site in the credits, but it’s beautifully produced and odds are the player would never know the difference. This only worth mentioning because it presents an interesting look into the priorities of the development team; time and care were placed into building the world and polishing the gameplay, and facets they may not have been comfortable were smartly executed elsewhere.