We've gone hands-on with the opening three hours of the finished European version of Monolith Soft's belated Wii debut project, and lived to tell the cataclysmic tale.
At the end of last month, Disaster: Day of Crisis was finally released onto store shelves in Japan just over two years after it was first shown to the public as a potential Wii launch title at E3 2006. Our Site Director Steven Rodriguez has already logged his extensive impressions of Disaster's Japanese retail release, but Monolith's unique action thriller is set to make its Western debut in Europe on October 24, so I was given the opportunity to play the opening three hours of the final localised PAL version of the game as a taste of what's to come.
Disaster opens with extended cut scenes that establish the protagonist, named Raymond Bryce, as a brash rescue worker who's more than a little prone to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The overblown style of the game's storytelling is strongly evident from the outset. With its improbable plot including a shadowy military menace and multiple catastrophes occurring on the same day, Disaster feels like it's trying to channel 24 on an Independence Day scale, but its execution more strongly evokes the Resident Evil games, along with any number of made-for-TV movies.
The combination of the game's script and voice acting is particularly reminiscent of Capcom's survival horror series, as the performances just barely manage to avoid seeming like the product of outright parody, but might elicit quite a few chuckles nonetheless. Also, the presence of profanity fails to make the dialogue seem any more authentically cinematic, as the single permissible four letter word is obtrusively overused. With all that said, the presence of spoken dialogue moves the story along much more smoothly than would have been the case in its absence, and lends some weight to the gesticulations of the character models.
Visually, Disaster is uneven in its early stages. Textures exhibit an impressive level of detail in interior locations, though they occasionally look a little rough elsewhere. The framerate is pretty solid if not especially smooth, but the character animations leave a lot to be desired. Ray's movement appears stiff and discontinuous, and the overall lack of realism significantly undermines the effectiveness of the storytelling in the cut scenes.
Leaving the game's presentation aside, the prologue stage opens on an erupting volcano, introducing players to one of Disaster's multiple gameplay styles: third-person exploration. Movement is controlled with the analog stick on the Nunchuk, while A and B on the Wii Remote are used to jump and sprint respectively. Ray has a typical health meter, but there are also three other gauges of his physical well-being: stamina, heart, and lungs. Stress to the heart/lungs can run down Ray's stamina more quickly, and once stamina is exhausted, Ray's health will begin draining away. This multi-faceted approach to health and damage encourages players to take care in how they explore disaster areas with Ray; sprinting all over the place will tire him out rapidly, but getting through smoke-filled areas as quickly as possible is desirable to avoid becoming choked up.
After the prologue concludes and the narrative trudges through some extended exposition, the game reconvenes with the first stage proper: a hostage situation set inside a warehouse. Here, we are introduced to the on-rails shooting element of the game, which constitutes Disaster's combat system. The Wii Remote is used for aiming and firing as Wii owners would expect by now, while a simple shake of the Nunchuk reloads, and holding the Z trigger makes Ray take cover. With no time limits and infinite handgun ammo, you can take out targets at your leisure, and combined with a general lack of hostility on the part of the enemies, these early shoot-outs function mostly as a tutorial.
Frequently interrupted as they are by cut scenes, quick-time events, and on-screen explanations of the game's controls, Disaster's opening stages get the game off to an undeniably slow start. The gameplay feels disjointed, with ambling third-person segments sitting very awkwardly alongside simplistic shoot-outs. Added to a general lack of challenge, this staccato pace leaves you hungry for Disaster to truly get going. However, the game's intensity cranks up soon enough, and the eclectic gameplay begins to make more sense (if not come together completely) during the next few levels set in the midst of a fresh catastrophe affecting the distinctly San Franciscso-esque cityscape of Blue Ridge City.
The on-rails shooting becomes more complicated with the introduction of tougher enemies positioned at multiple depths in the playfield, bringing into play two new weapon types using consumable ammo: a shotgun and an assault rifle. Weapon-switching is made very accessible by their assignment to directions on the D-pad, and this comes in handy when trying to dispatch a bunch of different foes as efficiently as possible. Another key development comes from the deployment of explosive weaponry against you, meaning that Ray is no longer perpetually safe behind cover. This threat adds some much-needed tension to a few battles, making them more than just exercises in hiding until a glowing weak point appears.
As the gunplay begins to develop, the role of third-person exploration also becomes clearer. These sections serve to break up the on-rails shooting, usually forcing Ray along some circuitous route consisting of, for example, keys and locked doors or speaking with NPCs in a particular order. Other than scavenging for items to help keep all of Ray's health meters intact, what gameplay there is herein involves completing what are essentially mini-games. When you come across an injured person, pressing A will commence a rescue attempt of one sort or another. Some are very simple, such as dragging someone to a certain spot or handing over a healing item, while others involve various combinations of button-bashing and/or remote-gesturing to successfully save the person.
What these first aid vignettes all have in common is being entirely uninteresting, and as they are not typically necessary in order to progress to the next action sequence, it's awfully tempting to leave all those poor people to fate. However, the game offers counterbalancing encouragement by rewarding rescues with SP: points that can be exchanged to upgrade Ray's attributes (such as the rate at which he loses stamina, or the amount of items he can carry) in between levels. The net result is a choice between eliminating some of the tedium of the third-person sections on the one hand, and making future action sequences a bit easier on the other.
Either way you choose to manage this trade-off, the exploration sequences during the first few hours of the game simply fail to satisfy on any level. Given that their only connection with the action scenes is to affect how well-equipped you are, they seem like little more than filler material of very questionable validity. There is potential for the traversal of the environment to become more engaging in later stages if there's a greater array of hazards to test players' use of the fairly solid controls, but the rescues seem unlikely to become any less gimmicky, and the whole gameplay style feels aimless and secondary to the gunplay action.
If Disaster doesn't already sound muddled enough, there is actually a third type of gameplay: driving. These sequences are much more isolated and insubstantial than the main gameplay styles, simply requiring you to tilt the Wii Remote to steer according to on-screen turn prompts so you can get to the next location in time without totalling your vehicle. The inclusion of driving also typifies Monolith Soft's gratuitous use of just about every aspect of the Wii Remote. Sometimes the effects can be mildly amusing (the use of the speaker for emergency radio announcements), but more often they are irksome and detrimental to the game's playability (routine remote-waggling to break open crates or put out fires). Two years on from the system's launch, many Wii owners have likely become much less tolerant of such obtrusive reminders of the Wii Remote's functionality, and so a more streamlined approach to Disaster's gameplay would have been desirable for the finished product.
Overall, the opening hours of Disaster: Day of Crisis leave mixed impressions. Some aspects of the presentation are slick, but there is little to suggest that the storytelling will prove absorbing enough to enhance the experience. There is also a glaring disconnect between those parts of the game that aim to immerse the player in a sort of interactive movie and the distinctly arcadey shooting and driving sections with their flashing arrows and glowing purple targets. The gameplay is similarly unfocused: the driving feels superfluous and the third-person segments lack direction, leaving the on-rails shoot-outs to carry the load in only a fraction of the playtime. These show some promise after a slow start, but it remains to be seen whether they can encompass the requisite depth and intensity to overcome Disaster's peculiar incoherence. European Wii owners can brave the many perils of Disaster: Day of Crisis themselves when it goes on sale across the region on October 24.