As an imaginative media franchise, and from its roots in film and TV, Ghost in the Shell by its very nature should easily make the transition to the videogame format. Yet although Stand Alone Complexâ€™s 2004 PS2 version performed well, does Sonyâ€™s new handheld PSP offer a solid platform for both renowned anime content and a convincing first-person shooter? The PSP has yet to truly deliver in terms of FPS releases, with the woefully dull and repetitive Coded Arms being the sole occupant of the genre until this point. So, does Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex arrive as a worthy champion in an otherwise lackluster tournament, or is it merely a stopgap before the coming of bigger and better things?
In keeping with the movie iteration of Ghost in the Shell, the central cyberpunk terrorism storyline in Stand Alone Complex swings outrageously between truly banal and overly convoluted. With regard to the plot, a sense of player confusion is unavoidable from the outset, and itâ€™s soon compounded by a sway of hurried and horrifically hammed acting performances that even fans of the anime source material will likely find gratingly bad. In its most basic form, the story revolves around a mysteriously unprovoked terrorist attack, which seems to have been an attempt at preventing the release of a newly declassified file known as the H-88 report. Itâ€™s up to the multi-faceted members of â€˜Section 9â€™ to uncover the mastermind of the attack, and to discover the truth behind the H-88 reportâ€”though to watch the gameâ€™s explanations, youâ€™d never know it.
The collective cybernetic and human members of Section 9, all of whom are at your disposal, range from agile heroine, Motoko; sniper expert, Saito; stealthy Togusa; and the super strong, Batou. The entire team is led by the aging Aramaki, whoâ€™s only available for use during multiplayer. Complementingâ€”or, depending on your viewpoint, cursingâ€”each character is their very own accompanying Tachikoma, an independent spidery mini-tank with an autonomous A.I. control system and personality. This basically boils down to a useful but annoying sidekick killing-machine that sounds much like a hysterical schoolgirl sporting customizable hardcore battle weaponry. All the useable characters offer variable strengths and weapon specifications to the single-player campaign, and should be carefully selected to best suit any given mission situation.
Each game mission, which are sometimes disgracefully brief, is usually sandwiched by lengthy explanatory cut scenes and mission directives, which only further confuse the player while disassociating them from the attraction of the actual core gameplay. Because, while Stand Alone Complex is far from perfect in a narrative sense, it certainly transcends the efforts of Coded Arms when it comes to gameplayâ€”though thatâ€™s somewhat of a backhanded compliment. However, the laborious cut scenes and character/Tachikoma customization screens seriously stunt the potential of an otherwise promising title.
The presentation of Stand Alone Complex is certainly impressive and further expands the wealth of potential hiding within Sonyâ€™s PSP. The interface screens, map explanations, and customization sections are all of a constantly high quality, though the missions themselves, which are certainly convincing visually, tend to be a little generic and mundane in terms of design and content. The initial graphic power of the cinematic sequences, and the characters therein, is damaged irrevocably by their overuse and unforgivable length. The gameâ€™s music and sound is nothing out of the ordinary, and the PSPâ€™s limiting onboard speakers will have most gamers reaching for the headphonesâ€”at which point the aural potency of the game does magnify somewhat as the headphones naturally inspire a more connected sense of immersion.
The gameplay controls take some time to grow accustomed to, though this is probably intensified somewhat by the ever-awkward placement of the PSPâ€™s analog â€˜nubâ€™ and the resultant lack of accuracy it causes. Sadly, the general controls always feel cumbersome and never exude the fluency so integral to the success of any first-person shooter. More likely than not, players will always hold a sense that the controls are in some way working against them, and can so easily contribute to mission failure. The very inclusion of an auto-locking aim feature seems to indicate the application of a gameplay bandage across the wound left by a lack of subtle control response, much more so than a generous strafing addition by the developers.
Beyond the single-player campaign, Stand Alone Complex also offers a multiplayer experience for up to 6 players via the PSPâ€™s WLAN/Wi-Fi capabilities. Players can gather together and enjoy Player Team Battle, Player Battle, Tachikoma Team Battle, and Tachikoma Battle across a varied selection of maps including Uptown, Missile Silo, Army Facility, Sewer, and Underground Arena.
Do plot-heavy FPS games that prey on battery power and patience have a relevant place on the handheld format? Do PSP owners want to sit through masses of explanatory garbage that could be simply surmised by a single block of text? Or do they want to enjoy a sense of immediacy with their portable gaming and get back to the actionâ€”the very thing that attracted them in the first place? After all, gaming on the go should entail readily accessible enjoyment, not drawn out fluff that ultimately spoils the action at its center. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex may have proved to be a success on the home console market, but it feels oddly fractured on the PSP, suffering from its own shameless sense of self-importance while failing to provide any opportunistic innovation to a fairly blank and open genre canvas.