Hard Corps: Uprising Review (Xbox360)

Contra has been around in many forms and handled by many developers since it debuted in arcades back in 1987. This latest instalment is named Hard Corps: Uprising and is developed by Arc System Works, the studio known for its dedication to sprite-based 2D titles like the Guilty Gear and Blazblue fighting games.

While it may have dropped the franchise name from its title, Uprising is undeniably Contra. Series tradition dictates that it’s a 2D run and gun action platformer broken up with the occasional vehicle sections, all the while supported by two player co-operative play. In old-school fashion it requires a trial and error approach and enemy pattern memorisation to be mastered.

The fortified door encounters are one of the many moments that mark Uprising as a Contra game

Uprising is in some ways related to a Sega Mega Drive entry in the series named Contra: Hard Corps though from what I can tell it’s a pretty tangential link. The biggest connection I can fathom is that it borrows the life bar mechanic from the Japanese version of its predecessor. This is one of the game’s few big divergences from the classic Contra template, given that the series has always had a one-hit kill ethos.

Uprising’s producer Kenji Yamamoto has stated that this was done to provide a more forgiving experience to less “hardcore” players. While it’s definitely a step in the right direction for the notoriously difficult series, in my experience Arc didn’t go far enough in offering accessibility to novice players.

For one thing, the game has no difficultly curve. It starts off hard and slowly ascends from there. In typical old-school manner, there isn’t any sort of playable tutorial or even text hints at the start of either of its two modes. The most direction and instructions you’ll find are a few paragraphs in the Help and Options menu.

The new Rising mode seems to be the main lifeline for newcomers and novices. In it you’ll play through the same eight levels as Arcade mode but you’ll be able to restart from the furthest stage you’ve reached when you inevitably run out of continues. More importantly you’ll be able to purchase health and weapon upgrades and even extra abilities for your characters in exchange for a collectable currency called Corps Points (CP).

In a way this system is actually pretty clever. Even if the player isn’t good at the game, if he or she keeps playing they’ll eventually grind out enough CP to fully upgrade their character, making Rising mode substantially less challenging.

Still, I question using such a roundabout method of making the game easier instead of simply offering adjustable difficulty levels. Some might say that the high level of difficulty and trial and error play makes the Contra series what it is but I’d argue that this was a perfect opportunity to reach out to a broader more casual audience, especially with the possibly stigmatised Contra name missing from the game’s title.

Taking down the game’s bosses requires a trial and error approach and a lot of patience

Playable characters have a raft of addition moves this time around, most of which are series’ firsts. Some are very useful and even essential in certain instances like the run and midair dash abilities. Others though like the temporary vertical wall run don’t seem to have many practical uses. Like Rising mode, these additions help make the game more dynamic and slightly more forgiving.

Replayability in the Contra series is traditionally provided by its punishing nature; take away the frequent deaths and restarts and they aren’t actually that long. Rising mode gives the game an edge here assuming that you want to completely max out your characters. There’s also online functionality if you can’t find a buddy to play with locally and some fairly fiendish achievement points to be had.

The one clear difference between this and your typical Contra game is the presentation. Uprising dumps the 1980s action film machismo aesthetic for a sci-fi anime vibe which is a refreshing change of direction. The game looks fantastic too, sporting a dynamic 2.5D style with stylised but nicely detailed 3D environments and bosses with 2D character and enemy sprites.

The music is largely composed of decent J-Rock inspired pieces though sadly the absolutely dire voice acting brings down the audio side of the package. The cringe-worthy performances of the main heroes and villains hark back to the schlocky low-budget English anime dubs from the early 90s. It’s not just the fault of the hammy dialogue as the actors lack any conviction and frequently seem to put emphasis in all the wrong places.

It’s always a shame when pricing and content issues impact your enjoyment of a game. Unfortunately Uprising suffers from a big one, committing one of the cardinal sins of downloadable content. Two additional playable characters are planned for DLC though it’s clear they were designed and probably finished for the game’s release but were removed so consumers can be charged an extra fee to access them.

Take note, Arc and Konami - if you’re going to try and hoodwink users in this manner, don’t leave the characters you removed in the game’s full motion video scenes and instructions menu.

Continuing another series’ tradition is the unimportant and wafer-thin story

Full plans and pricing for downloadable content have yet to be revealed at the time of writing so I can’t speak to the cost of these additional fees. But when you bear in mind that the game is priced at the upper barrier for Xbox Live Arcade titles already (1200 Microsoft Points) the complete experience is looking like a fairly expensive prospect.

On a basic level Hard Corps: Uprising is excellent, retaining the Contra spirit yet giving it a new lease of life. As such, series fans and old-school throwbacks will probably love every minute of it, regardless of cost. However, it does get bogged down a little by the strangely bad voice acting, downloadable content concerns and its meek attempt at catering for a broader, less experienced audience. As a result, those with a less casual interest in retro tough-as-nails game play experiences will definitely want to try before they buy.

Top Game Moment: When all that toil and frustration pays off and you finally beat that boss that once seemed impossible.

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