Is there a rarer genre than the first-person brawler? How about a game where first-person melee combat not only works, but feels good? Chilean developer ACE Team's Zeno Clash is an extremely solid experience set in one of the most bizarre gameworlds I've seen in a long while.
The game opens with the protagonist, Ghat, waking up after having killed Father-Mother, a freakish hermaphroditic creature who is the most influential character in the city of Halstedom. Ghat flees the scene, and with assistance from his friend Daedra, manages to leave the city alive. The remainder of the game is split between Ghat's current situation and flashback sequences, explaining the events that led to the opening of the game.
The first-person melee system is very easy to learn, but contains a wealth of depth. In addition to the basics (quick jabs, a haymaker and blocking/dodging), Ghat eventually learns to grapple, throw enemies, counter their attacks, kick them while they're down and even stun them with a well-placed elbow to the temple. A variety of weapons can also be held, ranging from a simple spear to a primitive rifle and even dual fish-pistols. YES.
Each enemy has their own fighting style, and you will need to get creative with your own moveset to come out on top. Some enemies learn to spot your power moves and will dodge them, but if you feint an attack at another enemy you can sometimes trick them into walking into a huge punch. The system can feel a little rock-paper-scissors at times, but there's a lot of room for experimentation. The only real downside is that if you're not careful, enemies can trap you in a corner or surround you, which almost always results in death. In spite of this, it's great fun, and once you combine the joy of bashing dudes with the outstanding, original visual design of the characters and world it's easy to get sucked in.
It is disappointing then, that the single-player experience doesn't allow for co-op. However, there are two cooperative challenge modes unique to the Ultimate Edition, playable either in splitscreen or online through Xbox Live. Tower Challenge mode pits you and a partner in a small arena with varying enemy setups to take out. Sometimes it'll be a straight up brawl, other times you will have to deal with enemies trying to snipe you from the upper wall while you're trying to deal with enemies on the arena floor trying to cold cock you.
The second mode, Pit Challenge, starts both players at the top of a large, multifloor pit where you have to deal with enemies and environmental hazards. Floors might drop out from under you, or you might have to make a jump or two to get down to the next combat zone. You need to be especially careful of explosives in this mode, as you might destroy the floor you're standing on and drop to your death. I found it was easiest for one player to act as a scout to see the best route to progress.
Both modes can be played solo, but they're definitely much more manageable in co-op. While in single-player mode you might fall into the aforementioned inescapable corner, in co-op it's possible to break your partner away from such situations, and in the case of the "heavy" enemy type, players can work together to kite them around, allowing for a much easier (and less risky) kill. The problem is there aren't actually that many levels in either mode, and there doesn't seem to be much incentive to repeat them other than competing for clear times on the leaderboard.
Zeno Clash's strengths definitely come from the uniqueness of its setting, art style and the fact that it's got melee combat in first-person that doesn't feel tacked on or ineffective. While I wish the campaign had the option to play cooperatively, it's still well worth playing through. Father-Mother might creep you the hell out, but it's an enjoyable, if occasionally frustrating ride.
The Co-Op Experience: Players will be able to team up to take on enemies in a series of challenges in the Tower Challenge mode.
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