Armed & Dangerous

Review by Steerpike
January 2004

Monty Python, Too

I have great admiration for the British people, but for some reason I tend to think of them as more highbrow than we New Worlders. I think it's the accent. When wondering how the English would react to, say, our nation's limited exposure to Shakespeare or our peculiar sense of humor, I must remind myself that these are the people who gave us Benny Hill, Coupling, Red Dwarf, Fawlty Towers, and Doctor Who. They also use the word "sodding" in casual conversation. We are more alike than different, separated by accent but joined by a shared love of funny words and mocking the French.

Armed & Dangerous is the second offering from Planet Moon Studios, a small California-based developer with a staff composed almost entirely of expatriate Britons. Many are refugees from Shiny or Virgin Interactive (or both), and their studio has developed a reputation for being fueled by two distinct qualities: a great love of new technology and the sort of deranged humor than only the British can produce.

Planet Moon burst onto the scene in 2000 with the impossible-to-categorize Giants: Citizen Kabuto, one of the very first titles to take full advantage of the then brand-new technology of hardware transform and lighting sported by early GeForce and Radeon cards. Giants was a popular enough title and gained a substantial cult following, but for whatever reason I missed it. Having played through Armed & Dangerous, however—a game that isn't perfect but is certainly worth the price of admission—I'm definitely going to start trolling the bargain bins for Planet Moon's earlier release.

Armed & Dangerous is going to need at least a 900 MHz processor and almost four gigabytes of your hard drive; it also calls for a DirectX 9 compatible video card. Most serious action gamers have these specs, though, and once installed the game is perfectly stable. Frustratingly, it (like all games released from last September on) uses the newest version of InstallShield for its installation routine, and this new version is buggy and obtuse. This is not Planet Moon's fault—just be prepared for the possibility that you'll have to try to install the game more than once before you get it right.

Bizarro World

In Armed & Dangerous, you control Roman, the leader of a gang of melodramatic, rather unintelligent (but certainly good-natured) Robin Hood-esque thieves called the Lionhearts. Throughout most of the game you are accompanied by your three partners in crime: Jonesy, a Mole-person and former onion miner; the tea-addicted combat droid Q; and Rexus, Roman's blind, unhygienic, mentally addled foster father.

Onions are grown and not mined here on Earth, so you may have already extrapolated that Armed & Dangerous doesn't take place on this planet. Rather, your adventures go on in the world of Milola, a place with four unique nations: Midden, Armortia, Forge, and Scotland. Centuries ago a curse was placed on the Kings of Forge, causing one generation of Forge Kings to be evil geniuses and the next to be kindly morons. Every other generation, the Kings of Forge were able to conquer a little more of Milola, until finally the whole world was under the dominion of the most recent evil smarty-pants king. This most recent King Forge hungers for an artifact called the Book of Rule, an all-powerful weapon that has, among other things, the ability to turn people into shrubs and, more importantly, the ability to break the curse on the Forge line.

Years ago, Roman's foster father Rexus stole the book and cast a spell on it so that anyone who reads it will find not the super-weapon he seeks, but a how-to guide on the subject of wickerwork. So, though Forge has since recovered the book, he's not able to use it unless he can get his hands on Rexus and somehow force him to break the spell. Thus begins your adventure, as Roman, Q, and Jonesy rescue Rexus from King Forge and decide to steal the book for themselves.

The story is unapologetically goofy, and there's a thin line between weird humor and stupid humor. Armed & Dangerous never crosses that line, despite the fact that computer programmers are famous for stupid humor—it's difficult to describe, but people tend to know it when they see it. In a nutshell, saying something like "your country is under attack by doom chickens" is stupid, yet the idea of onion mining is inexplicably hilarious. Armed & Dangerous doesn't miss the mark in its humor, and most people with sufficiently open minds will be laughing out loud throughout the game. Add to this some fantastic voice acting and great comic cutscenes and you're good to go.

And They're Off

The Lionhearts are very strong believers in the philosophy of victory through the persistent application of vastly superior firepower. Throughout the game you will have access to an array of weapons that is both staggering in its ability to obliterate and breathtaking in its hilarity. Gravity-altering land mines, minuscule black holes, marine-predator launchers, and personal howitzers round out a dazzling selection of machine guns, rifles, explosives, and rockets. Sadly, though the basic message of Armed & Dangerous implies an embarrassment of weapon choices, in truth only a handful are available. It would have been funnier (and more fun) if the developers had included three dozen weapons instead of just enough to manage.

Regardless of selection, Armed & Dangerous is one of the most violent games you'll ever play, but it's violent in the same way that Road Runner cartoons are violent. There's no blood; blood would ruin it. The carnage is carefully tuned to produce laughter rather than grim satisfaction, and in this it is successful. The screams of anguish and flying bodies are orchestrated by classic British pub music: accordions, bagpipes, and cheery beats. The music is excellent and totally out of place, which in this game means it's perfect.

In most levels you control Roman and the game AI controls Q and Jonesy (Rexus is too old to fight and blind anyway) as they plow through a staggering number of opponents. You can stop for a drink at one of the many pubs scattered throughout the levels, and there you may change your weapon loadout or get equipment to fulfill objectives. The game also saves automatically at the pubs, though PC players have the ability to save anywhere they like as well. A big vote of thanks to Planet Moon for tweaking Armed & Dangerous, which is enjoying a successful multiplatform release, so that it doesn't play like a console port on the PC. One complaint about the system is that starting a new game grants you one (1) "slot" in the database, so you can't produce multiple saves in case something goes wrong during your game. Normally I would shred a game for this, but in Armed & Dangerous it doesn't seem to make much difference. This is less a challenging game and more an infinitely replayable one.

The game's major technological step forward is that the environment is almost completely destroyable. You can knock down anything—and I mean anything—that you find in the game. This is a lot of fun, since the developers didn't shortchange us in the huge explosions department. Though the game world is destroyable, the environment is not deformable: you cannot blow up a hill or something like you could in Sacrifice. That's a small complaint, though; you don't see this level of freedom in most shooters, and you certainly don't see it associated with such a strong physics engine.

Scarier than a Room Full of Germans

Despite Planet Moon's lust for super-advanced technology, the graphics and positional audio in Armed & Dangerous are good but won't knock your socks off. It's clear that the studio chose to focus all of its technological might on the destructible environment at the expense of pretty much everything else, and, once again, while I would normally give such a game bad marks for mediocrity in graphics and sound, Armed & Dangerous is just so charming that I can't bring myself to be too hard on it.

The one thing that everyone is blasting the game for is its brevity. A motivated shooter fan can finish Armed & Dangerous in fewer than eight hours, and that's a problem. It's true that studies make it clear that PC gamers prefer 16 to 40 hours of play rather than 250, but finishing a fifty-dollar game in less than a day would rightly incense anyone.

I have a vague suspicion that the staff at Planet Moon are heavy drinkers, because though Armed & Dangerous is a short game, it is staggering in its replayability potential—especially when taken as entertainment for slightly drunken gamers. This is exactly the sort of game that people will play through more than once, and likely more than five times, if only to laugh at the story, experiment with the weapons, and find the hidden secrets you missed the first dozen times around. It's the Project IGI of goofball shooters, and since such a game has not yet hit the market, Armed & Dangerous fits a critical niche. Still, a few more missions—and a little more variation within them—would have been nice.

Good/Bad/Ugly

So Armed & Dangerous is too short, has limited saves capability, offers too few weapons for a game that makes its reputation on a vast arsenal, and has a graphic engine that doesn't rival Unreal 2. Contrarily, it sports superb writing and voice acting, is laugh-out-loud funny, and brings enough originality to the table that it's worth more than a passing glance by action game fans. It's also a lot of fun to play.

When I announced my intention to pen a review of this game on the staff board, others whose opinions I respect immensely warned me that I would find it funny but way too brief. And those folk were, as usual, quite correct. But for some reason Armed & Dangerous is going to get a more positive rating from me that I would have otherwise expected. It has an intangible quality that suggests to me that I'll be playing it for quite some time to come, despite the fact that I finished it in fewer than 12 hours. I've always had contempt for judgment of games based solely on replayability, since even ten hours of fun for fifty bucks is, in my book, pretty reasonable. But Armed & Dangerous will be on my shelf for a long time to come, and I have no doubt that I'll revisit it more than once in the forthcoming months—if only when I've had a pint or two at the pub. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Planet Moon Studios
Publisher: LucasArts
Release Date: December 2003

Available for: Windows Xbox

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System Requirements

PIII or AM D Athlon 1 GHz (P4 AMD Athlon XP 1.5 GHz recommended)
256 MB RAM (512 MB recommended)
32 MB 3D graphics card with hardware transform and lighting (T&L) capability (64 MB 3D graphics card with hardware vertex and pixel shader (VS/PS) capability recommended)
100% DirectX 9.0b compatible audio device
4X CD-ROM drive (16X recommended)
Keyboard and mouse

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