After the success of Contra: Shattered Soldier two years ago, Konami has brought the series back for another installment, Neo Contra for the PS2. This time, Konami has eschewed the more traditional 2D approach in favor of a top-down isometric quasi-3D feel that provides a deeper gameplay experience. The game's play balance is still quite difficult, especially on the harder difficulty settings. There is also a cooperative mode so two players can battle it out simultaneously. A limited number of levels and somewhat awkward controls hurt the experience, but Neo Contra offers an intense shooting experience with plenty of challenge and intensity. Unfortunately, while the latest Contra offers slick visuals and gameplay, it doesn't stay entirely true to its roots and falls a tad short.
Neo Contra is the latest installment in Konami's classic action series and is a solid game that offers plenty of mindless shooting action. As usual, you are a single soldier trying to wipe out a seemingly endless number of foes as you defend a futuristic Earth that's been turned into a prison. In the game, you can select from two different characters: a gung-ho marine named Bill Rizer or a mysterious Samurai who accompanies him on each mission. While they play similarly, each character has a unique set of abilities and weapons. During the course of the game, Neo Contra's plot unfolds in a series of somewhat off-kilter cinemas between levels. At the start of each game, you can select from several different weapon configurations. Both characters give the player a slightly different set of weapons. You can cycle through these during gameplay using the L2 shift button. The game offers a basic array of machine guns, spread shots and, flame-throwers initially, but you can unlock more powerful weapons later on. In addition to the standard run and gun technique, players can use some special moves, such as an evasion or dash to get out of the way of fire-zones. Using the evasion technique allows you to move quickly and makes you invulnerable to attack, but you cannot control the direction your character goes. The dash move allows you to move out of the way and offers better control, but you can still take damage when moving. Players can use a more powerful targeting weapon by holding down the triangle button, which locks onto specific enemies from a safe distance away. Each of these weapons has a different level of effectiveness, depending on what enemies you're facing. Once you have selected your character and weapons, you begin your battle for against the alien foes invading Earth.
Initially, Neo Contra lets you play one of the first four levels in any order - this allows you to get the hang of the controls and learn the layout of each stage, though beating them consecutively makes more sense. After each level, you are ranked on your skill level. Higher rankings are based on how many enemies you defeat, time and, whether you've lost too many lives. Earning high end-stage rankings unlocks extras such as artwork, additional stage and, more powerful weapons plus more. The gameplay itself offers a mix of classic Contra with some new elements that don't seem to work as well. As usual, there are tons of enemies for you to dispose of as you traverse the game's frenetic levels. Some of the enemies act as cannon fodder and put up little resistance, while others take many hits in order to kill. While you have an arsenal of powerful weapons at your disposal, your character is quite vulnerable to attack and goes down with a single hit. This means that you will need to keep your eyes and reflexes attuned at all times or face a short lifespan. This level of difficulty makes the game quite hard by recent standards, but Neo's difficulty shouldn't bother old-school gamers looking for a challenge.
During the game, players will traverse a variety of terrain including burned out bases, military installations and more, each infested with alien forces and other baddies. Neo Contra's level designs are excellent; every stage feels unique and distinct from the others, giving the gameplay plenty of variety as it throws different enemy types and attacks at you. Neo Contra unfolds at a decent pace, but there are some areas where the game falls short. Most of the levels give you plenty of freedom of movement, but there are some other areas where the action is more tightly constrained. These are somewhat less exciting than the other areas that offer more in the way of classic Contra gameplay. However, the intensity does pick up quickly after these sequences, making them minor hiccups in the overall experience. The controls are decent, if a bit awkward initially and will take some time to get used to. It's annoying to have to cycle through weapons constantly, and the movement and firing direction locks on the L2 and R2 buttons aren't implemented as intuitively as they could have been, making it difficult to keep track of where your shots are going at any given time. The least effective weapons are the targeting functions, which are awkward and frustrating to use, making it needlessly difficult to line up the missiles while avoiding enemy fire. This makes the overall experience a mixed bag that seems to fall off the chart when it tries to introduce new elements. The classic Contra feel is evident at certain points, while in some areas, the game seems to fall disappointingly short of what players expect from the series. It all depends on which areas you're playing, making for an uneven experience.
From a visual standpoint, Neo Contra is a decent looking title that offers smooth animation and decent environments. While most of the game takes place in a top-down perspective, there are some areas where the basic perspective changes, giving Neo Contra some visual variety. For the most part, the game's approach works well, with the fixed camera allowing you to concentrate and the action, not the camera angle. However, there are certain points where your view is blocked by large overhead objects, making it hard to avoid enemies and shots. While the cinematic cut-scenes are a little bit weird, they are nicely done and entertaining, moving the story along effectively. The in-game music soundtrack offers a decent mix of hard rock and techno and offers an excellent compliment to the action. Neo Contra looks decent with above-average production values that for the most part are successful at bringing the series into 3D without hurting the games' basic, intrinsic appeal.
Neo Contra is an entertaining and challenging title that will please fans of the series, though it isn't without some significant flaws. The limited number of levels is annoying, but the challenge comes in replaying levels to increase your ranking. This increases the game's replay value somewhat. The challenge increases even more after you blow through the training levels and play the more difficult expert settings where extra lives and continues are rare. Neo Contra's fast, frenetic gameplay is fun and makes a pleasant throwback to the classic ethos where skill and technique mattered most. While the old school approach is great, Contra purists may not be as pleased by Neo's isometric perspective. It isn't as effective as Contra: Shattered Soldier's more traditional 2D approach, but the game still looks solid and plays well. The controls are decent for the most part, though the firing system needed some work but improved once you become accustomed to its quirks. Even though Neo Contra doesn't quite live up to the level of old-school excellence of Shattered Soldier, it's still a decent and challenging title. The game's lack of replay value is addressed somewhat by the ranking system, but more and longer levels would have gone a long way. As it stands, this is a decent sequel that should please hardcore fans of the series but probably isn't the best introduction to the series for casual gamers.