The speed in which people are dismissing certain games is becoming a degenerative trend within the videogame industry, something made even more worrying as a large number of these people have never even played the game they have immediately written-off. Largely thanks to some erroneous first impressions from some of the larger and more powerful websites around, Product Number 03 (P.N. 03) is already thought of as being another high-profile failure. Even worse, it is being used as ammunition for those who still believe Capcom are losing the plot.
P.N. 03 joins a rapidly growing list of games that are being misunderstood by a large proportion of gamers, perhaps a sign that certain sectors of the industry are moving in a different, more exciting direction to that which gamers expect and are used to. While it is understandable that a high-concept title such as Made in Wario can be misinterpreted, the thought that anyone can misunderstand an entrant into one of the most basic and well established videogaming genres is just baffling. Stating that Product Number 03 lacks any environmental interaction, twisting story line or variation in game mechanics may be true, but to report it in a negative fashion is confusing people into thinking the game is massively flawed.
Like games of old, P.N. 03 is all about high scores and style. The point isn't to complete the game, but to dominate the game. Indeed, you can expect to see the end credits within a matter of hours, but in doing so you'll be presented with a score sheet that breaks down your abilities within the game. Whatever you earn, it won't be good enough. Practice; try again.
For some, the simple prospect of a 3D action title that takes the same mentality and required skill from the 2D shooter genre will be enough to warrant a purchase; others however, may need more convincing.
Product Number 03 begins with a short animation of the planet Ode, an incredibly bleak and lifeless wasteland with only a handful of structures in view. As the screen begins to shake, we see our heroine beam onto the planet in a crouching position. As she stands, the music kicks in. Her right foot begins to tap in time to the beat. After a few seconds, she comes under fire from two incoming robots, and we are presented with a startling display of acrobatics and finesse. She doesn't just kill the incoming enemies, she humiliates them.
After a very brief mission briefing between yourself and the mysterious 'Client', you take full control of Vanessa Z. Schneider, arguably the finest character created this generation. As a mercenary, your mission is to simply eradicate the robotic Computer Arms Management System (CAMS) - the Terminator influence is clear.
Your very first task will be the same as the very last: kill all the enemies within a room and progress to the next. A level can consist of around 15 rooms, each room slightly different and possessing a slightly different challenge, by way of enemies that face you. Each room can only last a matter of minutes, yet the time spent is often incredibly tense and action packed. Indeed, rapidly tapping the Gamecube's A button for minutes at a time is an extremely tiring experience. Exit any room and you’ll be presented with a further results screen, displaying your time taken, maximum combo and enemies killed. While the idea is to simply destroy every enemy within a room, the skill comes in chaining all the kills together. Destroy any enemy and a combo timer will start in the top-right of the screen; kill a second enemy within this time and you'll have pulled off a combo of two. It's a brilliantly simple concept that runs right through to the core of the game, and is the clear key to earning masses of points. The idea is further developed as different enemies will give you a different length of time for the combo – the harder the enemy, the more time you'll be given for the next. To chain an entire room, you need to quickly locate and attack the enemies in the correct order. Chaining a room takes immense awareness, pad dexterity and timing - the signature gameplay of any great arcade shooter.
The controls for Vanessa are undoubtedly the most off-putting aspect in the game. In a similar fashion to to SmileBit's Gun Valkyrie, P.N. 03 requires the gamer to learn the controls and play them to your advantage, rather than rebel against the apparent lack of ingenuity. Unlike many third-person shooters, Product Number 03 has been configured to keep you facing frontward almost without exception. Turning left and right is possible by use of the left stick, however it is a move rarely used during combat; only for when negotiating cleared rooms and areas. Even pulling back on the stick fails to change your direction, merely make you spin a few steps backwards, yet remain facing the same way. You can quickly do a complete 180° turn, but again the camera remains behind Vanessa. Strafing is handled with both trigger buttons. Pressing once will initiate a twirl, the second press a cartwheel. While it initially feels strange being restricted with the controls (escalated by the inability to move and fire at the same time), the movement soon feels perfectly normal, especially when you realise ideally you should be firing until you hear the enemy-weapon charge-up audio cues and then leaping out of the way.
During combat, it is rare that you'll be standing in the same spot for more than a second or two, especially during the harder moments. Different types of enemy throw different attacks, be it machine gun fire, rockets, plasma or whatever, and each attack requires a different tactic to avoid. Imagine a room with two giant cannons someway down the corridor, facing you and ready to fire. They may take a few seconds to charge up, but if their laser cannon strike you, it'll be instant death. It is possible to avoid one of the cannons simply by edging against the wall; however the second cannon will have a clear line of site. What to do? The riskiest method is to keep blasting at one cannon and hope it is destroyed before it can fire, allowing you to hide against the wall to prevent the second hitting you. Fail to destroy the first in time, and death is likely to be moments away. The second option, arguably harder to pull off for the inexperienced, but far more stylish and rewarding, is to simply run out into the open and dodge the streaming laser cannon and wait for your time to attack. Jumping, somersaulting, twirling, spinning and ducking; if you can pull it off, you'll need to use it. Anything to stay alive. Always close to death, but contact should never be made.
Similar to Devil May Cry, this game has a strong bias towards style. As Vanessa dances smoothly to the onscreen action, it's easy to become transfixed by the whole experience. She taps her foot to the music throughout the entire game; there is no explanation for her doing this and, indeed, no reason. It just looks cool. Pull off a special move using the D-pad and Vanessa will elegantly move her body into position to fire. It's all style.
The style of P.N.03 is one of the most striking and original seen in a long time. Despite clearly displaying a technically accomplished graphical engine, rarely is it used to generate anything other than bland and lifeless corridors, which appears to be a conscious stylistic choice. There is a constant eerie atmosphere, the endless sleek yet soulless rooms with harsh right-angles and white glow or the rare glimpses of a desolate wasteland outside. At a time where developers and public are constantly pushing for more, more, more, Capcom have created a style that is every bit as striking as (although extremely different to) UGA's Rez; colourless and utterly without flair or beauty.
In contrast, Vanessa is elegantly designed and positively glowing with colour. She stands out from the environment in such a defined way that the whole premise of you versus 'them' is highlighted dramatically. Various power-ups and suit upgrades make for a different experience on following play-throughs, including the very tasty Papillon suit which can only take 1 or 2 hits to make it harder.
While the term has been twisted and mangled over the years, Product Number 03 is simply hardcore. Master videogame designer Shinji Mikami has once again managed to push the action genre in a new direction. This isn't to say the game is the best around, because it certainly isn't. The faults are few and far between, but there is a lot of room to expand on the core concept of style and action. The musical interaction could have been used to great effect; however it could have easily upset the entire experience. Also, the lack of encouragement for style is disappointing, as the rewards for being stylish are purely for self-satisfaction rather than any point-based reward. Arguably, the only aspect of the game to betray the arcade heritage are the poor boss fights; despite being incredibly well animated and intimidating, they are weak and can often be taken down within a single special move.
Product Number 03 is striking perhaps for all the wrong reasons. It surprises due to the simplicity and appears original because it bucks the current trend of excess. Yet this originality is indeed false, because it has been so heavily based upon the games of old. However Capcom should be applauded for designing a title that celebrates gamers who like practice and master, rather than patronise and ultimately leave them feeling unsatisfied.
Product Number 03 is punishing, unfair and extremely difficult. Indeed, this is hardcore.