Undertow on Xbox LIVE Arcade is an interesting title. It attempts to blend together multiple gameplay styles together, and for the most part I am happy to say that it succeeds.
The gameplay in Undertow can best be described as a side-scrolling 2D shooter, although not in the standard sense. It’s not a case of simply blasting your way to the other side of the level, but rather a somewhat tactical affair. As you swim around blasting the enemy to bits, there are checkpoints that must be captured in order to run down the enemies ‘tickets’, and when either team has no tickets remaining, it’s game over. Fans of the Battlefield series of games will be more than familiar with this premise, although maybe not the 2D setting that it has been placed in.
To further increase the tactics, each team (of which there are 3) has 4 different units to select from, each with various strengths and weaknesses. For example, the destroyers have great armour, and incredibly powerful torpedoes that they shoot. This is then balanced by the fact that they can only move fairly slowly, and have a poor rate of fire. In my experience with the game I found that when used in skilled hands, each unit is just as good as the other, while providing a different playing style. Each of these units can also be upgraded twice by using points that earned by capturing checkpoints and killing the enemy.
Whilst you are making all these decisions you will thankfully find that the controls really are a breeze to use, with the left thumbstick controlling your character, while the right thimbstick shoots. Even if you have not used this sort of dual thumbstick control method before, within a few minutes you will soon be swimming between rocks and blasting everything around you to kingdom come with extreme ease.
The game is split up into a few different gameplay modes. There is a campaign, a skirmish mode to take on the computer, and an online mulitplayer mode for you to take your skills online. You will most likely be spending most of your time online, as this is where the game really shines, with little to no lag, and is a fast and frantic experience that is simply a blast to play.
That is not to say that the campaign mode is not worth your time, as it offers up some nice variation in the mission design. The thing that really lets the story down is the cutscenes which have some pretty appalling voice acting and don’t really do a very good job of telling the story, which isn’t very interesting anyway, so you won’t miss out on much if you decide to skip them. The biggest downfall with the single player is that the AI never really strategises like a human player can, and so ultimately the single player never feels anywhere near as fun to play as the multiplayer. The campaign does at least have co-op support should you wish to play through it with a friend, but this tends to make it even more obvious that the AI never really uses any tactics.
Graphically the game is actually quite a treat. Despite it being a 2D environment, the graphics really do give the game a nice crisp 3D look, particularly in the environments. The character models are also really nicely done, although unfortunately some of them are a bit too small to really see any detail. While all the teams have the same 4 units in terms of functionality, all of the units look very different, with the human destroyer being a mini assault submarine sort of thing, while the Atlantis destroyer is a giant lobster creature. As well as looking different, all of these units animate very differently from each other, with all of the animations looking very smooth and believable.
In the audio department the sound effects and music are passable, but not really anything worth paying much attention to. They get the job done, but never really push the boundaries, with most of the sound effects feeling very generic.
Undertow is certainly one of the more interesting titles available to download, and one that should probably be in your games collection. As with most games that use the checkpoint capture formula, the single player lacks depth, but the multiplayer makes up for this, providing an experience not really seen anywhere else on Xbox LIVE Arcade.