The original Zeno Clash was a videogame that received significant acclaim for both its unique world and its combat mechanics, pushing the player into melee brawls with abandon as they journey through an abstract world of misshapen creatures. The fact that this interesting yet undeniably niche product made its way to console formats was commendable, and further still was the fact that we find ourselves here with a sequel. Sadly however, for all it’s worth as an experiment in first-person adventuring that doesn’t require the presence of a virtual firearm at all times, Zeno Clash II offers a more interesting world than it does an enjoyable videogame.
Zeno Clash II gives players the option to engage in a lengthy tutorial as a secondary option from the main menu. While it’s likely that your enthusiasm will make you wonder whether it’s necessary when given the opportunity to dive straight in, Zeno Clash II’s combat system is deep and complicated – far more so than the original videogame, even – and so it would be advisable to play through the lengthy tutorial first. What’s more, Zeno Clash II ably bucks the trend of slow paced, almost boring control scheme lectures by expanding the universe both visually and through narration. An unusual design that is wholly welcome.
The campaign itself can be played either solo or co-operatively online. For those who chose to ignore the tutorial their introduction to the world of Zeno Clash II isn’t a million miles away from the Mos Eisley Cantina. Littered with unwelcomingly alien faces it’s not long before one picks a fight with you, and while a streamlined tutorial is available here those who took the time to do things properly are free to exercise their new skills anyway they see fit.
The combat is very strong, arguably the best representation of melee combat in a first-person perspective since the original The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. The player punches, kicks, grabs and throws with consummate ease as, although the array of options appears daunting at first, it’s easy to learn which button presses apply to each situation over time. Your repertoire slowly expands as you meet new enemies that are vulnerable to different combinations, shielded foes and those who fight as packs. Exactly why the developers chose to impose a barrier between exploration and combat by way of a menu screen for selecting allies as opposed to making this an optional addition via the Back button (wherein resides the map and other options) is not known, and does significantly hinder the pacing of the experience.
Zeno Clash II plays in a similar fashion to id Software’s keenly under valued RAGE; a videogame in which exploration is as vital to progress as your command of the firepower at your disposal. The videogame dies feature fire arms, but their use is limited and, should an enemy get the jump on you, you’ll find yourself disarmed in a flash. It’s best then not to rely on bullets and bazookas and instead use them to your advantage when available. Your melee skills are developed along with those of your adversaries, and it’s wise to make use of this fact.
Aside from the combat and exploration, there really is very little to Zeno Clash II. It’s a beautifully exotic world but one which is largely devoid of interaction. The missions are an a-to-b design with occasional bouts of combat and a dungeon crawl thrown in for good measure. Even then, the pacing of the videogame frequently sees the plot interfere with the moments of adrenaline by way of lengthy cutscenes which are simply not needed: Ace Team clearly haven’t yet mastered the principles of in-game character development, instead wrestling the controls away from the player for a moment of near-pointless testimony.
While it’s undeniably that Zeno Clash II’s greatest strengths at the basis upon which the entire videogame is founded, the surrounding layers of gameplay cannot match the solidity of its foundations. Ultimately it does improve on its predecessor but only in the most fundamental areas; the same criticisms that were levelled at Zeno Clash can also be claimed for Zeno Clash II. It’s as if Ace Team ignored their detractors and simply went about making the videogame that they wanted to make: undeniably heroic in an industry driven more by sales figures than ever before, but potentially short-sighted as they limit their own audience.