When your new set-top box contains exactly one new exclusive game, as is the case with Amazon's Fire TV, it had better be something that really wows gamers. Amazon's "Sev Zero" provides a title without any significant flaws — or any significant merits.
If developer Amazon Studios set out to demonstrate that it could produce a technically proficient game, "Sev Zero" ($6.99 in Fire TV app store; free with $39.99 Fire controller) is an unqualified success. However, if Amazon wanted this title to showcase the Android-powered Fire TV's long-term viability as a gaming console, the game becomes a bit more problematic.
At first glance, "Sev Zero" appears to be a completely generic sci-fi shooter. Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll discover that it's actually a completely generic sci-fi shooter mixed with a completely generic sci-fi tower defense. You take control of the Lieutenant, a space marine who must protect an expert hacker as the two of them confront a vague alien menace.
"Sev Zero" splits gameplay into two distinct parts: an on-the-ground third-person shooter, and a tactical map of the entire area. The game's 15 levels pit you against wave after wave of increasingly difficult alien foes.
At the beginning of each level, you receive limited funds to set up a few basic towers, each one of which has a slightly different function. Different towers can fire lasers, launch rockets, drain enemy health, slow enemies down and so forth. In-between waves, you can spend any money you've earned by defeating aliens toward upgrading the towers or building new ones.
Since the towers can't fend off aliens by themselves, you can also teleport around the map and take out aliens yourself. You can choose from a variety of weapons, including rifles, shotguns, machine guns, grenade launchers, rail guns and everything else that's come standard with shooters since the early '90s. The aliens vary from tiny swarming bugs to enormous, armored behemoths. Your equipment also improves as you use it more frequently.
Beyond that, there's not much to say. "Sev Zero" plays well and is unmarred by bugs, glitches or serious imbalances between weapons, towers or enemy units. However, the game doesn't have an original bone in its body. Hybrid action/tower defense games have been done before, and done better, by everything from "Sanctum" to "Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault" to "Assassin's Creed: Revelations."
Strictly speaking, "Sev Zero" is not fun, either. In spite of a few new weapons and towers, gameplay does not significantly change between the tutorial mission and the last level. Fighting your way through hordes of aliens gets old fast, and each level overstays its welcome by a wide margin. By the end of the second mission, we were eager to do just about anything else.
The game works, but just working isn't enough, especially when kicking off a brand-new system.
"Sev Zero" couldn't even get past the first loading screen without wasting a bunch of opportunities to make its almost-nonexistent story interesting. The opening narrative crawl (which advances out of sync with the voiceover) tells the story of a worldwide energy crisis that almost wiped out Earth, an alien race called the Ne'ahtu that covets humanity's new power source, and a brilliant hacker named Amy Ramanujan who may be able to stop them.
How did the energy crisis almost destroy the human race? We don't know. Why are the Ne'ahtu hell-bent on destroying humanity's foothold in the solar system? It's never addressed.
Do you get to play as the female Indian tech wizard? Of course not. You play as a nameless man with a gun shoved into a suit of power armor. Every time "Sev Zero" has the opportunity to do something creative or unexpected, it falls back on lazy, unexplained sci-fi tropes instead.
A talented writing staff could have used this kind of hackneyed setup for an over-the-top, cheeseball narrative, but instead, "Sev Zero" tells almost no story whatsoever. Amy gets approximately two lines of dialogue per level, and the Lieutenant gets none. Loading screens between levels give you a flimsy pretext for killing aliens, and killing aliens is supposedly its own reward.
Graphics and art
"Sev Zero" looks pretty good, provided that you judge it by the standards of a mid-budget PS2-era shooter. The Lieutenant, Amy and the Ne'ahtu are all rendered well enough, but are not very detailed. Textures in the distance look blurry, and the color palette doesn't seem to have much in it aside from gray and blue.
Graphical fidelity aside, the game's art design is a much larger problem. Like the game's gameplay and storyline, the art design is unbelievably bland. The Lieutenant and Amy look like nonspecific denizens of any near-future sci-fi story. The aliens come in a few different sizes, but all look like vaguely intelligent bugs. Every level in the game is a gray corridor where forgettable towers spew laser beams or green radioactive masses.
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"Halo" came out in 2004. "Mass Effect" came out in 2007. At this point, there is no excuse for a sci-fi game to look so blah.
Music and sound
The audio in "Sev Zero" hardly merits discussion. There's music, but you won't notice it and won't remember it after the level ends. The voice acting consists of a few unenthusiastic lines of dialogue and a rushed opening narration. The sound effects are tinny and uncreative, but serve their purposes.
If this review feels a bit bland and repetitive, it's only because "Sev Zero" thrives on blandness and repetition. You can play it from start to finish with a marginal sense of accomplishment and no bugs to hinder your progress. You can even replay it on harder difficulties, if you're the kind of person who thrives on watching airport luggage carousels and can tolerate that kind of boredom.
"Sev Zero" is the kind of game that a mid-level developer would have churned out to make a little extra money 10 years ago, not the kind of game that sells a new set-top box as a sustainable gaming device. If you just bought a Fire TV and need something to play, try "The Walking Dead" or "The Cave" instead.
Alternatively, play "Sev Zero," since it comes free with the Fire TV game controller, but don't be surprised if you can't remember where those six hours went a few months down the line.