In The Beautiful Belly Of PixelJunk Shooter 2, There Lies A Better Bite Of Call of Duty

For one third of PixelJunk Shooter 2, players will command a small spaceship whose guns and thrusters must contend with the small problems of creatures that belch missiles or lava and with the large problem that the caves through which it flies are intestines churned with the processes of digestion.

For the remaining two-thirds of this PlayStation 3 sequel, the spacecraft's adventures are even more interesting than that.

The best quality of PixelJunk Shooter 2, a downloadable 2D game with cartoon graphics and catchy music, isn't its surface — more accurately, subterranean — appeal. Rather, this is a game that sits fascinatingly at an unexpected intersection: at the place where the Japanese roads of Space Invaders-style shooters and Zelda-clever level design meet again, as they did in Shooter 2's predecessor, but now converging with the American cross street of multiplayer that was paved by a recent Call of Duty.

Why You Should Care

The people who made Shooter 2 are on an exceptional quality streak, establishing their Q-Games studio through a string of downloadable releases for the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo DS as one of the most consistently excellent makers of games that don't come in boxes. Each release is a notice of how well-made, how fun and how complete downloadable games can be. This one merits special attention as Q attempts to establish a Call of Duty-style multiplayer scheme to a non-first-person-shooter.

What We Liked

The Unchanging Fundamentals PixelJunk Shooter 2's campaign mode is not radically different from that of the enjoyable game it follows. As in late 2009's PixelJunk Shooter 1, one or two players control one or two spaceships that can be flown through caverns filled with shoot-able enemies, lost explorers and buried diamonds in need of a tug from a grappling hook and an abundance of fluids. The fluids from the first game — lava, water and a magnetic oil — are scene-stealers again, as the undulate realistically when fired upon and when cascading through a newly exploded hole in the ceiling toward one's ship. Lava will burn you, water will cool you back down. Lava mixed with water forms rock and that combo is often the solution to you problems.

All that is back, set up in Shooter 2's themed worlds 4 through 6, which follow the first game's 1 through 3. Each world contains five levels; each level contains several sections full of enemies and lost explorers. Just as the designers of a new Mario game might add a dinosaur or the ability to transform into a bee and then extrapolate as many fun interactive challenges from that, Q-Games adds, in Shooter 2, purple stomach acid and green egg colonies, two new fluid types whose rules of interaction with your ship and with other fluids are more delightfully discovered on your own (Note: If you watch the video in this review, you'll learn some of them). Your ship can once again briefly transform into, say, an airborne lava cannon, but it also turn into a hungry mouth that can munches dirt in any of four directions. It's an old-school joy to learn the slightly new chemical and physical properties of PixelJunk Shooter 2's three new worlds and what is possible inside them.

The Cleverness Of The Caverns Each section of PixelJunk Shooter 2 is a cavern — sometimes set inside a stomach — that must be escaped. Reaching the exact is both a battle and a puzzle, the kind of challenge that recall locked Zelda rooms where a set number of torches must be lit with inflamed arrows or where enemies must be cleared before a walls is bombed open. In Shooter 2, escape is possible in one section only after figuring out how to safely dive through a sea of acid or by learning where to find a water source that can cool a swelling volcano and deducing how in the underworld to get that water to reach that lava. As the game progresses, the levels become more mechanical, as switches and lights, electricity and magnetism come into play. The solving of these locked-room conundrums usually involves a pleasant eureka moment and, crucially, the sensation that performing the solution is almost always as fun as the figuring it out.

The Soundtrack Some people tune video game music out, or so I've heard. Sometimes they do this because the music is not as stylish nor as interesting a mix of record-scratching, jazz and whatever other eclectic influences inspired the series' maestros, the producers of "stoned soul hip-hop" High Frequency Bandwidth.

The Multiplayer This really shouldn't work. The consensus after PJ Shooter 1 surely wasn't that the game needed the ranked, tiered, role-playing-game inspired multiplayer of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Well, that's what we got. Shooter 2's online multiplayer (its campaign is only couch co-op) allows players to duel and improve. As combatants win or lose, we gain level-ranking points as well as fake money to spend on upgrades. In the early going, I was able to buy a trio of potent seeker-missiles, but my online nemesis had purchased a miserable scrambler that could reverse my controls and send me flying toward deadly lava. As Call of Duty players lust for the chance to purchase a red-dot sight, I look hopefully at high-ticket items in the Shooter 2 fake-money store, like the tidal wave that wipes across the screen, the upgrade that reverses the direction of gravity or — I can't wait — the one that reverses time.

The CoD-style system provides a framework around a very non-CoD-style competition. Players compete in matches set in arena levels, taking turns on offense and defense, trying to rescue more lost explorers than the other by the match's end. First, one player gets to fly around trying to rescue lost explorers while the other person tries to find their cloaked ship and shoot them down. The roles reverse after a timer ticks down, though, cleverly, the roles also reverse if the hunter player manages to snatch the ghost of the player he or she just defeated. That ghost-grab is a fairly easy move, making turns end with shocking but delicious suddenness. Bear in mind that this competition is played in levels packed with the fluids and their properties from the campaign. So yes, you want to chip a cavern wall with a missile as you pass it so that the chase player gets a bath of lava. It's great fun, though standard caveats apply: let's see how many people play it, how balanced it proves to be as more do and whether cheaters can be kept from ruining it.

What We Didn't Like

The Encouragement To Waste Electricity The campaign levels of PixelJunk Shooter 2 are clumped together, some of them ending in dastardly boss battles. You can only save your game at the end of each clump, which enforces hour-plus sessions for those who are plumbing the game's levels at a thorough pace and wish to actually save their progress. This is no great grievance, but it becomes a grander discouragement after the game's campaign is completed and further reward is available only if every single thing is found in those older levels. At that point, it would be preferable to be able to spelunk into any one discrete section of the game, explore and save. The alternative is to keep playing in chunks, and, if not at a save point, to leave the system idling, sucking power before you have time to return. Yes, the heresy here is the equivalent of not being able to save at the end of Mario World 1-2, an unthinkable thing. But game design has evolved since then and, as far as I can tell, Shooter 2 is without warp zones.

The Final Upgrade This is not a game whose final abilities are to see sound, to drive a Metal Gear or to use two hookshots at once. As increasingly clever as the level design in Shooter 2 proves to be, without spoiling, the game's final ship upgrade is the series' least interesting one. It makes sense given the nature of the game's final levels, but it lacks the brilliance of, say, the returning Inverter Suit that makes magma cold and water molten.

The Bottom Line

PixelJunk 2 Shooter bears the risk that it is more of the same, only as newly clever as a sequel can be that is built atop familiar foundation and floors. It does little that would please those who the first game displeased and mostly provides the improvements in its clever and visually beautiful campaign that its fans would have expected.

Its competitive multiplayer, which merges pure 2D game design with modern upgrade-unlocking warfare, is its radical twist. With a friend, the online challenges are marvelously distinct and fun. But with friends you don't gain fake money to climb that upgrade latter. You can only earn that against strangers, hoping nice people play this game and that what Q-Games has unexpectedly built can sustain the stresses of online competition. Even if that experiment fails — only time will tell — it is part of a very good game.

PixelJunk Shooter 2 was developed by Q-Games and published by Sony Computer Entertainment of America as a downloadable game for the PlayStation 3, released on March 1. Retails for $9.99. A redemption code for the the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Cleared the campaign over the course of eight or so hours, battled in online multiplayer against my former Pokémon nemesis, MTV's Russ Frushtick. who proved he's as vicious with a spaceship as he is with Totodile. Wait'll I earn that wave.