Final Exam ReviewJoe Shaffer
I'm not one to turn my nose up at simple action titles. Be it a repetitive zombie-laden shooter or a mindless brawl, I can usually manage to get myself into the mindset that nothing matters but committing to primitive combat. Unfortunately even when I'm able to achieve this zen-like state, I run afoul of a game that's so tiresome that even I can't stomach it beyond one visit. Such was the case, at least at first, with the modern brawler Final Exam.
The beat 'em ups of yore, from what I remember, were a bit like playing with action figures. Mechanics aside, they usually worked best when they allowed you to assume the role of either your favorite licensed characters or burly badasses like Mike Haggar. Final Exam unfortunately, features no such characters. Instead, the game offers generic figures based on high school social archetypes including a preppy, a nerd, a jock, and a punk chick. In other words, nothing really to write home about (although the punk chick is kind of cool)... Thankfully, the game's entourage doesn't entirely hamper the experience. They're a tad dull, but not outright offensive. Besides, playing the single player campaign does a better job of souring the experience than the characters do...
No, Final Exam is not a high school brawler, wherein you punch out a variety of teenagers. The main characters are actually graduates and longtime friends on their way to a supposedly wicked party. Unfortunately, their plans come to an abrupt halt when they find themselves trapped in a town overrun with grotesque monsters. It's a that point that they do what any beat 'em up heroes would do: pull over and commence incessant punching. Thankfully, Final Exam's combat goes beyond merely utilizing a single, simple combo attack, as you can also uppercut your opponent into the air, toss it into other creatures or environmental hazards, or even blow it away with a few rounds from your handgun or a grenade blast. To boot, there other weapons you can secure throughout the game, such as a machete, a rocket launcher, and molotov cocktails.
The combat is furious for a good portion of the campaign. Abominations bleed from every crevice, some running at you, others bounding through the air with impressive acrobatics, and some even dive-bombing you. They lash at you with flesh-rending talons and douse you in corrosive green goop, and the best you can do is launch an all out button-mashing assault and occasionally sidestep. Unfortunately, even with all of the added combat nuances and the game's impressively fluid animation, Final Exam grows repetitive. As you advance through the campaign, enemy contingents increase in volume and ferocity. Eventually action segments become desensitizing, and the game slowly loses its charm. Before I had even reached the penultimate stage, I found myself avoiding enemies just to finish up objectives and be done with the campaign.
The developers did everything they could to keep the game fresh. Thankfully, they managed to provide a goodish number of special segments that aid in providing the experience with some much needed variety. For instance, one scene hearkens back to arcade shooters similar to Demon Attack and Phoenix, in which flying enemies descend from the top of the screen that you must blast before they can reach the bottom. There are a few other crazy scenarios as well, including one in which you battle aerial foes while riding on the back of a flying monster and another where you captain a parade float armed to the teeth with deadly weaponry.
Sadly, most of the objectives that Final Exam has to offer include scouring the intricately designed stages the game showcases and either fetching items, destroying targets, or escorting NPCs. While such objectives are pretty much expected in almost any simple mission-based game these days, Final Exam features a fair enough wealth of them that they grow tiresome. After reaching the halfway point, each instance of the above cliche objectives left me wondering why the developers didn't invent another creative scenario rather than rely on such trite material...
The game features a fair number of other nuances that sweeten the deal a little, like perks and upgradable stats (think RPG elements), not to mention collectible capsules hidden throughout the levels. Unfortunately, they do little to assuage the tedium that is single player mode.
It may sound at this point that I'm about to award the game middling marks and move on with my life. In actuality, I did discover enough merit in Final Exam to at least give it a better than average score, and I found it in the one place I probably would never have looked: co-op campaign mode.
I don't play many games in co-op mode, which is a shame. I've come to find over the years that some of the mediocre offerings that I've toyed with were amazingly improved with the addition of cooperative play. In the case of Final Exam, this mode doesn't merely manifest as you and a friend beating the ever-love crud out of scores of monsters. Rather, there's a fair balance of both cooperative and competitive play. The game achieves this by granting you a number of objectives to strive towards while granting score bonuses to those who complete objectives and/or slay adversaries without dying. At the end of each segment, the game ranks your performance and gives you cause to laugh in your friends' faces or grovel in defeat. I'm not usually the competitive kind of player, but I that Final Exam's setup motivated me to gun straight for objectives and always try to stay one step ahead of my cohorts, while also helping them out.
There's no need for you inhabit the same screen as your mates. If you wish to run off and do your own thing, you're free to do so. Of course, there is an advantage to having friends around, as you can easily become overwhelmed otherwise. I died more often in co-op mode than I ever did in single player, mostly because the game bumps up enemy volumes to suit the increase in players.
While playing co-op, I had an absolute blast. When I attempted the game later in single player mode, I found that the magic that came with cooperative mode just wasn't there. I think there's definitely some charm in rounding up a few friends and mashing buttons together that becomes lost when you play alone. Maybe it's the social aspect or maybe it's an animalistic need to be competitive. Whatever it is, Final Exam is head and shoulders better in its co-op configuration than it is while approaching it solo.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.