Despite being entirely in English (sort of) and shipping with full Xbox Live functionality (which is no longer supported), some truly terrible design choices make Victor Interactive's Muzzle Flash nothing but painful to play. Actually, playing the game is no trouble at all... completing it without breaking your controller, console and television into a million little pieces is the tough part. Despite some ridiculous problems, the game has a few interesting elements and there are a bunch of slightly fun mini-games to unlock as you play. Still, the overall execution never lifts the game above mediocrity... when it actually reaches that point. The hackneyed plot puts you in the boots of Leon Spencer, an illegal immigrant ex-Special Forces soldier and recovering alcoholic (!), who, in the opening movie is about to be deported permanently thanks to a squad busting into his tiny tin roofed shack. In lieu of a plane ticket and a pine box, a medal-wearing military type offers Spencer the “opportunity” to infiltrate his home country of Gameria in order to wipe out an entire terrorist network single handed. Huh? Granted, every other action game out there that features a one-man army going up against legions can also be seen as equally unbelievable. However, Muzzle Flash tosses so much baggage onto Spencer's back story that your suspension of disbelief will die laughing from the absurdity of it all. It's as if developers Beyond Games and Polygon Magic were intentionally trying to recreate the tone of those bad 80's action flicks that pop up on late night cable these days. You'll see a few cut scenes where Spencer tries to be sarcastic, but the gameplay takes itself far too seriously. Are you supposed to be playing a run & gun, stealth action or a half-baked simulation game? The game tries to be all three, but fails oh so epically. Let's just say that after about an hour or so of struggling with the very first mission it's better to drop the controller, step away from the Xbox and go watch one of those aforementioned bad 80's action flicks. It certainly beats attempting to twist your Xbox into a green-black plastic pretzel. There's a hilariously bad tutorial here (you can actually die while learning the basic game mechanics) that I'd recommend skipping except it's possibly the only real stage many players will actually complete. Between the haphazardly placed training sections (featuring some of the most poorly translated text I've ever seen) and all the oddly placed EXIT signs that quickly boot you out of the level as soon as you click on them, it's almost as if the game is warning you not to continue. Press on at your own risk but be warned: things are only going to go downhill from here (and ridiculously fast at that). In the very first mission, you're choppered into a desert map to attack and destroy an enemy ammo depot, a standard issue action game mission that should be a cakewalk to genre veterans. In a good game, the first stage is generally a primer for things to come. It's not supposed to be too easy, nor too difficult, right?. Well, Muzzle Flash has other ideas, kids. Whether or not you follow the “handy” on screen tips that interrupt your concentration, no matter how good a gamer you are, you'll be shot to death time and again well before you get anywhere near the depot. Here's where the poor game design decisions rear their ugly heads, destroying any actual “fun”. While you can use stealth to avoid some encounters and conserve ammo, this actually ends up penalizing you once you're spotted. Memorizing where enemies are located is completely useless, as the game adds more enemies to the map in addition to anyone you've crept by. This means you'll have far too many enemies to deal with once you're spotted and trust me, you will be spotted thanks to the game's next few pains in the programming. Not only is there NO in-game save system, forget about anything resembling mid-mission checkpoints as well. If you die (and you will) at any point in a map, you have to retry the map from the start with every enemy reset to his original position. Oh yeah, you also don't have health pickups, but you can find extra body armor in a few well-hidden locations. However, If you pick the armor up when you're healthy, it's wasted, which is really dumb. I normally don't mind tough games, but this is ridiculous, especially given the unbalanced gameplay. Eagle-eye snipers with perfect aim lurk atop faraway cliffs and unfortunately, you'll need to eliminate these guys first in order to survive more than a few minutes. Here's where the next set of problems kill the fun even more. Get this: you can ONLY carry two weapons at a time and one of them, a seven-shot pistol, can't be dropped at all! Your second weapon, a sniper rifle, can be dropped in favor of a dead enemy's machine gun, but this is a terrible idea that actually limits your strategy. This leads to a particularly troublesome Catch-22 that forces you to choose between sneaking past or engaging enemies at ground level as you try to take down the snipers. Should you decide to swap out your rifle for a dead enemy's automatic rifle or MG, you'll end up getting into firefights with multiple baddies that seem to appear out of thin air. If you want to snipe, you need to run all the way back to where you dropped your rifle or head up to one of the cliff top bases where you end up fighting it out with enemies that were out of range of your sniping skills. Even worse, kill a sniper and sometimes his ammo flies away from his corpse and over the cliff edge where it gets stuck in the cliff geometry away from your reach. Want more problems? Well, the level map is only accessible by hitting the Y button and selecting it, which promptly blocks a portion of the screen. Even worse, enemies are still moving while you're stuck in place looking at the map trying to see who's coming to get you. Enemy troops only show up as red dots on the map when you're close to them, but insanely enough, some dots blink in and out on the map at random. In other words, even if you use the map it's tough to tell just what you're up against until you're shooting or being shot at. I haven't even mentioned the controls yet. Your character moves as if he's a geriatric linebacker with a full diaper and targeting is equally crippled. Yes, it's nice to be able to switch on the fly between first and third person modes, have a lean button (in third person at least) as well as have four stance positions from standing to crawling. Nevertheless, when your character handles like a frozen Captain America trapped in an iceberg, things are going to get ugly. For laughs, the developer added the ability to side leap away from enemy fire by pressing in the Left analog stick in the direction of your intended dodge. It works when you're getting shot at (most of the time), but looks silly (especially if you leap into a tossed grenade or onto a mine). I did like the sniper scope being offset on the game screen which allows you to keep an eye on the environment (a la Second Sight), but in a cosmic joke...there's no zoom function on the scope! Aiming is terrible with the scope since it can't zoom AND bobs slowly up and down to boot. You actually need to use binoculars to zoom in closer to enemies before whipping out your scoped rifle just so you're not shooting at a radar tower or bunch of sandbags in the distance. Loose analog stick control makes both the binoculars and sniper rifle all the more infuriating. Spencer may be the recovering drunk here, but you'll be the one needing to take that 12-step program. The AI is atrocious, mixing in crack shot snipers from above with Imperial Stormtrooper wild shootin' ground troops that gang up on you once the alert is sounded. When you're spotted, multiple enemies will come straight for you (some from really far away) or try to crudely flank your position, which is pretty dumb under normal action game conditions. Here, your sniper rifle is near useless, and when you switch to the handgun, it takes about three to five shots to drop a baddie. Do the math: three bad guys plus a seven-shot handgun with an average of three shots to kill each man equals a level restart (and possibly a sudden urge to shoot your TV with a real gun). At least you have unlimited pistol ammo. Speaking of ammo, all your guns have to be manually reloaded while enemies seem to be able to fire forever. Want more? Well, in a nice touch there's actually splash damage from grenades and other explosives, which is great when a few enemies come at you. However (and tell me you couldn't see THIS coming), you'll more often than not blow the hell out of yourself and the enemies you were trying to kill thanks to the imprecise grenade throwing mechanic. Additionally, some enemies will actually get up after a grenade hit, shake it off and start shooting you! At least there's collateral damage as well – it's pretty funny to see enemies shoot each other or run into their own grenade range while trying to take you out. The only respite from the main game's woes is Additional Mode, a collection of timed mini-games where you can practice some of the game's so-called “tactics” in increasingly difficult missions. There are a bunch of sniper sections, a few maps where you're stuck in place and need to kill targets with grenades or other weapon, a section where you need to run a crazy gauntlet through a mined course with grenade tossing enemies on the sidelines and more. It's sort a precursor to The Club (only not as fun) and more missions unlock as you clear certain maps. As for the presentation, the stylized realism is pretty dire for 2003 and totally ugly today. The game pulls a bait and switch on you with some slightly nice looking title screens, but flat-looking in-game graphics that feature some iffy texture work. The game actually uses weather effects quite well, such as snowy areas where your vision suddenly becomes limited as clouds of snow blow across the map. But other elements such as the wallpaper-like water texture, blocky terrain and useless vehicles, look plain ugly. Character models aren't anything to write home about either, but it's nice to see enemy guards lounging around or stretching as they go about their business. One thing the game does perfectly is lose the music during gameplay. You absolutely need to concentrate on the enemy's movements and occasionally sounds they make as the game progresses, so any type of music pumping away in the background would be too distracting. There are a few generic tunes here and there and while some of the ambient sounds are OK, when Spencer rolls on the ground, it sounds as if someone is shaking a box full of stones. The voice acting and text are entirely in English, and the dialog is cheesy, but amusing stuff such as this early exchange between Spencer and the chopper pilot that drops him off in the desert: Pilot: “You know, there's nothing but terrorists and military freaks down there...” Spencer: “Well, I won't be shaking hands and collecting business cards.” Ooooo-kay. As corny/funny as that is, the assorted hint text is so terribly translated that it comes off as some sort of abstract poetry. For example, this gem (one of many “helpful” hints that pop up after you die): “When you found enemy troops, first look them by your binoculars. A person whose ear with his hand and listening the radio is the team leader. If you can defeat the leader at first, you won't be reported to the headquarters.” Well, it does make sense if you read between the lines, right? How about this one from the tutorial: “When a target comes to the center of crossing shoot with R. The timing and the hand vibrations are factors of success. I remind you, higher, your postures are, vibration increases.” There are a lot more howlers here that make the infamous Zero Wing translation job seem like Shakespeare. Also, Spencer is misspelled as Spenser more than a few times in the game... perhaps that's his alias? In the interest of full disclosure, I've had the game for a few months, have played it for hours on end (when I'm not reviewing other stuff for my blog or working on a column). To date, I haven't been able to get past the second mission thanks to some of the most annoying “AI”and balance issues I've ever encountered in over 36 years of gaming. I've also had quite a few friends try to play this beast including a few who've actually played in competitive gaming tournaments and even they've given up before the first level is halfway through. This either means that today's games are way too easy or this particular game was made for masochists who'll play something this bad until they nail every level. Patience I have, folks, but it's no fun playing a game that at every turn, puts a stop to whatever progress you make. That 3 I'm giving the game below is for the three good points it actually has. One, it works when you put it in your import Xbox. Two, it's entirely in English – broken English, but English nonetheless. Three: Additional Mode can actually be fun once you get used to Spencer's chuggy movement. You get to see more of the dreary level types and get a tiny taste of the main game, which isn't as much of a thrill to play. Anyway, avoid Muzzle Flash at all costs unless you're interested in the game as a collector of Xbox rarities. Trying to actually finish what's here will only be bad for your blood pressure, your Xbox and possibly anyone else in the vicinity.