Rocketmen: Axis of Evil takes the classic dual joystick shooter formula founded by games like Robotron: 2084 and repopularized by games like Geometry Wars and gives it some superficial RPG elements. Its best feature is that it allows for four-player co-op, locally or online. But the game itself isn't much fun, regardless of the number of players. With its plodding, monotonous pace and scattered presentation, Rocketmen doesn't do enough to separate itself from the seemingly infinite number of other dual joystick shooters available via Xbox Live Arcade or the PlayStation Network.
The game goes for a retro-futuristic vibe, and it often feels a bit like some old radio play brought to life in video game form, with some occasional humor thrown in for good measure. The story, which is told through comic-book-like panels that move a bit too much for their own good, pits the good guys (Earth), against an evil empire of martians and terrans--which if I'm not mistaken, also refers to Earth. The whole thing comes from some sort of kid-friendly table-top strategy game, which I had never encountered before I sat down to write this review. So I can't really tell you if fans of the cards-and-plastic-ships game will be into this at all.
But I can tell you that the gameplay starts out fairly standard, and the first level was decent enough to make me feel OK about investing in the full game. But after that, the game's rough spots really start to show. For one, your default weapon is complete trash. Later on in the game, even the basic enemies seem to take 20 hits to kill with your default piece. Of course, you can pick up additional weapons, and they'll usually clean house, but they don't last very long, even if you upgrade them. You also have an arsenal of secondary weapons at your disposal, but beyond the standard dumb-fire rocket, most of these never felt very necessary. Your movement speed is also really sluggish compared to the bullet speed, making it a little more difficult to dodge shots than it is in other, similar games.
The weird thing is that most of these problems are things you'd expect would go away as you upgrade your character. You can pump up your weapons, buy armor, and use your experience points to jack up your character's stats in a handful of categories like life, speed, and damage. But even with these stats raised to their maximum, you never feel especially tough. It doesn't help that you fight the same handful of enemies throughout the entire game, yet as you go from level to level, those same, bland enemies somehow take more shots to kill.
Rocketmen has ten levels, and you can tackle them alone or as a group. You'll see the story sequences in multiplayer, so this is a perfectly viable way to play on your first run-through. The game doesn't feel like it scales the difficulty much when you're playing with others, though, so if you want to raise your character's levels quickly, you'll probably want to do it by yourself.
Not that it matters too much if you die. When you run out of health, you fall to the ground, lose ten percent of the experience points you've collected in that level, and respawn, good as new.
I have a deep, weird thing for dual joystick shooters that goes all the way back to Robotron. I'll obsess over the good ones, and I'll give the bad ones more of a shot than they probably deserve. But aside from offering co-op, some occasionally-clever dialogue, and the generic, Diablo-like thrill that I get from any game that lets you build up your character, Rocketmen: Axis of Evil doesn't have much going for it.