Moon's mission statement is written on the many terminals strewn throughout its claustrophobic interiors. Each one builds the backstory like a brick laser-cut to precise dimensions:
"Subjects are extracted at a rate of 100 individuals per Earth rotation. Subjects are transferred directly to the facility's holding tanks via a precision particle beam that deconstructs the subject and reconstructs it on site. Success rate is 99.999%."
The writing's clean and efficient. That goes for the rest of the game, too, which is built with an understated charm and no-nonsense functionality that reveals an understanding of first-person shooter basics. Moon's setup is quick and painless: You're on the moon; you enter the base; things go wrong; you pick up a gun; you shoot.
The game has old-school legs. When you're not shooting or being shot, you're tasked with opening locked doors, disabling energy barriers, and racing against countdown timers. The high-tech environments are unapologetically samey, as are the robotic sentries that guard them. Each maze is a variation on a theme.
For anyone accustomed to mouse-and-keyboard controls, moving and shooting in Moon soon feels like second nature. You look around on the top screen by dragging the stylus over the touch-screen; you shoot by clicking the shoulder button. The touch-screen itself houses an overhead map that marks save points and doors -- but it's most useful for aesthetics. There's a pleasure to be had in seeing the twisting, turning shapes of the underground tunnels and caverns that trap you. At least 20 percent of these spaces are extraneous -- they do nothing to help you reach your destination -- and it's safe to assume the level designers built them out simply to achieve symmetry on the map.
What's most pleasurable is the game's basic run-and-gun. Moving feels fluid; shooting is surprisingly visceral. Enemy drones explode with a pop into clouds of green gas. It's a drag to abandon the game's tight action for sequences involving the RAD (Remote Access Droid) or LOLA-RR10 (Low-Gravity Land-Based Reconnaissance and Repulse Vehicle). In the former, you pilot a tiny, near-defenseless droid into otherwise inaccessible areas, tunneling into ever smaller and confusing spaces. In the latter, you drive around the moon's gray surface in a vehicle that handles like an SUV with a flat tire on an ice floe.
These segments break Moon's formula, which might have benefited from keeping to its essentials: seeing and shooting. If the game juggles too many pieces, at its best, you nudge those pieces into place like a skilled assembly-gamer. The game itself says as much. When you find one of two alien fragments needed to open a door, your commanding officer gives you the following line:
"Great. Now find the other one."
Expecting backstory, you get gameplay instruction.
Moon's actual plot points will be obvious to anyone who's watched a sci-fi film (or played a first-person shooter, for that matter); and reading in an FPS can be a pain. But text nonetheless has the ability to throw the dizzying sights and sounds of an FPS into sharp relief -- take pause from the chaos around you, halt your movement, and read about the world you're in. It's often surprising what words can fill in that graphics can't. Moon's self-aware writing shows the designers know gaming and literary convention inside-out.
But they do break one convention. Moon's curious soundtrack, a hybrid of Metroid and Ennio Morricone, compounds your feeling of being stuck inside the moon. The eerie electronic pulses, atonal sirens and coarse swoosh effects recall Morricone's chilling compositions for John Carpenter's arctic thriller "The Thing." It's an avant-garde move to make the DS' tinny speakers a virtue. But it's a little disappointing that the game sounds more otherworldly than it looks or plays.
"There's still one question, though ? whose hand was supposed to hold this weapon?"
The answer is, DS owners who've been looking for the fun and frustrating times that Moon brings back -- nothing more, nothing less.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.