Releasing a game adaptation of Starship Troopers some eight years after the movie might not seem like the smartest commercial decision ever, but as far as '90s sci-fi action goes, Paul Verhoeven's movie was definitely one of the most memorable of its time. Fortunately the signs are promising that this isn't just another generic game-of-the-movie exercise, with Empire Interactive having widened its scope to take in the entire franchise including the cult Robert A. Heinlein book that the film was based on, as well as the animated cartoon series. Oh, and the completely ignored movie sequel, but we'll gloss over that one and move swiftly on.
With a broader scope for developer Strangelite to work with there's certainly hope that the team can come up with something better than Hasbro managed with its forgettable strategy effort five years ago. On the other hand, the competition in the FPS field is, to say the least, intense, and Starship Troopers will have to be something very special to avoid summary dismissal next to the likes of Halo and Half-Life. So, when a three-level playable demo emerged blinking into the daylight, we were keen to see how well it fared in the excitement stakes next to Aftermath and Prey.
Set five years after the events of the 1997 movie, the game puts you in the slightly anonymous shoes of a member of the mobile infantry who's under Johnny Rico's command. As you might expect in a game where you're fighting a seemingly never-ending war against some very ugly giant arachnids, plot isn't hugely important. It's very much a case of following waypoints, picking up important objects, defending key personnel and shooting the gelatinous green gunk out of anything that feels the need to crawl menacingly into view.
The first of the trio of missions in our preview build, The Compound, wastes no time thrusting you straight into bullet-spraying action in an outdoor mission that takes place under the cover of darkness. In the now-familiar FPS style, you're constantly surrounded by chattering NPCs who don't seem to mind too much that 40-foot high bugs are swarming all over the place and help provide a few one-liners on cue.
Moving from one group of gung-ho soldiers to the next, you're swiftly sent off up the hill to (pretty much) single-handedly secure a compound being overrun by insects. Dodging the wild slashes and the frightening charge of the Warrior Bugs, they're not the hardest creatures we've ever faced, but the appeal comes more from their staggering numbers. In short, the gameplay is fast, frantic, and relentless and does a good job of matching the crazed intensity you might recall from the movie, with the promising engine capable of displaying up to 300 creepy-crawlies on screen at once. Whether it manages to replicate the wry satire of the film or not is hard to tell from this truncated demo, but we have a feeling Strangelite probably focused more on the non-stop gore fest appeal more than anything.
Arach and roll
The demands of such action on the system are pretty clear, though. At this unoptimised stage, our reasonably well-specced PC (Radeon 9800 Pro, 3.2GHz P4, 1GB RAM) had a few issues coping with the pace when the going got tough, and we were forced to drop the detail down a notch to be able to play it at an acceptable pace. To be fair though a lot can change between now and release, and we'll be keen to see how it fares when the finished build arrives sometime next month. At high detail the game certainly looks pretty impressive, with complex terrain texturing bringing the rocky planet surfaces to life, and the excellent arachnid character models looking very close to those used in the movies; with around 20 featuring in the game as a whole, there's a decent amount of variety promised.
Indeed, the game's environments promise much, with some of the game set on Klendathu, the alien's home planet - including their hive colony. Elsewhere, expect plenty of military ships and the usual dark and moody bases with flickering lighting, clanking metal walkways and a cold gun metal grey ambience.
On one of the later levels the game tasks you with replicating the memorable fort scene from the movie, with the human forces desperately trying to fend off wave after wave of Chariot bugs, not to mention the deadly flying hoppers that swarm around your defences. Mounting an AA gun, it's a seemingly unending siege of lead and green goo, as one alien cretin after another succumbs to a volley of hot metal, only for another fifty of their mates to appear over the horizon to take their place. Tasked with protecting other parts of the fort, you're left hopping to and fro, leaving much of the shooting in the hands of the various other AI buddies that line the fort's defences.
While subtlety certainly isn't Starship Trooper's strong point, action certainly is. Whether or not the game's weapons and enemies do more to impress is rather up in the air at the moment. At this stage it's very much a case of mowing down a succession of charging bastards with either a machinegun, shotgun or accompanying grenade. Not the most incredibly imaginative selection, you might argue, so we'll await the final build for a more considered verdict on that side of the game.
With a more challenging and varied selection of bugs to duke it out with, Starship Troopers has potential; but it's not potential that was especially evident in this truncated demo.
Another area we're unable to report on with any clarity is the game's multiplayer offerings. So far, we're aware that only eight-player support is being targeted for deathmatch-related modes, but we're sure there's more to come. For the full low-down on Empire's big game, join us next month for a full, in-depth look at Starship Troopers to see whether it really can challenge the big guns, or get squashed like an ugly bug.
Starship Troopers is due to be released some time in October.