Renegade Ops Reader Review
Desert Strike is a game often quoted in musings about games that deserve remakes and a game fondly remembered by many who played it during the olden days of gaming. Since its release in 1992, there have been a number of sequels in different terrains but the playability and accessibility of the original game has rarely been captured by modern arcade titles.
Nineteen years after Desert Strike, Renegade Ops blends its appealing mix of isometric action and vehicle momentum with the deceptively simple twin-stick shooter mechanic.
The almost superfluous plot is prettily presented, in comic-book panel style at the beginning and end of missions, with some panels appearing during gameplay. The Renegades manager, Bryant, is a decorated soldier, despondent at the lack of meaningful action to combat the rise of a violent and ruthless terrorist who goes by the name of Inferno. In the spirit of all the best comic-book heroes, Bryant decides to form a squad of violent misfits to stamp out this new threat through the mediums of shouting, and loud guns.
In contrast to Desert Strike, the action in Renegade Ops predominantly features land vehicles. Each of the four available characters drives an armoured car through the beautifully crafted isometric environments. Equipped with machineguns and turbo boost as standard, each vehicle can also collect secondary weapons during missions, from a choice of Rocket Launcher, Flamer or Railgun. Your choice of one of the four characters that make up Bryants team also determines which special ability your vehicle is imbued with. These are a choice of Shield, Air Strike, weapon-disabling EMP or a giant cannon that causes a lot of damage at the expense of being fixed in place whilst firing.
The standard machinegun can be upgraded with collectible boxes randomly dropped from enemies during missions, improving the single stream of bullets to a dual and then triple firing mode which lasts for the duration of your current life. Killed enemies sometimes drop health or ammunition for secondary weapons, and more bruising encounters with enemies such as tanks and bosses can often be a scramble to collect health from smaller kills if your timing comes unstuck and you fail to dodge incoming fire.
Movement is key in Renegade Ops, and Avalanche have created a weighty physics model that instantly invites the player to throw the cars around the screen. The precision of the controls is constantly challenged by rough terrain, occasional obstructions and the need to avoid damage, in a way that demands a degree of skill that is satisfying when you feel you are getting it right. Turbo boost can be used judiciously to avoid hazards, crash through buildings or just to offer a more rapid and less stable way of navigating the maps, which are dotted with short cuts such as ramps from cliffs, or villages you can quite literally drive through. There is a natural feel to the momentum of the land vehicles and the occasionally accessible helicopters that makes it a joy to try and dodge enemy missiles, shells and bullets as you fight to establish the classic twin-stick strafing position.
The game is lovingly realised, the units featured in the game are small on screen but on close inspection each of the player and enemy units is distinct and highly detailed. The world and units are crafted in a way that demands a reasonably sized HD display, as its scale and the necessity to distinguish between things are probably trickier on smaller or less detailed screens. Whether it is the dust clouds kicked up behind your boosting car, the overspill of napalm as you destroy a flame-equipped enemy or the crashing environmental destruction wrought by engagements with tanks and rocket enemies in areas populated with buildings, the graphics engine does a great job of bringing the action to life. The game covers forest, desert and industrial areas, some in the daytime, others showing off accomplished local lighting and graphical effects as they plunge your vehicles into the night or the rain.
To accompany the balanced handling and the lovely visuals, the game offers some typically martial background music, which is instantly forgotten once the sound effects take over. Upon destroying something with machineguns for the first time, it becomes clear that the bombastic nature of the weapons has had no audible expense spared on it, with guns, rockets, explosions and engine sounds combining into a satisfying cacophony, and then turning the volume up a little higher. The rumbling, direct and noisy sound effects add greatly to the atmosphere of the game.
Each of the nine levels are made up of a series of objectives, involving lots of speeding around and blowing things up, and the occasional use of a secondary fetch or destruction quest. Primary missions are indicated by a red arrow that guides you through the missions. These primary missions are also often time limited, forcing you into a three minute countdown to complete some objectives, a feature that keeps the pacing bolting along, and reinforces the boundaries of the score attack elements of the game. The game levels are quite long, weighing in at somewhere between ten and twenty minutes playtime for each level on Normal difficulty.
As you increase the game difficulty, the number of lives you have to undertake the missions shrinks and the number of points given for damage and kills grows. Score and damage dealt form the basis for the two statistics tracked on the leaderboards: 'Final Score' and 'Damage Streak'. A Damage streak is begun when you have started to cause a lot of continuous damage in a small space of time and operates like a score combo. Damage streaks are greatly increased by killing units during this damage dealing, as each kill adds another multiplier to the streak.
In addition to these features, each character also earns XP based on this score, meaning Damage streaks lead to faster leveling to unlock various abilities along Action-RPG styled skill trees. Firstly there are defensive improvements covering things like extra health, lives or turbo boost. The second skill tree offers upgrades to collectable secondary weapon options such as increased ammo capacity or secondary weapon functionality. The final tree details a number of additional features and improvements to the special ability of each vehicle, usually offering increased duration, reduced cooldown time or extra features for these unique abilities. As each character crosses level increments of 10, they progress from being able to equip one, two, three or four unlocked upgrades from across these trees.
Any upgrades you have earned in single player can be carried through to the multiplayer modes, whether that is the two player split-screen mode, or up to four player network play. Enemies don't appear to be scaled for these modes, making the Normal difficulty something of an easy prospect in multiplayer. The Hardcore difficulty can still offer a challenge in multiplayer games and it is still Game Over for those players careless enough to run out of lives, although they are left with the option to remain a spectator as the rest of the team continues to progress without them.
The multiplayer gives the chance to combine the special abilities of the various Renegades, so that one or more players can use the EMP ability to disable the weapons of enemies, or another can attract fire and use the shield to negate it while the heavy gun characters can rain down destruction in more safety than they are afforded in the single player mode.
The game sadly contains a number of very minor bugs, most of which, including occasional system freezes, become more apparent in the online multiplayer mode. None of the in-game issues distract from what is a very clever blend of old-school arcade action and a very up to date package featuring wonderful presentation, handling and sound, with an optional form of score attack for those that want to compete on leaderboards, and mild action-rpg stylings in the form of its unlock trees.
Loud, technically accomplished and tremendous fun, it's the small bugs that stop it being a 10. Hopefully somebody at Avalanche is beavering away to address them.