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Review - Kristan gets all defensive

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Older readers and those of you that enjoyed playing video games as an embryo might recall the original Defender, a rock hard, super fast side scrolling shoot 'em up that was a monster arcade hit in 1980. Still revered today for its insane twitch gameplay, it was only a matter of time that those nostalgic types at Midway would see the commercial potential in producing an update.

Its transition from basic 2D scroller to a bells and whistles 3D aerial combat game hasn't stopped it from retaining all the key elements of the original, with the main core of the game still revolving around fighting a horde of bug like alien invaders, rescuing stranded humans.

If said humans get captured, you get a brief chance to wrench them back from their evil clutches by shooting the craft and collecting them before they fall to their death, but otherwise they mutate with the alien bug to become supercharged foes, intent on your destruction.

These shots are from the Xbox version - the PS2 one is jagged in comparison

Blast from the past

But just doing that in waves of increasing difficulty (as in the arcade) would be fundamentally dull and repetitive in this more demanding age, so Midway has introduced a host of other sub objectives to liven up the blastathon, including escorting drop ships to their destination unharmed, deploying tanks to defend your base and ensuring tank convoys make it to their destination.

If you can imagine it, it's a bit like a defending a base in Command & Conquer with a space ship (played in third person) while under attack from swarms of alien "buggers" (we kid you not) so if key pieces of your base get destroyed, it's Game Over. Likewise, if aliens destroy your convoy's escape route (such as a bridge, for example) then you will also fail. There are lots of ways to fail. Make no mistake, Defender is a challenging little pup, not unlike its grey bearded Arcade Dad, which if it were released today would prompt howls of pain from wounded gamers wondering why they get killed with one shot and have no continues.

Predictably, in this day and age there's the usual pointless introductory story, and even more pointless pieces of FMV to justify why it is you're on some alien planet shooting giant insectoids. Ehhhhh, when I were a lad, you just got on with shooting stuff, as fast and furiously as possible. None of this story telling lark. None of these gruff, butch American voiceovers giving you orders. But to be fair, in "my day", the graphics were utter utter rubbish, and the DVD extras give newbies a chance to laugh at just how bad.

The Defender itself - you can also pick from various other shops

It's Incoming, with knobs on

Which brings us neatly onto the subject of how well 2002's version fairs in the visual grace department. Learned readers will recall that in early 1998, Rage did a little show off non-game called Incoming, which was (in all but name) a graphical demo for the Voodoo 2. It's more or less on that quality level, and as such does a tidy job of representing what you'd imagine it would be like to pilot a spaceship around a rocky alien planet.

And predictably, Midway has pinched a few of the good ideas that were bolted onto its original template (by the likes of Konami with its Nemesis series) and included not only multiple ships (each with their own strengths and weaknesses), but multiple weapons (over 30 in total) and upgrades. Each mission scores you on how many rescues you have performed, how many kills, deducts the mutations/deaths and then you end up with credits which you can use to buy said upgrades, as well as extra craft - for this is one of those rare games that features that long forgotten concept: lives.

As you progress you are rewarded with faster, stronger, more manoeuvrable craft, and each comes fitted with its own unique weapons by default, as well as a special weapon, e.g. hyperspace, shields and the like, although sadly they soon run out, so sparse usage is the order of the day.

Death to the flying snot!

How thoughtful, they've left health packs lying around, on an alien planet

With just three craft at your disposal, you have to watch your shields a fair bit, although there are handily placed health kits dotted around. Quite thoughtful really, when you think about it. Shame they never thought of that concept 22 years ago.

Controls are fairly easy to get to grips with, employing a system that mainly uses the left analog stick for movement, right stick for 'stunts' (kind of a barrel roll evasive manoeuvre), R2 for acceleration, L2 for brake, L1 and R1 for strafing, X for fire, Square for weapon select, circle for "special", with various others for map, target select and so on.

The most alarming thing about your initial experiences of Defender is that even with all the chances to stay alive (the health, the shield, better weapons, etc) it's by no means an easy game. Playing on the default 'Veteran' level and the average gamer would struggle to find their way past level three. Dropping down to the more sane 'Rookie' level (as much as it pains us), is far more realistic, and anyone attempting to play this for the first time would be well advised not to try and be a hero - anything above Rookie will result in repeated deaths.

Even in Rookie mode it's a fair challenge, and will take a good chunk your time to plough through - with 20 levels (more on the Xbox and GameCube, so we hear) providing decent value for money versus the more sparse and easy to romp through Star Wars: Starfighter - its nearest competitor, genre wise.

Throw in nice additions such as the two player mode, allowing for some deathmatch action as well as some co-op, which admittedly untested for the purposes of this review, has the potential to get you through some of the tougher missions far more effectively.

Hrm, space combat - it could catch on...

Backs to the walls, chaps

However, unlike the still excellent Starfighter it didn't really grab us to any great extent, and doesn't strike us as the kind of game we could be bothered to slog all the way to the end of. Visually it's far superior, with a consistently busy frame rate, vastly improved texturing, and some nice bug like character models (complemented by some great boss monsters). Also the unintentional inclusion of the word bugger, with no hint of irony, is something you'd have assumed the localisation team would have, ahem, removed fairly early on in testing. But then given that Defender has just slipped, we wouldn't be surprised to find out that these alien critters are, in fact, not rogering our backsides any longer in the European version.

Defender is a fair stab at the aerial combat genre, but in the context of the super-successful original, this update has only a fleeting amount in common with its hardcore original, and certainly will have none of the impact. After some of the incredibly diverse and engaging games we've played recently, Defender feels fairly old-skool and limp in comparison. It's doesn't have the adrenaline fuelled action of the original, nor any neat new ideas to make it feel like a progression. Defender is merely a few borrowed ideas cobbled together and repackaged in new, but not especially sexy clothes. It's the Marks & Spencer of shooters; it's good quality, reliable, but entirely lacking innovation and just not very exciting.

Defender screenshots (Xbox)

6 / 10

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