Your Planet Needs YOU!
Scenes of graphic violence and gut wrenching horror were witnessed by millions when Paul Verhoeven's gore splattered sci-fi fest exploded onto the cinema screens a couple of years ago, which was received with a great sigh of relief from the masses. The film industry was becoming too clever by far, it would seem. A film, it was said, was not a film unless it had 18 different plots all running simultaneously, and more twists and turns than you could shake a stick at. So it was with great pleasure that we all sat and watched arms, legs and heads being ripped asunder by nasty special effects without having to spark up a braincell. This is a far cry from the controversial book of the same name, of which the film covers about 10 chapters. First published in 1959 and written by the man many claim to be the Godfather of Sci-Fi, Robert A. Heinlein (Asimov being the God of Sci-Fi, of course), it was a thinly disguised damning of the American political system and it's irrational paranoia regarding communism, the great evil of the East. So it was with some surprise that I noticed a development team from Australia, Bluetongue, was charged with making the game of the film of the book, especially considering the fact that their previous form involved an 'Australian Football' game that never made it past the shores of Sydney and a horse riding game specifically aimed towards the young females of the gaming community. Would they be inclined to go for an out and out action blastathon, or are they more likely to try to emulate the thought provoking ideals of the book? Well, the answer is a mixture of both, because 'Starship Troopers' is the first game of many purporting to mix role-playing and real-time strategy elements with anything approaching success. Would you like to know more?
Join the Mobile Infantry
For those of you who have been hibernating for the last couple of years, the main crux of the story is that a race of alien creatures known as Arachnids, or simply 'bugs', has declared war on Earth, which is now essentially all one state in which voting is a privilege allowed only to those who have performed their civic duty by joining the armed forces. Which is where you come in. You have joined the Mobile Infantry (MI) and, having taken the officer's training course, are deemed suitable to take command of a Strike-Force, made up of raw recruits from boot-camp. This team is then sent on varied missions in enemy controlled areas, from seek-and-destroy to capturing alien specimens to rescuing stranded troopers deep in enemy territory. They are all pretty difficult, with a steep learning curve which quickly levels out. As far as the strategy element of the game goes, you move your troops (there are usually between 12 and 18 of them in a given mission) across the maps, desperately trying to survive against the many types of Arachnid, from the common soldier, with its razor sharp beak and legs like a camel in a blender, to harmless workers, 'tanks' (the ones that spew flame and blast energy into space) and the vicious flying Hoppers. The animation of the enemy is second to none, with realistic movements and frightening effects - there is nothing quite as horrifying as having one of your troops shout 'Tank!' as the earth erupts, revealing a towering behemoth which quickly lays waste to all around it. Unfortunately the AI isn't particularly brilliant, and you quickly learn how close you can go without triggering a reaction from an enemy, meaning that you can stand on a flat piece of ground reasonably close to a bug and it will completely ignore you. Even worse perhaps, you begin to feel that there is absolutely no randomness to anything. It's all scripted, and this is used to good effect, but a surprise every now and then would have been nice. You can arrange your troops into any one of a number of formations, but you generally find that you will stick to one, because there doesn't seem to be any point in changing it. You can also adjust, individually or as a group, the troops' aggressiveness, from Stealthy through Normal to Aggressive, when your soldiers will shoot anything that moves, and rapidly run out of ammo. Finally there is a Berserk setting, or Suicidal as I called it, whereby your troops will scatter in all directions actively seeking out their deaths.
Service Guarantees Citizenship
The role-playing element is reflected by your troops' stats, and you build your squads with this in mind. Stronger? Faster? Do they have the potential to become 'Specials'? These questions, and others, should be considered, as well as remembering that once a trooper is dead they are gone for good. After a mission each trooper gains experience, and therefore their abilities go up. But what if, after a particularly heavy mission, most of your veterans are bug food? You are back to the equivalent of a 'bug kit-kat', novices who can't hit a barn wall from the inside. Best to train them all, rather than sticking with the few. As they gain experience, soldiers can rise in rank and suddenly realise that they remember how to use different weapons and armour. You can also train certain members to become medics, who can heal the injured and call for emergency medical ships to evacuate the more terminal. There are also engineers who can lay mines and repair armour, MISt Troopers who carry sniper rifles, and even Specials, psychics with a range of powers including the ability to take control of enemy units. The weaponry is diverse and loyal to the film, from chainguns and rifles to heavy weapons like the grenade launcher and the ultimate Nuke Launcher, and there are plenty of other gadgets to enable your crew to target better or carry an extra weapon. Armour comes in several forms, depending on the rank of the individual unit, and each comes with its own special abilities, such as Marauder Suits which can fire off a volley of mini-rockets, and Command suits which emit a protective shield around the strike-force. With a multitude of options available to you before you send your troops into battle, it's great fun trying to balance the group so you have enough heavy weaponry to take out the critters at a distance, but still have enough close range weaponry for any nasties that rush you. Another cool effect that should be mentioned is how the troops, as in the film, will back up and cover each other when attacked, blasting like mad whilst trying to avoid those claws.
Play Until You're Dead .. Or We Find Someone Better!
But as good as it all sounds on paper, there are several problems that arise which, to be honest, completely ruin a game that could have been so much better. Perhaps the biggest problem is the third person camera that follows the troops. By holding the right mouse button down you can swing the camera around in an ellipse centered on the group, but if you split the group up the camera stays focused on a spot roughly in the middle of the troops, which effectively forces you to keep your troops bunched together. The real cruncher is that when a unit dies the camera still recognises it as a part of the group. The maps are quite large, and when you send the rest of the group on you suddenly find yourself looking at dots in the distance, your view of the proceedings being blocked by mountains, and generally causing you to reach for the 'restart mission' button. Because of this problem you cannot afford to have a unit die until the final objective is nearly complete, which makes an already difficult game quite impossible. Additionally some missions require certain weapons to be carried, but if any unit dies, even if it is not the one holding the required weapon, the game claims that he is the one that died. And you only have three chances to get it right because there is no 'savegame' within the missions. When you have been playing a mission for over an hour and three different units have copped it, you will have to play it all over again from the start! Transmission cancelled.
Here is a game that has all the right atmosphere and, for once, really comes across as how a game of a film should look and feel, and it's just the game to successfully bridge the gap between role-playing and strategy. Admittedly it loses many of the elements of each genre in the process, but manages to pull it off all the same. It's just the annoying 'bugs' that should have been spotted as problems when the game was tested that completely ruin it, with the 3D camera making life almost impossible if you let any of your squad die. Should Bluetongue release a patch that fixes these difficulties I would happily give the game a score of 8/10, but in its present form it is just plain frustrating.