Saturday, November 19, 2011

Brown Before It Was Cool: Desert Strike

It's strange how much things stay the same. Back in 1992 EA's biggest success was a military shooter based around real world weaponry and a fictionalized version of a modern conflict in the Middle East. Some people were saying that it was in bad taste. It was a whole big thing. On the other hand, much of the success of Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf was based on the way it was different from the other shooters at the time. It isn't about just blowing up everything on screen and never getting hit by a single bullet, but about going around, completing objectives, and tactically dealing with any opposition there might be.

It is also strange to think that the giant, faceless company that EA is now once had its biggest success to date with a game that was designed and chiefly programmed by only one guy, Mike Posehn. It was originally suggested he make a game similar to Choplifter, but it seems closer to Raid on Bungeling Bay to me. The game is also labeled with “EA Air Force,” which makes me wonder if this was some sort of label for EA's flight-related games, or if it was only used for this game. At any rate, it wasn't used for the Strike sequels, but according to eBay they did make EA Air Force pins.

During a time when almost every game in which the player controls an aircraft was a scrolling shooter, Desert Strike was unique. The player controls an Apache helicopter, the game is viewed from an isometric perspective, and it uses character-relative controls, which is to say, tank controls. The controls do make the game slower than it might be, but it gives the game a methodical method and a believable feel. The methodical way the game is played is the most interesting feature of the game because it is, other than the different perspective and controls, what makes it so different from shoot 'em ups of the day.

Instead of having infinite ammo, crazy power ups, and a goal of getting from point A to B ending in a boss fight, this game takes a more realistic approach. Each level is a big square with various objectives that need to be met in order to complete the mission. When these objectives are done is completely up to the player, and that adds an element of strategy and planning to how missions are completed. Though the weakest machine gun on the helicopter has infinite ammo, the weapons that do real damage, two types of missiles, are in very limited supply and need to be frequently refilled by picking up ammo crates scattered throughout the levels.

I like the way it is important to pick up extra ammunition, fuel, and friendly troops in order to complete each level. This, combined with the methodical controls, makes the game more of a thinker's shooter than the average twitch reactions of shooters of the day. There are other things about the game that are charming, like the rocking music, detailed sprites, and simple joy of blowing stuff up. As smart as the game is, this didn't make EA think much about milking the success and releasing annual sequels with Jungle Strike, Urban Strike, and others. It's strange how much things stay the same.

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