Saturday, January 8, 2022

Zone Raiders

Name:Zone Raiders
Developer:Image Space
Genre:Vehicle Sim
Time:10 hours

Zone Raiders is a budget title developed by Image Space and published by Virgin Interactive, under the Expert Software label. This would have been just another title on the shelf in 1995, as neither of these things meant very much in those days. This is in fact Image Space's debut, they would go on to making racing sims, starting with a target of personal hatred, Sports Car GT, and eventually hit on making actual Formula 1 simulation software. This is the company's sole violent outing, one act of aggression before making mundane games in mundane settings. As mundane as being a race car driver can be, anyway.

This was a pain to get started. It doesn't work in DOSbox, or at least it doesn't work in DOSbox, in Linux. it works fine in DOSbox-X through WINE.

This is one of the few times you'll see something this good in this game
Set in a vaguely post-apocalyptic Earth, where various groups go into sections of the old world called "zones" to retrieve stuff. The player has just joined a group looking to get to the Free Zone, and they need to find a bunch of crap in order to get some old jet working to get there. The player shall be using one of five hover cars, based off classic car designs, to destroy anyone in their way of the parts they need.
A typical Zone Raiders scene
Starting up the game, it was very good. The opening level is a simple one, but that's understandable. Its a good level for getting used to the controls. My first thought was, this is perfect, this is how a hover car should feel. Its hard to fully explain without playing it yourself, but it feels right. The momentum, the way it feels at full speed, turning around to blast someone following you. Even the annoying bobbing the car does feels like its something that should be here. The game has autoaim, which you can turn off, but you shouldn't do that since manually aiming usually ends badly.
What else you'll be looking at for the duration of the game
There are 15 "explosive tracks", divided into three distinct sections. The first five levels, including the tutorial, take place in some kind of industrial area in the sky. These are effectively a series of highways that lead into small arenas. It feels like a cross between a racing game and your standard FPS from the era. To complete a level you need to find somewhere between 1-4 items and then the exit. To do this you have a VLocator, which tells you how close you are and in what direction the next item is. It doesn't tell you if there's a path to the item the way you're headed or if there's an item nearer to you.
Different cars have different interiors
Enemies are either other hovercars, of various sizes or stationary turrets. The interesting thing about them is they all use the same weapons and targeting system as you do. This means you can figure out how to counter most enemies fairly early on. I'll explain all these later, but there are two types of enemies that get very annoying, ones using grenades, and ones using homing missiles. These are the second and third best weapons, respectively, and are deadly even in the hands of the AI. The only real method of dealing with these guys is to never let them fire to begin with, which makes me wonder if there's something I missed or I'm supposed to be cheap.
Falling happens a lot in this game
For the most part, the enemies aren't much of a problem. The game is generous enough with shield pick-ups that you never need to worry about dying from health loss. The real threat is from falling down into the void. The game has a not insignificant number of areas where you have to jump, pits you have to fall down and areas with secrets. While the AI is incredibly stupid, basically just charging at you and shooting blindly, a good number of them just fell down just like I did. There's a time limit which says its only 15:00 minutes, but it seems like its constantly stopping and I never once lost thanks to it.
What a quality...sprite...?

After a few missions, I had to break out some guy from a jail. I wasn't paying too much attention to the story at this point, but it turns out that the game has a more important one than I thought. A group of people called ECO had persuaded the guy to take off without us, and crashed the jet out in the wasteland. The game makes a point to telling me he was headed for a teleporter pad, but I'm not sure how different it is from the exit pads I've been using.

Imagine one of those levels with a cyberdemon in a hallway, in the base game, constantly

The second set of missions are in a mix of tunnels and valleys. Same principles as before, long highways that sometimes lead to arenas. Here, thankfully, there are not any pits you can kill yourself in. So I actually died to enemies here. This feels like the most normal of all the level sets. Most of the roads actually have room to move around in, so it doesn't feel like a hacked in race track in a mundane shooting game. The time limit is also completely removed in these (and only these) levels.

This isn't even the most complex map and it doesn't show any secrets
Don't get me wrong, they screw it up. Grenade launching enemies start appearing here. Worse still, there are very narrow roads, of which there are usually a few enemies hiding in, usually with grenades. How do you hide in one? Well, if you go along one at speed, you're bound to get some air. That's where they hide. The developers try to be very good at hiding them, but because they reuse the same tricks constantly, it becomes tiresome.

Firing a grenade at someone I can't see, with undoubtedly mixed results
I should point out there are secrets in this game. Shoot the right wall and you'll get some goodies and possibly a new route. The other sections have secrets, but not to the degree that this section does. The others lack the secret paths. Sometimes you get spit out on another section of the map others you can reach an objective much quicker. Thing is, the high ground, and its always the high ground, doesn't give you an advantage in attacking enemies. You actually want the low ground, because the targeting system can aim higher but not lower. Grenades aren't guaranteed yet, and always have an awkward arc when you're trying to hit something close.

Considering they accomplished nothing so far in this game, that seems unlikely

This game isn't that hard, even when I played through the game without mid-level saves. You respawn at the start when enemies die, and the game tries to penalize you by reseting your score for this level and taking away all your weapons. Thing is, enemies remain dead, objectives remain achieved, so the only real loss is that you have less weapons in the level. You get better cars if you have a higher score, and eventually for the customizable car you get more power to put into it, but the game was never hard enough to necessitate me having to do that.

One of the more unique scenes, still happens quite a bit
Weapons in the game can be divided along 4 lines, the hitscan machine gun, the infinite laser cannon, the projectile cannon which pushes away enemies, aimed explosive weapons and arc explosive weapons. The arc explosives, the grenades and mortars have special use in certain situations, but mostly you're just going to be blasting away at enemies with whatever. Some enemies are better killed with better weapons, but you can survive most encounters with just the laser cannon.

ECO is incredibly unimaginative at naming things

There are five cars. They're more or less all focused on one specific task, the first is a jack-of-all-trades, then you have two that are tougher and one that is faster. The final car is customizable, and is found on level 6. If you find it, all other cars are unlocked, that or I got the final car along with it. Not that it matters much, since there's seemingly little reason to use the other cars. You're best off with either the custom car or the humvee, since its very easy to take damage in this game and they have the most health.

I'm a hero!

The third set of missions are set inside Central City, where ECO and I guess what remains of actual civilization. Now the player is out to destroy their defenses so the rest of those who live in the wastes can get in. I'm sure the intention is that the evil ECO is screwing over everyone in the wasteland, but considering that in-story, the people I'm working for will apparently kill me if I don't kill enough people, feels hollow.

Can you spot the gap in the road in this screenshot?

What follows is the worst set of missions by far. Its back to sky roads, only this time, platforming is involved. Its not really complex platforming, but I'm playing a game advertised as a racing game, and I have to platform. Be it through actual platforming or going over gaps. Almost all my deaths outside of the wasteland levels were from falling. Don't go fast enough? Fall into the void. Go too fast? Overshoot the track or fall off the sides. Trying to find the track in one of the side areas? Whoops, accidentally fell off. Go too fast and hit a railing? Whoops, you bounced over the railing. It sounds like I'm clumsy, but just so much goes wrong in this game.

Because they've been so trustworthy so far

What's interesting is that the developed tried to include multiple levels to the area, and areas that really sold the verticality of the game. But as I keep mentioning, flying over steep road is dangerous. Trusting the developers to allow me to safely drop down a hole is insanity. And it doesn't help that before now, the game had this power up that speeds you up that usually acts as something that gets you killed.

The big problem with this game is that falling, going over the railings, and other issues always seems to happen against me. These levels get very long, and because sometimes they cut back on themselves, it'd be nice to cut big parts of the level I've already cleared and poses nothing but time lost away. The thing is even in these cases I'm still clearing the level with plenty of time left. Its just busywork.

This practically feels like a secret level with how different it is compared to the rest of the levels
The final level is a pentagon full of big tanks, with five walkways you have to reach, each guarded by homing missile turrets. Do this, and where you're supposed to go next is a hole in the ground. It gets better, because the final boss is this thing. Its a puzzle boss, because you come down here, after having finally finished everything off, clearing out the series of homing missile turrets...and you have to figure out this thing. I'll tell you, you shoot a grenade above the flaming thing. Then you win, you get your ending cutscene, and wonder what the hell is going on.

At first I didn't care for the music. In the settings, the actual game sounds are set so low while the music is high, and yet it still sounds like practically nothing. If it weren't for the game slowing down whenever I played my own music, I never would have given it another chance. Its appropriate for a game where I'm looking through the ruins of an abandoned world. Which really feels at odds with the rest of the game, a fast racing slash car combat game. Such music is wasted when I'm blasting dozens if not hundreds of robots in the wasteland.

There are two curious things about this game. Firstly, the 3D engine. While I'm fuzzy on how budget flight sims did it in this era, being completely in 3D, with textures, feels very impressive for a budget title in 1995. Some major commercial games were still in 2D at this point. Secondly, this doesn't feel like it has any obvious inspirations. I've seen it compared to Wipeout and Quarantine, but neither of those compare very well to the bizarre blend of gameplay this has.

Ultimately, Zone Raiders is a game that just doesn't work. As a racing game, the combat aspect is too involved to work with it and the result of making a jump should be "Oh, yeah", not "Oh, god!" As a combat game, its just too simplistic to hold one's attention for long. Its not surprising the developers focused on one aspect of the game in their follow-up efforts, though whether or not any of them are any good remains to be seen.

While I don't really care for some of the weapons, they all have situations they're good for, in some cases very good for. 4/10

Generic, stupid vehicles. Some are tough, some are weak. What's interesting is that they all use the same weapons as you do. 2/10


Endless highways connecting to small arenas where the real combat happens. Not very impressive. 1/10

Player Agency:
Even when the rest of the game got gradually crap, this was still a highlight. Controls are bindable, and more or less cover anything you could want with what's allegedly a racing game. The cars themselves control very well. I had some issues with my vehicle bouncing in awkward ways, but I suspect this may be because I set up the custom car in a way that caused this. 9/10


When I was shooting enemies, it was a generic shooter. When I was just driving through the endless highways, there was a sort of strange melancholy about it. I wish there was more of the later. 3/10

This feels a lot like the early 3D games I usually cover, except this time most of the objects are covered. Very impressive that what amounts to a budget title has this going on, but it just feels bland. 2/10

More involved than I was expecting, but not very interesting. 1/10

Out of place music and sound effects that are definitely from a Dark Forces game. It never really felt like it had its own proper identity. 3/10

That's 25. Which puts it somewhere between the games with massive issues and the games that are actually good. If the controls weren't as good as they are, this would fall squarely in the bad department, and I'm not sure this is something I'd suggest even in that category.

Next up, a short Atari game before the big 100.

No comments:

Post a Comment