Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Hoverforce (1990)

Name:Hoverforce AKA Resolution 101
Developer:Astral Software
Time:2 hours 30 minutes
Won:No (65W/59L)

Astral Software is an interesting company, another British group like The Assembly Line whose best work don't fall under the umbrella of what I'm trying to do, shooters, instead creating clever little games whose actual genre is relatively unimportant compared to how fun it is. Unlike The Assembly Line, I think that Hoverforce might actually be good.

In preparation for this game, I tried out their previous game, Archipelagos. It was a good game, what I could play of it. Sort of like The Sentinel, a strange vaguely FPS game. You play as some kind of alien who came to Earth to restore its environment, which you do so by deactivating nuclear reactors. Stopping you are energy limitations, radiation emitting trees, and some other baddies. Unfortunately, the game kept crashing on level 15, and I don't have the time to just brute-force it. Worth a try if you like weird games first-person strategy games.

In Hoverforce you play as a cop in a future dystopia overrun by crime. "It's 2050 A.D., and biotechnology has created a new class of terrorist." Street crime is controlled entirely by mutant crimelords, called Alterants. They've created an addictive serum called Aftershock which turns those that take it into mindless killers loyal only to the Alterants.

To stop them a task force of biotechnically enhanced pilots called Red Wasps have been created. The hovercraft they're to pilot is so powerful that normal humans can't use it. The task force, really just you, will "interdict supply runs. Terminate Alterants." Absurdity of the story aside, gotta give the writer some credit, this is perfect for the sort of action movie they were undoubtedly trying to ape, I can just hear it being played in a trailer just because hearing, THIS SUMMER, SYLVESTER STALLONE IS...HOVERFORCE. There's also some stuff from the leader of the Red Wasp Unit, Sheriff Stone, which mostly talks about how bad Aftershock is. He doesn't factor much into the game despite appearing on the menu. Incidentally, moving around on menus is very awkward, no smooth movement, you have to hold down a key for a moment, the mouse feels completely unusable for menus. (it's not point and click)

All that backstory? Completely at odds with the game. The city looks bright, cheerful and GREEN. How much greener could you get? This place is better than a lot of major cities now, roving gangs of drug addicts or not. The glorious Roland MT-32's soundtrack feels like it was taken straight out of some cheerful life sim, and there's no sound. Which is probably good, considering I'm in a hovercraft, giving out bullets like I'm getting paid for every bullet I shoot. Infinite ammo too, so it's not like there's a penalty!

The controls are weird. I used mouse, surprisingly enough. Left click moves you forward, right click shoots your active weapon, move the mouse sideways and you move sideways. There is no reverse. Weapons are select from F1 through F3, with the first weapon you get being a machine gun. F4 opens the map, which I don't know how to read. F5 switches between tracking the boss or the nearest shop, more on that later. F7 switches between music and sound. Which I did not figure out until Level 4.

Everything about this is just arcade-y, goofy fun. You have to collect a bunch of red balls, which give you money. As with all money pick-ups, which seem to be the only thing that drops from enemies, you run them over. Sometimes when you destroy an enemy, probably one of the flying ones, a little video plays on the GUI of the main enemy of the section making a strange face.

Speaking of enemies, you have two rough types in this first stage. Less mobile, Dalek looking fellows who don't really do much besides take shots, and then swift, flying enemies which also shoot back. Finally, there's the boss, a hovercraft which takes a lot of bullets. You need to get the red balls before you can kill the hovercraft. The AI the enemy has is interesting, it might be my imagination, but I swear they're actively trying to dodge me and flank me. Enemies spawn in a flash of lightning, sometimes you can see this.

As the game wears on the differences become clearer. The Dalek fellows can be divided into immobile, stationary targets and slowly moving targets. Flying enemies come in many varieties, from red saucers, to green saucers, to black saucers. And some kind of weird gray saucer the manual describes as a tracking device. Everything outside of the black saucers is simple enough to kill.

While it's not really special in the level design department, I do like the set up. Each level feels unique, with it's own challenges. Enemies slowly spawn in as you move around, while some are spawned in predetermined locations.

I just realized they capitalized every word in the sentence, like an amateur.
Now, this isn't all perfect. I have no real idea of how much damage I've taken despite having something on the GUI to tell me my damage. I assume as this big red bar depletes I'm closer to dying. Going over water or over certain ground items also kills you. There's no penalty, you just restart the level and you have a save anyway. Really, this GUI feels way too busy. It took me a while to figure out that the arrow in the lower right isn't the exact same as the compass. Also, pressing F5 shows you where either the boss or the nearest shop is. The radar above the directional arrow tells you where enemies are.

I'm not clear on what the deal with shops are. I couldn't find a weapon shop, so everything else was just an item+defense shop. The only thing I could buy were the shields, everything else I apparently already had. Dunno if that's what the game is supposed to be like or if for some reason this is a hacked version. Considering how it can get on my nerves doing something with all the items, I'm not about to find out.

To win, you need to get the number of red balls you're told to and then shoot the boss, he's invulnerable before then. You have to take him out in-between buildings; they just pop out of existence before he flies in. There's a number of buildings he has to go to before he's completed his run, the point at which you lose. I get what they were going for, but it all feels silly. It's certainly a twist on the usual, do X thing to spawn the boss. 

After finishing off the first level, I realize I have a headache. Great, it's going to be one of those games. A lot of titles with that Wolfenstein 3D way of doing things now give me a headache. Guess it's the bright colors. Or in this case it might be the awkward-looking 3D. Moves well, but the way things grow and shrink in size is just completely beyond me. I am not expending the effort I need to see these guys so far away.

There's an enemy here, can you spot it?
Level 2 gets considerably harder than the more casual way the first level did things. You have to pay attention to the horizon and the little radar constantly to find enemies and items. Good luck figuring out there's a flying enemy in the distance when it's just a little blip. It's very hard to track down the big hovercraft, and I'm noticing that without any sound, only music, I can't tell if I'm hitting something. (I did not figure out the music/sound thing until later) Bullets just go through.

Every 3 levels the boss changes. That's right, you kill the same boss three times. The first three have Johnny Psyclops, a one-eyed fellow who used to be the bad guy's aide before he used more Aftershock than he should have. Wait, more? The manual implies he's not quite as brainwashed as an Aftershock user should be. I don't know if this contradiction is intentional or not.

These would make great reaction images.
Level 4 changes things up considerably. The black saucers now don't seem to die. I just can't get enough red balls before the boss completes his run, resulting in a loss. And apparently I do have limited lives...great. Not that it matters with the save system. Oh, and I figure out how to get to the weapon show, F1, because that was hidden further in the manual long past the controls to everything else. And when I get there my heart sinks. I don't have enough money to recharge my shield and get any kind of decent weapon.

I should explain. You can't move from side to side, so you're only way of fighting enemies is to fly behind them or stand still. You could do flybys, but that really depends on your ability to reacquire a target in a game which already has trouble doing that. So my strategy has just been to do what you shouldn't do in any other FPS, stand around and hope you kill them before they kill you. And it was working, it worked against most enemies that weren't the boss, which didn't matter much. Now if I try that with the boss I'm going to get slaughtered. I've also discovered what seems to be the reason why most of my navigational equipment is in the shop, because it can get broken. Guess we're in a libertarian utopia.

The issue with weapons runs fairly deep. With a shield recharge I can still upgrade my machine gun to the second tier...but that doesn't seem to be a noticeable upgrade. The other two weapons, a cannon and missiles, I cannot buy even the cheapest option. All weapons are just straight upgrades of the last, apparently. I can't help but think if you have the 28k necessary to buy the best missile you do not need the missile. Now, the third tier machine gun does work better, but I'd have to go to the shop twice, once so I'm not spending the whole time pointlessly shooting at things, twice so I don't die at the end. I have to restart the game at this point.

While I wasn't burning through money, I wasn't exactly saving either. I had 4k at the start of the fourth level, and playing again I mostly just managed to get 6k. This was the edge I needed to win, but it was hard fought, and I'm not sure I'll be able to keep up with this arms race. I got 2k after winning this level, but it's a stiff incline to the cannons and missiles.

Level 5 is deceptively easier, the number of red balls you need is now reasonable, but it's a tedious exercise getting them, enemies never seem to drop them now and never seem to be around anyway. I also discover flashing red saucers, no idea if they're special in any way; and the shop has thrust upgrades, 9 of them, each costing 1k. No idea why I'd want those since my speed so far is more than satisfactory. If I had an automated targeting system, or say, the ability to sidestep, yeah, then I'd buy that. But more speed?

Level 6 is misery. Twenty balls again, everything moves 100 MPH and doesn't stand still long enough for you to hit them. With the added bonus of a large water area, did I mention you die if you stand still in water for long enough? Or the silver balls that get dropped which kill you instantly. Now the game also throws at you enemies which are high or low, and I guess the idea is to shoot them with a certain weapon or from a certain distance. Otherwise you can't damage them. So, I decide to cheat, giving myself more money via a memory editor.

The thrusts don't do anything, but the missiles. Oh, the missiles. The missiles are glorious. At first they felt like a cheat code, because that homing aspect is just so useful in this game. It's not the I win button I initially thought, because somehow enemies aren't just crushed, and even with the best missile launcher in the game I had just enough time to win this particular section. I needed to rush to the shop, buy the weapon and a repair, shoot every enemy, making absolute sure to pick up every red ball, follow behind the hovercraft, since he also drops balls. And I only win this by chance.

Level 70. No, that's not a typo. The game broke. It wouldn't let me have a little bit of mercy, so it broke itself. How the hell changing money connects to the level number, I'm just left perplexed. Something tels me that despite seeming okay on the surface, the game doesn't have that great a codebase. It was stable though, despite appearances.

I like the ideas of the weapons more than how they work in practice. Machine gun for laying down basic fire, cannons for when you reach heavier targets, and missiles fire rarely. Missiles being a cheat code isn't idea, but with how the game works, is appreciated. 2/10

The enemies in this game come off as too smart. That combination of them being more agile than you, generally taking a ton of damage, and other variables I don't understand makes tracking them down a nightmare. If the game had a better difficulty curve, this would be perfect. 5/10


Each block of the city feels interesting, the design of them feel like the best cityscape that I've seen, chronologically. Their end result is tricky, because each level is in terms of enemies and item drops a highly evolving location that rapidly changes beyond geography several times over. Practically like an on-rails shooter, but with considerably more freedom. I would have liked it a lot more if I felt like I had just a little bit of freedom. 4/10

Player Agency:
In theory, the controls work well, mouse aiming, even if you can only move forward with the left mouse button. But it's all annoying, the function keys feel unnecessary when nothing below is used, menus don't work, the GUI takes a long time to get used to. 4/10


I kind of like the bright cyberpunk aesthetic they went for, but moving around in this game is headache inducing. 2/10

The sprites are nice, but the deformation going on in this game is just so awful for visibility. The 3D is fine, not great, but I've seen a lot worse. 3/10

Apparently the story shifted between platforms of the game, so it's just your token excuse plot. 1/10

One music track, no sound. It's weird, it's not a bad music track, but it doesn't fit. 2/10

That's 22. Or the fourth best FPS of 1990. It's interesting, but not a very good game when you get into it.

With that, 1990 is over. As I said back when I finished the '80s, the period of 1990-92 will have one best of list. Its actually funny, looking at these games. 1990 has some decent candidates for best, 1992 does too, but 1991 looks kind of dead. The games for the upcoming year are kind of...not great. Obviously we have the Id titles and Midwinter 2, which I'll be replaying, and then...uh...some Japanese games I guess. Most of the other titles are either really obscure or stuff I already covered and didn't care for.

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