Sunday, October 1, 2023

Strike Base (1996)

Name:Strike Base
Publisher:The Learning Company
Developer:Max Design
Genre:Vehicle simulation
Time:7 hours 30 minutes
Won:No (78W/63L)

Strike Base is a weird game, even by first glance. Developed by Max Design, who are better known for their strategy games like the famous Anno 1602, and in the US published by a The Learning Company label in the cheapest possible packaging, this is a weird futuristic sci-fi strategy/action game. Command, then conquer the enemy yourself. Well, not quite a real-time strategy game like that implies.

The menu, note you can't change any options until you're in a game.

The story according to the back of the jewel case is that it's 2218 AD and the solar system has been colonized. Contact has been made with aliens, and while in negotiations they attack and kill 275,000 men. You are the last means for survival, now we're going to kill all of them! I'd make a joke about us being the good guys, but they did break off negotiations. The in-game intro is just showing some random action scenes while generic midi metal plays in the background.

The manual actually goes into quite a bit of detail about this, but contradicts the back of the box in several key aspects. We're apparently already out of the solar system, the PC's father died saving the remainder of the fleet, it's not just that we lost those men, those were our military forces and most of our space force. That feels like a weird point to stress, considering the enormity of the situation. So we're going to fight back with a new generation of commando units, whose bases can be transported from planet to planet in order to deal the most damage to the enemy. I also note that you have to play the game on the third difficulty out of four, Colonel, in order to reach the end levels.

You get these animations every time you send out a vehicle, in addition to them coming out of the underground hanger, even in the middle of a mission. Yes, it's annoying.
The first level functions as the training level. The whole equip part of this is sorely lacking at this stage. My options are two fighters and whether or not to fill up the shield and energy. Energy is basically fuel in this case, only draining when you move. This doesn't seem important right away, but past 50%, it's less efficent to charge up a shield or energy. As I only have 8 units of energy and shield, it's most prudent to keep them both at 50%.

As a combat game, this is easy to understand. 1-6 (or A & Z) control the speed of your vehicle, while you follow where your mouse is aiming. It's fairly smooth, but I'm somewhat unused to mouse aiming a plane. The cursor isn't quite where your plane is going. Left click shoots and you get a weak laser here. I didn't realize it while I was flying, but apparently it's really easy to miss with this, I only hit half my shots even though I wasn't engaging in my usual spray and pray tactics.

The plane doesn't really control like a plane, more like a hover craft. There's a hard limit to your height and turns are like a banked turn in a car. Whenever you crash into something, you get bounced back like a bumper car, the whole thing is weird.

The HUD is quite helpful. You have your vehicle's systems and secondary weapons in the lower right, in addition to get hard numbers for all vehicles in the lower right, in addition to whether or not they're under attack or on autopilot. Radar at the bottom shows the immediate area, and with Q & W, you can zoom in very close or very far away. Every single important notice gets a little voiceover in case you missed it. Heading, time, and enemy destroyed/player destroyed on the front. And when relevant, whether you're under attack, you have low shields or energy.

This is actually very hard to do. It's hard to dodge enemy fire, since you're a plane. This mission is just against enemy tanks and artillery and they manage to get me enough times that it's more about endurance. You can take them out in one swoop if you're lucky, but if you're unlucky you'll crash into them, thus knocking you backward and damaging your ship. Returning to the hanger by pressing L and slowing down when near the entrance and you can recharge.

How does the tactical aspect work? Well, I'm not really clear on a lot of it, but from what I've seen and how it works, a poor use of both bits. The AI is competent, but it only avoids enemy fire, you are the only one who attacks. I assumed that since the game gave me the option to pick one of four vehicles at a time that I would be picking one and leading the rest in combat, but I just fight, one against many.

Which is funny, because this basically makes the "strategic" aspect of the game completely pointless. The only point is for me to keep a tank near my base for defense, which I can't do here. Activated vehicles cost energy, so that plane might even be stupid anyway. All I can do in tactical mode is set movement waypoints.

Considering there are about a hundred enemies and one me, that's a recipe for 15 very long missions, assuming you don't end up dying dozens of times like me.
There's also time acceleration, which I wrote off at first. It just increases speed by a certain threshold, you still move and shoot while doing this. That means for tasks like destroying buildings that have stuff you need inside them, you can just increase the speed and fire until destroyed. Or the endless back and forth.

Very luckily, I win the mission with just a bit of shield left on my second (of two) ship. There are three problem areas I was able to identify. Firstly, because tanks can't just be taken out in one charge, you need to attack them multiple times. Solution? Attack from behind where the enemy can't see you. Certain turrets can't be hit, though they also don't shoot at you. Just aim off-center. Finally, the rest of the turrets are hard to dodge. Solution? So far, just tank them, it's hard to dodge while you're charging at something.

You get one of these at the start of every mission, annoyingly, you can't save until afterwards and this functions as a message log.

Level 2, now I get to try out the bombers...against enemy fighters. Uh...actually not that bad, because this level also introduces secondary weapons. You add them in back at base, then you right click to fire, and press space to switch between the two you can carry. Firstly, missiles, they're glorious and they take down everything that can fly here. Then we get bombs, they're not all that powerful and seem to go through buildings, they only hit the ground. They take out most ground targets in one but the range seems strange. It has more than I'd expect. Then, laser power-ups. These might just work automatically, but it's hard to tell their benefit here.

Now the bombers are slightly less useful in terms of laser firepower. They get two lasers compared to the fighter's four, but it doesn't seem that much worse in terms of damage. That said, it can be kind of hard to tell since everything on this level just eats up laser strikes anyway. I like the alien's equipment design. Kind of like the stuff they have in Half-Life, but a civilization is built around it rather than whatever it was that game was going for.

An enemy worker unit, moving resources from a resource facility to a factory. I'm sure some RTS works like that, but none spring to mind.
 Level 3 adds in enemy production facilities. Yippee. Also tanks, this mission is about tanks. Tanks are terrible and their inclusion in this game is not helpful. Tanks have one advantage over the planes, they can stop and reverse. It's really hard aiming up at enemy planes, and worse still, they crash into the ground as they advance. They're further divided into combat tanks and rocket tanks. One can carry long range missiles and the other cannot. Missiles seem to be about the only thing these tanks are good for, though the game talks up the wonderful advantages of teleportation.

You control these missiles you fire, they're like little planes. Except they explode on contact and after a certain amount of time. The later is actually really annoying because they also seem like they're slowly falling to the ground after a certain amount of time. This, along with their low explosion radius and therefore low damage, makes them far less useful than you'd think. Which brings us to the satellites. Energy is only used while you move, you can shoot indefinitely so long as you never move. Satellites automatically fire when activated, they're satelites in the "floating around something" sense. Basically defense platforms.

Since this mission adds in the enemy producing things like in an actual RTS, this means they have unlimited firepower compared to you. So, place two tanks which can use the satellites in key positions, then use a missile tank to take out one of the enemy's production facilities, using the teleporter. (press T on green light pads) As simple as it sounds, it isn't, like I said, moving around with the tanks is a pain because you feel every bump in the road. It's somehow easier dodging enemy fire, but you can crash into tanks. Worse, the transport trucks can kill you just by driving into you. Sigh...

I win the mission, after a few tries. But this seems like luck rather than skill, and eventually I'm going to run out. In RTS terms, it's like you're in a mission where you have only a few troops to protect protect an ally's base against a numerically superior foe who has a base. Only your ally does nothing. Only a small number of troops can attack without your say so, and you can only control one troop at a time. This is not a strategy game, it's just a game with the worst aspects of a RTS grafted onto an action game and then you're expected to play it like a RTS. I'm sure this sort of thing would be funner if you were say, a high level RTS player, but I'm not.

In theory, the idea is to use a bomber to blow up any installations that require a good amount of shooting, then gun down any enemy planes. Once that's clear, slowly take out the turrets with a tank. In practice, I should have used the bombs on turrets, but I'm not sure how useful that would be. I get a ton of short range missiles in pods, but it's kind of hard aiming these at a target above. At least it's easier than aiming at a target below. There's a lot of peeking around corners to snipe enemy turrets though.

The actual objective, as such, is to retrieve a teleporter from the central enemy area on one island, then drop that on the other island with the bomber. This is a pain because the game isn't specific about where it should be beyond a level surface. I then find some escape pods, guess my requirements this mission weren't just to kill everything. After finding two, I win, at 90% enemy killed.

Level 5 is exactly the same as level 4 in requirements. Only now those pods are inside a building, and there are SAMs now. Despite this, the mission isn't that bad as long as I keep using tricks I have been using. I've gotten very good at shooting at turrets at angles, and at the very edge of the distance I need, so I can take them out with a minimum of shield loss. Unfortunately, there's not much I can do to make shooting down planes more efficent beyond using missiles.

Basically at this point the game is, drive a tank through turrets until you run low on health or energy, return to base then repeat. If a plane appears, destroy any turrets you can, return to base, shoot down plane with missile. The enemy tanks throw me for a loop, until I figure out the plane strategy works against them too.

At this point, I become acutely aware of the limits of energy. As each mission is a hour or more in length, you naturally become reliant on speeding through areas. Unfortunately, like in real life, that uses up more energy. So no completing a mission in a reasonable timeframe anymore, you have to slowly drive across the map, with time acceleration barely making it passable, in case you don't want to have to restart this mission after you've already basically won it. Fly anyway, tanks just drain energy if they're moving if you go at the lowest speed or the fastest speed. Oh, yeah, the whole capture escape pods, despite being one of the objectives, is effectively pointless because you have to kill everything anyway.

Level 6, take out this factory producing super deadly planes which also patrol over the entire map. Btw, you only get one bomb to do this and then you need to take out tank factories. No pressure. Well, the first part is easy enough after referring to the database (F9) and taking a few test runs. The problem with those planes is that you can't sneak up behind them, they can shoot at a 360 degree angle. The bigger problem is the crashing. After selecting the map before starting, for some reason this level seems to cause the game to crash if you just go straight to it. Makes sense that this game would have some underlying instabilities. Oh, no, that means I might get a crash mid-level. I mean, I can save in the middle of a level, it's just that it's kind of annoying.

Can you spot the mine? Can you do it hundreds of times in one mission?
There are mines now too. How do you avoid them? Trial and error, mostly. So much for completing each level in one go. The only way I could figure out where a mine was, well, was to drive over one. They're very hard to see. They blend into the ground, and worst of all they seemingly can't be shot or bombed. Turning a tedious drive back into sheer terror. While this hasn't been a good game, this changes it from a flawed into an outright bad game. At least I have enough energy in one tank to go in, avoid the mines, destroy all the buildings, and then bring back some bombs.
At least this one has a reason for an objective beyond destroying everything.

Level 7, intercept enemy transporters, then destroy enemy forces. Four minutes on that first objective, no pressure. The game says they're south, which is true, you start on the far north-eastern side of the map. They are fairly close by, but they go off in three directions and they're heavily guarded. Practically as soon as you leave your own base the skies are full with enemy fire. There are just so many turrets, meaning the whole level is a slow slog. Again.

At least once you take out the transports you can go through it somewhat leisurely. It's be an okay mission were it not for the poor layout of the location my base is at. Would it be too much to ask for the game to allow me to drive through something that looks driveable? It's the same as the last missions except you actually need to put in those additional energy tanks to reach the other side.

Level 8, now there are gliders which drop aerial mines. Just when I think the game can't get any more annoying, it succeeds. This is a far more mundane mission, just take out enemy planes. The glider that drops the mines doesn't even shoot at you, so it's not quite as lethal as other planes since you can actually shoot the mines it drops. For once I beat a mission in under ten minutes. This completely perplexes me.

I'm currently dashing to the guy attacking my base, presumably a plane. Meanwhile before I can go back to advancing on the enemy, I need to take out the tank I can see approaching to my left.

Level 9, the usual take out the enemy base mission. Only, you don't get to fly a plane, no, you have to take them out with tanks. Enemy tank factory, but you get satelites again after so many missions without them. Fat lot of good that does me. The enemy base is much closer than in previous missions, but the enemy defy my attempts to block them with satelite protected tanks, either they just shoot them enough that having them as defense is moot or they just drive around them. Or even better they kill them.

And you know what. I don't have to energy to deal with this bullcrap. The game expects an unrealistic amount of multi-tasking from the player. It wouldn't be a problem if the game just let tanks I'm not controlling shoot back at enemies, but I have to be the only one to do anything. Between the delay you have with missile animations, thus meaning you can't take out enemy factories in a swift fashion, lest you end up being in a position where you have to wait seconds before switching over on top of an already slow switching sequence. And my reward is going to be another tedious mission where I have to deal with all this. No, I'm not dealing with this. This game takes the worst aspects of RTS games and the worst aspects of vehicle combat games from this time and puts them together in just the most unfun package.

I like the concepts, I hate the execution. The flying missiles and bombs are all right, but the ground missiles are just terrible to use. They have practically no splash damage, so you need to nail an enemy right on them. The lasers have similarly unsatisfactory accuracy, but those aren't in limited supply. It's just a pain to aim anything. 2/10

There are about two tanks, four turrets, and three gliders of varying deadliness. Pretty well thought out, but gives the enemy considerable advantage over the player. 4/10

I would say none, since technically I don't have any allies in this game. It's all me, trying to do the tasks of five difference people. Arguably, that's worse than if there were no allies at all. The pathfinding system would be an okay substitute, were the game's pathfinding not terrible. 0/10

At best, each level is just a slog of slowly taking apart an enemy base, at worst, a maddening dash to do the same before you get overwhelmed. Neither of which were very fun. 0/10

Player Agency:
Turning around is just so slow. And all of the little strategy elements make the game worse. You use the first four function keys to switch between the location that vehicle is in, with it automatically taking you back to base if it is. Only if you don't have something in that slot, it does nothing. This should have taken you back to base. Switching between all the menus is also slow, and because it doesn't automatically pause, costs you valuable time. The energy mechanic of each vehicle running low as it goes over somewhere massive made the game worse. 2/10

Destructible buildings and trees. 1/10

Sheer mindnumbing tedium. 0/10

The art direction is nice, but the viewing distance is just so short. Enemies always get the first attack because of it, even if you abuse the heck out of the radar system. 2/10

Your basic RTS non-story, some explanation of why this happened, go shoot stuff in-game. 1/10

You get a soundtrack of generic midi rock. Each level has it's own track, which goes on for the usually hour long length of it. Yay. Sound is fine, though it cuts off far too often. 3/10

That's 15, but I'm removing 2 points for wasting my time. So 13. I don't have anything else clever to say, I'm just glad it's over.

Soon, October, and with it, arguably the most important survival horror game ever made. But first something of an unintentional parody of the genre.


  1. I think this game is more of a Carrier command like and also predates games like Uprising and the two Battlezone games.

    1. Making a general RTS comparison was what came to mind, as I haven't yet played any of those games. I'm sure the general comparison rings true when compared to those games, as they too, have forces you can command to fight the enemy rather than having to do everything yourself.