Star Crusader (Second Review)

Title		Star Crusader (Second Review)
Game Type	3D Combat Sim
Company		Gametek
Players		1
Compatibility	AGA (CD and HD only versions)
HD Installable  See above
Submission	Angus Manwaring Profiled Reviewer

It was playing Elite, at work, on a BBC computer that convinced me to buy
my own "home micro". I actually got a C64 in the end, and had to wait
for the game to be released on that platform, but you get the idea; I was
keen. Later, when I owned an Amiga, and Elite was eventually converted, I
was rather disappointed with how limited the improvements were. Sure, it
was still a great game, but what a missed opportunity. In the years that
followed Starglider 2, Federation of Free Traders and various others tried
and failed to recapture the magic of the Braben and Bell classic, and it
wasn't until Frontier's release that I really felt my patience had been
rewarded with a worthy successor. While the sheer scope of Frontier pretty
much blew Elite out of the water, the actual combat left a lot of people,
myself included, a little unsatisfied. I'm not going to attempt to sketch
out the pros and cons of how plausible dogfighting is in a game that uses
Newtonian physics as the basis of its 3D engine, but I do think David
Braben's impressive and highly "realistic" approach impacted to some
extent on the game's ability to provide thrilling combat.

Enter Star Crusader, coincidentally released by Gametek, the very same
company responsible for Frontier. Star Crusader is a 3D space
simulation game, where the combat is all that the diehard Elite fans
amongst you might have hoped for in Frontier. You'll fly several craft of
different types, but all of them are capable of dogfighting, and for me
it's never been as good as this. Once you enter into a scrap with a
Warlord for example, (very similar to the Starfurys in Babylon 5) and
start blasting your way through its shields and demolishing its various
systems, as its pilot frantically tries to evade you, you'll realise
just what you've been missing. It's great!

Despite all my references to Elite and Frontier though, Star Crusader is
actually more similar in it's approach to the game Wing Commander. Like
Wing Commander it is a mission based game, where you are a fighter pilot
trying to survive and hopefully achieve total victory in a long series of
linked missions. One of the major differences though, is that while Wing
Commander uses what looks like a scaled sprite system with a rather
pixellated effect for it's spacecraft, Star Crusader uses a more
conventional polygon approach, which for me looks and
feels far better. There is also a greater amount of
detail within the game's background story.

In the game you play Roman Alexandria, a highly respected pilot in the
elite Gold squadron of the Gorene Empire. Depending on your perspective,
the Gorenes are either an enlightened race that have graced the galaxy
by generously spreading their wisdom and culture, or arrogant invaders
that seek to conquer all and impose their values everywhere. Actually, in
the manual, the American design team appear to be taking a little pop at
the British Empire, which is fair enough I suppose, but before we get too
holier than thou let`s not forget the treatment of the native American,
chaps. ....Anyway, the Gorenes have decided to expand, by force if
neccesary, into the Ascalon Rift; a vast but little known sector of space,
inhabited by several races, that are already at each other's throats.

Despite the might of the Gorenes, they are only lightly established in the
sector, and until the construction of the hugely powerful military
base, Prajna 7, is completed, they will not have things all their own way.

Initially you are placed the main hall of your base, and offered five
degrees of difficulty  ranging from Wimp to Impossible Level. When you've
decided this you'll  be invited to develop your pilot skills in the
Simulator, but also accessible are: The Map Room; a display of the Ascalon
Rift giving information about the various forces, The Briefing Room; where
you attend the pre-flight briefing sessions and can view a sort of audio
visual system offering you detailed displays of what you can expect to
encounter on your forthcoming mission, and the Pre-mission Computer Room;
where as well as finding out about pretty much everything in the game, you
can, if you are of sufficient rank, select which pilots fly the current
mission with you, whether a secondary mission is undertaken, what type of
mission it is, and which pilots will take part in it. This part of the
game is quite impressive because with the click of a mouse on a pilot's
name, or that of a craft, you can bring up the relevant statistics and
attributes, aiding your decision in who flies where and in what. You can
even select which pilots you would like to be instructors, and you should
choose carefully because their attributes will directly affect those of
their students.

As far as I can tell the gameplay is the same on both the CD and HD
versions of the game. The CD game, however, is perhaps one of the nicest
examples of using CD media that I've seen on the Amiga. You are initially
treated to a 6 minute movie giving you the essential background to the
game, with some fairly impressive effects, even if the mouth animation of
some of the characters leaves something to be desired. The briefings on
the CD version also come in full audio, and are well done and sometimes
quite lengthy, although you have the option to skip through them if you
want. Having said that, the HD version which comes on 10 floppies has a
good collection of audio samples as well as some nice animations. The
death sequence, which you will probably see a lot, is especially well
done. While I am comparing the two versions, I should say that I can't
currently get the HD version to work properly with my 060, even with the
patch (see below).

But what about the actual 3D and the ships, how do these babies perform?
Well, a criticism I have seen levelled at Star Crusader is the degree of
difficulty experienced in controlling your ship. The good news is that its
not difficult, but there is something a little odd about the control
method because no matter how centrally you position the pointer, the
ship's course tends to gently drift one way or another. Not drastically,
but enough to make you wonder why it has to happen. In combat though, the
control is just about perfect, allowing for natural and intuitive control
in the hairiest situations.

While I'm talking about combat, I'll describe a typical one-on-one
encounter. Firstly, your radar will pick up a target, and identify what
sort of craft it is, whether it is friend or foe, the ability, and in
certain cases, the identity of the pilot. Assuming the ship is hostile it
will probably approach you, and when in range, commence firing. Your
ship's computer will warn you of incoming fire, giving it's aproximate
direction. If your opponent is flying a Tancred craft he will probably use
one or two plasma torpedoes in an attempt to knock your shields down,
and then hit you with his vector cannon, which while not causing damage,
has the effect of throwing you wildly off course, disorienting you and
probably leaving you at a tactical disadvantage as he rakes you with his
lasers. If you were quick enough though, you'll have avoided most of the
incoming fire and landed some ordnance of your own on your opponent. I
would tend to leave the guided torpedoes for more desperate circumstances
than these, and concentrate on effective use of your lasers, but each to
their own. Just about now, it is all too likely that your craft will
collide with your opponent, unless you take evasive action. Once the
opening "joust" is concluded though, you have an excellent chance of
placing yourself behind your opponent, and matching his speed (there is a
specific key to perform this function) leaving him at a huge disadvantage.
Bear in mind though that the various craft within the game do perform very
differently, and the Scorpion fighter, for example, will not out-turn
some of the faster and more agile ships, like the Mazuman Buccaneer. In
this case you will not be able to simply stay behind your enemy and
gradually blast him to bits, but instead you must adapt your tactics,
perhaps making dramatic changes of speed to gain the advantage. Of course
not all combat involves a single opponent, and in some missions you will
experience some memorable battles with swarms of fighters, capital ships
and various bases, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of the setpiece
battles in the Star Wars films.

A particuarly nice feature of the game is that if you successfully disable
an enemy craft, you can capture them with your tractor beam, ferry them
back to base, and then, if you are of sufficient rank, fly them yourself
in later missions. Whatever your rank though, you will have access to the
flight simulator, where you'll be able to hone your battle skills and
experiment with a range of tactics while coming to no harm.

It's not all blasting though, from time to time you will need to perform
stealth missions in the Intruder ship. As unlikely as it may sound these
missions actually succeed in capturing some of the atmosphere of the old
Microprose game Silent Service. You need to creep about, keeping your
speed and detectability down to the minimum, while feverishly hoping that
your stealth generator's battery will last long enough for you to perform
your mission, and then slip quietly away to safety. The Intruder has some
highly specialised features; as well as using it's stealth capability, it
can make visual scans in a variety of wavelengths, and it can direct
probes at a nearby target allowing you to receive all sorts of useful
data.  All these functions, including your level of stealth, can be viewed
on the monitor systems below the main 3D display. Infact all the craft in
the game have these monitors, and while they don't share the Intruder's
special features, a wide range of tactical information can be displayed.
You can even design and save your monitor configuration (as well as your
Power and Repair priorities) in the preference program.

The game is not linear. I can't say I've mapped out all the plot paths but
differing results in one mission will sometimes lead to different
follow-up missions. There is a major turning point in the middle of the
game where you have the option of making a revolutionary decision, that
will completely alter the way the rest of the game is played. Now I had
heard that there was a bug in the game that made choosing one of these
decisions extremely difficult, but the first time I tried, I was able to
take this path without difficulty. Being the dedicated reviewer that I am
though, I retried the mission, .....and retried, and retried. After that
first successful  attempt I was unable to choose the path I'd taken
before, despite the game indicating that I had been successful. There is
a bug! You can probably tell that I don't want to spoil the game by giving
too much away, but the following maybe of some help: I was eventually
successful when using a captured enemy craft (a Starwolf), and  they,
like the other ships, are fitted with a very capable ejection system, if
you catch my drift?

The game runs very well on an 030 processor, but if you have an 060, you
may encounter compatibility problems with the HD version. Another point is
that 060 users will need to run something like Fastexec (from Aminet) in
order to get a better than 020 performance. Also available, thanks to the
fabulous John Girvin, is the Star Crusader patch (Aminet again) which as
well as making the game run even more smoothly, offers a number of cool
features, like a frame per second counter, a line graphic mode, and a
smoother interface with Workbench. Bloody good show, John!

Star Crusader will involve you in it's storyline (well, it did me) keeping
you interested, and rewarding you with greater demands and new twists in
the plot. The end of game sequence is a worthy one and delivers a
final twist that is cleverly delivered. Add that to what is arguably the
best dogfighting game on the Amiga, in or out of space, and you can't
really lose. A truly special game, and a revelation for me, discovering it
as late as I did.

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