Desert Strike is about as close as you'll get to experiencing the thrills and spills of a modern military engagement -unless, of course, you have a multi-billion dollar defence budget. Put in the cockpit of a lone Apache helicopter gunship, your ultimate objective is to prevent a tin-pot dictator, General Kilbaba, from developing a nuclear bomb and holding the West to ransom. The action's set in the Middle East, hence Kilbabas striking resemblance to Saddam Hussein, and involves four campaigns, each made up of a number of specific missions. In all, there are more than 27 missions to complete before Kilbaba's corrupt regime is destroyed.
The original Megadrive version topped the charts for months on end, and it looks likely that the same will happen with the Amiga conversion. The programming team may have taken their time finishing it off (the lazy sods were supposed to finish it in time for last Christmas!), but the wait has definitely been worthwhile.
Most of the game's graphics have been completely redrawn or touched-up and the sound effects cranked up a notch or two. Extra frames of animation have been added to the main helicopter sprite, making it look much more realistic as it swoops about the sky, and the animated intro screens and overall presentation have been significantly improved. So much so, in fact, that the Amiga conversion is far superior to the Megadrive or SNES versions currently doing the rounds -so tell that to your smug console owning friends!
Missions typically involve knocking out tracking sites, rescuing hostages, bombing runways, blowing up chemical weapons plants and shooting anything that moves. You've got a full complement of state-of-the-art weapons on board, including a chain-gun for taking out ground troops and several laser-guided Hellfires capable of reducing the largest targets to a smouldering heap of rubble. Unfortunately, you've only got a finite supply of ammo, so extra supplies have to be picked up from drop sites scattered around the map. The same also holds true for fuel, so frequent sorties have to be earned out to replenish supplies before the rotors fail and your copter crashes to the ground. Soaking up enemy fire isn't a good idea, either, as each hit significantly reduces the Apache's armour plating. Ground fire isn't too much of a problem, but heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles are capable of diminishing your armour at an alarming rate. As you only have two copters in reserve, it's best not to be too gung-ho in your approach. Again, re-supplies can be picked up from special drop sites or by stealing enemy supplies.
Your co-pilot operates the gun-ship's targeting system and the winch for picking up supplies and ground troops. There's a choice of co-pilot at the start of each campaign - most are either good winchmen or expert shots, but rarely both. It's all a bit frustrating, especially when you're practically hovering above a target, watching your shots go wide of the mark. Luckily, there is always one effective co-pilot available, it's just a question of finding out which one!
Another aid in your one-man war is the Apache's on board computer, called into play by pressing F10 on the keyboard. From here, a detailed map of the mission area is displayed; this is useful for locating key installations, enemy gun emplacements, ammo dumps and fuel pick-ups. It also monitors fuel consumption, the number of missiles left and armour points - but why this information couldn't have been included on the main screen I don't know. Status and mission windows give a breakdown of the campaign so far and detail the remaining targets.
The in-game action is viewed from an isometric, three quarters top down perspective and the screen scrolls in eight directions, panning out in front of the copter as it's guided across the desert terrain. It's possible to configure the controls so that either the joystick, mouse or keyboard can be used, although I found the mouse controls virtually unplayable. The joystick is also a problem because the keyboard is needed to access the map screen and toggle between the three differ- ent weapons. This can be a bit of a distraction, especially when you're in the thick of things. Sega's joypad was much more effective, as everything could be accessed via its three buttons.
SOUND AND VISION
Graphically, the game looks a treat. Everything has been rendered in the Amiga's 64-colour extra half-brite mode and the battlefield atmosphere is enhanced further with huge palls of smoke drifting across the desert and burnt out wrecks littering the area.
Much of the game's military hardware has been redrawn and the weedy explosions of the original have also been ditched in favour of digitised effects that resemble mini-Hiroshimas. Even the sound is top-notch, with sampled gunfire, monitor-shaking explosions, and the death screams of enemy troops heightening the on-screen action. The whirr of the 'copter's rotor blades speed up or slow down in sync with the craft's speed and an on board computer voice warns when supplies are getting low or if you're entering a designated danger zone. Best of all is the screeching launch of a Hellfire missile and the rattle of the chain gun as you wreak your vengeance on the enemy forces - they're some of the best samples I've heard in an Amiga game for quite a while.
But great graphics and sizzling samples don't necessarily guarantee a good game, as any Spectrum owner will quickly tell you. Fortunately, Desert Strike is simply amazing to play. Once you've started a campaign, you just won't want to stop. There's so much to do and each mission is refreshingly different from the last. Once you've mastered the Apache's controls, this is real seat-of-the-pants stuff with hardly any let-up in the action. Most of the gameplay remains true to the Megadrive original, although some missions have been made a little harder or easier as a result of feedback from EA's playtesters. One important change, though, is the near indestructibility of your MIAs. 'Friendly fire' has become a bit of a contentious issue since the Americans managed to kill off more of their own troops than the Iraqis were capable of, so EA have decided to imbue your lost men with a near-Kryptonite invulnerability. This means that no matter how many Hellfires you shoot into their midst, they'll still be left standing once the smoke has cleared. Fortunately, some of the other characters in the game, such as a lost TV crew, are not so invulnerable and can be reduced to crispy cinders with a well-placed missile. That's definitely more like it!
Another quibble is the sheer stupidity of the opposition forces. If you position your gunship so that a target comes between you and an enemy gun emplacement, the idiots will launch a volley of shots in your direction and do your job for you. It's also possible to sneak up on a target and stay just out of range of its guns while you pick it off - sometimes they're not even aware of your presence which seems a little crazy when you're blasting away with all guns blazing. The only other complaint is the excessive number of shots it takes to dispose of some of the bigger installations. It's obvious padding to stretch out the action, but it isn't really necessary as there's tons to do anyway.
But I'm nit-picking really, as the game is probably the best blaster I've ever played on the Amiga. It's been programmed by Gary Roberts, the brains behind the excellent conversion of John Madden last year, and everything about it shouts class. It's the little details that really make it stand out, such as the large number of fire-fights and the sand particles thrown up as a stream of bullets rip into the desert. Even when you've completed a campaign, there's still lots to do if you don't want to head back to base straight away. And there's always the incentive to keep on playing to improve your high-score.
The mix of low-level strategy and shoot em up action is a curious but successful combination. It might seem a chore to have to continually replenish the Apache's supplies in the heat of battle, but the game would be much duller if the strategy elements had been left out. In fact, the finished game has a special 'fire-and-forget' cheat which will give you unlimited ammo so you can play it as an out-and-out shoot 'em up. All things considered, Desert Strike couldn't be a better game. The mix is just right, the action fast and frantic and the missions suitably varied to keep you coming back again and again It's got the just-one-more-go appeal that so many of today's games seem to lack. Thoroughly recommended.
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