Inspired by the dystopian future of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Bandits: Phoenix Rising is a car-combat title in which you compete against rival gangs for vital natural resources and wealth. As Fennec and Rewdalf, the leaders of the Wolfpack clan, you must engage sworn enemies, the Flaming Pumpkins and the Enclave, across 24 missions of vehicular mayhem, en route to Jericho City -- a Fort Knox-esque community purportedly home to the privileged of the world and said to house vast fortunes. Getting there will involve an assortment of escort, defensive, and all-out offensive missions. Prior to each mission, you'll select the chassis and armaments desired. The primary weapon of each vehicle is a rotating turret that can be outfitted with machine guns, cannons, or sniper weapons; useful implements such as mines, missiles, and other high-power weaponry are also available.
Initially, you have access to only a single nitro-powered dune buggy and a handful of weapons, but as the game progresses you'll steal or acquire enough scrap metal and parts to build more powerful weapons and new vehicles, which feature such colorful names as the Alpha, Coyote, Tomcat, and Piranha. Each vehicle is manned by both a driver and gunner (in the player's case, Fennec and Rewdalf, respectively), allowing for independent control of the vehicle and its weapon systems. In addition to the single-player element, Bandits: Phoenix Rising supports up to eight players over a LAN and the Internet and offers an in-game browser in addition to full GameSpy Arcade support. Players can engage in various deathmatch and team-deathmatch modes that are spread across nine maps.
In Bandits: Phoenix Rising, you take the role of Fennec, whose trusty sidekick Rewdalf (pronounced Rudolph) is always along for the ride. (In fact, Rewdalf is your gunner.) In the true spirit of the movie the game mimics, humanity has been a bad, bad boy, and there are now rival gangs vying for control of precious commodities like gas and gold, not necessarily in that order. In the future, this is apparently best accomplished with tricked-out dune buggies so loaded with weaponry that they are virtual tanks. The best part, of course, is that you get to drive these things.
As members of the Wolfpack clan, you and Rewdalf are usually trying to ambush or destroy something belonging to a rival group called the Flaming Pumpkins. (No, really.) As the story progresses, the Wolfpack will team up with another group (the Crusaders) while the Pumpkins join forces with the Enclave. There's actually more to the story, and for an over-the-top driving game, it's not that bad. Don't expect it to garner a Pulitzer or anything, but considering the stories (or lack thereof) in other games in this genre, it does stand out.
In the beginning, you've only got a few weapons: a machinegun and a shotgun. You only have access to one car as well -- a badger -- but over time, you'll steal enough scrap metal and parts to build bigger weapons and better vehicles. The battles that take place always pit you against overwhelming odds, and their vehicles are typically a little better than yours, but luckily the enemy drivers aren't too bright. Most levels can be completed in 5-10 minutes or so, but some of them go on for 15 or more minutes, testing your survival abilities and driving skills.
Unfortunately, about halfway through the game's 24 levels, the difficulty really starts to ramp up. Although this has been tweaked since its initial European release, I found myself having to repeat many levels over and over. (A tip from me to you: If you can read XML scripts, you can create your own save game files to get past the difficult levels.) I can understand that the developers wanted a challenge for the players, but it's called "easy difficulty" for a reason: No one with a modicum of driving skill should have to repeat a level more than twice.
You may think that, being a driving game, Bandits is best played with a steering wheel and pedals. However, this game is really a third-person shooter on wheels, best played with a mouse and keyboard. You can use any controller you like, but after testing with both a wheel and a gamepad, I found the default mouse/keyboard settings most comfortable. This is most likely because of how the game controls, with what the developers call "YGWYL," short for "You Go Where You Look." Moving the mouse to the right actually turns your car right while also performing a mouse look (i.e., aiming) in the same direction, and holding down the left shift key allows you to steer and aim independently. This may sound a little confusing, and it does take some practice, but once you've got it down, it works well. (This is also why the mouse/keyboard setup is recommended as performing this feat with a wheel or gamepad is much harder.)
Bandits also has one heck of an impressive physics engine, making the world all the more believable. You can run into enemies to tip them over, you go faster downhill than uphill, and the like. Sometimes the inertia is a little too much -- you can't sit exactly still even on flat ground without holding down the handbrake. Some of the collision detection is also slightly awkward. While vehicular collisions are mostly dead-on, colliding with stationary buildings is hit and miss (pun intended). Also, it's possible to literally drive under a speeding train and take minimal damage. To be fair, some liberties are taken to keep the game fun, but it could have better had it been more consistent.
On the graphics front, Bandits is gorgeous. While most of the weapons and particle effects are also good, the explosions seem anti-climactic at best. Sure, they're okay, but in contrast to the rest of the game, they're a letdown.
The sound is mostly good as well, but somewhat dependent on your taste. The box claims over 2.5 hours of original music and that's what you get. However, the music is in one of two genres: Euro-dance-rave-techno, or heavy metal circa 1989. For some reason, it seems that many European games feature music from the time America forgot. Of course, if you're into this sort of thing, it's all good. There are even very direct references to bands like AC/DC, Queen, and Metallica, both in the music style and the dialogue. (There are no details yet on if Metallica will be suing over this.) The voices are mostly decent as well, with the standout being your sidekick Rewdalf. He's a half-crazed Scotsmen with a phlegm-soaked accent. He has all the best lines in the sometimes hilarious and sometimes campy dialogue, and before you know it, you'll be saying "CRAP!" just like he does after a death.
Bandits: Phoenix Uprising was surprisingly fun to play. I had never heard of it when it showed up, but it was a welcome surprise, despite the bouts of frustration I had with the difficulty, and the lack of multiplayer games to connect to. Regardless, Bandits plays well, looks extremely good, and has enough single-player action to carry itself.
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