The Stars My Destination

Space. The final frontier. The immortal words of many a commanding officer of the Starship Enterprise. As a species, we have pretty much conquered the surface of our homeworld so why not cast our eyes towards the heavens? Explore the vast gulfs between the celestial bodies that make up our own solar system and the void beyond? Surely this is our destiny...one day. I'm enough of a fan of science fiction and science fact to know that this grandiose vision will never be realised in my lifetime, or the lifetime of my (hypothetical) children's children, but the notion of mankind's migration from this planet to spread our seeds amongst the stars and conquer the vast emptiness of the cosmos is one that has excited us since the dawn of civilisation itself.

Countless works of fiction have focused on humanity's struggle to leave the safety of planet Earth and create far-reaching networks - be those lowly colonies or planet-destroying galactic empires. Star Wars, Star Trek, Aliens, Firefly...Red Dwarf. The list is endless, and doesn't stop with the motion picture - 2001: A Space Odyssey (and sequels), The Stars My Destination, Gateway, The Forever War, Altered Carbon...all outstanding literary works with a common theme - that of our harnessing of wondrous technology and the breaking of the chains that hold us to the planet we call home. But what of games set in the black void? They too are numerous and the Dreamcast plays host to some of the finest space-based shmups known to man, but in this post I don't want to talk about those. I want to focus on the games that take the space-based shooting template and weave it into more of a dramatic story-driven production. Those games that involve a little bit more than dodging bullets and getting to the end of the level; and focus more on story lines, character development and fighting a tangible threat for a worthy cause. I want to talk space operas and happily, the Dreamcast has several that are actually rather good. Join me as we step beyond the veil and enter hyperspace to look at the best space shooters available for Sega's final entry into the games race...

Armada
Year: 1999
Developer: Metro3D
Publisher: Sega
Armada is a game that was only released to an NTSC-U audience, and this really beggars belief. I do remember reading a review in a UK magazine, getting really excited for it...and then being hugely disappointed when it's PAL release was canned. I'm still yet to find out why this happened, as Armada is a fantastic space-based shooter-cum-strategy romp. Played from a slightly isometric viewpoint, you are tasked with taking command of a starship and must pilot it across vast distances, fighting the titular bio-mechanical armada and hailing other ships in order to gain allies and free the galaxy of the alien threat. The story is quite involving and depicts a universe in which mankind has split into six distinct tribes but are forced to work together in order to fend off the aggressive armada who - for reasons unknown - are hellbent on destroying humanity. Controls are a little irksome at first - you control your ship's direction with the analogue stick in a sort of 'circular' motion (whichever way you rotate the stick is the way the ship points) and must use thrusters or the main engine to propel yourself, also using the ship's momentum to guide it safely through fields of marauding enemies.
Throw in plenty of combat, side missions, resource gathering, trading and teaming up with other wandering spacecraft and you have one brilliant adventure on your hands. You also have the ability to venture down to the surface of various planets and also to dock with space stations in order to buy and sell goods; and the coordinates-based map system makes finding hidden treasures and locations quite an engaging experience. As is the norm with this type of game, upgrading your ship and weaponry is as you'd expect, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of Armada is that it's intended to be played, Gauntlet style, with up to four players. I haven't personally experienced this (yet) but I would imagine it makes the game a lot easier with four commanders all flying around together and kicking alien ass. Armada is a game that is well worth tracking down if you're a US-based Dreamcast gamer, but likewise if you live elsewhere it's definitely worth looking for an import copy.

Bang! Gunship Elite
Year: 2000
Developer: Rayland Interactive
Publisher: Red Storm/Ubisoft
Yet another space-themed shooter that never saw release outside of the US, Bang! is a port of a fairly popular PC game that eschews Armada's RPG-lite gameplay in favour of all out combat. Played from a traditional first person cockpit perspective, Bang! throws the player into a universe where talk is cheap and big guns are all the rage. Actually, that's not wholly true as Bang! has a plot that is extremely convoluted and is explained in several fairly lengthy opening cut scenes. Having it's roots on the PC and being a game in the same mould as Wing Commander, this is probably to be expected, and the usual MacGuffin-based reasons for an intergalactic war between several different races is standard stuff. In this particular war, the magical source of all of mankind's energy is a substance known as Khá, and the Alliance is fighting a losing battle against the invading Sektar forces. Cue you, a rookie pilot, being fast-tracked through the academy and then pushed out into space on your own to complete a variety of missions that tread familiar ground for fans of the genre: skirmishes, seek & destroy and convoy protection missions are all par for the course here.
Controls are good and tight, even with the Dreamcast's lop-sided analogue options - accelerate and decelerate are on the triggers, you 'look' with the stick, and activate shields, fire and alternate your weapons with the face buttons and d-pad. Aside from the long-winded story and varied missions, the other ace up Bang!'s sleeve is the fantastic visuals. While the various ships and space stations do look a like tired by today's standards with their lo-res textures, the actual theatres themselves are packed full of lens flares, huge planets and asteroid belts and all manner of other spectacular particle effects. Once the action heats up, there's so much going on at times that you have to remind yourself that the Dreamcast is a system from the late 90s - Bang! really does look very, very nice even by today's standards. A great game in truth, and the only one I've yet found that features a 'fat bloke' in the credits:

Starlancer
Year: 2000
Developer: Digital Anvil/Warthog
Publisher: Crave/Ubisoft
While US gamers had a pretty decent choice of space shooters with both Armada and Bang! Gunship Elite also vying for their money, Dreamcast owners in PAL territories had pretty much one place to get their thrills - Starlancer. That's no bad thing though, because out of the three Starlancer is by far the best of the bunch...by a country mile. Coming from Chris and Erin Roberts - the designers of the previously mentioned Wing Commander games - Starlancer is a full-blown space opera in every sense of the word. Where Armada and Bang! are great, story-driven experiences in their own right, Starlancer takes it one step further by throwing the player into what is essentially a science-fiction blockbuster of a game, complete with pretty much every cliche of the genre you could care to mention. It also differs from the others in this list in that the enemy threat here is actually human - an alliance of space communists out to destroy the network of colonies and space stations created by the peace-loving allied nations of Earth. It's basically the cold war, but in space. You, as ever, take on the role of a rookie fighter called up to join the 45th volunteer squadron and provide fighter cover for the remaining vestiges of the allied battle fleet as the top brass try to come up with an effective strategy to thwart an overpowering enemy. While Starlancer does look quite similar to Bang! aesthetically, the similarities pretty much end there: Starlancer is all about tactics and commanding your wingmen to attack serious targets, deploying counter measures and working together to take down swarms of intelligent enemy fighters and gigantic capital ships. All the while, radio chatter from your comrades bursts from your headset and the orchestral music adds to the tension. Cut scenes are brilliantly utilised to advance the story and the missions can branch depending on your actions, making Starlancer a truly huge adventure.
As well as the main campaign in which you increase in rank the further you get, there is also as 'instant action' skirmish mode that lets you jump straight in to a dogfight and also try out some of the ships you unlock later in the main game. Another way in which Starlancer differs from Bang! is that there is a multiplayer mode, but whether it is still operational today (even with a broadband adaptor) is something I'm not sure on. The real show-stopper with Starlancer though, isn't the brilliant voice acting, outstanding visuals or rousing soundtrack; it's the way in which the game actually makes you feel like you're a small piece in an even bigger sequence of events. You aren't the absolute hero, there are other hotshot pilots out there too, and you all band together to fight a common enemy. Not only that, but you also have dialogue with enemy pilots so you aren't just blasting faceless AI drones and this goes a long way when creating a tangible living, breathing universe (so to speak) in which to set a story.

Conclusion
The three games I've covered in this article are all outstanding titles in their own right. They all offer a unique experience yet are set in similar environments and all share the key elements of a good space-based adventure. In all of them, you play a lone pilot who is part of a threatened alliance. You are the archetypal underdog with the odds stacked against you and the fate of your people resting on your shoulders. The only thing standing between freedom and certain death are well-maintained laser cannons, a quick trigger finger, and - in some cases - the help of an ally or two. That said, all three of them are different enough to warrant owning them all in my opinion. Armada is more about exploration and upgrading; Bang! is more about solitary dogfighting and Starlancer's game is focussed on commanding squadrons and using tactics. That said, if I could only choose one out of the three, then it would surely be Starlancer; it just has it all - great looks, amazing gameplay and a totally engrossing storyline. It is easily one of the best games on the Dreamcast and if you like space-based shooters it should already be in your library.
Special thanks to friend of the Junkyard Pcwzrd13 who sourced both Armada and Bang! Gunship Elite for me from his native America and sent them over to Blighty in a package that also included a bonus game - Creature Shock for the Sega Saturn. Be sure, as ever, to check out his Youtube channel for some great gaming-related content.

Anyway, enough from me - what do you think about the Dreamcast's space shooters? Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments or head over to our new DCJY Facebook Group and get involved in the discussion!

3 comments:

pcwzrd13 said...

Nice article man! Starlancer is unfortunately offline at the moment. The official servers hosted by GameSpy were shut down last year. It was actually the last official Dreamcast server so it's a bit sad. Private server software is in the works but hasn't been released yet. Hopefully we'll be playing it online again soon though.

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks for the info, it'll be interesting to see if the game goes back online in the future. Thanks again for getting these games for me!

Super Magnetic said...

I've only ever played Starlancer, although I am interested in Armada, and I have to say it's way to hard and the graphics aren't great and weren't back in the day either. The devs obviously chose to keep the ships poly count down to help with online performance, however the effects are fantastic. No one was ever online back when it came out too. Too many other great Dreamcast game to recomend it. C-.