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Retrospective: Bang! Gunship Elite

I love a good sci-fi shooter. The massive scope of interstellar wars, huge capital ships blasting the crap out of each other and swarms of nimble little fighters darting between the carnage. It's every kid's dream scenario and one above being a fighter pilot. Why settle for flying a jet through a planet's boring old atmosphere when you can pilot a warp speed space fighter through the stars, dodging asteroids and putting plasma torpedos down the exhaust chute of a small moon space station? No brainer, really.

I've played loads of these types of games over the years, on an assortment of consoles, and for the most part they all adhere to a familiar template. Usually played from a cockpit view, with a useless 3D radar display, 360 degree movement that can prompt the evacuation of one's stomach via the oral cavity, and some honest to goodness blasting action. Colony Wars, Rogue Squadron, Darklight Conflict, Starlancer, X-Wing, Yager, Spirit of Speed 1937, Battle Engine Aquila, Star Fighter 3000, Elite Dangerous, Star Wars: Squadrons...I could go on. Note I also used the term 'sci-fi' and not 'space' shooter. That's because some of these games take place within the atmosphere of a planet and thus render my opening paragraph null and void. But y'know. I'm just looking out for the pedants among us. And the fighter pilots I probably enraged with my flippant comments on their awesome jobs.

Anyway, the point of this is that the Dreamcast played host to a number of sci-fi shooters, with one of them even taking place not in the vacuum of space, but under the waves of some unnamed digital ocean (see Deep Fighter). I did take a brief look at the various sci-fi shooters on the Dreamcast several years ago, but I thought it was a good time to take a more in-depth look at one of those titles, and one which doesn't really get a lot of air time these days. Air time. Space. Geddit? Sigh. Anyway, let's take a gander at the rather oddly titled Bang! Gunship Elite.

I find it interesting that enigmatic developer Rayland Interactive decided to call their game Bang! Gunship Elite, rather than just Gunship Elite. The addition of the exclamation hints that they may have been expecting you to actually shout "Bang!" before pronouncing the rest of the title like a normal human would. To be honest I'm fine with that, and from now on any time I say the name of this game aloud, I shall indeed either be bellowing "Bang!" at the top of my voice (socially distanced and from behind a mask, of course); or inflating a balloon before popping it with a pin. 

If nothing else, that'll cement Bang! Gunship Elite in the psyche of anyone who knows me; or indeed anyone who sees me walking down the street with a handful of balloons in one hand and copy of the game in t'other. Actually, the more boring explanation for the addition of the Bang! bit is that the game was - judging from an early Rayland Interactive page I found on the Wayback Machine - originally going to be titled 'Big Bang' or something similar.

I feel I've gone off on a bit of a tangent here, so let's get back on the correct flight vector. Bang! Gunship Elite is a space-based sci-fi shooter for the Dreamcast and Windows that was only released in North America. This is especially curious because developer Rayland Interactive was based in France. If anything you'd have thought the game would have been a PAL exclusive if nothing else, but no. It was published in the US in December 2000 by Red Storm Entertainment and received fairly average reviews, and to be honest having spent a few hours playing the formulaic campaign it's not hard to see why.

Before we move on to the game itself though, it's worth talking about Rayland Interactive some more, simply because there is virtually no information about the fate of this outfit anywhere online. It seems that prior to Bang!, Rayland developed a vehicular combat title called Mad Trax that was released on PC in 1998. This was followed in 2000 by Bang! Gunship Elite and a nomination for 'best start-up' at the Milia 2001 interactive media expo. According to the remnants of their website on the Wayback Machine, a further title called ZooLooz was also in production, but I can find no information on it or further evidence that this game was ever finished or released. After May 2001, Rayland Interactive simply ceases to exist.

What does exist though, is Bang! Gunship Elite, so let's take a look at the game itself. The first thing you'll realise upon starting Bang! Gunship Elite is that is has a pretty complicated storyline that is - as far as I can determine - completely original and not based on any previous IP. To try to explain it here would no doubt take multiple paragraphs and I'd end up tying myself in knots trying to simplify it, but ultimately what it boils down to is a power source known as 'Khá' and an alliance of three alien empires that is set up to exploit and defend this MacGuffin resource. All is going well until a fourth race, the Sektar turn up and decide they want to take the Khá for themselves and so a war breaks out. As a pilot in the alliance, it's basically your job, over a series of varied missions to blast various Sektar fighters, motherships and space stations out of existence using various weapon types and trying not to get wiped out yourself. Here's a bit of blurb taken from the defunct Rayland Interactive website:

"The Alliance of the 3 Races have always had their conflicts with the Sektar, the evil race that was excluded from the Alliance so many years ago. Many of us have lost members of our families for generations because of their teacherous attacks on unprotected outposts of our alliance.

"Until now we have managed to avoid a large scale conflict but we have learned that the Sektar have recruited the infamous Morgoths and intend to wipe us out forever, in order to have free access to the Kha. Whether we want to or not, we have to face this horrendous threat. Once again we have called on the skills and courage of our Allied Arikhans, to protect us. All Arikhan military forces have therefore been called to weapons. I regret to have to inform you we are in a state of war.

"The Player is Xaha, a young talented Arikhan fighterpilot. He has got his own fighter sooner than was meant, but enormous losses in the first encounters with the enemy have made it necessary to replace more experienced pilots already. The losses are so big that Xaha often has to face the enemy alone...

"Combat information says the first mission of the enemy is to destroy the Dagon-bases, since they are considered the brains in the Alliance."

- Rayland Interactive website

Rest assured that if you play this game you'll quickly discover just how seriously Bang! Gunship Elite takes its world building, as mission briefings are about as po-faced as you can get, and the sheer number of past events, treaties being signed, various ficticious officials being name checked left, right and centre can leave your head spinning. It's nice that Rayland tried to develop a highly detailed story as a backdrop to the shooty shooty pew pew action, but in all honesty it just feels bloated and unnecessary. Yes, the mission select screen is also tied into the narrative and the missions play out a story whereby resources are stolen and retrieved and attacks are mounted and repelled...but ultimately this could quite easily be played without sitting through any of the (30 minutes' worth of) lengthy in-engine cutscenes.

The actual gameplay itself though is fairly satisfying, if a little repetitive. This is more a fault of the genre as a whole than anything Bang! Gunship Elite does especially badly - even playing modern shooters like the aforementioned Star Wars: Squadrons, repetition sets in quite early as you realise that there's just not that much you can do with a space based dogfighting game. Fly around a bit, shoot some enemies, shoot some gun emplacements, fill up your health meter and use different types of weapons on different foes. Rinse and repeat. That's pretty much what you get with Bang! Gunship Elite too. 

There is a bit of a tactical element, such as - as mentioned - using certain weapons on certain enemies; and there are some nice touches such as the respirator sound effects when your ship's hull becomes damaged, or the targeting system or electronics malfunctioning. You do also have a temporary shield that you can employ if things are getting a bit dicey and the bogies on your tail are lighting you up. Speaking of bogies, the blurb on the back of the box mentions that Bang! Gunship Elite employs adaptable AI that will adjust it's own ability depending on your performance (in fact, it mentions it twice!), but I couldn't really see any evidence of that.

Regardless of how well or poorly you're doing they seem to just zip about popping off shots or simply fly straight at you, kamikaze style with no thought for their own safety. Helpfully, your onboard targeting system does have a generous range so if you're quick you can usually blast enemies before they get near enough to plough into you and damage your various life support and weapon systems. Even with this assistance though, Bang! Gunship Elite can be pretty punishing, and the constant waves of enemies ploughing into you can make things more difficult than they need to be. Eagle-eyed readers will no doubt notice that I used a cheat code to access some of the later missions to take the screens on this page, and that's simply due to the sometimes ridiculous difficulty of even the early missions.

That said, Bang! Gunship Elite, for all it's over the top world building and story telling is actually a very basic game. Missions - aside from the constant swarms of drones - are never too taxing in their complexity (go here, shoot this thing, collect this thing and then shoot/protect this other thing) and the controls are simplistic in the extreme. The triggers are used to accelerate and decelerate, the analogue stick points your nose and the face buttons are used to fire, activate the shield and switch primary weapons. 

Weirdly, the d-pad is used to roll but you'll probably never need to use it, and this is a plus simply because it just feels odd having to move your thumb from the analogue stick to the d-pad just to initiate a manoeuvre which is usually quite integral to dogfighting games. Furthermore, there's a shocking lack of anybody yelling at you to do a barrel roll, or indeed use the G-Diffuser. Missed opportunity, that. The box doesn't list if Bang! Gunship Elite is compatible with the ASCII Mission Stick more commonly associated with Aero Dancing/AeroWings (I no longer own one so can't test it), but if it is then that might actually be the preferred way to play, rather than with a standard Dreamcast controller.

So a fairly basic mission structure throughout, and fairly simplistic controls. It's not bad per se - far from it. It's just very average. Where Bang! Gunship Elite shines though, is in its visuals and presentation. Sure, it isn't doing anything overly complex and most missions are played out in the vast empty sky boxes of space...but boy those static backgrounds and dynamic lens flares look pretty amazing at times. It probably helps that the massive planets, dust clouds and distant nebulas filling the environments are really just hi-resolution photos (some of which are actual NASA images taken from the Hubble Space Telescope), but never have high resolution photos been so well rendered in a Dreamcast space shooter.

The ships too look very clean and are nicely detailed, and everything just zips about super smoothly. Again, Bang! Gunship Elite is barely throwing any polygons around at all so it figures that it would run smoothly on a system as powerful as the Dreamcast, but credit where credit is due - it looks gorgeous at times. The sound is less impressive, with functional blaster noises and an on-board computer that announces your pick-ups (enemy ships will drop health and weapon power-ups on occasion); while the narration in the cut scenes is very well performed, if a little self serious. Music is the standard rousing mix of orchestral tunes that accompany this type of action well, and while it's never really amazing it just suits the blasting down to the ground. Or the ground of the nearest planetoid, at least.

So what's the verdict on Bang! Gunship Elite then? Well, if you enjoy sci-fi shooters such as Starlancer and Deep Fighter (or any of the previously mentioned titles on other platforms) then you should certainly give it a go. It doesn't do anything particularly original, and is fairly by the numbers in terms of mission types and gameplay. That said it does look nice and controls well enough. There are plenty of missions to sink your teeth into (19 in total) and some nice acting in there too, but other than the main campaign there's not much else to do (no multiplayer or arcade modes etc.). 

Overall it's an average shooter dressed up in some attractive wrapping, but if you enjoy this genre by all means give it a go. Just skip the contrived and overly complicated story stuff, you won't miss much. Oh, and I'm still yet to discover why Adrian Curry is listed as 'Fat Bloke' in the credits...

What are your thoughts on Bang! Gunship Elite? Let us know in the comments. 

3 comments:

way2easy said...

Pretty sure 'Fat Bloke' is what happens to 'Best Boy' after about 20 years and a few thousand currys.....

Jaz said...

Spirit of Speed 1937 really is the gift that keeps on giving.

Brian (@VirtuaSchlub) said...

Fantastic write up, Tom, as always! I gotta admit there was a good decade or so where I assumed Bang! Gunship Elite and Treasure's Bangai-O were the same game. Anyway, this retrospective has inspired me to finally play the former, which I bought 10 years ago thinking it was the latter. Very curious how they intended the adaptive AI to work, and whether it was just a very subtle system or scrapped altogether.