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Based graphically and operationally on the film, Starship Troopers takes several cues from Heinlein's book by adding (or returning, if you want to look at it that way) powered armour, long-range jump capability and the infamous micro-nukes from the book. The missions that result are a surprisingly comfortable hybrid of the film's pitched battles and the book's guerrilla/terrorist military actions. Missions featuring the film's gun-emplacement-laden forts, holding off literally hundreds of bugs while you wait for a dropship to cart you out of the danger zone go hand-in-hand with a truly innovative propaganda mission that sees you safeguarding an unscrupulous TV presenter as he films the recently evacuated inhabitants of a faming community being "safely" returned to their homes.
The defining feature of squad-based RTS games is that there's no way to reinforce your team once you enter the combat zone. Okay, there's the odd mission where you get an extra squad member to babysit or a rescue mission with some healable walking wounded, but the fundamental dynamic of this game is that you have to keep your troops alive from the beginning of a mission to the end. Wounded troopers can be med-evac-ed mid-mission if you've chosen a medic as one of your support troopers (support troopers feature psychics, snipers, medics and the minelayer/armour-healer engineers), but should you run out of med-evac resources (four per medic per mission), you're pretty much obliged to return to wherever your troopers died and retrieve his dog-tags.
This sort of brings me to my first of a couple of issues with the game, that being that, if one of your troopers has wandered off on his own he pretty much deserves to die for being an idiot. The bugs of Starship Troopers are quite incredibly tough customers, pretty much capable of taking out any one of your troopers, no matter how well-armed and -armoured he may be, and in most cases, well able to take out packs of three, maybe four troopers single-handedly. This pretty much means that the "squad-based" part of the game degrades into "terrified, huddled clump of damp-trousered soldiers-based" because you simply don't dare move anyone away from the main body of your squad.
There are exceptions, of course. Your missile troopers, grenadiers and the marvellous micro-nukers must be given specific fire orders, so as not to fire a ball of instant, firey disintegration into the middle of a crowded combat zone and this occaisionally leads them to wander off in odd directions when the fire order is given in order to find a direct line of sight to their target. Sadly, nobody follows them to provide cover and if you're not careful they tend to die before firing their ordnance. Also, this "wandering off to find a good shot" business can get slightly annoying when you're ordering them to fire at a Tanker bug (see the film) and they wander off to find a good shot at the ground the Tanker is standing on, rather than just pointing upward at the 20-foot-tall monstrosity that's just heaved itself up out of the ground. RPG-style experience levels, awarding points for missions completed, bugs killed and the like, is something I've had issues with since the first X-Com game when I didn't dare take my high-ranked officers out into the field because of the killer morale penalty should they be killed. In Starship Troopers, only the high-ranked troopers can wear the big, stompy suits, but fielding a mass of stompy-suited rankers the whole game leaves you extraordinarily vulnerable should one of them die and leave you with nothing but a raw recruit who not only can't wear a suit but can't carry the heavier weapons to replace him. Similarly, bringing low-ranked, unarmoured troops into the field not only leaves you lacking firepower due to their inexperience, they don't kill anything anyway and they pretty much mess up your squad dynamic by forcing you to use one of your minigunners to switch to the missile weapons the raw recruits aren't allowed to carry.
It's a minor set of gripes on an otherwise pretty fantastic game, but it all smacks of poor planning and a marketing-driven need to keep to the unarmoured death-seekers of the film who, let's face it, were just asking to be bug-meat rather than Henlein's walking tanks.
All in all, though, there's nothing so bad about Starship Troopers that you don't just mutter darkly for a moment when you spot it, then carry on with this sequel-in-software. Starship Troopers is a lovely game for fans of the film, made by fans of the book who bring enough of the book back into the gameplay that it's a good game for fans of the book as well. As for the people who couldn't care less about the film or the book, it's a nice squad-based RTS that has a very individual style that hasn't really been replicated anywhere else and a pretty decent level of tension and exhilaration to keep you playing through to the end.
Back in the early 90's, Microprose created X-Com, a game turn based game about hunting down and killing bug eyed alien invaders. X-Com would go on to become one of the all time classics, a standard against which others would be judged. Now, just in time for X-mass, the bug hunt is on again with Starship Troopers; Terran Ascendancy. In a nutshell, ST is a 3D, real time tactical game based on the movie (and very loosely, the Book) of the same name, pitting the Terran Mobile Infantry (MI), against the pseudo-arachnid bugs. ST also pits your USB devices and registry editing skills against another type of bug; the ship it now-patch it later bug. But if you can get past a couple of significant bugs, you will discover a game that takes a touch of the old X-Com magic, combines it with sharp 3D graphics and real time action to create an entertaining and challenging gaming experience.
The excitement of receiving a new game to review came to a screeching halt when my first attempt to install and run ST ended up with a crash to desktop. After uninstalling and reinstalling to a different directory, I was still no closer to joining the MI and stomping the bugs. After a bit more tinkering I checked the web site (STTA.com), and found out that there were known conflicts with USB devices. (I have a USB mouse and joystick). But the nice people at Microprose had been so kind as to create a patch, before the game had even arrived at the stores. (Ship it now, patch it later.)
While the patch was downloading, I installed ST on another computer, to check it out. It installed flawlessly, but then I patched it, the skirmish began to escalate. The patch fixed the USB conflict, but my trooper's statistics were no longer visible. I could still see the actual numbers, but the labels were missing. I launched a furious counterattack and uninstalled the program. The bugs, obviously anticipating this attack, easily resisted all attempts to uninstall the software. Unfazed, I deleted the Microprose folder, committing a huge tactical blunder.
My attempts to reinstall, was completely unsuccessful, as the setup program would only offer an uninstall option. Feeling cagey, I unveiled my secret weapon "REGEDIT" (DON'T try this at home unless you really know what you are doing! Seriously.) When this didn't work, I called the support line. The person who answered could not help me, but promised that his supervisor (who was 'Microsoft certified') would call me back. He never called back, but eventually I managed to get all traces of ST out of the registry and reinstalled it. (I later found out that the patch partially works if unzipped to the wrong directory, and that is what I had done.)
OK, that was the bad part. If you are still reading this you either a) are comfortable troubleshooting, or b) really liked the movie/book and want to kill bugs. And you are in for a treat, because this is actually a very cool game. There are four tutorial missions that teach you how to move, look around, give orders and fight. These missions are critical to learn how to play, because the manual does not contain a single paragraph about how to play the game.
The story behind Starship Troopers, (for those of you not familiar with the movie), is classic pulp sci fi. Outlying Terran colonies discover an insect like species of alien that proves to be prolific and very hostile. The areas infested by the psuedo-arachnids (bugs for short) are quarantined, but when the bugs drop a meteor on Buenos Aries, the Mobile Infantry is mobilized for a counter attack. You take on the role of a newly commissioned Lieutenant in the MI, responsible for selecting and leading strike teams of 2 or three squads on different missions against the bugs.
Your first responsibility is to select which of your troopers to take on each mission, and then you must equip them with appropriate armor, weapons, and tech gadgets. (This part is a lot like X-Com). Your choice of weapons, equipment, and armor for each of your soldiers is limited by that trooper's rank. Each successful mission yields experience, stat increases, and most importantly, promotions for you and your troops. As the missions progress, specialists like medics, combat engineers, psionic troopers and snipers also become available. The first few missions will be fought with smart rifles, and rocket launchers, but later missions will add flame-throwers, Chain guns, energy weapons, nerve gas and more. This is a very effective way of making you care about the fate of the troopers under your command. When a highly decorated veteran Sergeant (who wears Class II Marauder armor, with built in jump jets and rocket launcher) buys the farm, and is replaced by a wet-behind-the-ears-rookie, (with a rifle) it hurts. A lot.
After you have assembled and armed your squad, your first mission is to take part of an attack on the bug home world of Klendathu. (If you have seen the movie, you know how this particular attack turns out). Your objective is to destroy all bug holes in your mission sector, and survive. Opposing your strike team are small groups of warrior bugs. Individually they are easily stopped by the combined firepower of your team of 12. Unfortunately for the MI, the bugs don't always come at you one at a time. And when the bugs get close your troops will fall back, firing, or they will fall, staggering under the stabbing, slashing pincers of the bugs.
As the Lieutenant, it is your job to prevent that from happening. To do that you will have to make good use of the available formations. You will have to learn to spot bug holes, and destroy them quickly, before the emerging bugs can overwhelm your squad. You will need to use the excellent camera controls to constantly look around and avoid having your stragglers picked off from behind. And most importantly, you need to learn to stay cool under fire, to avoid panicking when your troops are shouting for backup, or screaming in pain as they are torn asunder. And you will have to call for a Medevac, or recover the dog tags of your fallen troopers when you mess up.
With each successful mission, your troops gain experience, get promotions, and gain access to better toys, and upgrade existing technologies to improve your weapons and tech items. However, your opponents also become more numerous and more varied. All of the bugs from the movie are represented, with a few more added for good measure. Hoppers swoop and dive on your troopers. Acid spitting bugs wreak havoc with closely packed formations. Giant tanker bugs burst up from under your troops for a surprise barbecue that frequently ends a mission. Which brings me to the only seriously annoying game play flaw, the save system. There are no in game saves. You must complete a mission to save your progress. Most of the missions are quite lengthy, usually 45 minutes to an hour, and one of them took me eight attempts to complete. (Ok, so I am a bit slow sometimes). It is incredibly frustrating to be in the final few seconds of an hour long mission, only to lose critical team members in the final few seconds. But despite the occasional urge to take my own handgun to my computer, ST kept me coming back for more, and more and more. Finishing one mission usually led me to take a "quick look" at the next mission, which of course led to playing that mission. And I generally do not like mission based games.
So what makes this game so good? Is it the graphics? The game play? Is it the plot, or the licensing deal? The graphics are very good, with the aliens looking very realistic and scary as they scramble, fly, hop and maim your troopers. Your squad members are resplendent in the different suits of armor, with camouflage appropriate to the terrain. Things look and behave the way they should. Weapons eject shell casings. Bugs communicate when they spot your team, even going so far as to retreat to a bug hole to call for reinforcements. Your troopers will withdraw firing as bugs get close, and will even switch to their sidearm when they are out of ammo or when the bugs are too close for heavy weapon fire.
The movement AI is generally good, and it is possible to give movement orders on the tactical map. This is helpful because the mission areas are fairly large and complex A variety of formations are available to keep your squads in order, and most of the formations are useful at one time or another. Units rarely get stuck, but on a couple of occasions, one trooper got separated from the squad, requiring a fair amount of backtracking to retrieve. And on one occasion a trooper got stuck next to a pillar and would not move at all, preventing the retrieval boat from taking off. (No one gets left behind). This resulted in having to quit and restart after playing for over an hour. This is the kind of frustration that mars the beauty of this game. But I still go willingly back to the front to fight for my species.
Overall Starship Troopers is a very good game. The graphics, sound, plot, and game play, are all top notch. But the rush to get the game in stores for the holidays detracts from the package as a whole. And I wish that developers would realize that not including an in game save is a cheesy way to lengthen a game. Contrary to popular opinion, we do have lives, and those lives often interfere with our gaming. It is frustrating to like a game, and want to play it, but to know that you don't have enough time to complete a mission, so why even bother.
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Starship Troopers: Terran Ascendancy screenshot
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