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SummaryExcellent early foray into turn-based squad combat
The GoodIn 1994, a game was released that captured my imagination like no other. UFO: Enemy Unknown (aka. X-COM) was a turn-based squad combat game that managed to be unbelievably tense, addictive, fun and actually made you care about your squad members and what happened to them. It remains the best game I have ever played. Rebelstar II is an earlier work from that game's lead developer, Julian Gollop. Released on the Spectrum, in 1988, its gameplay will be instantly familiar to fans of the X-COM series.
You control a squad of soldiers whose mission is to infiltrate an alien base, killing all the opposition you encounter along the way, then steal some alien eggs for research purposes and get aboard the rescue ship before it takes off.
The commands, options and stats that were introduced in Gollop's Rebelstar Raiders (1984) and became a hallmark of all his turn-based squad games are here. Each soldier has a name and a unique set of stats that determine how brave they are, how long it will be before they tire and how accurate their shooting is. Your soldiers come equipped with a range of weapons, from the standard laser rifle to the fast-firing photon, to a light-sabre which can be used to hack through thick jungle or even thicker alien-hide, if it comes to that. You can even pick up alien weaponry and use it against them.
The game can be played one or two-player. I played against the computer.
After you have chosen a level of difficulty, the game starts. You initially have a squad of eleven soldiers (though reinforcements arrive during the first few game turns). They are standing at the western edge of a large map covered with swamp, jungle and crossed by several rivers. On the eastern side is the alien base, and sitting in her central chamber is the alien queen, guarding her eggs and surrounded by a host of warriors.
The first enemies you will encounter are not the alien soldiers, but the planet's native wildlife - giant ratlike creatures with razor teeth and tentacular beasts that prowl through the swampy waters. But these animals are a minor threat compared to the hordes of alien soldiers that start moving towards you as the game begins, armed with deadly bows and even deadlier 'terminator' rifles.
Over the first few turns you will learn some harsh lessons in how important (and how difficult) it is to keep your soldiers under cover. There are bushes and various small trees to hide behind, but the terrain still seems dangerously open and the aliens fire from great distances, somehow finding a way to hit soldiers you thought were totally out of view. Like X-COM, the game has a very tense feel that leaves your finger hovering uncertainly above the 'end turn' button, then watching helplessly as enemies approach. As shots flash across the screen, you can only hope that none of your soldiers will be hit. Each shot that misses brings a moment of relief, but each shot that hits is a moment of true horror. Like X-COM, damage is realistically random, meaning a soldier may escape with a graze or may be left close to death. Serious wounds will reduce a soldier's time-units, leaving them slow and vulnerable to attack.
Rebelstar, like X-COM, draws its strength from making you *care* about your soldiers. You don't want to see them die, and when a soldier pulls a desperate act of heroism or survives against the odds, they really start to develop character. They may just be little yellow sprites that look like they jumped out of a packet of Transform-A-Snack but the game transcends that, and even a faceless blob called 'Captain Krenon' becomes a flesh-and-blood human, in your mind.
Something I was dubious about, but which actually works really well, is the imposed time limit. On turn 15, the Raiders' rescue ship lands outside the alien base and on turn 26, it will fly off, with or without you. That means you have only 25 turns to get across the map, get into the alien base, steal some eggs and get out. The time limit is tight but not too tight, and gives an added sense of urgency to the proceedings. It also means you can't just hang back and wait for the aliens to come to you.
Despite the mission objective, the game is actually played for points. The aliens get three points for killing one of your soldiers, while you only get one point for killing one of theirs. This makes it even more important to keep your soldiers alive and to grab as many eggs as you can (Captured eggs are worth five points. If you can kill the queen, it'll get you ten points). Once again, something that could detract from the game really works in its favour, making you play harder and making each successful kill that little bit sweeter.
For a type of game that seems tailor-made for mouse control, Rebelstar II works surprisingly well with its keyboard interface. A cluster of keys on the left hand side control movement and selection, while a set of other well-chosen keys are used for everything else. The available keypresses are always displayed onscreen, meaning you never get stuck.
The graphics are colourful and detailed, with sprites that clearly show what each unit is, and the weapon they are carrying. Scrolling is fast and jerk-free, and the AI does its job, even throwing in a few surprises (which I'll leave that way). Although you have to watch each enemy unit moving on their turn, there are no calculation delays, making the game a very smooth and enjoyable experience.
The BadThe firing system is somewhat time-consuming and it can be hard to work out whether a shot has any chance of hitting. Because only a portion of the game map is displayed onscreen at a time, long shots require some scrolling back and forth, trying to draw an imaginary line of fire to see whether you're going to hit an alien or just a bush. The aliens don't suffer from such problems, always seeming to find good angles on your troops. Although this may sound unfair, in practice, you learn to cover your soldiers, and sneak a little closer to be sure of the trajectory.
It is a shame that there is only one scenario in the game, but it is so well thought-out that it is easily forgivable. Besides, this *was* a 'budget' title (costing just £1.99!), unlike the full-price, multi-scenario Laser Squad which Gollop released the same year.
The replay factor seems quite low. Once you have beaten the game, there is little else to do except try a higher difficulty level or try for a better score. That said, I completed the game last night, and I'm still thinking about how much fun it was, so I may well have another go sometime in the future.
Finally, the game has no 'save' feature. It took me just over five hours to play it through from start to finish, and I managed to lose, right at the end, with two of my soldiers just inches from the rescue ship. Now, if I were playing this on a real Spectrum, I would be gutted. However, thanks to the wonders of emulation, I was able to reload a snapshot from a few turns earlier. This time, I hotfooted it through the alien base, avoiding a couple of aliens I had wasted time killing before, and *just* made it aboard the ship, for a slim two-point victory. Therefore, what would have been frustrating in 1988, is no longer an issue.