by Robert A. Jung
Atari Corp., for the Atari Jaguar
Sometimes, paranoia is well-founded. Thirty years ago, after the alien Pernitian invaders were driven off the Terran colony worlds, the Earth Defense Council unanimously agreed to station a fleet of battle cruisers to protect them from any future attack. Things were quiet for a while, but now the Pernitians are back in spades. In a lightning-fast attack, they've destroyed the cruisers, slaughtered the colonists, and re-taken the worlds. The Council has declared war in response, and the battle cruiser Sutherland is given an open-ended agenda -- free the colonies, eliminate the Pernitians, find their home world, and stop the alien menace once and for all.
This is the scenario for Battlemorph, Atari's Jaguar CD sequel to their first Jaguar game, Cybermorph. The player is the pilot of the War Griffon, a shape-shifting, all-terrain assault craft. Using the Sutherland as a launch point, the player battles across 50-plus worlds spread over eight planetary systems. Each world has a mission that must be accomplished, while force fields, teleporters, and assorted Pernitian installations and crafts stand in the way. The game features full freedom of movement, allowing the player to fly over mountains, dive underwater, or explore subterranean tunnels. There are three difficulty settings, and up to six games can be saved to a Jaguar Memory Track cartridge.
Cybermorph tended to divide players into two groups: cerebral-minded folks enjoyed the challenge of unraveling the puzzles of each planet, while action-oriented gamers were bored by the game's repetitive find-the-pods nature. Battlemorph addresses this by adding more variety all around: more enemies, more combat encounters, and more diverse goals. It succeeds wonderfully, resulting in a game that's far, far deeper and richer than its predecessor. Like Electronic Arts' Strike series (Desert Strike, Jungle Strike, etc.), this title blends action and strategy into a vibrant whole that equally challenges the mind and the reflexes.
The worlds of Battlemorph have a sense of interconnection that makes the game feel very "real." Blasting an underwater strut, for instance, will cause the bridge overhead to collapse, which in turn will send any vehicles on it to crash and explode. The game quickly immerses the player into its reality, and it's very tempting to explore each planet beyond the regions needed to complete the mission. The game encourages such exploration; players who dare to wander off the beaten track will often be rewarded with extra ships, more ammunition, and even access to otherwise hidden "bonus worlds."
All of the weaknesses of Cybermorph have been eliminated in Battlemorph. As mentioned before, missions are now much more diverse, giving the game a welcome level of variety. The expanded enemies roster and new terrain provide numerous challenges, such as acid lakes, energy leeches, indestructible trains, and key-locked domes. A vastly improved mapping system shows the location of the player's ship and key landmarks, as well as letting him set his own courses. The five ship views are actually useful, the new weapons system gives players complete control, and even Skylar, the ship's computer, is much less obnoxious than before.
As expected, the graphics of Battlemorph have been improved over the original. Plain shaded polygons are used on the terrain and landscape, while buildings, enemies, and installations are rendered with animated and static texture-mapped polygons. Scrolling and screen refresh is fast and smooth, while special effects dotted throughout the game add to the appeal. As with polygon-rendered games on other consoles, there is a pop-up effect as objects on the horizon are drawn; fortunately, the Battlemorph horizon is far enough away that this does not hurt the game, and a combination of shading and true-color backdrops alleviate the situation somewhat. Finally, a few full-motion video sequences are briefly used, complimenting the game without being tiresome over time.
Sound effects are nice, though there's nothing spectacular. Explosions, weapons, and the War Griffon's engines tend to dominate, and chimes are used when items are recovered or devices are activated. The voice of the ship's computer is fine, but the narrator/commander is not -- Rob Brydon sounds more like Jim Backus than Patrick Steward, and it's funny hearing his less-than-commanding voice give orders between missions. Best is the unintrusive music, ranging from soft rock to New Age to ominous drumbeats. The tunes change according to where the player is, and they're all nicely done and welcome.
Battlemorph is a wonderful sequel to Cybermorph, building on the ideas of the original with much more diversity and depth. Complex worlds, detailed layouts, and top-notch graphics and music make this a game that quickly draws the player into its own reality. Fans of the original will love Battlemorph, and action gamers everywhere else should definitely give this title a try.