by Robert A. Jung
Atari Corp., for the Atari Jaguar
The Federation's worst fears have been confirmed: Terrakian pirates have taken over the distant colony world, slaughtering and enslaving the populace. A rescue armada has been assembled, but are kept at bay by the Terrakian atmospheric cannon and defense network. A plan using the new HS709 armored hovertank is devised. Dropped behind enemy lines, the pilot must use it to destroy Terrakian installations and ships, working up to the cannon itself. Only then can the rescue force arrive and save the day.
Okay, it's a fairly hackneyed and generic sci-fi storyline, but there it is. As expected, Hover Strike casts you as the pilot of the hovertank, to blaze through the Terrakian forces on the ground and in the air. There are 30 missions in various terrain and visual conditions, divided into groups of six. Find powerups to rearm and refuel your hovertank, or recruit a second player to join in as the gunner. A tank is destroyed when it takes too many hits or runs out of energy, and the game ends when all are lost. Finally, the cartridge offers three difficulty levels and the ability to save a game in progress.
Hover Strike is similar to X-Wing and Cybermorph in that it's an action game for thinkers. It is not enough to simply point and shoot, as this cartridge requires good mental juggling to keep abreast of the current situation. For example, some missions are dotted with baited traps that must be sprung, while others pit you against gigantic mazes of mountains or the pull of the tide. The pace of the game reflects this mental emphasis, and firefights are often separated by quiet lulls. Some will welcome the diverse complexity, but there will be those who bemoan the pauses in the combat.
The entire Jaguar controller is used, with buttons for weapons select, target locks, braking, thrust, and firing. While the controls are responsive, piloting requires new skills. Since the tank hovers off the ground, it moves and steers depending on the thrust applied, while enemy fire and aspects of the terrain can change the course vector. It's similar to Asteroids' thrust-and-turn controls, and can be learned after a few minutes of practice. The effort is worth it; able players can perform complex maneuvers like banking off a hill while strafing the enemy in a rapid retreat.
Game difficulty and mission diversity are reasonable. The first set of missions are fairly straightforward, but the challenge builds up in later sets. While engagements can quickly become chaotic, your tank can take a good number of hits, and the availability of powerups is fair. In a two-player game, the gunner can aim all over the screen and have quicker access to the weapons. With coordination between the driver and the gunner, the hovertank's efficiency is noticeably increased, without relegating either player to a minor role.
The graphics on Hover Strike are very good, but fall short of greatness. On the up side, texture mapping and shading is used everywhere, and night missions feature an impressive "flare" source-lighting effect. Instruments and text are all easy to read, though the main radar is a little small. Extra touches like the minutae on the instruments and an adjustable external view flesh out the visuals. On the down side, the frame rate could have been better. It's passable most of the time, but drops slightly when things get frantic, and turning is fast but choppy. Some areas are short on animation, like the underground turrets that simply "pop" into view. Finally, textures are disabled on night missions, which is disappointing.
Fortunately, the music and sounds are free of such discrepancies. Game effects are a good, healthy mix of weapons fire, sound effects, warning klaxons, and the voice of your on-board computer. Everything meshes together well, completely reflecting the current situation. A number of nicely-crafted ominous tunes play throughout the game, adding to the action without diverting the player's attention.
Hover Strike is not an action game for players who like their combat nonstop and uncomplicated. Rather, the challenge of driving a hovercraft and the measured pace of many of the missions make this a game for folks who want to exercise their brains along with their thumbs. With nice graphics and better sounds, this is a very good -- though not totally earth-shaking -- game for the Jaguar.