Every once in a while you find a game that makes you appreciate how good you had it. The bar is raised among videogames for a reason, and when one fails to measure up in virtually every way, it’s a grim thing to bear. It’s worse when it’s a sequel to a far better game.
I’d rather be enslaved by the Invid than play Robotech: Invasion again. I’m a pretty serious Robotech fan, so it seemed like a no-brainer to play Robotech: Battlecry when it came out a while back. I found the game enjoyable, and the story wove in and out of the established mythos with such skill and grace that I found myself breathless by the time the credits rolled. Take a new developer (Vicious Cycle), give them what is admittedly the second-best part of the trilogy of Robotech wars, add a N64-era graphics and sound engine, shake well, and presto! You’ve got one of the shoddiest follow-ups – no, make that one of the gimpiest games to come out this year, sequel or no.
You’ve got two things to consider here: the story and the game’s actual playability. The story never really makes much sense, even by the end when an odd plot twist is thrown in. I know the story of Scott Bernard and his rag-tag band of Robotech rebels taking on the Invid swarm head-on. I just watched the whole saga on DVD a couple months ago. It didn’t matter that I knew any of that story or none at all. Scott only appears in a couple of cameos for a split second, then he’s gone.
The focus in this season of the TV show was on Scott and his gang, so that left the rest of the world wide open for creative characters and story developments. Forget all that. Where Battlecry cast you as just another Veritech pilot in the Robotech Defense Corps, with the enviable position of playing wingman to legends like Roy Fokker, Rick Hunter, and Max Sterling, Invasion essentially drops you in the wilderness by yourself, left to seek temporary brainless companions (who like to charge ahead and get killed on escort missions) and a Cyclone mecha. It mimics the actual story from the show, but these are totally different characters, and not very interesting ones, at that. What are the odds that Locke and Scott Bernard would have such similar lives?
Some of the voice acting is decent, at least. When I went to Guppy to get my Cyclone booster upgraded, I thought she sounded kinda cute. Our hero, Locke, never speaks a word, so I never took any interest in what happened to him. What’s jarring is that just when you get to Reflex Point (the last bastion of Invid strongholds), an ongoing series of weird flashbacks concludes and you basically start the game over again from another character’s (Tasha) perspective, following a path that actually takes you up against the same guy you thought was the hero. Then you switch back to Locke and suddenly the Invid are on your side. Huh? Don’t worry; it’s not worth the trouble of finding out what’s going on here.
The Cyclone motorcycle is, in theory, a sweet piece of mecha that functions as transportation and a rechargeable layer of armor (a la Halo). It’s rare that you’ll actually find any long, straight stretch of anything to really enjoy riding it on, though. Just when you start cruising, you’ll hit a tree, a wall, a hairpin turn, or an invisible barrier, all of which stand a chance of causing damage to the player. Hitting a tree at 100mph and getting hurt I can understand, but if you’re going to throw totally invisible barriers in my way, it hardly seems fair to injure me when I hit them.
Something else that was an awful tease was letting non-player characters pilot Alpha and Beta jet fighters while I was stuck on the ground on my Cyclone. I saw tons of great possibilities here, both in single player and multiplayer. The programming for how a Veritech should handle already exists (see Battlecry) so not piecing this into Invasion is a huge disappointment. Also, despite seeing Scott Bernard a couple of times in cut scenes (you never actually fight side-by-side with him, which would have been cool), you don’t meet any of the other characters from the show. Lancer, Lunk, Annie, Rand, and Rook all had significant parts in the original story. Too bad they never reported for duty on this battlefield.
Navigation boils down to following the green arrow at the top of the screen. There’s a compass superimposed on your HUD, but it’s worthless. The “follow the green arrow” system works pretty well most of the time, and almost makes things too simple. It also curbs the tendency to explore, but the levels are pretty linear anyway, so you’re not missing anything. However, in areas within cities, sometimes the arrow points to your objective, but you have a heck of a time finding the path that’ll actually get you there. Walls, collapsed buildings, and wrecked Invid hulks block your way here and there.
The primary weapon in the game is mandatory to be in your possession at all times (like in Fire Warrior) and you are only allowed one other gun at a time (sound like Halo talking again?). The primary weapon gets upgraded once to gain both rapid fire and sniping abilities. It’s powered by Protoculture, which is conveniently dropped by all destroyed Invid armors, so you’ll end up relying on this weapon more often than not anyway. Others include a machine gun, mortar launcher, rocket launcher, pulse rifle, and the sought-after Destabilizer (you actually fight several characters at different times over possession of this weapon). The Cyclone can even fire missiles when in motorcycle mode. In keeping with the show (and gaming convention), there is a hard to hit weak point on all Invid armors. No matter what you shoot with, if you can hit them in the centralized eye on their bodies, these hulking insectoids can be brought down with one or two shots. You can blow arms and weapons off an enemy before taking him down, and I took a bit of pleasure in disarming my foes (literally), then watching them stumble around for a while, unable to really do anything to me.
All weapons have the ability to lock your reticule onto any target utilizing Protoculture, which makes the shooting more fun and less tedious than it might have been, considering you frequently have enemies on all sides and then some flying around above you as well. Early on, though, you’ll be shooting mostly renegade humans, and you can’t lock onto them. This part is quite tedious, but it gets a little better as things progress. As you unlock abilities like night vision, infrared sight, and a cloaking device in the Shadow Cyclone, you start to feel pretty good about things. Of course, you’ll be close to the end by the time you open up all these abilities, so that feeling is short-lived. Also, despite being designed as a first-person game, I spent 95% of my time in one of the third-person perspectives. The view bob was giving me a headache. I prefer my heroes to walk or run, not prance.
Multiplayer commits two heinous crimes right off the bat: no bots, and no splitscreen. Given the shoddy look of the game, I’d think it could handle four-player splitscreen no problem. No bots is just something I can’t forgive, though. Halo and its successor annoyed me here, too. In fact, many multiplayer games are guilty of this anymore. I just don’t understand it. Oh well, there’re always Tribes and Star Wars: Battlefront.
The things Invasion does right in the multiplayer department are offering LAN play and Internet play (not just one or the other), voice chat, a multitude of interesting maps, and four fairly run-of-the-mill game play styles: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Proto Capture (it’s just like Unreal Tournament‘s Domination or Capture and Hold from Tribes). All of these modes use the exact same maps. This can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. On one hand, once you learn a map, you know it for every other mode of play. On the other hand, there’s not much variety after you’ve mastered each map. Some game-type-specific maps would have been nice. Also having anything but the same generic base layout in every map would have lessened the visual monotony. All in all, the multiplayer might be fun for a while, but I doubt you’ll stick with it long. What’s worse, when I got online for a multiplayer game via Gamespy, nobody was playing. Not one person. That’s not good, especially since we’ve got no bots to fill in the gaps till people show up.
Ugh. Maybe saying these visuals were from the N64 days was generous. Bland textures, ugly foliage, jagged edges, blocky terrain?everything here is just bad. I even had a hard time picking out the bland enemies from the bland environment half the time (the infrared vision helps). The only thing that looked kinda neat was the energy flare effect when the Invid departed the Earth (c’mon, if you’re playing this game, you probably already know how the story ends anyway).
Despite all this, believe it or not, there is some slowdown. Yikes. When you’re pushing graphics this bad and you still get slowdown, there’s something seriously wrong. It did help me get some eye-shots during a heated battle, but having an intended bullet-time effect would have been at least acceptable. Having seen what Melbourne House did with The Transformers and Surreal pulled off in Drakan: The Ancients’ Gates on the same system in terms of detail, scale, and graphical beauty, making Invasion look this bad had to be intentional. I was never fond of cel shading, even in Battlecry, but I’d have taken that over this uninspired mess.
I swear I heard 8-bit MIDI music. I swear it. Beyond that are generic weapon sounds (the Destabilizer is the only one with much punch) and other music that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be techno or Gregorian chant. There were random sounds thrown in here and there that, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell if they were part of the bad music or a cue to something happening in the game. In the roughly 1.5 days it took me to finish the game (hard to say since the timestamp on my game save was buggy – it said I finished in 0 hours and 13 minutes), I never did figure out what some of those noises really were. The roar of the Cyclone engine is passable, but could have sounded more powerful. This is 21st Century sci-fi engineering. Make it sound cool. If nothing else, add more bass to the engine noise.
I could have watched the 24 episodes of The New Generation in about the same amount of time it took me to play this game, and I would have enjoyed myself a lot more. Heck, I could have watched 12 hours of The Weather Channel and had more fun and seen better graphics. The real downer is that the only segment of the war left for a third game is Dana Sterling’s story, known the world over to be the most melodramatic and least exciting chunk of the Robotech mythos. If purging the Invid was this bad, I don’t want to imagine what’ll come of that segment of future history. Maybe if they made it an RTS where you can play as the RDF or the Zentraedi, on the ground like StarCraft and in space akin to Homeworld?we’re getting off the topic. If you like Robotechnology, dig up a copy of Battlecry and leave Invasion in a galaxy far, far away.