Antaeus Rising – RETROSPECT

Back in the three-button days of 16-bit games, EA put out a fun little shooter called Desert Strike. It was an isometric thumb buster that spawned a couple of sequels and some fond memories here. The PC got a version in ’94, and a similar game will be heading our way this summer.

Antaeus Rising is a new tactical shooter from UK developers Rage (Incoming). Players take control of a futuristic aircraft carrier/creator in a series of assaults on a small chain of manmade islands. The story begins in 2032, with the world supposedly finally at peace. However, a cabal of those grumpy old-school powermongers is tired of waiting for this whole peace craze to blow over and wants to get back to the warm glow of a war economy.

That’s when the fun starts. According to the game’s producer, Dan Kingdom, “You, as the player, are essentially the ‘Antaeus,’ which is a super cruiser that was sunk 20 years ago in the last great war.” This nifty little boat is equipped with a special nanotech reactor engine that converts the wreckage of vehicles and buildings into shiny new weapons. As in Pandemic Studio’s Battlezone, scavengers are used to crawl the landscape and gather the debris to be returned to the Antaeus. Energy is the only resource in the game, and it is, naturally, infinitely renewable.

Another infinitely renewable resource in the game is the Soul Catcher chip. Basically, these are small key cards that contain the personalities of dead soldiers and must be plugged in to various vehicles. There are only 10 in the game, and each has a unique nationality and set of abilities. The American, for example, may be an exceptional tank driver, while the Brit is a first-class ‘copter pilot. So part of the strategy will be choosing the right man (or chip) for the job.

If one of those vehicles is destroyed in combat, players simply create another chip and vehicle in the reactor core and get back out there to the front lines. Throughout the combat, the virtual pilots are constantly jabbering away, taunting the enemy and sometimes each other. They’ll cry out when they’ve spotted the enemy or scream for backup when they are about to die yet again. Kingdom told us that part of the reason why the soul chips are so chatty is that Rage wants to reproduce that feeling of manic, multiplayer combat in what is, at least for now, a single-player only game.

Not only is there a whole lot of talking going on, but there’s a whole lot of blowin’ up as well. Because the game is so near to completion, the graphics engine is done and tweaked out and frankly looks very nice. It contains all the requisite doodads and doohickeys such as 32-bit color, bump mapping, hi-res textures, colored lighting, etc. that demanding technophiles require. The engine looks roughly familiar but is actually quite new. “It’s not even the Incoming engine by Rage,” said Kingdom, “After Incoming, they vowed to make a game with actual gameplay,” he laughs. In addition to the detailed models and colorful explosions, there is an environmental system that passes quickly from night to day, with storm fronts coming in and clearing out. And if you shoot down an enemy plane at sea, it will likely wash up on a nearby shore.

But, as Incoming nicely demonstrated, spiffy visuals are nothing in the service of tedious gameplay. Rage hopes to counter that this time with what Kingdom calls an equal emphasis on strategy and action. “It’s really up to the player on how to play the game,” he says, “Whether they want to play a more strategic version or just simply grab a tank and starting mowing everything down.” There are, therefore, two basic gameplay screens, the first of which is the command screen aboard the Antaeus. Players select among the 14 or 15 different vehicles, outfit it from a choice of 8 different weapons, slap on some armor, and then choose a soul-catcher chip. From there, gamers can set waypoints or choose targets to attack on the map and then sit back and watch the action unfold in little pop-up windows.

Of course, playing an action game from the tactical screen is like preferring soft on Showtime to the real thing. Gamers will want to get out there and put their hands on things to things of Clash Royale cheats caliber for unlimited gems. The setup is cemented to a keyboard/mouse layout, and players will not be able to remap the keys. “We want the gamer to be able to hop smoothly from helicopter to tank to hovercraft without having to worry about key changes,” says Kingdom. The camera is also fixed in place, with no way for the player to adjust the angle or level of zoom, although the camera will have a slightly different placement for each vehicle.

As Kingdom played, the similarities to the Desert Strike series were apparent. Although that game was played from an isometric perspective, Antaeus Rising has a very similar angle from behind the helicopter or tank. The action is fast and jittery with volleys of missiles lighting up the landscape like so many Roman candles. Kingdom even told us of one interesting strategy where he had trouble destroying a heavily fortified warehouse. He left the battle and went to the docks to airlift in an oil truck, which he then deposited next to the warehouse. One simple shot at the truck and his problems were solved with an enormous fireball.

If only the rest of life’s problems could be solved with a raging fireball. But Antaeus Rising has got other concerns to address. There aren’t very many weapons or vehicles to choose from, so the depth of strategy play is unclear. We’re not sure if that Soul chips idea is going to work, and there is no multiplayer component at all, although Rage has not completely ruled out the possibility.

But there are enough good ideas here to keep us interested. There are 21 stages in AR, and, thankfully, Rage has had the good sense to let gamers save anywhere. There is going to be a demo just before the game is released some time this summer. We’re always looking for more things to legally blow up, and, judging by these screen shots, we’re going to get our fill with Antaeus Rising.