Thursday, December 31, 2009

Retro-Gaming : Strike Commander

 There are times when I wonder if I play video-games solely for the graphics. It's hard not to be impressed by the visual splendor of modern games; they are quickly coming to match the visuals of modern movies, with the added advantage of being interactive. I admittedly take pleasure from high-polygon models or multi-pass lighting; I won't deny I watch some cut scenes repeatedly just for the spectacle. And is it coincidence that some of the games I've liked least in these past few years were those which had the worst graphics? Am I, I sometimes wonder, a graphics whore?

When doubts such as these begin to cross my mind, there's only one way to resolve my uncertainty. In order to prove that graphics are not a pre-requisite towards my enjoyment, I dig into the gaming archives and pull out a title from years past. Surely if I can enjoy a game from fifteen years ago, then I'm taking more from the experience than simply the visuals.

Thus, I return to the graphically antiquated world of Origin's Strike Commander.

Of course, the irony is that, at release, Strike Commander was one of the most graphic-intensive games of its time; few machines could run it with the smooth frame rates necessary for an acceptable experience. I remember that I had to unStac my hard-drive not only to free up the necessary RAM, but because the on-the-fly decompression caused too much additional overhead; Strike Commander demanded every erg of computing power you could throw at it, and more. Nowadays, I actually have to CPU-limit the emulator simply to keep things from running too fast.

I'm immediately drawn back into the setting of Strike Commander. A large part of this is the awesome soundtrack, an exotic mix of hard-rocking guitar chords and Middle Eastern sitar (or as close to either as the FM-synthesized MIDI can match). The forgotten art of dynamic soundtracks quickly prove their worth; the music always matches the pacing of the action. Less impressive are the talking-heads used to move the story forward; the animation is stiff and unrealistic; the voice-acting is stilted and amateur. The actual storyline - the usual tale of betrayal and revenge- doesn't grab my either.

I love the actual gameplay, though; Strike Commander balances flight-simulator realism and balls-to-the wall arcade action in a unique mix all of its own.  It takes more than just quick reflexes to win this game, but at the same time you don't need to worry too much about airflow and flight envelopes. It's the best of both worlds and I can't think of any flight-sim from that era (or in the fifteen years since then, for that matter) that has struck a balance between the two genres as well as it did. The air-to-air combat is intense and extremely satisfying, whether I engage enemy fighters with missiles or guns. The air-to-ground combat is less so, due to some twitch controls. It's a thrill dodging SAMS and flak, but targeting the bad guys on the ground is more difficult than it should be and lining up for bombing runs is a chore (this game demands a joystick but DOSBox only has limited 'stick compatibility).

As for the graphics? Aged but still capable of getting the point across. DOSBox offers some edge-filtering which I used to minimize some of the "jaggies" but even without the graphics held their own. Whether it's at 1600x1024 or 320x240, splashing an enemy jet is still a satisfying spectacle no matter how many pixels are involved. My only complaints on the visual front were with some oddly warping textures and occasional difficulty in separating the gouraud shaded terrain from the fog-shrouded skies.

I quite enjoyed the retro-gaming experience of Strike Commander. Aside from the occasionally difficult ground mission, the game never stopped being fun and offered numerous action-packed thrills even after all these years. I was also once-again reassured that graphics are not the only thing that draws me to computer games. A classic game is a classic game and can be enjoyed no matter how ancient the visuals.

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