"Six years ago the Coalition of Independent Planets defeated their most fearsome enemy, a race of warriors they had created -- the Bions..." To cut to the chase, the bad guys weren't really defeated, just pissed off and plotting in secret, and now they're back -- and guess whose job it is to kick their butts. Now believe me, I love a good science fiction story, but do you need one here? If it was the evil empire of the Energizer Bunny, your mission would still be the same. Save those pages of the manual for helpful mission hints, guys.
Back in reality land, Hellbender is the sequel to Microsoft's very first big-time computer game, Fury3, and it is a worthy sequel. Hellbender is a sort of futuristic flight combat sim, wherein you fly a series of missions over (and through) increasingly hostile planets swarming with all sorts of other folks in similar flying machines whose job it is to shoot you down. Picture yourself in the cramped cockpit of, say, Luke Skywalker's X-wing as you skim over the surface of an iron-oxide red alien planet. Strange spires and squat grey buildings mark outposts and military bases, and the sky swirls with purple clouds. Out of nowhere, three red circles appear on your radar screen, and ten seconds later, metallic green alien ships crest the mountains to your left and come screaming toward you. That, in sum, is what 90% of Hellbender is like. It's beautiful to look at, as Microsoft has made the most of their Direct Draw and 3D rendering technology. The topography of the landscapes and the butter-smooth flight dynamics alone are enough to recommend this game as a sci-fi flight sim, but the game, especially the multiplayer side of it, is quite worthy in itself.
The storyline of Hellbender is pretty sketchy as to why, exactly, the bosses of the evil Bions live underground, but they do. On the surface of the planets, you'll find a vast array of gun turrets, mechs, enemy ships, etc. to deal with, and in the subterranean tunnels beneath each planet you find many a confusing twist and turn with lots of laser turrets, force-fields, locked doors, and the aforementioned Bion bosses. If the latter part of that sounds a lot like Descent, it is. If it sounds a bit confusing, and a bit difficult, it's both of those too. More than anything, you will begin to feel pestered in Hellbender. You see, no matter where you go, there is rarely a minute's peace or much of any suspense. It is not a matter of what is trying to kill you, or where they are, but how many of them you must blast. And they just keep coming and coming. Maybe they are minions of the Energizer Bunny...
The basic game is structured around a series of missions, several of which you must complete on each planet before moving on to the next planet. If you are familiar with the MechWarrior titles, or Terra Nova, or Terminator Future Shock or any such titles, you will immediately feel comfortable in the Hellbender universe. It's basically mass-destruction time. And yes, OK, the game's motto is "Shoot to kill. Think to win," but I have to say that, like most such games, the emphasis is on the shooting.
If there is one thing that Microsoft has done absolutely right in their foray into the gaming world, it is the multiplayer support they not only built into their most popular titles, but the free, smooth, and just downright excellent multiplayer arena they've built on the web in the Internet Gaming Zone. This is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week free chat room/game hosting service that lets you go online and take on other human opponents five minutes out of the box. For Hellbender, there are 12 4-player hubs waiting for you, and there are similar arenas there for Monster Truck Madness, MS Golf, Close Combat, and others. Oh, and did I mention thatHellbender absolutely rocks in multiplayer mode? No latency. Read that again if you've ever played a game over the Internet ... no latency. The games run as smooth and fast as if you were playing a single-player version with no one else for your CPU and graphics card to worry about. This is simply the best flying deathmatch on the market, and worth buying the game for if you love head-to-head action. Sure, you'll have to pay for basic Internet connection charges from whoever you use as a service provider, but you'll not find an easier or better multiplayer hub on the net today. Check it out -- it's worth it.
If you've got a 3D accelerated graphics card (I do), then this is almost a completely different game than if you don't. In standard resolution on a baseline (75 Mhz Pentium) system, Hellbender looks OK, flies relatively smoothly, etc. but in accelerated mode on a fast system, the rendering of the landscape, enemy ships, cockpit displays, etc. is outstanding. Be sure to pay attention to this game's requirements before you buy it -- they mean what they say about minimums, and if you don't have a 3D card, you might want to put your money there before buying a bunch more games -- for better or for worse, they're all just going to get more hardware hungry.
The music in Hellbender is OK ... which is to say that it's kind of an attempt at a moderate adrenaline soundtrack, but it gets repetitive (which means old) quite quickly. I turned it off after about 5 minutes. The computer voiceovers and navigational cues, however, are another story. Your ship's computer voice is none other than Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame, and she and Hellbender's designers do a great job of keeping you on track in an otherwise sometimes confusing single player mode.
Required: Windows 95, Pentium 75 MHz processor, 8 MB RAM, 32 MB hard drive space, 4X CD-ROM drive, SVGA bus video card with 2565 color display, sound card, 14.4 modem for head-to-head play
Recommended: Pentium 90 MHz processor, 16+ MB RAM, 77 MB hard drive space, 3D accelerated video card, MS Sidewinder Joystick or other flight control, 28.8 modem for head to head play
Had I only played Hellbender as a single-player game, I probably would have left it on the shelf with the many other decent, but not remarkable titles. Fortunately though, I played it multiplayer, and while it still doesn't crack the "legendary" ranks, it certainly moves up a notch from ordinary. Of all the Microsoft titles I have played, this one is at the top of the list; of all the flight combat sims I've played in the last year, this one is just the most fun and the smoothest fly with minimal archaic ALT+5+SPC+M keyboard combinations to get you killed in the thick of battle. It's a benchmark title for a company that many thought would be left for dead in the gaming realm by its more experienced elders. Wrong again. Hellbender rates a solid 87 out of 100, and Microsoft shows no signs of dying out of the gaming market anytime soon.