Love it or loathe it, retro-gaming is here to stay. This nostalgic offering is inspired by Atari's 1979 classic, Lunar Lander. Looking back, I'm ashamed to admit that my childhood memories include spending chortle-filled afternoons watching my hapless friends waste their dinner money trying to land their fragile wireframed spacecraft on planet Zog. Unfortunately for them, they failed to grasp the concepts of inertia and gravity, having chosen to study pottery instead of physics.
Over the years, my mastery of Lander-related gaming flourished when Firebird Software 'borrowed' its inertia-driven engine for Thrust, and then, more recently, Grolier Interactive brought us full circle with V2000. Although gameplay twists were added with each new 'tribute', the control mechanics remained unchanged, and 'thankfully' they've been left alone here too. I say thankfully, but only after considerable teeth-gnashing, monitor-bashing, Psygnosis-cursing frustration.
Mallo had warned me that the controls of this 3D shooter were "interesting". Intrigued, I dived in, applying a modicum of thrust to take off and watching in disbelief as my ship hurtled away, upside down, over the horizon.
Thankfully, a quick jab at the keyboard soon 'self-righted' my ship and restored some dignity.
The mission brief informed me that I needed to collect three pods, so off I went, very slowly, to fetch the first. An hour later I was actually smiling as I pulled up at Waypoint 1, undamaged and upright. My grin soon disappeared, though, as ground-based rocket launchers off-loaded into me. I wasn't dead, just upside down (again), disorientated and low on energy.
Moments later, the entrance to an underground complex emerged, and it dawned on me that Psygnosis expected me to accomplish in the claustrophobic confines of hell what had taken me an age to achieve in the open air: staying airborne, upright and alive. As my ship bounced off cave walls like a demented ping-pong ball, I was reminded of that old fairground game where you have to get a metal hoop to the end of a piece of undulating wire without setting off the buzzer - the dexterity, subtlety and mental concentration required is very similar. Before long I was swaying in time with the mouse as I rocked and shifted around the caves, in scenes reminiscent of Descent and Forsaken.
Deep underground, I recovered a pod, but my initial glee turned to curiosity as my tractor beam grabbed it, suspending it in midair under my ship. I wondered why it hadn't been tucked away safely in a cargo hold, but then I moved off and found out: the pod was heavy. It was weighing down my ship. It was buggering up all the precise inertia calculations that had got me thus far, and the damn thing became uncontrolable. Imagine towing an HGV trailer using a 50cc moped and a bungee rope and you'll get the idea. The bastards.
Seeing The Light
A good while later, it all clicked. There was no single defining moment, but something definitely 'gave' unexpectedly. Suddenly I was turning deftly on a sixpence, applying measured doses of thrust and counter-thrust, hovering with precision and controlling my ship instinctively. It was, dare I say it, intuitive. No, really.
In any case, anyone concerned about their lack of digital dexterity can relax in the safe learning environment of the instructive training missions. Although these puppy walkers show you the ropes, they deny access to the goodies you can acquire as a mercenary.
There's a diverse range of missions to tackle, from simple, low-risk/low-pay transport jobs, to lethal seek-and-destroy kamikaze sorties which are far more rewarding financially. There are loads of ships on offer, from the cheap and cheerful Hopper (a workhorse with little firepower) to the outrageously expensive but obscenely well-equipped Roche 8I (supremely powerful and armed to the teeth). The local armory will, at a cost, equip your ship with anything from basic guns through to Armageddon-inducing firepower.
Follow The Plot
Although the 29 single-player missions initially appear detached and self-contained, there's the thread of a cleverly crafted plot woven through them, which unfolds as you progress. You'll be at this for months, so it's just as well there's plenty to see and do. Unfortunately, the graphics are a mixed bunch. The interior scenes work superbly, with the sin of bad 'camera tracking' craftily avoided by-get this-the use of wireframe graphics. Like chocolate pretzels, it sounds daft but works a treat. Any foreground scenery that would obscure your craft simply dissolves into a wireframe outline, which is eerie but stunningly well-implemented. Unfortunately, the exterior levels fail to impress. Even on a ninja Ptl 300 the scenery builds up at uncomfortably close quarters.
In terms of sound, though, everything is shipshape, with meaty explosions and loads of speech adding to the absorbing atmosphere. The only recurring problem is your craft's predilection for getting stuck under other objects. At no point does this prevent progress - you always seem to be able to wriggle free - but it does slow the tempo and increase the frustration, especially in those early hours of because any game that can evoke such a wide range of emotions is worthy of a place in any dedicated gamer's collection.