Windows - 1998
Description of CyberStrike 2
Simutronics has been making online games as long as anyone. Its flagship title, Gemstone III, is a MUD that is popular even today, more than a decade after its release in 1987. The company's first venture into action gaming, Cyberstrike, is an online-only 3D shoot-em-up game that was a pioneer in its day. Fast forward to present day. Industry-wide support for Internet play crouches on precipice of reality, edging ever closer as modem technology improves and the number of online users burgeons. Cyberstrike 2 is one of those games on the edge, and like all Simutronics games, has been designed specifically for online play.
First of all, Simutronics has released two versions of the game. The single player version is distributed like any other game, retailing at around $30, and provides 40 or so missions. The multiplayer version can be downloaded free of charge, but requires a $10 monthly fee to play online over Simutronics' servers or through Microsoft's Internet Gaming Zone. The single player CDs (the game comes on 2) includes the multiplayer front-end to save you a 25 MB download, but you can essentially regard Cyberstrike 2 as two separate products. With this in mind, I'll review the single player game first.
Cyberstrike 2 is a game of mech-based combat similar to the Mechwarrior games and Heavy Gear. The game expands upon the gameplay of the original Cyberstrike, but it's more of a remake than a sequel. The single-player element is entirely new, so a background story and a plot have been drawn up, stringing together the missions. The introductory movie is fairly long and detailed, more than adequately setting up the foundations for the conflict that you are quickly thrown into the midst of. To make the long story short, there is war between two rival human factions on a distant planet in the far-off future. You are a Cyberpod (pod for short) pilot with the option of joining the war effort on either side. This choice takes you down the mission path of one of the two campaigns.
The two campaigns each have about 20 missions. Each mission's objective and overview follow a central plot so the feeling of progression is well developed. Video sequences are also scattered in between certain missions to support the story, and they do an effective job of maintaining some interest in the status of the conflict as events unfold. However, the game only goes half-way in creating a compelling setting and telling a worthwhile story. The characters, including yourself, are all faceless entities without life or personalities. I know, there is no real obligation to create dynamic characters in an action game, but it seems that a lot of effort has been expended in an attempt to create a immersive setting with story-driven missions. The overall effect would have been much greater had the developers gone the extra mile.
The gameplay concepts are fairly standard as far as mech combat goes, but the game has a stiff learning curve because of some of the idiosyncracies in the controls. There is a tutorial similar to that found in Heavy Gear, and it does a good job of familiarising you with the controls and the basic concepts of gameplay. However, most of your first few missions will probably be spent getting a grasp of the fundamentals. The controls also aren't very customisable, and that was a pain because I didn't like the default setup very much. I spent a lot of time the first couple of days getting my nose well acquainted with interesting terrain features--like trees and boulders.
The way that the game is played is actually quite innovative--discounting Cyberstrike of course. Much of the emphasis in the game is on making sure your pod has enough energy to function. Your onboard reactor only supplies enough energy for basic functions like movement. When you fire your energy weapons or absorb damage with your shields, the energy from your batteries is depleted very quickly. To insure that you are always functioning at maximum capacity, you must maintain a grid of energy relay towers. You can place towers on the map by calling in an airdrop; a Raven aircraft then answers your request and plops a tower down at the position desired. These towers supply you and your squad mates with energy, the lifeblood of any battle. Of course, these towers aren't invincible, so you also need to protect them from enemy fire. One of the worst things that can happen to you is be stranded in the middle of a battlefield with no towers nearby since airdrop requests are hardly instantaneous. At the same time, your enemies suffer from the same constraints. If you destroy your enemies' towers, they will be similarly crippled. Much of the sub-action in the game revolves around the careful deployment and protection of your towers, and strikes against enemy towers.
The missions are fairly engaging, and there are plenty of them to go through, so the longevity of the single player game is decent. I never got into the spirit of the campaigns, but it didn't really matter very much once a mission began. With a dozen pods in the field, both friend and foe, the action can be quite frantic, and almost frustrating at times because of the cumbersome nature of pod controls. This feeling diminished as I improved my handling and became more comfortable applying the various maneouvres that separate the successful pod pilots from the dead ones.
The later missions are a good challenge, but it's not because of the AI, which I must say is fairly dim. The computer AI is definitely a throw-back to yesteryear, exhibiting intelligent behaviour only when it gets lucky. I've seen AI-controlled pods try to run through walls, and enjoy little success at it. They also don't operate as a group even though there are always plenty of them dashing about. To balance out the stupid enemies are your stupid allies. Your squad mates seem to call down towers on whim, and do little more than charge into situations with guns blazing. They're great for distracting enemy gun fire, but otherwise they're purely cannon fodder. They can take out enemy pods roughly one for one, but since you're outnumbered in virtually every mission, the ratio is less kind to you.
The weapon variety in the game is quite good. Your pod has several slots for module upgrades. These modules enhance your pod in a variety of ways both offensively and defensively. Some modules are always active (as long as you have enough energy to support them), while others expire after one use. As you would expect, there is a large assortment of energy weapon upgrades you can acquire to replace the wimpy laser that you start with. Also, there are lots of explosive toys to play around with including mortars and mines, both of which operate in the manner expected. Missiles include Rockeyes, a standard dumbfile projectile, and also the obligatory tracking rockets. All in all, the variety of weaponry is quite good and offers choices within the game. If your guns prove ineffective, then lobbing a couple of explosives towards you enemies might work. This requires some skill if your target is in motion, as they usually are, but it is an effective way to approach enemy fortifications such as turrets and towers.
Aside from beefing up your weaponry, modules also have other uses. There are ones to repair your pod and also to improve your shields and defenses. You can also use a module to repair a damaged tower, or to enhance the armor of tower in a key location. A lot of the challenge in the game is to insure that you have the best load-out for each mission, and to call in the proper airdrops for new modules once the mission starts.
I was very impressed with the variety of environments that the mission feature. The settings vary from dense forests, to industrial complexes, to cities, and everything in between. In one mission you might be in a heavily forested area with a canopy overhead, weaving around trees and you try to dodge enemy weapon-fire, and in the next you might be trying to defend a fortified military compound from an enemy assault. The maps are very detailed and are believably constructed. The variation in the maps is a great plus because it makes every mission seem quite different; there is very little visual monotony. The price you pay for this, however, is a maximum install option of about 800 MB.
The graphics in general are very suitable for this type of game, both in style and quality. I would say that they are about average, which means there are some well done textures and lighting effects, but there's nothing spectacular that you haven't seen before in a dozen other games. Of course, given the high standards that 3D accelerators have allowed games to reach, there's little to be disappointed about either. The game highly recommends that you have a 3Dfx graphics card for the Glide support, though it states that TNT and i740 cards will also run well. I had no problems with my Voodoo card with either the appearance or performance of the game, but the game doesn't guarantee optimum results for those relying on the Direct3D mode.
The weapon effects are well done, with lots of brightly coloured lighting to provide ample pyrotechnics. There's the throw-in lens flare that no game would be complete without. There are also some weather effects such as as rain, and time-of-day variations are present. I've already commented on the variety shown by mission settings, but on the downside the textures within each mission are rather repetitive. However, I suspect that the the maps are designed in such a way to minimize file size for online transfers, so this is forgivable.
The audio in game is fair. There's nothing that stands out, and I didn't find any support for A3D surround sound, a feature that appears to be catching on among 3D shooters these days. The missions could have benefitted from a soundtrack, as the ambiant sound effects alone don't do a good job of generating atmosphere.
That pretty much sums up the single player game. It's an above-average 3D shooter that will appeal to fans of mech combat. For $30, you get what you pay for. The campaign missions are interesting to play through once, but I don't see myself going back to go through them again. There is a skirmish mode that lets you customize battles by selecting the map, strength of the two sides, among other parameters. This feature is good for getting in a quick game, but after playing through the campaigns I was more interested in freeing up 800 MB of disk space than keeping the game on my hard drive for posterity.
Cyberstrike 2 was designed from the ground up for online play. As I see it, the single player game was added as an afterthought to help drive sales for online play. This was probably a smart marketing decision because the single player game does generate enough interest in the game to tempt to you to try out the multiplayer option. There is no other multiplayer option in game, so if you want to play the game with other human opponents over a LAN or a direct modem connection, you're out of luck. This devalues the Cyberstrike 2 CD version somewhat, but it is priced to reflect this drawback. Some people will obviously forgoe buying the CD entirely and just download the multiplayer version directly from Simutronics.
Setting up a multiplayer game first requires registration with Simutronics to sort out the monthly payments. I had a press account to play the game so I skipped this step, but the procedure doesn't seem to be too involved. The multiplayer front-end is fairly straightforward and it's not hard to jump into a game once you're set up. Simutronicshas promised that they will have employees (CyberOps) online to lend assistance 24 hours a day; so if you do run into trouble, help is readily available. Alternatively, if you already have a Internet Gaming Zone account, you can also play Cyberstrike 2 over that online service. Mplayeralso appears to be adopting support for the game, so that may further expand your choices.
Games can support up to 32 players divided into 4 teams of 8. Each team shares the same power grid and the teams are distinguished by colour. The object is pretty much to survive while racking up the most points by killing opponents and taking out their towers. You'll enjoy the most success if you work as a team and gang up on rival pods, but is hard to coordinate attacks with four teams and dozens of players in the game. You can, however, create custom games to enjoy with a select group of friends if you desire a more controlled gaming environment.
An important element of any online game is the feeling of community. Simutronics has worked hard to foster this growth, emphasizing the gathering of clans. There are official tournaments held on a regular basis so the game is not an impersonal free-for-all. Also, as you accumulate points, you rise in the ranking structure and earn medals and other awards. These awards are announced for all to see in the news window that pops up every time you logon. These continuous updates keep you in touch with what's going on in the Cyberstrike 2 world, and help to strengthen the sense that there are other real, live players all around you.
The issue of latency is probably the single largest stumbling block for developers of games that feature Internet play, and for online-oriented games like Cyberstrike 2 it is the make or break gameplay element. The advantage of Cyberstrike 2 lies in the fact that it was designed for online play first and foremost, so any trade-offs that had to be made in development were in favour of better Internet play. I spent most of my play time using a ADSL connection which I wouldn't have expected lag with anyway, but I did test it out with a 33.6 modem as well and I didn't notice any significant differences in gameplay. I was unable to try a 32 player game using a standard modem connection so I can't vouch for that. However, by all accounts, you can enjoy the game just fine with a 28.8 modem.
Cheating is another problem that has plagued some online games, but this does not appear to be a problem in Cyberstrike 2. There is also an attempt to seperate players of different skill levels into different areas, but I'm not sure how effective this will be until the shear volume of players increases significantly. Right now, it seems that players of all skill levels are congregating on the few maps that are available to players of the shareware version.
Speaking of the shareware version, it is very generously featured and allows online play with the limitations being that you only have access to certain maps and a few modules. I suspect that a large number of the players online currently are playing for free using a shareware account, but hopefully the numbers of online players will increase simply so that you have more freedom in the choice of opponents. I do recommend that you try the shareware version of the game before committing to paying any money.
Ultimately, the greatest weakness of Cyberstrike 2 lies not in any fault, but in the design of the game. The gameplay is well thought out, but I disliked micromanaging modules in the heat of combat. This element of gameplay works for single player games because the pacing is quite different and you have the luxury of doing customisations before the missions starts. But after I launch a multiplayer game and wait 5 minutes for the map to download, the last thing that I want to do is spend another 5 minutes calling in the necessary modules to survive. Taking in a barebones pod against upgraded enemies is nothing short of suicide, so you really have no choice but to lurk on the sidelines getting better weapons and shielding before venturing out into the open. Of course, as soon as you die, the process has to begin all over again.
You can overcome this problem in part by stockpiling modules in a strongly defended position and then taking modules when needed rather than wait for air drops. It can be fun to see battles degenerate into fights over these valuable caches, but then again it's hard to distinguish some of the modules from others so that's another problem. I would have much rather preferred a more arcade approach to power-ups, or at least an option for this to be available. There's a lot to be said about brightly colored power-ups strewn randomly on the map for a game such as this. With 32 players running around blasting each other, the pace of the game is very important. I'd rather just make a mad dash for a desired power-up than call in for it to be air dropped in a couple of minutes.
The gameplay options are also too limited for my tastes. The free-for-all action is mandatory but a game like Cyberstrike 2 would have benefited immensely from different play modes like Capture the Flag or similar variations that require the level of team cooperation that this game tries hard to stress. There is always the potential for additions such as these to be implemented in the future, as the online nature of the game makes updates very easy, but that's little to bank on. There is also no option to play the campaign missions in co-op mode, which I was disappointed by after playing through Heretic 2 in co-op mode and enjoying it immensely.
In the end the viability of Cyberstrike 2 depends on how it stacks up against the competition. While there are few online-only games out there, many 3D shooters do have solid support for Internet play. How does this game compare to Quake deathmatch? How does it justify a $10 per month subscription fee? On the first point, Cyberstrike 2 comes up short because the action is not as polished or satisfying. But as an alternative to standard 3D shooter deathmatching, there are few better choices than Cyberstrike 2. The online playability is top-tier, and if fan support picks up the potential for growth will be immense. As for the monthly fee, the trade off is that you don't have to pay a price up front, which I think is quite fair. If you play the game for a couple of months and then give it up, you're only down $20. I can think of any number of full-priced games that won't be played two months after being purchased. The single player game is, of course, always an option, and it probably trains you for multiplayer play more than anything else. Nevertheless, depending on your preferences, it might be worth the money even if you don't intend to play the multiplayer game.
So in summary, if you're looking for an online action game that doesn't start with the letter "Q", Cyberstrike 2 is your prime candidate. Yet this is not as high a recommendation as it could be in light of the drawbacks that I have discussed. The standard first person online deathmatch has been polished by time and Cyberstrike 2, with its innovations, is one of the few viable alternative to this, but it is still an inferior alternative. There is a shareware version available that demonstrates the online play very well. I strongly recommend that you try it regardless of whether or not you plan to buy the game--it's worth the download. Leaving the multiplayer completely, if you're looking for a quality shoot-em-up at a budget price, then Cyberstrike 2 is again a good choice. You may find that that you'll enjoy the single player game enough to convince you to migrate to the online arena. Either way, your money won't be wasted on this solid title.
Review By GamesDomain
Captures and Snapshots
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