Reviewed: June 24, 2002
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Many of you may have heard of Dropship: United Peace Force. This title has been in the works for quite some time and I am here to tell you that it was well worth the wait. Dropship was developed over in Europe and for a while it looked like we might not even get a chance to play it in the States. But thanks to BAM! Entertainment, PS2 owners can now experience one of the most creative and visually stunning titles you might play this year.
At first glance Dropship will probably remind you of your average flight combat game like Ace Combat 4, but it only takes a few sessions in the training missions to realize there is a whole lot more to this game.
The story behind Dropship is your typical geopolitical drama with terrorists, rogue nations, and increasing worldwide conflict. The United Nations and NATO have lost what little control they had maintained over the situation and were subsequently disbanded. The International Heads of Government then created a new unified army – the United Peace Force, capable of going anywhere in the world and eliminating any threat.
You are the newest UPF recruit, and while you have signed up as a pilot your actual duties may vary once you get into the field. You might be flying a cargo ship in one mission and a fighter in the next, or you might find yourself racing across the desert in an armored personnel vehicle. You can even take control over ground and air units and issue strike orders giving this title some interesting strategic elements.
There are 20 missions set in five theaters (countries), each with their own unique environments, weather, scenery, and enemies. You start off in Libya where you will quickly find yourself picking sand out of your shorts and the engine intake, then move on to South America for combat above the jungle.
With so much to do you will be grateful for the comprehensive training missions that teach you how to fly, drive, and operate the BUG command system. Even the most seasoned veteran of flight combat games will be in for a shock and a substantial learning curve when you get into the cockpit of these VTOL (vertical-take-off-and-landing) aircraft. Don’t even try to play this game without going through the basic training.
These planes are highly maneuverable and you will quickly find yourself using every last button on the Dual Shock controller. Using the paddle buttons you can lift off R1+L1 or land R2+L2, or using R1+R2 or L1+L2 to strafe sideways. The L2 and R2 buttons by themselves act as the rudder for subtle course adjustments when you enter flight mode.
The aircrafts have a hover mode and a flight mode that you can jump in and out of with a double-tap of the throttle or brake. Of course if you don’t have sufficient speed before entering flight mode you will stall and plummet to the ground. Learning to use these modes can make you a very deadly force in the skies. You can race head-first toward incoming craft – kick it into hover mode – rip some rockets at them then pivot in place as they zip past you then kick in the afterburners to immediately drop in on their “six”.
Of course piloting a dropship means lots of pick-up and delivery tasks. If you have seen the movie, Aliens or played HALO then you already have an idea of what these ships do. Zoom in low – touch down – the jeeps drive out the back and you dust off.
Your second training mission will teach you to land in the LZ, load up, and then fly to your destination to deliver personnel and equipment. Landing is made easier with an “auto-assist” option that you can toggle on/off. If you turn this off then you must make every landing and have your ship pointing in the proper direction when you touch down. With the “assist” turned on you just have to come in low and slow and a movie will take over and land for you. Each has their pros and cons. It can be a bit touchy to manually land these planes, but the movie that plays during the auto-land can take up valuable mission time – time that you might not always have.
The missions start off fairly simple then ramp up in difficulty and intensity by the third or fourth mission. They also get longer and with more chances to die you will find yourself playing many missions over and over. But the more you play them the more you learn the enemies and the layout of the land and the better you get.
Mission #4 still haunts me as one of the longest and toughest missions I’ve encountered so far. You start off by having to take out several large buildings located in a military complex. The complex is loaded with SAM’s so hover mode is not an option. You have to come in at top speed to avoid an enemy lock-on and strike one (or two if you are lucky) targets. Repeat until all targets are destroyed then head over the hill to rescue some stranded demolition experts. Enemy cars are approaching and you have to take them out first then land for the pick-up. Once loaded, you take them back to the first complex and drop them off then provide air cover as they plant their charges in key buildings. Now wave after wave of choppers and ground vehicles assault the complex. Kill them off and protect the ground crew until they signal for dust off.
Sound easy? That particular mission took me about 3 hours to finally finish. Each time I would get a little further and learn a little more. Now I can go back and rip through it in 10-15 minutes. As often as I had to restart this mission I was surprised that I wasn’t getting frustrated. I was mysteriously compelled to just keep trying over and over.
Before you go thinking that Dropship is just a glorified UPS delivery plane, let’s discuss weapons. You have surface missiles, air missiles, cannons, and a variety of upgrades along the way. Mission #5 has you escorting cargo planes to your new base in South America. Once they land you can then touch down and equip the new weapons they just delivered before going back out on patrol.
Some missions will put you in fighter planes that don’t even have cargo capabilities while others will have you driving a jeep or manning a gun turret on the back of a vehicle. This eclectic mix of gameplay is cleverly woven into the story, so it never seems forced upon you just for the sake of mixing up the gameplay.
One mission has you crashed in the desert, and with no hope for extraction you must drive the jeep in your cargo bay across the desert to a “friendly” zone. You start off as the driver, dodging approaching enemy jeeps and concealed landmines, then your co-pilot takes the wheel and you must man the turret to stave off the incoming choppers and more jeeps.
Missions are very well thought out and seem to have been based on some authentic military tactics. There is an abundance of radio chatter between you, your wingmen, and your base and it’s always informative and really creates a living, breathing world that chains the missions and adds cohesion to the entire campaign. A mission may go awry resulting in new objectives and side missions. These events are scripted, so it only creates a fresh experience the first time through.
Dropship features some stunning graphics considering the time this title has spent in development. If this game has released a year ago everyone would be falling over themselves to praise the visuals. Even so, this game sets a new bar in flight combat graphics and easily surpasses the visuals in other flight combat games.
It is obvious that the terrain was the primary focus of the art department and it is flawless. In some levels it can be easy to confuse this game with satellite photography. The levels are huge coming in at 40km x 40km and featuring photo-realistic textures specific to the countries these missions take place. There is no fogging and the draw distance goes to the horizon, which is no small feat considering this game zips by at a fluid 60fps.
The vehicle models range from excellent to adequate. All of the planes are spectacular with camouflaged paint schemes, curved surfaces, and working control surfaces. The jeeps and other ground craft are a bit more primitive, but they still look respectable. Buildings are generic but there is the occasional unique piece of architecture like a control tower that livens things up.
The special effects are excellent with tracers on your gunfire, smoke trails on your rockets, orange fireballs with clouds of black smoke, dust trails on ground vehicles, and a great jet blast effect that radiates from under your plane during takeoff and landing.
The cutscenes are all rendered using the actual game levels and game graphics so they blend seamlessly with the gameplay. The menus and interface are all designed with an army base theme allowing you to review logs and previous mission briefings without taking you out of the military mindset.
You can play the game from several camera views including a first-person cockpit view with full HUD. The only problem is that it can be very hard to land when you cannot see the LZ target. Actually, even in the chase views it’s not always that easy. It would have been a great help if the camera had moved above the plane when you neared an LZ to assist in landing.
The camera system really shines in the replay mode, which is one of the best features of this game and perhaps the best replay system of any game released to date. This is the first game where I actually watch the replays after every successful mission. I even find myself doing little “extras” during the mission like dipping into a canyon for a trench run just to watch it later in the replay. There seems to be no limit to the possible camera angles that combine to create action sequences that would turn the best Hollywood directors green with envy.
Burned forever in my mind is a replay that showed my plane from a nose-view firing rockets. The next view was looking straight up into the sky, as if a cameraman was lying on his back with a camera pointing straight up at my target. The next thing I know the plane erupts into a fireball and plummets straight down into the very camera I’m viewing the replay from. My only complaint is that you cannot save these replays. I would gladly buy six-packs of memory cards to save these masterpieces, but alas, I am resigned to saving them to VHS.
The music is a fairly simple military track that drops into the background. In fact, I hardly even noticed there was music during the game until I made a conscious effort to listen for it when judging it for this review. You get your orchestra score with snappy snare drums during the movies and briefings, but don’t expect any Kenny Loggins or Queen during the dog fighting.
Sound effects on the other hand are quite pleasing and realistic. The aircraft all have great engine noises that whine during takeoff and landing. Your fighters have that low roar that echoes through the sky complete with Doppler effect – you know that crackling roar you hear in your backyard when a jet streaks by overhead.
These sound effects are even more pronounced in the replays and seem to be dynamically adjusted based on the camera view. Engine noise is subdued if you are in the cockpit and loud or really loud depending on the closeness of your chase view. Jeeps have an authentic engine noise and the machine gun turret is thunderous.
All the dialog in this game is very well written and acted out by quality voice actors. Even the random radio chatter is all very high quality and adds to the overall experience. Dropship supports surround sound for increased spatial quality that adds new dimension to the audio portion of this game.
There are 20 missions that will keep you busy for just as many hours, if not more. I had that many hours logged into Dropship by the end of the second campaign. The level of difficulty ramps up quickly and will provide ample challenge for even the seasoned fighter pilot.
There are no hidden bonuses or secrets, and there is no two-player mode for dog fighting, so once you finish the single player missions there is no real incentive to replay the game. This isn’t saying you won’t. With so much to see and do and so many ways to do it, you can tackle these missions endlessly with unique results each time.
Dropship takes the existing flight combat genre and puts a clever spin on it by adding unique VTOL aircraft and then designing missions around these unique planes. The control scheme is flawless giving you ultimate control over these agile fighters.
Dropship is a great game for hardcore gamers or those wishing to become hardcore gamers. The challenging gameplay offers a variety of mission types with intriguing plot lines and massive photo-realistic environments that will keep you glued to the screen and always coming back for more.