Quickly- think of three things that are totally awesome. If you’re anything like me, all three of the words that just popped into your head were “explosions” (though the singular “explosion” works just as well). Clearly, the developers over at Avalanche Studios are of the same mind as me, and, in Renegade Ops, have made a game that trades in destruction, explosions, and vehicular insanity in a way that is entirely reminiscent of games like Jackal and Ikari Warriors- and entirely as arcade-y and enjoyable.
Since Geometry Wars, dual-joystick shooters have been back in a big way, and Renegade Ops continues that proud tradition. You’re in control of one of four characters in their awesome military jeeps, roaming around on a surprisingly large map and given the task of destroy everything. If it’s red, it’s an enemy and can thus be blown up, and each of the nine missions is a collection of objectives taking you closer to your goal of defeating the cartoonish villain Inferno. “Objectives” is being a bit loose, though; the game knows where its strengths lie- that is, driving, shooting, and getting kill bonuses- and all the objectives are really just variations on “go kill this thing until it’s dead.”
All of the characters have the same basic configuration to their jeeps- a large machine gun that can be upgraded three times with pick-ups on the battlefield, taking it from a single line of shots to a veritable wall of bullets. There’s also room for one of three secondary weapons, also found as pick-ups on the battlefield, which are a rocket launcher, flame thrower, and rail gun. The rocket launcher shoots out a single rocket, but the flame thrower and rail gun can be held down for greater damage, with the flame thrower catching enemies on fire and the rail gun charging up and shooting a massively powerful projectile at wherever you’re aiming.
Before any mission starts, the game throws up an upgrade tree for each character, and this is where they start to differentiate themselves. Each of them has a special skill, and they’re tied to a power bar at the bottom of the screen. Armand employs a shield to keep himself from getting hurt, which can upgrade to actually shoot back enemy attacks. Diz has an EMP that shuts down enemy weapons, leaving them vulnerable, and can be upgraded to cause damage as well (great for prolonging a damage streak- more on that later). Roxy has an air strike, which has a slight delay, but then rains down an impressive barrage of missiles. Gunnar sacrifices movement to man a gigantic gun on the back of his jeep, eventually adding a shield for better protection.
The characters and upgrades you choose say a lot about your play style. Half the characters are defensive, half are offensive. From there, each has three tech trees- offensive, defensive, and tactical. Every character has the same offensive and defensive trees, just with the perks coming in different orders. The technical tree is where the upgrades to the individual skills are, and these can be stacked for greater effect- e.g. the regular and elite perks that speed up the cooldown can be stacked to cool down faster. However, as potentially interesting as some of these are, you can only carry four at a time, out of eighteen total perks. It’s a tough choice, but everyone will have a own load out that they feel is the best because that’s how they played it.
The upgrades aren’t doled out through experience only, but through upgrade points that are received as you level. The more powerful skills cost more to buy, but on your way to max level (45) you’ll still be able to buy everything no problem. If you want to level up as fast as you can, it’s easy to cheese the system- if you don’t complete a level, you still keep the experience bonuses. Go to an enemy filled area, do the optional side missions for extra experience, try again. You’ll be max level with all your perks before you know it- throw it into hardcore mode, and you get more points, thus leveling faster still.
As far as I saw, experience points the same as regular points- the more you get, the faster you level, and to help with this, the game has “damage streaks” that constantly add up as you do more damage, and earn multipliers as you kill enemies. The game also ties the scoring to how much damage you take, so when a damage streak is going, the meter drains faster if you take damage, but fills if you give more than you receive.
Throughout the game’s nine missions, enemies are slowly introduced even to the end, starting with dune buggies, going to rocket cars, helicopters, tanks that shoot rockets and lava, and things called Juggernauts and Phoenixes that can really rip you up. You spend most of the time in your jeep, but the game does give you parts where you can get into other vehicles- mostly a helicopter, though, which replaces tactical shots with missile countering systems. It’s more powerful, but harder to maneuver, and it can only fire the direction it’s facing, resulting in moments of turning without actually firing to get an enemy in your sights. It’s only mandatory in the first level, but they can still be found in other areas, and wound up improving some already fun parts- like a fight against a train completely changing the dynamic from racing along side and maneuvering while firing, to just raining death upon it while other helicopters fly in.
Besides the single player, the game supports split-screen and online co-op modes. Split screen can be played with a static line down the middle, but also supports dynamic split screen, which only breaks when the characters get too far. There’s some neat flare to it, with the split rotating to show the general direction one player is compared to the other. Online works pretty lag-free and can be done with friends or strangers, up to four players. However, achievement hunters beware- all but one achievement can only be earned in single player. The level-up achievement will actually not work at all if you take a not-maxed character into multiplayer, so just be careful if you’re looking for that.
If it seems like I’m going on a lot about a simple-looking downloadable game, it’s because it’s actually got some very surprising depth to it. Levelling and choosing your loadout really change the game from being just a simple score-challenge arcade throwback and turn it into a more modern take on the genre that’s more than homage; it’s an evolution with modern standards and systems in place, keeping that old school multiplayer score competition while adding in gameplay systems that make sense today, while still throwing in different things to keep the game feeling fresh; it was even discovered that there’s a hidden Smash TV style area in the last level, really hammering home the mix of old school charms and new gameplay mentalities.
Avalanche has a gorgeous engine. These are the people who made the Just Cause games, and they make these levels with the same attention to detail in mind. The levels are dense. Trees populate the sides of the roads, heat waves rise from the bushes on an African plain, pools of water sparkle nicely, and the cloud of dirt that kicks up when you engage the turbo is fascinatingly beautiful.
Thankfully, with such an emphasis on it, the destruction looks great, too. Explosions really pop, and the fire tech is actually pretty nice as well. When you drive through a building, as you can with some, they fall to the ground and your jeep comes out in a cloud of destruction, which slowly fades away as you drag parts of the structure with you, watching others fly away as the physics take over. It’s immensely satisfying to watch no matter how many times I did it, and I found myself drifting through houses just to watch them fall. Enemy vehicles also explode into individual pieces, with helicopter blades whirring away and missiles flying harmlessly aside as the craft goes up in smoke. Even the human soldiers explode with amusing dots of gore, filling the tire tracks with blood if you drive over them.
With so much going on, there’s obviously glitches, with two being unfortunately common. First, the game will decide there is just too much going on and stop, make a buzz noise, and then return to the game like nothing happened. Other areas just have bad texture flicker, making me play back through the part and marvel at how bad it was- and it’s only at one or two specific parts that have no enemies and very few effects. It’s an unfortunate lack of polish, but doesn’t break the game in any way.
Let me be perfectly clear here- I had fun with single player, but if you don’t have at least 1 friend who you can buy and play this with, with headphones on, you might want to try the demo first. The game’s fun increases exponentially as you add in more players, and having a whole team work together, or split into groups to divide and conquer, is some of the most fun you can have in video games.
Controlling the jeeps is a blast. They handle magnificently, like suped-up sports cars rather than heavy armored jeeps, resulting in drifts, spins, flips, and accidental stunts for extra points. If you flip over- scratch that, when you flip over, the game flips you right back or respawns you if you get somewhere you shouldn’t be without penalty. The shooting feels great, too, and all the destruction from everything as explosions catch buildings on fire and destroy structures really sells the game’s core theme of being in an awesome jeep and destroying evil people.
It’s also necessary to mention the guilty pleasure derived from the ridiculously corny cutscenes and dialogue. Bryant, your commander, is so overly gruff, and the villain is so fantastically over-the-top, it’s like an off-license G.I. Joe game in some ways. The game keeps the over-the-top nature, and it should come as no surprise when a mission ends with you escaping an explosion in your car and freeze-framing in midair. It’s that kind of game.
It can get rather hard at times, though, and sometimes it can be a little overwhelming with missile turrets and tanks shooting all kinds of difficult-to-dodge missiles homing at you the whole time. Dying sets you back to basic jeep- no machine gun upgrades, no secondary weapon- but still has no penalty, so it’s just a minor annoyance keeping you from getting back in on the fun. It’s also just too short- 9 missions, ranging from 10 to 20 minutes, make it 3 hours at most on a single playthrough. It banks on you replaying it, but having to sit through an opening cinematic every time you do it is a bit uncomfortable, and makes you a bit antsy when you just want an enjoyable game to jump into.
This video game is a VIDEO GAME. It knows where it’s coming from and what it wants to be, and achieves it perfectly. It’s the kind of game that ends with someone punching a woman in the face. The kind of game where good guys don’t look at explosions. The kind of game that results in an absolute, amazing sense of chaos when it can get all 4 players in and, despite a few flaws, it’s the kind of game that reminds you that games don’t have to be high art, philosophical ideals, branching paths and morality systems. It’s the kind of game that reminds you of why you started playing games- unadulterated fun, and a great experience together with friends.