Genre: Squad based strategy
Developer: Rebellion
Publisher: Virgin Interactive
Platform: PC CD-ROM
Release: 2001.04.30

Players of games such as Fallout Tactics, Commandos and even X-COM will already be familiar with the notion of a squad based strategy. You are given control of a small team of individuals, each with their own particular strengths and weaknesses, and the challenge of the game is to solve problems by cleverly exploiting and combining your squad members' talents.

This game operates in real time, and differs from earlier examples of the genre by utilising a fully 3D graphics engine. And despite a fully featured interface and some well conceived elements, GunLok falls disastrously short in the gameplay stakes.

Story

When the game first starts up, we are taken through a rather poorly presented montage intro sequence, and the scene is set by an enthusiastic, but unconvincing, voice-over guy.

After thoroughly enjoying a "golden age" 21st century in which machines did all the work, humans decided to allow the robots to control themselves. The robots all immediately went apeshit and waged war upon the humans, and upon each other. Eventually the failing human resistance threw their remaining resources into an experimental weapons research program to build a "radical new energy technology which tapped into a resonance of the Earth's core", producing "EarthPowerTM", into a suit of power armour. But when the machines found out about it, they suddenly resolved their differences and used an orbital platform to bombard Earth's surface with neutron bombs.

That basically shut mankind down. The machines then formed themselves into business corporations, supposedly because of archaic programming imperatives from the companies who had originally made them. So the writers would have us believe that although these machines are sufficiently able to overcome their programming to immediately turn ultra-violent and start bombing everything in sight, they can't get over their business logic? Anyway, it is in this highly dubious scenario that we learn ...

There is one man coming who will lead the fight back. His name:
GunLok

GunLok is a cool-looking guy with a Mysterious Past, a very chunky suit of power armour (is it supposed to be an EarthPower suit?) and super ultra deluxe special forces combat training (from whom?). He leads a team consisting of himself and three robots (wait a minute) in the quest to ... well, presumably to kill all the robots.

This drastically weak attempt at a storyline, coupled with the very ugly visuals, completely fails to achieve the objectives of a game intro sequence; to impress the user and establish atmosphere. All this intro manages to establish is hilarity.

Interface

The interface is surprisingly well designed and usable. You can rotate, zoom, and alter the elevation of the camera to your heart's content. You can choose between two camera modes, "free" and "locked". In locked mode, the camera follows the selected character around.

There is a clever little "command wheel" right-click popup menu which allows to you issue orders and set behaviours. There are a number of team formations available, as well as a selection of automatic response settings (fire at will, fire when under attack, or never fire unless explicity ordered to).

The paper doll / inventory screen is exactly what you would expect, and quite functional.

The game has an "active pause" mode, meaning that you can pause the game, issue orders to your characters, and then unpause so they can go about their deadly business in a coordinated fashion. It even adds an extension to the normal active pause system -- by using the number keys 1 to 4, you can reactivate your characters one at a time. This extremely useful device means that you can set up complex tactics well in advance, and launch each character's prescribed actions at the right moment with a single keypress.

Control configuration is very sensible, with most (if not all) functionality mapped to the keyboard. It is also highly editable, if the defaults are not to your liking.

Gameplay

GunLok is all about strategy and cunning. While there are certain circumstances in which it is possible to run in with all guns blazing like a madman, it is rarely advisable, and almost never elegant. Remaining undetected is often crucial to your success. Enemy robots' audio detection range is shown by a ring pulse, and you can also see their "view cone". You make use of a plethora of techniques and gadgets, from hiding in piles of junk to launching audio decoys, to evade, confuse, distract and/or destroy your opponents.

Your team consists of:

  • GunLok, the protagonist (although exactly what he's protagonising is never made properly clear) and only human involved. He is an all-rounder with some special stealth capabilities.
  • Hark, an extremely small, lightweight and quick robot. He can't use powerful weapons, and he can't take much damage, but he can run really fast and get through tight spaces.
  • Elint, essentially a non-combatant, is able to act as a medic and repair the other characters, and is also capable of interfacing with other machines, disarming mines and controlling computers.
  • Frend, an enormous and ponderous construction droid modified for combat. He is able to use the heaviest of weapons and has the toughest armour.

This distribution of abilities affords a moderately interesting relief from the predictable warrior/thief/mage pattern. However, the unit movement AI is frustrating, and the team members frequently get "tangled" by each other when moving together.

In spite of these nifty concepts, the game is not a very enjoyable one. The 3D modelling of the characters is extremely (excessively) detailed, but the game environs and menu systems have a hastily-cobbled-together appearance. Not enough effort has been put into the level design, and IMO that's a fatal mistake for a game of this type.

The 3D graphics don't really improve the game experience. GunLok isn't doing anything that Commandos hasn't already done with a lot more style, and Commandos was very visually attractive with only two dimensions. Putting a game into 3D means a lot of time needs to be invested in creating models -- that's time that isn't being spent ensuring that the game is fun.

The explanation of the plot doesn't improve much on the limp intro once you are actually in-game, which means you can't identify with the hero's goals. The puzzles quickly become tedious and simplistic.

Final Thoughts

I'm not usually one to pass harsh judgement on a game, but GunLok is entirely forgettable. It is so unengaging that I didn't even want to play beyond the tutorial. This game came free with my video card, and my recommendation is to give it a miss unless you're afflicted with morbid curiousity, or think the intro might be good for a laugh.

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