Title: Return Fire
Publisher: Prolific Publishing (and Warner Interactive on Playstation/PC)
Developer: Silent Software (Baron R.K. Von Wolfshield)
Release Date: July 7, 1995
Platform: 3DO, Playstation, PC (released in that order - this w/u deals with the former two)
ELSPA Rating: 11+
 

Return Fire is a contrived version of capture the flag, in which the player or players is required to infiltrate the opposition's base, retrieve the flag, and return it to their own base. The twist is that this action takes place on a series of islands, as an all-out war with military vehicles and bases. There is no story any more than Doom or Quake has a story, though the website for the sequel makes some pathetic effort about war over nations stealing flags from each other or something.

According to one review, the game takes place on a series of islands off the coast of Australia. I've no idea how correct that is as no manuals or other reviews mention it, but if true I suppose it adds another dimension to the game. Each game is played on one of these islands, chosen by the player before the start of the game. The view is a tilted 3D perspective, the game camera suspended above and tilted towards the rear of the play area so it is sloped away from the screen, like this:

|-------------------------|
|   /  / / | | | \ \  \   |
|/    / | |  |  | | \    \|
|  /   /  |  |  |  \   \  |
| /   |  |   |   |  |   \ |
|    /   |   |   |   \    |
|   |   |    |    |   |   |
|  /    |    |    |    \  |
|-------------------------|
...the camera flies into and out of the screen with the player and slides from side to side, but does not rotate.

Each player has a base (brown and green) on the island consisting of buildings, concrete walls and fortifications, gun turrets and one or more flag towers. There may be more than one flag tower, but there can only be one flag. The player's vehicles rise through a small hatch in their base, through which they can also retreat to repair damage and replenish ammo. The player must break into the opponent's base, retrieve their flag and hightail it back to their own base while simultaneously inhibiting the progress of the other player. Four vehicles are available in limited supply to do this, each with different specialities and weaknesses:

Tank

The tank is the all-rounder of the game. Good armour, reasonable offensive capability and speed. It has a turret which can fire at ground and air targets, that can move independently of the rest of the vehicle. This is a vehicle new players tend to find difficult to exploit fully, as it requires eight buttons to operate. The d-pad rotates and moves the tank, while the shoulder buttons rotate the turret. One fire button fires straight ahead, another fires upwards.

The tank has no real weakness other than the player overestimating how much damage it can take and sticking around the enemy base to "just blow up one more turret". It doesn't quite do as much damage as most of the other vehicles, but it has plenty of speed for an escape and a good store of ammo.

Helicopter

My personal favourite. Difficult to control at first, the helicopter is the fastest vehicle available but also the most lightly-armoured offensive vehicle. It is armed with a cannon (lots of ammo, not very powerful) and a rocket launcher (not so much ammo, more powerful). Both can fire at ground or air targets. All flying vehicles fly at a set altitude above the map.

The main weakness of the helicopter is its light armour and the fact that if it gets hit by enemy fire it stops dead for half a second or so, meaning if you get caught in a hail of rockets from enemy turrets you're generally screwed as you get stuck on the spot until you die. It is also difficult for new players to control because it requires six buttons just to fly it (forward-backward and strafe control uses the d-pad, and the shoulder buttons rotate it) and another three to use the weapons (one button to switch between rockets and cannon, another to fire straight ahead, another to fire at the ground). Finally, the helicopter is extremely vulnerable when taking off and landing as it takes several seconds to do either, during which it is not under player control and still gets damaged if shot.

The helicopter is most effective when used to scout out the flag (in larger maps there is more than one enemy flag tower, but only one contains the flag) and to attack the other player. When mastered one can do almost everything short of bringing home the flag with a helicopter, though due to the aforementioned stopping-dead-under-fire effect, taking it into heavily-guarded areas is generally a no-no. It is also the only vehicle that can shoot mines.

Armoured Support Vehicle (ASV)

This is the tank's big brother. Heavily armed and armoured, it's the most powerful vehicle in the game but also the slowest. It has the unique ability of being able to lay mines in two-player games. It is armed with the same rockets as the helicopter, which can destroy a turret in three shots.

The ASV is best suited for punching into an enemy base and setting traps for an opponent. Because it is so slow to move and turn it can be vulnerable to enemy fire and it is possible to corner and trap it with a faster vehicle, but it is excellent against helicopters and when facing an opponent head on, it can usually just sit there firing and win. It is also one of the easiest vehicles to control: the d-pad rotates and moves it, there's one button for firing forwards and for firing upwards, and another for dropping mines. Each player has 30 mines in the two-player game and an ASV carries 10; if it is destroyed any mines it carries are lost.

Mines add considerable depth to two-player games. Mines can be used to destroy certain routes (like wooden bridges), forcing the opponent to use a different route or vehicle to get to the flag or at least take out the weak helicopter to clear the way. I found that hiding mines amongst the wreckage of buildings or trees is an extremely devious and satisfying way of seeing your enemy go (unless they're the type to throw their toys out of the pram). Even more so when being chased by an enemy, dropping a mine (although a very obvious sound effect denotes that action) and sitting over it for a second then driving away with your enemy in pursuit, who drives over it just in time for it to arm itself.../me cackles

Jeep

Um.. it's fast. It blows up with one hit. It gets stuck on rocks. Its control is twitchy. It blows up with one hit... did I mention it's fast? OK, one of the main tactical factors of the game is that this vehicle is the only one that can carry the flag. The idea is that you find and clear the way to the flag with the other vehicles, then hop into the jeep and hope for the best, because that's the only protection you get. All this POS carries is a load of grenades which.. well, you might as well throw flowers at your opponent.

The jeep does have the ability to inflate its tyres to give it an amphibious capability, which then makes it the slowest vehicle in the game. It's occasionally a handy feature to have, but usually only against an opponent who never looks at the other player's screen. Otherwise you're a sitting duck for a helicopter attack, in which case your chances are less than great. If the flag is dropped in the water, it will slowly float back to the nearest shore. Your own flag can also be picked up, which is handy if you want to hide it or move it as far away as possible to give you more time to go hunting in the opponent's bases.

The jeep is one of the few differences between the 3DO and Playstation versions of Return Fire - the 3DO version has what looks like a squashed Vietnam-era Jeep Wrangler, whereas the PSX version has a Hummvee. Other than aesthetics the two are identical, but since I played the 3DO version a lot I have an irrational affection for the original version.

Non-Player Vehicles

There are two of these, both of which are encountered both in one and two-player games. The first is the helicopter drone, which attacks you on the larger maps if you stay still for more than a certain amount of time (which seems to get shorter as the maps get bigger). It has unlimited ammunition and fuel so it will bother you until you either go into your base (in which case it flies off) or blow it up.

The other vehicle is the submarine, which you don't really want to mess with. If you stray over the boundary of the play area with the helicopter (all the maps are islands, so only the helicopter can 'exit' the map) it will surface and, if you don't get back into the play area fast enough, fire a missile that follows you. This missile is faster than you, has unlimited fuel and is lethal. It will chase you until it either kills you or hits something else. It is possible to avoid the missile with tight turns but unless you can get something—like drones or opponents—between you and it it will get you eventually.


Graphics

This game has not aged incredibly well in terms of graphical performance and speed. The main differences between the PS and 3DO versions are here. The 3DO version has a noticeably lower framerate than the PS version although the resolution is higher. The 3DO version also has a large control panel at the bottom of the screen which reduces the size of the game window (presumably for performance reasons). This panel is present on the PS version but can be toggled on and off, and the zoom level can be toggled between two settings. The differences in look are minimal though, it's mainly framerate that separates the two versions. As can be expected the screen update slows down somewhat in twoplayer mode - more severely on the 3DO version - but this generally does not interfere with the gameplay.

The representation is a mix of texture-mapped 3D buildings and flat texture maps for destroyed structures. The view pans to follow the player and usefully, zooms out when driving/flying fast to give a better view. The attention to detail is impressive: trees fall in strings of flame, buildings explode with impressive lighting effects and collapse into dust, and flame belches from firing guns. Tiny soldiers even flee from buildings under attack and lob grenades at the player vehicle. These can, of course, be run over with an amusing squishing sound, which brings us to...

Sound

The sound is one of the highlights of Return Fire. An impressive trailer announces that the game is in surround sound, which on a suitably equipped AV system punctuates the game with blasts from cannon, deep rumbles from tank engines and impressive roars from explosions. The centrepiece, however, is the superb classical music score. In an almost unique creative coup your war is soundtracked by Wagner, Handel and Grieg amongst others. I'm talking about helicopters rocketing buildings to Ride of the Valkyries, tanks blasting through enemy complexes to the strains of Mars: Bringer of War and ASVs rumbling to battle backed by In the Hall of the Mountain King. Hilariously fittingly, a snip of the Hallelujah Chorus cuts in when the flag is discovered, followed by the William Tell Overture when it is picked up, setting the backdrop superbly for the frantic chase that ensues between the two players that is undoubtedly about to ensue.

For some reason the sound on the 3DO version seems to be better than that of the PS version: sharper with deeper bass. Whether this is down to better construction of the 3DO or simply differences in quality of disc authoring I don't know.


Gameplay

Return Fire appeared just as the original next generation was finding its feet, reviewed alongside games like Dark Forces, the original Descent and (ahem) Cybersled. People were just starting to get excited about Chrono Trigger, Heretic had not yet been released and the Atari Jaguar was appearing in adverts on the same page as the £600 3DO FZ-1 machine which, as it happens, is about what an imported Playstation would have cost you back then. Plus a stepdown converter and NTSC-PAL converter, of course (these old Edge magazines are time capsules).

Return Fire could probably not even be called a cult videogame, such is its anonymity (copies of the original 3DO version go for less than £10 on ebay). It is one of the most replayable and absorbing two-player games that have ever been created, ITNHO. It isn't much to look at these days but it is tremendous fun if you can find a willing opponent. Players must constantly adapt to the actions of their opponent and do their best to block their ambitions at the same time. The game plays well to either player's tactical and sadistic sides; your flag can be hidden, taken out to sea, even taken into your own base (upon which it randomly respawns in one of your flag towers). I recall many nights cackling evilly as I surrounded my opponent's base with explosives, as he 'found' another of my well-hidden mines, or as a chase in two jeeps took place with both of us using just the edges of our chairs and yelling at the screen as the music said it all.

The winner is treated to a montage of vintage ticker tape parade footage while a longer version of the Hallelujah Chorus plays in the background. It usually contributes considerably to the feeling of smug triumph which follows a hard-fought twoplayer game.

The single-player game is rather lacking, more so after a few good sessions in multiplayer. The player simply has to break into an enemy base and retrieve a flag. There is no CPU opponent trying to steal the player's flag so urgent feel of the two-player game is absent, the only worry being whether the player will have enough vehicles to complete the game; on some of the larger maps the available vehicles are limited still further. The drones and submarine are still present but the game really seems to have been designed with an active opponent in mind, and these are no substitute.

Just as a sidenote here, the 3DO version had an expansion pack released for it called Return Fire: Maps O'Death which was literally just extra maps. Judging by the amount of maps on the PS version - over 100 to the 60 or so of the 3DO version - it probably incorporates this. Sentimentalism is probably the main reason one would get the 3DO version over the PS version (I have just done so, having had the PS version for years) as the latter is slightly better in most respects.

In summary get an opponent, find a crusty old 3DO or Playstation and this game, then don't leave the house for days.


Source:
Zads Entertainment, Ltd; "George C. Scott might approve"; <http://www.poparttimes.com/parlor/fire.html> (music track names)

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