Last time it was ninjas and shurikens, today it's cybernetic mercenaries and flamethrowers, but it's still Sega and it's still a run-n-gun murderfest with their 1992 arcade blatant-Mercs-clone-em-up Desert Breaker!
I am going to break this desert. When I'm through with all this sand, there'll be nothing left but dust. Hmm, desert breaking doesn't sound like an especially rewarding pastime, but I'm sure it involves ridiculously oversized guns so if nothing else I'll feel like I've compensated for my lack of masculinity.
So, what can we tell about Desert Breaker from its title screen? Your first though might be "not much besides the nonsensical title," but look closer and you'll see three of those circular, rotating, locks-with-handles things that are so prevalent in the design of cartoon robots from Japan. I don't think it's much of a leap to surmise that this game is going to have some robots in it.
From the intro, we learn that Desert Breaker is set in 1991. Except we don't, because the game then immediately says it's "twenty years hence" so I guess it's actually set in 2011? Anyway, in this version of 2011, Japan has sent military assistance somewhere and "that country once again has guests".
It's all rather confusing, but as far as I can tell Sega have decided that what the gaming public really wanted to see was a do-over of the Gulf War where Japan got more involved and also had access to robotic power armour. Whatever sets you apart from all the other Gulf War-themed games, I suppose.
Once you've inserted your credits and pressed start, your next task is to choose which of these fine young commandos you'd like to send on this mission. Your interestingly-named choices are Franz Von Augenthaler, whose mullet is so heavy it appears to be compressing his skull, the high-hairlined warrior John McLorughlin, and Genzou Takamuru. He's Japanese, I guess. They all play the same so it doesn't matter which one you choose, so pick whichever one is your favourite colour.
Next, a mission briefing from a disappointed-looking soldier who I reckon is supposed to be US General and Commander-in-Chief of the Gulf War, "Stormin'" Norman Schwarzkopf.
You have to wonder if ol' Norm ever had the slightest inkling that he had appeared in a videogame that re-imagines his most famous military triumph as an cyberpunk-ified tale of mechanical soldiers sporting mullets that Billy Ray Cyrus would be proud of. I'm going to guess not.
There's one last task before you can get into the action, and that's to select which part of the stage will receive air support in the form of a really big bomb. Only one bomb, though, because as Schwarzkopf informs you this is a confidential mission and as much we can only get away with dropping a single hugely devastating bomb per stage. Any more than that and people will start to talk.
Okay, we're off, running and gunning in the traditional manner. Point the joystick toward the enemy and press fire and bullets (well, bullets for now, at least) will fly out and kill them. Try not to get shot. You can tell it's the future, because the enemies have swapped conventional ammunition for guns that fire slow-moving orange orbs. Collecting the sergeant's insignia scattered on the ground will fill the bar at the top of the screen, which lets you use a screen-clearing smart bomb.
The other button makes your character dash, and during your dash you are completely invincible. This is illustrated in the above screenshot by the way Franz is charging through that tank's missiles as though they were no more substantial than a refreshing summer's breeze, but due to a miscalculation on my part my dash ran out while I was inside the tank and thus Franz suffered a grisly death beneath it's treads. No one-hit-kills, though, which is nice - instead you have a health bar which can be refilled by collecting medikits, bottles of soft drink and some of the most ultra-cartoony meat-on-a-bone I've ever seen outside of games about cavemen.
There's some now, cooked to perfection by the flaming wreckage of that tank and marinated in the dying screams of its occupants. Mmm, tasty.
A little further on and I've picked up my first new weapon. It fires green shurikens in a spread pattern, and when it hits an enemy said enemy turns purple and is beset by a whirling blade of air that slices them to death. Military tech has come a long way since 1991, it's advancement clearly spurred on by the Departments of Defence's controversial decision to only hire anime nerds as weapon developers.
Desert Breaker's Gulf War status is all but confirmed by this appearance from Saddam Hussein, even if he does look more like Walter Matthau. If any Arabic-readers out there want to tell me what the writing on that sign says, please feel free to let me know.
There sure were a lot of games based on the Gulf War, huh? Many of them came out right around the time of the conflict, too, unlike all the games based on World War II which at least had a few decades distance between the conflict and the re-emergence of Nazis as standard videogame enemies. I suppose the Gulf War was always going to be a popular subject for games developers, as it was the first major conflict to happen after videogames had really claimed their place in the home markets, as well as being a clear victory for the "good guys". Plus, all that desert means that drawing backgrounds is a snap!
Enough theorizing on Gulf War videogames, though, because our hero has not only found a flamethrower - hold the button down to project a short-range torrent of fire ahead of you, as usual - but he's also located a pilotable robot! That ought to even the odds a little. So, what weaponry does this bipedal death-machine come equipped with? Rocket Launchers? Miniguns? Ah ha. Ha ha ha. No, it has none of those things. It only has one method of attack, and that's this.
I try to avoid using phrases such as "robo-dong" and "powerful battering-ram phallus" here at VGJunk, but when confronted by a machine whose only offensive manoeuvre is to thrust out a huge metal protuberance from between its legs there are precious few other ways I can describe what I'm seeing.
The walker can't take much punishment and was quickly destroyed. I was sort of relieved when it blew up.
Speaking of things blowing up, I reached the point in the stage that I had designated as the airstrike target. A plane appeared and dropped a bomb precisely on the pre-planned coordinates.
The fact that I was standing directly on those pre-planned coordinates is irrelevant, because while his choice in drivable mechas might be slightly questionable Franz can take a hit, and as such he's somehow completely immune to the giant bomb-blast that totally incinerated enemy tanks and troopers alike.
The "bombing target" feature is a nice little touch, although probably moreso if you've played the game a few times and know which area will give you the most trouble, allowing you to use the airstrike to see you through the tougher sections. Mind you, when you're as bad at videogames as I am, everywhere's a tough section so the airstrike is a blessing no matter where it lands.
Stage one's boss is a helicopter, and it's as typical a run-n-gun boss battle as you're ever likely to see. The helicopter hovers in front of you and fires swarms of bullets and missiles at you, you run around like an idiot in a vain attempt to not get shot. Actually, I say it's a helicopter, but it doesn't appear to have any rotors. "How does it fly, then?" you might ask, and the answer is that it doesn't. It may look like I'm standing on a small outcropping of ruined highway but the whole thing is actually falling down into that chasm, and as that helicopter is keeping pace with me it must be falling down too. Thus, a better question to ask would be "why doesn't that helicopter just let you plummet to your death" and the only answer I can offer to that question is that the pilot has quotas to fill and seeing me splattered against the rocks below won't count towards this month's kill total.
After one stage I've formed an opinion about Desert Breaker, and that opinion is that it really is a lot like Capcom's Mercs. This surely isn't a original opinion - I can't imagine there are many reviews of this game that don't mention Mercs somewhere along the line - but the run-n-gun gameplay, the vehicles and the three-player simultaneous action mean that it's a comparison that's pretty difficult to avoid. Desert Breaker at least tries to be fun in it's own way, though, with features like the invincibility dash and the airstrikes giving it a smidgen of its own personality, as well as nice graphics and a really good soundtrack.
I've switched to John McLorughlin for stage two, and because he has by far the largest gun he is obviously the best character. After collecting a power-up his gun now shoots acid, which works like the flamethrower except it inflicts an excruciatingly painful death through corrosive chemicals rather than an excruciatingly painful death through being burned alive.
I hijacked a jet-ski somewhere along the way. The torpedoes it fires work surprisingly well given that the water is clearly only waist-deep.
I promptly crashed the jet-ski moments later, but it's okay because I'm on dry land now. The game's trying to trick me into not eating those delicious hams by claiming they're actually explosives, but I won't fall for that. Anyway, look at John McLorughlin down there, with his six-foot-long gun that fires shurikens and his metal shoulder pads, he looks like someone who actively attempts to eat explosions whenever the opportunity arises. Eating an exploding ham would give him a case of mild indigestion at worst.
I was in a village for a while, but it's all been blown up now thanks to my own efforts and the gangs of marauding tanks that plague the area. Just look at them, pointing their own turrets at each other. Desert Breaker loses big points from me for not allowing the tanks to blow each other up in a wacky friendly fire incident. I blame Doom and it's monster in-fighting for these constant disappointments.
Stage two is probably my favourite, because it feel like the part of the game where the gameplay comes together in the most satisfying way. The difficulty level is at "hard but just about fair," the buildings of the village environment provide plenty of cover and are more interesting to navigate than the wide-open spaces and the enemies are a good mix of disposable but still dangerous cannon fodder soldiers and larger mechanical foes.
There's even a mid-boss to break things up a little. He's the commando dressed in black at the top-left of the screen, and he's definitely got the element of stealth on his side because I didn't even notice him until he jogged over and stabbed me. In a game where the opposition forces are either huge war machines or dressed as brightly as a bag of M&Ms at a rave, a lone black-clad assassin has an advantage. A brief advantage, mind you, because once you've spotted him he's just a faster-than-usual soldier who prefers to use melee attacks over guns. This reminded me that the player also has a melee attack, activated by pressing fire and dash at the same time, and so I engaged the mid-boss in honourable hand-to-hand combat until I got bored and shot him in the face.
The boss of stage two is a hovercraft shaped like a stingray, because sure, why not? We should pattern all our advanced military hardware after aquatic creatures. Submarines are already shaped like whales, naval mines look like pufferfish, so the precedent is there. Wars would be resolved much more quickly if our brave men and women charged at the enemy in armoured personal carriers shaped like sharks, supported from the air by drones that look like octopuses with spinning tentacles in place of rotors. We'll roar into battle alongside squadrons of mechanical squid. No, we won't call them squidrons, please try to take this seriously.
Oh yeah, the boss. Shoot it until explodes. It's just like the first boss, only with more bullets.
Stage three. Still in the desert, which has so far resisted my attempts to break it. There are more robots than ever now, multi-legged scuttling ones and bulky humanoid kamikaze-bots who exist solely to run into our hero and explode. The health-restoring drinks I have been collecting are a lie, because now I look more closely at them they are obviously some kind of hand-pump soap dispenser thing. It's a testament to the power of John's cybernetic body that he's been drinking hand sanitizer this whole time and yet it's still restoring his health.
The difficulty has taken a big upward leap now, with unending batteries of cannons lining your path and bullets flying thick and fast. Well, thick, at least, they're still mostly the same slow-moving orange orbs they've always been.
About halfway through the stage you sneak onto a plane using the stealthy tactics of shooting big chunks out of it and then climbing in through the back. It's a large plane, a plane filled with soldiers and tanks and all those other fun things that make progressing more than three feet without dying a real challenge. Desert Breaker's one concession to the difficulty level is that you don't lose your power-ups when you die and continue - once you've picked up an item to increase the power of your weapon, be it increasing the spread of the shuriken launcher or the width of your machine gun's attacks or whatever, it stays powered up for that playthrough.
The plane also contains this genuinely neat little area where the plane tilts in flight, causing the objects to slide around and crush you if you're standing in their way. It's moments like this that Desert Breaker could really do with more of, because while they show that the game clearly has potential, especially when it's being as over-the-top as possible, they're so few and far between that they just leave you wanting more: more interactivity, more engagement, more than just the point-and-shoot antics that make up ninety-nine percent of the game. The vehicular sections are a case in point - they could have mixed the gameplay up enough to keep it fresh, but they're so infrequent and short-lived that they might as well have not included them at all.
The most striking example of this comes at the end of the plane, where our hero escapes on a flying sled. Yes, like the ones from Akira. Great, you think, a new vehicle section, but by the time that thought has blossomed in your mind you've ditched the sled and you're back on foot. I'm not exaggerating when I say this section takes twenty seconds to get through, which leaves you wondering what the point was.
Admittedly, the disappointment of the sled scene is soothed somewhat by the bit right after it where you steal a jet fighter by tip-toeing across the refuelling arm and praying that the pilot has left the keys in the ignition.
Ha ha, it totally worked! John's daring jet theft has paid off and now completing his mission should be a snap, unless he does something really stupid like immediately flying the plane between two towers, smashing the wings off in the process.
Look, he's an infantryman, not a pilot, we should cut him some slack. It could have happened to any of us.
The plane crash-lands in the snowy mountaintops, which is handy because that's where this stage's boss is hiding.
I have no idea what to describe that thing as. I can't even tell which end is the front. All I know is that it's big, it's red and John is chasing it down this narrow gorge on foot so it can't be all that fast. You might also notice that John is laying on the ground. This isn't a defensive skill I forget to tell you about, he's just dead. I died a lot fighting this boss, trapped as you are in the chasm with hardly any room for avoiding its many attacks, but the invincibility dash evens things up a little and eventually the boss explodes.
You'd think these people would be a little more careful about running around in front of John like that, what with him pointing his huge gun at them and all, still pumped up from the battle with whatever that big red tricycle thing was supposed to be, but I suppose the desire to escape a freezing valley of death will make a person act irrationally. Okay, what's next?
Hold on, is that it? Three stages? Yes, Desert Breaker doesn't believe in long goodbyes and suddenly ends when you destroy the third boss. Alright, fine, screw you too, Desert Breaker. I didn't want any kind of closure or anything. Instead of an ending, you're just show a list of the game's enemies and then plonked right back at the title screen.
The abrupt ending seems appropriate, given that as a whole Desert Breaker feels like something Sega knocked up in a weekend without investing much love into the process. It's not a bad game, just one that didn't quite have the necessary care and attention lavished on it to make it a good game. The graphics are good if occasionally a touch more bland than you might have expected from Sega, and I've got no complaints about the music, especially stage three's theme which starts off sounding like the slow-burning theme from an Eighties action movie before getting very, well, arcade game-y. The gameplay is solid, too, even though you've already seen it all before, particularly if you've played Mercs. It just lacks that extra injection of imagination that could have elevated it from from a C to an A, which is something I never thought I'd say about a game where you can beat soldiers to death with a springy robotic wang.