Saturday, March 21, 2009

UFO Pilot 2: The Phadt Menace Review

UFO Pilot 2: The Phadt Menace, developed by nornware and published by Spell of Play Studios.
The Good: Upgradable ship attributes, somewhat lengthy, varied enemies
The Not So Good: Imprecise ship controls, lacks difficulty settings, fixed screen resolution, nothing terribly innovative
What say you? A 2-D arcade space shooter marred by tricky handling: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
For eons, mankind has wrestled with a fundamental question: are we alone? The answer, of course, is no, and we should blast them all with frickin’ laser beams. UFO Pilot 2: The Phadt Menace is the latest computer simulation of the ongoing struggle against the alien invaders. This time, they have captured pilots, and its up to you to break them out of jail while killing everything that looks, smells, or tastes foreign. Xenophobia has never been so enjoyable!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
UFO Pilot 2 features 2-D graphics in all their 2-D glory: the game looks like a casual title. The graphics are pretty basic: a hand-drawn sensibility for the environments and small ships and enemies that reduce the amount of detail. Explosions are dramatic, but the rest of the weapon effects are unimpressive. Part of the reason UFO Pilot 2 lacks polish is the fixed resolution that cannot be adjusted: 640 by 480 pixels is all you get in the game’s archaic presentation, and this small view cannot be windowed (not that you’d really be able to see anything then). The sound is along the same lines, with basic effects for warfare and generic background music. I do enjoy the pilot responses while being rescued, however. Still, a lot more work could have been done in this area of the game, as the graphics and sound are not highlights of UFO Pilot 2.

ET AL.
UFO Pilot 2 features a premise similar to the classic arcade game Defender: rescue people from aliens. This time around, you shoot trapped pilots, land to pick them up, and then dock with the mothership. You are doing this while enemy units are shooting at you and gravity is pulling you constantly downwards, so challenge is definitely present. With slightly more than thirty levels, some of which are quite lengthy, UFO Pilot 2 also comes with a good amount of content. Of course, a level editor would extend the game even further, and with the relatively simplistic 2-D this would seem to be a possibility, but UFO Pilot 2 does not have this feature. You do get three modes of play: classic, time attack (with full powers and a time limit), and arcade (scored). There isn’t a fundamental difference between each of these modes (you’ll be playing the same levels with the same enemy placements), but the stress level is increased with a score or time limit attached to your journey.

Where UFO Pilot 2 really trips up is the controls. While using the mouse to aim and shoot is not a concern, this gravity-based space shooter is very difficult to control. There is no option to adjust the level of gravity (and, thus, difficulty) in the game, and the acceleration towards the ground is quite severe. It’s hard enough not to run into everything (enemy worlds apparently have lots of low ceilings and walls) without aliens shooting at you too. Frankly, the control scheme doesn’t offer the precision required to stay afloat with how drastic the gravity is in the game. Fast speeds combined with strong gravity equals a tough time. Since there is no setting to turn down or off gravity (or lower ship speed), UFO Pilot 2 simply requires too much work just to keep from crashing and burning. The game makes you land in order to rescue the pilots, so contact with the ground is assured, and hard contact is almost guaranteed. The controls require a lot of practice, and I suspect most people just won’t devote enough time getting acclimated to UFO Pilot 2.

As if the gravity and level design weren't enough, you also have to worry about enemies. There is a wide variety of bad guys to avoid and/or explode, equipped with guns, missiles, tanks, and flying vehicles. They can be stationary but will commonly move (especially in later levels), making your job that much harder. In order to assist your journey, your ship can be upgraded between levels in six areas: weapons, engine, spin, armor, payload, and target (not so sure what that last option does). In addition, you can collect power-ups like rehealing, extra lives, bombs, missiles, and turning off the gravity (finally!). While there is nothing vastly original about UFO Pilot 2, it does deliver some solid arcade gamepay that would be more accessible if it weren’t for the high level of difficulty dealing with the gravity presents.

IN CLOSING
UFO Pilot 2 requires a level of finesse that the controls simply do not allow. The game is too hard, and since there is nothing drastically new here, there really no reason to put up with the extreme difficulty. The situation would be a lot better if there were difficulty settings to tweak that reduced or eliminated the use of gravity, but UFO Pilot 2 does not have this luxury. The mouse-driven controls are easy to learn, but you don’t have the control needed to prevent running into other objects constantly. Add in enemies that are shooting at you and we have quite a difficulty arcade game. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but I dislike developers that arbitrarily determine difficulty: there should always be options to adjust how hard a game can be, and UFO Pilot 2 lacks these options. The game would be enjoyable if it weren’t so hard: the chaotic action can be quite fun, there are a lot of levels to navigate, and ship upgrades make an important strategic difference in gameplay. But in the end, UFO Pilot 2 is an arcade game brought down to Earth by the irresistible force of gravity.