For most people the title "strategy game" conjures up the image of a dull, terrifyingly boring game and middle-aged gents with long, curly moustaches mobilising around a table coated with lots of little hexagons. Well, if you're like most people then be prepared to change your views, because Laser Squad is an example of how strategy games can be fun, fun, fun (even when your father has gone and repossessed the T-bird).
Laser Squad is interesting and different for three reasons:
a) because it has five inricate sci-fi scenarios to choose from;
b) because it actually has a suspense element; and
c) ...er , because I say so.
The first thing to do in this game is delegate weaponry and armour to your squad members. You have a certain amount of 'credits' to do this with. The difficulty level determines the numbers of credits you start with, ranging from fabulously rich to National Health(Oooh! Bit of politics there! Nice one).
Top of the range in the artillery department is the heavy cannon (a huge industrial laser gun) to the Marsec pistol (a weedy domestic handgun). You can also get your fair share of grenades, mines, ammo, machine guns, rocket launchers and light sabres. Once your squad is all 'gunned up' then it's well and truly mission time.
-THE ASSASSINS - Target: mega corporate, high rank, big director type person, Sterner Regnix. This man has embezzlement and espionage for breakfast and then moves on to government manipulation and drug dealing for lunch. Tea-time could spell the end of the galaxy. Laser Squad is deployed to pop Regnix's corporate cork. But he is extremely well protected by his planet fortress and an elite squadron of combat droids.
MOONBASE ASSAULT - Target: the omni-corporation's moonbase on a far away planet, concealed right in the bowels of the galaxy. The moonbase cheekily houses the movements and secrets of rebel groups like Laser Squad. Laser Squad values its privacy (and has some rather unsavoury connections with the planet Soixante Neuf) and so deploys itself to put the nosey corporation's conk out of joint.
RESCUE FROM THE MINES - A jumped-up group of 'amats' (Laser Squad jargon for 'amateurs') have fluffed up an important mine-installation blow-up job. Luckily (or unluckily depending on how annoyed you are at the amats), three members of the squad have been imprisoned. They have vital information about the rest of the mine complex. Laser Squad miss their tea-break to boldly go and free the prisoners.
THE CYBER HORDERS - A rebel planet installation is being attacked by a squad of frumpy combat droids, intent on disrupting the seismic equilibrium (that's volcanic activity to you) of the planet. Laser Squad must 'dig in' and give 'Jerry' a damn good British whipping.
You get a God's eye view of the level which slices away all the roofs of buildings, detailing all the flora and fauna, tunnels, corridors, objects, toilets, doors and computers. In fact it shows everything except your enemies' positions. Those you never get to see (the screen blanks while the computer moves them) reamain invisible until one of your teams has eye contact.
Laser Squad is quite a civilised game. You and your opponents actually take turns. Each member is allocated a number of movement points - the initial number is governed by how much the character is carrying, how agile he is, and whether he's a pencil-necked shandy man or not.
Rotation on the spot costs one point per direction, moving across normal terrain (corridors, space, etc.) costs even more. If you come across an enemy (or 20) then you have the choice of firing. This changes the on-screen map. Gone are the vegetation and fascinating wall murals, here are the most tangible (i.e. shootable) objects, represented by blobs and bigger blobs (for trees). You have to direct a crosshair over your intended target and then choose a shot type.
AUTO gives you a raking machine gun effect but is very inaccurate while AIM is more precise but costs on the old movement points. SNAP is a sort of compromise between the two. The last option, THROW, is an option to throw your weapon at an aggressor. This, unfortunately, is all very stupid.
And so the game continues... Lots of sneaking around corridors, educated guesses as to the whereabouts of enemy locations, lip-biting during fire-fights in narrow corridors, lots of sweaty trigger fingers and swearing when your men get caught in ambushes. Laser Squad avoids tumbling into the pitfall which 90% of all strategy games have fallen into - that is, having too much "strategy" and not enough "game".
Laser Squad is initially quite hard to get into. There are a few menus to wade through, a few title screens to go "Cor!" at, and a few key decisions to be made before you're "dug in" on the battlefield. Even then the first two or three 'moves' are quite turgid really, with menial tasks like arming to carry out. But as soon as your first enemy pops out of the metal work, your blood boils and your kettle runs cold (if you know what I mean).
The graphics are fairly diagrammatic but detailed - they wouldn't stand on their own but they do look quite good all together. However, Laser Squad's lasting appeal is not in question. With game lengths ranging from half an hour (for a good massacre) to two hours (a good balanced conflict), seven skill levels, five scenarios and the option to plot your strategies against an unwitting chum, Laser Squad should keep you computer-motivated for at least two months.
The soundtrack is excellent - sort of Pet Shop Boys meet some sampled farmyard grunts. Although, it's a jangly jolly sort of tune, things start to become pretty annoying when you miss the music-off option, and you're committed to having it blaring out continuously throughout the game.
My vast (hem!) experience with the 8-bit version of Laser Squad set me in good salivating stead for this review. If the game was brilliant on the Spectrum, the 16-bit incarnation had to be out of this world. And it was... and, er, it wasn't. (Pardon? Ed.). The 16 bitter has everything its predecessor had - the graphics, the gameplay, the suspense, the skill, the challenge, the characters even - but that's the point. I kept getting the impression that I was playing a Spectrum game on an Amiga monitor. Nothing's been changed. Okay, so there's a dab of colour here and there, and the odd sampled clash of thunder in the background but I couldn't help thinking, "Where's the Amiga?".
However, Laser Squad still remains a brilliant game, even though the Amiga could probably sit back, have a cigarette and clean out the fluffy bits between its toes while running the game. I think half the attraction of the game is the suspense element (What's awaiting round the next corner? Will the enemy find me? Where's Keith Chegwin?) and the intellectual ego-massage you can give yourself when you do finally defeat the computer (who plays a mean game).
Laser Squad has that elusive lend of excitement, challenge and addictiveness all mashed into one. Definitely on the short list for all time classics and definitely the best strategy game you'll find in the shops today.