As one of AMIGA POWER's foremost proponents of the helicopter (second only to Cam) (and maybe Sue), I approached Zeewolf with a militaristic sense of purpose. Flicking the fuel feed to 'on', arming the weapons systems, checking the flight controls, starting the turbine and engaging the main rotor drive (in my imagination, this is - in reality you just press Fire and you're off). I embarked on the first of a series of missions which would have me swearing enormous amounts. But I didn't mind, because Zeewolf is great.
It's great because it's so helicopter. To wit: a) it makes a 'chocka-chocka-chocka' noise as you fly, b) the helicopter's nose tilts forward, and c) you can unleash apocalyptic rocket-death with a tap on the fire button. The only snag is that the helicopter is bright "Please shoot me" blue. And you get that terrible not-quite-rock music that all helicopter games play.
Zeewolf is almost exactly a cross between Desert Strike and Zarch. It's got the graphics out of Zarch - everything takes place over a scrolling patchwork square, with buildings and trees made out of polygons. And it's got the gameplay from Desert Strike - not just the helicopter-based action, but the whole way the missions are organised.
There are 32 missions (quite a few more than Desert Strike's four), and, as in Desert Strike, each takes place in a different playing area, and is divided up into a set of smaller sub-missions. You might have to assassinate a general by destroying the building he's hiding in, then rescue some POWs and destroy an enemy base's defences to ready it for an invasion. Just like inDesert Strike, really.
But you can do things you can't do in Desert Strike, the most appealing of which is carrying tanks, helicopters and planes on a winch. The physics of this works just like when you pick up an orb in Thrust, except tanks are often bigger than your helicopter and swing around quite alarmingly. There are also escort missions, where you've got to follow a friendly aircraft from A to B making sure it doesn't get shot down.
The only area in which it loses out to Desert Strike is strategy. In Desert Strike you've got to think quite carefully about the order you do things in. Do you hope your few remaining rockets will be enough to destroy the power station? Or do you risk death by popping over to the other side of the map to pick up some more? There aren't really any power-ups in Zeewolf, though - you fly back to your carrier for extra weapons - and it doesn't tend to matter which order to blow stuff up in. The only thing is, you can trade rescued POWs for repairs to your helicopter, so you've got to work out the best time to return to the carrier with them. But where Zeewolf does win over Desert Strike (this might be a good point to stop mentioning Desert Strike, and consider Zeewolf as A Game In Its Own Right), is in tactics.
Tactics come in when you're over the target area and are considering the safest method to deal with the various guns, tanks and helicopters ranged against you.
Firstly, it can be pretty fiddly trying to hit things with your weapons. The aiming system is semi-automatic, and to get it to lock on you've got to have the nose pointing approximately at the target. So really you want to come zooming in towards your prey at low attitude, let rip with a few missiles and zoom off again before the enemy gets a chance to fire back. As soon as you start trying to turn around over the target to get another shot your helicopter's nose comes up and you lose airspeed, get caught in the enemy crossfire and die.
And then there's the interaction between the various enemy units. Cobra SAM sites are pretty nasty, but they're ten times worse when there's a Watchdog radar tank nearby guiding the missiles towards your helicopter. So you've got to ignore the missile sites to begin with the radar.
I did get a little vexed with it at times. Given that success depends on lining up perfectly with a target and hitting it before it has the chance to fire back, it seems a little unfair that, because of the way the graphics work, you can't actually see things until you're right on top of them. The scanner helps a bit, but doesn't really give the necessary precision. The other irritating thing is the way targets don't disappear from your scanner once you've blown them up.
You can spend hours on a 'destroy all the patrol boats' mission flying round and round the sea visiting the same targets over and over again until you find the one straggler you missed. Couldn't the dots change colour, or something? And, in fact, your weapons still lock onto blown-up targets, which can make it unnecessarily difficult to pick out a live tank from a group of dead ones. Hrumph.
You're hovering quietly
All the same, Zeewolf is an enormously absorbing game that strikes a perfect balance between fast, helicopter-orientated action and slower, more thoughtful play. One minute you're frantically pumping rockets into anything that moves, with bullets streaming past your ears and huge explosions rocking the earth. The next, you're hovering quietly in an unpopulated corner of the map, pondering your next course of action.
Although they're not all that sophisticated, the graphics do the job nicely. From tiny POWs to hulking great frigates, they all look neat and tidy. And then you've got some excellent explosions - enemy planes, in particular, go down in spectacular style. Watch out, too, for garage doors that open to allow tanks to drive out, bullets splashing into the water, and the shadows beneath anything that flies. And, except when there's absolutely loads happening, the screen updates utterly smoothly. (On a 1200, this is. Our increasingly beleaguered 5/600-owning readers will find it's all a bit jerky, though still just about playable).
And it all comes on one disk, which is nice, something you can put down to polygon graphics and absence of badly-drawn graphical menu screens. There's no disk-accessing once the game's started, and it all seems slick and well-organised (apart from you having to use the cursor keys rather than the joystick to select things from menus). The controls take a bit of getting used to, but rapidly begin to make sense. Be wary of the mouse-option, though - Binary Asylum claim it ultimately gives you more control if you practise with it, but it just seemed completely bonkers and uncontrollable to me.
And the password option is a bit of a bodge. You get a password every fourth level up to mission 25, but as a level can take up to 20 minutes to complete, there's still quite a bit of slogging through the same old missions to get to one you're stuck on. It does give you a chance to accrue handy extra lives, though.
Zeewolf is fresh and different, and yet reassuringly familiar. It's explosive, violent, but also coolly detached, just like modern warfare.
But I couldn't honestly recommend it to A500 owners as enthusiastically as I can to people with A1200s. On a 1200. Overflying a frigate is a truly fulfilling experience; on a 500 it causes the screen shudder horribly. That's progress, or something like that.