Blog 460: Blast from the Past

Assault Rigs is a piece of my childhood. I last played it… More than ten years ago. This is an echo right from the beginning, from before we even had a computer — I played it at a friend’s house.

If you’ve been keeping track of Project Y4, you’ll no doubt have heard me mention it often as the inspiration of the node hacking mini-game.

Well, no longer shall I have to feed on rumours and half-remembered images. Now, I play it again for real.

Prepare to be shattered, rose-tinted spectacles. Welcome to 1996.

In The Future…

All sport has been replaced with virtual sports (oh how prophetic). The best (the best the best the best (obviously)) is Assault Rigs, the… game itself. Where people pilot virtual tanks (“rigs”) around virtual environments for virtual points — and the entertainment of the masses.

I love how the menu makes a punching sound whenever you do anything.

It’s a fair premise for an arcadey third-person tank shooter (believe me, the top-down and first-person camera modes are awful). The objective is to collect gems — once you have them all, the exit opens and you can crash into it to win. This would be easy (mostly), but for the evil enemies that kill you! Luckily, you get points for killing them. Points go into a high score table, but since I’m the only one playing on this DOSBox, there’s little use for that.

Basically, you’re in a tank in an arena and you blow shit up until the end. What’s not to like?

And you have a choice of tanks too — Armour, Hybrid and Swift. Having played them all, though, I didn’t notice much difference beyond their artwork; while the Swift tank has a fixed turret and the others’ can independently rotate, I have a hard enough time aiming with the keyboard-only controls without trying to move and shoot in different directions. I seem to remember Wild Metal Country giving me similar trouble, though its tanks had each tread on a different key, let alone independent turrets.

Everybody says the VR zone is ugly, but I find it quite enchanting.

In Cyberspace, No-One Can See You Get Lost

Arena design varies quite wildly. Some have brutal puzzles (I thought that fake walls should only be used to hide secret bonuses; apparently it’s quite acceptable to use them for the main quest), some have feats of driving, some have hoardes of enemies, some are roller coaster tracks you just have to follow…

Level design isn’t that bad, really. A nice mix of linear and non-linear, though even the non-linear ones have fairly distinct flow. I say “fairly” distinct flow (I’ve been using the word “fairly” a lot recently, I notice), because if you lose the flow and miss one gem the game suddenly becomes awfully frustrating as you power back and forward trying to find it so you can win.

There is actually a tiny little indicator that appears on the shield dial in the bottom left to show the direction of the next gem (and then the exit), but it took me until last night to notice that. Would have eased a lot of heart-ache earlier…

Luckily, the concept of “falling damage” is foreign to this game.

Shut Up and Drive

The funny thing about the player’s rig is that, regardless of its artwork (most notably in the “World at War” zone, where it has obvious and un-animated treads), it is a really slippery hover-tank. There does appear to be some kind of acceleration, but it’s so quick you tend to go careening off ledges just by looking at them. Hell, just looking at the walls next to you can cause the thing to flip over.

On the other hand, if you start reversing hard enough you can often stop yourself from falling off ledges. Can’t argue with that!

I would also say that the four-shield setup was a nice touch; front, back and sides can independently take a number of hits though if any one of them hits zero you die. Sadly, 90% of all damage is taken on the front just by the way combat pans out, so the split doesn’t translate into anything meaningful in the end.

I always love how the standard projectiles are triangular prisms.

Graphix

The game tends to spend about the same number of triangles as me on most of its vehicles, maybe even a few less. The game has four zones with their own themes — the first is Tron-style virtual reality, the next is a sci-fi industrial area, the third is a near-future sci-fi industrial, and the last is World War II-esque. All of these are rendered in beautifully pixelated textures of a hoary low resolution, each with their own suite of low-poly enemies and player rig models.

The thing that’s even more striking is that the shadows cut across naturally, like the finest dynamic shadows on offer today.

Going under roofs, there are shadows — and reverb. It might not sound like much, but the subtle effects of the tank (and enemies, pick-ups…) going dark and all sounds being gently echoed is a pretty nice touch. Especially in comparison to The Witcher, where underground reverb effects tend to entail all sounds echoing to the point of complete distortion.

Unfortunately, the special effects aren’t up to much. While exploding things leave single-triangle or single-quad pieces of wreckage that bounce around slowly but reasonably naturally, the explosions themselves are animated particles with about four frames apiece.

But, well, it is fifteen years old. For all that, it’s not bad at all.

The explosions are… Nice…

Overall

I can’t say I’ve lost anything by revisiting this lost gem. It has rather a lot of bad points, but despite all that I’ve still found myself feeling reasonably compelled to try to finish it. I just can’t find it in my heart to condemn this game.

But what the desire it really engenders in me it the desire to produce a modern clone. The thing it is most palpably missing is mouse-look — with this, I could actually aim… Making the game piss easy. But it would be a nice exercise, and one that, with the wealth of free first-person/third-person-vehicle-ready engines floating around these days, feels eminently do-able for a one-man or small team.

We have the technology, we can rebuild him.

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