I Heart… Rebelstar II
While 2012 inevitably ended with Call of Halo: Medal of FIFA Edition stinking up the charts, it was quite heartwarming to see a game like UFO: Enemy Unknown (X-COM: UFO Defense in the USA) getting a lot of love from gamers. Now, I can’t comment on the remake or the original because, shamefully, I’ve still not played them. I want to. I want to a lot but you see, I’ve got a little mental block stopping me. X-COM’s celebrated creator, Julian Gollop, is responsible for two of my favourite games of all time. The first is Chaos, a single-screen wizard ‘em up turn-based strategy game for the ZX Spectrum that had up to eight wizards casting dragons in each others faces. It was simple while still having enough depth to keep fans like myself playing it some thirty years after it came out. Not bad for a game that I first got for free on the front of a Speccy magazine.
After Chaos, Gollop revisited his earlier Rebelstar Raiders game (which was a bit like Chaos, but in a sci-fi setting rather than a fantasy one) and re-imagined it with a sequel simply called Rebelstar. Now, Rebelstar Raiders was a bit guff. It was basic (to the point of being programmed in BASIC whereas 99% of Spectrum games were programmed in machine code), ugly, slow and had no AI, but Rebelstar was slick, exciting, beautiful and tactical. It also had some tricky AI to deal with.
The game saw your team of raiders infiltrating a moonbase controlled by robots. Your mission was to infiltrate, elimate anything in your path and blow up the robots’ central core. At the start of each turn, each of your squad had a set number of action points which could be used for movement, inventory management or combat. You could fire off cheap unaimed shots, expensive aimed ones or set up an opportunity shot for any robotic fuckwit dumb enough to go across the area you were targeting.
It was a wonderful game with plenty of depth, but also one big flaw. If you sent one of your squad into the base, all of the robots would head towards him, leaving all the other entrances unguarded and allowing you to get most of the way to the core before they shit their cybernetic pants.
Rebelstar II avoided this problem by doing away with the moonbase altogether and, instead, sees you invading an alien planet. Starting off in the marshlands, your first problem are the giant rats that attack you. They aren’t armed but they aren’t slowed down by the terrain, unlike your squad, and will gnaw your face off like a crack addict. After that it’s time to start figuring out your plan of attack. The unforgiving marshes, swamps and jungle slow you down but the trees and plants also act as cover. Your job is to advance safely, taking out the aliens who, excitingly, look just like the aliens from the movie Aliens. The unlicensed Aliens fun continues when you realise that several of your squad are named after marines in the movie. You’re just too bad, Vasquez!
The aliens are armed with lasers and will do everything they can to maim and kill your squad. The tense ballet of attack, defense and ambush continues as you make your way to their homebase. After fifteen or so turns (look, I’m not going to Wikipedia my way through this article, I want it to mean something) your dropship arrives and lands outside the base. At this point your squad need to infiltrate, kill whatever aliens they can and steal their eggs, however, carrying eggs slows you down and leaves you unable to defend yourself. This is particularly scary as the last nod to Aliens is the nearly-invincible alien queen who doesn’t have many action points for movement, but does like to spit big flobs of acid at you, usually for an instant kill. So, getting onto the dropship is a big priority, especially as it flies off after ten turns, leaving you stranded.
The great thing about Rebelstar II is that it is so accessible and short. You can complete a match within an hour or so and there aren’t a ton of rules to learn. All you need to do is equip your weaponry and get on with the bughunt. Simply learn the basics of movement and shooting and that’s it. After that it’s all about how you use cover, how you measure risk and reward and how lucky you are with your aiming. Successfully raiding the base and nicking all the eggs is supremely satisfying but, on the flipside, watching one of your plasma gunners (the three strongest members of your squad) take a long shot to the face is almost traumatising. Ending your turn and watching the aliens move tactically into position and start firing is terrifying. This is strategy the way it should be done. Immediate, exciting and fun.
Julian Gollop followed up both Chaos and Rebelstar II with Lords of Chaos and Laser Squad. Both were good games, but with their additional complexity came a loss of the immediacy that made Chaos and Rebelstar II so enjoyable, hence why I never graduated up to X-COM (similar issues also meant that the last Civilization game that I played was the first one, which remains one of my favourite PC games of all time). However, Rebelstar II (and Chaos) is a game that you can play for a lifetime, so the need to dabble with the sequel is never going to be that pressing.
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