Combat: Third Batch

I described the look of Combat as Tron-like, but the first two batches of levels are relatively subdued about it. The floors are concrete-textured and the walls look a bit like painted metal, just laid out in a blatantly non-representational way and floating in space. Starting at level 21, however, the game takes on an even more self-consciously artificial tone: the environment is all flat black with faint grid lines, brightly-colored edges and occasional stripes, like neon lights. I wish I had a screenshot to share — the game is resistant to the usual ways of producing them, probably consuming all keyboard input before the OS gets it. At any rate, it’s a striking look, reminiscent of wireframe models, but also basically a look we’ve seen before, in Tron and elsewhere.

The third batch also ramps up the difficulty a great deal. I managed to get through level 20 on the same day that I got through level 10, but progress through the remainder is slower, and requires more adaptation to special situations. But before I describe them, I should describe the types of enemy.

Before level 21, there were basically four categories of enemies. The most basic ones are missile-like things that spawn, launch themselves at you in a straight line, and explode when they hit a wall or when you shoot them. Next, there are jet-like things that glide about within a plane and can go off the edge without falling; they try to damage you by bumping into you, but tend to go zooming past if you keep moving. Like the missiles, they can be destroyed with a single hit. These two types form the main grunt forces of the game. Next level up, and relatively rare, are the enemy tanks, which come in various varieties, some faster, some with greater firepower, some with more hit points. And finally there are stationary turrets, which are best taken out from a long distance.

Level 21’s high concept is that it’s highly constrained. You’re in a small arena where multiple waves of jets spawn and must be dealt with from close up. After the first few waves, they’re joined by a new type of enemy, a roving bomb that homes in on you and damages you if you’re too close when you destroy it. This quickly becomes the most annoying type of enemy in the game, the sort of thing that you’d genocide if you were playing Nethack.

There’s one level based on the concept of lack of railings. Throughout the game, some areas have low walls around them that your tank bounces off of, and others just let you drop off into the void. So there’s really nothing new in the level I’m describing, except its eagerness to make you fall. There are infinitely-respawning roving bomb units that you can only get past by moving quickly, but they’re located on narrow catwalks where it’s dangerous to move quickly. Also, it’s on this level that we learn that the explosions from the bombs are capable of pushing you short distances.

If I sound like I’m griping, let me offset it by describing one level I quite like. It’s all one big open space, except for a walled-off room in the middle where the exit portal spawns after you’ve survived long enough. In this room, dozens of those jets are spawning all the time, along with an occasional tank. There are power-ups scattered about, including the one that lets you fire three shots at a time in different directions, the one that makes your shots bounce off walls (which can be used in conjunction with the three-at-a-time one), and, most importantly, the one that grants you temporary invulnerability. The power-ups are so crucial, and time out so quickly, that you’re constantly seeking more of them, which means you spend your time zooming all around, sometimes invulnerable. It’s a nicely chaotic battle, a big adrenalin surge in a very adrenalin-oriented game. This game got poor reviews, but here, it satisfies.

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