Review by Sashanan
Reviewed: 07/29/01 | Updated: 02/15/02
A top-of-the-line shooter with few complaints
In the Commodore age, shooting games were very common. There are dozens of similar games involving one fighter against a host of enemies, some good, some best forgotten. The best ones, however, were usually the ones that went one step further than just brainless shooting. Black Hawk is an example of a shooter that takes that extra step, by introducing bombing runs. They require you to actually plan ahead and prioritize targets, and this extra dimension makes Black Hawk a pleasingly challenging and very recommendable shooter.
In Black Hawk, you control an advanced fighter/bomber flying over enemy territory, on a mission to do as much damage to ground installations as possible. For the majority of the game, you do not even see your fighter on screen; rather, the game scrolls through the territory that lies directly ahead, and you target and fire your missiles at ground targets and incoming enemies. Only when an enemy manages to get to the bottom of the screen alive does the game 'switch back' and bring your fighter on-screen, and you must fight for your life to ward off the enemy before you can return to bombing.
The interesting part is that, while you are on a bombing run and your fighter is off screen, you cannot be harmed in any way. That means that as long as you manage to intercept any enemies (such as tanks, helicopters or guided missiles) before they reach the bottom of the screen, you will never have to engage them close-up. The idea of the game is to prevent any enemies from getting near you at all, so that you will never be at risk and can bomb as you please. Of course, particularly in the later levels enemies are bound to slip through, and that's when the going gets tough.
The game is divided into several levels, each of which consists of an enemy island which scrolls by as you fly over it. Every island is loaded with plenty of ground targets, such as fences, railroads, power lines, base structures, headquarters, missile launchers, and anti-aircraft guns. Also, enemy tanks, helicopters and other enemies frequently appear at the top of the screen and work their way down to intercept and shoot down your fighter.
The islands scroll by too quickly to destroy everything, so when performing your bombing runs, you'll have to choose targets. This provides you with an interesting challenge: headquarters, railroads and other harmless targets provide the most points, and would therefore seem to be the most desirable targets. However, what if an enemy slips through and you're forced to abort your bombing run to dogfight? In this case any AA guns and SAMs you haven't destroyed will open fire on you as your fighter passes over them, making your life that much more difficult. All this can be prevented by just intercepting any roving enemies so that you're never forced to 'switch back' to dogfighting mode, but due to their speed and the numbers they arrive in, that is not always possible. In the later levels you will probably want to play it safe and take out air defenses, but that means many more valuable targets will have to be skipped.
At the end of a level, when the island turns to sea, the game automatically switches back to dogfighting mode, and enemy aircraft will gather for one last offensive to shoot you down before you escape into friendly territory. Effectively, every level ends with a major dogfight.
There is no true goal in Black Hawk other than staying alive to reach the next level and gathering as many points as you can. As you complete the first levels, new enemy and target types will appear on the islands. One of the islands holds a huge airbase with lots of profitable targets. A good bombing run on this level will boost your score immensely. Getting to this level and getting away alive could be seen as the objective of the game, although it will continue after that. Unfortunately, from that point on the game has no new surprises or challenges anymore, and just goes on and on until you lose your last life.
Between levels, you will receive bonus points based on how many targets you have destroyed, and certain enhancements will be installed on your fighter if you did well. These include an ECM pod that gives enemy missiles a harder time to target you, and the almighty X-Cannon which is far more powerful than your normal gun and makes dogfighting a lot easier.
In dogfighting mode, controls are simple. Your fighter is at the bottom of the screen and can be moved left or right with the stick. Your cannon is, obviously, controlled with the fire button.
Bombing mode is a little more complicated. You press and hold the fire button, then move your joystick to target a certain spot. When you are ready to fire, you release the fire button, your missile will lock on, and a second later it will impact.
An interesting touch here is that you can still change your missile's destination a little in that last second. Normally the crosshairs move very quickly, making it hard to place them exactly on a small target (particularly as the screen continues to scroll relentlessly). Last second changes in targeting often make the difference between a hit and a near miss. Beginning players will probably have great trouble getting any missiles on target, but experienced Black Hawkers can destroy target after target with deadly accuracy.
The islands themselves don't look like much, and the targets placed on them are small and not very detailed. Your own fighter and your direct enemies look much better, though. Particularly enemy jets are stunningly beautiful. One particular enemy, a huge red superhelicopter, looks rather silly, though that doesn't make it any less deadly. Laughing at its ridiculous appearance while not paying attention to its cannon fire has cost me more lives than anything else. One minor complaint about the graphics is that while you are over the sea, the blue background makes enemy bullets (which are black) pretty hard to see. I tend to get shot down a lot in the final dogfight at the end of a level, not because the enemies are so overwhelming, but because I don't see the shots they fire quickly enough to dodge them.
Black Hawk has many different sound effects, and most of them sound pretty good. The 'swish' of a missile being launched at you, the ominous roar of approaching tanks, and the satisfying droan of explosions all contribute to a job well done in the sound department. In the music department, Black Hawk is silent throughout the levels, but fires up the Ride of the Valkyries during the final dogfight after every level. Overall, the game's sound and music provide great atmosphere.
Like all shooters, Black Hawk requires quick reactions. Dogfights are deadly and difficult to win, but thanks to the bombing system, a good player won't have to fight often. The true challenge of the game is learning how to place bombs quickly and accurately, and that will take some practice. Once you have mastered that, Black Hawk isn't a particularly difficult game.
Black Hawk's strong points are:
- Interesting bombing system which distinguishes it from the average shooter;
- Great atmosphere thanks to good use of sound effects and music.
Black Hawk could stand some improvement in the following areas:
- Once you are past level 8, the game just goes on and on without ending or becoming more difficult;
- Switching between bombing and dogfighting modes is automatic and sometimes annoyingly delayed. The ability to switch manually would have been welcome.
It'll take a shooter fan to appreciate Black Hawk, but among its kind, it shines bravely and proudly. Black Hawk is as lively as the Ride of the Valkyries that it uses as its recognition tune, and will definitely leave a lasting impression. Absolutely recommended to anybody interested in seeing one of the Commodore 64's best shooters!
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
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