Review by Bloomer
Reviewed: 05/10/01 | Updated: 05/23/01
I see your flying saucer and I raise you... A FLYING SAUCER!
Astro Chase 3D is a GREAT little space action game. I had to get that off my chest immediately because my first impressions of this game were terrifyingly off the mark.
Confession: I bought it because it was cheap, read the confusing manual, fired up the game, couldn't believe what an unplayable wreck it seemed to be and how my Ultraship equipped with an FTL drive (Faster Than Light) was moving considerably slower than light, sound, or even a snail. Frankly, I was upset! After 2 abortive sessions I filed the game away under my bed, where it stayed for years.
Earth: Present Day
Would you believe I actually pulled the game out just for the sake of reviewing it, to warn people about it? But this time, with patience, concerted effort, and repeated visits to the manual, I scrambled over the harsh learning curve and stolid training levels to emerge in the blinding light of a glorious action game. It's truly frantic and fun, with a distinctive control system and one of the best radar systems in any shoot-em-up ever!
Astute gamers reading this probably noticed the '3D' in the title of the game and thought either
(a) This was an early generation 3D game, which was why they had to trumpet the fact, or
(b) This game was originally in 2D and this must be a REMAKE!
The correct answer is mostly (b)... The original Astro Chase was an 80s computer game from First Star Software, who brought us such incredibly classy titles as Boulderdash and Spy VS Spy. I haven't played the original Astro Chase but I would certainly like to in light of the quality of its successor.
Now, there are 5 surprisingly long pages of background story in the manual for Astro Chase 3D which I'll shrink down to about 3 sentences. The Earth is in jeopardy from marauding aliens who seek to destroy us with Mega Mines - spinning red pyramid objects which would be right at home in the movie 2001. The good guys have managed to whip up an FTL Ultraship (it's really a flying saucer) and we have to pilot it to destroy each wave of approaching mines whilst fending off aliens. You have plenty of lives in this game but if a single mine reaches the Earth, it's an instant Game Over, which applies some very exciting pressure.
The action takes place in a 'widescreen' rectangular frame with the top and bottom sections filled by your power-up icons and the radar. You view your funky little blue saucer travelling through the galaxy from about 15 degrees overhead and from behind. Mouse control is incredibly flexible. By teasing the cursor position and distance you can pull off turns both tight and wild or swoop up, down and around. Hitting Command on the keyboard toggles between forward and reverse, which in layman's terms means flying into the screen or flying out of it. The game will get really gyroscopic and potentially confusing at times, so it's good to know that as well as being able to fire at the cursor position which could be anywhere within about 270 degrees, you can always just fire directly ahead with the Option key.
Scan-lines (alternate horizontal lines which aren't drawn on the screen) are actually built into the viewport graphics to speed up the game engine, which might have been needed back in 1995. But I don't mind them - if anything they just give the screen a nice arcade monitor look. Parallax star layers swing about you and a really pleasing variety of planets and asteroids revolve past. It'd all be quite soothing if we didn't have to frantically scramble to save the Earth right about now.
You have red energy and blue shield systems replenishable by flying through the appropriately coloured revolving portals in space. And there are of course neat power-ups which you can collect from certain planetoids or by destroying aliens, such as warp speed movement, meatier firepower, launchable decoys or smart missiles. The radar takes a lot of getting used to, but once you've 'clicked' with its symbols and altitude indicators you will fall head over heels in love with the thing. It's incredibly detailed and accurate, and you need that because space is jam-packed with objects. Nicely-designed alien craft (some saucer-ish, some Star Wars-ish) soar by in waves and holding down the mouse button locks your current course while you swing crosshairs around to hose them down. Mines are easy to destroy on early levels, but by the time you reach the high 30s in levels (there are 40 in total) they'll absorb truckloads of damage, parasitically suck your energy if you come too close, and they're orbited by instant-death-upon-collision guardians to boot.
Bumping into other planets is amusingly like being in a dodgem car - you'll bounce off and float the other way as your gear is thrown into reverse. Except in the case of the Earth's Moon! Our own moon revolves at psychotic speed and smashes you to death if you cross its orbit, making life exceedingly tough if you ever have to get near our home planet to save it from a beelining mine. There are really cool 'announcement' voices (you can even select whether you want a male or female voice - great touch!) declaring such things as 'Watch your energy levels', 'Prepare for battle', 'New enemy fleet approaching', and my personal favourite, 'MOON COLLISION' - which is too funny.
All the other sound effects are just as good in a classic sci-fi way. You've got the pulsing stream made by your lasers, the screamy agitated sound which accompanies warp speed, the solid explosions, the submarine alert sound to warn of low shields and the static electricity zaps of shield and energy restoration. There's no in-game music (which is good, because the atmosphere is terrific as is), but there is a neat but brief pounding synth theme over the introduction which sounds like it's definitely borrowing from John Carpenter's awesome film 'Assault on Precinct 13'. Why is this film's music such a popular choice for space games to rip off? Xenon 2 popularised the theme from this film with gamers and didn't even acknowledge its source, as far as I can remember. Anyway I digress.
The elements of Astro Chase are basic, but that's what makes it all so tight, and so elegant and diabolical when the difficulty increases. When you reach the very high levels, the radar becomes absolutely flooded with targets, storms of enemies spiral around you in hypnotic fashion, and dozens of mines are zipping aggressively towards earth. You're spitting lasers everywhere, hitting Caps Lock to enter the mode which continuously fires tracking missiles at the closest targets, and your brain is melting as you try to pick out the one most threatening mine amidst the swirling chaos.
Stressful? Yes! Fun?? More so!!!
Astro Chase 3D is a real adrenaline pounder. You have no leisure time here - the game continuously throws more on your plate, which is the key to its success. Its challenge gradient could be plotted on a graph by drawing a straight line then attaching an exponential upward curve to the end of it. If that assessment is too thick for you, try this: It's easy for a fair while, then begins to turn before soaring up into toughness. This is a good design given that there are lots of atypical controls and nuances to learn here to be able to play well, so you need that 'shallow' start. When I say atypical I'm talking about the fact that you're in a 360 degree world flying a saucer which handles like a car, always going forwards or backwards and with relative steering. But you're also in outer space so there's no ground and reference points such as planets and stars can make your head swim! With one hand on the mouse, one on the keyboard, one eye on the radar and the other on the viewscreen, you will look as skewed as a Picasso while you're learning how to play.
For awhile you'll collect tons of extra lives just on the basis of your score, and until the 30s in levels, you won't die much from accumulated damage, you'll mostly die from the fatal moon and guardian collisions. After the 30s, you'll start dying all the time from everything, and you really have to juice up your navigational strategy to clear levels as quickly as possible. It's also not just about clearing all 40 levels. Score is heavily emphasised - though I don't think they needed to send me to the high score list inbetween every level.
Overall, it's a gem of a game good for whenever you want a dose of tense blasting action. If you see it around these days, I bet it's going cheaper than ever so grab it!
Just remember: The ultra-slow and sparse training levels give COMPLETELY the wrong idea about this game. And you really must read the manual carefully to get a handle on the exotic control systems. Once you do, you'll love it all. But if you don't tackle the initial learning curve, you might make the tragic mistake of secreting this cool game under your bed for years like I did.
-- Astro Chase 3D -- 7/10 --
Rating: 3.5 - Good
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