Fast and Fun Top Down Shooter Action
There is a subset of gamers out there who long for the days when games were more mechanically simple, but didn’t let you off the hook if you were reckless or imprecise. And while there’s no denying that games have gotten easier, they have also improved when it comes to concepts and controls. Developer Avalanche Studios attempts to fuse these two eras of gaming with Renegade Ops, a mechanically simple game that has a wildly corny story, but integrates some obligatory modern game concepts such as skill trees and four player online co-op. This is a game that knows exactly what it is, and is extremely successful in accomplishing what it sets out to do: A top-down dual joystick shooter where you pilot a vehicle to destroy everything in your path while leveling up and unlocking new abilities.
The story is told in comic book-style panels and cutscenes, and is (to put it mildly) quite silly. A raving lunatic terrorist named Inferno wants to take over the world and watch it burn in the process. His motivations? Well, you see, he’s evil. The high ranking American General Bryant doesn’t agree with the diplomatic approach the world court wants to take, so he goes renegade, and takes the fight to Inferno. You really don’t get (or need) anything more than that. While the campy dialogue and story certainly lends the game its personality, I found it eye-rollingly boring, and ultimately in the way of what really matters; the gameplay. Which luckily is fantastic.
You start off selecting one of four characters, who each have a unique skill tree & special ability. I chose Diz, a character whose special is an EMP blast. Since the game gets more difficult as it goes, and your character’s abilities level up the more you play, you’re best off sticking with one character if you want to get through the game with the least frustration. And frustration will ensue, because there are no checkpoints and no continues. If you run out of lives, or fail to complete a mission in time, it’s a quick “game over” as it unceremoniously dumps you to the main menu. Luckily, it retains any experience points you might have acquired, so not all is lost.
The game controls are minimal; Left stick controls your vehicle, right stick shoots your primary cannon. This is how you’ll destroy 95% of everything in the game. You have your special ability, which is a single use item (that recharges over time), and a limited ammo secondary weapon, which you only get via pick-ups while mid-mission. But most of the time you’ll just run circles around enemies to dodge their fire while you dump bullets into them. While the simplicity of this could easily come off as boring, the shooting is extremely satisfying because the controls are responsive, the sound is punchy, and the graphics vibrant. As you hammer on enemies with your weapons, they will flash white as you watch their little health indicators drain. Once something is destroyed and blows up, it scratches some deep video game itch of accomplishment that truly doesn’t get old.
The structure in each of the nine missions is identical; you are given specific primary objectives, which is usually “drive here, shoot this.” Many of the missions also contain a secondary objective, which is usually “drive here, collect this.” While the maps are fairly open, allowing you to go off course if you want, a large red arrow always points you in the right direction. But the primary objectives are time sensitive, so you’re not really allowed time to roam around and explore, making the game feel much more linear than it needs to be. There is also a “Damage Streak” bonus meter, which gives you bonus points for keeping a streak of destruction going. But again, the time limit and lack of things to blow up between battles makes this mechanic pretty forgettable. Allowing some kind of "free play" mode that let you to just freely traverse the environment without objectives might have made for an interesting alternate game mode.
By the end of the game, I felt like they missed a couple of easy opportunities to really go all out and crazy with the gameplay. At one point near the end of the game, there’s a cutscene where you take control of Inferno’s giant battleship and ram it into his base. I felt like it would have been great to have this section be playable, letting me pilot the ship myself as I defend myself from enemy helicopters. It wouldn’t have been out of place, and I would have cackled at the willingness of the developer to go totally crazy. As it stands, other than the ability to pilot a small helicopter a couple times, you’re doing the exact same thing in every mission. I’m not saying they should have thrown in a turret sequence or anything, but one or two other gameplay surprises would have been welcome to mix up the action a bit.
Small nitpicks aside, Renegade Ops is an easy game to love. The controls are very tight, the shooting is satisfying, and the graphics & sound are superb. I found the tone of the story & corny dialogue to be more distracting than entertaining, but its easily forgotten once you’re in the game blowing everything up. I played through the whole thing in single player, but I’ve seen firsthand that adding more players via online or local co-op makes the game even crazier as you multiply the explosions. Anyone looking for some simple destructive fun in a top down arcade shooter shouldn’t hesitate to pick this one up.