While the tragic events of September 11th had a profound impact throughout the world, it was hard to imagine the scope of things that would be affected. Not only were individual lives irrevocably shattered, national economies were thrown into chaos and international relations altered, all in a day. However, that same day was also responsible for innumerable ripples on a smaller scale that could hardly have been predicted. Among them- the resurgence of censorship. Most agreed that it was a sensible course of action out of respect for those who suffered, but it was censorship nonetheless.
People involved in the entertainment field have had serious questions regarding the state of television, music and films since the attacks. Videogames were subjected to the same kind of scrutiny as well, with noticeable consequences. Some titles were canceled, some put on hiatus and a handful of big-name releases went so far as to edit and omit portions of content.
Dropship: United Peace Force was clearly in production long before those sad events, but its release into the current climate makes a very interesting statement given the nature of the game. Being against censorship of any kind, I'm glad it's been released since the fact that it actually made it to shelves can only be viewed as a barometer for the resilient nature of citizens and industry. It's also a good sign that censorship (even performed in the name of sensitivity) may be on the decline.
Dropship is a military combat game, the bulk of which is comprised of flying the eponymous aircraft. First- and Third-Person viewpoints are available while in the cockpit, and each of the three available types of Dropships are VTOLs. (Vertical Take-Off and Landing.) These craft are capable of air-to-air combat and double as transports for ground vehicles or troops. Along with the aerial portion of the game, you'll find yourself behind the wheel of the Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), or tanks that you carry, as well as doing sharpshooter duty on mounted gun turrets.
Control of the game is initially complex, but soon becomes natural thanks to the efficient set of tutorials. You have full control of your Dropship, going into hover mode or flight mode at will. In hover mode, your craft can ascend or descend vertically as well as move laterally and even backwards. Landings are quite tricky, but can assigned to the computer to handle if you so desire. (This is recommended.) In flight mode, the Dropships handle like a regular jet simulator. As a word of caution, Studio Camden assumes the player is already familiar with the sim-style of flying and does not offer a simplified arcade-type control scheme. The ground-based vehicles all use a standard driving-game setup common to many games.
One thing that struck me immediately upon starting the game was how close to home the content hit. Your first campaign is to eliminate a terrorist network in the mountainous deserts of Libya, with briefings going into detail about their activities and methodology.
I have to admit that I wouldn't have given a second thought to something so seemingly pedestrian a few years ago. These days it took on a whole new significance, yet it was one that I appreciated. As a result, the missions felt urgent and vital, and I found myself feeling rapidly drawn in and involved.
Story elements aside, Dropship is an amazing knockout of a game from a design perspective. I can't think of another military combat title that offers such a wide amount of gameplay variety. While it's quite exciting just to scream into a combat zone between explosions and drop off tanks that will turn the tide of a battle, the game is anything but a one-trick pony.
Besides deployment and evacuation, you'll be providing cover fire for ground troops and taking out enemy aircraft that want nothing more than to drop a thick payload onto your comrades. You will also be called on to hop into APCs or tanks for some stealthy reconnaissance or escort duty, respectively. If that wasn't already a substantial amount of diversity, one of my favorite missions was the one set inside a gun turret mounted on the underside of my Dropship. It was a real rush to take out enemy Apaches and set fire to a rooftop full of helpless snipers from above while watching urban sprawl speed by. This is gripping, visceral stuff.
As the final touch to a formidable effort, the feeling of being part of a large international force is handily achieved. It wouldn't make a lot of sense in operations of this kind to be the lone warrior on the battlefield, so the developers included large doses of radio chatter and squadrons of teammates entering the fray alongside you. The large-scale feeling of war is present and accounted for. On a more personal level, Dropship never goes overboard with storytelling, but there's enough peripheral information and scene-setting to keep the missions feeling very methodical and cohesive. The developers wisely maintain a strong sense of purpose through constant updates and occasional CG cutscenes back at base, but things are left open enough for players to insert themselves into the story.
While I can honestly say that I fell in love with Dropship almost immediately, there was one major flaw that kept it from scoring in the top tier of the GameCritics.com review archive. The problem? The game is just too hard. I can appreciate the tense immediacy and do-or-die action, but the last 25% of the disc is so unbelievably difficult it's practically unplayable. The developers have gone too far in creating ultra-demanding scenarios that no real military force would attempt without saturation bombing, so I don't see how they expect the average gamer to come out on top. Even with the invincibility and unlimited ammunition codes turned on, it was incredibly tough and frustrating to complete a few areas in the game, and that's ridiculous.
To illustrate the unbelievably high level of performance required, let me give you an example of one controller-tossing level. In the order listed, achieve the following objectives: First, eliminate five SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) radar points while avoiding their fire. Second, guard three groups of incoming Dropships from enemy fighters while dodging more missiles. Third, clear all anti-aircraft guns from enemy landing platforms while not becoming Swiss cheese. Fourth, eliminate all incoming assault jets. Fifth, land your Dropship safely in the middle of the hot zone to pick up crewmembers from a downed craft. Sixth, escape in one piece. Oh, and try not to take too much damage from the random planes and numerous SAMs since there's no way to repair your ship. If you die at any point or fail to complete a single objective, start over and try again. ...Riiight.
I don't know what kind of supermen their game testers were, but I can't believe the game shipped without a selectable difficulty level. Most people aren't going to have a yellow snowball's chance in hell of seeing half the game, let alone completing it. With over 20 years' experience playing games I've seen my share of tough challenges, but even I was stopped dead in my tracks by this one. It's one thing to encourage old-school repetition and mastery of the levels, but it's another to stack the odds so high against a player that they think surrendering to the enemy sounds like a good option.
Overall, it's a shame that the game sabotages itself with an insane level of difficulty since Camden Studios has scored multiple direct hits in every other area. The first three quarters of the game is a military masterpiece, and if a sequel can address the player kill-factor, it should be tremendous. Regardless of the lopsided mountain that passes for a difficulty curve, I'm still glad that it got a release since it not only distinguished itself as a disc with some great ideas, it's also one small way of testing the limits of what's going to be accepted in a post-9/11 culture. As a whole, we may not be ready to move on after such a world-shattering event, but in my view censorship is not a necessary component of the healing process. Healthy progress will be made in small steps, and believe it or not, this is one of them.