Released: 31 October 1996
Developer: Electronic Arts
Also Available For: PlayStation Network and SEGA Saturn
The Gulf War had finally ended by March 1991 after nearly six months of bloodshed that left thousands dead, though the conflict was clearly an influence on developer Mike Posehn when he built upon the air rescue mechanics of Choplifter (Dan Gorlin, 1982) to create Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf (Electronic Arts, 1992). Focusing on nonlinear, mission-based gameplay and eschewing typical videogame mechanics, Desert Strike became one of the Mega Drive’s top titles; its two sequels introduced new vehicles and environments while retaining the core gameplay mechanics but were similarly praised despite criticisms about the formula becoming stale. By 1996, the videogame industry was moving away from traditional 2D graphics and into the third dimension; the battle for supremacy between SEGA and Nintendo was upended by a new contender, Sony’s PlayStation, and the Strike series found a new home there after development of a 3DO continuation stalled. Reportedly, Mike Posehn assisted in the game’s early development before a larger team took over, redesigning the 16-bit graphics and environments into something altogether more lifelike by superimposing real-world topography onto polygonal maps. To better map out the game’s new perspective and approach, the team built replicas of their maps out of plywood and was the first game in the series to feature full motion video (FMV). Soviet Strike has been received rather fairly; reviews praise the graphical leap forward, the FMV sequences, and the gameplay and mechanics. While the difficulty, perspective, and some aspects of the presentation were also criticised, Soviet Strike was followed by a fifth and final entry the following year and even made it onto the PlayStation Store in 2009.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, former KGB Chairman Uri Vatsiznov (a.k.a. the Shadowman) seeks to fill the power vacuum and spark an international war. Only STRIKE, a special covert operations unit, has the weaponry and capability of opposing Shadowman, and the player must once again pilot an Apache helicopter to fight back against Shadowman and his nefarious comrades.
Unlike its predecessors, which opted for an isometric perspective to create the illusion of being 3D in a largely 2D era of gaming, Soviet Strike switches to a top-down perspective, with the camera placed above and slightly behind the player’s fully armed chopper. The game does offer the option to switch your viewpoint using the ‘Select’ button, but all this seemed to do was swing the camera back around to its default position in the rare instances where it gets twisted around by the in-game action. Thanks to the additional buttons and movement options offered by the PlayStation’s graphical superiority, Soviet Strike both plays very similar to its predecessors but also expands the controls somewhat: the game offers four different button layouts, but the default is more than adequate, allowing you to fire your Hellfires with Circle, chaingun with X, and your Hydra Rockets with Square and adding a fourth, more powerful missile – one assigned to your wingtip – with Triangle. The previous games allowed you to “jink” but I found little use for this ability; here, it’s mapped to L1 and R1 and is very useful for “sidestepping” out of the way of incoming fire. L2 allows you to drop whatever cargo you’re carrying (though this was only necessary in one mission so could’ve just been an automatic function to discourage you from accidentally destroying vital cargo), R2 changes the heads-up display to remove the ammo, fuel, and armour so you just have the compass or remove everything entirely to more closely resemble the 16-bit games, and you can pause the game and review the map and current objectives with the Start button.
The map is now far more realistic than in the previous games and took me a little while to adjust to but is actually more useful than ever; at times, you’ll get onscreen notifications about mission objectives and can view these by pressing start, but you can also cycle through your mission objectives, enemies, and notable resources and have each highlighted on the map to make plotting an optimal route even easier. You can read up on each mission, enemy, and resource, review the status of your current objectives, and get a better sense of the story from this screen as well, though there’s still no way to manually quit the game without failing the mission and being forced back to home base. Although Soviet Strike doesn’t offer analogue support and you can’t select a co-pilot this time around, you can customise your chopper with a number of loadouts: you can balance your ammo across all weapons, focus on your missiles, or even head into battle with just your chaingun; you can also customise your wingtip loadout to give you the powerful sidewinder missiles, additional fuel, or disrupt the enemy’s radar. As ever, you’ll automatically winch up resources (fuel, ammo, and armour), targets (prisoners of war (POWs), enemy commanders, scientists, and the like), and cargo (nuclear cores and missiles) just by flying over them, though I found the new perspective made it a little tricky to properly target these, and the game completely goes away with the building collision seen in its predecessors; now, you’ll automatically fly over any structures in your way, which is helpful for maintaining your armour though at the cost of a level of realism. As ever, you’re given three lives (known as “attempts”) to complete each of the five campaigns and must complete a variety of missions within each campaign; the scoring system has been done away with, however, but, while the password system returns, you can manually save after completing each campaign.
Strangely, considering the additional power of the PlayStation compared to 16-bit consoles, Soviet Strike doesn’t include any other vehicles or gameplay modes other than the main chopper, meaning that the variety on offer is more akin to Desert Strike than its sequels. Additionally, the missions you’re tasked with completing are extremely familiar to those from previous games and range from destroying radar sites to reduce the number of onscreen enemies, rescuing POWs and other targets and dropping them off at one of five different landing zones (necessitating a bit of back-and-forth traversal as you can only carry six passengers at a time), destroying enemy buildings and airfields, and disabling enemy ships. If you fail any one of these missions, either by being too trigger happy or not being fast enough to destroy or rescue certain targets, the entire campaign is scrubbed and you must return to base to try all over again from the beginning, though you’re often asked “only” to rescue a certain number of targets rather than all of them. As you progress through the game, some objectives will be hidden from you or unavailable until you complete others or pick up key intel, and the game maps are generally arranged in such a way to promote successive progression from one objective to the next. Things soon get quite nuanced as you must rescue an agent before he’s gunned down by a firing squad, drop him off and defend his position as he sets charges, enters a nuclear plant, or calls in an airstrike, dispose of nuclear missiles by dropping them into the sea, fend off a landing assault and, in the third campaign, destroy waves of different enemy tanks and vehicles as they move to converge on a number of different target sites. Enemies will now target friendlies this time around, destroying your resources and attacking villages and such, and you’ll sometimes be notified of additional side missions as you go, though you can ignore all of these without punishment if you wish. By the time you reach the fifth and final mission, things become extremely delicate; you must defend key targets from enemy attacks, rescue government officials before they’re killed, hunt down and destroy a number of bomb trucks before they destroy the city bridges, and defend your co-pilot as she races around the city to get a dignitary to an airport, all of which can get quite stressful as you have to redo the entire campaign from the start if you fail at any point.
Graphics and Sound:
Naturally, Soviet Strike is a step up from its predecessors; almost everything is rendered in the finest polygonal graphics the PlayStation has to offer and given a gloss of realism that was ambitiously attempted in the 16-bit titles but not fully realised until the jump to 32-bits. Your helicopter is a fully functioning 3D model, one that easily and smoothly cuts through the air and can “jink” aside from incoming fire; it even starts to smoke when you take enough damage and will burst apart in a ball of fire when being shot down. Enemy vehicles are similarly rendered, appearing to be faster and more versatile as a result, and you’ll encounter the same level of fun detail applied to the various structure sin each environment; drilling rigs, chemical plants, power stations, and the glory of the Kremlin are all brought to life as well defined 3D models, most of which can be destroyed either as part of your mission, to uncover resources and targets, or to cost you your chance at completing the campaign. Although everything has been given a bit more substance and appeal through the shift to a fully 3D perspective, the overall presentation remains very similar to its predecessors, and you won’t really find anything new on offer here in terms of visual variety. Generally, though, everything runs very smoothly; the load times are pretty fast and I noticed very little slowdown during my playthrough, though there were instances of texture warping and screen tearing at times as was common in many PlayStation titles.
Despite the power of the PlayStation, however, the game is still limited to five campaigns and five locations, without any additional gameplay mechanics or options afforded to the player. Similar to how the first game was restricted to the desert, Soviet Strike sets all of its action in various locations in Soviet Russia, though there is some visual variety on offer; you start off in a rural area surrounded by snowy mountains, venture to a heavily fortified dock and sea, attack airfields in a frozen wasteland, and even venture into the desert once more, now far more interesting to look at thanks to the rocky terrain. You’ll also visit Transylvania, complete with wolf howls, radioactive dumping grounds, and suitably gothic aesthetics, and the bustling cityscape of the Kremlin for the final mission. There are a few fun things to spot here and there, from moose to people sunbathing on the beach and friendly villages, all of which can be destroyed. The game also includes in-game music for the first time; it’s nothing spectacular and simply comprised of thumping beats, but its greatly appreciated. There’s also a fair amount of voice work on offer as your co-pilot and passengers offer advice, praise, and reprimands, and the game’s story is entirely related through choppy, frantic FMV sequences that are full of the cheese and over-the-top acting you’d expect from this era of gaming.
Enemies and Bosses:
Although coated with a fancy new 3D coat of paint, most of the enemies you’ll encounter throughout Soviet Strike are largely and functionally the same as those from previous games. The game offers gun-toting soldiers and their rocket launcher variants, who can hide in towers, bunkers, and stream from armoured vehicles to attack the targets you’re trying to rescue, as well as various jeeps and tanks that roll around the map. Anti-aircraft turrets and cannons are also commonplace and should be targeted as soon as possible, though you’ll obviously want to avoid or take out the enemy’s larger missile-firing ordinance as soon as you can. Some campaigns see snowmobiles, jet skis, and Hind helicopters join the fray, as well as amphibious tanks and some enemy placements being hidden in buildings. It’s important not to fire away willy-nilly; not only to do risk expending your limited ammunition but you could also hit a vital target and cost yourself the mission if you’re not too careful, and the game’s new perspective can make hitting enemies a little tougher this time around so it’s always a good idea to make use of the “jink” function and to take cover behind buildings wherever possible.
As before, Soviet Strike doesn’t feature any traditional boss battles; instead, you’ll need to do your fare share of retrieving, defending, and destroying targets. At first, this isn’t too much of a stretch as long as you don’t accidentally destroy the villa you need to be infiltrating in the first campaign but every time you need to defend a target you’ll be faced with waves of tanks. Enemies even spawn in to attack the scientists who are key to preparing a salt mine and deactivating a nuclear core in the Transylvania campaign, but the biggest test here is airlifting eleven of them out of an incoming blast zone with no onscreen time and the landing zone being a fair distance away, meaning it can be pretty hairy making the round trip to get everyone to safety. The second campaign sees you sinking enemy submarines, cargo ships, and a large, heavily defended carrier, some of which must be destroyed before they can escape which can be easier said than done if you’re running low on resources. Similarly, the third campaign can be quite the endurance as you must destroy waves of incoming enemy vehicles before they can destroy friendly settlements; ammo and other resources are scattered about but these are some of the game’s deadliest enemy vehicles and they advance in large groups, meaning it’s easy to cut get down by the crossfire. While flying about the Kremlin, you’ll need to be quick on the controls to keep the government officials from being killed and stop the bomber trucks from destroying the city bridges, but it’s the escort mission that can prove the most trying. Luckily, there’s a backup vehicle on hand if the enemy (or you, accidentally) destroys the limo, but the vehicle’s driving is so erratic, and the number of tanks and enemy vehicles so numerous, that it can be easy to lose track of your target and fail to protect it. Finally, you’ll need to be both aggressive and mindful when luring out and capturing the elusive Shadowman; you need to take him alive so you have to sink his escape boat and hold fire long enough to retrieve him, which can be difficult given how many hits some of these more heavily-armoured enemy vehicles can take.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Sadly, there really isn’t anything new on offer here that hasn’t been seen in previous Strike videogames. You start off with a set amount of ammo, fuel, and armour and these can all be replenished by finding various crates and resources across the game’s environments, all helpfully indicated on your map. You’ll very rarely find an extra life and maybe a brief upgrade to some of your arsenal, but what you see is basically what you get; beyond the different loadouts on offer, which basically amount to different difficulty settings for the game, there’s nothing different here at all and actually less than was seen in the last two games as you can’t switch to other vehicles this time around.
Without a high score table, the only real reasons to play through Soviet Strike again would be to test out different loadouts, find faster and more efficient ways to complete each campaign, and maybe seek out some of the optional side missions to see how (or even if) they impact the story. There isn’t anything to unlock after finishing the game, though you can read STRIKE files on the main menu for some added context and make use to the passwords to jump ahead to later campaigns if you like. There are also, thankfully, some useful passwords on offer here; you can grant yourself stronger weapons, unlimited fuel, invincibility, extra lives, or even infinite ammo, fuel, and lives to make even the toughest campaigns a little easier. You can input these cheats in conjunction with level passwords as well, which is even more helpful, though none of these will help you if you kill or destroy the wrong target. Apparently, the SEGA Saturn version is actually superior in a number of ways and offers a few extra features so it might be worth checking that version of the game for a comparison.
If there’s one thing holding Soviet Strike back, it’s the sharp difficulty curve; for me, all of the Strike games have been pretty difficult and demand a lot from the player, giving such a small window for error and forcing you to return to base if you fail even one of your objectives. Thus, you’re forced to play perfectly right away, each and every time, and the game encourages trial and error and replaying each campaign until you find an optimal solution that allows you to make the best use of your resources to take out targets and rescue others without losing your pitiful number of lives. This is true of the Strike games I’ve played before but is somehow more palpable here, with the game throwing a whole mess of targets at you in the second campaign that will test the limits of your ammo conservation and patience in navigating the many onscreen hazards. Thankfully, the game’s passwords mean you can tip the odds in your favour, but even infinite fuel, ammo, and lives don’t amount to much if your allies are killed by enemy fire or your won trigger finger. Soviet Strike seems to veer more towards action than its predecessors; there’s far more resources available to you one each map and firefights and explosions are so much more action-packed and pronounced thanks to the 3D graphics, which makes the game very enjoyable, but it’s frustrating when you painstakingly airlift scientists to safety only to have them wiped out because you were busy with another objective and didn’t realise they were being picked off. The lack of additional vehicles and restricting the action to Russia, however varied the game’s maps may be, is also a shame but my overall experience with Soviet Strike was largely positive and I could see myself revisiting it for more polygonal action in the future.
Was Soviet Strike included in your PlayStation library back in the day? How do you think it compares to the previous games in the series? What did you think to the new perspective and 3D models? Were you disappointed by the lack of extra vehicles and being stuck in Russia or did you enjoy the new loadouts and combat options? Which of the campaigns and missions was the hardest for you to complete? Whatever you think about Soviet Strike, feel free share them below or comment on my social media and check in next Saturday for my review of the final entry in the series.