There is hardly a dearth of top-down vehicle-based twin-stick shooters available on Xbox Live Arcade, but few are as pretty or explodey as Renegade Ops.
As Avalanche Studios’ Lead Graphics Programmer Andreas Thorsen told us at this year’s E3, the company had developed a great engine for Just Cause 2, but wanted to use it for more than just that game. Initially stuck for ideas, a moment of inspiration arrived when the team laid eyes on Epic’s unapologetically retro Super Metroid-alike Shadow Complex. Realising that drawing upon favourite games from their youth was a way forward, a dozen Avalanche employees began work on Renegade Ops, channelling old-school shooters such as Jackal, Jungle Strike, Desert Strike, and Cannon Fodder.
The game pushes the camera of the Just Cause engine skyward for a top-down classic arcade feel, and is – in Thorsen’s words – “more racing than bullet hell,” and “really a game from the heart. There is a lot of passion and we hope that shines though when people play”. He’ll be happy to know that the team’s passion does come through, so much so that even though the game is a little glitchy, it still adds up to five hours of addictive, destructive fun.
The simple, deliberately cheesy story unfolds in small comic book panels and sees Ché Guevara lookalike General Bryant swearing to stop supervillain Inferno by any means necessary, after a Global Council proves toothless when it comes to fighting Inferno’s brand of terror. That’s as close to a political statement or message that Renegade Ops comes to making, and the game is better for it. Bryant assembles the titular team, and from the outset it’s non-stop action as the player is transported to exotic locales across the globe to wreak vehicular mayhem on Inferno’s sprawling armies.
Playable by up to two locally or four across Xbox Live, Ops offers the intrepid player a choice of four characters: Roxy drives a buggy and can call in devastating airstrikes, Diz’s van unleashes an EMP attack that temporarily disables all enemy weapons, Armand rolls about in a light tank with extendible armour which makes it momentarily invulnerable, and when stationary, Gunnar’s jeep can deploy a powerful turret which tears through enemies. All vehicles handle in a similar fashion and move at an identical pace. Special weapons aside, all vehicles have the same upgrade trees, although the cost of each modification differs. Mods range from the expected health, special weapon and speed upgrades to nifty additions such as ‘second chance’, which delays death for ten seconds and allows the player to cheat death entirely should they find a health pickup within that time.
Levelling up is important as it allows more upgrades to be active at once (up to a maximum of four), and higher XP levels also reward the player with a greater number of upgrade points. Levelling is directly based on score, which is boosted by kills, driving stunts and – in anything above casual difficulty – damage streaks.
Renegade Ops’ lush jungle levels are completely open for exploration and feature multiple paths to each objective, but the (admittedly generous) time limit imposed on each goal will curtail the amount a player ignores his or her guiding arrow. The vehicles’ tight handling, unlimited boost and propensity for taking to the air over bumps make them a joy to drive, with the left analogue stick simply pointed in the direction the player wishes to travel. Quick reversals of direction result in skidding U-turns, but there is no reverse, which occasionally results in a cliff dive due to each motor’s turning circle.
This isn’t such an issue when it comes to gunning down foes though: the stock machine gun requires no reload, comes with unlimited ammunition and can shoot 360 degrees via the right analogue stick, so destruction is possible even while fleeing larger adversaries. It can also be upgraded three times via ubiquitous pickups into an absolute brute of a weapon which tears through buildings and foes alike. Scenery which the MG hasn’t shredded can generally be driven directly through with no penalty incurred, and the trail of destruction carved out in this manner can be breathtaking; power lines crackle and spark upon contact with the land, huts explode outwards in showers of splintered wood and towers crash to the earth like mighty trees.
Detonations are just as pretty and suitably outsized to fit the ‘80s action movie aesthetic. Flaming scraps of metal and tyre are propelled skyward at great velocity or are consumed by mushrooms of orange and yellow fire. However, the pace of the game doesn’t allow for too much admiration of one’s handiwork; a serious player will be too busy riddling the next target with bullets and circle-strafing between rockets.
Machine guns and special weapons are not the only tools of destruction available; secondary weapons such as flamethrowers, missile launchers and rail guns are available as pickups. All possess much destructive power but ammunition is finite and must be replenished, something which is also done via drops after an enemy has been vanquished. In true arcade fashion, powerups – be they MG upgrades, ammo, health or secondary weapons – are constantly being left behind by exploded enemies or in crates, so losing these things upon death isn’t the setback it first appears to be. In fact, after a player dies the first few pickups will be those which were lost along with the previous life; an excellent touch. Powerups acquired over and above capacity simply add to the player’s score.
Death does penalise players in other ways: they will sometimes respawn a long drive from the action, and in split screen mode the surviving player will lose visual contact with their vehicle for a second as the entire screen focuses on the restarting player – a pretty bad oversight.
Speaking of split screen, players can have it two ways; standard or dynamic, the latter of which positions the split relative to where the players are in relation to each other and does away with it altogether when both are close enough to be visible on one screen. It’s a really cool innovation that gamers may have seen pop up in LEGO games, and it works well here too, particularly in boss fights or other one-screen setpieces.
Not so great are the reasonably frequent glitches which pause the action for a split second and transform the otherwise-great audio into a harsh buzz. These don’t seem to be frame rate-related, but are definitely annoying.
It is a testament to how enjoyable the game is that it shines despite the bugs. With no revive options, limited lives on anything above casual difficulty and repetitive play it nonetheless celebrates its arcade roots whilst adding just enough to give it a home in the modern gaming landscape.
Incredibly fun and worthy of a multiple playthroughs, Avalanche’s latest will hopefully spur other developers to construct similar love letters to arcade gaming’s glory days, whether they have a triple-A engine at their disposal or not.