When the small, independent development house G.rev released Border Down to a starved fan base of Dreamcast owners just two and a half years ago, they surely never dreamed that it would be hailed years later by genre diehards as one of the greatest shooters of all time. But fate has a way of surprising us, and G.rev finds the pressure weighs heavy on them to follow up. Showing nothing but loyalty for their devoted fan base, G.rev has chosen the Dreamcast as the home for their latest shoot-'em-up, Under Defeat, a gritty and realistic helicopter shooter with all the polish we've come to expect.
Rumored to be the final release for Sega's tenacious last console, Under Defeat pushes the aging hardware to new heights. Set in an alternate reality resembling the WWII era, replete with some stylish retro designs, it can be a sight to behold. The level of detail is unprecedented, with screen-shaking explosions that scatter debris across the screen, leaving trails of black smoke as flaming wreckage slams apart as it collides with ground. A far cry from the small "popcorn" explosions that litter most shooters, Under Defeat's intense effects pack a gratifying whallop that makes you feel good about the havoc you've wreaked. It's hard not to smile with satisfaction as you watch a massive battleship explode, smolder and then sink into the sea as the water sent upward in the blast trickles back down, spattering off your helicopter's rotors. It's these fine brushstrokes that make the action a joy to behold. Indeed, I would say that Under Defeat could well be the most visually stunning game in its genre, on any platform.
Beneath the stylish-yet-realistic design and amazing attention to detail lurks a game of strikingly old-fashioned sensibilities. While other recent shooters feature complex scoring gimmicks that will reward savvy players with exponentially better scores, Under Defeat is balanced so that the focus is never shifted from destruction and survival. Sure, it has some scoring hooks to give skilled players that extra edge, but they never take over the game like in so many other shooters. While this might mean sacrificing some of the deeper strategies seen in other shooters, the fact remains that it's an immensely rewarding game to tackle, with enough technique to it to motivate players to practice its stages over and over.
Under Defeat digs up a seldom used format for its action. While most shooters retain a completely top-down, or completely side-view perspective, Under Defeat instead opts for a slightly angled top-down view that lends some 3-D perspective (although movement is still 2D), like RayStorm, Silpheed, or the recent Nanostray. In this case, though, the viewing angle is gentler and the monitor is aligned vertically (tall and narrow) which is a nice compromise and keeps the view from being too disorienting. G.rev also exploits this perspective by tossing in a few 3D elements (you can actually pass over low-flying projectiles) but it still retains its 2D feel.
As in Psikyo's Zero Gunner 2, your 'copter can be rotated to fire in different directions. However in this case you're only given about a 60 degree range of movement, as opposed to 360, and you can snap very quickly into front, left, and right firing positions. This keeps things much faster-paced and more focused than Psikyo's game, and lends itself well to the Raiden-like firing patterns. A rechargeable "option" weapon can also be summoned for a short burst of extra firing powers. Different options can be selected by picking up power-ups that change between three types as the hover around the screen, a nice tip of the hat to the old Seibu and Toaplan shooties so many of us grew up on. Oh, and did I mention the megabombs? Where most recent shooters have neutered the super-attacks, Under Defeat offers some truly earth shattering pyrotechnics that can completely devastate your opponents.
Composer Shinji Hosoe (Dragon Spirits, Ridge Racer) has done a very nice "arranged" soundtrack, offered as an option alongside the original. These studio-recorded versions of the songs feature some nice live guitar work and make for a big improvement over the MIDI tunes of the arcade incarnation. The music itself is very retro-style "shooter pop" of the sort that used to be the norm in the early 90s. It seems slightly out of place juxtaposed with the gritty war setting, but it's energetic and catchy, and grew on me quickly. In fact the dramatic music leading into the last level absolutely blew me away, conjuring up memories of some of Motoi Sakuraba's finer moments. Those who paid extra for the "Limited Edition" package are also treated to an exclusive soundtrack CD, featuring the arranged versions of the songs from the DC port, as well as a half-dozen remixes in different musical styles.
In recent years, Dreamcast has been treated as something of a dumping ground for barebones ports to be devoured by the hardcore devotees while more complete versions a readied for market on GameCube and PS2. Fortunately, G.rev is not content to gyp its fans in this way, and offers up a hardy serving of bonus content. Besides the re-vamped soundtrack, there are also 5 unlockable art galleries full of renders, concept art, character portraits, and splash screens. There's a very helpful practice mode that lets you tackle any part of any level at your leisure with any set of options, perfect for trying to find the best strategy to tackle a nasty boss. Even better, players can save their own replays to their memory cards and play them back later. There's even an option to watch the replays from different camera angles; a first for the genre. For the uninitiated, there's a set of no-death replays, as well as a better set of replays demonstrating advanced scoring techniques to be unlocked later.
In practice, the most substantial unlockable goodie is a stand-alone version of the second loop. In normal play, the second loop is reserved only for the few who can complete its 5 stages without continuing, and earn a 95% contribution score in every level; an elite cross-section of players. The second loop offers a substantial amount of change, featuring mirrored layouts, new firing patterns, and a drastically different appearance (imagine seeing the snowy wasteland of the fourth stage in a colorful autumn setting). By offering this as a stand-alone mode, complete with its own high-score tables, it gives players a whole new arrangement of the game to tackle. G.rev has done a fantastic job of bolstering a great game with some meaty extra content, making sure players will get their money's worth for paying those hefty import prices.
Under Defeat doesn't turn the genre on its ear. It doesn't have the craziest bullet-count, or the most complex score-multiplier mechanics. But it serves as a reminder of why we all fell in love with those old shooting games to begin with. It's an approachable, rewarding, and challenging game of pure action and reflexes of the sort that hardcore fans as well as the casual player will be able to pick up and enjoy right away. It's simply a highly polished package that gets the formula right, and damn it, this game makes me happy.