Is Palace's bug-fest a new kind of blaster, or just too clever
Ahh, the joys of bugs. Not those of the programming variety. Oh no, I'm talking about the kind which have more than their fair share of legs, eyes and wings. The kind which flap around, wait until you're asleep, crawl up your nostrils, and lay eggs in your brain. You know.
Hostile Breed certainly has bugs in, lots of them, and they do some rather nastier things than that too. The plot is your usual Doctor Who scenario - we've got an eight-spoked research base located on the mysterious planet Genario, we've got a team of scientists happily ensconced inside, and we've got several thousand bio-mechanoid superbugs and horror-weeds lounging around outside, cursing their lack of welding equipment, and just waiting for their big break.
Said break comes with a handy dandy earthquake which smashes the research station's outer defences to smithereens. Soon all eight spokes are overrun, with only the central control room, located at the hub, remaining bug-free. But the creatures are advancing down all eight corridors, and time is running out.
If you were one of those scientists, what would you do in this situation? That's right, one of you would get aboard the last remaining spacecraft left in dock, cockily announce to the rest of the crew that they should 'Smoke me a kipper, I'll be back for breakfast', and jet off around the eight spokes, blasting the scummy space bugs. (Okay, okay, so I made the kippers bit up, but you get the gist!)
So that's the customary silly (though for once, actually relevant) plot over with - now onto game mechanics. It's interesting to note that programmer Rob Stevens' original inspiration for this was Defender. Armed with the idea of updating the Williams classic, his first (and arguably most important) task was to create the hundreds of different alien types needed, each of which follows astounding realistic behavioural patterns. Larvae hatch, fly off and lay eggs, the eggs hatch, and so the cycle continues, inexorably (I love that word!) getting closer and closer to the control centre. Even the alien plants (including hero - as opposed to fly - traps) follow a logical growth and reproduction model, and it all serves to complicate the game beyond the obvious shoot-'em-up basis.
In play then, it operates on several levels. First is the blaster - it's possible o venture down any of the eight space station spokes, blasting all and sundry, while stopping off at the landing pads littered around the corridors. Landing on one of these brings up a sub-game however - complication number one - where a security lock must be re-aligned.
Achieve this and a piece of cargon could be the prize. This could be some sort of extra armanent (maybe napalm bombs, missiles and the like) or upgrades for the control centre (which I'll come back to in a moment). While they may not be levels exactly, each of the eight spokes has its own individual look, and (just for added fun) it's own breeds of aggressor. And of course, because they're spokes, if any particular lot proves too tough to you, you can always turn around and fly back down the corridor towards the control centre again.
It's here, back at base, we come across complications number two to 259. You see, in addition to jetting around and blasting stuff, the player must also control the reactor, the remaining robot production line, and the weapons systems. There are computer terminals littered around the place which can give you quite a lot of helpful information too, but that's already quite enough to worry about for the first time player.
I guess at this point it's about time for a few quick words on robot manufacturing. The first (and most essential) robots will patch up holes in the corridor walls (thus preventing any more aliens invading, though the existing ones will, of course, continue to breed) while other, hardly less essential types, repair wiring, landing pads (and other structural damage) and the rail system.
The weapons screen gives control of all auto-defences in each corridor (which unfortunately consume power faster than a two bar electric fire) and access to the cannon (heh heh). Requiring half the battery charge (otherwise your reactor goes critical), the cannon can be directed down any corridor and will blast the front line of aliens, giving you just that little bit extra time to play with.
So what do I make of it? Well, okay it sounds like an impossibly complex hybrid of game styles, but surprisingly enough, I found the constant to-ing and fro-ing the more enjoyable aspect of the game (once I'd worked out what the hell I was doing). My main criticisms actually lie with the shoot-'em-up side of things. The player's craft is too large and sluggish, the playing area too small and the speed of the bugs half the time, while for a game based on Defender, Hostile Breed lacks fluid craft control. An agile, slightly inertia-prone little space-ship would have worked a treat, but instead we get a leviathan of a thing which trundles around (thank goodness they included the speed rail!) picking off the bad guys in a ponderous, unenthusiastic kind of way.
However, when I say that the complications make the game, that's not to imply that they're all a good thing. The terminals are useful, for instance, but I can't see too many people bothering with them, while the inclusion of landing pad and electricity cable-eating bugs (and robots to repair them) is perhaps taking things just a bit far. The fact remains though, it's the fight-and-flight stuff which lets the side down.
In the end then, this is something of a damn fine game - and a very addictive one - if flawed. Certainly, the core of the thing is fabulous (the do-everything-at-once concept recalls the Spectrum classics Worse Things Happen At Sea and Psytron), while the graphics are wonderfully atmospheric (full marks too for the intro and end sequences) and the sound surprisingly effective. And it makes such a refreshing change to play an action game which actually requires a modicum of intelligence. It's just that I feel a little more attention should have been given to the arcade side of things. As it stands, Hostile Breed is a 'buy on the proviso that you want an utterly complex hybrid' kind of affair. Okay?
The Bottom Line
Uppers: Luvverly graphics, an entertaining mix of game styles, unusual do-everything-at-once concept, and the most complex and fascinating bad guys around. You tell me another game where the nasties breed and evolve...
Downers: The shoot-'em-up element doesn't work as well as it should, and there's no doubt that some will be overwhelmed by the whole thing. Half meg owners will find the disk swapping a bind.
Brave, different and mostly successful attempt to add intelligence to the shoot-'em-up. Ironic, then, that it's the shoot-'em-up bit that lets the side down, preventing the game from being a 90 percenter.