Review by: J.M. Vargas

“HOW COME NO ONE’S REVIEWED THIS GAME YET?”

My “Guinea Pigs” editorial (7/28/97) mentioned several original 3DO games to be reviewed in their Saturn incarnation, and I totally forgot the one original game that came out of nowhere back in April of 1995 and took gamers by storm with its simplicity and two-player action-packed gameplay. Silent Software’s masterpiece, “Return Fire”, was released in 1996 by Time Warner Interactive, and is out there on Saturn discount bins and rental shelfs across this United States. I know because the moment I realized I forgot to mention it in the editorial I got me a rental copy (I still have and play the 3DO version, but this is a Saturn site!), and have been playing for the past couple of days. Improvements from the original version are few but not too noticeable, but that’s O.K. since the game works best when left alone with its own KISS theory of gameplay (Keep It Simple Stupid).

Remember Virgin’s “Grid Runner”? That was a futuristic take on the classic “capture the flag” theme. “Return Fire” does it one better by replacing the grim futuristic overtones with military ones. You have about 200 maps in which an enemy flag is held deep in enemy territory, and your job is to use the vehicles at your disposal to penetrate, annihilate and blast your way through traps, ambushes and fortresses packed to the gill with grenade-tossing soldiers that want to stick a bazooka up your sorry rear end. In the one-player mode you have to progress a map at a time, conquering each terrain before moving to the next challenge (which gets progressively harder). Two-player, though, is where “Return Fire” shines brightest: the screen is split in half and you have to move your forces to capture the other player’s flag, while he/she is trying to do the same to you. Not since “Herzog Zwei” on Genesis has a military game combined arcade thrills and military strategy with such addictive results. Trust me folks; this one’s a winner.

GRAPHICS / VISUALS: B+

The graphics remain unchanged from the 3DO original, but they are serviceable. All the buildings, palm trees, enemy buildings and vehicles are small but well-animated sprites. The terrain varies from map to map, but for the most part they all look the same: a beach/desert African-type desolate area with strategically-placed military locations and traps (collapsing bridges, mine fields, etc.). The two-player makes for such an entertaining game that the rudimentary look of the game will not grate on you; think of it as a videogame chess board with tanks and helicopters instead of pawns and kings (not that the one-player game will kill your visual enjoyment, but it does tend to get repetitive with extended play).

Saturn (and PSX) improvements on the spectacle include an additional camera adjustment that lets you zoom in from the standard perspective (slightly less than an overhead view), plus an improved frame-rate during the two-player split-screen that NEVER slows down despite the surrounding carnage; these features were MIA on the 3DO (where the two-player screen slowed down considerably). Also of interest is the replacement of the Jeep vehicle used in the 3DO original with a military Humvee; functionally, they’re the same vehicle and it affects the gameplay not a jolt.

MUSIC / SOUND EFFECTS: A+

The sounds of war come through in Dolby Surround glory, and they rock the proverbial bote! Missiles, crumbling explosions and all the collection of sounds that gave old General Patton some of his sweetest dreams; they’re here! Highlights: the blades and engine of our helicopter as you attempt to runway from a heat-seeking missile, and the “squash” that occurs when your ground vehicle runs over a pack of soldiers (sick, sick fun!).

The score gets elevated, though, by the music used during the game: they’re all classical compositions with war overtones embedded into their composition. Each of the four vehicles at your disposal has its own theme, and it will kick in from the moment you select it from your secret underground bunker area. “The Flight of the Bumblebee” (by Rimsky-Korsakov) is used when playing with the Humvee. “The Ride of the Valkyries” (Wagner) is for the helicopter; and the other two themes for the Turret and the Tank are equally memorable and add atmosphere to the game’s theme. Would Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” helicopter-attack scene have its gut-wrenching intensity without its Wagner score? “Return Fire” wouldn’t be the same without the tunes.

GAMEPLAY / FUN FACTOR: A

Off-the-scale during the two-player mode, and passable when played against the computer (whose default setting in later levels is quite challenging). You can’t go at it without planning, randomly shooting your way through the enemy: your vehicle will be destroyed and, once your supply of them runs out (you have several units of each of your four vehicles), you might find yourself in need for that vehicle’s particular characteristic when you don’t have access to them. Don’t have a clue where the enemy flag is in the map? Send the helicopter to scout the location and explore the surrounding hazards, but don’t take too long or be too careless; your helicopter’s fuel is limited, and it can’t take too many hits (but is fast and agile!). There’s a column of enemy troops standing between you and the bridge that will take you to the flag? Send the Armored Vehicle to make a path through the compound just around the enemy column; it can take huge hits and fire missiles to keep those pesky enemy helicopters at bay, but it’s a bitch to maneuver (watch out for that…TREEEE!).

“Return Fire” recalls strategy/action games like “Syndicate” and “Command & Conquer” in its approach toward multiple-force conflict, except that the management and resource aspect is kept (mercifully) to a minimum; you just have to worry about having enough fuel, ammo and bullets to make it to the next level or map. It is like a fighting game, of sorts, except you don’t have an enclosed arena and big guns and rockets replace the kicks and special moves. Visualize an enhanced version of the bonus game “Death Tank!” (available on the Saturn version of “Powerslave”), and you’ll know what I mean: meandering visual display swept by the intoxicating fun of blowing your opponent’s vehicle with the last remains of fuel and supplies on your side.

OVERALL: A-

A bargain for the $15 some stores are asking for, but the decision comes down to whether you have access to a buddy willing to give you some serious competition; I played it using my “Death Tank!” partner, and we were trading blows and trash-talking like dogs (he kicked my ass, but he can’t beat me at “Starfox 64″…so we’re even!). “Return Fire” makes for a fun and entertaining one-player mode, though, so give it a rent and see if the gameplay can entertain you enough to ignore the graphics (which are dated but adequate); the Saturn version features additional maps that were released as an add-on for the 3DO original, so completing all the levels should take you some time. If you’re looking for visually-stimulating one-player military mayhem, then the upcoming high-resolution 60 frames-per-second of “Mass Destruction” might be your ticket (it’ll run you $50, though).

As a final note it is important to note that, when you lose your vehicle in battle and lose a life, a skull will laugh at your face for being so incompetent. The laugh belongs to R.J. Mical, the co-developer of the 3DO system and the Atari Lynx; his laugh on my Saturn copy of “Return Fire” is an omen that will keep the 3DO memories living into the future. This game will give you the closest feeling to what Robert Duvall was feeling when, during “Apocalypse Now”, he uttered the classic “I love the smell on Napalm in the morning”. “Return Fire” is one of the best games 3DO gave its owners, and Saturn gamers can have access to this fun.