Game Review: Under Defeat HD [Xbox 360/PS3]
:- Unique take on the genre
- Great music
:- Can kill you cheaply
- Takes a long time to adapt to
Under Defeat HD is a taste of the old-school vertical scrolling shooter, transporting you back to the 90s, albeit with a cleaner lick of paint. With that, though, come all the foibles of 90s design.
In 2006, the Dreamcast was dead, right? Wrong. Under Defeat was released by G.Rev that year for SEGA’s last console. There were other consoles it could’ve gone to at the time, but it felt that the Dreamcast was the correct home. This makes sense, as SEGA have always held on to the more old school genres and design styles. Six years on, it graces Western shores on the 360 and PS3. Was it worth the wait? More to the point, was anyone actually waiting for it, other than the hardcore shooting game fan?
The game is essentially set in bizarro World War Two, where you control the Axis forces against the English pigdogs. However, that aspect has been softened for its release over here, and it adds some extra levels of vaguery to distort the scenario somewhat, although the weapons and vehicle design still mainly match up with that period of history. As such, this is not your standard shmup scenario. There’s not even a whiff of a spaceship; as you pilot a helicopter through walls of tanks, cannons and enemy helicopters, as well as more far-fetched boss planes. It’s nice to see some dedication to a theme in what is usually a weak genre in terms of premise and motive, but it brings with it a sea of greys and browns which are pretty dull, and while not the poster child for videogames in 2006, they sure are now, which makes it look all that more unimpressive. The music somewhat saves the presentation, though, offering pumping tunes to keep you excited and get your head in the game.
It is split into two modes, but they’re essentially the same. New Order is a widescreen remaster of the original game, with the game window being the entire screen instead of the bordered, thin Arcade mode layout. While it looks a lot better like this, playing a vertical shooter in a wider than tall format is actually pretty disconcerting, and makes it more taxing to keep track of all movement on the screen, which is essential to avoid sneak attacks.
I can’t put this any other way: this game is hard. It is not a bullet hell, and by shooing by far the most common style available in recent times, it puts itself in a fairly unique position. Emulating gameplay styles much more prolific in the late Eighties and early Nineties, it has some features which may grate on those now used to the modern style of vertical shooter.
Instead of carpets of bullets that you have to twitch through, the difficulty comes from being able to utilise its unique mechanics. The first of these is that you can rotate your helicopter about 45 degrees in each direction. It is essential you get used to this, as most enemies will focus their fire straight at you, instead of in the usual predefined patterns of most shooters. This increase in ‘homing’ enemies means you have to keep moving, and to hit most enemies you have to move out of their angle of attack into your own, which means twisting your heli all over the place in order to get a safe shot. To start with, this will be an exercise of frustration. Your willingness to eat a bunch of quick deaths when you first start playing it is entirely up to you, but be assured that once you get a hang of it, it starts to make sense. It still never feels like a perfect solution though, and will still catch you off guard occasionally.
The other unique mechanic is the secondary weapon system. To charge your secondary weapon, you have to not shoot for a period of time. That might sound like an alien concept in a shooter (and to me, I still think it is) but it is almost essential you make use of your option, especially if you are heading for a score attack run. There are three types of secondary: Vulcan, which is basically the same as your weapon; Cannon, which fires a few piercing shots which do more damage than the Vulcan; and Rocket, which fires one rocket with an area of effect, which does the most damage. Personally, I’d stick with the Rocket whenever possible, as it can take out big, obnoxious targets in one shot, and does good damage to bosses.
The problematic holdover of the 90s design prevalent in this game is cheap deaths. This game will dole them out by the bucket if you haven’t memorised the stages. Suddenly being engulfed by bullets from five directions, or bullets from behind you (!) are things that occur over the course of this game, albeit mainly in the later stages. Don’t get me started on the final boss. While it is theoretically pretty easy, and I am sure people better than me may consider it laughably so, it was pretty frustrating. It forces you to move in strange ways, and its patterns are much harder than anything else in the game (but not that hard in the overall spectrum of shmups). There are also people out there who still adore this kind of design, and this game is certainly for them. I’m just not sure it holds up with modern design conventions, and the genre will never thrive once more if it doesn’t catch up, sadly.
By the way, if you planned to credit feed your way through this game, there’s a few roadblocks for you. First of all, you have to unlock free play. You start with three credits, and for every hour you play, you get an extra one. While this could easily be seen as offering replayability by forcing you to get better on meagre resources, it actually hinders your learning progress by simply denying access to later levels you would wish to practice more. There is a practice mode, but you can only practice on stages you’ve seen. On top of this, there is a checkpoint system, whereby if you lose a credit, you are sent back to a checkpoint. This means if you can’t beat a boss in 3 lives, you can never get past it, no matter what.
This is a pretty niche product, but Rising Star must be lauded for bringing exclusively japanese experiences to Europe, and for that reason alone this release should be supported. Released at a budget price from the start, while you may not get days of play from this beast, if you are dedicated to your craft and make it a habit of being good at games, this is one for you to tackle and perfect. At its best, you become one with the ship and dispatch all comers with great satisfaction. At its worst, you will sit in a cloud of blue air and a rainbow of colourful language.