War! What is it good for...

Special Forces logo Gamer Gold

MICROPROSE * £34.99 * 1/2 meg * Joystick * out now

War games, eh? When was the last time you played a decent war game? I bet you haven't played a good one for years. In fact the last war game I can remember was Airborne Ranger from Microprose, so it comes as no surprise that Special Forces is from the same company.

Microprose are ultimately famous for their simulation games such as Formula One Grand Prix, Knights of the Sky, F-19 Stealth Fighter and even Microprose Golf. If you want a simulation game, then these are the dudes to get it from.

Special Forces is sort of a mix between watching Rambo and the International Chess Championships. It's a shoot-'em-up with a hefty bit of strategy thrown in for good measure.
You get to control a squad of eight butch, hard kick-ass, your mother wouldn't like 'em soldiers. You can only take four men into action at a time and each one has different attributes.

For instance, if one mission asks you to blow up something, you'd obviously be better picking Mike Kolowsky who's an explosives expert rather than choosing someone who just looks 'ard. Once you've decided who you're going to take to the war zone, you have to give them assigned codenames, choosing from the not very original list of Shark, Cobra, Tiger and Eagle.

I suppose changing the butch codenames doesn't look good in the middle or a fire fight deep in enemy territory, especially when your boss shouts "Oi Dingbat, take point, and Flat-eared Racoon, you form a pincer movement with me". Rather than die from a hail of bullets, the enemy is going to die from laughter.

Right, you've chosen your four men - they now need something interesting to do. There are 16 missions available to each squad. The missions are set in four areas of the world - Tropics, Desert, Arctic and Temperate.

There are several things to see and do in each mission, in fact I could even be Judith Chalmers for this next bit.
"Hello and welcome to Wish You Were Here. This week I'm off to the desert to a secret location to do a bit of tank-busting, and Bob Holness - our star holiday reviewer - is off to the tranquil tropics to rescue a prisoner of war."
"Well, as you can see, it's all fun and games here. Now to the Arctic for our first report, where..."

Each mission has a clearly defined objective, so if the mission report says that you have to blow up some fuel dumps, you have to go and blow up some fuel dumps.
Working out what you have to do is dead simple - actually achieving it is whole different kettle of fish. It's war out there chaps! The enemy aren't going to let you walk into their camp, blow up some fuel dumps and walk out again, oh no. They more often than not outnumber you a hundred to one, and each one of the enemy soldiers is after your blood.

To help you in your quest, thankfully, there are big guns for you to use. Maybe you'd like an off-the-shoulder Lee-Enfield rifle or maybe a lovely Engager Machine rifle or even both. TO be honest, once you've kitted out your squad with all their, err, umm kit then it really is off to war.

On every mission you are "dropped off" by a helicopter and you get to decide the "drop points" by using the ever-present and highly useful map. The map shows you all the buildings, roads, rivers, bridges, Pizza Huts, local places of interest and even where your main target is by plonking a little white circle around it.

If you press "I" on the keyboard, the map lights up with loads of little red dots. It really is quite terrific to watch (those red dots are actually the last known whereabouts of the enemy soldiers - Ed). Oh dear, are they? Whoops, never mind, they still look dead good.

Once out of the map option, you view your squad from up above, a "plan view" kinda thing. If you have ever seen the excellent Alien Breed by Team 17, then Special Forces is sort of like that, but smaller.

Now you might be pondering the question "How do your control four members of the team at the same time?" and the answer is, you don't. You can only control one Rambo at a time, but you can put your team in formation. Then when you move your team member, the rest of the team will follow him about.

You can swap and change between team members by hitting the F-keys. A handy option is Multi-View, which allows you to view all four team members at the same time - sort of like a four-team University Challenge view but without Bamber Gascoigne.

If you are a sort of, well how can I put it, err, lazy git, then there is an autopilot mode. You know when you're playing a flight sim and you just can't be bothered to fly the plane hundreds and hundreds of miles? You just stick on the autopilot, set the waypoints and hey presto!, you don't have to do anything for 20 minutes.

Well the principal is exactly the same. You can't be bothered running through dense jungle shooting, so you set each team member a destination point, press the space-bar and the computer takes over.

Well that's basically it. You choose your mission, men and weapons, enter the warzone, run around for a bit, waste a few enemy soldiers, complete your objective, get picked up by the helicopter, go home in time for Coronation Street, congratulate your men by giving them a couple of decorations and even a promotion, have a few beers, go to bed and get ready for the next mission. Hurrah.

Overall, Special Forces is a bit of a larf. My word, it's fun running around deserts and jungles killing the enemy and blowing things up. OK, the graphics aren't going to make you leap out of your seat and shout "arroogggaa", but they serve their purpose.

In fac the intro is quite good graphics-wise, but the intro music is, well let's say it sounds as though it's been loosely based on the A-Team theme music. In the game there are some suitable machine gun noises and big beefy explosion noises.

Playability is brill. For instance at one point, you might be wandering around the jungle by yourself, when suddenly enemy soldiers appear from nowhere and you have to let it as fast as you can because you've run out of bullets. It's exciting stuff, this war business.

I don't know why I liked Special Forces. Maybe it was because it brought out my fighting instincts and that I knew I couldn't die, but when one of my team members was captured in the desert it brought tears to my eyes.
I instantly planned revenge - I went back into enemy territory, rescued my soldier and then I blew most of the enemy camp apart.
Boy, was I happy. I think you probably know the sort of feeling you get from Special Forces by now.

Special Forces, even though it's got that element of strategy, is still one of my current faves. Buy it now or Dan will come round your house in his new big and beefy army boots and, well put it this way, do you like hospital food?

Special Forces logo

Warfare has often been the base for video games, even as far back as Taito's coin-op Commando and US Gold's Beach Head series on the C64 back in the Eighties. Most battlefield games involving infantry have tended to fall into two categories - the straight shoot-em-up with the player gunning down everything in sight, or the tactical strategy game approach with all the moves being planned on maps. MicroProse have taken a slightly different view, combining strategic elements with shoot-em-up action, to come up with Special Forces.

The gameplay is based on a team of elite soldiers, who must take on a series of special missions for the government. The 16 missions are set in four terrains - tropical forests, deserts, arctic areas and temperate zones. Each terrain refers to an overall mission, with four main objects to be carried out.

After selecting your four-man team and mission, you can kit out each member with a selection of weaponry, including automatic weapons, rifles, handguns, grenades, rocket launchers and laser target designators. Some missions require a certain amount of particular weapons (such as explosives for destroying bridges or target designators for a planned air strike), but to begin with you just have to make sure that you've got enough firepower to blast anyone that comes in your way.

The missions themselves are carried out by operating two main screens - the warzone view and the scaled terrain map. The warzone view is the main game screen, where you control movement and firing as well as selecting weaponry, planting explosives and collecting objects. The scaled terrain map is where the tactical side comes in. As well as moving team members around the map, you can set formations and waypoints to designate, the movement patterns of each solder. This helps to keep your team moving as a coherent unit, making it easier to attack installations and protect your team members.

At the end of each mission, you are given a report of how well you did, along with a list of members lost or killed in action. If any of your team go MIA (missing in action) you have to re-enter the area and try to rescue them from the enemy troops. After a successful mission you are given the choice of promoting or decorating any team members as a reward for exceptional performance in the field.

Tactical neural implant
The method of control in the combat sections of Special Forces tries to make you use your brain to work out the tactics, and it would indeed have made the game something rather special... if it worked properly! Unfortunately, when one of your team hits an obstacle or notices an enemy that he can take out, he will wander off from the rest of the team.

This wouldn't be too bad if he could find his way back, but more often than not, you have to locate him on the map and steer him back to the rest of the group yourself. When the rest of the team does behave itself, the gameplay takes another twist, mainly due to the fact that you don't have to actually do any fighting for yourself - the rest of the team do it for you.

Force or farce
This is all very well when you're handling mission objectives, but it makes the levels less challenging when in a fire-fight. Admittedly, you could take on the game at the higher levels to make locating your objectives and battling the enemy a little more challenging, but this doesn't really make the rest of the game run any more smoothly and the feeling of involvement isn't raised by much of a degree.

Special Forces is a brave attempt to try and create something new in the field of combat simulations, but there are just too many problems to make it a classic. The graphics and presentation are quite involved and nicely designed, but where it falls down is in the gameplay itself. There are too many fiddly sections to make the game an enjoyable arcade game and not enough depth to allow it to stand up as a strategy game. A near miss, but at this price it's a miss all the same.

Special Forces logo

Es war im September 1987, da erschien "Airborne Ranger" für den C64. Jahre später wurde die Söldner-Simulation auf den Amiga umgesetzt und... enttäuschte auf der ganzen Linie! Auch der Nachfolger ist eine Konvertierung, allerdings eine vom ST. Und diesmal hat der Microprose-Trupp ganze Arbeit geleistet!

Wir erinnern uns: Beim Vorläufer ging es um einen einsamen Ranger, der von einem Flugzeug hinter den feindlichen Linien abgesetzt wurde, um dort seinen lebensgefährlichen Auftrag zu erfüllen. Nun hat man es gleich mit vier Musketieren zu tun, was die Aufgabe natürlich noch schwerer macht. Wie schwer, das darf man sich zu Anfang aussuchen, wenn das Programm wissen will, welchen der vier Schwierigkeitsgrade man sich zutraut.

Anschließend ist die Wahl des Einsatzgebietes dran, angeboten werden die Tropen, die gemäßigte Zone, Wüste und Arktis. Jedes Reiseziel hält vier Missionen parat, die sich in beliebiger Reihenfolge absolvieren lassen - wenn man die Aufträge aber in der vorgegebenen Ordnung erledigt, ergibt sich eine fortlaufende Geschichte. Dann wird auch in der Missionsschreibung darauf eingegangen, wie man sich bisher geschlagen hat.

In den Tropen muß erst mal ein Kriegsgefangener aus den Händen der Drogenmafia befreit werden, anschließend sollen Coca-Felder für die spätere Bombardierung "markiert" werden, danach steht dann die Entwendung eines wichtigen Terminkalenders auf dem Programm. Zur Belohnung darf man in der vierten Mission den Obermafiosi persönlich umnieten.

Szenenwechsel. Die Wüste bietet ebenfalls ein buntes Potpourri vom Ausheben von MG-Nestern über das Zerstören diverser Panzer und Produktionsanlagen bis hin zum fröhlichen Ostereier suchen - naja, der Flugschreiber eines abgestürzten Helis muß halt gefunden werden. Ähnlich bunt, wenn auch bei wesentlich ungemütlicheren Temperaturen, geht es in der Arktis zu. Terroristen haben sich ein paar atomgetriebene U-Boote gekrallt, was nun die verschiedensten Einsätze nach sich zieht: Sabotage, Lager sprengen, mal wieder Dokumente klauen und der Terroristenkapitän ins Jenseits befördern.

Trotz des irreführenden Namens hat auch die gemäßigte Zone nur wenig Erholsames im Angebot. Zwecks Militärjunta-Bekämpfung müssen Scud-Raketen und ein Treibstoff-Depot vernichtet werden, ein Computer harrt der Eroberung, und zum krönenden Abschluß darf man den Strom in der Gegend "abschalten".

Neben der Aufgabenstellung unterscheiden sich die Missionen auch durch die Tages- bzw. Nachtzeit und danach, ob man sich die Absprungspunkte für seine Leute selber aussuchen darf, oder ob der Einsatz an einen festgelegten Ort beginnt.

Das Anforderungsprofil ist also sehr unterschiedlich, und dementsprechend ausgewogen sollte auch die eigene Truppe zusammengesetzt sein. Aus einem achtköpfigen Söldnerpool dürfen maximal vier Jungs ausgewählt werden, die sich durch Rang, körperliche Fitneß und besondere Fähigkeiten (Scharfschütze, Tarnungsspezialist, Sprengstoffexperte, etc.) unterscheiden.

Abgeschlossen wird die Planungsphase schließlich mit der Bewaffnung unseres Killer-Kleeblatts, die voll- und halbautomatisch oder ganz subtil Patrone für Patrone erfolgen kann. Die Auswahl zwischen den verschiedenen Gewehren und Pistolen ist dabei wohl eher Geschmackssache, die Zeitzünder sollte man bei den explosiven Einsätzen aber nicht gerade vergessen...

Jetzt geht's endlich in die Kriegszone. Als erstes muß bei den meisten Missionen der Absprungpunkt für jeden einzelnen Mann auf der Übersichtskarte bestimmt werden. Damit man dabei nicht direkt auf einem feindlichen Posten landet, sind dessen Standpunkte rot markiert - allerdings ohne Gewähr für die Richtigkeit!

Beim anschließenden Geländemarsch können die Jungs einzeln, pärchenweise oder als komplette Truppe gesteuert werden, wahlweise mit dem Stick oder per Keyboard. Wer auch bei der Einzelsteuerung ständig jeden seiner Männer im Auge behalten will, kann auf einen alternativ zum normalen Grafikfenster angebotenen (vierfachen) Splitscreen zurück greifen. Leider ist das jeweils sichtbare Gebiet hier so winzig, daß man sehr leicht von herumvagabundierenden Feinden überrascht wird.

Das andere Extrem heißt Marschieren auf der Übersichtskarte, aber dort ergibt sich durch den großen Maßstab oft genau derselbe Überraschungseffekt.

Trotz Vogelperspektive und Steuerung via Richtungspfeil wirkt der Spielablauf nicht ganz so "simulationsmäßig" wie beim Vorgänger.

Natürlich kommt wegen der Aufgabenverteilung auf vier Leute (Ablenkungsmanöver, Feuerschutz, mehrere Angriffsziele, etc.) auch ein starkes strategisches Element ins Spiel, aber dennoch: zwischen zehn und fünfzig Gegner beißen pro Mission schon ins Gras...

Kommen wir zur Manöverkritik. Die Grafik ist im großen und ganzen recht ordentlich (Ausnahme: nachts), gescrollt wird einwandfrei, und die Landschaften enthalten erstaunlich viele Details. Dazu kommen ein paar gelungene Zwischenscreens sowie ein sehenswertes Intro. Ein wunder Punkt ist das unzureichend ausgenützte Bildschirmformat (kein PAL), was sich von allem beim Splitscreen unangenehm bemerkbar macht.

Soundmäßig wird nicht so viel geboten, nach der hübschen Titelmusik kommen nur noch brauchbare Geräusche. Die (Maus-) Steuerung klappt im Planungsteil einwandfrei, im Feindesland nicht ganz so toll, weil man auch im Joystickbetrieb ständig auf das Keyboard zurückgreifen muß. Die einzelnen Befehle wurden dabei ziemlich willkürlich auf der Tastatur verteilt, doch man gewöhnt sich dran.

Damit aber genug der Motzerei, denn trotz einiger Schwächen im Detail ist Special Forces eindeutig aus dem Stoff der süchtig macht! Na, hoffentlich hat das jetzt niemand beim Oberkommando gehört... (mm)

Special Forces logo

MicroProse give their epic 3D flight sims a rest to take us on a trip deep into enemy territory, Airborne Ranger-style. But is Special Forces that special?

Microprose haven't put a foot wrong in recent months - indeed, what other publisher could boast such an unbroken stream of top quality products throughout the last year? Not Mindscape, not Psygnosis, and certainly not Electronic Arts - so it was with eager anticipation that I snatched the chance to review this newie.

It's one of their military-with-strategy-with-action-bits games, a spiritual descendent of the aging Airborne Ranger - and as such perhaps not of the same surefire hit quality as great simulations like Knights of the Sky or Formula One Grand Prix - though expectations still ran high. This, then, is the story of how a MicroProse game teased me, confused me, and eventually disappointed me, and as such won't make for pretty reading. This is not a game I had fun with.

But first, what's it all about? Newish readers will probably be having real problems at this point - if it's a MicroProse game, how come it doesn't have solid 3D graphics, I can hear them asking - so it's probably best explained as an elaborately executed strategy game.

Following a game style established in Airborne Ranger, Special Forces put you in charge of a small team of elite troops, teaches you how to control them, and then launches you into a series of missions, each with its own environment to explore and individual skills to be mastered.

The introductory sequence boats only average animation, despite the scenes being effectively illustrated, and this unfortunately sets the pace. It shows the Special Forces chopper flying to its destination, dropping off your four soldiers (they abseil to the ground, then walk off into the jungle) before finishing on a military style screen of the Special Forces logo being shot to bits with machine gun fire. Very ho hum stuff.

Immediately after, though, things get briefly better. This being a MicroProse game, there are certainly a wealth of options on offer - including four levels of mission difficulty to select. The first batch of missions, dubbed 'conscript', give you targets clearly mapped out for you before you set off, badly equipped and ill-trained opponents, and should generally be a breeze to complete. Less so the 'regular missions', where objectives are given using a grid reference system and the enemy are trained but inexperienced.

Once you have mastered the first two levels things get really serious though - the 'veteran' scenarios provide mission objectives not shown on your maps and put you up against highly skilled experienced soldiers. And if you think that sounds tough, wait until you get to the 'elite' section.

Once you've chosen your difficulty level it's onto the mission screen, and, more specifically, to a filing cabinet containing four drawers, marked Tropics, Arctic, Desert and Temperate. Click on one of these and it opens to reveal four mission documents.

Pick the one you fancy - it could be destroying drug rings, blowing up scud units or busting tanks - then whiz off to select the squad of soldier you'll be sending on the mission.

A quick read through the various blokes' stats, an even quicker allocation of code names (a choice of Shark, Cobra, Tiger and Eagle) and you're off. You pick a squad of eight and the decide which four to take on any mission - if any get killed, you've obviously got rather fewer to chose between next time round. Only when all eight guys are dead do you get to restock your squad of guys.

Plenty of scope to the missions

Hold your itchy feet just a minute though - we're not ready to take the mission just yet! (What d'you think this is, an arcade game?) First you've got to rig the boys up with a choice of guns and ammo. An anti-tank mission, for instance, will require a goodly selection of remotely detonateable explosives - though, of course, you can go for the default selections if you're feeling lazy. And that's basically it - your team is now ready for the war zone. Time to pick the pint where you want your chopper to drop the boys off.

Oi! Wake up, you 'orrible lot! Yes, you who've been dozing for the last few paragraphs, it's time to sit up and pay attention - we're about to get into the actual game now. The whole thing operates using a top-down plan view of the small area around your troops. In looks it all treads a fine line between an arcade game style and 'realism'- MicroProse have coloured your unit to blend nicely into the forest background in their natty green outfits, while at the same time making sure the sprites are bold enough that they don't get completely lost in the undergrowth. You could argue that, visually, it's a little dull, but MicroProse's audience is one that would react badly to anything that smacked of Commando or similar, and I think they've drawn the line rather well.

Clarity could be better, however - some objects (targets like Scud missile carriers and tanks, particularly) are very clear on screen, though other bits get confusing and force you to keep referring back to the map. Your lead man (it can be any of the four) is indicated by a crossed swords symbol - you simply move it around with the joystick and he (and, if you've selected them, the others) will follow.

Choosing between your weapons and swapping them around for each soldier is easy and efficient - tapping a single key will cycle through the weapon icons at the bottom of the screen - and while animation and so on is generally less than spectacular, it's perfectly serviceable. However, this degree of usability isn't carried through to the rest of the controls, a point we'll get onto in a minute.

Not a game I had fun with

Perhaps the most important single aspect of the game is that you're meant to split your mean up and control them all separately, constantly juggling between them as the game progresses. Unlike in many FRPs and similar, though, you get the chance to see all four men at once even when they're not travelling together - the screen can be split into four quarters, each mini-window showing the individual position of each team member.

There are no labels or symbols on each of these to inform you who's who though, which means you're going to spend a while mucking about with the function keys while you try to gain control of the soldier you want. Once you're used to it, this function supplies the core of the game's interest - keeping track of each of your four little men, making sure they're all safe and all serving a useful task in the mission is where it comes alive. If only they'd paid a bit more attention to the intuitiveness to the control, you can't help but wondering, we'd have had quite a game on our hands here.

That's the problem, you see - you're going to have to be a dab hand at juggling joystick/mouse with keyboard if you're going to get anything out of this game. The basic game is simple, rather old fashioned even - effectively the same thing as an RPG like Shadowlands, but without all the imaginative possibilities magic brings - but with so many different keys controlling so many functions it all becomes much more complex than is friendly or, indeed, it needs to be.

With most of the keyboard functions presented as on-screen icons instead, which could be selected with a click of the mouse or joystick, it would become a much more accessible game. As it is, managing to successfully combine moving all four guys with keeping tabs on the main map screens with sussing out enemy positions with goodness-knows-what is possible, but demands a degree of coordination and frustration-resistance beyond most of us.

Conclusion time, then. Special Forces does have a fair amount going for it - some professional presentation, a lot of variety in the different levels (16 missions to choose from across four climatic regions), plenty of options and moments of high drama and great excitement. However, it also has a number of problems - it's actually a fairly simple game idea deliberately over-complicated with options, unfriendly controls and so on, and it's obviously not quite sure about whether it wants to be an arcade game or a strategy thing.

It walks an uneasy line between the two, and I doing so - both in concept and execution - falls well short of what we've come to expect form MicroProse. They have never seemed very comfortable when they've moved away from military equipment simulations, and nothing's changed here. Only recommendable if you're absolutely, positively certain you like 'that sort of thing'.

Special Forces
MISSION SELECT. This here filing cabinet is where you pick your favourite mission.
Special Forces
Then you go to this map, which shows you the various drop off points for your unit.
Special Forces
Tiger (that's him near the cross) plants remote explosives next to an enemy tank.
Special Forces
Tiger and Cobra take cover so they don't get trashed in the explosion themselves.
Special Forces
Explosion of the tanks can only be seen on the area map. There's one, top right.
Special Forces
Once the mission is completed, pick up your team with a chopper, Here comes one now.
Special Forces gives you four different climatic areas from which to pick between, each with a selection of missions. And they are...
Special Forces
TROPICAL - packed to the forest canopy with evil dragons, private armies and so on. Oh yes, and trees.
Special Forces
ARCTIC - here the local guerillas use the freezing conditions to their advantage, so be on your guard.
Special Forces
DESERT - There's plenty of tank bustling to be found here, Gulf War-style. 'Rock The Casbah' indeed.
Special Forces
TEMPERATE - here you'll find plenty of evil businessmen, lots of Scud missiles to destroy, and so on.
Controlling all four team members simultaneously results in this impressive, if slightly cluttered, screen.
Special Forces
  1. The crossed sword symbol in front of this soldier indicates that he is being controlled. You can use him to lead the others or send to a destination individually.
  2. This box, containing a Shark, Eagle, Tiger, or Cobra symbol, indicates which soldier you are controlling.
  3. The knife icon represents a stealth mission and your unit will hide when under attack, while a gun icon here represents an attack mission. The unit will attack when attacked.
  4. This box indicates the weapons that you are currently using.
  5. Radar showing waypoints of unit.
  6. This box shows your unit's formation, and also where explosives are set.
  7. The health bar will go down when unit members are under attack or injured.
  8. The clock counts down on timed missions.
  9. Guess what? This box indicates if you're using joystick, keyboard or mouse.