The Strangers logo CD32

The only roundhouse Andy Smith ever usually sees is the one where he gets his favourite pint of beer. Until now...

Kicking off Vulcan's Mega Series (Mini Series = floppies, Mega Series = CD) is this 2D beat-em-up that was originally developed in Eastern Europe.

The game's got three modes of play. Action is the main game where you, and a mate if you wish, can try to work your way through the game's eight levels in an attempt to reach the game's final boss. Deathmatch is when two to six players all enter the ring (joystick adapters are needed for the full complement of players and if you haven't got one, Vulcan just happen to be selling 'em) and bash each other about. The last one standing here is the winner.

Finally there's the Gang Wars scenario. Again, two to six players can take part in this. The gangs can be made up of two gangs of three, three gangs of two or all individuals and instead of getting hurt, they just keep fighting for the set amount of time (which can be altered by the player).

The gang that's managed to score the most points, by getting the most hits on rival gang members, is declared the winner. But let's get back to the main, Action game.

The gang that's managed to score the most points by getting the most hits on rival gang members is... the winner.

Everything's viewed in flat 2D and the first thing you'' notice about the game is how much it looks like the old beat-em-up, Renegade. (Renegade was never actually reviewed in AF because it was too old when we started back in '89. And actually the action's just about the same. Move left and right, punching and kicking (forwards and backwards) the half-dozen or so enemies that populate each level and trying to avoid any attacks yourself.

Just as in Renegade, after the first level there are weapons to pick up, ranging from hammers and axes to hockey sticks. There are also 'quick death' zones on several, but not all, of the levels where a well-placed kick or punch will send an opponent through a gap in the railings, or similar, and to their death.

Normally a couple of punches will put down an opponent who then gets back up and comes at you. The number of times they actually get up though, depends on the enemy. Some of the baddies on each level will only do it once or twice while some will do it half a dozen times before deciding to lie still.

The really hard ones are the gang bosses on each level. These chaps (and chapesses) tend to stay out of the way of the action until just a couple of their minions are left, then they come barreling in - in the hope of finishing you off before you manage to do them.

And as we've mentioned barrels, some of the levels also have barrels that can be picked up and chucked. When they land, they explode and cause lots of damage to anyone in the blast radius. Nice if you can get the placing right. For the most part though, it's left to your fists and feet to do the talking.

As soon as you've got one from each side coming at you then it's rare you're going to be the one left standing.

Vulcan haven't exactly chosen a killer app to kick off their Mega Series. The gameplay really is straight out of the eighties, with nothing added and nothing taken away. It's not completely appalling but it's pretty ropey. It's murderously tough when you're playing solo, and you're even going to struggle when you and a mate are working together - not least because it's so easy to get in each other's way and start smacking each other accidentally - especially if you're at opposite ends of the fighting area because the chances are you won't be able to see what each other is doing.

Oh yes, the action still continues, even if you can't actually see your character or who's attacking them. At least they've included a password system so you don't have to keep doing the same levels again, once you've managed to get past them once.

But the worst thing about The Strangers is that there's so little room for any actual skill. Most of the time the computer opponents get the first hits in and then you're left trying to get up and out of their way before they smack you again. It becomes a game of backing yourself into a corner so the baddies can only attack you from one direction, because as soon as you've got one from each side coming at you then it's rare you're going to be the one left standing. Games have moved on from this kind of gameplay.

The addition of the Deathmatch and Gang Wars modes help lift the game a little but not sufficiently to warrant you rushing out to buy this archaic and flat game.

Parental Guidance

Vulcan have very responsibly included a parental lock in the game which disables one of the game's features - the fatalities. Turn the fatalities on and you'll find that when you die on a level, the level's boss will come up with some ingenious way to blow bits of your body off and leave the place very bloody. While this is very noble of Vulcan, the violence is so cartoony it's unlikely to offend anyone who's even seen an Itchy and Scratchy scene in The Simpsons. But if you're a parent who doesn't want little Johnny playing games with cartoon blood suprting out now and again then this is probably one to steer clear of anyway. Little Johnny doesn't have a chance of getting off level one in the first place.

The Strangers logo CD32

Price: £24.95 Publisher: Vulcan Software 01705 670 269

Finding life a bit too safe and cosy? What you need is a bit of brutal street violence with guns, blood, decapitation sequences and a multi-player option.

While the gaming world goes crazy over the likes of Soul Blade, Tekken and Street Fighter EX, resplendent in their texture mapped polygon wonder, back at the ranch, Vulcan continue to uphold the rafters of the Amiga games scene with Strangers AGA. It's got violence, fancy 3D intro animation and more options than you can keep track of... but is that enough?

Post-nuclear landscape
After a couple of neat animated logos, a lame picture of what looks ike rock duo 'Roxette' fades up, followed by a narrated introduction to the post-nuclear style world where the game is set. If you select English as the language (there's an impressive list of ten to choose from) you actually get the spoken introduction spooled off the CD. It's a bit cheesy and predictable, but let's not look a gimmick, sorry I meant a gift horse, in the mouth.

Moving swiftly on with a tap of the spacebar, an impressive animation of dubious relevance acts as a bridge to introduce the plot of the game, in which a car is chased through some streets and a tunnel before the closing caption. 'Once again, the head of the Mafia escapes from the hands of justice'. The animation is quite lengthy and so it's displayed direct from the CD. You'll need a 4x CD drive to watch it at full speed - played on an expanded CD32 it pauses every few seconds.

Still with me? Good. To re-cap the basic plan, there's this Mafia boss who needs sorting out, and you're the man for the job. You and who's army? You might well ask. Actually, you and 'your' army, if you've got enough friends to draw upon. While on the surface, this looks like a substandard Renegade clone (we'll come to that later) it does actually have some new twists, not least the option to have up to eight human players taking part at once! Vulcan can supply you with a multi-way joystick adaptor, or you can squeeze in on the keyboard. That's not to say you can't play it alone though.

There are actually four main gameplay modes to choose from: Action, Deathmatch, Gang War and Practice. Action mode is your basic 'beat up the gang to move onto the next level' type of thing. Deathmatch allows you to select any of its 24 characters and then slog it out in a free for all with no computer controlled enemies.

Gang War is like the Deathmatch, but you can team up with other human players to form two-gangs of three, three of two or whatever you like.

Two dimensional
Despite the earlier references to the likes of Tekken and co you can see from the screen shots that this is not really in the same league. While passers by have commented on its likeness to Streets of Rage, I can't help seeing the similarities with that seminal gang war beat 'em up, Renegade.

Like Renegade, Strangers is a series of horizontally scrolling 'stages' in the form of various shifty locations around the aforementioned post-holocaust city.

About two screens in width, they scroll with the players as they mince one way then the other. Although you can walk up and down the screen as well as side to side, it's well and truly two dimensional. That's to be expected of course, and no bad thing in itself. The trouble is, it's not just the graphics that are flat - the gameplay is too.

Before long the process of beating up your opponents becomes all too mundane. For a start, none of the moves are particularly exciting with your basic punches, kicks and the odd wrestling move. If the level boss notices you're close to death, he'll put you out of your misery with one of the 'fatalities' by shooting your arm off, then your head. If you don't want this level of gore there's a parent lock' password, used to enable or disable the fatalities.

There's also weapons to pick up, but these offer little distraction from the punchbag monotony. Things improve as more human players join in the brawl, but still the shallow action does little to get the blood boiling. Strip away the fancy rendered intro screens and sequences, and you're left with a game that's desperately trying to improve on its simplistic origins.

The huge variety of characters, gameplay variations and options do make a difference. In fact they will be enough to save the game in the eyes of some. But let's be frank. The gameplay really is like something from a mid-80s time capsule. That could be acceptable in some genres but beat 'em ups have come a long way since then.

It's clear that big efforts have been made, but at the end of the day they are all in vain. If that same amount of effort had been put into developing the core gameplay I'm sure things would have been different. Bigger sprites, faster action, more intelligent enemies, tougher sound and professional looking graphics should have been at the top of the list.

This is a shame, as the Amiga has never been catered for when it comes to beat 'em ups. Anyone working on similar projects would do well to take a look at the classic IK+ and the Amiga conversion of Mortal Kombat to see how speed, graphics, sound and balanced gameplay can be combined to good effect.

The usual suspects

There's an impressive number of characters to choose from (not that it seems to make much difference who you control). In the interests of sexual equality, there's the usual sprinkling of female fighters too. Have you noticed how they all bear a spooky resemblance to those Valhalla chaps?

Introducing... a car chase

Whatever you think of the in-game graphics, the rendered 3D car chase intro sequence is pretty impressive. While it starts looking like a couple of toy cars running around a cardboard set, it soon gets more convincing with some dramatic camera-motion-blurred camera panning. It all ends up in the satisfying predictable crash. What a shame it's got nothing to do with the game itself.

The Strangers The Strangers The Strangers The Strangers The Strangers