Friday, April 08, 2022

Special Forces

I ain't gettin' on no plane!

Microprose Special Forces is the 1992 sequel to Airborne Ranger, which I have never actually played oddly enough. Anyhow, this game is also a semi-realistic action simulator that puts us in charge of an A-Team group of elite soldiers. And these tough nuts love getting sent on various dangerous missions in the world's nicest places. They love it, trust me.

Hey, I posted about Special Forces in our Box Art section a few years ago, check it out :)

As the game loads, it begins with what I can only describe as a wonderful intro! This animation illustrates the soldiers arriving by helicopter and then being dropped into a dense jungle. These are the lucky guys who have a total of 16 missions throughout different parts of the world, be it desert, ice, jungle, or (erm) temperate. Only four from your team can be selected for each mission and it's your task to kit 'em out correctly and according to mission requirements.

Special Forces is a combination of action and strategy so the learning curve for a game like this is usually tough. Thankfully, Microprose has provided four difficulty levels so it's worth starting out as a lamer, which is officially called 'conscript'. That means you have an upper hand with a more forgiving game that uses better weapons, easier enemies and a map detailing mission targets. This is excellent as it allows you to master the game at a great speed - which is superb.

This game will eat away the hours. Still interested? Good, read on...

Having cleared the area of all enemies, I feel a need for reconnaissance to see what lies ahead.

The entire southeast is now free from baddies but, looking at the map, I've still much to do!

Getting to grips

The action is controlled using the joystick so easy to manoeuvre my gang of elite soldiers. Unlike Gauntlet, these soldiers won't immediately face in the required direction but will rotate/turn around. Their current facing direction is indicated using an 'X' pointer which might be discerning at first, especially when the enemy is up close.

Optionally, the F10 key will toggle between snipping/movement mode which is worth experimenting with before rushing off like Rambo... See which method you prefer to use, especially during the heat of battle?

The keyboard is also used to provide loads of extra functions and this is something I found particularly frustrating. At first, it is quite bewildering for my old brain, so I dug out pen and paper to jot down what I felt was a priority to get me started. Let's take a look at the basics to get you through the initial games without dying...

For any mission, get your bearings by hitting the UNDO key to display an overhead map of the warzone. As you will see, your men are shown along with the surrounding area with key places, be that the enemy complex, bridges, trucks, etc. Any red dots are enemy soldiers that are within earshot so beware. Hitting the 'I' key will show more of these red dots based on the latest Intelligence - use this feature as much as possible. Very handy!

This map can also be used to travel great distances setting waypoints by hitting the spacebar and using your joystick. However, I wasn't fond of this feature because it left me unnerved as I prefer to be in control rather than watching my men wander off. But that's just me being a control freak?

As you can see, the map is an incredible tool and so invaluable. Use it for anything you can, planning safe routes, attacking, creating safe zones, it's all up to you. Of course, it helps with mission objectives like knowing just where to plant explosives for example. Basically, if you don't use the map then you're a fool.

Okay, hitting UNDO again returns you to the action. Now press the HELP key for a nifty map of the immediate surroundings as an in-game window - very helpful. Now you can select which team member you wish to view/control using function keys F1-F4 (press twice to control). Key 'A' will select automatic weapons, key 'R' for rifles, and key 'G' for grenades. The weapons your men have at their disposal depend on their individual skillset:

Pistol - is a good weapon with plenty of ammo and a lot more accurate than I imagined.
Machine gun - it's fun spraying bullets like one of the A-Team. But it's also very loud...
Machine/Rifle - a good backup when other weapons have run out of ammo (IMHO).
Grenade - this blows stuff up very well. Just get your aim right!
Law Rocket - Holy Moly don't get too close!
LTD - Laser Target Designator, used for airstrikes.
Explosives - lay a bomb, walk away, and when ready, watch the firework display.

Don't be blown away by information because this game rocks. Let's check out some more screenshots...

I should use explosives to halt enemy soldiers from getting across the bridges and surrounding me.

As you can see, I've cleared the east and destroyed all bridges, but my team is hurting and tired!

Play the game

So let's begin a game. There are lots of missions to choose but it's best to start at the beginning and work your way through in order. Read the dossier and note any details you think will be handy before deciding which soldiers are best for the mission. Each soldier has their own special abilities, skills and fitness levels. Decide based on the current mission demands - and tool them up accordingly. Pistols, rifles, explosives, etc... Think carefully.

When in enemy territory, don't rush off like a headless chicken, seize the opportunity to view the map to get your bearings. Each mission takes place over a ginormous area with enemies hiding in the brush, patrolling, or haplessly wandering (argh, I hate those trigger-happy dudes manning the gun turrets). The map also displays essential places for the current mission, like enemy bases, bridges, rivers, roads, supply convoys, etc.

Just watch out that someone doesn't sneak up on you while you're thinking about your next move. If they do, why not use your explosives expert to destroy a bridge and cut them off? You won't want the fight coming at you from multiple directions so learn to control the action. A nice tip to get you started ;-)

Specials Forces split me in two: one part is a Commander deciding what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. The other is a soldier, all too eager to kill nasty people, blow stuff up and rescue the innocent. Hey, remember there is no 'I' in team, so think as a collective rather than solo. Why not lay traps or use a soldier for reconnaissance?

Whatever mission you chose to send your boys on, firstly, get a grip on the joystick controls and the method of quickly flipping between your soldiers. Not only that but also flipping between the different weapons that each soldier is carrying. Periodically check the map to see what dangers and points of interest are in your local vicinity.

The beauty of Special Forces is that you're always in charge whatever the circumstances and that's all within a free-roaming world. There are many different types of missions with each presenting a wide range of potential problems and their solutions. You will probably spend lots of time studying the map and planning? I hope.

And with that in mind, it's time for more screenshots that I took with my phone...

This sounds too good not to attempt, and it's a night so I need stealth and explosives?

Okay, the boys have arrived safely but it's dark and there are many dangers across the "water"


Oh, this is so good - I gotta say that I love the visual style employed by Special Forces. Each terrain looks the part so perfectly, especially the Arctic regions. Attention to detail is superb no matter where you happen to be so it's easy to tell that a lot of effort went into designing these locations. I also appreciate the subtle extras like shadows that add depth.

The sprites are nice and well-animated but hardly a requirement for a game like this where you don't want the enemy to be hanging around too much! Thanks to our angled point of view, it's always funny to see the little soldiers wobbling as they walk. Scrolling is good in all directions but you have the option to press F9 at any time for 60Hz.

However, the top-down view might work great, but it's a little too close. I would have liked it zoomed out because this might prevent me from accidentally walking into a turret or hidden ambush. Perhaps I'm being too picky?

Yeah, I usually am so with that in mind, let's view some more screenshots...

Another day, another mission. Unfortunately, I'm in the heat of the battle right from the start!

It's a heavily fortified island and I figured it might be a good idea to first cut two supply routes...


After a fantastic intro, there is no music beating out from your Atari ST speakers. Not even during the menus, which is where you spend lots of time tinkering before commencing a game. And that's a shame, I'd have loved something YM'y to listen to whilst I kit out my men. The silence here is disappointing so this part feels a little unfinished.

In-game, it needs to be all about the sound effects to help represent what's currently happening. These are sadly, few as there are no decent samples for gunshots or muddy footsteps as you wade through a swamp or dense woodland. In fact, you will mostly get to hear gunfire from either yourself or nearby enemies taking their potshots. Regardless, I am glad there's no annoying music as I would have needed to disable that to concentrate on the gameplay.

Argh, the audio could/should have been better so let's cheer you all up with a shot of my ST setup...

The manual isn't the most helpful and can feel bloated with unnecessary information.

The CryptO'pinion?

At first, I was unsure about Special Forces because there are initially so many keys to learn and the manual isn't the best (quite dispiriting if I'm honest). Also, I wasn't too sure about the point of view as I often got attacked by enemies that were off-screen. I was dismayed about the lack of health kits so once your soldier is critically injured you may as well keep him safe somewhere or send him to the drop zone - but at least it's not a case of one shot and you're dead!

Once past the hurdle of learning the keys, I began to relax and enjoy the game for all the tactical joy it possesses. Each mission is its own giant adventure of pain and misery so, being out in the field, is a thrill because the world is immense and so great to explore. It's up to you how to play, either devise a route or calculate how you're going to cope against an overwhelming enemy. Or perhaps sneak through picking off the enemies one by one?

Whatever you're after, Special Forces isn't faultless but it is deep in exploration, strategy and action. So, it's very engaging and captivating therefore one of the best war games I've ever had the pleasure to play. Many hours of fun to be had!

Oh yeah, I'm proud to own this piece of Atari ST gaming history!! Are any fans out there? Let me know...

Saturday, April 02, 2022


When nerds play...

I'm not big on social media, as you know, but one of the reasons I remain on the cesspool that is Twitter is to follow people like Jonathan Thomas. Yep, that same dodgy fella who developed Pole Position for the Atari STe and then dared to update Lotus Turbo II in ways I never thought possible. Okay, I guess he's not a bad lad...

Anyhow, his tweets are often fascinating because he pokes within the depths of ST games. It's here that weird techniques are discovered or he experiments with probable improvements. He also playtests enhancing performance by utilising the Atari STe hardware. All this coding talk is way over my head but intriguing nonetheless.

So, onto his latest 'project', a horizontally-scrolling shooter for the Atari STe not too dissimilar to Menace, R-Type, etc. Although it's early days, Jon is using the hardware scrolling with the sprites/particle effects handled by the Blitter. There's no DMA sound but I cannot complain as he was generous in sending me an early beta lol

I asked Jon for his thoughts and ideas for what might eventually be a new Atari STe game. Although he replied having no concrete plans for a full game, he did hint toward several extremely promising goals:

A title screen (we will need a name for this!)
16x16 sprites for a selection of individual enemies
Each sprite will use 10-15 predefined attack moves
A couple of (2-3 minute) stages with increasing difficulty
A "game completion" screen
Multiple DMA sound effects
Chipmusic hopefully by (fingers crossed) Dma_Sc

Having "played" this beta, I must say it's impressive along with the prospect of what's already been achieved in a short time. I really liked the feel of the joystick controls and collision detection is spot-on. Border rasters indicate the remaining CPU time for future development opportunities so demonstrate great potential. Yes, I'm excited!

If like me, you love hearing what other people are doing with their Atari STs then take a look at Jon's Twitter stream. It's amock with weird programming gizmos (that I shall never understand) as he enjoys dismantling many Atari ST games. I can only imagine the dorky fun Jon has with his Atari STe and I hope that continues.

Update: Jon has started a source repository for those interested in helping out.