Meanwhile in downtown Antartica a lone American steals toward the enemy base. He (we can assume it's a man, I think: no woman would be so daft!) has been parachuted into hostile territory. His mission: sabotage. Yesterday, it was fighting in the desert to rescue hostages, and the day before that, kidnapping an enemy officer. Any time, any place anywhere, there's a wonderful world you can share: that's the Airborne Ranger, a versatile (and overworked) soldier who's just dying (maybe literally) to kill.
Those action simulation people Microprose have moved into the realm of arcade-style combat games, where the Airborne Ranger is a keen, lean, mean, fighting machine trained to perfection at taking missions only the very best (or the suicidal, or immensely stupid) would attempt. Yes, you are that soldier and your country needs you! So pick up your M-16, grab some grenades, praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, 'cause you've just been drafted to serve Uncle Sam.
Microprose's rock solid reputation is based largely on the simulation of technology with games such as the marvellous Gunship (AA37, 82%) and F-15 Strike Eagle (AA24, 85%). Airborne Ranger marks a departure. Now you get to control a man rather than a machine, and with no high-tech weapons or warning systems, it's brain power that will win the day - but only if it's allied with a skil....ful use of your very limited arsenal. Stealth and good planning are as essential to success as speed and daring.
Airborne Ranger is an action strategy game that neatly balances the frantic fun to be had from pure shoot-'em up-style games with the more edifying pleasure of spotting and exploiting the weak spots in the enemies' defences. For the game is ostensibly a battlefield simulator, but you have the choice of which battle, the danger level and choice of tactics.
The game commences with a choice of missions, all with varying difficulty levels, peculiarities and individual testing sections. These range from the theft of an enemy codebook, to cutting a supply pipeline to rescuing P.O W.'s. None looks particularly intimidating, but then again...
After choosing which corner of a foreign field will most likely be forever yours, you are presented with the option of how dangerous you want the mission to be. There's no setting for completely simple, unfortunately, but there you have it. Having named your poison, it's off to the wild blue yonder, to get airborne and start ranging.
You are dropped into enemy territory from a low flying aircraft. The screen (in the form of the map used later) then shows you the terrain which you must cross not only to achieve the objective of your mission, but perhaps more importantly to reach the pick up point, that lovely spot where you are whisked back to safety. At this time you also get the choice of where to leave supplies - ammunition, grenades and first aid kit (you won't want to forget that!) - for Ron (later Ron).
And now, the moment you've been waiting for: it's time to tumble out of the plane towards terra firma and commence your task. The scene changes to where you've landed. Three terrains are available: arctic, temperate and desert. While they exhibit variations in map notation, they are much the same (but temperate is far and away the prettiest on which to meet your maker). Happy landings are a thing of the past: it's carbine at the ready and time to explore the three dimensional landscape, and to find that foe.
The Ranger (he's the one in the natty blue boiler suit. Mmm, very nice) must now fight his way to the target. A check on the position of the supply pods, his own present situation, the objective and the pick up point (the most important by far - mummy I want to go home!). Having established where you are, and where you want to go, the choice is how to get there. Basically the options are speed and stealth, each having its merit at different times. You must decide from the intelligence map the best tactic. The sensory-activated machine guns nestling in the bunkers, for instance, shoot and rarely miss, so caution is the thing there. Traversing wide open spaces, on the other hand, invariably attracts those chappies who for no apparent reason have taken such an instant dislike to you, so it's time to get the Reeboks on and make like Ben Johnson (before they asked for the medal back!).
The Ranger is miserably armed on landing, with just a M-16 carbine, a few grenades, a knife, some time bombs and just the one anti-tank missile. Honestly, how do they expect a soldier to do his job? So your first task is to locate and collect the supply pods you dropped for yourself. There is, however, a very strict limit to the amount the trooper can carry - bit tough saving the world with a hernia so it's vital to space out your drop zones. The alternative, which is not recommended, is to ask your foes if they'd mind lugging equipment around, until you could kill them with it.
The current state of your armoury is shown on a panel to the right, of the games screen it informs you what's left to use, which weapon you're employing at present and the like. On the opposite side is your current health panel (how many of them you can kill versus how quickly they are going to kill you), which tells you how your stamina is holding out, how many times you've been shot (three wounds and it's time to play The Last Post) and how much first-aid there is left in your pack to treat these wounds. One pack of first-aid heals one wound, and there are only four packs available. So you be careful now, you hear?
Once again there's one of those Microprose maps (did they buy a job lot at a software auction, do you think?) to plan the best way of approaching your target, making sure you pass by the supply canisters along the way. The routes you choose depend on the task in hand: on some routes contact with the enemy is discouraged, as the objective may scarper (they also kill you), while others require no such stealth.
When the noise of bullets flying past, your ears starts to get tiresome, and a bit of serious hiding is called for, the landscape provides all manner of cover - walls, tree stumps and some impressive graphics of trenches to cower in.
When you've finally fought, crept, crawled and blasted your way through to the muck, bullets and barbed wire, it's time to earn your crust as one of the soldiering elite. Rather than just fighting and killing a bigger, more powerful version of the same opponent you've locked horns with all game long, however, each mission features a different task as a finale. Some involve the use of the timebombs collected en route to blow up installations (which needless to say upsets the locals a touch) and thus makes surviving to celebrate your victory that much less likely.
Other missions require that as little attention as poss is attracted to your person, such as photographing an enemy aircraft (nice touch with the flashgun, very Fleet Street hack).
After completing your task it's time to recall the pilot who dropped you in this mess in the first place. But guess what? You've got to wait around for him to arrive! Don't pilots and Rangers get on or something? First he drops you miles away from where you want to go, then takes his time on the pick up. Honestly, it's like the 74 bus.
While you wait just keeping yourself alive - let alone anyone you've kidnapped/rescued - can prove terribly tough on the nerves.
All this action is played out on an impressive (but not, it must be said, stunning) three dimensional screen, with a landscape which scrolls past as the Ranger remains central. Graphic effects for the trenches provide some nice touches, with Mr. Airborne disappearing from sight momentarily as he dives into them, or as he crawls under the lip of a trench for protection from fire. Other graphics though, fall just short of this high standard and most certainly do not live up to the level of the Commodore 64 screenshots (cheek or what?) on the packaging.
Similarly the movements of the slightly jerky sprites are good but not exceptional. The targeting of the weapons is a great solution to a tricky problem: a cursor floats in front the Ranger and anything in that line of fire is deemed to have been hit. This cursor is also far more mobile than the Ranger himself, allowing for greater (in)accuracy when the going gets tough and the tough get going, without having to be constantly moving your man from cover.
The tolerable sound effects are essential to your survival, since they give you early warning either of approaching troops or of automated machine guns. There is hardly any music, except a tiny snatch as you move between two of the screens.
You may feel that twelve missions is not enough. Take into account your ability to select the relative difficulty of each scenario, though, and the scope for continued enjoyment of this game is vastly widened, as is the number of situations in which you may win death or glory.
Airborne Ranger is fast and fun and calls on the old grey matter just enough to save itself from standing with the mass of 'Wham! Bam! You're dead, man!' games. Practice soon improves your ability to aim the carbine and the strategic level of your thinking. Then it's time to start winding up the degree of difficulty and choose a harder mission. Don't fire 'till you see the whites of their eyes.
There are plenty of Commando-style games around, where you run up the screen shooting the enemy and staying alive. The genre is certainly fast and furious, but it's never taxed the grey matter much.
Until now, that is. Airborne Ranger has in addition the strategic features of objectives, limited ammunition and so on.
What's impressive is that, in gaining them, it has lost none of the blood-thumping action. It's in a class of its own.
It has to be said that for long term gameplay, it doesn't measure up to the likes of Gunship.
At the same time, though, additional excitement exists in the fact that completing a mission is not guaranteed by skill or planning.
Pace and action are very good indeed. The only minor niggles are the price - which is on the steep side at £20 - and the look of the game, which could and should have been more colourful.
Complete a mission.
Some on-screen info, such as the wounds indicator, becomes invisible. But still playable.
P. Absolutely brilliant in places.
N. But only good in others.
P. Not overwhelming - but useful.
Grab Factor 93%
P. Instant appeal, with quick play instructions.
Staying Power 88%
P. Twelve different missions.
P. And plenty of difficulty choice.
P. Great idea. Great game.