Everyone knows that drinking and driving are a bad combination, but where does the law stand on driving and shooting at the same time? The ragtag group of mercenaries that make up the Renegade Ops crew strike fear into the black hearts of evildoers the world over, so they're probably not too concerned about doing things by the book.
It's this attitude that makes this foursome just the right people to call when quintessential movie bad guy Inferno threatens to do horrible things to the world's denizens. We know this because, well, he says so, in the game's cinematics and objective updates, each of which is told through attractive animated comic-book-style interludes. Inferno has a pinch of Hank Scorpio from The Simpsons about him, and when he threatens the powers that be, who in turn are crippled by fear and are unwilling to act, in step Renegade Ops members Armand, Diz, Roxy, and Gunnar with their home-grown brand of justice.
The game is a twin-stick shooter with the odd button press to fire off secondary weapons or activate each character's unique ability. Armand's shield makes him invulnerable to damage for a short period of time; Diz's electromagnetic blast disables nearby enemy vehicles; Roxy (our favourite character) is able to call in a brutal rocket strike from above, scorching the earth and obliterating anything in its way; and Gunnar's vehicle can deploy legs. While the latter sounds a bit naff, the legs allow him to sacrifice mobility for a noticeable damage boost. None of these abilities require unique ammo and instead are powered by a slowly regenerating energy bar. Roxy's fireworks display is impressive and deadly, but it's slow to recharge, making it most useful to keep in the wings until needed for demolishing large groups.
Killing enemies causes them to drop one of a handful of beneficial crate types. Green crates come in small and large versions, one restoring a small amount of health to your life bar, the other topping you back up to full health. Blue boxes upgrade your mounted guns, increasing your damage and rate of fire, while red boxes grant you a secondary weapon such as a rocket launcher, a railgun, or a flamethrower. Smaller versions of red boxes replenish ammunition spent on these abilities. In a nice little retro throwback, extra lives are scattered around levels, and a bit of exploration gives you an extra chance to fight on. Initially, your guns are overkill against rifle-carrying infantryman, but as you make your way into the scrub, dune buggies and Jeeps give way to mortars, mobile rocket launchers, and heavily armoured tanks that take a greater number of hits to knock out.
It's not just a Sunday drive, though, and as you complete the missions that crop up, objectives reward you with experience points, which in turn level you up. These points can then be spent to unlock items in each character's unique skill trees. Some are offensive abilities, such as reducing recharge times and increasing the potency of attacks, while others make ammo conservation easier, add regenerative health to your vehicle, or allow longer nitro boosts to help evade damage.
Vehicles are floaty, the physics are bouncy, and handling is tight and responsive, perhaps to a fault. While it's great fun cutting up the dirt and grass and leaving muddy circles, some of the game's ramps for moving between areas of differing elevation are quite narrow. If you're attempting a deft driving trick, it's not uncommon to fall over the edge at speed. Luckily, the gameplay field is easy to navigate, the car will auto-correct if you flip over (at times even adding bonus points for acrobatics), and should you wind up somewhere that you're not meant to be, the game resets you to the nearest path without penalty. A marker hovering above your vehicle shows the direction that you're currently pointed in, so even if you get bogged down in thick undergrowth, or plough through buildings, it should mostly be apparent which direction you're facing in as you make your escape.
With Inferno capturing and imprisoning locals, our job became to bust them out, return them to a nearby church safe house, and arm them to the teeth so that they could defend themselves. It was here that we ran into a logistical (and perhaps moral) issue. You can only carry three civilians at once, and the game offers you two simultaneous objectives: civilians can be returned at will, but, in doing so, you'll be avoiding the primary goal of tracking down and destroying designated enemy vehicles. You can juggle both tasks for a while, but after a period of time, the screen flashes briefly to black and white, adding a timer to the lower part of the screen and marching you towards the primary objective.
With civilians reunited with family members, and our Robin Hood weapon-thievery technique turning the tide of war, the bad guys were now on the back foot. Of course, machine guns have limited use against heavy steel, and they sent in large, armoured tanks to clear the area. The first lot of foes fired a single high-damage shell worth steering clear of, but later in the game we encountered other tank variations that proved just as dangerous.
Having cleared the ground, we took to the air, swapping out wheels for helicopter skids. Choppers soared above the battlefield, and we left the rocky environs below and headed out to sea for a boss battle with one of Inferno's huge metal minions, a floating battle cruiser brimming with surface-to-air rocket turrets. Elevation was handled automatically, but a few times during our play we didn't quite soar as high as we needed to, bumping into cliff faces haphazardly and needing to adjust our approach. Heli-ammo is a little more sticky than the stuff you shoot at on the ground, making it much easier to peep your target, open up to lock on, and then strafe around in the air to avoid return fire. While the camera perspective was isometric rather than top-down, combat felt reminiscent of arcade aerial dogfighters like 1942 and Xevious.
Our preview code gave us a look at the game's first four chapters, and while we won't go into the story specifics, let's just say that Inferno is a persistent henchman. We took on and shut down parts of his world domination attempts and plenty of his goons, but they just kept on coming. We're hoping some of the control kinks are ironed out before the game ships this September, but we had a blast, err...are having a blast. Keep an eye out soon for our full review as it puts bullet holes in the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, and the PC.