Games that pit a landing spacecraft against its natural enemy, gravity, have been released for virtually every manmade computing device except the abacus. However, it's been a pretty dry decade for lunar-lander simulations. Aside from a few shareware efforts and Palm Pilot programming exercises, no notable addition to the landing category has appeared since the late 1980s. Lander is Psygnosis' attempt to reinvigorate the genre by incorporating 3D-accelerated visuals and audio, multiplayer options, and even DVD support into the classic tale of descending spaceship vs. attracting celestial body. But thanks to Lander's perversely counterintuitive control scheme, Psygnosis may have killed this endangered breed of game for good.
Lander has a story. Well, enough about Lander's story. The game is structured as a series of jobs that can be completed for payment. At times, you may have several commissions available at once, making the navigation of the game's thirty or so levels not strictly linear. You can use the fees you collect by successfully completing tasks to purchase new weapons, upgrade your ship's engines and shielding, or even procure one of five different landing vehicles. Every mission involves piloting your craft to some planetary hotspot and either extracting or delivering an object before your fuel runs out. Often there are complications, such as having to battle aggressive tanks and gun turrets. A few missions include some surprises. For example, one routine recovery job has you unexpectedly defending a besieged tank commander who radios you for help. But generally, the most notable struggle is the one to keep some semblance of control over the squirrelly hindquarters of your spaceship.
Your landing craft is designed in the style of the famous Japanese movie monster Gamera. However, instead of a single jet sticking out of its rear, the ship's sole rocket thruster is affixed to its belly and pointed straight down. Like the giant flying turtle, your lander is in constant danger of flipping over and getting stuck on its back while its stomach-mounted engine pushes it farther into the ground. There's a keyboard command to right the craft, and you'll be using it often, since controlling the vehicle is so difficult. To move the ship, you must point it in the direction you'd like to travel then apply some thrust. The ship will shoot off in that direction, its trajectory influenced by the force of gravity. If you've applied too much throttle or simply want to go in another direction, you need to reorient the ship and fire the thrusters again. The problem is that getting the ship to point in the desired direction is much trickier than it should be. Using a combination of the mouse and keyboard, you can rotate the ship on three axes, but the rotation is inexact and especially difficult in the heat of battle.
Once more or less mastered, the control scheme works best only when the game gives you some room to maneuver, such as when you're flying over the surface of a planet with nothing but sky above you. At these times, Lander is almost enjoyable. Unfortunately, the goal of virtually every mission rests within a maze of cramped, Descent-like tunnels. Attempting to pilot the craft through these areas is unpleasant at best. Worse yet, the camera placement is not always up to the task of providing you with a clear view of your surroundings. Often, you must attack ceiling-mounted turrets that are not actually visible, and flying up through vertical tubes is an act of faith since the default view points down. You can adjust the camera manually, but it's just too cumbersome when you're simultaneously trying to micromanage control of your ship. This extreme, unwavering difficulty combined with a lack of an in-mission save option guarantees hours of frustration.
At least Lander's graphics are excellent. Fog, lighting, and weather effects are very well done, and if you stick with the game long enough, you'll witness some incredible vistas. The somber techno soundtrack is also good. Up to four players can participate over an IPX or TCP/IP connection in any of Lander's three multiplayer game modes - deathmatch, capture the flag, and tag. The multiplayer game is stable and relatively smooth over the Internet, but is really nothing more than a chance for you to experience the agony of controlling Lander's wacky spaceships with three of your friends.
The single-thruster craft, while perfect for games about landing on the moon, is wholly unsuited to the precision indoor combat maneuvers simulated in Lander. It's like taking a blimp to a jet battle. Lander is ultimately a grim depiction of a future in which mankind's elite starship pilots don't even have the common sense to choose the right tool for the job.