Westwood's Recoil doesn't do anything particularly new. Yet it does a number of things particularly well. But not for particularly long.
In your basic Terminator plotline, the future is ruled by The Network, with humans now obsolete and doomed to enslavement by the robo-computer-type totality. Except, of course, there's the Alliance of Dissidents, which is humanity's last hope. The Alliance has reached back in time to you, the player. Help me Obi Wan et al.
You're "jacked in" as it were to a hacked network tank (as in "battle" not "think" - a distinction that will become a theme in the game). Incredibly arty distorted cutscenes give you the lowdown on each mission, with three actors fighting to get in front of the (fish-eyed, black and white, super 8) camera amid distorted text, lots of 1's and 0's, duplicate images, etc. If you do really well, the resident hot chick will call you "sport."
From there on out, it's just you against several hundred bad guys per mission. You know, the whole "drive around, get busted up, pick up health bonuses and power-ups" paradigm.
At first glance, Recoil looks pretty awesome. It pretty much plays like a first-person shooter despite the more facile third-person view (both are available). The thing that makes Recoil good is that the movement of the tank itself and its gun turret work independently of each other. Separate controls are utilized for each. This gives you the capacity for more than simple 90-degree strafing. Since you can rotate the turret a full 360 degrees, and leave it in place, you always have your guns pointing in the right direction before navigating corners, rolling over the crests of hills, etc., allowing for a more tactically savvy game. It takes some serious getting used to, however. While on the surface it's just a more involved mouse look, beginners will tend to get all twisted around and backward and smash repeatedly into walls. Thankfully, there are two instant "realign" keys, to align the tank chassis with the turret and vice versa.
Exacerbating the tricky controls is the tank's sometimes-sluggish response. Control is tight enough, but the thing is, after all, a tank. It rotates real slowly. It accelerates OK, and its top speed is fast enough to let you catch air off many an embankment. It's the rotation of the turret itself that is so infuriating, which I suppose is realistic, but after years of being spoiled by mouse look speeds set to max, some players will find Recoil frustrating.
A cache of special weapons, power-ups, and vehicle modes becomes available as you progress through the six campaigns. Some of these are pretty amazing. The sonic burst cannon has a nice "rippling reality field" effect, totally transparent but with waves of time-space-distortion-type stuff. The laser saber creates a nice eerie hum right before it vaporizes your opponent. The arc saber's high voltage electrical attack, which is haphazard looking but deadly accurate in its capacity to target multiple opponents at once (and requires no aiming), proves that lightning actually strikes more than once. The real payoff is in the tether-guided weapons, however. Both the tether-guided missile and nuke, once launched, switch to a "weapon's-eye" view, so you can steer them through the air. Nice. That said, the box promises 18 different weapons systems, but a lot of these are just upgrades of earlier systems.
The multiple tank modes are more disappointing. The game offers four discrete modes of play that unlock over the course of the game: tracked (default), amphibious, hover, and sub. The first three add little more than new looks to your vehicle. The only effect on gameplay is to unlock new areas. Whether driving on, hovering above, or wading through terrain, handling remains nearly identical. It is with no sense of relief that your hovering tank traverses molten lava - you wouldn't have even bothered attempting to cross it prior to achieving the hover mode. Play is so is so linear in Recoil that the acquisition of a new tank mode is anticlimactic. As soon as it is unlocked, you simply know that the next mission will send you over the new terrain, yet play will remain essentially the same.
It would be terrific if, once you unlocked a new vehicle mode, you had the choice of using it strategically. You don't. Transforming from mode to mode is automatic and occurs whenever the terrain requires it. It would be great if you had some decisions to make, like deciding if it would be safer to crawl steadily up the side of the mountain, taking out the opposition a little at a time, or to fly straight up the side, exposing yourself to fire from all the enemies at once, but making the destination much more quickly. This isn't possible because each change happens incidentally and goes all but unnoticed.
This wouldn't be such a letdown if the level designs were less linear. Most of them go something like this: Blow up the force-field battery, then go past where the force field was, then go blow up the dam, which will raise the water level and make more roads accessible, etc. Ninety percent of the mission objectives are to blow something up. My biggest complaint is that little or no navigational savvy, let alone strategy, is required to do that. Terrain tends to unlock as you go. Hence at any given time, whatever area is accessible (that you haven't already crossed) is probably where you want to go. You never really need to know what you're doing, let alone plan things out on the map. Most of the puzzles are a snap to solve as long as you have the firepower and the patience to take out the enemy forces with a little stealth.
That said, Recoil looks terrific. Cleanly rendered. Awesome weapons effects. Nice enemy unit design. The gentle rain falling on the lakes in the third level is an especially nice touch. In general, Recoil consistently dishes up detailed, smooth graphics with minimum bugginess. The only time things get rough is when you're being fired upon by, say, ten enemy units at once. Then things can get a little choppy. Most of the time the game looks great.
Some of the level designs look great too. The multiple bridges, waterways, and overgrown hobbyist-train enthusiasm of the fourth campaign is terrific. Level one's gladiatorial sandpit arena looks like Spartacus (or Double Team). The wide-open lakes and heavy machinery of level three look very cool. Still, no matter how you dress it up, blowing up stuff is blowing stuff up. The seven different multiplayer levels are based on components from the six single-player campaigns but with completely different maps and power-up locations. Online play is currently available only at Westwood Online.
Recoil's biggest problem is its inability to consistently entertain over time. It comes flying out the gate, guns blazing, with tons of enemies, a sharp look, relentless action, a badass tank at your disposal, and a distinct tactical advantage over the strafing of most shooters. Unfortunately, a few missions in, and the game has lost most of its steam.