More than 40 years after the book was first published, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers has finally become the subject of a computer game. Its publisher, MicroProse, describes it as a "strategy role-playing" game, although it's more tactical than strategic, and its role-playing elements are slim. Starship Troopers combines the unit-based tactical combat of games such as Myth: The Fallen Lords along with the futuristic setting and character-building elements of games such as X-COM: UFO Defense. Unfortunately, it also has poor documentation, a frustrating save system, and a general lack of any tactical depth.
Though it is based on the book, the game appropriates a lot of its design from the 1997 movie. It doesn't retain the film's satire, but it does use the same visual style: The grunts of the Terran Mobile Infantry, the enemy bugs, and the landscapes are all depicted exactly as they were in the movie by Paul Verhoeven. However, the game does feature powered armor suits, which were a central element in the book and were absent from the movie.
The game consists of a linear, 20-mission single-player campaign. You're given an initial allotment of about 40 soldiers. Though you'll occasionally rescue some new recruits in a mission, this pool of soldiers must see you through the entire campaign. Troopers killed in action are gone for good. Before each level, you must create and outfit a strike team of between 12 and 21 troopers to take into battle. At the mission's end, each surviving soldier is awarded experience points that eventually cause him to be promoted. The higher a trooper's rank, the better his overall performance. New equipment, such as better weapons and armor, becomes available at predetermined times within the campaign.
Each of the 20 missions has a series of goals that must be met. These goals are usually presented to you using voice-overs and cutscenes during various points in each mission. Generally, this forces you to react to the moment rather than plan and enact some master strategy. The goals unfold sequentially, and you complete them one at a time. Though you can break your units into squads, move them into formations, and control each one separately, there's very little reason to do any of this. Your troopers have a much greater chance of surviving if you keep them in a tight knot and move them around as a single group. Each level becomes an exercise in simply marching your squad around the map and watching your troops gun down any bugs that get in your way.
The levels generally take 20 to 40 minutes to complete. There is no in-mission save feature; you can only save your progress between levels. Depending on your tolerance for frustration, this may create tension but will more likely make Starship Troopers a tedious chore to play. For instance, one level concludes with a sequence in which you must defend a military outpost from an onslaught of bugs. It's a difficult task, but it's exciting. Unfortunately, it takes place after more than ten minutes of relatively uneventful marching around. The defense portion itself is one of the few times the game really requires some tactical thought, and there are several different ways to approach it. But the amount of time required to get to this point makes redoing the level more annoying than fun and acts as a real disincentive to play it again just to test out some different strategies. What's even more frustrating is that there's no way to skip the cutscenes during a mission, which makes replaying any of the levels even more of a trial.
The game is presented using fully 3D graphics. Though it doesn't look quite as good as some recent 3D real-time strategy games such as Ground Control and Homeworld: Cataclysm, Starship Troopers is still visually impressive. The missions take place in a variety of different locations, times of day, and weather conditions. Virtually every one is atmospheric and well done. The animations of the troopers and bugs are excellent as well. Some of the enemy creatures, such as the giant plasma bug that's about 20 times the size of one of your troops, are particularly well done.
The manual for Starship Troopers deserves special condemnation for being wholly inadequate. Not only does it not give you much useful information about the game, but it also doesn't even provide a list of the many keys needed to control your troopers. And since there's no way to remap the keyboard controls, you're pretty much on your own to discover what the different keys do. At least there's a list of the keys in the FAQ file on the game's official site.
Thanks to its great graphics, just watching your soldiers as they storm across the battlefield killing bugs is actually pretty fun - for a while, at least. The problems with the save system, combined with the simplistic tactics you'll use throughout the game, will eventually wear you down. And without any kind of multiplayer mode to fall back on, Starship Troopers simply won't hold your interest for very long.