Gratuitous explosions have been and are still a source of amusement in video games. However, such entertainment can only last for so long before the purveyor begins to look at other things.
Such is the case with PopCap’s Heavy Weapon.
Outlandish takes of real-world factions were quite popular in video games. That said, Heavy Weapon was made during a time when geopolitical sensitivities were not really a concern. Thus, someone at PopCap came up with the idea of a fictitious version of the USSR, specifically in its waning days when the setbacks of its massive military were beginning to show.
In video games though, the USSR did not collapse; it unleashed its martial might instead. This is the case for this game’s version of the USSR, the “Red Star”. It is led by – of course – larger-than-life Josef Stalin.
In this game’s very brief and perhaps lackadaisical intro cutscene, the Red Star has overwhelmed most of the world. However, what is presumably the game’s version of the USA released its “secret weapon”, the eponymous “Atomic Tank”. After an incredulously brief decision-making process, the vehicle and its crew is sent forth to invade the territories of the Red Star and stop its military at its source.
For better or worse, many indie developers like PopCap (formerly indie, in its case) at the time only had experience in Flash programming. Flash software has mouse-control inherently implemented, but keyboard controls are a rarity.
That said, Heavy Weapon: Atomic Tank and all of its variants on the computer platform only use the mouse, even up to this day. The keyboard is not usable at all, not even for bringing up the main menu.
THE ATOMIC TANK:
The titular Atomic Tank is a tank that presumably has a sci-fi atomic reactor that is powerful enough to accommodate virtually continuous motion and endless firing of its weapons. It is also ridiculously modular, capable of mounting six additional sets of equipment in addition to its default rapid-firing cannon. It can also power a shield around itself.
This allows the Atomic Tank to take on many enemies, often annihilating them soon after they engaged it.
However, the Atomic Tank is not an invincible thing. Its shields can eventually go down. Thereafter, a solid hit from any of the Red Star’s weaponry knocks it out immediately.
Veterans of shoot-‘em-up titles would find this fragility all too familiar. After all, this game was designed to be one, though with a few twists that will be described – and complained about – later.
The Atomic Tank’s primary weapon is a rapid-firing cannon that discharges an endless torrent of projectiles. For ease of convenience, these would be henceforth referred to as “primary-fire”.
The primary fire is directed from the tank to the mouse cursor. One stream follows the line between the tank and the cursor, whereas additional streams diverge off that stream. The primary fire has no range limitation and is not affected by gravity, so its shots can travel across the entirety of the length of the screen.
Each of the primary fire’s shot does not inflict a lot of damage, even after upgrades, so volume and concentrated fire is the means of taking down enemies, especially the large ones.
Speaking of upgrades, a certain allied rotary aircraft will be dropping supplies for the player to collect. These include upgrades for the primary fire. These upgrades increase the number of projectile streams, increase damage per shot and increase the rate of fire. These upgrades are much needed, because the player will be encountering gradually denser waves of enemies.
In the “Mission” mode, one of each upgrade for the primary-fire is guaranteed to be dropped in each mission. In “Survival” mode, the drop rates are more scattered; this will be elaborated further later.
SECONDARY WEAPONS - OVERVIEW:
After each successful mission, the player character visits a resupply station that is somehow willing to serve the invader tank, despite the station being located in Red Star territories.
That said, victory in any mission gives the player one point to spend on the Atomic Tank’s secondary gear. It is unclear whether these are existing modules that have to be gradually activated or are installed onto the tank. Ultimately, neither case matters, because these are evidently sci-fi weapons that would not be out of place in a shoot-‘em-up title.
Not all secondary weapons are available to the player from the get-go. For example, the lightning projector and homing missiles are not available until the player has finished several missions in either mode.
These weapons have their own in-game names, but this review would just use the usual video-game nomenclature for them.
There are the satellite orbs, which circle around the tank. Experienced followers of the shoot-‘em-up genre would recognize these as means of deflecting incoming enemy ordnance. Unfortunately, these have underwhelming upgrade curves; upgrading them increases the number of orbs, but appears to reduce their orbiting speed.
The orbs can deflect almost everything that come into contact with them, with the exception of laser weapons, as mentioned in their descriptions. They also have generous hitbox sizes. However, the gaps between them are large enough such that the player should not rely on them too much to keep the tank safe.
These secondary weapons are available to the player from the get-go. These appear as missile pods that float around the tank, held together somehow with invisible means.
The rockets travel in a straight line from the tank to where the mouse cursor was. In the first few missions, these are generally not desirable, because most enemies in these early missions are too small to be reliably hit with these. However, their value becomes apparent in the later missions, when enemies with large hitboxes appear more frequently.
Homing missiles will be a must-have secondary weapon. This is because the missiles can hit things that are not in the vicinity of the mouse cursor. This mention might seem peculiar; it should be mentioned that this is due to a bad design decision on PopCap’s part, which will be described later.
The laser is an instant-hit weapon, and one that sustains its beam for slightly more than one second. It will be useful for destroying things that the player want destroyed as soon as possible, such as the nukes dropped by atomic bombers.
The lightning projector is another must-have weapon. As its name suggests, it fires an arc of electricity that bounces from one enemy to another, independently of the player’s targeting. This will be useful when there are multiple enemies on-screen.
The flak cannon is the last and perhaps least of the weapons. That is not due to it being useless, but rather due to the limitation of the control schema. Anyway, the flak cannon creates a cloud of flak where the mouse cursor is. This cloud persists for a short while, rapidly damaging anything in it.
As mentioned earlier, the Atomic Tank can generate a shield around itself. It comes with one unit strength of shielding initially; any replacement tank also comes with one unit. Additional units of shielding can be obtained if the allied helicopter drops the shielding power-up.
Every hit that the shielding takes reduces its strength by one unit. After the shield has lost all of its strength, it is stripped from the tank.
There is a problem with the tank’s shielding, unfortunately. When the shielding is active, the shield has its own hitbox, which is larger than the hitbox for the tank without the shielding. Thus, it is easier for enemies to hit the tank when it is shielded than when it is not.
Another problem is that the strength of the shield is displayed through colour hues. This can be a problem for players who have green-yellow-red colour blindness.
Of course, if the player is masterful at having the tank dodge things, this would not be an issue. Unfortunately, dodging is more difficult than it would seem due to two major problems with the game that will be described later.
Three units of strength is the thickest that the shielding could get. Afterwards, the allied helicopter stops dropping shield power-ups.
Most hits from enemies only reduce the strength of the shield by one. However, there are no moments of invincibility, so the tank is at risk of taking multiple hits in a short time. This is where the defence orbs would come in handy; any further hits after the first one is likely to run into the orbs.
For all the shielding that the tank can have, there are enemies that can knock out the tank with a single hit.
Some regular units have these. There is the laser on the goofy weaponised satellite, which moves about erratically. There are the “war plows” of the Red Star, which destroy the tank immediately if its business end comes into contact with the tank. The atomic bombs dropped by the atomic bombers annihilate the tank if the player could not stop them from hitting the ground.
Most bosses also have one-hit attacks. This is indeed the case for those that hop about. One of these bosses even has an additional one-hit weapon in the form of plasma projectors that are built into its “eyes”.
As its name suggests already, the atomic tank has the ability to deploy nukes. Deploying a nuke immediately destroys all enemies and ordnance on-screen, with the exception of bosses (though they do take a lot of damage). Sometimes, nukes might even force the current wave to end. (There will be more elaboration on waves later.)
In other words, nukes are practically get-out-of-jail cards. However, nukes are power-ups that compete with other power-ups for delivery from the allied helicopter. Therefore, the player will want to use these sparingly. Furthermore, the player can only have up to three nukes.
For whatever reason, the Red Star war machines sometimes yield special parts when they are destroyed. These parts can be somehow collected by the Atomic Tank and cobbled together into a “mega-laser”. The player will want to collect them; if the player does not do so, the parts fall to the ground and shatter.
The player needs four parts to complete the mega-laser. After that, the mega-laser automatically activates, whether the player wants it to or not.
Not unlike nukes, mega-lasers are get-out-of-jail cards. They can destroy everything that their beams touch, effectively wiping things off the screen.
However, the mega-lasers are dwindling down all the time; firing them accelerates their deterioration. Eventually, with some warning klaxons, the tank reverts to its usual weaponry.
The Atomic Tank is not alone in its campaign. There are allied helicopters – coloured completely white – that drop power-ups. The power-ups have been described already.
The helicopter can only ever drop one power-up; it has scripting that determines what it drops. The scripting is different between the Mission and Survival modes; this will be described further later.
For better or worse, the allied helicopter is something that can be hit by the tank’s weapons-fire. It can take a lot of damage, but if the player persists in shooting in its general direction, it will eventually be destroyed. As punishment, the player will not be getting another allied helicopter for a while.
The game’s side-scrolling is mostly there for aesthetics, but not entirely. When the power-ups fall onto the ground, they appear to move towards the left, which is the direction that the tank is moving away from. Therefore, unless the power-up landed behind and to the left of the tank, the tank is guaranteed to eventually collect the power-up.
MOOKS - OVERVIEW:
No shoot-‘em-up would be one without plenty of foolish enemies to blow up. Incidentally, the Red Star can field many of them and with considerable variety too. For the purpose of this review, they will be described according to their overarching roles in opposing the Atomic Tank. However, before describing them, their munitions would be described first.
Their munitions can be categorized to two overarching types: those that can be shot down, and those that cannot be shot down. The latter type has obvious visuals, like purple and rapidly blinking projectiles and bright beams of energy, to cite some examples.
These are among the first types of enemies that the player would encounter and also the most commonly included in waves.
Bombers are there to saturate the screen with munitions. Their munitions can be destroyed, but there can only be so many that the player can shoot at any moment. Therefore, the player will want to prioritize clearing a space for the tank to move about in, if it is not possible to stop the rain of bombs at their source.
Otherwise, bombers fly in obvious paths and are the easiest enemies to shoot down.
Helicopters are supposed to be the natural predators of tanks – not so in this game. That said, these are armed with homing missiles, which can track the movement of the tank. The missiles have obvious destinations, but they may take paths that are not always the shortest to the tank.
As for the helicopters themselves, they bob and weave about, seemingly in random directions. They are not difficult to knock out, but the player has to strike a balance between fending off their missiles and eliminating them.
GROUND FIGHTING VEHICLES:
These enemies appear on the ground at either edge of the screen. There is ever only just one; the game will not spawn these enemies at both edges of the screen.
There are two types of these enemies. The first type, which is a mobile missile-launcher, is laughably easy to deal with. The other type, which is a battle tank, is more troublesome; it is tough and it fires energy shots that cannot be destroyed with regular fire.
War plows are likely a dreadful sight to players, and if they are not, they will soon be.
War plows are very tough. Although they appear unarmed, they do have dozers that will outright destroy the tank if the latter comes into contact with them. They will move back and forth along the ground on-screen, thus corralling the player character and making it more vulnerable to saturation fire.
Occasionally, the war plows move towards the other edge of the screen, in the direction of the player character. This guarantees the tank’s destruction, if the player cannot destroy the plows in time.
Zeppelins are huge and slow bomb-dumping aircraft. Their slowness is not an issue; this means that they stay on-screen for a long-time, and will be dumping a lot of bombs. Their large size would have been a disadvantage, if not for the fact that like bombers, zeppelins can occupy two different elevations. The ones on the lower elevation will shield enemies at elevations above them, and they so happen to be very tough.
Furthermore, when zeppelins are destroyed, they release energy projectiles that swiftly become hazards.
These are large bombers that drop atomic bombs. The player must prevent the bombs from hitting the ground. If they do, the Atomic Tank is outright destroyed – thus proving that it is not entirely immune to thermonuclear blasts, despite using nukes of its own. The bombs do not destroy other enemies, of course, in a show of video-game logic.
There are some enemies that are certainly not based on any real-world counterparts. These include attack satellites that are somehow bobbing about in the sky and planes that have energy shields. Learning what they do the hard way can be entertainingly unpleasant, but thanks to their obviously unique looks, it would not take long for the observant player to recognize them and change tactics accordingly.
MISSION MODE - OVERVIEW:
The main mode is “Mission” mode. The playthrough is separated into 19 missions. 9 of these occur across the territories of the Red Star; each one is bookended with a boss fight. The next 9 has the player character traipsing through previously cleared territories again, after it is revealed that Red Star has huge reserves of war materiel.
These later missions have denser and more complex enemy compositions. They have bosses too, and these are more troublesome versions of the first nine. Finally, the player character assaults the Red Star HQ, which has the most complicated composition of enemies.
Before every mission, the player decides which upgrade to pursue. After that, the player is given a briefing on what opposition to expect, in addition to a silly anecdote.
During each mission, the allied helicopter always drops the power-ups that upgrade the tank’s primary fire before the other power-ups. There will be no more than one of each of these power-ups per mission.
If the player has somehow maxed out shielding and nukes and keeps these, the allied helicopter does not appear. Instead, enemies seem to drop more mega-laser parts. This is of course a gratuitous reward for doing well.
The player’s progress towards the end of the current mission is shown with a distance tracker at the top of the screen. Other than showing a simple estimate, the tracker is useless.
The tank might be destroyed, but it is not the only one. There are two spares that are supplied to the player for each mission, and these have the same upgrades as the previous tank. However, the player loses all nukes, which can be a setback in the later missions.
Of course, if the player loses all of the tanks, the player fails and has to restart the mission. The game reverts to the game-save that was made prior to the start of the mission, so the player does not lose any progress other than the progress through that mission.
The reserve of spare tanks is replenished after the completion of each mission. The player is awarded bonus points if the player did not dig into the reserves, i.e. did not get the tank destroyed during the mission.
Each mission ends with a boss fight. If the player has been careful and frugal, getting into the boss fight with full nukes, shields and lives will maximize the player’s chances of defeating it.
Mega-laser parts rarely drop close to the end of a mission. There is a long delay in between the end of the mook waves and the appearance of the boss. Therefore, there is no way to bring a mega-laser into a boss fight.
The bosses are typically large and hulking things. Most are flight-capable, but there are some that are not. The latter often have instant-kill attacks, typically by stomping the tank under them. Having the tank come into contact with them also destroys the tank outright. Most bosses also launch a lot of missiles, which follow various paths towards the player character.
Survival mode does not partition the gameplay into missions. Rather, the player gets an unending stretch of terrain, presumably the ruins of cities ravaged by war.
The mode sends in the bombers first, followed by helicopters. Eventually, other more troublesome types of enemies are sent in. The waves become denser too.
The allied helicopter appears after a number of enemies has been destroyed. This number appears to subtly increase after each appearance of the allied helicopter.
In Survival mode, the power-ups from the allied helicopter have greater variation; the power-ups include upgrades for the secondary weapons. This means that the helicopter can be very fickle with its boons.
The player’s objective is to have the tank intact for as long as possible. Its destruction is an eventuality, because of the increasingly denser and more troublesome waves of enemies.
All of the abovementioned are fun. However, the major problems that let the game down would have to be described now.
TANK “FOLLOWS” MOUSE CURSOR:
The tank can move, but the control input for moving the tank is neither reliable nor expedient.
The tank moves horizontally towards where the mouse cursor is. If the horizontal distance between the tank and the cursor is greater, the tank moves faster. Presumably, this is so that the player can move the tank away before it reaches its currently-intended destination.
Unfortunately, such a design also means that the tank would be moving all the time unless the player is having it aim directly upwards. The tank also has to shoot in the general direction that it is moving (something that is awful by present-day preferences). This makes the tank unwieldy.
This problem makes the flak cannon the least useful weapon. The mouse cursor has to be placed over enemies so that the player can eke the most out of the flak cannon. However, this would cause the tank to move too, which is not always desirable.
This issue could have been solved if the developer has implemented usage of the WSAD keys or even the arrow keys. Yet, they did not.
RANDOMIZATION OF WAVES:
One of the traits of most shoot-‘em-ups that make them eventually beatable is that the appearance of enemies are pre-scripted. This is not the case with Heavy Weapon, because the waves of enemies have compositions that are randomized to various degrees.
In the Mission mode, the mission briefing shows the types of enemies that would appear during the mission. Each of the waves will use a combination of these enemies, but the player will not know what combinations would be sent.
Sometimes, the combinations may be easy, such as bombers-only waves, in which the simplest and most efficient response to shoot wildly into the skies. At other times, the combination can be troublesome, such as war plows, attack satellites and helicopters.
In Survival mode, the mode begins with relatively simple enemy types first, namely the bombers. Additional types are introduced as the seconds accumulate. The types of enemies are packaged into waves too. With more types of enemies, the permutations of the waves become more varied; the probability of the player getting a very troublesome wave increases over time.
On their own, these two problems would have been manageable. If the waves have not been random and are fixed, the player can compensate for the mouse-only controls by memorizing the incoming waves. If the waves have randomized combinations but there had been more than mouse controls, the player can overcome the waves with deft control inputs. Yet, neither resolution is possible.
Being a game made with Flash during its time, most of the visuals in Heavy Weapon Deluxe are understandably 2D sprites cobbled together and animated to look like they are moving. If the game is to be judged with the perceived ‘standards’ of indie games of the present-day, most of its visuals would appear to have stood the test of time.
There are noticeable blemishes though. There are the laughably ugly artwork and animation for the story cutscenes; these are notably nowhere near the presentation that one would expect from a PopCap title in its pre-Electronic Arts days.
There is also the artwork for the user interfaces. The game has these zooming in and out of the screen, along a direction perpendicular to the screen. The loss of resolution is notable during these moments.
The most entertaining visual designs are those of things being blown up, of course. The background art will never change in any way (other than perhaps the mushroom clouds that appear when nukes are used), but the other things that are going on-screen and getting blown up would compensate for that. Indeed, having the tank annihilate dozens of enemies in a short time can be gratuitously entertaining.
That said, the game does have the same problem that all shoot-‘em-up titles have; it can be hard to see the projectiles of enemies when there are many bits flying all over the screen. Of course, this game has a few means of addressing this issue.
Firstly, almost all enemy projectiles can be shot down. Secondly, the ones that cannot be destroyed with regular fire are bright purple circles, which make them stand out from the others. (That is so, unless the player has colour-blindness involving the hues that make up purple.)
There are no voice-overs for the story cutscenes. This is just as well because they are just so poorly done that having voice-overs would not have improved them.
Interestingly, there are voice-overs for the gameplay though. There is the announcer with the artificial baritone, who would deliver the most gratuitous announcements. The allied helicopter has its own voice-over too; this is used to warn the player that the helicopter is taking friendly-fire.
There are not many musical tracks to be heard. There is an electronic track for the main menu and the screens before the beginning of a mission or survival attempt. After that, there is a track that sounds like a parody of the songs that were heard in the Soviet era.
Understandably, the most notable sounds to be heard from the game are the explosions, gunfire and ordnance-launching. Observant players would notice that every category of enemies or enemy ordnance has their own set of sound effects. For example, during the launch of ballistic missiles from behind the background, the player can hear sirens going off in the distance. Thus, the player will want to keep an ear out for such occurrences because they have significance in the gameplay.
Heavy Weapon Deluxe delivers on its main promise of giving the player plenty of things to blow up with a ridiculously over-gunned war machine. In other words, the game does what most shoot-‘em-ups do. Unfortunately, where it diverges from other titles in the genre is where it falters.
The two aforementioned problems of mouse-only controls and randomized wave combinations stack together to deliver increasingly frustrating experiences. Consequently, this is not a game that consistently poses a challenge that can be overcome with deft skill. Rather, stubborn persistence and luck would eventually matter more, but the pay-offs are rather lackadaisical.
This is a game that has not aged well. Perhaps nostalgia would go some way to suppress the frustration that would arise. For anyone else that is not given to this emotion, this old PopCap title deserves to be buried in the past.