Back in the days before anyone dreamed of using the Internet for multiplayer gaming - actually, before anyone had even heard of the Internet - the only venue for computer gamers itching to find multiplayer action was online services like America On-Line, CompuServe, GEnie, and Prodigy. As hard as it might be to believe now, the undisputed leader of the pack was GEnie, where classics like Air Warrior, GemStone III, Island of Kesmai, and many others got their start and developed loyal fan bases.
One of the hottest games on GEnie was CyberStrike, a futuristic combat game where opponents climbed into bipedal fighting machines called CyberPods and squared off for control of a city. The action was pretty intense even by today's standards, but GEnie's exorbitant rates meant you could rack up a pretty hefty bill just getting over the learning curve. That alone was enough to keep most gamers from getting into CyberStrike, and the situation wasn't helped any by the game's plain-Jane graphics - simple, untextured polygons that didn't see any type of enhancement for a good five or six years (or maybe more).
Now CyberStrike creator Simutronics has teamed up with 989 Studios to bring this multiplayer gem up to date with impressive 3D-accelerated graphics and Internet play, and the results are pretty impressive. In fact, I highly recommend it - but don't even think about buying this game at your local software store.
I know, I know - you're wondering why you shouldn't buy a game that's highly recommended. Well, there are a few reasons. For starters, you can download the multiplayer-only version of the game free of charge, and it comes with a couple of single-player missions so you can get your chops down offline. Of course, two single-player missions doesn't compare to the two 20-plus-mission campaigns featured in the retail version, but for me at least, the single-player missions just aren't very interesting - they seem to be mainly a matter of seeing how you can perform when you're outmanned, outgunned, and working against the clock. Finally, it's going to cost you $9.95 a month to play the full version of the game - the only way to access all the maps and weapons - so if you really get into the action you're better off using the money you'd have spent on the retail version for a couple of months' worth of online play.
The action in both single-player and multiplayer modes takes place on Syren, a distant planet accessed via a wormhole where megacorporations mine an element vital for cold fusion. But the megacorporations were constantly skirmishing over territorial claims, and when the wormhole collapsed, the companies split into clans that now fight bitter battles for territory - and survival. The main weapon in the struggle is the CyberPod, a heavily armed walker manned by a pilot and equipped with bays that can be loaded with whatever devices you like (and that are available). The only real limitation facing CyberPods is energy - get too far away from a tower that's providing you with energy, and you'll lose the ability to regenerate shields, fire energy weapons, and even jump.
Naturally, combat is where CyberStrike 2 really shines: There are plenty of fancy explosions, a great variety of weapons and components you can load up in your CyberPod, and numerous opportunities for heavy firefights. But there's also a decent strategic element involved, thanks to the need for energy towers and the unique "stealth" weapons at your disposal. Leech towers drain power from the enemy's towers instead of providing it for you, and descramblers grab a quarter of the power from an enemy's tower and make it available to you. Add in a list of components too long to go into here, and the ability to lay mines and build defensive turrets, and you can see this means war.
In its current incarnation, CyberStrike 2 has a few glitches and oversights that some gamers - me included - will find disturbing. While CyberStrike 2 isn't as complex as, say, MechWarrior 2, there is still a slew of controls to master - and amazingly (some would say criminally) there's no option to reconfigure joystick button assignments. That's probably 989 Studios' fault, since NFL GameDay 99 suffered from the same flaw, but regardless of who's to blame, I find it almost incomprehensible that a game released at the end of 1998 doesn't provide the option to customize joystick buttons - or even keyboard commands, for crying out loud! The topper is that the game assigns commands to only four joystick buttons - talk about finding the lowest common denominator!
Issuing commands to friendly units in single-player games can be a logistical nightmare, but that wasn't much of a sticking point with me since I didn't give a hoot for the single-player missions anyway. More troubling is the inability to set up dead zones for joysticks and rudders; whenever I throw my SideWinder 3D Pro stick to the left, I invariably twist a little by mistake and see my turret rotating when I don't want it to.
Another strange design decision is the inability to fire two or more weapons at a time, even if one's an energy gun and the other a projectile like a tracking rocket that has its own mount. And to make things really confusing, you have to deselect one weapon type before you can use another one: To switch from rockets to grenades, for instance, you have to hit the number for rockets and then hit the number for grenades, rather than just having the grenades command take priority and automatically disable rockets. (Using the function keys automatically switches weapons and components, but only a handful of them are supported.)
I learned to deal with all these quirks, and you probably will too; of more importance are the issues of lag and opponents. The bulk of the games I played online were relatively lag-free, but judging from the in-game chat I saw, lag is either fairly common or there's a lot of whiners blaming lag for their defeats. And nearly two months after going live, you can't say crowds of folks are beating down the doors to get into CyberStrike: the most players I saw online was just under 100, and most of them were using the free shareware version that doesn't give you all the game's really cool features.
Luckily for Simutronics and 989, nearly all the control issues can be addressed in a new version - that's part of the beauty of online games. As far as lag goes, the blame probably lies more with gamers' Internet service providers rather than Simutronics, and when word gets out about how much fun CyberStrike 2 can be, then there should be a nice healthy community of friends and foes there.