... and Terminal Velocity begat Fury3 (or FuryFuryFury), and Fury3 begat Hellbender, and Hellbender begat Monster Truck Madness, and we saw them and said, "Enough already!"
Terminal Reality was one of the up-and-coming 3-D action companies when they released Terminal Velocity a couple years back as shareware. Microsoft, who can't stand it when something that they don't own succeeds, snapped them up and had them revamp TV as one of Microsoft's first true games, Fury3. (The "3" stands for the third dimension in gaming, as in 3-D.) For its time, Fury3 was good enough at delivering some pretty fast space-shooting action in a well-rendered environment. It slapped you in the cockpit of a space fighter and set you loose on a planet with plenty of stuff to blow up. Good enough, except for the unforgivable sin of failing to put in any multiplayer capabilities.
Well, Hellbender is more of the same, with the addition of some features that belonged in the first game. It's Fury3 with a few tweaks and not much more, and it's not even as fun as Monster Truck Madness. Let's start with one of Hellbender's more touted new offerings : a more elaborate story. It's here alright, with plenty of lovingly rendered cut scenes and big name narrative (which you can read at the MS link below). Story's good. Story's nice. But what does it have to do with flying a spaceship around really fast and blowing stuff up? Anyway, the tale picks up after your fellow pilots are wiped out by terrorists, leaving you as the sole pilot left to defend the galaxy. The prototype Hellbender fighter is all that's left, and you have to pilot this series of missions to take out fighters, ground structures, power plants, sensors, arrays, and so on. Along for the ride are the voices of Russell Johnson (of Gilligan's Island) and Gillian Anderson (of The X-Files), which add some novel amusement for a while.
For the most part, gameplay is all you could expect: fast and fiery. There are plenty of targets to shoot at, and missions tend to have several goals to keep things interesting. You can zoom in close to the ground without fear of crashing, since the Hellbender levels itself out at ground level. Or you can fly above the clouds to avoid ground fire and take on other fighters in the peaceful serenity of a black void. Much of this will be familiar to Fury3 players. In its bid to become Descent, however, Hellbender has made its tunnel missions more complex. These are missions in which you fly into underground bunkers and tunnel networks, doing many of the same things you did on the surface, except in a more confined space. The tunnels in Hellbender are more twisting and complex than the ones in Fury3, and the action on the whole is more tense. This doesn't necessarily make it more enjoyable, though: I found the cramped spaces merely annoying and the confusing tunnel networks hard to navigate. More often than not, I wound up lost, confused, and not very happy - but then again, I didn't like Descent, either.
The last big change in Hellbender is the inclusion of network play for up to eight people, including full Internet play. This is the feature Fury3 should have had and didn't, so it's good to finally see it in place. Unfortunately, the way it's implemented now, Internet play really only works well with about four people, and then only after a good deal of wrestling with configurations and other technical matters.
Even with these new elements, as well as the expected new arsenal of weapons and enemies, Hellbender is beginning to creak with age. The graphics tend to be blocky, and are often more bland than those found in Fury3 or Terminal Velocity. Frame rates are pretty poor on most systems even in low-res, and in hi-res they're just appalling. Some new effects, such as rain and lightning, clutter the screen without being effective. This game engine is getting old, and it's about a year overdue for retirement. Microsoft should have let it fade into the sunset - maybe get it a nice condo in Boca Raton - but instead we get another tired retread of a system that's outstayed its welcome.