Have you ever heard of Baron R. K. Von Wolfsheild, the creator and designer of Return Fire 2? I didn't think so, and to be honest I have my doubts as to whether a person with that name really exists or not. But if Return Fire 2 catches on like I suspect it will, then Baron von Wolfshield might just become a household name - at least for PC gamers who are looking for a nearly perfect combination of action and strategy topped off with some pretty serious pyrotechnics.
Return Fire 2 doesn't waste time with a complicated story; all you know is that you're at war because the "enemy" has your flag and you want it back - now. There's no resource gathering or unit construction to worry about: Any buildings that are destroyed are gone for good, and you have a limited supply of up to six different units that you can hop in and control, one at a time. At various points during play you'll drive a tank, a minelayer equipped with heat-seeking missiles (called an ASV, or Armored Support Vehicle), a jeep (the sole land-based unit that can pick up and carry a flag), a jet (sort of like a Harrier), a helicopter (with rockets and machine guns), and even a PT boat (equipped with the heaviest weapon at your disposal).
Obliterating the enemy's offensive units, defensive fortifications, and various buildings is of course rewarding and results in extra medals and commendations, but it's not necessary to emerge victorious. All that's required is that you grab the enemy's flag and get it back to your base - which means it's possible (though highly unlikely) to win a battle without every encountering an enemy vehicle.
You begin each battle in an underground bunker, where you're shown a list of all available unit types and how many of each you've been allotted, along with a tiny radar map that gives you a general idea where your opponent's base and other structures are located. Choose a land-based vehicle, and a lift will take you to the surface; choose an air or sea unit, and you'll take off from an aircraft carrier that's slowly circling the island (a convention that means all battles take place on an island or group of islands).
Flags are kept inside heavily guarded Flag Towers, which are easy to spot because of their pyramidal shape. Bringing down a Flag Tower isn't all that difficult - a single bomb from the jet cracks one open in an instant - but the presence of decoy Flag Towers on all but the smallest maps complicates the discovery process considerably. Because the only way to retrieve a flag is in the nearly defenseless jeep, you've got to do a lot more than simply expose the flag. You also have to knock out enemy missile or gun turrets that could fire on you as you try to claim the prize you so desperately seek.
Control is always a potential problem in a game that puts you in a wide variety of units, but Return Fire 2 handles it about as well as can be expected by keeping things as simple as possible. It's practically impossible to crash the jet, for instance, and the lack of a rotating turret reduces the art of tank warfare to head-on attacks. After a few outings in each unit, though, you'll learn to accept the quirks of each unit and instead begin concentrating on determining the best strategy for finding and retrieving the flag.
It sounds like pretty light fare, but in truth Return Fire 2 is an amazingly deep game even in its single-player mode. Facing an aggressive enemy, you might opt for a defensive stance where you combine the firepower of a tank or ASV with the gun and missile turrets protecting your Flag Tower, base, or other installations. If you feel like taking it to the enemy but find yourself being shot to ribbons before you can close to an effective range, you can man the PT boat and start dropping heavy shells on enemy gun emplacements. Discovered that the enemy has exposed your flag? Then lay mines around it, or try blowing up a vital bridge to force him to use his jeep in its much slower amphibious mode as you hop in your own jeep and move the flag to a safe location. And because the jeep is the only vehicle that can retrieve a flag, you might focus on destroying enemy jeeps until you're sure your flag is safe.
As I mentioned earlier, there's no resource gathering in Return Fire 2 - but that doesn't mean there aren't resources. Radar towers, ammunition dumps, fuel depots, and power stations can be destroyed to rob the enemy of vital information, deplete ammo supplies, leave vehicles stranded without fuel, and make a base more vulnerable. This facet of the game doesn't come into play in smaller battles, but on larger maps where the action can go on for a while, it adds yet another strategic dimension to the action.
All this makes for a pretty intense single-player game, but where Return Fire 2 really kicks out the jams is in its multiplayer modes. Split-screen play is available for up to four players, though it's unclear if the game will take advantage of Windows 98's multimonitor ability - not a biggie, since not many gamers have more than one monitor for their PC. You can also hook up via a serial connection, modem-to-modem, over a LAN, or on the Internet; provided latency isn't a problem, up to 16 players can battle it out as members of teams or in a bloody free-for-all.
Because most gamers don't have easy access to a LAN, the majority of Return Fire 2 players will be looking for action over the Net - but finding opponents might be a sticking point, at least for a while. Return Fire 2 is scheduled for support on Mplayer, but until that happens, about the only way to find fellow Return Fire 2 fans is to hop onto IRC and join the #ReturnFire2 channel (it's on Efnet).I was only able to get into two Internet games, but I was actually shocked at how smoothly everything ran (though in one of those games the computer serving as host was extremely powerful and had a cable-modem connection.)
But if you can get a low-latency game going, you'll be rewarded with not only new tactical and strategic challenges, but also some surprisingly immersive action. With four other players piloting tanks, jets, jeeps, and PT boats, it really started to feel as if I'd been dropped into a war movie. I actually murmured something juvenile like "Awesome!" after one of my opponents came in low and slow with his jet and unleashed a barrage of missiles before pulling back on the stick and soaring skyward to safety.
And while all this mayhem's going on, you'll be treated to a soundtrack of classical music, with a different "theme song" for each vehicle - Rimsky-Korsakoff's Flight of the Bumblebee when you scoot along in your jeep, for instance, and Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries for helicopter excursions (can you say Apocalypse Now?). When you uncover the flag, Handel's Hallelujah Chorus trumpets loudly, and as you try to carry an enemy flag back to your base the William Tell Overture adds just the right sense of urgency to the action.
About the only disappointing features in Return Fire 2 are its poorly written manual and its confusing setup screens, both of which serve only to make a fairly straightforward game seem more complicated than it actually is. Fortunately, the missions have been designed so that new elements are introduced gradually, making for a gentle learning curved; a daunting icon-based setup scheme for configuring your controller, on the other hand, might prove a little more vexing.
But hey, I had such a blast with Return Fire 2 that I just memorized the default controller configuration and dealt with it and only looked at the manual when absolutely necessary for a point of clarification. It's no mean feat to develop a game that packs this much firepower and still offers significant strategic challenges, but that's just what Silent Software has managed to do with Return Fire 2. It might not pull off a coup and earn Best Strategy Game of the Year, but don't be surprised if you see it in the running - or if a new category is created just to accommodate it.