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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (346)

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Armada 4/5
RiME 2.5/5
Song of the Deep 4.5/5
Shadowrun: Hong Kong 4/5
Destiny 2 4/5
Shadowrun: Dragonfall 4/5
Shadowrun Returns 3/5
Kirby Star Allies 3.5/5
Dark Quest 2 3.5/5
Never Alone 3/5
Octopath Traveler 3/5
Guacamelee! 2 4/5
The Incredible Adventur... 4/5
Fallout 4 3/5
Tomba! 5/5
Odallus: The Dark Call 4/5
Dragon Quest Builders 4/5
Call of Juarez: Bound i... 3/5
Drakkhen 3.5/5
Unravel 3.5/5
Zero-K 2/5
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes... 4.5/5
AereA 1/5
Arcanum: of Steamworks ... 3/5
The Yawhg 3.5/5

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Armada   Sega Dreamcast 

Grinding in Space    4/5 stars

Way back in 1999, as a tender college undergrad, I first played “Armada” for the Sega Dreamcast, which I had received for Christmas during the year of the console’s launch. I never really cared much for SHMUPs in general, but at the time, I was in a mindset where I thought that in order to be a well-read (so to speak) gamer, I should have the best contemporary game from each genre in my collection. Combined with the fact that “Armada” was initially pushed as a SHMUP hybridized with my beloved RPG, I snatched up a used copy from my friendly local game store and found it to be one of the better experiences the Dreamcast had to offer, though still flawed.

Flash forward 20 years. Yes! 20 years! The MeltedJoystick Crew has been desperately bored and seeking new games with 3-player (minimum) couch coop to play during our weekly gatherings. With nothing new on the horizon that doesn’t take the form of an Indie Beat ‘em Up with a $20 price tag attached, I proposed that we re-visit my favorite Dreamcast exclusive, only with multi-player, since I initially played it alone.

What we found was an interesting, flawed game that, ultimately aged fairly well, yet had plenty of bone-headed design choices from the outset.

Presentation
“Armada” looks decent for an early 6th Generation game. It features a pastiche of 2D and 3D assets to create its world and inhabitants. The world itself is largely empty space, dotted with stars, a handful of planets, and a handful of starbases. All of these environmental objects are flat and 2D, but have reasonable texture detail that makes them look pretty good. Space ships, on the other hand, are fully 3D, both for good guys and enemies. Ship designs aren’t particularly inspired, though, as a number of the ship designs for the 6 playable factions look similar. Enemies come in a variety of types, but by-and-large employ scaling to make certain ships stand out, rather than color, as most enemy ships come in lovely shades of beige and brown.

Audo-wise, “Armada” is also competent. The soundtrack is understated, but ultimately fine, while sound effects are quite well executed, with verbal cues for important things like leveling up or reaching a mission objective. As a 1999 game, it’s shocking that “Armada” is fully voiced, but as a 1999 game, it’s NOT shocking that the voiceactors are all rank amateurs, probably dragged out of the copy room in order to record a few lines. Some of the performances are admirable, while others are laughable (Tak and his damned Food Mix), but the result is ultimately acceptable.

Technically, “Armada” does some novel things. Interestingly, it was originally conceived as an MMO-style game, with a “Phantasy Star Online” like ability to play offline or online in a shared universe with other players. This core idea still survives in the game’s multiplayer capabilities, which allow up to 4 players to share the screen (the whole screen, no split-screen here), saving their individual ships’ progress to a memory card of VMU. Each player needs to save separately, however, as a power-cut or crash (yes!) can bork most of the team if only one person is saving. Speaking of crashing, I discovered a bug in “Armada” that is easily repeatable and causes the game to hang: DON’T try to descend into a wormhole as if you were descending into a planet’s atmosphere. Just scan the wormhole and let it suck you in.

Story
“Armada” also comes from a time in which Western videogame developers tended to put all of their story and narrative into the games’ instruction manuals instead of the games themselves. “Armada’s” manual tells the tale of the human race achieving spacefaring capabilities, and immediately being beset by the titular Armada: A massive fleet of bio-organic ships that seemed dead set on keeping humans out of space. Humanity fractured, with different factions finding safety from the Armada in different parts of space.

Now, thousands of years later, each group of humans has evolved into a distinct species of their own, and they must unite their advanced technologies in an effort to push back against the Armada and free themselves from the alien threat once and for all.

Ultimately, it’s a pretty basic and unoriginal excuse narrative, but it gets the job done. Unfortunately, that’s about all there is for story in the game. While “Armada” does consist of 31 missions, with a dozen or so NPCs who offer commentary between each mission, there’s not a whole lot of depth involved. Some of the NPCs are amusing, and have decently developed personalities, but are still largely one-dimensional.

“Armada” can either be a really long or a really short game, depending on the number of players. When I played it solo back in the day, it took me dozens of hours to grind enough XP and Credits to take out the worst Armada threats. Playing in a fleet of three with the MJ Crew, though, we managed to plow through the game in about 10 hours.

Gameplay
“Armada” takes the somewhat novel approach of combining the SHMUP, in which the player controls a spaceship/vehicle/character that spews bullets while avoiding enemy projectiles, with the Hack ‘n Slash sub-genre of RPG, in which the player grinds through hoards of enemies in search of experience, money, (incredibly rare) loot drops, and a perpetual increase in power. The Hack ‘n Slash is, itself, a bastardization of the Role-Playing Genre, with its simplification and Action-oriented gameplay, making it a good match for the twitchy SHMUP.

Starting a fresh game of “Armada,” the player is free to pick from the 6 racial factions, each of whom has a couple of unique perks. When I initially played the game, I picked the race that can travel at warp speed without consuming energy, though in this recent co-op playthrough, I picked the race with the homing shots, not realizing that it was the most awesome thing in the game.

With a fresh ship, the player is free to talk to the NPCs hovering around the home base, one of whom will always offer a mission objective, which appears on the player’s HUD, with an arrow to follow. Missions usually involve going somewhere and killing an Armada boss, but sometimes require simple deliveries of items (which the player must buy at their own expense).

Killing Armada units grants the ship that landed the killing blow experience, while destroyed ships leave Credits (money) scattered around space, which must be picked up by flying over it or scanning it. In addition to the 31 story missions acquired at the home base, it’s possible to pick up an infinite number of escort missions while flying around space, as friendly ships will frequently send out distress signals. These side missions award far more money than just killing enemy ships, though they are rather nonsensical, as the ships in question typically just appear on the map and wish to travel to random points in space instead of the far-and-few-between planets and space stations. Of course, planets are all infested with enemies, so going there wouldn’t be a good idea anyway, except to grind XP/credits or defeat mission objective bosses.

Movement in “Armada” is far more similar to “Asteroids” than a game like “Gradius,” as the players’ ships only move when the player fires the impulse or warp engines, and have a bit of momentum after the engine stops firing. Twiddling the Dreamcast analog stick doesn’t move the ship in a direction, but instead pivots the ship around its central axis. Each ship has an energy meter that depletes when firing the main weapon or traveling at warp speed, but recharges fairly quickly. In addition to the basic weapon, each ship can carry 3 power pods, which can be used to create a huge explosion or put up a temporary energy shield to block incoming shots.

Each of the space stations scattered around the game’s large, open universe carries a number of purchasable upgrades for the players’ ships. Each ship can only equip four upgrades simultaneously, and there are definitely a number of them that are better than others, such as the one that prevents impact damage from being rammed by (or ramming) enemy ships. These items cost a LOT of credits, though, which leads to the game’s primary draw and primary flaw:

GRINDING.

That’s really the core of the gameplay in “Armada.” If a boss is too strong, grind in order to improve your ship or buy some new equipment (and buying is definitely the main way of acquiring equipment, as we only saw a single loot drop in space during our team playthrough). If you still can’t kill the boss, grind some more. Take dozens of escort missions to earn credits. Lather, rinse, repeat. Interestingly, “Armada” comes from a simpler time, when devs understood that having more players tackling the game SHOULD make the entire experience easier, thus it features no enemy scaling for multiple players. This allowed us to complete the game at levels 12, 10, and 9 respectively, whereas when I played solo, I was in the 40s. It also, unfortunately, doesn’t feature shared experience or credits, so a player with homing shots (me) can easily snipe most of the kills and pull ahead in power, making it easier to snipe kills, ad nauseam.

Overall
Regardless of its grindiness, oversights, and flaws, “Armada” is still an incredibly unique experience. I can’t think of any other cooperative SHMUPS with experience points and loot, which means that “Armada” still brings something original to the table. Of course, the Hack ‘n Slash has come a long way since 1999, so “Armada” feels basic and simple by today’s standards, but I still think it’s worth having in your Dreamcast collection.

Presentation: 4/5
Story: 2.5/5
Gameplay: 4/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

 

 


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