Starship Troopers

Bugs. First, there are about ten or twenty. Scary, but nothing too hard to handle. Then, from over the horizon, a few more appear. But this time they don't stop coming. More and more pour over the hills, down the valley and towards the isolated outpost. A grenade is thrown. Insect legs and torsos fly skywards in the resulting explosion. There are over a hundred bugs now - a huge fire-breathing tanker bug among them - and still they come, charging at the walls, clambering over their fallen forerunners, overwhelming the outpost by sheer weight of numbers. It's a breathtaking sight, an impressive technical achievement. Yes, it's that scene from Starship Troopers. But this isn't the movie, this is the tech demo for the new game inspired by the film. Would you like to know more?

We've been here before. Twice before, to be precise, for Starship Troopers has been the subject of two previous PC efforts, only one of which anybody got to play. The first was a Microprose project way back in 1997, hard on the film's theatrical release. It was a Mech game, drawing on the powered suits of Robert Heinlein's original novel, but was canned midway through development and never saw the light of day. Its replacement, released at the end of 2000, once Hasbro had absorbed the Microprose brand, was a routine, squad-based RTS. It went some way towards capturing the look and feel of the movie but ultimately proved frustrating to control. Can it be third time lucky for Starship Troopers?

Empire clearly think so, and the main reason for the company's optimism is that aforementioned insect-filled tech demo, developed by their in-house studio, Strangelite. The level has some 128 warrior bugs - and one tanker bug - scurrying around the film's Whiskey outpost location, with Strangelite vowing that the final version of this level will have between three and four hundred of the critters. That, and the fact that a new Starship Troopers movie arrives this summer, goes a long way to explaining why Empire were happy to bag what initially seems a dated licence.

Some may have had trouble with the tone of the film - Heinlein's tale of man versus the Arachnids skewed as a pitch black satire on man's militarist and fascist tendencies. But none could argue that the action it delivered was superb, both comically vicious and visually stunning. And what's the best, well, what's just about the only way to deliver said brand of action to the PC? Not surprisingly Strangelite have opted for a first-person shooter, although this idea did escape the two previous Starship Troopers. Or perhaps it was the technology that escaped them, for no FPS has tried to serve up this many foes since the Serious Sams and, much earlier, the Doom series of games.

"Yeah, they're about the closest," agrees Richard Jones, designer on Starship Troopers at Strangelite, "the difference being that in Serious Sam you spent most of your time backtracking away from this mass of things. In Starship Troopers, you've got your squad with you - and in the bigger battle sequences you'll have other squads too - the bugs aren't all focussed on you." And although you do fight with squads, the onus is on your character, as Jones explains. "Your squad's there to give you a breathing space, more than anything else. They're not heroes themselves. They can hold the warriors back, tigers they may have a bit of a problem with but eventually they'll take them down, but it's up to you to take the bigger guys down."

OK, warriors and tigers? An explanation is in order. Just as in the film, Starship Troopers has several distinct species of bugs performing different tasks within the Arachnid forces. Familiar from the movie will be the ordinary warriors, the gigantic tanker bugs, flying hoppers, brain bugs and those thingies that fire plasma from their abdomens. Wonderful thing, nature. But augmenting these are new bugs, some adapted from the animated series, some designed especially for the game, all with the purpose of giving the Arachnids a more flexible fighting force and giving us gamers a welcome bit of variety.