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As technically impressive as the 3DO was for its day, it’s a sad fact that anyone who met the rather immense outlay required to own one had little in the way of high-quality games to play on it, and even less that actually made use of the new machine’s impressive abilities. ~Simon Lethbridge
One game that appeared to do just that, however, was Return Fire, and it was an exclusive too! Well, until the 3DO started floundering at least, at which point it was also released on the PS1 and PC, but still – for a while, 3DO owners had something to show off, and it was a game worthy of envy. It’s a simple military-based strategic frolic at heart which pits two forces against one another – green and brown. Player one controls the latter while a second player or the console itself controls the former, and the object is simply to seize your opponent’s flag and return it to your base. As you might expect, however, it’s not quite that simple.
There are somewhere in the region of 130 stages altogether and they are divided equally into two groups – one consisting of single player stages, another of two player stages. They are viewed from a scrolling, angled-overhead perspective and most of them consist of an island with opposing forces occupying a different end each – two player maps give each side about half of the land area each while one player maps just have a few buildings on the player’s side with most of the island taken up by enemy buildings and defences. In either case, your job is to find the building which houses the flag, destroy it, collect the flag, and return to base, and there is initially only one mission on which to do this. Once this is completed, however, the next tier of stages is unlocked which has eight new maps. Finish any of these and the next tier becomes available with eight more, and so on.
Your means of vanquishing your opponent and completing these stages comes in four forms. You start each stage safely within the confines of your bunker and here there are four vehicles to choose from – the Tank, which moves at a reasonable speed and can fire shells at ground or air targets with its rotating turret, the Armoured Support Vehicle, which is slow but has meatier defences and can fire air/ground rockets and drop mines, the Helicopter, which is fast and obviously unimpeded by buildings and suchlike, and can fire air/ground rockets, but is obviously a bit more delicate, and lastly the Jeep which is fast and nimble, can move across watery areas with its inflatable air thingies, and can launch grenades, but is of course incredibly weedy. Eight of the jeeps are available for each stage and these are the only vehicles with which you can grab and transport the flag, but you also get three each of the other vehicles for blasting your way to it.
If any of your fine vehicles are destroyed you’ll automatically return to your bunker to choose another (unless you somehow manage to lose all seventeen of them!), but you can return at any time anyway to switch if you want. Helpfully, doing this also replenishes their limited fuel, ammunition, and armour as well, although this can be done ‘on the fly’ too, by stopping off at one of the relevant depots nestled amongst the gun towers and other buildings of either side. The depots though, like everything else in the game can be destroyed (even the trees!). This doesn’t present a dilemma for the solo-player as you’re only up against the enemy gun towers, but with a two-player game you then need to decide whether to preserve them for your own use or to destroy them to prevent your opponent from doing the same. Indeed, despite the extensive amount of shooting and destroying you’ll no doubt engage in while playing Return Fire (its ‘tagline’ is even “Destroy, Destroy, Destroy!”), if you want to actually play it properly, there’s a lot of strategy involved as well.
One aspect of this is of course choosing the right vehicle at the right time, and they all differ enough for each player to find a strategy that suits them. You might want, for example, to use the chopper to scout out your opponent’s stronghold and try to locate his flag tower (there are usually some decoy towers too) and find the easiest route to it. Alternatively, you may choose to plough head-first through everything in a straight line from your bunker to your final goal. Whichever method you employ, it’s best not to hang around for too long or annoying little helicopters will turn up and start taking pot-shots at you (although it is very satisfying to shoot them down!). Other things to consider are the design of the stage in question. They all consist of one or several islands and in the case of the latter they’re linked together by rickety (and very destroyable) bridges which presents numerous possibilities in itself. As you probably already guessed, this is therefore a game which was not designed for solo play and accordingly is immeasurably more enjoyable when playing against a friend.
As undeniably awesome as this mode is, I’ve also spend quite a bit of time with the one player mode and, while it is good fun, either for practise or for mere wanton destruction purposes, it does get a bit repetitive after a while. A big part of this is down to the graphics which are quite splendid but pretty much the same throughout the whole game. In spite of the angled-overhead viewpoint, the stages are presented in 3D which allows the camera to zoom in or out rather nicely depending on how fast you’re moving. Things do get a little blocky when the view zooms right in but that’s not too often. The worst thing about the visuals, though, is without doubt the total lack of variety. All stages are set in the same environment – sandy areas with surrounding water, bridges, the odd patch of grass – and all feature the same few types of building with the same roads around them. The only differences really are the shapes of the islands and the actual location/arrangement of the buildings and features, and even then, some stages are merely mirrored versions of others.
One aspect of the game that definitely impresses, however, is the presentation. From the tank that trundles onto the screen to destroy the glass 3DO logo, to the dramatic title sequence, and the FMV clip of a WWII victory parade that greets completion of a stage, everything is very slick and polished, especially the audio which, famously, consists of several pieces of classical music. The aforementioned title sequence features Requiem Dies Irae while, in-game, each of the vehicles has its own theme tune including Mars: Bringer of War for the Tank, Flight of the Bumblebee for the Jeep, In the Hall of the Mountain King for the ASV, and of course Ride of the Valkyries for the Helicopter, and the volume of the music even increases or decreases according to the intensity of the on-screen drama! There is also the occasional use of ‘incidental music’ such as upon discovery of your opponent’s flag, and victory is hailed by the Hallelujah Chorus which certainly gives the sense of a job well done.
The ingenious use of this music, as well as some spot-on sound effects, is what really gives this game its fantastic atmosphere which is helped further still by some great attention-to-detail. Shooting a building often sees its occupants flee, for example (and yes, you can squash them if you so desire, complete with squelching noise). This superb atmosphere plays a big part in drawing you back to Return Fire too, even on your own. I don’t usually play it for long at a time by myself own as, despite the tremendously enjoyable and satisfying game mechanics, it’s easy, a bit repetitive, and largely pointless to play solo, but I still return to it often. Besides, it’s nice to play it with a full-screen (well, the upper two-thirds of the screen) now and then rather than half of it which can feel a bit cramped. If Silent Software came up with a decent back-story and incorporated some sort of mission-based one-player mode this could be an all-time great. It is a two-player game really though, and offers a rare chance to outfox a friend with cunning stategies rather than brute force, and in this capacity alone it’s one of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever played.