From Defender to Denaris, the C64 hasn’t been short of some great shoot-em-ups during it’s tenure as our favourite 8-bit machine. When X-Force released back in 2014, it grabbed my attention due to the talent behind it, with many looking forward to what Richard Bayliss and Saul Cross could do with one of their takes on the genre.
The discovery of the planet Darx has meant rich minerals have been identified to help with the construction of a shield to prevent alien attacks. But upon reaching the atmosphere, foreign forces are deployed to capture and destroy your vessel. It’s a bog-standard backstory but serves as a little backdrop to thrust the player into the action.
Firing this up, the trademark blistering tunes of Bayliss come right out of the gate. There’s a basic title screen with little in the way of in-game options, bar music and sound effect toggles, and a hi-score table that only consists of one entry making this feel a little bare bones, even for a shoot-em-up.
Jumping into the game proper, your pivoting ship is slightly generic in design as it navigates the blackness of space. The colour contrast means it’s easy to keep track of your weapon of destruction, never devolving into a mess of pixels as you avoid asteroids and take out waves of enemies. The sprite work is quite well done, if uninspired in design, with your attackers being your standard mix of cruisers and insectoids. Animation cycles of the antagonists have some nice little touches such as ships that have revolving cores and mines that appear to have tiny sparks around them, but all in all, they’re a familiar, and unfortunately, repetitive bunch.
Environments follow a similar trajectory, with a swap in colour schemes denoting progress. There’s some traditional concrete structures to take in as well as those more futuristic in nature. Scrolling is smooth with no slow down detected, even when collecting a temporary boost power up. As a whole, nothing really astounds but isn’t offensive to the eyes either.
Bayliss is a master craftsman in the SID sphere, with his high quality tunes accentuating all the games he’s worked on, from the Cops Series to Vortex Crystals. That trademark high energy is present within X-Force, with title, interlude and main game themes exemplifying his body of work.
That makes it all a little surprising that after a while, the in-game tune, while very good, seems slightly out of place, lacking synergy with the on-screen action. This causes it to feature more prominently than it should, with the lack of variety resulting in it becoming repetitive quite quickly.
The Psytronik package also features another musical take from Feekzoid. Again, this is quite accomplished but seems to miss the mark in terms of the game’s tone. Sound effects go through the motions with a mixture of explosions and laser fire, with the game feeling a little empty without a pulsating soundtrack to back it up.
With the game suffering from a relatively run of the mill graphical and audio presentation, it’s a shame the gameplay fails to excite either. For a SHUMP, there’s a distinct lack of shooting as enemies pour onto the screen in sine wave attack patterns, meaning you could essentially go through most of the levels just avoiding them. While you probably wouldn’t go into this expecting a bullet hell, you wouldn’t be amiss in anticipating some sort of projectiles to come your way, with only the tepid boss battles giving you something to think about.
Despite the lack of ballistics on offer, X-Force still presents a decent challenge across it’s 16 sectors. While the enemy formations become predictable, failing to take out the entire wave means they can return from off-screen and collide with your ship. This sometimes feels a little cheap but gives a sense of threat, testing you reactions.
Level design becomes more intricate the further you travel as laser gates increase in frequency and multiple open and closed paths present themselves, requiring some frantic weaving to avoid dead ends. Your vessel handles well although it lacks the nuance of control of it’s peers but due to the game mechanics, it doesn’t cause any real frustration.
Shoot-em-ups live or die on the strength of their power-ups. There’s nothing like the trade off between the risk and reward of piling through hostiles to collect an upgrade that will make you feel empowered as you lay waste to hordes of enemies. Graphical augmentations also help accentuate this feeling as you see your ship morph into a mechanical beast, only to instantly lose it on death. Unfortunately, X-Force has neither. You can upgrade single and double bullets and grabbing one or the other can also downgrade the weapon you possess. Temporary shields and speed boosts are also present with alien bombs thrown into the mix, and need to be avoided at all costs. The lack of any of these expected traits really hurts the replayability value of the game as does only one hi-score place. A crazy hack version by Vinny of Hackersoft and the delightful Freeze64 adds many short-lived and fun little features to the game but they cannot sustain a hollow gameplay experience.
X-Force feels initially quite thrilling but soon settles into mediocrity. With an absence of any compelling gameplay mechanic, or a lack features that are a staple of the genre, the game feels empty and shallow. It’s unfortunate as the talent involved has displayed countless times they are capable of so much more, but as it is, there’s very little to recommend here.
Creator of Bored Dog Games on YouTube, a channel home to PlayStation livestreams and high production Commodore Amiga and C64 reviews. Works with the Alien Breed by day.