Scramble Cobra, advertised as a combat flight simulator for the 3DO, hit the shelves early in the machine’s history, at least in Japan (1994). North America had to wait until the following year to get their hands on this title, but was it worth their wait?
The premise is simple enough: you pilot an AH-1W Cobra helicopter for a series of 10 missions (plus a training level) that take you through the tale of the invasion of K by the empire of R. As stories go, this is pushing the description of bare bones to the limit. Still, we’re not here for the story, are we?
Scramble Cobra begins with an intro movie, a mix of real-world footage of Cobra helicopters, some 3D animated equivalents and a hint of live action full motion video featuring a badly costumed elderly gentleman pretending to be a general. Or a weather man, I can’t decide which, as he enthusiastically waves a stick in the general direction of a superimposed map. Judging by the uniform, he’s a general, I think… You also get some of the best Japanese aero-guitar music ever recorded. If you’ve ever played Aerowings for the Dreamcast or the early Ace Combat series, you’ll know exactly what I mean. If that style of music is for you, this will have you in rapture. If not, press A to skip.
From the main menu, you can choose either the mission select screen or the options menu. The latter gives you the chance to alter the control scheme to one of twelve (yes, 12!!!) presets. Why twelve? No idea! Do they make a ha’penny of difference? No. At least you have the choice, I suppose.
Getting into Scramble Cobra proper, you are treat to another display of the 3DO’s ability to stream video, with more live action/3D animated shorts to lead you to the briefing screen, still with that awesome/diabolical (delete as applicable) music. This is where you’ll find out what you need to do with some of the most lifeless voice acting I have heard in a long time (and I have played many a 3DO game). These can be skipped and once you’re in the cockpit, away you go…
… with that same voice actor now giving you hints and tips. Not only do they suck what atmosphere there is out of the game, they’re annoyingly repetitive. Same goes for the in-game messages which are supposed to tell you how you’re doing, though the script writing is comedy gold: “Look out, they have penetrated quite a bit!” is an example of stoicism seldom found in videogames. Kudos is due also for the poor William Shatner style delivery in places.
Graphically, Scramble Cobra is not great. Ok, the videos look cool the first couple of times you see them but there is a limit to how often you’ll watch them. In-game, your cockpit takes up a lot of the screen and whilst it can move at a decent (although not smooth) pace, the draw distance is quite short – you’ll often get a couple of pixels surrounded by a targeting box long before you actually know what the target is. When you do get up close and personal, objects are an ill-defined blocky mess. There is also not much variation – the usual green, white and dark landscapes. Explosions do look kinda cool if you hang around enough to watch them. However, the explosions, like most of the moving objects in the game, are poorly animated.
Sound-wise, well, we’ve covered the music and the voice acting (ahem), so we’re left with sound effects which are basic and weak. Not exactly a next-gen showcase for the 3DO but the Cobra does sound like a helicopter.
If I thought the sound design was disappointing, that was nothing compared to the gameplay. Even with the twelve control schemes, you never truly feel like you’re handling an agile gunship. Part of this is down to the sluggish movement, the other is the weird decision to remove your ability to change height. You would think that being in an aircraft, you’d want to take advantage of a key feature of an aircraft – but no, here you are stuck at a pre-determined height. This also means that the terrain you fly over is distinctly lacking in verticality. In a flight game. Yeah.
Another thing about the controls: no matter what scheme you choose, it sometimes feels like you are tilting the ground rather than controlling an aircraft. It’s a weird feeling and is a bit off-putting. Did I mention the twelve control schemes? That’s more than there are buttons on the pad. Sigh.
It doesn’t end there though. That short draw distance means that by the time you lock a missile onto a target, you have precious little time to hit that fire button before speeding past it. Your cannon can be helpful in dealing with other helicopters and incoming missiles but for the majority of the time, it’s pretty pointless. Missiles seem to have a shorter range than the cannon, but that’s a draw distance issue, whilst the napalm bomb is, well, there. Useful for buildings and not much else.
You may think that ten missions will last you a while. Sadly, you would be wrong, as every mission has a time limit, averaging 8 minutes or so. If you were to successfully complete each mission in turn, you would have less than two hours of gameplay and only the vague accomplishment of a high score to tempt you back. That’s pretty thin. Not that you’ll do that any time soon, and not just because of the three difficulty levels. There is a degree of trial and error in each mission and once you start getting “Help!” messages in game, you have precious little time to correct any mistakes you have made – it’s often easier to quit the mission and try again, doing things in a different order.
That, however, does not make this game exciting or, indeed fun. Oh, and whilst you can play missions 1 to 5 in any order, after that, it’s a strictly linear progression through missions 6 to 10. You will definitely need the save facility for that part.
Scramble Cobra should, by all measures, be a fun if not exactly stretching title to play, much like Thunderhawk was on the Sega Mega-CD. However, poor presentation, weak graphics and sound, great/terrible music, and boring, frustrating gameplay destroy any hope of that. This is a joyless game, whose brevity should actually be a good thing yet just makes the game you do play feel all the more pointless.
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Boring, shallow gameplay and poor presentation mean Scramble Cobra is one to miss.