Released in 1994 and given the title VR Stalker, you’d be forgiven for thinking this could be something of a period cyber-thriller or esoteric Japanese manga-inspired game. Hell, it could even have been an early 90’s science fiction TV show spin-off for something like VR.5 or Harsh Realm. But no, gentle reader, VR Stalker is none of those things. It’s a flight sim. Yeah, I’m disappointed too.
Still, a console flight sim! They’re rare enough and as this was the dawn of the 32-bit era, it should be something special. The 3DO also had the CH Flightstick Pro so it naturally takes advantage of that. Sadly, I still haven’t managed to get my hands on one of these so I’m using the standard control pad. Anyway, what about the game?
Being a title of a certain age, that shiny disc needs to be used properly so we start the game with an introductory movie produced in Lightwave 3D and a very po-faced voice over that might explain exactly what’s going on. I say might as the music drowns out the explanation at several points but the gist is the US disarmed itself after the Cold War ended and at the beginning of the 21st Century, fell victim to an attack that could end up with the destruction of the USA. Fortunately those crafty generals stockpiled numerous weapons for just such an eventuality and have also trained a bunch of pilots in virtual reality combat. Handy, I know. Your are one such pilot, callsign Stalker(!), tasked with clearing out the bad guys over 14 states and saving America. It’s a simplistic storyline but hey, what do you expect? F15 Strike Eagle 2 simply just had you fly somewhere, blow something up and fly back, so I’m not going to be too harsh on the story. What this does mean though, is that you have “lives” in that if the aircraft you are flying is destroyed, then as long as you have spare aircraft available, off you toddle again.
Speaking of aircraft, you have an initial selection three to tackle missions: the F-14 Tomcat, F-16 Falcon and the A-10 Thunderbolt. You later get the option of flying the F-117 and two fictional aeroplanes, the F-119 and X-2. Each have their own characteristics, mostly based on how many missiles can be fired in one volley, so a choice needs to be made between air to air and air to ground capabilities. Each has a different cockpit set up but all show the same information, so it’s not likely you’ll get confused in the middle of battle.
Graphically, VR Stalker is a mixed bag. The 3D animations that play before each mission and the intro movie are ok, but have dated poorly and, to be honest, just seem to be there to fill up the disc and convince buyers that this is a worthy 32-bit title. In game graphics are smooth and fast, which is great for when you need to throw your fighter around the sky trying to dodge missiles. This impression of speed is maintained even when low to the ground. Other aircraft are recognisable for the few seconds they are not dots – though most of the time, that’s all they’ll really be. The lack of detail extends to the ground, where objects are simple polygons and although you can tell what they are supposed to represent, they don’t look like the next-gen that was promised at the time. That’s a problem the graphics have in general. This looks like an Amiga game and doesn’t really show off what the 3DO can do. The external views are limited to a one with cockpit detail and one without, though the models for your aircraft are quite recognisable. The colour palette is limited too, and the choice of landscapes is often limited to green, brown, grey, black and, for a change, blue for water. As for city detail, well, it’s just laughable. Ignore the over-the-top presentation and at heart you have a basic looking 16-bit flight sim, albeit one that is maybe a tad more fluid in motion and has decent explosions.
Sound is functional, if a tad uninspiring. The music sounds like it was recorded on a cheap Casio keyboard in someone’s bedroom and it’s not exactly fitting for the game. There is the aforementioned issue with the voice over as well. In game sounds do their job but there is little variation and they quickly grow repetitive. You’ll soon get bored of the “tat tat tat” of cannon fire hits as well as the singular explosion sound effect.
Also repetitive is the gameplay. Oh, you get 14 missions, six aircraft and plenty of challenge, but in essence, the hints and tips at the back of the manual literally tell you how to play: approach target, shoot at it, accelerate away to get some distance, turn around and repeat. That, effectively, is the game. As each plane carries multiple missiles, it’s unlikely you’ll run out of things to shoot with, however, with only one air to air missile type, one air to ground missile type and a cannon, there isn’t much else you can do for tactics.
The controls are not bad considering the 3DO pad isn’t the greatest of input devices and I suspect using the Flightstick would be a better experience and immerse the player to a greater degree. Using the pad does reveal how few controls there actually are. You only have plane movement, throttle up and down, weapon select, view select and fire. That’s it.
What this game does have though is one hell of a difficulty curve. In most of the later missions, expect to last around about ten seconds before being blown out of the sky. I understand the need for a challenge but that is taking things to the extreme. As you can’t see where exactly the fire is coming from unless you are looking at it, and the radar display is pretty much useless with multiple targets in view, this does make completing this title rather a chore.
You may be wondering then if VR Stalker has much standing in its favour. You’d be right to wonder. Strip the FMV sequences away and you’re left with a basic Amiga-level (in a technical sense) flight sim running on a faster processor. It’s not even a flight sim as such, straddling the gap between Afterburner and F15 Strike Eagle 2 in realism. Add to that the insane difficulty spikes which exist to hide just how threadbare the game is and this is a difficult title to recommend and provides further evidence to those who believe that any kind of flight sim is just not possible on consoles. Sadly, VR Stalker is disappointing and very much a missed opportunity, also needing a much better title.
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Workmanlike presentation and technically competent, the horrendous difficulty spikes can’t hide a very thin gaming experience.