reviews\ May 22, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Rocketbirds PC review


"I wanna be a robot/made of chrome" sings Austrian born electro-rock artist New World Revolution over an animation of a chicken with a jetpack and a pistol dogfighting several rocket-wearing penguins.

That's the opening cut scene of Rocketbirds: Revolution, and probably its defining moment. Madder than a good few sacks of badgers, but entirely happy to bask in its own awesomeness, Rocketbirds is a web-based platformer made in Flash; it fits neatly into the heritage of the slower paced, more cerebral platforming games like the 2D Prince of Persia titles, Flashback, and Another World.

The first few levels are free to play at, but the developers want $9.95 for the full thing. Ten bucks? For a Flash platformer? Is that really worth it? The short answer; yes. The long answer; yes, if you like the games mentioned above.

You play the hero of that aerial introduction; Hardboiled Chicken, the "original cock of war" according to the game, and one angry bird. He's on a mission to assassinate penguin Putzki, the cowardly dictator of oppressed Albatropolis. The tone of the game is one of dark comedy; though not afraid of a few "fowl" puns like the ones above, Rocketbirds is all about bringing down a totalitarian regime, and accordingly there's blood, gloomy, decaying environments and even surprisingly disturbing bird-based torture scenes that make battery farming look like amateur hour. PETA would not be happy.

Gameplay is split pretty much evenly between taking down your enemies and solving platform-based puzzles. Hardboiled gets a small arsenal to do this with; the quick-fire machine gun, a precise magnum and a devastating - but slow - pump-action shotgun. In addition to these rather standard weapons, you get grenades and, most interestingly, Brain Bugs. These organic devices infect your target penguin's nervous system, turning them into a meat puppet ready to do your bidding. This can involve puzzling in those awkward areas you just can't reach, or sending him (there are no women, well, hens, in this game, with the exception of a few penguin bikini posters) to take out enemies with no risk to yourself. When you're through, there's only one way back to being Hardboiled - force the penguin to put his gun next to his head and - well, he was a bad'un anyway. The mindjacking is a device pinched straight out of Abe's Oddysee (There's also a hide/unhide cover system that bears more than a passing resemblance to Blackthorne), but despite wearing its influences on its sleeve, Rocketbirds shakes things up enough to be nostalgically charming rather than a simple rip-off.

Though Rocketbirds gains strengths from its predecessors, it also inherits a few weaknesses. If Sonic is fast, and Mario is slow, Hardboiled is practically glacial. That's not to say there aren't plenty of twitchy moments of split-second timing necessary - especially in the combat - but the character's movements are a bit sluggish. It's a sub-genre limitation, really; because all the character's movements are carefully animated, committing to many actions takes control out of the player's hands for a few moments. Turning, for example, is done in most 2D platformers by simply flipping the character; here, there's a short turning animation, and you must slowly come to a stop before doing it. This game might be a bit of a culture-shock for traditional platform gamers used to ultra-responsive control; there's no after-touch when jumping, for example.

The demanding controls probably aren't helped by the developers trying to cram too many actions onto the same keys - the z button, for example, gets used for shooting, running, picking ammo and health up and activating machinery all depending on your stance and position. Finally, though the puzzles are fun, they're sometimes a good deal easier to work out in principal than to execute. One example requires you to stack a pile of crates to reach a button. I worked out the solution instantly, but unfortunately, all those crates are at the other end of the level, and shunting them across and getting them positioned is five minutes of boring filler.

My final complaint; despite the title, and despite featuring them in the intro cut scene, there are no jetpack levels. Shame on you, Ratloop Asia (the developer)!

Minor annoyances aside, this is a fun game to play with plenty of variety. And despite being web-based, it's something of a looker, too, with expressive 2-D cel-style characters on textured, detailed 2D backdrops, a stunning variety of environments to explore and amusing cut scenes. Though it's a 2-D Flash game, this is technically impressive stuff, with modern lighting effects, real-time shadows, and more. Then there's the soundtrack - no wonder Rocketbirds won an IGF award for the bonkers but brilliant soundtrack, all fizzing synths, bombastic guitars and silly-yet-earnest lyrics. The sound effects are great as well, with the "voices" of the birds and the meaty report of your shotgun proving highlights.

If you want a cerebral, nostalgic platformer, with plenty of action mixed in, you can't do better than Rocketbirds. At about six hours, this is no epic adventure, but the variety of the levels fully justifies the 10 dollar asking price.


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