"Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated." A famous quote, and one that seems very fitting for SEGA's venerable Dreamcast. Just when you think the adventure is finally over, along comes another new Japan-only release to bring it out of semi-retirement once again. As with the majority of games to feature since the DC was officially discontinued, Under Defeat is a vertical shoot-'em-up and a conversion of the NAOMI arcade game for one or two players (simultaneous).
Since the player controls a helicopter with some degree of rotational movement, comparisons with Psikyo's Zero Gunner 2 are inevitable, but ultimately, pretty wide of the mark once the game has actually been experienced since both games share little else in common. A more appropriate comparison would be with Toaplan's helicopter-based shooters of the 1980s such as Tiger Heli and Twin Cobra since G.Rev have also gone for a similar militaristic feel and realism for Under Defeat. It's this realism - and the level of the realism - that really sets it apart from nearly all shmups of recent times. Games featuring spaceships and superhuman beings will always have their place, but since G.rev have bucked that particular trend, this game feels remarkably fresh despite being very traditional in nature.
Certainly, a small amount of creative licence is evident, particularly for some of the larger enemies, but, for the most part the game is very much grounded in reality. This means enemy tanks, helicopters etc do not launch a constant barrage of dayglo blobs at the player, but instead, something resembling a more realistic rate of fire. Furthermore, tanks and heavy gun installations have to be pointing at the player's chopper before they can expect to hit it, so they track its movements accordingly, and alter the turret's angle and elevation before opening fire. These "real world" values also apply to every aspect in the field of play thanks to the impressive physics of the game engine, which, along with the slightly tilted viewpoint, lends the game something of a pseudo-3D feel; for example, buildings, walls and other tall objects can obscure the player from hitting ground-based targets.
This whole sense of realism is emboldened by the graphics which are truly magnificent and offer an unprecedented level of detail; enemy tanks bob up and down as they roll across bumpy terrain, trees sway from the downforce of the chopper hovering above them and also shake violently as a result of nearby explosions. Puddles on the ground will reflect anything that flies above them in perfect clarity, and even individual shell casings can be seen falling to the ground when the helicopter's gun is fired... incredible stuff, especially for 1998 hardware, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's just too many small touches like that to mention. On the downside, the game's palette is fairly muted with lots of greys and browns evident, which may not be to everyone's tastes, but this is war, and since when has that ever been pretty?
The superb attention to detail is also extended to the explosions. Enemies don't simply blow-up and disappear in Under Defeat, they are gradually reduced to smouldering, burnt-out shells before finally exploding in huge screen-shaking fireballs and thick plumes of smoke that linger convincingly before revealing a tell-tale crater on the ground. So elaborate are the smoke effects, that they can even hide the chopper from view when something big has been destroyed. More than mere frills, these visually stunning explosions serve to give the game a sense of destruction so massive that it's hard to think of a better example within this age-old genre. It goes without saying that blowing stuff up in Under Defeat is immensely satisfying, which is always an important factor in a shoot-'em-up. The sound effects that accompany the destruction are also excellent, with some real stand-out ones like the roar of rockets being fired from SAM launchers. For the soundtrack, G.rev have elected to go with synth-rock tunes that wouldn't sound out of place in an early '90s game, or anime. Perhaps not the sort of thing anyone would want to listen to on their own, but somehow, they fit the game quite well.
The core gameplay in Under Defeat has a distinct "old-school" feel, devoid of modern scoring hooks like bullet-scratching, complex chain/combo systems, or even power-ups since the main weapon remains unchanged throughout the game, Ikaruga-style. Far from being shallow, it simply has a stripped-out and back-to-basics feel, much like the overall style of the game. Unlike Zero Gunner 2, which features full 360-degree rotation and a dedicated "turn" button, the chopper's movement in G.rev's game is limited to roughly 45 degrees left or right, and executed simply by moving the controls in either direction without shooting. Meanwhile, holding the shot button down keeps the chopper's angle fixed, so adjustments have to be made by continually holding and releasing the shot button. It's a simple setup that becomes intuative almost immediately and adds much to the game.
There are also some additional layers to the gameplay that give Under Defeat the kind of depth that's expected in a modern shmup, most notably the chopper's secondary weapon: an independent "option" drone that automatically targets enemies and can be equipped (via a floating icon) with three types of attack - Vulcan, Cannon or Rocket, each with varying degrees of usefulness depending on the situation. Like the chopper itself, the option can be positioned to shoot straight ahead, or at an angle - handy for clearing bothing sides of the screen at the same time. An added incentive to use the option as much as possible comes from the fact that double points are awarded for anything it destroys.
A "rank" system is also in place to increase the difficulty if the game decides things are getting too easy, and bonus points are awarded at the end of each level for several categories, the most important of these being a destruction percentage which is earned by shooting several key objects located in each of the levels. Perversely, this score is tripled if you have no lives left in reserve, but since no extra 1UPs can be earned, "suiciding" on purpose for the bigger score is decidedly risky.
To say the least, the opening stage serves as something of a gentle introduction compared to what lies ahead, but since the control scheme is fairly unique, this is perfect for a new player to get familiar with how everything works. From the second stage onwards though, the difficulty and intensity of the game rises dramatically and the gameplay really comes alive with the number of enemies increasing and the gaps between bullets becoming smaller. There are five stages in total, which doesn't sound like a lot, but they are fairly long and there's a second "loop" featuring reconfigured stages available for anyone good enough to access it.
In terms of additional modes and content, G.rev have been very generous with several screen configurations available including the all-important TATE mode, galleries to unlock, plus a superb practice mode which is one of the most comprehensive around. CPU replays of each stage can also be watched in this mode from a variety of camera angles, and you can also record your own.
Overall, this is a fantastic game that any shmup fan with a Dreamcast should buy as soon as possible. It's been said that this will be the very last offical release for the system, and if that's true, it'll definitely be going out in style.
A review by John Henderson