Review - Novastorm (DOS, 1994)

Have you ever noticed just how many of the arcade games that come out for the PC are really terrible? I have; believe me, I have. There's just too many of them to ignore. I'm not sure what the problem is, but people seem to have a very hard time bringing action games to the PC. I think part of this is due to the cheap knock-off syndrome. Many of the companies that produce arcade games for the PC just run in and do a hasty job in the hopes of making a quick buck. The budget racks of software stores around the country are loaded down with these third-rate games that aren't worth the price of their cardboard boxes.

Some people say the PC itself is not conducive to good action games. When Origin released Wing Commander II one reviewer whose worthless opinion I happened to come across stated that WC2 was a failure because it was an action game trying to run on a computer that was never meant for anything but text. If there's any cosmic justice inherent in the known universe that clueless hack is now routing for scraps in id Software's dumpsters. The fact is, good arcade games can exist on the PC; just because it's uncommon doesn't mean it doesn't happen at all. I cannot respect the opinion that any PC arcade game is automatically crippled by the hardware it runs on. All you have to do to blow that so-called argument clear out of the water is point to a copy of Nova Storm and say, "See?! Told ya, moron!"

Nova Storm took me totally by surprise. A year before Psygnosis had released a very similar action game called Microcosm. It was not good; in fact . . . well, I won't get into the visceral details; let's just say that Microcosm came very close to lending credence to the aforementioned chowderhead's theory. So when I heard that Psygnosis was planning to release another game in the same vein, my gut reaction was "Why? Hasn't the world suffered enough?" But I resigned myself to cover the game for good or for ill. I sat down at my desk, removed the shrinkwrap from the box with absolutely no enthusiasm whatsoever and slid the CD into my drive with the sluggish indifference that can only come from complete confidence of mediocrity. Fifteen minutes later, with thick smoke rolling from my ears and my Gravis GamePad melting under my fingers, all I could say was "Wow! Woooooow!!" Psygnosis took a poor game and transformed it into a shining example of the genre. Now there's something I never would have expected!

Nova Storm is a shooter that takes place far in the future in the coldness of deep space. Humans have been busy little things, colonizing or otherwise harvesting thousands of planets. This expansion has of course led to wars with alien species, so the scientifically minded have constructed a massive neural computer system called Scarab. Scarab automates the manual labor associated with colonizing and terraforming alien planets, and also deals with the unpleasant process of re-educating those worlds' inhabitants. There's just one problem: Scarab thinks for itself, and it is of the opinion that machines have been given a bum rap by their creators. Naturally, this omnipotent super computer revolts against its creators, killing whole planets by shutting off their life support systems. What's your job? Simple: wreck the damn thing. Hell, it's only a toaster with cannons.

Okay, so this isn't exactly a plot you'd want to base a ten CD interactive movie around, but this is a shooter, so deal. After watching a good introductory sequence, you spend about three seconds selecting your options, then jump in your ship and start blasting.

The game is played from a third-person perspective which places the "camera" directly behind your ship, like in Rebel Assault. The enemies swoop by you in waves, sometimes coming from the front, sometimes from the sides or rear. If you shoot down an entire wave without letting any slip by, a power-up token will appear. If you collect enough tokens you'll be able to improve your ship's firepower in several ways. You can upgrade from your stock single shot cannon to a double shot, and from then to triple and spread shot capabilities. You can also add wingmen and mechanized drones that mirror your ship's movements and fire on your command. Control is easy and very responsive. The keyboard can be used, I recommend a Gravis GamePad or similar thumb-style controller. Although this is by far the best controller for the game, Nova Storm doesn't support four-button sticks, which is one of my only criticisms of the game. The first two buttons are used for firing and detonating smart bombs; To select an available power-up you must hit the space bar, a function I would have much rather seen assigned to a third joystick button.

You fight your way through three worlds in order to attack the huge battleship that houses Scarab. The landscapes that whiz by you at lightning speed are nothing short of breath-taking. Hills, valleys, and alien river beds streak by while you blast away at the endless hordes of Scarab's defense network. Not only do the backgrounds look great and give the game an increased sensation of speed, they're interactive too, meaning you can crash into them and make yourself look stupid. Claustrophobic firefights in narrow trenches are something I'm used to in games like Comanche, but here they're a wonderful surprise.

You'll also face off against a large number of bosses, gigantic machines with the sole motivation of turning you into a side dish. These bosses are beautifully rendered, and Psygnosis has even thought to include a pop-up damage meter to show you how close you are to smearing them out. The bosses are very imaginative, ranging from an S&M version of the Death Star to a graceful and deadly phoenix-like creature.

Nova Storm is an arcade-quality shooter, a true stand-out among PC action games. It looks and sounds beautiful, and has truly exemplary gameplay. It doesn't really push the edge of the technological envelope, since Microcosm used the same visual style a year ago, but this is the first time visuals of this caliber have been combined with a first-rate game. If you've been waiting for a game that would bring the excitement of a coin-op shooter to your PC, Nova Storm is the key to great happiness.

Download the demo for Novastorm