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Lander (PC) artwork

Lander (PC) review

""It takes subtlety to succeed here. But it is extremely rewarding when you do, and float through the maze-like levels inside the planet's surface - or through the canyons and caves. The eerie space-music perfectly accompanies you on the trip there.""

In low orbit

If the list of popular and successfully reimagined arcade classics may be a very short one. Then the reason, possibly, isn't that no one attempted to make them, or that all the attempts were bad. But instead that the successful new version would tend to be similar enough to become the new title holder, while the old classic would be more or less forgotten. Or, alternatively, that the game was good and different enough to start a new trend on it's own.

Psygnosis' Lander would do neither, however. The game captured the tension of falling towards the surface of a low gravity planet, before firing your trusters at the right moment in order to reduce the speed just as the lander would softly touch the ground. As well as added depth in all kinds of ways to the original concept, until the game became a modern semi-interactive story-driven experience. In spite of all this, the game was criticised at the time for being extremely difficult and slow-moving. And for not creating the quick arcade fix the original game apparently achieved.

"If the list of popular and successfully reimagined arcade classics may be a very short one. Then the reason, possibly..."

Perhaps it didn't. Perhaps the infinitely fascinating decent from orbit didn't matter, and the slow tension between gravity and thruster force had nothing to do with the experience after all. Still - in the case it did, how would a more modern and high-tech variant turn out? One that replicated the physics involved more realistically, and which tried to create a believable sci-fi setting that would allow the existence of small planetary lander-craft?

At the beginning of Psygnosis' Lander you are put in the role of a nameless spacer, hiking on an interplanatery cargo-liner called "Drake's Exception". The facilities on the ship allow for selling acquired goods, and purchasing additional equipment, upgrading your lander craft, as well as buying new ones (if you have the credit rating, of course). The cargo liner, unique of it's kind, is currently touring the solar system ahead of a unique interplanetary event. And conveniently, you have just won a ticket to the cruise, with enough starting capital to fill your basic lander module with fuel for a single trip to the first planet.

For now, you sit in your cabin. The interface you use between the missions here is a futuristic looking computer holographically projecting the sometimes unnervingly assertive e-mails from the various factions you come in contact with. As well as display the equipment setups in rotating 3d models on a transparent view-screen. Naturally the graphics are first drawn in vectors, and then the texture is filled in later with a glow traveling across the mesh. The user-interface objects you use perfectly mesh with this look, giving you the impression of actually interacting with the holo-UI, not simply being allowed to look at it in an FMV. Which helps build the setting very easily: you are one anonymous orbital lander pilot on a cargo liner, assisted by a mysterious insider source that will no doubt help you make a name for yourself before the cargo liner's tour of the solar system is over. Whether you want to or not, it appears.

After inspecting your basic lander equipment, you now accept and deploy to your first mission. The game gives you a brief pre-rendered cutscene with the current planet, where your lander rotates downwards in zero G, and fire it's main thruster into space to descend to the atmosphere. It's yet another subtle presentation flair that introduce some elements of the game's world, while serving as a narratively pleasing transport stage to the active mission.

Closer to the ground

But the gameplay itself is the real gem. When you arrive on the planet you find that rather than settling for the standard keyboard controls, or picking the arcade flight from various corridor shooting games - the game has a fixed third person view where the lander can be rotated around the axis with the mouse. There's an amount of traction to the physics here, though: you tilt the navigation plane (depicted in your instrument panel) to the angle where you wish to be. And then the steering thrusters try to rotate the lander until it aligns with the navigation plane. So if you travel forward, you need to tilt the ship backwards and engage the thrusters to stop. Which you can do seamlessly and smoothly by slow and precise movement. The scheme isn't instantly easy to master. But on the other hand it gives you accurate control over how the ship moves in space.

There's also a set of keys rotating your ship from left to right, which is most helpful for aligning the rarely used blaster, or missiles if you have them, down a vector graphics cone away from the ship. You then simply fire your main truster with the mouse-button, and float the ship in any direction you want.

It takes subtlety to succeed here. But it is extremely rewarding when you do, and float through the maze-like levels inside the planet's surface - or through the canyons and caves. The eerie space-music perfectly accompanies you on the trip there.

And later when you capture the mission target with the tractor beam, and have to haul the heavy loot back out and into orbit - before the fuel runs out - now the game has gone through the calm and and awe of the initial landing and careful navigation, as well as the suspense and a great reward before the mission-segments end.

The game was far ahead of it's time when it comes to the graphics and graphics context too. The art-style was decidedly vector-based, like the original. And the flat square and shiny panels on the lander craft scaled extremely well towards the 3d cards that turned up at the time. It also allowed relatively complex lighting treatment. And this still lets the game appear artistically pleasing even compared to newer graphics.

With an indirect and physics based control scheme, rather than an arcade simplification. And graphics that were inspired by the classic but also shiny and modern, it was a very unique game that respectfully took an old concept and recreated it in a new and futuristic setting. A brilliant game that probably could only have been made at the time it was. But which unfortunately (and incomprehensibly) didn't start a trend on it's own. Or, tragically, even superceeded it's much simpler and very basic arcade ancenstor.

It might take you a couple of weeks to get through the about 20 scenarios and missions in Psygnosis' Lander. Some of which are optional, and others that are faction-dependent. It is not impossible to get the game to run without a 3dfx/Voodoo 2 card, but not all graphics cards will support the d3d version fully. Requires a mouse or trackball - touchpad will not work. Also, feel free to read my meta-review supplement, elsewhere on the site (RIP Psygnosis).


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Community review by fleinn (August 13, 2011)

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