About five years ago I waxed lyrical about a little known underwater action game called Archimedian Dynasty. It arrived straight out of nowhere, was developed deep in the heart of Germany and, despite being one of the best games of 1996, was roundly ignored by everyone. I learnt two lessons that day joystick-gropers are hanging on our every word, treating every half-page review of a flight sim add-on like the Sermon on the Mount. Secondly, I learnt never to underestimate any quietly-released, under-budgeted East-European/ex-Soviet Bloc-developed action game. Where others will look at the words "Made by the second largest programming team in the Brataslovian Republic" on the accompanying photocopied press release and raise their eyes skyward, I'll gladly snatch the disc from their grasp, ready to embrace a new dawn in videogaming should it lie within.
Echelon is a futuristic action flight sim jobbie, developed by MADia -Russia's answer to Lionhead Studios, I suppose - and at first glance it really looks like we're onto another underrated classic here.
Dosvydana, Perestroika, Glasnost
Indeed, at first glance Echelon looks utterly superb, drawing the player in with one of the best looking pieces of FMV I've seen on a PC for a long while This is then backed up by possibly the second finest looking piece of FMV I've seen on a PC for a long time at the start of the game's main campaign. This is only slightly jarred by the constantly repeating theme tune that bizarrely seems to have been lifted straight out of Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels for some reason. The game proper is also pretty impressive looking, providing you've got the hardware to cope and you don't mind some persistent fogging in the backgrounds. In fact, technically this is a nice H job all round. The graphics engine is complemented by a good flight model - just simple enough to appeal to twitchy action fans, but with enough interesting quirks to emphasise the point that this is the future and things aren't as straightforward as they seem. Basically, fighters behave like a mutant hybrid of helicopters and planes, allowing for some interesting dogfights as ships swoop and bank then spin around on an axis to shoot at whatever's behind them.
Interestingly, different ship classes have different levels of handling too. Fighters are fast and nimble, while bombers really feel heavy and sluggish and take a great deal of persistence to fly well. Transports lumber about like elephants with wings, while interceptors work much better at long distance engagements than up-close shoot-outs.
Tosvarich, Stoli. Er... Nyet
Which is cue for some background I suppose. It's the usual future-strife malarkey. Mankind colonises the galaxy. Gets too big for his own boots. Colonies break off and fight among themselves. Nukes turn most of the habitable planets into irradiated balls of dirt. Mankind rebuilds. New era of peace. Old bunch of colonists turn up and start trouble. Mankind plunges back into war, this time with a common enemy. I think Shakespeare first wrote that one didn't he?
Your role is simple enough. You're a trainee pilot on Earth. A couple of training missions to familiarise yourself with the controls and then you're off. Fighting a war across one particular planet. For 50 or so missions.
Which is the first of Echelorts limitations. While it looks great and all, flying over the similar looking canyons time and time again does start to grate. Every once in a while you wish that you could take the action into space (as seen in the FMV intro).
Failing that, just flying somewhere green would be nice of pace, rather than the murky orange/ brown that covers the world like a blanket of vomited snow.
The missions help to add variety, although, as they range in difficulty from the mildly impossible to the superhumanly insane, and the fact that they're scripted rather than being dynamic, you'll find you end up playing a large number of them over and over again until boredom settles in like an old grandparent in a favourite armchair.
The debate about mid-game saves is raging elsewhere in the industry. But making a case for their defence, is the fact that as number of Echelorfs missions are long, having to play through them again and again because of a small error near the end, is enough to make even the most mild mannered gamer want to jab fork handles into nearby pedestrians.
Echelon does a lot right. Visually superb, with really exciting dogfights and missions that conjure up a believable sense of large military operations. Unfortunately, it also gets several key areas slightly wrong. The difficulty is too high, the missions and landscape become repetitive and the linear nature to it all, destroys any real sense of atmosphere. The subtle hints towards humour in the mission debriefings should really have been fleshed out to increase the sense of characterisation and immersion into the world.
A few more FMVs to make the player care about what was going on would help (especially when they're of this quality), and more involvement in the planning stages would have helped no end. Still, Echelon can be a lot of fun if you're patient enough to live with the annoyances. There's an absolute classic screaming to get out underneath it all, so hopefully MADia will be able to address these issues in any later releases. It's not the best thing to come out of the new East European landscape (cheap vodka and Sylvia Saint still hold those crowns), but it does enough to justify my faith in looking at the games others fear to touch. Rock on comrades.
Showing on a monitor near you now
Just a quick note to once again praise the quality of the FMVs in Echelon. It's so rare we get a decent pre-game movie to sink our teeth into as everyone these days seems to be eschewing them in favour of in-game engine scripts and the like. Nice to see that the old-skool can still pull it off every once in a while.
Futuristic flight sim takes off from Russia
Somewhere between a full-on flight sim and a space combat game is Echelon from Russian developer Buka. Set more than 200 years into the future, the game is played over a number of planets, each with varying weather conditions from Earth-like rainstorms to energy-draining ion storms over the more harsh environments.
Rather more demanding than something like Starlancer, Buka is hoping Echelon will attract both hardcore simulation and sci-fi fans, by introducing a deep storyline and implementing realistic physics. There will be nearly 20 different pilotable craft, each varying in capabilities and striking roles, with players able to order around wingmen as they ascend the ranks. The range of missions will follow the usual flight-sim formula, varying from straight dogfights to escort, reconnaissance and ground attack.
Release is set for this winter in the US through Bethesda, however, no details of a UK release have been made available. Saying that, with Bethesda's links with Virgin and Interplay in the UK and some favourable reports from US websites that have been playing early code, a UK release may not be far away.
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features: Single game mode
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2018-11-05 Echelon game added.