Sometimes, the best formulas are the ones comprised of the simplest parts. People like fast cars and car chases. They like stuff blowing up. And everyone loves aliens and big-ass afros. So eventually, someone had to combine these elements, and in mid-1998, Activision did just, creating today’s souffle, Vigilante 8.
Set in an unspecified year in the 1970’s, V-8’s story ties in surprisingly well to the time period. An evil oil cartel known as OMAR dominates the world oil market, but can’t manage to bring the U.S. to heel, so they turn to professional terrorist Sid Burn and his gang (the Coyotes) in an effort to wreck the U.S. economy, but their attempts are thwarted by a good-guy trucker named Convoy and his band of misfit followers (the titular Vigilantes). Add a raid by the Coyotes on a secret government research facility in search of heavy artillery, and we’re off and running across the American Southwest.
The meat of the game is the single-player Quest Mode, where you select a character and crash and smash your way through five of the game’s levels, battling more enemies at each stop, and culminating with a final showdown with a member of the opposing faction. You also have an objective in each level, but they only consist of protecting or destroying a landmark, depending on your character’s affiliation. Enemy AI, however, isn’t particularly interested in your objective; they never actively try to torch a building you’re supposed to protect or defend a target you’re trying to destroy…if anything, enemies will probably end up blowing up the objective on pure accident while trying to attack you. Basically, it just comes down to making a mental note of what the target is and either staying clear of its general area or making a quick side trip to raze it.
As for your arsenal in this battle, you start out with a weak machine gun with infinite ammo, but laying on the trigger will overheat it and slow its fire rate to a crawl. More powerful weapons, like rockets and mortars, are scattered around the level by themselves or hidden in crates, but with the crates, you won’t know what you’re getting until after you’ve picked it up, and you can only hold three weapons at a time, so there will be the occasional frustrating moment where you accidentally trade 30 rockets for 6 mines. Also, each weapon features two special moves triggered by a directional combo, rather like a special move in a fighting game, that range from launching up to six mortar shells at once into a mega-mortar that can create a massive crater to firing a homing missile but NOT launching it, causing you to get a quick turbo boost.
Each character also gets a unique special attack, from Molo’s bus farting exhaust out the tailpipe (not a joke, it is exactly how I’ve described it), hippie Dave calling in a swarm of mini-UFO’s to attack you (which REALLY sucks to be on the receiving end of) to disco casualty Boogie’s Gremlin launching an inflatable disco ball that fires off multi-colored explosive flares (aka The Greatest Special Move in the History of Video Gaming). However, unlike Twisted Metal, your specials do not organically regenerate, and you have to find them in crates like the other weapons.
Graphics and sound wise, V-8 is very good but not spectaular. All the weapons sound distinctive, the soundtrack sounds ’70s-appropriate and funky cool, and the characters belt out one-liners when you select them, when you fire your special move (which serves as a warning that you might need to run away), and when you “total” an enemy car (finishing it off with a character special or one of the special moves, almost like a Fatality, which serves little practical purpose but is a nice little “Eff-You” move).
The levels are well-detailed, so you’ll have no problem discerning what your target is, or which enemy is which, and the cars themselves have neat little flourishes like the bullhorns on John Torque’s majestic pimpmobile. Also, unlike Twisted Metal, your car doesn’t magically go back to being spotless after picking up a health icon, if it’s smashed up, it stays smashed up…and the damage models follow a measure of logic, meaning if you get blasted in the back, only the back of the car shows damage. V-8 also supports the Expansion Pak for high-resolution mode, but it does make the game run a bit choppy. In fact, all weapons have a lockout/cooldown time to minimize the amount of sprites moving on-screen at one time…there is a cheat to remove the fire limits, but if you launch 20 homing missiles at once, well, be careful what you wish for. All the characters have a little epilogue after you finish their quest, but on the N64 version, it’s handled as a slideshow with text as opposed to FMV, but it really shouldn’t make much of a difference.
As for replay value, there’s a good bit to be had here. To unlock the five hidden characters and three secret levels, you’ll end up having to beat Quest Mode about a dozen times…that sounds like a lot, yes, but when the final hidden character is an alien and his flying saucer, it’s worth it. The obligatory multiplayer is here as well, giving you and a buddy a chance to team up on quests or lock horns with three other friends in a retro blast-o-rama.
Although you could look at Vigilante 8 as a derivative of Twisted Metal (and it is, to some extent, obviously) and dismiss it, you’d be missing out on a pretty solid game. The setting and characters are fun and campy, and the whole package is enjoyable and doesn’t take itself too seriously…like the Disco Era itself.
Simple to pick up and play, makes good use of the theme, if you can’t have fun blowing up Vegas with a flying saucer, may God have mercy on your soul.
Enemy AI can be quite dim, unlocking everything takes a pretty serious time investment, some people might get quite tired of how drenched in ’70s stereotypes it gets sometimes.