I can appreciate a game that tries to be innovative – it’s a hard thing to do. I generally really like a game that pulls it off successfully, because that’s even harder. Iron Helix is one game that mostly falls in the “successful” category. Gamers have played characters with guns for decades, but Helix is an action game that has you controlling a completely unarmed science robot. You face off against another security robot that is very armed. How’s this going to work? Simple, it’s a cat-and-mouse exercise.
In the distant future, mankind is in a state of cold war with an alien race. The story picks up as our side has developed a deadly new viral weapon, and is preparing to test fire it on a barren planet during a wargame simulation. The simulation is just a little too real for the ship’s AI however, and the computer overrides the crew’s controls and locks onto a more attractive, populated target. This targeting software was clearly produced by Microsoft, and I can even see the little paperclip guy from Word popping on the screens – *POINK!* “Hi! I’m the Microsoft Tactical Target 2031 assistant. It looks like you’re trying to start a war. Is this the planet you meant to fire upon?”
To further complicate matters, the prototype bombs on board carry a viral payload that rapidly mutates its victims in the process of killing them. Somehow it’s leaked out onto the ship, and goes to work mutating the crew. The ship quickly fails to recognize their DNA, which acts as the code keys to everything on board, and locks them out of canceling the attack. It also recognizes them as intruders and sends out its security robot to cleanse the ship. So the ship is now unmanned and boring down upon the alien planet, ready to mutate all its civilians and start one hell of a war. In short, the fit has hit the shan.
Your role in all this is as a crewman aboard a nearby science vessel. With a virus and a robot designed to kill all intruders running around, you can’t very well board the thing yourself. However, you do have a science probe you can send over and remote-pilot. This is the heart of the gameplay. You view the world through a console receiving a feed from the probe’s camera. It’s your job to pilot the probe away from the defense robot and around the ship to gather DNA samples from the deceased crew. The DNA gives you access around the ship, and different DNA accesses different things (the higher up in rank you go, the better off you are). Once you have full access to the neat ship widgets and gizmos, you have to use video codes left by the crew to shut down the security bot and destroy the ship. All this goes on while the security bot patrols the ship and actively hunts for you.
The most attractive feature of this game is the tense action. This game would absolutely suck if your robot had a gun. A lot of gamers won’t like this, but considering the growing market for “stealth” games, there are likely a number who would appreciate the tactical gameplay. If the defender gets in the same room as you, you’re dead instantly, and anytime you open a door or interface with the computers, its able to track that movement and will go investigate that area. A large part of the game is figuring out how to move around the ship undetected, and how to lure the defender away long enough for you to access that room you wanted to, or run a computer program. The DNA exploration is very drawn-out, considering that there’s samples all over the ship, but their placement is usually pretty logical. For example, you’ll find some of the captain’s DNA in his quarters, and in order to get to his room you’ll need a DNA key from a lower-ranking officer who would have access to most of the ship (the security or medical chief). It all really makes sense.
The game exhibits some of the pixelation problems visible in Sega CD movie games. It helps that the ship was all rendered in a computer, so you can tell they were able to pull some tricks to cut down on the effects of these pixels that wouldn’t be possible from a live-action tape. The storyline also makes up for the shortcomings, since you are supposed to be looking through a camera the whole time. Still, the game certainly could look sharper, and a lot of rooms are overly dark. The ship itself is vast and interesting to explore, though a lot of corridors do look the same. To help with this, you can cycle between a map of your level, a map of the security bot’s current level, and a side view of the whole ship. You would easily get lost in the bland corridors otherwise, but the maps make it simple to navigate. The rooms are reasonably detailed, and contain logical sections and equipment to help sell the idea that people live and work on this craft.
Controls work well for this concept. Since you’re supposedly using a remote control console, you only need the few keys offered by the Genesis. D-pad moves the robot around, with lit arrows indicating the directions you can turn and move. There is about a two-second delay between pressing a button and having the robot react, and though this could be a technical limitation, it’s more likely intentional and meant to represent the delay between the robot and the remote unit. It makes the game seem sluggish if you’re used to action, but also keeps the tension high. You’ll be slamming the “up” key when the defender’s right in the next room, but like a chess game the delay will cause you to move, then the defender, then you. You’ll have to plan ahead because they’ll be no quick escape in an emergency.
The important collecting of DNA and interfacing with computers is handled through a robotic arm activated with the A button. Pressing this brings the arm up on screen, and then the D-pad moves it around. Pressing A again will lower it, or activate an object if it is over something that can be manipulated (shown by green brackets). You can also briefly jam the defender with the B button, giving you a few seconds to escape, but this draws energy from your extremely limited power reserves.
Iron Helix isn’t a game that everyone, maybe even most gamers, will enjoy. It is very slow, very methodical, and there is an extreme emphasis on exploration and hiding. You won’t be able to breeze through this very quickly at all, as the DNA takes time to find, and you’ll constantly be rerouted to dodge the security bot. But if you know exactly what you’re getting into, you’ll find the game can be quite a lot of fun. This one’s hard to find, but worth the download if you want a tense strategy game.
Methodical and very original cat-and-mouse game.
Slow-paced, and if you don’t like exploration and fleeing, don’t bother.