Okay gentlemen, it’s time to face a fundamental truth. Something you learned from the age of five, and remains just as true today as it did then; Fighter jets are totally fucking awesome. Top Gun knew this. The Discovery Channel knows this, which is why they show those specials on them all the time. And the designers of this game knew this. The question is not “will you like a game about jets,” the question is “will you like THIS game about jets?”
For all odds, you really shouldn’t. Tomcat Alley is a FMV game following almost the exact formula as the gargantuan disaster that is Midnight Raiders. In fact, it’s made by the same company. The jackoff CIA operative from that game even makes an appearance in this one, seemingly tying the two together. Luckily, it seems like a different and more clever team is behind Alley, and the two games play very uniquely, despite being essentially the same game about two similar subjects.
Upon loading the game, the first thing you’re treated to is a grainy introduction video of your pilot arriving at the super-secret air base Tomcat Alley. I guess Miramar wouldn’t let the crew film there, so instead your base is a giant mesa in the middle of the desert, complete with a styrofoam wall painted to look like rock that grinds back to reveal a keypad and scanner that allow stealthy entry to the base. The mesa itself holds a storage hangar full of the game’s namesake – the F-14 Tomcat, which really isn’t secret enough to require hiding it in the fucking Batcave.
Your role in the game appears to be that of a faceless Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), or that guy who sits in the back of the plane and does everything but fly it – from finding targets to launching missiles to answering the radio. The video also introduces you to your wingmen – one is a greasy mustached man who looks better suited to a season on HBO’s Oz, the other is one of those blonde, barely attractive women for budget films where the script calls for a knockout hottie, but Vanessa Marcil is too expensive. It’s sort of the same case as when a bogusly attractive relative becomes a local furniture store’s “poor-man’s gorgeous model” for their TV commercials, or when Gary Busey gets a role because he’s a “poor-man’s Nick Nolte.”
The plot is only as deep as it needs to be, which apparently isn’t much. The back of the game’s case told me more about what was going on than the videos did – a Russian general has gone rogue and is threatening the US with an assortment of MiGs and bombers with viral payloads. Just where you are is never explained – it seems like you’re flying over the western US, but the tone of the game is not as rushed and serious as it should be if the Commies were flying missions over our backyard. It doesn’t really matter though, as any plot they could come up with would just be an excuse to shoot down planes, which is what you do like it was going out of style.
You’ll spend the grand majority of the game in the plane’s cockpit, watching videos of flying, launching missiles, or taking evasive action. The game will switch over to a first person HUD when you’re required to make split-second decisions, like dodging missiles or answering the radio. You’ll also fire missiles from this view. Regardless of the mission given to you in the video briefing, every engagement will break down like this: You take off and select the first waypoint from the HUD. Video of plane flying and detecting bogeys. Back to the HUD to pick a target out of no less than five contacts. Video of plane flying to meet bogey. Fight bogey. Repeat until you reach goal.
The game’s randomization elements kick in here. Essentially about ten scenarios have been pre-baked before the show, and the game randomly pulls one out of the oven. Five of these involve you coming up behind the enemy and getting a chance to shoot first. Five of them involve the enemy getting the drop on you and you having to take evasive action, which simply involves selecting the countermeasure icon and watching the plane do something neat to dodge the missile. Every engagement WILL be somewhat unique, but they’re all pulled from the same ten edited scenarios. Yet they’re general enough that it won’t be a huge distraction.
One thing to note though, and one of the only real flaws of the game, is that when you’re not shooting the enemy, you’re always being fired upon, and you always must release a countermeasure in this situation. You’ll always be saved if you do, but you only have a few of them per mission, and when you run out, you can’t do a single thing but take a sidewinder up your ass. Where it starts to get unfair is when luck is against you and you’re fired on by the same plane three or more times in a row. Since it’s all random, you could theoretically run right out of countermeasures before getting the opportunity to launch a single missile. It would be nice if the missiles could randomly miss, or your pilot could do some of those neat tricks he’s paid to do, but alas, when you’re out of countermeasures, you’re done.
Controlling the aircraft is greatly improved over Raiders. The plane is controlled through a small HUD of icons, with an aiming cursor moved by the D-pad. The B button selects an icon, and is how you select waypoints, change missiles, and answer the radio. The only other time you need the HUD is to target and destroy an enemy. This is a challenge, and involves chasing a fast-maneuvering enemy with your comparatively sluggish crosshairs. The A button shoots, and unlike Raiders, if you shoot early then you actually miss. Though also unlike Raiders, if you can line up the crosshairs with the plane for even a second, they will “stick” to the plane briefly and turn red to indicate a lock. Release the D-pad, tap A, and watch the fireworks. It’s a harder system to get used to, and actually more difficult than Raiders, but the locking system makes it manageable, and the challenge of it all makes a kill much more satisfying.
All that’s left to talk about are the graphics, which are your typical Sega CD quality. These are lit well, however, and its much easier to understand what’s on the screen. The cockpit shots, of which there are many, are actually believable. It looks like the actors are actually in a jet up in the air, instead of in a mock cockpit in front of green screen like in Raiders. The planes are a similar story, and look like original footage instead of expected military stock (unless the Navy just did a better job of filming their F-14s). Everything is also smooth when fighting planes, despite being fast and disorienting. The planes in these sequences seem to be hand-drawn instead of actually filmed – you rarely will be able to tell, but it would explain why the sequences are so visually well-controlled. The sound is dead-on, with the famous sounds of F-14 engines flaring, radio chatter, and warning alarms coming through with perfection.
Tomcat Alley is actually enjoyable, despite tackling subjects and methods tried and failed by other games. You are just watching splices of virtually plotless grainy video, and you are just moving a cursor over a green box and pressing a button, but it just doesn’t seem to matter here. Maybe it’s because of the fighter jets, but whatever the reason, if you’re looking for Sega CD games, then this is one worth checking out.
Hey, it’s actually fun, despite not being much different than certain other CD games (we don’t name names here at JGR, but it starts with an “M” and ends with a “idnight Raiders”).
That little countermeasure issue, and take this advice: answer the radio immediately or you’ll get bitched out.