It’s apparently cool to hate on 1996’s alien-smashing blockbuster Independence Day, but I enjoyed the film. Sure, it was packed with cliches, two-dimensional characters, and yet another situation where America saves the world because everyone else is too busy scrambling through the desert or poking each other with sticks – but it was also just good popcorn fun. It could also simply be a product of the time, and judging by its gross take, a very successful product of its time. The video game version was thus inevitable.
First off, everything nasty you’ve heard about the game is almost certainly in reference to the PlayStation version. It should come as no surprise that the obscure PC port is the best-looking and most-playable copy, and many of the PS complaints simply do not apply here. Draw distances are much improved, the radar display actually shows enemies, the framerate is smooth and playable, and even the sounds are changed for the better (that “lock on” alarm no longer warbles for the duration of the level). So before you dismiss the rest of this review outright, be aware that we’re talking about a version of the game that – from a technical standpoint – actually works.
The game assumes that you’re already familiar with the film’s plot, so even the clipshow edits of movie highlights don’t do much to tell a story. In short, aliens have arrived in monstrous UFOs parked over Earth’s major cities. They’re engaging in a campaign of systematic destruction, using an enormous underbelly cannon that burns entire cities off the map. This cannon conveniently doubles as the destroyer’s weak spot. Each level has unique objectives you must complete in a limited amount of time, from defending an unarmed scout plane to destroying compromised uplink facilities. Once you do this, the aliens’ cannon opens up to start charging, and you have about 30 seconds to fly over and launch ordinance at its tip. Destroy the weapon in time and the ship explodes, sending you off to your next city.
In practice, every level is a mid-sized, circular arena locked off by “force fields” projected from the ship overhead. Powerups scattered around the arena refill your missiles, heath, or offer temporary weapon boosts. While playing, I was reminded a bit of Twisted Metal – the same endless loops, hit-and-run attacks, and fanatical reliance on respawning powerups all feature here. If you’re not consistently restocking, you’re not sticking around for long. The closest objective is always marked with an arrow on the outer edge of the radar, and the radar itself offers easy-to-read, color coded dots showing all enemies and types nearby.
Your plane has two main weapons – a stock of 20 missiles, and an infinite-ammo cannon. The missiles quickly lock on to the closest enemy in your view and track them when fired. You can have a maximum of two missiles out at once, and all enemies require at least that many for a kill, so much of combat is spent double-tapping the missile key and moving on to the next target. The cannon is meant for short range work, and is only occasionally useful. It aims similar to the missiles (and in a fairly wide arc, so targets don’t have to be directly in your crosshairs), but doesn’t track as well. If your enemy is turning, then the cannons almost always miss.
The final point worth noting is the game’s system of hidden planes. You start with an “average” F-16, and discover different planes as icons in each level. The collectable planes are pulled from around the world, ranging from stealth fighters, experimental craft, and old favorites (like the A-10 or F-15). Each of these planes has different characteristics in speed, handling, armor, and stealth (the likelihood that enemies will pursue you). These stats actually do have tactile differences, though all planes are almost equally useful. Their major difference is in their fixed missile armament. Some missiles (like the AMRAAM) are slower but more powerful, making them good for bombing runs against stationary targets. Others (Sidewinders) are fast, agile, and make that plane a good selection for dogfighting.
Collected planes appear on your airfield (think Rogue Squadron), and can be selected before each mission. An oversight here is that you must pick your plane before you know what mission you’re up against, so you frequently can’t take advantage of each plane’s strengths on the first attempt. Planes also act as your lives. If you die in a mission, you lose that plane for the rest of the game. You can keep trying as long as you have planes available, but losing a favorite plane is definitely a harsh punishment that makes you a little more wary of taking risks.
The downside of Independence Day is that every level is essentially the same. They’ve based the game off the only action scenes in the film – the grandiose aerial battles against the alien city destroyers – and in doing so have locked themselves to a pretty repetitious slice of content. Different missions mix things up a bit, but these usually just put a different face on the frequently reused “destroy XX structures” objective. Alien fighters simply run interference, and except for the level where you must destroy a set number of commander ships, there’s no advantage to wasting missiles on them at all (the destroyer will just burp out more). Also, the numbers of these little bastards flying around at once gets up in the teens on the PC version, so the chaos of the movie’s battles quickly gets simulated.
“Chaos,” however, doesn’t necessarily mean “fun.” Those swarms of fighters are pretty effective in ruining your attack runs on mission objectives – not because their attacks are overly lethal, but because of the simulated physics that kick in every time you take a hit. Plasma bolts slam into your fighter and knock it slightly off course each time. Your ship’s aggressive auto target seems predisposed toward fighters, so any fighter passing by readily grabs your target computer’s attention and pulls it away from the objective you’re trying to lock on to.
Worst of all are the fucking “tumbler” missiles. These special little pains-in-the-ass (fired from either ground turrets or specific alien fighters) cause your ship to temporarily spin out of control when they connect. At a minimum, you’re not going to be targeting your objective anymore. More frequently, they send you skipping along the ground, or bouncing off buildings, accumulating damage with each hit. I have never found it fun to have control taken away from me in a game, and these tumblers help prove the point of why no game should ever include such mechanics.
Your two consistent ass-savers are the freeze and invulnerability icons. Invulnerability not only gives you a 20-second shield, but it also instantly tops your health to full (unlike the health powerups, which add only a few bars a pop). I need not point out how endlessly useful this is, and one of your top priorities in each level should be finding and remembering the location of this little beauty. The Freeze icon appears when you destroy an objective, and stops all aliens in place for 15 seconds. If you’re particularly good, you can bounce between destroying objectives before each freeze runs out, and this tactic is pretty much required at the highest difficulty. You’ll still have to constantly scavenge for more missiles, but these two icons do at least make the game playable.
There are nine levels in all taking you on a mostly-expected world tour of New York, Tokyo, Moscow, and Paris. Floating warp gates in some levels also take you to side areas like Cape Canaveral and Antarctica, where you have an excellent chance of finding new planes. This does mean the game’s a pretty short run, and replay value is highly questionable. You don’t keep planes you collected in a previous playthrough, so there’s no “catch ’em all” incentive. The game does track high scores, but cryptically, displaying them only on the top-five leaderboard. You’ll have no idea how you earned it. There’s also a rudimentary head-to-head multiplayer system, but I have no idea what’s available here. The in-game browser picks up no servers running in 2011 (enormous surprise).
Graphically, it’s not a bad show. It runs at 640×480 with sharp sprites and a decent draw distance. The PlayStation’s issues with muddy textures and popping (or just plain invisible) enemies aren’t here, though you will still need to rely on your objective indicator to know which way to fly. Ground objects on the draw horizon also pop in first as untextured polys before the texture is loaded and applied. The PS version seemed to have real issues with the textured destroyer acting as a ceiling (instead of a simple skybox), but the PC handles this without any hitches in framerate. As was the case for the time, the issues that seemed quite broken on the consoles aren’t a problem on superior computer hardware.
Audio can be summed up in three words: “Will Smith soundalike.” The Fresh Prince’s character in the film acts as your chatty wingman in every mission, and throws out helpful lines like “Get back here and fight!” when you get too close to the level’s edge, or “I’m hit! I’m spinning out of control!” every time he gets tagged by a tumbler. He’ll also throw out “I can’t shake him!” lines and request your help – almost more often than Slippy Toad – though it’s unclear if you’re actually expected to do this. I also heard him announce a few times that he was too damaged and had to return to base, but the mission didn’t seem impacted. He is not as useless as he sounds though, as the levels with flying objectives (like transport ships) mysteriously had their numbers reduced in what I assume was his doing. In other levels, however, he’ll busy himself by wasting time dogfighting the alien fighters.
I bought the PlayStation version when it came out (look, it was… a different time, okay?) and I don’t recall ever finishing it. It seemed like one of those games more fun to slap a cheat code on than to actually play as intended, and I can certainly see the complaints that it was broken. The PC version is surprisingly playable though, and I beat the game quite handily for this review. Unfortunately, that just underscored how little content there actually is here, and how few reasons there are to go back to it. In short, it’s brainless fun just like the movie it’s based on, with about three times the level of frustration here and there. Definitely not a full price game, probably not worth your time, but not as broken as you might have heard either.
PC port is the way it was meant to be. Smooth framerate, sharp textures, enemies you can actually see.
Still a repetitive and limited concept. Few levels, no real replay value. A few frustrations (tumbler missiles, enemies that can easily slip your missiles by turning) drag the whole show down further.