With Laser Squad being one of my all time favourite games it was inevitable that I would revisit the game. With issue 5 of Retroaction put on definite hold, the planned ‘mega article’ on the game can now be published in a week long special of Laser Squad articles, starting with a look at the game itself…
Going by personal experience, films or music which are regarded as all time favourites are ones that have taken me by surprise with their rather low key arrival, winning me over with fantastic plot, design and atmosphere. Videogames have proven to be no exception to this rule. In 1989, this author was more into arcade gaming, shoot-‘em-ups and beat-‘em-ups to even think about playing strategy games. Stick to what you know was the thinking back then. However, nearing Christmas of 1989, my perception of gaming changed forever, and that was thanks to Laser Squad.
Having joined a videogaming mail order company, where you were required to purchase at least one game per month, one month had passed by without a purchase. So, as explained in the terms and conditions, if a game were not chosen by month end, the editor’s choice for that month would be sent out. Despite not having previously played any strategy game, there was something intriguing about the game. The box art alone made me want to know more about this science fiction turn based strategy war game.
Laser Squad comes with some fantastic scenarios, including the two official expansion kits, which all come with their own back story, but the most challenging and most rewarding mission must be that of Cyber Hordes. In this scenario, player one is tasked with defending a rebel planet station from the attacking Imperial droid squad. Using a small band of soldiers, seven stabilizer cores, which are used to stabilize the planets seismic activity, must be defended and saved from destruction. With the rebels strategically placed to the right hand side of the map, they lie in wait for the oncoming attack form the left by the droid army.
This fourth scenario was the very first expansion kit mission, but if you bought a later version of the game, this was included as standard along with the fifth scenario, Paradise Valley. With the expansion kit, Julian Gollop ramped up the visuals, gameplay and overall design. The difficulty was noticeably increased, with an enemy that seemed to have improved AI. The Cyber Hordes scenario in particular was a tough nut, what with the droids having a super reinforced Battle Droid with a Blaster and a never ending supply of reinforcements. The scenario also introduced some neat new weapons, with the desirable accurate rifle, the MK-1, and the destructible MS Auto Cannon. Just watch that cannon, though, as it packs a fair punch.
With missions including destroying lab equipment, rescuing POWs from mine prisons, defending a rebel base against a never ending droid army and retrieving and escaping an alien planet with the blueprints for a rebel starfighter, Laser Squad is challenging enough for the most hardened strategy buff. Building upon his previous games, coder Julian Gollop achieved the pinnacle of strategy games for the 8-bits. Sure the graphics and sound may not amount to much, but the game immerses you into each scenario with the only concern being to keep the squad alive to complete the mission.
Laser Squad introduced gamers to the ‘hidden movement’ system, which means that the player will not know the whereabouts of the enemy and will not appear on the map until they have moved into the ‘field of vision’ of one the player’s units. The ‘field of vision’ covers the 45 degrees from the front of the unit, with various types of terrain such as walls or doors blocking this line of sight. Because an enemy unit is not seen until it is clearly in view, this very much 2D game has a First Perspective feel to it.
With the use of familiar names like Corporal Jonlan in many of the scenarios, the game has a feel of continuity through the many scenarios. You really start to care about your squad when you get to know them as much as you do with Corporal Jonlan. Out of all Gollop’s games, Laser Squad is arguably the most influential, having been the blueprint for UFO: Enemy Unknown (aka X-COM: UFO Defense), the critically acclaimed PC strategy hit, and the whole genre as a whole. I’ve never ever come close to giving a game ludicrous 100% scores, but Laser Squad would certainly be a contender.