Stuff I bought instead of Perfect Dark, No.5

Friday – Missile Escape

I'm a total sucker for one-life games, and I also love to see screens full of dozens of tiny missiles with vapour trails, so when it came to my week-long quest to more productively spend the 800 Microsoft Points that the shoddy and incompetent XBLA version of Perfect Dark costs, Missile Escape (80 MS Points) was a no-brainer.

Missile Escape is a game in which you have to escape from missiles. That single sentence is pretty much the entire plot and instruction manual, but we'll elaborate a bit just to fill out the space between the screenshots.

You're the pilot of a jet fighter, and at the start of each wave a number of missiles appear from the right-hand edge of the screen and start homing in on your plane. Level 1 features a single missile, Level 2 has two, Level 3 has three, and intelligent and discerning people such as the viewers of WoSblog can probably figure the rest out from there.

Your job is to fly around avoiding the missiles (the static screen is wrap-around) until the 10-second timer counts down, at which point the missiles give up and scuttle off to another appointment, and a new batch take their place. There are three difficulty levels and two game types – Mission (where you keep retrying a level until you beat it), and Survival, a sudden-death mode where levels are just five seconds, missiles can come from anywhere, and one hit sends you instantly back to Level 1.

The core gameplay is terrific. Your jet is fast, the controls (you get two types) highly responsive, everything's buttery-smooth and the missiles are ferocious opponents. There's one particularly brilliant touch, in that the three-second countdown to the start of a level can be aborted with a press of the fire button, which both speeds things up and adds a bit of tactical depth, as you can trigger the missiles when you think you're in an advantageous position.

Lasting interest is added by the ability to unlock some new planes, and the game keeps track of your "completion" stats – the maximum level is 20, and you'll have to beat 20 missiles in six different categories (each of three difficulties, in each of the two modes) to notch 100%.

This, though, is the only place where Missile Escape lets itself down a bit. The metastructure hasn't been especially well designed, and the game could be a lot better with some very minor changes. The most annoying is Mission mode, which gives you infinite retries in any one session, but sends you right back to the start if you quit back to the menu.

Since Survival mode already provides an "endurance"-type game, it's pointlessly unfriendly for Mission to also make you wade through the early levels every time. It means there's no way of jumping straight into a tougher challenge, because even on Hard you don't get much opposition from just two or three missiles (though the jump in difficulty is noticeable), so you're faced with at least a minute of mucking around before you get to a tricky bit. And in a game like this, where a life can last one second, a minute is an eternity.

Tweaked just a tiny bit, Missile Escape could be absolutely immense, especially on a format like the iPod. A better metastructure, an Arcade mode with a well-judged powerup or two, a few extra backdrops (currently you get just two, and can either select one for the whole game or have it alternate levels between them) and you could have a game with the longevity of Flight Control as well as the instant appeal.

As it stands it's still great fun for the price of a Mars bar, but man, WoSblog needs an iPod coder, stat!

Whatever that means.

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