Don’t judge a book by its cover. It may be a tired adage, but it’s still one important not to forget. Depth Charge Studios, a UK-based indie studio, released Squadron Scramble for the Xbox earlier this January. This 2D dogfighting game puts players in planes as they try to gun each other down and rack up the most points before time runs out. Perhaps the biggest problem with Squadron Scramble is that the trial does it no justice. That brief, limited experience fails to give the player the time or the options to develop a liking for this game. Thankfully, those who decide to pick up the full version will be treated to a fun, multiplayer party game with a lot of hidden depth.
While Squadron Scramble offers a myriad of game options, the standard mode pits the player against a customizable number of opponents. Each player by default starts with four pilots, but only one pilot is in the air while the rest remain in the hanger. There are exceptions to those rules depending on game settings. Each stage consists of a base and a hanger. Pilots emerge from the base and must run to the hanger to board a plane and start racking up points. Each opponent shot down earns that individual pilot a point which goes towards the team total. When a player is shot down and survives, he/she has the option of running back to base to switch pilots, or return to the hanger to grab another plane. The player with most team points when the timer runs out wins the round.
While the trial doesn’t convey the fun factor of the game, the full version doesn’t do the best job in terms of immediately hooking players either. While every fresh startup of the game displays the basic rules to live or die by, it’s on the player to figure out how to really play the game. There are hints provided between rounds that clue players in to the layers of strategy hidden just under the surface of the fly-and-shoot theme. At first, most players will simply be flying around trying not to get shot down while erratically firing off their own armaments. However, once the player realizes how the scoring works, that’s likely to change. Each pilot on a team has their own score, and if that pilot dies while on the ground, he remains out for the round and his score goes to zero. Scores also carry across rounds or “sorties” when playing a multi-round match.
After learning the ruleset by playing the game a handful of times, I was able to use better defensive strategies like keeping high-score pilots in the barracks as much as possible. Going on the offensive became more focused as I began trying to gun down the opponent’s vulnerable pilots as they tried to run to the hangar. Team-based dogfights have their own strategies to learn as well when dealing with a partner. There are even considerations when flying the plane. Doing too many loops will slow the plane down, and flying straight upward can stall the plane. The simplistic graphics really belie what’s under the hood. The game has a lot of depth that’s not apparent when firing it up for the first time, or even after a few rounds.
Squadron Scramble is a multiplayer-centric game, and the developers have gone to great lengths to tout the support for up to eight players at one time. In the event you can actually round up seven other human beings, two players can reportedly play on one controller, though I have to imagine that’d be an uncomfortable arrangement. Regardless of how many people are playing, all players can be divided up into at most four teams. With roughly a quarter to a third of the screen being taken up by the score counter, I assumed that trying to play with eight planes flying around the screen would simply not work. That’s not the way it plays out though, as at any given point half the players are likely to be on the ground racing for the base or hanger, or they’re parachuting down from their destroyed plane. The skies never get too crowded, so kudos to the Depth Charge Software developers for keeping the game balanced even with all of that pandemonium.
As a party game, Squadron Scramble is insanely fun. Having acquainted myself with the subtleties of the game, I brought in three friends who – with a little guidance – were able to play competitively almost immediately. Squadron Scramble includes that essential “screw over your friend” element that makes local multiplayer so enjoyable. Alliances are forged one minute and dissolved shortly after when the tables have turned. It reminded me a lot of playing Bomberman 64 back in the day. Any game that can elicit cackles, squeals, and cries of lament from a room full of grown men deserves some lavish praise.
Thankfully the developers remembered that not everyone has an entourage at their beck and call, so they’ve included AI opponents to fill in whenever necessary. Everyone’s experience may be different playing the game, but I found the challenge level of the AI to be pretty well-balanced. I won most matches, but very rarely swept every round. The enemy planes were also smart enough to fire at the pilots running for cover on the ground. There are no difficulty settings to play around with, so it’s a good thing the developers nailed it right the first time.
Player assignment isn’t the only variance in the game. There are a few additional modes included that shake up the rules in terms of how many pilots are on each team or how many shots can be fired in a burst. And for a truly tailored experience, there’s a custom mode that allows modification of just about every setting including number of rounds, timer duration, and stage selection. The stages have their own quirks like environmental and man-made hazards that some players may like or dislike. Providing the option to jump immediately to or stay away from any of the five stages is a nice feature.
As an intended party game, Squadron Scramble soars, but not before having a little trouble getting off the runway. There’s a bit of a learning curve that must be overcome through simply playing the game. I really struggled with what review score to settle on. However, the fact that this now sits along with SpeedRunner HD and Hidden in Plain Sight in the echelon of must-play XBLIG party games, settled the matter for me: 5/5. Grab a buck, some buds, and some brews and have a blast.
A review copy of this game was provided by the developer for that purpose.
© 2013, The Indie Mine. All rights reserved.