Most of Shock Wave takes place in the cockpit of your F-177 fighter. You are armed with a rapid fire laser which consumes energy and a limited number of homing missiles. The joypad controls your craft as expected (up is down and down is up), and your ship automatically levels off when you stop turning. The right shift key activates your thrusters which consume fuel, but give your ship a useful burst of speed. You also have a shield that is depleted as you run into things and are hit by enemy fire. Each of these resources can be replenished by flying under the refueling drones that are located at fixed locations in each mission.
You must fight your way through ten missions, each with a "boss" at the end. The levels supposedly take place at various places around the Earth, and the terrain is modeled appropriately (Egypt has desert terrain, Peru has jungles, etc.). At the start of each mission you are briefed on what to expect, and throughout the level, your onboard computer (Intelligent Combat Engine or I.C.E) gives you additional information that changes depending on how well you are doing.
Generally speaking, flying is easy. While you can run into buildings, enemies, and other obstacles, you cannot crash into the ground. Given the number of enemies with which you are confronted, it's a good thing that at least the ground is your friend :-). The "auto leveling" effect mentioned above eliminates the need to be too precise when pulling out of a turn as well. While these features make the game less of a simulator and more of an action title, their absence would have made the game far too difficult. Those of you that are accustomed to analog PC joysticks for flight simulators may not enjoy using the joypad for such a game, but generally speaking, it's adequate in this case.
The number of alien types is quite high, and the game appears to do a reasonable job of introducing new aliens with each level. So far, each alien craft has been discussed during the intermissions, or I have at least been briefly warned by the onboard computer before encountering them. Pretty cool. Aliens are reasonably intelligent and have distinct strengths, weaknesses, behaviors and attack patterns. Aliens can hurt each other with their shots and by colliding and some of the less intelligent flying aliens often do.
It is also worth noting that failure to destroy enough of the aliens may make later portions of the level harder. More than once the onboard computer has told me that the aliens that I failed to destroy were regrouping further along our flight path and might cause trouble. Cool.
3DO owners that were hoping Shock Wave would end the "games on rails" argument once and for all will be disappointed. While you can turn completely around and fly back where you came from, there are several limitations. You are limited to flying in a reasonably narrow ally on the surface and you can only fly a short distance back in the direction from which you came. These limitations are woven into the story by stating that the Omaha is laying down a blanket of laser fire around your flight path (including behind you) to keep you from being overwhelmed. Failure to stay within the path shown on your radar results in your ship being hit repeatedly by friendly fire. The damage is severe and will destroy your ship if you don't return to the prescribed route immediately. The edges of the ally are irregular and quite wide at times (several flight seconds across), but occasionally become dangerously narrow. Although this limitation may seem artificial at first, it really does fit into the game quite well, and at times is used effectively to add additional tactical elements to some missions. The distance that you can fly back in the direction from which you came is reasonable, and allows you to make multiple passes at hard to destroy targets, as well as allowing you to evade flying enemies and use the terrain effectively to combat the aliens. Given that you are supposed to be on a life or death mission to destroy a particular target, restricting your movement seems appropriate, enhances the overwhelming sense of urgency, and generally gets you where you going as fast as possible.
The levels are a bit long, and dying results in having to fly the entire mission over again. I found this a bit annoying at first and some people may find this feature frustrating, but the game's overall difficulty level seems reasonable, particularly after you realize that you don't need to kill everything and can just fly past some enemies. However, if you leave too many aliens behind, you will be informed that you failed to meet one or more of your mission objectives, and you will be forced to fly the whole mission over again. This is a bit cruel, but it does prevent people from just flying past all of the enemies and finishing the level. The game is automatically saved after each successful mission, and there is room on the roster for ten pilots. For those who care, the storage manager shows each saved game takes one percent of the 3DO's NVRAM although it's probably actually less and just rounded up.
Once you have completed a mission, you can practice that mission at any time, but it won't affect you score. There is also a "mission 0" practice mission in which you are presented with different enemy and terrain configurations and the onboard computer talks you through each situation.
My only other complaint regarding general gameplay is the precision necessary to lock one of your homing missiles on a target. Most of the flying aliens are very nimble, making it extremely difficult to keep your crosshair on them long enough to launch a missile. You do learn different techniques as you play to destroy them effectively, but this frustrated me at first.
For starters, the full motion video in Shock Wave is better than anything I've seen in previous 3DO games. The opening video and intermissions use plenty of colors and show minimal artifacting, but you'll probably still notice it a bit. The frame rate is high, but it looks as if they chose to lower the frame rate in places to avoid pauses in the video. The trade off really works, as there are no pauses or other anomalies in any of the clips that I have seen so far. The video takes up nearly all of the screen, leaving only perhaps a 1/2" border on my 27" TV. The acting, with the exception of a couple of your fellow pilots, seems to be on par with the first season or two of Star Trek:TNG, and the story is nicely presented. There are a couple of areas that are a bit cheesy, but generally speaking, this isn't supposed to be funny, and you won't find yourself laughing. Everything is certainly better done than any previous 3DO title, although the video clips in The Horde were quite nice as well. The computer graphics in the video clips are professional and appropriate.
The in game graphics are reasonably impressive. Everything is composed of texture mapped polygons, and the frame rate is superb. Although I have not measured it, the frame rate seems higher than Total Eclipse and probably approaches 30 frames per second. I have yet to see any slow down, even when there are 20-25 aliens as well as 4-5 complex buildings on the screen (plus the normal hilly terrain). The ground textures are very nicely drawn and usually make the terrain seem less flat than it actually is. The textures used for the aliens are very nice, but I so rarely get a chance to see them up close that it really doesn't matter. My favorite so far is the little church with the steeple and stained glass windows. Of course I was so frustrated at the time that I blew it up :-).
The alien graphics in general are extremely well done. Whether I was watching a spider alien slowly crawl up the side of a mountain in Peru or tailing an alien scout as it deftly banked out of my stream of laser fire, I was uniformly impressed with the fluidity of motion. The high frame rate combined with decent models of the different parts of the aliens (legs, wings, etc.) make them particularly "believable".
In the missions I've seen so far, the horizon is shrouded in fog, making it difficult to see far off aliens at first. The effect of squinting into the fog and seeing a spider picking its way towards you through the mist is quite impressive.
In addition to all of this, video clips occasionally show up in the little monitor in your cockpit. These videos show live news clips, comments from the dispatcher on the Omaha, and other assorted, possibly useful bits of information. The clips, being so small, have a high frame rate, show no artifacting, and don't slow the game down in any way at all.
Alien sounds and the sounds of assorted alien weaponry are accurately modeled in stereo, allowing you to hear from which way laser pulses are coming, and the sounds your ship makes as you fly are perfectly synched with your acceleration and banking. The overall effect is quite impressive.
In addition to basic alien and ship sounds, your onboard computer (ICE) periodically makes helpful (and not so helpful) comments regarding your mission. A female voice informs you when new types of aliens are approaching, insults you playfully when you make a mistake, and evaluates your progress, informing you of possible consequences if you are failing to meet you mission objectives. The computer's comments seem to be dependent upon whether this is your first attempt at a given mission or if you have had to return to the Omaha to be patched up, and she doesn't repeat herself within a given run. A nice touch, and not too repetitive.
The number of polygons in the terrain isn't as high as I would have liked. This makes certain areas of the game seem flatter than they should. Don't get me wrong, the aliens and buildings are made up of quite a few polygons, and at one point I had 8-10 flying cargo ships flapping their wings, 3-4 fighter ships, and 6-7 spiders probing 4-5 buildings and the frame rate was still a solid 30 frames per second. I was just hoping for Total Eclipse terrain on top of all that. Call me demanding if you must :-).
A lot of people would argue that full motion video adds nothing to a game, but in this case, I think it fits perfectly. Shock Wave is a good game in and of itself, and the addition of high quality video merely enhances the overall experience.
Essentially, both of my gripes above involve my inflated expectations. Taking the game on its own, independent of previous titles, Shock Wave is reasonably amazing. If you don't like action, don't buy this game. If you like a reasonable challenge and don't require that everything be a flight simulator with perfect physics, you won't be disappointed in this game.
I can get to the secret level by reloading my bogus saved game, but I'm not sure how I created that entry in the roster in the first place. If anyone figures it out, I'd be interested to hear how it's done.
And now here are some numbers to make y'all happy... (scale from 1 to 10):