While it's a real shame the space-shooter genre has essentially shriveled up and faded away in the last four years, the German developer behind Yager
has energized its original planetary shooter with as much personality as any game of its sort since, perhaps, Shigeru Miyamoto's original Super NES classic, StarFox
Yager is born from many different sensibilities, and it winds up being very much its own creature, a space-shooter with a quirky storyline. It grafts a little StarFox personality here, funnels a little Colony Wars storyline there, and re-creates Halo's presentation prowess to tie the cutscenes and gameplay almost seamlessly into one whole world. The final package is a little late to be revolutionary (since all those games came out way before it), and there clearly are elements that could have been better, but overall, Kemco's space-shooter is a well-paced, well designed game that's spunky, surprising, and entertaining enough to be worth your while.
A single-player space-shooter based in a massive set of 3D environments, Yager is a cool blend of arcade action, exploration and story-driven science fiction. You play the role of Magnus Tide, a Han Solo-type freelancer, a for-hire fighter pilot who is lucky to get one more shot with the progressive mega-corporation, Proteus. Magnus' quirky lead-slinging ways are the crux upon which only one layer of the story is built. The game begins describing how lucky Magnus is to take a lower ranking job at Proteus, and how Sarah, 1st Lieutenant for the company, has serious issues dealing with him because, in short, he almost ruined her career in the past, too. It's clear she's the game's love interest, and winning her back is both fun and enjoyable, even if it's al very classic, by-the-book storytelling.
The story unfolds with numerous plots and sub-plots, but mainly revolves around a conspiracy, a key NPC's hidden identity, and Magnus' detective skills. The bulk of the game, naturally, is focused on his shooting prowess, which is used to uncover the mystery behind missing Proteus ships. One of Yager's biggest treats is its character-heavy storyline. Magnus meets up with technology-deprived Russian mechanics, free trade zone barkeepers and redneck outlaws, and all of them have something interesting, funny or silly to say.
The world of Yager is also quite surprising. There are about 20 of these NPCs that appear in close proximity to Magnus at some time or another, but it's the wide-ranging territories that impress. Most of the levels are land- or water-based, not space based. You'll cruise over beautiful islands and archipelagoes, explore trench-heavy country-sides, and fight in industrial wastelands. Returning to several sectors again and again, you'll begin to feel comfortable, familiar, and glad to see your Proetus home base.
Perhaps the game's biggest attraction is the spacecraft the LR 4004 Archer "Sagittarius." A combination hovercraft and fighter ship, players can switch back and forth between exploring in hover mode or zoom around the massive landscapes in pitched dogfights with a zoo of goofily designed space pirates. The ship's highly articulate parts fold and unfold beautifully as it lands or spreads out in preparation for a fight. It puts a Star Wars X-Wing to shame this way. There are a handful of perspectives, with a few in-cockpit and a behind-the-shoulder cam.
The ship is incredibly mobile and very fun because of its dual functions. Instead of chasing an enemy fighter by perfectly tracing its arcing paths, you can stop, quickly re-aim and re-engage. It's also incredibly easy to maneuver. Part of the game's strategy is to use the rolling hills, valleys, and nooks and crannies to your benefit when faced against a horde of enemy drones or confronted with a far more powerful boss. On the other hand, while the ship's nimble features make for some interesting new twists in space dogfights, fans of, say, Ace Combat, which admittedly is a more realistic fighter plane action game, will miss a certain sense of speed. You'll never feel like you're traveling all that fast, even with boosters engaged.
The missions are well-paced and well-rounded in design. You're essentially on this giant planet, with each new chapter in the story unveiling another uncharted territory across 22 medium- to large-sized levels. Each mission commences with an engine-driven cutscene and objectives provided via Sarah's voice commands, and multiple times during missions these change. Oftentimes you'll find secondary and tertiary objectives appear on your final score sheet, though during play they're often so subtle you'll miss them.
People who work better with written commands (vs. oral commands) might have a problem with Yager's predominantly voice-based commands. You might be in the heat of a battle and be asked to do something different, and there isn't an obvious way of checking multiple mission objectives if you miss them the first time. You can still replay each level, however, which is a plus, because it turns out helping secondary characters or completing a tertiary mission objective will provide new upgrades to weapons or even new weapons. The star-based scoring mission is a nice touch, providing details on your progress, as it ranges from health, precision, hits taken, it even features how many enemies were sniped. Most importantly, though, it lists which mission objectives you completed and which ones you didn't.
What I like best about the levels is that the fights and exploration aren't drastically segregated from one another. So for instance, if you're heavily damaged, you can leave a dogfight to repair the Sag, and then either re-enter the fight, or explore somewhere else instead. Of course, to progress the story, you'll eventually have to return to the dogfights, but they're not usually timed based. The on-screen compass is a great help, as is the realtime map. And the broad levels are wide open, chiseled with channels, hills and canyons, so you can get where you want to go by many means.
One of the biggest pleasures Yager offers is that the levels are well balanced and intelligently designed, giving you the chance to employ several skills. Throughout the last two-thirds of the game, you'll need to use stealth tactics and pilot maneuvers, apply the right weapon against the right boss, and use the landscape to either upgrade your ship mid-battle or use it to fend off enemy attacks. The weapon list is relatively set, but knowing your weapon is key in Yager. There are the basic laser shots as a default weapon (with primary and secondary fire), and upgrades to quick shots, heat-seeking missiles, rail shots, and a few level-specific weapons.
Almost all weapons have secondary attacks, and the game provides auto-aiming. The auto-aim doesn't usually get in the way, and in a manner, it's quite useful. But sim-minded gamers are sure to dislike it, since it can't be turned off in the options menu. It really gets in the way when multiple enemies crowd on screen, and the auto-aim sticks to an unintended goon.
Because the game is designed with great imagination, you'll always find that when the main objectives are complete, you can sill roam around, find power-ups, help citizens, or explore other areas. So, though it might sound strange, much like Grand Theft Auto, the levels don't just chop off and force you into a cutscene; instead, you'll end up exploring, goofing around, or even fighting more enemies if you want.
Mission types are generally based around standard space-shooter goals -- escort this ship, find and explore this area, fight this boss, protect the base from missile attack, rescue the scientist, etc., but they'll all done with great finesse. One of the most surprising levels comes about two-thirds of the way through. You're in the Proteus dropship and a path must be cleared for it to move through a busy section of droids and potential enemy ships. Since there are no weapons on the ship, the only useable tool is a water-hose, which you handle to push ships away from your craft. When was the last time you played that kind of level? It's just this kind of funny, surprising and colorful touch that make Yager interesting.
On the other hand the game's biggest weakness, besides its lack of speed, is the mid-game set of levels. Here, you end up repetitively fighting off endless hordes of nameless, lifeless droids. These, as well as other similarly populated levels are redundant, boring and lack the kind of charm that saturates the rest Yager.
After getting over the coolness of the Sagittarius itself (that is, if you do), the large, seemingly living levels are sure to deliver a healthy sense of scale and dynamism. It's not like the levels themselves are all that distinct; they're often plainly textured, and there isn't all that much ornamentation. But their heavily populated diversity is eye-opening. In each new level, you're guaranteed to see some new friend or foe, some new engineering contraption of obscure origin, and some new form of enemy life ready to attack, threaten or make you chuckle by delivering some silly line. It's clear that the Yager development team focused on highly designed ships and funky characters, a mostly solid 30 FPS, and large, rather simply-textured landscapes.
While the characters are a big plus, the character design is a little inconsistent. Enemies seem to get the best treatment, as does Sarah, who's quite beautiful as polygonal characters go. Other humans are either plain looking, dorky, or they end up showing Yager's age. For a game that shipped in 2002, Yager does a better than decent job of not looking entirely old, but it's clearly a game that should have shipped in the US a year or two ago.
The character voices are probably the most loveable aspects of the audio. The game is crammed with oddball characters, all of whom has their own particular charm, and Magnus is one of the better ones. There are times when I could swear that Bruce Campbell is the lead voice actor.
Musically, Yager does an excellent job of creating better-than-average atmosphere, and providing, dynamic and rich tension-filled fight scenes.
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