People who spent their childhoods in the 1980s were likely fans of either Transformers, G.I. Joe, or both. With huge casts full of enough colorful characters to make parents' wallets cry for mercy, there was sure to be at least a few for everyone. I'm not exactly sure why, but Strike Force Heroes: Extraction [$1.99] feels like a G.I. Joe run and gun. It's not the first game with a huge cast of unlockable characters, but something about this group makes them feel like a big stupid team. With a steady breadcrumb trail of new characters and new weapons, the game manages to stay fresh for quite a while, but there are a few problems that keep it from hanging with the big boys of the genre.
A little cutscene sets the stage for the game, showing the Rookie character collecting some important data from the enemy HQ. Unfortunately, he's discovered, and needs to make a mad dash to escape before the bad guys catch up. Yes, we've got another runner here, though there's at least an effort to bring something new to the table. Like virtually every runner, you can run and jump, and like many runners, you can shoot. The new twist here is that you can take cover, letting you slow down a bit and hide from enemies. Doing so wastes valuable time, so you won't want to do it for every single baddie, but it does occasionally come in handy. Usually once per stage, you're forced into a cover-based shoot-out, so you'll experience the cover system one way or another.
The other interesting thing Strike Force Heroes brings to the table is the character selection. There are 20 characters here, and they all come with their own stats, strengths, and weaknesses. This alone wouldn't be very interesting as we've seen this in many games before, but what sets this apart from something like Random Runners [$0.99] is the perk system. When you unlock and buy a new character, by default, their weakness is active, but their strengths are locked. Unlocking their special skills involves performing tasks specific to the character. This means that every character starts off weaker in some way than the basic Rookie, and you'll have to put some time in with them if you want to use their full potential. There are quite a few different skills, and coupled with the unique weaknesses, it makes the process of unlocking characters less about linear empowerment and more about finding a character that fits the situation and your playstyle correctly.
The game offers a few different modes of play. First, there's a stage-based campaign mode with 30 missions. This is technically the meat of the game, because you have to play this mode to unlock stuff to buy. Each mission has three stars: one for completion, one for finishing within the time limit, and one for collecting all the intel on the level. Interestingly, you don't have to do all of these objectives in one run. You can take your time and collect all the intel in one run, then go back and speed through the stage in another, and you'll still get your three stars. The missions get really tough in the back end of the campaign, largely due to some iffy design, but I'll talk about that in more detail later.
The second mode of play is a survival mode, which basically changes the game into an endless runner. You can choose the backdrop for your run, and your performance is tracked through distance and number of kills. Finally, there's a free run mode, where you see how far and how long you can run in your area of choice. Your lifebar is reduced to one hit in this mode, and there are no enemies. It's got a very different feel from the other modes, but it perhaps highlights the flaws of the game like no other. That said, I'm pretty happy to see a good variety of modes, especially since the campaign in this one is pretty brief.
So, about those flaws. The layouts in Strike Force Heroes, even in the campaign mode, are randomly generated. This is not that unusual for the genre, but given the disparity between various characters' jumping and speed, you'll likely not be surprised to hear that sometimes the game throws obstacles at you that you cannot navigate with the character you're using. You'll have no choice but to take the damage and move on, provided your lifebar has enough left in it to keep going. If you're playing the free run mode, well, too bad, your luck just ran out. As an extra kick in the head, sometimes after you fall, you'll respawn right into the next pit. I had this happen four times in a row in one game, with the last one finishing my poor character off. I was kind of shocked at that. It was like the game made abstract art out of my entrails.
The game also moves very fast once it gets going, especially with certain characters. The problem here is that the jump command feels a little bit delayed at times, with the jump coming just long enough after your touch to have you miss vital intel or go plummeting into the pits of doom. Also, your character tends to roll after they take a long drop, and that roll can also lead you right into danger when things are moving fast. Things really get cooking when you get into a helicopter chase, which, on top of all of these other issues, introduces borders to the top and bottom of the play area (presumably it's more cinematic) that frequently obscure platforms and intel. Far too many of the misses you'll make in this game will come from factors outside your control, and it makes for a very frustrating experience at times. All of this makes the later stages of the campaign absolutely rage-inducing at times, if you're unlucky.
Since it's down to luck, though, you won't run into it every game. When the RNG gods are on your side, Strike Force Heroes is a lot of fun. The guns all have a suitable amount of force behind them, and the cover mechanic feels good. Playing as the different characters is a lot of fun, and unlocking their perks introduces an enjoyable meta-game that's a little different from the usual "three missions" structure we see in this genre. The graphics are nicely done, the sound effects and music fit the theme well, and the touch controls, aside from that jump delay, are straightforward and functional. While there are IAPs that allow you to buy invincibility and extra cash, the money flows pretty well through regular play. I'm pretty happy with the amount of content and gameplay modes here, as well.
The problem is that in the runner genre, precision is king, and unfair obstacles are huge deal-breakers. For however much I like the bells and whistles here, the design of the game breaks up badly at higher levels of play. Strike Force Heroes: Extraction is a fun little romp with digital Joes, but its problems keep it from having any proper staying power in a genre where almost everyone has several stellar examples already installed on their device. You'll have fun unlocking everything and trying everyone out, but I can't imagine it'll stay on many people's mobiles too long after that.
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