Among the many studios to emerge during the rise of the 1980s ‘Britsoft’ development scene, System 3 was was one most creative and ambitious. Often excelling in the realms of creativity and technical excellence, many of their games felt as if they were pushing the envelope in terms of what gamers could expect from computer games of the day.
In contrast to Ocean Software who created games based on actual movies themselves, System 3 took a different approach, producing original titles that were inspired by Hollywood and the silver screen.
This is especially true of Vendetta, an action-adventure game released in 1990 for a wide range of computing platforms, including the Spectrum, Amiga and Commodore 64.
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Normally, when I write these reviews, I simply set out my thoughts based on what I have just played. This time, however, I happened to read through a copy of the instruction booklet (available on Archive.org) – I was looking for help with the controls controls – and believe that what I read contained therein has relevance to my opinions regarding the game itself.
You are cast in the role of an ex-military veteran, a soldier of the higher calibre decorated many times over.
Unfortunately, your heroics (not to mention the loyalty of men under your command) managed to incur such a level of professional jealousy from the top brass, that they closed ranks and colluded to ‘retire’ you early.
Now demobbed and back in the real world, you’re now a nobody who has been scratching together a meagre existence, a shadow of your former self.
Things go from bad to worse when it transpires that one military general in particular – green with envy regarding your military career – makes it his personal mission to ruin your life. Now in charge of the local police force, he has tasked law enforcement officers with instructions to make your life a living hell.
The one ray of hope comes in the form of your brother, a military scientist involved in the development of top-secret nuclear weapons technology, who tries to get your life back on track. Unfortunately, a terrorist cell (former adversaries from your army days) swoops in and kidnaps your brother and his daughter, spiriting them away to a secret location. Left with little more than a ransom note containing the terrorist’s demands and little else, the only course of action is to rescue your only family and get revenge on those that have sought to make you suffer for so long.
Having read that, you might have noticed parallels with a certain movie starring a certain Mr. Stallone, and you wouldn’t be alone here; whoever came up with plot must have rented a copy of Rambo: First Blood on VHS from their local video store the night before putting pen to paper.
With the plot out of the way, let’s move on to the gameplay.
The game is divided into a series of levels where the player is tasked with locating items and ‘evidence’ that provide clues as to the location of the kidnapper’s hideout.
These sections of the game are viewed from a pseudo-3D, isometric perspective, instantly drawing comparisons with System 3’s earlier ‘Last Ninja’ series.
This should come as no surprise, since the game uses the same, albeit modified engine used to create those particular titles, even maintaining the iconic rendering process where the scene is constructed, piece by piece, before your eyes. It’s a technique that always looked cool, and the artwork and attention to scenery in each of the screens is typical of the quality from System 3’s titles.
Parallels continue to extend to the gameplay as well, requiring the player to locate and collect items and to gather ‘evidence’ located in certain screens that might reveal the location of kidnappers and their base of operations.
Some of these are fundamentally cosmetic in nature, whereas others can be used to interact with elements of the scenery, such as inserting a video tape into a VCR, or using a floppy disk on a computer to load a program.
Items of interest will glow briefly to highlight their location when the screen first loads, although this beacon won’t last for long, so be sure to try and memorise them.
In a particularly neat touch, each piece of evidence is captured as a photographic image on the roll of film at the bottom of the screen. Pressing F1 allows you to change the currently active item, although I think decision to have the inventory move only one way in the same way that you’d wind the film on in the camera is perhaps being a little too literal with the metaphor.
To the bottom left of the screen is a digital wrist watch containing the countdown timer, displaying the time you have remaining to beat the game. You have exactly 60 minutes to save the world, but this really should be plenty once you become familiar with the levels.
The green, segmented region around the outside of the watch display represents your health bar, which decreases as you take damage from enemies.
One change I was pleased to see System 3 make was that health now recharges over time when out of combat; take a few seconds to rest and you’ll be back to top fighting form in no time. The flip-side of this change is that you now have a single life to complete the game, so you’ll still need to exercise caution when entering combat.
Your unnamed hero can be moved around the game world by pushing on the joystick to make him move in the relevant direction. However, the controls differ from the LN by locking the player’s character to a grid system, allowing the character to only travel at angles of 90 degrees, whereas LN included a more free-flowing movement by pressing up/down at the same time. The end result in the case of Vendetta is a control scheme that feels particularly irksome and fiddly, at times worse than Last Ninja (and that wasn’t the easiest game to control by any stretch of the imagination).
Just as with the LN games, Vendetta is annoyingly exact with regards to where you must stand when it comes to picking up items, often necessitating that you shuffle around on the spot, trying to find the sweet spot, rather like the way a cat will rotate several times before deciding it’s happy and napping down.
I also encountered a bug on a couple of screens where transitioning in a specific place would make your character reappear on the other side of the same screen, except now floating over the top of the scenery, which meant I had to reload and try again.
One thing that is interesting to note is that, unlike Last Ninja where you needed to find items to pass certain barriers, none of the items (save the key to the Ferrari) are technically required to actually complete each level. Whilst I didn’t try it, it might be theoretically possible to blunder through the game without collecting the majority of the items. It is in your best interests to be thorough as possible when searching screens, however, since you’ll miss the chance to arm yourself against the terrorist threat.
Speaking of weaponry, let us segue to the game’s combat now, especially since Vendetta places a greater emphasis on battling opponents than the LN games.
You start the game equipped with a knife (which is useless), as well as the ability to punch and kick opponents that get too close, but it doesn’t take too long before you’ll find an assault rifle and accompanying ammunition with which to tackle foes at range; whilst I said it was theoretically possible to beat the game without collecting weapons and items, you really don’t stand much of a chance without a gun, so be sure to pick it up when you find it.
Weapons can be cycled by pressing the space bar, with the current weapon held displayed in the bottom left of the screen. Pressing the fire button with a firearm equipped will unleash a volley of shots in the direction that your unnamed protagonist is facing, although accuracy appears to get worse the further you are from the target. It’s also possible to run and shoot from the hip at the same time, which is a nice touch and makes the combat feel a little more dynamic than it otherwise would.
Any enemies that you defeat are rigged with what I presume to be bomb vests, detonating themselves after death. Re-enter a screen, however, and foes that you had previously dispatched will have returned to life, forcing you to fight them all over again.
As I mentioned earlier, the game includes a number of driving sections that connect each of the adventure sections.
In the first level, you’ll acquire the keys to a Ferrari F40 sports car, which you’ll use to travel between locations.
These sections largely involve handling corners at high speed, avoiding oncoming traffic, as well as taking the correct turn at certain intersections. If you collected the map from the adventure stage, you’ll get on-screen prompts that show you which route to take, and the weapons kit will give you access to a machine gun and rockets to deal with any cars or attack choppers that hove into view.
I suppose that these scenes add a certain variety to the game, but they’re not especially fun either; the car handling and cornering mechanics feel very odd, almost as if someone has buttered your tyres and fired it out of a cannon.
It’s during these sections that the game’s polish begins to fade. At random points during these scenes, you may get pulled over by a police patrol car and be threatened with jail time if you’re unable to explain what you’ve been doing, which requires you to hand over the required piece of evidence. I found myself asking the question, why would the cops would stop you, demand you give them the piece of evidence and then let you continue on your way to wage your one-man war on the terrorists? It feels like a rather tenuous attempt to try and reaffirm the fact that you’re being persecuted by the law, but the only time you ever see the police is out on the road.
Taking stock, what we have established thus far is that the game has some irksome controls, combat that’s slightly inconsequential, and a series of ho-hum driving sections that are reasonable, but don’t feel especially exciting. Each of these constituent parts is still better than a lot of the titles commercially available for the C64, but it feels like System 3 dropped the ball on this occasion.
I’d have probably wrapped up this review by saying the game by saying it’s still pretty good despite these issues, but then we come back to the matter of the instruction booklet.
Whilst there’s no doubt that System 3 took a lot of care in each and every one of it’s games, the instructions hint that they knew that this game perhaps wasn’t up to their usual standard.
The manual states that the player requires a “high level” of competence with the controls due to the “COMPLEX MOVES” – they really did embolden that – needed to interact with objects in the game.
What that suggests to me is that they knew the controls were fiddly and they felt the need to explain/dismiss this, basically telling the player to get good.
Read the whole booklet and you can’t help but detect an ever-so-slight undercurrent of arrogance, hubris even, something that can easily be to one’s detriment. Whilst I admire the attempt at creating an engaging backstory, the grandiosity of the piece just is simply not reflected in the game itself.
Whilst I’m on the subject of the story, by the end of page 4, the decorated war hero has been reduced to a chain-smoking, nicotine-fiend who appears to have taken an unhealthy interest in his brother’s daughter; I know this is hyperbole, but I just had to get in a sly dig at how a poor choice of words might infer something other than the author originally intended.
On the last page of the manual, in a statement that reminded me somewhat of Apple’s response to iPhone 4 ‘antennagate‘ incident, the technical support section suggests that the most likely cause for malfunction of the software is anything other than the software itself. This may be true enough, but I’ve seen enough games in my time that failed to load because of buggy code and/or failures in the duplication process that this treads a fine line between confidence and arrogance.
None of what I’ve said should try to convince you that Vendetta is a bad game; it still bears a level of polish beyond most other titles available for the system.
What I am frowning upon, however, is what seems like an attempt to explain away some of the problems by suggesting the player that they go and practice some more. If I were to crystallise this as an actual score, I’d be looking at about 80%, not the 90% and above that it scored from various publications at the time.
Vendetta is still a decent title from System 3, just not one of their best.