Echelon Attacks Traditional Sims

Although my interest in PC gaming has slowed down to a crawl (most likely because of the lack of monetary surplus compared to the extensive cost of new hardware to meet demand), I still take the time and patience to try out new PC titles that can actually run on my system.

Imagine my surprise when Emperor: Battle for Dune, not only ran on my old Athlon 700, but ran well. But still when I go back to PC games, I still think of the one title that got me started in PC titles more than anything else (except maybe Wing Commander II), and that was Wayne Gretzky Hockey. Their developer, Bethesda Softworks, managed to create a realistic hockey model that EA Sports STILL has yet to overcome (Come on EA, I’m tired of goalies giving up slappers from the blue line!)

However, after a few more titles, namely the excellent Elder Scrolls series, we haven’t heard much from them. That is, until Jevon and I met with Bethesda, this time as publisher, at E3 2000. We were treated to demos several new titles. One that caught my interest was a flight combat game called Echelon being developed by a Russian company called Buka Entertainment. Watch out for these guys, because they are going to make a name for themselves, you wait and see. Despite being very early in development, we are talking two years ago, it easily caught my interest, combining the fast combat that I grew up with in Wing Commander, with the complexity of a hardcore flight sim. It was perhaps not Falcon 4.0 in complexity, but more like F-15 III.

A couple months ago I received my copy of Echelon, and despite having to deal with some complexity, I was very impressed. What I saw in the storyline is no different from any other flight combat sim I’ve played. We have the usual Federation, you know – the good guys – involved in a battle with an alien race known as the Velians. The Velians first appear to be a trade partner with the Federation, offering their technology, but it turns out to be a Trojan Horse to launch an all-out attack on the unsuspecting Federation, and thus begins a deadly uprising to be settled in the skies of the Velian planet.

Echelon bears a striking resemblance to Origin System’s failed title Strike Commander, being that it combined the fast paced combat of Wing Commander with the hard edge flight simulation of the F-15 series. The basic structure of missions is identical to the WC series, involving auto piloting to different combat waypoints, but also includes a full map from flight sims to show all the combat in the immediate area.

Visually I was impressed, as the textures on both the planet and all the craft rival those of any high-end flight sim. I will admit though that I did have to turn down the detail on my PC, but on a high end Thunderbird processor, it should appear stunning. Echelon requires the use of a 3D card, and while my Voodoo3 handled the game well, a GeForce3 should make this title scream.

Sound-wise the game is pretty basic. There is no in-game music, but the pilot chatter coming through the radio sounds authentic, as it is heavy in static and at times hard to understand. Fortunately every message is logged so they can be read at the bottom of the screen.

But I will have to say my biggest concern in the game is the control. At times I found it can be a bit too realistic; either that or the Velian planet just has some heavy gravity because my craft always was pulled to the ground and crashed. Fortunately, the realism can easily be altered to provide a more arcade-like approach. And when playing the game in arcade mode, the feel was more in my level. It might not be as simplistic as say, Rogue Squadron, but it is definitely an improvement.

In the end, Echelon is the start of a comeback by Bethesda Softworks, and I’m glad to see that they are back. Aside from the difficulty I had with the control, the game is very intense, and is easily worth 4 out of 5 Gems.

Now with Bethesda back, I only have one small request, and that would be to please make a new version of Wayne Gretzky Hockey. Or better yet, since they are near DC, change the name to Jaromir Jagr Hockey. I would definitely play it, just as soon as I stop blasting Velians to dust. Hey, a top pilot needs some R and R, right?

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