Much in the style of Activision's Battlezone, Lander is effectively a 3D remake and 'expansion' of an ancient vector-based arcade game of the same name (familiar, no?). You take the role of a daredevil pilot out to make a fortune through a series of challenging missions in your trusty planetside lander craft, a small, lightweight, maneuverable machine designed for tight ground-level (or below-ground) maneuvering, controlled through a set of automatically handled maneuvering thrusters on the corners and a single main engine on the belly of the ship.
The rough plot of the game is fairly simple – you're a mercenary lander pilot for hire on a trip around the solar system. As you stop at each planet, various companies offer you jobs – sometimes legal, most often not, to accept while you're at your various stops. With the money accrued from each successful sortie, you can upgrade (or even replace) your lander craft, buy better weapons, engines, armor and such. However, later in the story, you'll meet a whole range of shady figures coming for you, strange conspiracies and alien technologies – all of which mean very little to the gameplay, but it keeps things interesting.
The gameplay, for the most part, involves tunnel flying and subterranean navigation. This is both aided and made more difficult by your craft's unique control system – the mouse provides tilt, roll and vertical thrust, while the keyboard provides yaw, weapon, item and camera controls. Combat is fairly simple – you just move the enemy into your target sights and press fire a few times until it blows up. Most of the action is navigating the treacherous and sometimes unpredictable terrain you'll get acquainted with in your adventure, rather than blasting at targets.
Psygnosis have done a great job with level design, with effects like rain, lightning and fog very effectively portrayed, and the various structures you're flying around feel very authentic – a mine complex feels like it should, filled with chunky automated machinery, rough rock surfaces, dangerous overhangs and such, whereas a heavily defended prison complex is a clean-cut, sleekly built piece of architecture. Enemy design is fairly basic and weak though, but as combat isn't really a core gameplay element, that doesn't matter too much.
The physics engine is convincing, and things bounce, roll, spin and explode as you'd expect and wish, although sometimes your craft can become 'stuck' – this is usually solved by just bouncing and rolling randomly at the expense of some shield energy. The graphics are also exemplary, allowing much detail tweaking, meaning that it will look okay on an old system, but amazing on a modern top of the range rig. As such, a 3D accelerator is required. However, this does make it one of the best looking games on all of HOTU.
While the average review of Lander (at the time) was fairly negative, giving average marks at best, the scant few positive reviews were overwhelmingly so. Why such a big difference? Well, it all depends on how much effort you're willing to put in. Fire up Lander for a quick, arcade-y blast and you will be sorely disappointed, and probably find your twitchy little lander craft smeared across a nearby stony outcropping. The game is long and difficult, with a sometimes steep learning curve, but all obstacles can be overcome with some degree of persistence, and a lot of piloting skill.
In summary, this game is beautiful, highly playable, rewarding, challenging, not for the faint of heart, and almost totally unheard of. This, in my opinion doesn't just make it an underdog, but a definite Top Dog, and an entrant in the Hall of Belated Fame. A highly recommended (if hefty) download. There are some minor technical issues – I don't believe it is compatible with windows XP – as well as some other things mentioned above, but if your system matches the specs, then get it!Reviewed by: Max Damage-kun