I’ve never met anybody who considers “Independence Day” a cinematic paragon of storytelling. Since Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich have no aspirations beyond ‘making a popcorn flick to fill seats with butts’, this doesn’t bother me. Yes there are plot holes which Godzilla could stomp through without problems. But at the end of the day seats were filled with butts, and those butts wanted to watch Will Smith fly planes, Data get mind-violated by E.T.’s ugly cousin, and Randy Quaid babble incoherently. Let’s be honest: if Jeff Goldblum could write a virus capable of wrecking havoc with an alien computer system, it shouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for Radical Entertainment to deliver a serviceable game based on the property, right?
Yeah… About that…
Independence Day sensibly pulls from the action most easily translated into a video game: the part where planes are flying around blowing stuff up. It then, not so sensibly, stuffs up the film’s plot by allowing you to save the likes of Paris, Moscow, and New York City–places you might recognize as reduced to radioactive sinkholes by would-be alien overlords before President Pullman put together the whole “strike back and kill ’em all” speech from Area 51.
On the one hand, the game’s graphics really aren’t that bad for the time. Each stage has a completely different look, and the area available for dogfighting is massive. There’s also a nice variety of planes to fly: you start with an F/A-18 Hornet, but can acquire a number of others including the captured alien fighter, and each one has its own ratings for speed (how fast it flies), agility (how well it maneuvers), durability (how much damage it can take) and stealth (how hard it is for the enemies to notice you). But on the other, Independence Day suffers from some major pop-in issues when it comes to objects both near and far. The radar, a feature of every 3D and 2D flying game worth its salt, is next to useless and can safely be ignored because if you’re staring at it then you’re not paying attention to the screen and you’ll find yourself bouncing off a skyscraper or pogo-sticking along a canyon wall. Whether it’s in an attempt to be kind to new players or just because the designers don’t understand aeronautics and physics, this is an affront to any combat flight simulator fan. Airplanes that fly directly into the ocean at several hundred miles per hour don’t magically skip along the surface like a flat rock, to say nothing of what happens to those same jets should they slam into a building or granite mountain.
Controls are equally irritating mostly due to lack of support for analog sticks, which make even simple maneuvers like turning and maintaining a target lock on an enemy craft frustrating. It doesn’t help that your plane, no matter its agility rating, feels like it’s flying through something other than air. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why it felt this way to me, but all I can say is that years of playing similar games like Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, WarHawk, and StarFox have left me with the impression of what games like this should feel like. Independence Day doesn’t live up to these standards. And while there is a two-player mode available in the game, it’s only a deathmatch mode where you fight plane-to-plane in split-screen. If you’ve got two systems, two copies of the game, two televisions and the Link Cable, you can get some non-split-screen action going as well, but this is a massive missed opportunity: in a game where the plot revolves around humanity coming together to stand against an outside aggressor, why on earth couldn’t we fly co-op with a partner?
There is a credit given to one Marc Baril for “Sfx and Music” in the instruction manual, but I’ll be pecked to death by ducks if I can figure out where there’s any actual music outside of the FMV scenes which are taken, albeit down-sampled, straight from the film. Without any kind of soundtrack the relentless hum of your engines and the babbling of your wingman who is supposed to be Will Smith’s Steve Hiller gets grating before the conclusion of the first mission and only gets worse from there.
The cardinal sin committed by Independence Day isn’t any of these though. The biggest problem I have with the game is that it’s just plain boring, and given every good air combat game from the past it could have built on, this is simply inexcusable. On the PlayStation alone, Radical could have taken inspiration from Agile Warrior F-111X, Namco’s Ace Combat series, Bogey: Dead 6, and the afore-mentioned WarHawk–three of these games were either launch titles or came close enough on the heels of the PS1’s launch to effectively be launch titles, and they all do what Independence Day does, only better. And it’s not like the game was rushed to meet the film’s theatrical release; the movie hit in summer ’96, and the game didn’t show up until eight months after that. Radical wasn’t a new developer trying to find themselves either: their pedigree up to this point included five years of development for the NES, SNES, Genesis, Game Boy, PC, and Saturn. And while their portfolio featured plenty of shovelware like Terminator for the NES and Wayne’s World for the Game Boy, it also included NHL PowerPlay ’96 (a competent hockey sim), and The Divide: Enemies Within (a badass third-person game in the style of Metroid which holds up to this day). Fast-forward a decade or so and you’ve got their Prototype series which went head-to-grungy-head with Sony’s InFamous and put up phenomenal fights both times.
So what happened with Independence Day? I honestly don’t know. Maybe Jeff Goldblum’s virus got into the code and wrecked what was otherwise a great title? More likely scenario’s the one we see all the time: a game Radical made on the quick-and-dirty for some equally quick-and-dirty cash. Let’s hope they coughed good and hard on their victory cigars, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s time to declare your independence from playing mediocre crap like this once and for all.