Let’s Replay: MissionForce CyberStorm

Release Date
31 May, 1996
Turn-based Strategy
Single Player, Multiplayer
Sierra Entertainment

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only corporate greed. That’s what science fiction games have taught us over the years, and that’s what they will continue to perpetuate until that future inevitably arrives. However, few games have delved into the nitty-gritty quite as much as CyberStorm.

Arriving on the PC as a turn-based strategy game in the mid-’90s, a lot of CyberStorm’s expanded universe was revealed through optional text. None of this was required reading and was easily skippable, but it provided a flavour for the game that made your average dystopia look like a land of adorable chocolate puppies. You play as a commander of a private military corporation called Unitech, which values its employees less than Walmart. The company promotes profit over human lives, and you are repeatedly told that your failure will result in your execution. As soon as you aren’t valuable to the company anymore, you’ll be disposed of faster than a plague victim’s tissue. And frankly, in this universe, you’re one of the lucky ones.

The game provides a wide variety of randomly generated missions. As a commander, you’ll build a battalion of fighting machines called HERCs, equip them with guns so large that even if they were owned by Ron Jeremy, you’d say he was compensating, and you’ll drop them into battle with a plethora of enemy robots called Cybrids. You’ll earn money from mining ore or clearing the map of all hostiles, and that money can then be spent on upgrading your robot army even further.

If you like wireframe models, this is like porn to you.

More interesting than the HERCs themselves are their pilots. In a universe where things tend to blow up a lot, HERCs are piloted by disposable lifeforms called Bioderms. Bioderm is merely a term for a human slave that has been grown in a test tube, then forced into a warzone where they will inevitably be killed. While the term is an abstraction, Bioderms are essentially people created solely to die for your own profit, a point which the game attempts to hammer home several times in its expansive text. The company regards them as sub-human creatures, and as such, throwaway items. However, there is evidence to suggest that they have emotions, such as an example where they rise up and rebel against a rival base commander, or their agonised screams when they are killed in combat.

The game allows you to be as sympathetic as you like with your Bioderms. You can name them, train them, and allow them to live to the ripe old age of three years old (a long lifespan for a walking piece of junk DNA). Failing that, you can always horrifically recycle them and sell off their genetic material when they fail to be useful anymore.

While this type of corporate brutality is clear to see while you’re back at base building your HERC fleet, the game falls slightly short of bringing that to the battlefield. You will devastate enemy bases, lay waste to scores of mechanical monstrosities, and yet, the sense of scale falls a bit flat within the tightly-focussed, small scale maps provided. This isn’t a knock against the gameplay, which is top notch, but the small fleet sizes hamper the otherwise enjoyable mission structure.

A whole host of quirky characters await the meat grinder of corporate greed.

As the player, you have the luxury of taking the first turn. You can move your HERCs into position, fire at any nearby enemies, then end your turn. Simple in concept, but there’s much more to consider. Your targeting computer gives you an accuracy percentage, which is affected by the terrain, your pilot’s abilities, the targeting computer you have installed, and the enemy’s position. All of these are considerations before opening fire, and firing wildly at an enemy with only a 2% chance to hit may drain your battery power or ammo. Additionally, you’ll also be looking to reduce your enemy’s chance to hit you next turn, so crouching down inside valleys or behind trees is a suitable strategy. You can also adjust your shield’s strength in certain directions, so if you expect the enemy to fire at you from behind, you can put all of your shield power behind your HERC. This makes your shield tougher to break, but leaves you vulnerable if an enemy circumvents or flanks you from another angle. It’s this type of strategy that really makes you cringe when you click “end turn”, wincing at enemy fire while hoping that you set everything up correctly. If not, you’ll soon be treated to a symphony of screaming Bioderms.

While missions and maps are randomly generated, and the game will keep generating new missions for every one you complete, and there are special ones that you will have to tackle in order to advance the plot. These missions are clearly signposted, and the game affords you the leisure of taking them on once you feel ready to do so. While there are only three of them in the entire game, you’ll need to make sure that your HERCs are outfitted with the latest technology when taking them on if you hope to stand a chance.

Those buildings are most definitely practical and useful.

There are a number of HERCs and options to outfit them; however, the game doesn’t give you much of a reason to use them all. Some of the smaller HERCs like the Remora and Sensei make perfect scouts with their long-range sensors and speed, but are too easily killed in the later stages of the game to be of much use. You’ll find yourself quickly replacing them with Demons, Reapers and Juggernauts that can support heavier shields, thicker armour, and devastating weaponry. In this manner, the game could be better balanced, but at least you always have a reason to upgrade, which lends itself well to the game’s progression.

Overall, CyberStorm provides an interesting slice of mid-’90s strategy, especially for those who enjoy big, shooty robot men and grim dystopias. CyberStorm is a standout title of the genre, and one that sorely deserves more recognition than it receives these days. While the game’s legacy lives on in the Tribes franchise (which is set in the same universe), CyberStorm itself is often overlooked by history, and that doesn’t quite sit right with me.

Play It For: The outstanding strategy and compelling universe.

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