One of the coolest things video games can do is let us perform daring, stylish feats we might never attempt in the real world. Drifting around corners at 100mph, snowboarding off the edge of a mountain with reckless bravado, even plucking vegetables from the ground and hurling them at a pink dinosaur — all things we can experience through the magic of video games. Drop Zone: Under Fire adds the pipe-dream of futuristic skydiving to that list with a thrilling, arcade-style drop that's got enough free-falling fun to make up for some rough patches on the way down.
As a freedom fighter charged with ferrying supplies to an Earth-based resistance, you'll skydive through alien defences, taking out enemies and picking up point bonuses along the way. It's undoubtedly a cool concept, and though the first few levels might give the impression of a simple skydive through rings of varying point values, Drop Zone takes a turn for the better very quickly. Soon you'll be dashing around in a horizontal plane as you free-fall, frantically looking around for enemies to destroy in order to take out lethal force-fields that you're plummeting towards, landing briefly on rooftops to run and gun from there before jumping off again, and nosediving towards the landing zone with reckless abandon — in other words, having a very good time.
If it isn't clear by now, Drop Zone is an arcade experience through and through. This is definitely not Pilotwings; you can feel free to take a landing at 200mph and walk away with your kneecaps and score intact. Another consequence of this is that it's sometimes necessary to learn the lines by trial and error to make it down. With everything on screen at once it can be quite easy to miss a checkpoint or fall headlong into an enemy without noticing, both of which will end your run. While the chaos combined with the first person view can lead to some unexpected deaths, levels are quick enough that starting over is rarely frustrating. And in true arcade form, finally nailing a line and making it to the landing zone intact really does feel great.
The game is played with the Wii Remote and Nunchuck combo, with the joystick controlling your lateral movement and the Wii Remote used to aim your weapon and pan the field of vision at the screen edges. Beyond that the controls are agreeably simple: Z toggles an "airbreak", essentially letting you select between two speeds of free-fall, C plus a flick of the stick will send you dashing in any direction perpendicular to the ground, and the B trigger fires your weapon.
For the most part these controls work well, but there are a few issues that put a damper on the otherwise excellent experience. The most conspicuous of these is the lack of an auto-fire option. Every shot requires an individual pull of the B trigger, and with critical enemies often taking a dozen or more shots before capitulating and taking a deadly, fast approaching force-field with them, continuous fire is sorely missed. The problem is exacerbated by the sensitivity of the target reticule, which hops and skips with each button press. It's rarely enough to make you go off-target, but it's still likely to make you wish you could just hold the trigger.
Similarly, panning around with the Wii Remote just isn't as responsive as it should be. Adjustable sensitivity in the options menu seems to apply only to the speed at which the target reticule moves around the screen and not to the speed for rotating your view, which is simply too slow. Everything else in the game happens at an exhilaratingly fast pace, so the fact that something as essential as looking around can feel molasses-slow at times is doubly frustrating.
Graphically, Drop Zone looks good. There's nothing particularly impressive going on, but the style fits the game perfectly, with futuristic cityscapes of neon lights and sky-traffic whizzing past at high speed, and different lighting and weather conditions adding visual variety. Critical enemies are highlighted and the various power-ups are colour-coordinated nicely, which helps make distinguishing these different elements more manageable during free-fall. Our only real complaint with the visual presentation is that the HUD encroaches a bit too much on the action, and can annoyingly obscure targets an inopportune moments.
Musically, however, this title comes up short. The soundtrack of generic, looping electronica adds little to the experience and outside of the 'pop-pop' of your gun, there are almost no audio cues to speak of. It's a wholly innocuous audio presentation, and while it won't necessarily diminish your experience, it's decidedly more fun to mute the Wii and fall to more inspiring tunes instead.
The notoriously small file-size limit can put a squeeze on WiiWare titles, but Drop Zone has struck an admirable balance for its 40MB: the menus are bare-bones and the small extras — a few achievements to unlock and a global point total — are negligible, but the amount of actual gameplay on offer is impressive. There are over 100 distinct drops across 4 different areas, and unlocking them all sequentially will keep you busy for a long time. The drops are relatively quick from jump to landing but there's a lot packed into each level, with plenty of different paths to take and corresponding bonuses to pick up. You definitely won't be able to "do it all" in one jump, so gamers who enjoy revisiting levels looking for new approaches will find even more to do here.
Drop Zone: Under Fire is a game that does what it says on the tin, and when what's on the tin is as cool as futuristic free-fall, that's high praise. A few issues with the controls hold it back, but Drop Zone is still well worthy of a spot on your radar, especially if you're after a fun arcade-style experience on the fast waning WiiWare service. If it sounds like something you'd enjoy, dive in.