Originally released as a WiiWare title near the end of that service's lifetime, Drop Zone: Under Fire has been ported to the 3DS in an attempt to bring virtual base-jumping action to the handheld audience. Whether or not you enjoyed the original release, it's undeniable that this arcade style game's transition to the 3DS hit some rough air on its way down, making for a somewhat unsatisfying experience.
Taking place in the dystopian and not-entirely-too-distant future, Drop Zone: Under Fire revolves around a group of rogue earthlings who decide to rebel against their robot overlords. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to deliver backpacks full of cargo to Earth by sky-diving past the enemy and shooting your way to safety. It's an interesting plot that deserves to go deeper than it does, but instead it's used as basic framework to set the action into motion.
Gameplay consists entirely of, you guessed it, falling. Unlike Splash or Crash - also known as Kersploosh! to our North American readers - the downward path that you must follow is not always so obvious. Each stage does progress linearly, but it's up to you to figure out the safe way down, guiding yourself through checkpoints and destroying enemy targets along the way. With over 100 levels to complete and in-game achievements to unlock there's plenty of content here to keep avid players occupied, but repetition does rear its ugly head. It won't take long before you realize that the gameplay never changes, repeating the same formula of shooting enemies and avoiding obstacles, and after a while it begins to lose that initial excitement. The idea is to replay stages to best your score, as you would with so many arcade games, but the appeal isn't one that lasts.
Destroying enemies as you make your descent is necessary for opening the safest route. Force fields and lasers block your path, many of which can only be shut off by eliminating a specifically marked foe. Finding the right path and shooting targets can be difficult as you are continuously moving forward, but the inclusion of an airbrake makes the dive much more manageable. Applying the brake slows your drop, but the decreased speed also slows the game's momentum. As there are only two available speeds at which to fall, the game either goes too fast to manage and survive, or too slow to be fun, creating an imbalance with no happy medium. The airbrake is necessary for guiding yourself in tight spots and for landing, but it also reduces the excitement.
As a game in which each stage consists of falling, it's unsurprising that it mostly controls like an on-rails shooter with directional input, not unlike a stripped down Kid Icarus: Uprising. Your character progressively falls towards the goal on her own, per gravity, with you controlling horizontal movement with the Circle Pad. Aiming your reticle is controlled with the stylus and touchscreen while tapping the L trigger shoots. One of our bigger complaints from the WiiWare release was a lack of an auto-fire function, but this has been remedied in this 3DS version; now holding the L button will create a continuous stream of fire rather than having to repeatedly tap it. Your airbrake and boosts are activated via directional inputs on the D-Pad, making nearly full use of the console's array of inputs. The controls are tight and work well, just as they did in Kid Icarus or almost any other first-person game on the 3DS, meaning that it is, at the very least, functional.
The repetitive gameplay and uninteresting objectives are obviously letdowns, but those can almost be overlooked when considering that Drop Zone aims for quantity over quality. Everything really starts to fall apart when you shift attention to the presentation - the glue that should hold the rest of the package together. Immediately upon loading this game you'll see that the menus are lifeless and the background images look compressed and grainy. Character models, while hardly featured beyond each stage's into and outro, are stiff and movement is awkward. Enemy characters all look exactly the same from stage to stage, opting for palette swaps from one primary colour to another rather than putting any effort into designing more than a handful of enemy units.
Ugly characters and boring enemies mostly points to lazy design, but the real damage comes from the environments. The fact is that all of the environments look the same, showcasing your brightly lit dystopian hometown. Like the enemies, stages will change colour and give the appearance that you are in a different area or time, but it's all just masking for the same set pieces that are consistently used. On top of that, some stages are so cluttered with grainy enemies and flashing lights that it can be overwhelming and difficult to see exactly where you're going or if there are baddies headed your way. The console's 3D effect is in place and helps to add the illusion of depth, but the sweet spot for viewing is so small that's it's better left off. A lot of the danger in this game comes from a lack of clarity and poor design rather than genuinely difficult gameplay.
The idea of blasting your way through a futuristic dystopia while plummeting towards earth is exhilarating, but Drop Zone: Under Fire manages to take an exciting concept and twist it into a game that removes all of the thrill. Featuring on-rails arcade style action that doesn't do much to change from screen to screen, this game simply isn't fun enough to sustain itself for the plethora of stages on offer. The gameplay quickly becomes redundant to the point of being a chore, and the ugly, cluttered presentation does nothing to draw out a larger appeal. Fans of the WiiWare release might be pleased to see this one landing on a new platform, but be warned that it hasn't carried over well.