It's no secret that I'm a fan of all of Julian Gollop's offerings, including Rebelstar and Laser Squad. However, this game completely eluded my notice until recently (thanks Al!), so looking at the screenshots I thought I'd try it out.
Interestingly, it seems to have been largely neglected by most of the big magazines of its time - the only review I could find was in Sinclair User, who awarded it an impressive 10/10.
One reason may be its relatively low-key adverts - at least in comparison to the full-page ads from the dominant software houses:
In fact, looking at the Astros Production catalogue, you can see there have been other similar-looking strategy releases. But Solar Fire is the one we're looking at today. I've been playing the Deluxe Version, which means there are 5 scenarios available to play.
In this game you control a group of Imperial Legionnaires - a mix of human, alien and mechanical beings - and are up against a squadron of hostile alien forces. Since watching the first set of Star Wars films I've read 'imperial' to mean I'm playing the bad guys, but I don't suppose it really matters.
There are five scenarios/maps available to play:
In addition, you have a choice of three starting points for each map, and five skill levels; this provides a bit of variety for multiple plays.
Each of your legionnaires is armed with different sorts of weapon, ranged and melee, from a sniper rifle to a light sab.... err... 'laser sword'. The weapons vary in range, damage, and action point cost for firing them. There's no faffing around equipping or reloading - everything is ready to use and comes with infinite ammo.
An icon control system lets you pick your unit's action, such as moving or firing. One useful option is a long-range scanner showing your units' positions in relation to those of the enemy units - useful because there's no way of just scrolling around the map with your cursor unfortunately.
Possibly even more useful is an indicator that shows the range of each of your currently equipped weapons.
By positioning a unit next to an enemy, they will automatically engage in melee combat at the end of the turn. Some units have melee weapons (laser sword/cutter) and the player can use their close combat prowess to their advantage, while keeping their weaker units at a distance.
Units move vertically and horizontally - not diagonally. This can occasionally feel a bit clunky as you cycle through your units in a set order, so you need to plan carefully to avoid them getting in each other's way. In fact even the computer opponent sometimes struggles in this respect.
To shoot, you select the weapon you want to fire, and are then shown a line that you rotate around 360 degrees, clock-face style, to fire in the direction you want.
The computer AI is fairly basic - it mostly seems to advance towards the nearest hostile unit (often getting in the way of other units on its own team), and is pretty accurate in its attacks.
Your opponent also commands more units than you; however, your units are TOUGH, with a capital T (and capital OUGH as well)... Used effectively, they can Schwarzenegger their way through their attackers. Which is handy, as on the hardest difficulty level you're likely to get overwhelmed by sheer numbers pretty quickly.
I forgot to mention your goal; it's simple - to eliminate every one of your opponent's units. Upon completion of this task, you're given a score based on your performance.
Regarding the difficulty levels - having been brought up on fairly unforgiving strategy games, I was surprised to discover that the easiest level was REALLY easy. In fact, I wiped out my opponent's force on my first go at the game, without losing a single unit. I did start inching the difficulty up after that, though I haven't yet beaten the hardest one, which Sinclair User described as "absolute murder" (and I'm inclined to agree).
Overall? Well, let's just say I liked the game. It lacks the complexity and slickness of Rebelstar, though its simplicity probably makes it more accessible to casual gamers - possibly the best pick-up-and-play type game of its genre, that I've encountered at least.
It's nicely presented, and there's a nice variety of graphics for the different maps. Sound-wise, some of its blippy FX sound like they'd been written with BEEP commands in BASIC (maybe they have?) - not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the game feel a bit sluggish while you're doing your aiming, for example.
There's a degree of tactics involved, in that each of your units has their own strengths and weaknesses - some are tough and good at close combat, others are weaker but have a greater movement and action capability. I enjoyed this, as after playing a few games you start getting to know the individual legionnaires, and how to use them.
I did start feeling that to 'git gud' I just needed to crunch a few of the stats - learning how far each unit can move, shoot and how many action points are needed for each activity. The idea of taking cover is a nice one, but I didn't feel as if this affected the game much; it doesn't seem to grant much advantage and most fighting seems to take place out in the open.
Ultimately, I could easily let my fanboi-esque obsession with Rebelstar (and Laser Squad, but that arrived a year after Solar Fire) dismiss this game as an inferior copy. But it's got its own charm, and as mentioned, it's very easy for new players to jump straight into.
A few little extras might have helped - like better/more sound FX, letting you scroll around the map, moving units in your preferred order, and perhaps diagonal movement... Just a few tweaks that would have added a bit of polish.
But all in all, a nice game from Astros Productions. Price-wise probably a bit steep for 1987 (£10.95 for the deluxe version), but a hidden gem that many Speccy gamers may not have heard of.