When a game adopts a floppy disk as its save symbol, you know you're in for an old-school experience. It's not as if you'll need the hint, mind you; Avalanche Studios' Renegade Ops is a top-down twin stick shooter that finds you committing arcade genocide, mowing down entire armies of bad guys in your bullet-spewing death car.
It's a setup that instantly recalls the coin-op machines of the late '80s, a time when - in the realm of gaming, at least - it was perfectly viable for World War III to be settled via the efforts of a lone, super-powered vehicle. Meanwhile the game's cutscenes play out like a low-animation riff on the kids cartoons of the same era - a swear-y GI Joe clone, with cardboard cut-outs in the leading roles.
It's all very knowing, but underneath the nod-and-wink nostalgia lie the same engines that powered Just Cause 2. The use of Avalanche 2.0 and Havoc is most evident in the weighty movement of your vehicle, in the way it swerves and slides in the dirt as you attempt to avoid yet another incoming missile. The first level does a decent impersonation of Just Cause 2's tropical playground, and while the other eight aren't quite so lush, they're all surprisingly expansive.
Each of the four character vehicles is equipped with a special weapon or ability. One can protect himself with a temporary shield, the two female characters can trigger an EMP blast or airstrike, while the final chap can turn himself into a lethal but immobile turret. Provided that you're not playing on the Easy setting, there's also a levelling system that allows you to invest XP in a three-way skill tree, with branches for boosting your offence, defence, and aforementioned trick. The latter is the only major point of variation between the quartet on offer, but you'll be grateful that the choice is there, and the unique abilities become increasingly useful as you level up.
Shave away all these minor complications, however, and you're left with a traditional twin-stick blaster - and a rather demanding one, to boot. There's no pussyfooting around here, just a teeming mass of enemy troops, craft and turrets, all of them spitting bullets and missiles in your direction. While every other exploded foe will drop a green health pick-up, extra lives are far rarer; run through your meagre allocation, and you'll have to start over.
The genre has always adopted this harsh structure, but it feels extra punishing here due to the fact that excursions in Renegade Ops can take up to half an hour to plough through. If you've taken a beating along the way, the final furlong of a given mission can be genuinely tense, and while that's certainly no bad thing in and of itself, repeated failure under such circumstances can sap your will to play. You do get to keep any XP you earned during a botched run, but at the time this will likely seem a minor consolation.
Two issues threaten to exacerbate the situation. The first problem is the handling model: while it's certainly fun and rather satisfying to swerve about the terrain, your plucky vehicle lacks the immediate responsiveness that we've come to expect from a demanding shmup. There's a need to anticipate your needs, rather than react to them, and this is easier said than done when all hell is breaking loose. That said, the added challenge does make it extra satisfying when you successfully deal with one of the more dangerous enemy types - swerving around a massive tank, pelting it with bullets, flirting with disaster but always remaining one step ahead of its life-ending turret.
Your relationship with the controls will improve with time, but it's surprisingly easy to get trapped (albeit temporarily) in cubby holes at the edge of the scenery. More annoying still are the occasions when a quirk of physics pitches your vehicle onto its side, leaving it utterly unable to move or return fire. You'll only be stuck for a second or two, but that's more than enough time for disaster to strike. Heavier enemies can decimate your health bar with a single hit, and it's teeth-grindingly irksome when this happens as a result of a diminutive bump in the road.