Buzz Aldrin's Race into Space. (computer simulation game) (Evaluation)
by Scott A. May
Where were you when man first set foot on the moon? This question once defined a person's connection to one of the most pivotal events in human history. Twenty-four years later, in a world where space shuttles are almost commonplace, Apollo 11's epic flight seems to have lost much of its significance.
Now you can recapture the milestones, setbacks, triumphs, and tragedies of this remarkable era with Buzz Aldrin's Race into Space. Whether you're reliving faded memories or experiencing it for the first time, this is one voyage you won't want to miss.
The game represents a marvelous first effort by designer Fritz Bronner and is based upon his 1988 board game, Liftoff. Like many of today's so-called white-collar simulations--SimCity (Maxis), Railroad Tycoon (MicroProse), and Utopia (Konami)--Race into Space is essentially a game of top-level resource management.
As mission director for either the U.S. or the Soviet space program, you oversee production, planning, testing, and launching of unmanned and manned rockets. The first country to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth wins the race. The game's distinctive twist is its historically accurate backdrop of Cold War tensions and politically motivated breakthroughs. It's an intense melding of ideals, strategy, spirit, and speculation into a viable game format.
The computer simulation sports one player per side, with the usual combinations of human- and computer-controlled opponents. Multiple game types and difficulty levels help balance the odds between disparately skilled players or increase the challenge when you're matched against the computer.
The Historical Model ordains higher costs and better reliability for the U.S., while the Basic Model begins the game with the two sides on equal ground. Both models can have historical or customized astronaut and cosmonaut rosters. Three difficulty settings not only affect overall conditions and performance levels but also raise official expectations of your job. Fall too far behind, and you'll be fired. Three levels of difficulty raise or lower your management of this most precious cargo.
The race officially begins in the spring of 1957 and progresses in single turns, each equal to six months' time, for a maximum of 20 years. An attractive aerial view of each country's spaceport--Cape Canaveral in the U.S. and Baikonur in the U.S.S.R.--doubles as a main navigational menu. As each side's programs evolve, many more buildings are added to the map. On the horizon loom such emblems of government influence as the Capitol (or Kremlin) and Pentagon (or KGB headquarters). Also within view are Arlington National Cemetery and the Kremlin Wall, which serve as grim reminders of the dangerous tasks that lie ahead.
The most important steps in creating a thriving space program are to set short- and long-term goals and then establish an itinerary. The race is composed of a series of mission milestones, like rungs on a technological ladder, each taking you a step closer to the moon.
Historical milestones include everything from orbital satellites to manned lunar landings. Each phase contains many test missions for equipment safety, duration limits, and astronaut training, for a total of more than 300 mission variations. Your job is to secure sufficient funding, purchase necessary equipment, budget research and development, design missions, and schedule launches.
Follow the historical guidelines with no major mishaps, and you'll be rewarded with prestige points, which mean higher ratings and increased funding. You must complete many programs to successfully complete a milestone, but you can skip others or cut them short. The elaborate strategic considerations and decisions you face add both stress and risk management to your already weighty list of responsibilities.
Other fascinating aspects of play include astronaut recruitment, training, and what amounts to psychological coddling. Choose to play from the historical roster, assembled from 106 simplified profiles (per side) of real-life flyboys, or create your own customized characters.
Astronauts are rated on five skills: capsule handling, lunar module piloting, spacewalking, docking, and endurance. After you've assembled primary and backup flight crews, you assign each to the appropriate training facilities to bolster their ratings. You must also monitor your flight crews' emotional well-being: Astronauts are a highly competitive breed and respond negatively to inaction. Some simply don't get along; pairing incompatible recruits provokes bad feelings that could jeopardize your mission.
Despite the administrative nature of your duties and the lack of time limits imposed on players' turns, the game instills momentum with its subtle sense of urgency. As your programs grow through various stages of rocket and class of spacecraft, the stakes are raised and tension mounts. Your job entails far more than pencil pushing; you must judiciously and firmly push the envelope on space exploration. Should you skimp on research and development costs or fudge the recommended safety factor? Is it worth bumping up a launch date--risking time, money, and lives--in the name of Cold War posturing? These are just a few of the questions you must contend with in a high-tech whirlwind of politically charged cause and effect. Although you have no direct control of a mission once a rocket launches, it's tremendously exciting to watch each stage unfold, with the promise of success and the threat of failure.
The graphics are extremely well designed, including bitmapped, digitized, and raytraced artwork spread among nearly 30 information-packed screens. The program boasts CD-quality multimedia effects with more than 1000 historical photos and stop-motion animations. Although a far cry from realtime video, these makeshift animations add substantial flavor to what otherwise could've been a dry simulation. The bland musical score is best turned off, but keep the digitized samples of rumbling launch effects and mission control chatter. One complaint: The game consists almost entirely of static screens, but the designers didn't double the graphic resolution or offer an SVGA option. Games with such technical information desire a slick, hi-res veneer.
Included are Bronner's excellent product manual and supplementary 132-page historical guide, The Conquest of Space, cowritten by Robert Reeves. Both documents are generously illustrated--the first with itemized screen shots and charts galore, the latter with NASA photos and chronologies of historical events.. To feed the interest these books stimulate, Bronner also has written Buzz Aldrin's Race into Space Companion (Osborne/McGraw Hill), A terrific 400-page collection of designer notes, insider tips, strategies, and history, it includes Bronner's interview with Edwin ("Buzz") Aldrin.
Buzz Aldrin's Race into Space is the first computer game to fully capture the complexity, intrigue, and exhilaration of this volatile period in history. The integration of these elements into a dynamic strategy contest, with profound educational merit, is nothing less than extraordinary.