Science-fiction CD-ROMs. (includes related article on science educational and reference CD-ROMs) (Multimedia PC) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Scott A. May
Some things were just meant to be--like the newfound alliance of science-fiction games with CD-ROM. By all accounts, it's a match made in heaven. For perhaps the first time in the history of computer entertainment, the untapped potential of the medium--in terms of computing power, storage capacity, and digital technology--now challeges the imagination of science-fiction authors.
What will life be like 100, 200, or even 1000 years into the future? If you believe science-fiction game designers, our descendants will face some rather bleak times. Almost without exception, the science-fiction titles explored here are set in dark and threatening visions of the future. Typical story lines are driven by galactic war, universal oppression, technology gone awry, and various other cataclysmic events. Likewise, your usual course of action involves the prevention of such terrible events, through time travel, space combat, or matching wits with an evil computer. While it's true that without conflict, there wouldn't be much story or action, such horrific scenarios tend to stereotype science fiction as a pessimistic genre.
On the other hand, what's past is prologue, meaning that whatever has already occurred could easily happen again. In the accelerated world of the future, yesterday's Hitler becomes tomorrow's deranged supercomputer. Atomic bombs that once destroyed cities might be antimateer devices capable of wiping out entire solar systems. Instead of countries defending their tiny shores against hostile enemies, planets could be forced to repel strange invaders from another dimension. So it appears that the game--an age-old struggle for peace and survival--remains the same; only the players and rules are more fantastic.
Come Out Blasting
Perhaps it's just the nature of the beast, but many science-fiction CD-ROM titles seem to assume that a complex story line and steep learning curve automatically denote a serious, intellectual game. Others just want to have fun, forgoing heavy ambiance for rip-roaring futuristic action. Call them shallow or science fiction lite, but these titles offer instant gratification for players who'd rather skip the hyperbole and get right to the high-tech toys.
One of the first CD-ROM-only titles to explore the arcade side of the science-fiction genre is Rebel Assault (LucasArts, 800-969-GAME, $79.95), a multi-scenario shoot-'em-up based on George Lucas's famed Star Wars trilogy. Using actual Star Wars footage, a cast of full-voiced characters, and John Williams's original film score, the game creates one of the first truly successful interactive movies. You assume the role of Rookie One, a hotshot pilot fashioned after the film's hero, Luke Skywalker. Prove your mettle through 15 levels of increasing challenge, including hair-raising training flights through Beggar's Canyon, first-person space combat against TIE fighters, asteroid fields, bombing runs, Walkers, Star Destroyers, and the final Death Star trench run. Other sequences feature face-to-face laser duels with Emperial Stormtroopers. The product's greatest weakness is an unfortunate lack of depth. Both the story line and the action sequences are preprogrammed, with little or no variation in the order or outcome. Regardless, Star Wars fans--as well as students of cutting-edge programming techniques--will find the simulated arcade action well worth the price of admission.
Another promising example of a next-generation interactive movie is Critical Path (Media Vision, 800-684-6699, $64.95). This CD-ROM combines full-motion video with realtime action and superb sound effects. The setting is a postapocalyptic world where a young helicopter pilot named Kat (Eileen Weisinger) crashlands on the island fortress of a mad general. Kat takes refuge in an abandoned factory, where you must lead her through 15 dangerous levels to freedom. Along the way she faces hordes of mutants, armed guards, and deadly booby traps. Like the previous title, this one looks and plays great, but it suffers from a threadbare story line. Like a live-action version of early interactive cartoons, such as Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, the movie pauses for you to take specific actions at precise moments. Failure to do so ends one life and simply rewinds the film for you to try again. The story flow is strictly linear, with few alternate branches to follow; thus, the game has limited replay value. The designers offset this slightly with some enticing variations on your interaction with Kat, who displays realistic character reactions--relief, frustration, and anger--based on the quality of your play. Technically brilliant but structurally flawed, Critical Path showcases both the strong points and the rough edges of this promising new genre.
Released initially on disk to widespread critical acclaim, Strike Commander CD Edition (Origin, 800-245-4525, $69.95) makes a great game even better. In this game set in the near future, you command a squadron of elite mercenary pilots, flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-22 Lightning against a variety of foes. Based on RealSpace technology pioneered in Chris Roberts's Wing Commander series, the game incorporates the dynamics of a top-end flight simulation with breathtaking graphics, a branching story line, and intriguing dialogue. In addition to the game's 41 original missions, the enhanced CD-ROM version contains 24 more missions from the Tactical Operations supplement, as well as talking characters and digitized sound effects from the Speech Pack accessory. Other amendments include tweaked artificial intelligence for more challenging airborne enemies, nearly doubled animation frame rates, built-in data caching, new rudder pedal and dual joy-stick controls, and an optional realistic flight model for simulation purists. If you've got the system specs (a 50-MHz 486, 8MB RAM, and a double-speed CD-ROM drive are all recommended), this groundbreaking game is a feast for the senses.
One of the finest science-fiction action games created specifically for CD-ROM is Iron Helix (Spectrum HoloByte, 800-695-4263, $99.95). The story concerns an intergalactic starship on cold war maeuvers and a malfunctioning computer that changes its primary target to a heavily populated earthlike planet. Using only your wits and an unarmed remote-control biological research probe, you must search six levels of this ghostly dreadnought for clues to its destruction. Time's running out, and to make matters worse, the ship's deadly security robot is hot on your trail. The game's many outstanding features include more than an hour of atmospheric full-motion video clips, three uniquely different play levels, a wonderfully intuitive interface, and some of the smoothest step-based movement you'll find in a CD-ROM product. Marred only by its painfully derivative story line, Iron Helix is an otherwise excellent science-fiction adventure bound for classic status.
Sometimes, good intentions are undermined by less than perfect execution, as in the case of CyberRace (Cyberdreams, 818-348-3711, $69.95). The setting is a far-off future, where interplanetary war has been replaced by high-speed hovercraft racing across treacherous terra firma. You play Clay Shaw, a disgruntled pilot blackmailed into competition by your corrupt government, which holds your girlfriend as collateral for your allegiance. The concept is enticing but a little overworked, marred by wooden full-voiced characters and repetitive gameplay. This DOS-based CD-ROM makes unreasonable system demands and is prone to crashing, if it loads at all. The game's high points--realistic Voxel-based landscapes and ray-traced vehicle graphics--are lost in the mire of technical difficulties.
For science-fiction action with a touch of Old World mysticism, enter the surreal world of Inca (Sierra, 800-326-6654, $49.95), a delightfully original title from French developer Coktel Vision. This full-voiced, DOS-based CD-ROM game blends elements of arcade action, puzzle solving, and adventure gaming, augmented with digitized video and more than 40 minutes of audio-CD music. With no variation in the game's direction or puzzles, however, there's little or no replay value once the game is solved. Otherwise, Inca's diversity of design and polished presentation make it a must-see.
Life in the Future Tense
A hallmark of good science fiction is the ability to make the inconceivable totally believable. Doing so requires much more back-ground detail and slowly developing plot lines than most action-oriented games can afford. One of the top new titles in the science-fiction adventure genre is The C.H.A.O.S. Continuum (Creative Multimedia, 503-241-4351, $79.95). Set in the year 2577, the story unfolds in the domed city of New Eden, capital of Saturn's Titan Colony. When an orbiting neural netbased supercomputer goes ballistic, it sends the entire population into a mass catatonic state. It's feared that C.H.A.O.S. will soon spread to alternate dimensions, and you've been summoned to stop this threat of universal domination. This Windows-based CD-ROM features an excellent interface and extravagant artwork rendered by the same software used to model visual effects in the films Aliens, Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park. A double-speed drive is highly recommended to enliven the game's otherwise slow step-based movement.
Another adventure cast from a similar mold is The Journeyman Project (Quadra Interactive, 619-431-9530, $79.95). Here, you play a weary agent of the Temporal Protectorate, whose job is to monitor the space-time continuum against terrorist sabotage. If a rift occurs, you must travel back in time to mend the damage and its effects on the future. The game's best feature is its heightened sense of future ambiance, thanks to imaginative graphics and sensational sound effects. Unfortunately, it's also frustratingly slow, even on an optimized system, testing the patience of the most dedicated science-fiction gamer.
Fear of global ecological ruin drives the plot of many science-fiction adventures, including Quantum Gate (Media Vision, $64.95), a unique two-hour excursion into what designer Greg Roach calls virtual cinema. You play Drew Griffith, space med student stationed on a distant mining planet, where the harvest of a rare mineral holds the key to earth's survival. Discover true friends and deadly foes at the base camp, while battling giant insects on the planet's surface. Far more abstract than most CD-ROM titles, this one works better as a limited example of interactive art than a viable source of prolonged entertainment. The game's best features are the haunting CD-quality sound-track and an abundance of full-motion video. Decidedly unusual, but not for all tastes.
Far more accessible is Star Trek 25th Anniversary Enhanced CD-ROM (Interplay, 714-553-6655, street price of approximately $79.95). Boldly go where no computer game has gone before with this fully talking version, featuring the unmistakable voices of the original Star Trek crew, led by William Shatner (Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), and DeForest Kelley (McCoy). Nearly two dozen other actors join the fun, bringing the world's most popular science-fiction characters to life. Multiple scenarios, each with many possible resolutions, deliver a long-lasting challenge. This DOS-based CD-ROM's only drawbacks are the often-garish low-resolution graphics, as well as the inevitable battle for sufficient conventional memory. Another voice-enhanced CD-ROM version of an existing title is Space Quest IV (Sierra, $39.95), a wacky science-fiction parody starring the galaxy's most unlikely sanitation hero, Roger Wilco. Playable from either DOS or Windows, the game features 175MB of point-and-click lunacy, where consistency of plot is far less important than the number of belly laughs.
Riding the Next Wave
What lies ahead for science-fiction CD-ROM games? Break out your shades, because the future's looking incredibly bright! The next wave of science-fiction titles represents not just a bold new step for original CD-ROM games but a whole new direction in the development of computer entertainment.
Leading the pack is Under a Killing Moon (Access Software, 800-800-4880, price not available), the sequel to Martian Memorandum, which places you inside a live-action, Super VGA virtual world. Features of this three-disc set include totally unrestricted movement, photorealistic backdrops, and full interaction with characters played by actors such as Margot Kidder, Brian Keith, and Russell Means. Another Hollywood connection in the works is The Dig (LucasArts, price not available), an interactive space adventure codesigned by director Steven Spielberg. The game was originally slated for release on floppy disk, but the sheer size and scope of the project inevitably pushed it to CD-ROM. Look for this intriguing title next Christmas. Coming soon from Electronic Arts is Noctropolis (800-245-4525, price not available), a science-fiction adventure with a surreal fantasy flair. You play the manager of a comic book shop, swept into a battle between good and evil that threatens to spill out into the real world. The game features fully digitized speech, hand-painted fantasy artwork, and more than an hour of full-motion character interaction.
Paramount Interactive (415-812-8200), a relative newcomer to computer games, is looking to make a big splash with four exciting science-fiction CD-ROM titles. Jump Raven ($69.95) takes you to a future urban nightmare in a race to prevent worldwide "ecocide." Lunicus ($69.95) enlists your arcade skills for more earth-saving heroics in multiple 3-D environments. And Star Trek fans, start your drooling: Coming soon from Paramount are two titles guaranteed to send you into orbit. The Star Trek Interactive Technical Manual ($59.95) lets you wander freely aboard the Enterprise D, home to "The Next Generation" crew. Fully interactive displays and props, captured in stunning photorealism, await your inspection. Sensors are also tracking Star Trek, Deep Space Nine: The Hunt ($69.95), scheduled for release this fall. The adventure promises unparalleled character interaction, an open-ended story structure, and numerous cinematic special effects.
Already labeled "SimCity in space," Outpost (Sierra, $69.95) is another upcoming CD-ROM title that blends elements of traditional resource management with space exploration. Dressed in lavish 3-D ray-traced graphics, the game simulates interstellar colonization, a formidable project triggered by the earth's impending destruction by a giant meteor. Designer Bruce Balfour's experience as systems manager for NASA lends the game its awesome authenticity.