KEITH FARRELL AND PETER SCISCO
ORIGIN'S INNOVATIVE SOFTWARE WARFARE BRINGS PROGRAMMING TO THE FRONT LINES. DESIGN A FLEET OF ROBOT TANKS FOR KICKS AND CONQUEST.
Armageddon will be easier tomorrow. We can stay home and send out cybernetic soldiers to do our fighting for us.
That scenario underlies Origin's Omega, a game that has you playing the role of a cybertank engineer for the Organization of Strategic intelligence. Your job: to design, program, and dispatch sophisticated robot tanks into a bloodless battlefield. No blood, but plenty of sweat. Skull-sweat, to be specific. In order to make your tanks competitive, you must program them intelligently. Your tank becomes your proxy in battle. The more intelligent, the better its chance of victory. A small, smart tank just may be able to outfight a big, dumb tank.
Perhaps best of all, Omega doesn't limit your battles to your own computer screen. You can pit your tanks against those designed by your friends (or enemies, or even total strangers) no matter what computer they have or how far away they live. By disk or by phone wire, you're always on Omega's firing line. At last, a developer has produced a truly interchangeable game; MS-DOS, Macintosh, Apple II and IIGS, Amiga, Commodore 64/128, and Atari ST owners can design tanks on their favorite system and send them into battle on any other system. For that alone, Origin deserves a lot of praise.
Also praiseworthy is Origin's embracing computer programming as an entertaining enterprise equal to arcades or adventures. At first blush, programming a robot tank may sound daunting or, at best, tedious. But soon you're poring over your routines like an inveterate hacker, even though you may have never written more than a dozen lines of code in your life.
Programming is at the heart of Omega. It's the only control you have over your tank. No fire buttons. No function keys. (You can seize manual control during a battle—but only if you've programmed in that option!) The game challenges you to think through the conditions and confrontations your tank may face, and to provide your cybernetic warrior with the logic for dealing with them.
The game's documentation presents a concise overview of logical thinking, complete with flowcharts, that goes a long way toward simplifying program design. The huge manual is well conceived. It carries you through the basics and then into the complexities of Cybertank Command Language, Origin's name for its plain-English programming language.
Before you can write the artificial intelligence (AI) that will guide your tank, however, you must configure its various hardware elements. You're constrained here by budgetary parameters (start off with 1000 credits) that increase with your skill level in 1000-credit increments.
All of your hardware options have been carefully considered. You select from items that include a variety of armor, engines, fuel supplies, weapons, and scanners. Each item affects your tank's total performance as well as influencing the way the parts work together. Heavy armor, for example, requires more fuel to move around the battlefield than does light armor. An explosive weapon like a gas-plasma charge takes longer to load and fire than does a turbo laser. Optional hardware—available only when you've risen fairly high in the security ranks—includes fuel-conservation devices, remote scanners for hunting enemy tanks, repair kits, defensive shields, and more. If you can use it, Omega has it.
But it's not enough to load your tank with hardware while staying within your budget. You have to know how to use your tank attributes, too. And that's where the game's AI programming comes in.
We can't stress enough that Omega, no matter how it appears at first glance, isn't a game for programmers only. Sure, you have to write code. But the game designers provide the tools that make programming fairly simple, especially for novices.
Foremost among these tools is a library of prewritten routines. If your programming skills are weak, or if you're a novice at logical thinking, you can include these routines in your tank's AI and be ready to fight in short order. You can edit any capsule routine to modify it to your tastes and strategy. You can embed subroutines, write your own routines and save them as capsules for use in other tanks, and even view the routines used by the tanks Omega includes with the game.
Mikki scores a direct hit on an enemy cybertank.
The devious (or lazy) tank designer will find it simple to steal routines from the tanks Origin includes. Among these metallic monsters is a particularly deadly number programmed by Richard Garriott, a.k.a. Lord British, himself. In one of our battles, Scisco's Goathead tank (a lumbering giant with a maniacal disposition) consistently fell prey to Ferrell's Elvis5, a swift guerrilla fighter later discovered to have incorporated some of Origin's more clever routines. You won't have to worry about someone borrowing from your routines, however, because each tank is protected by the user's password, which you enter during the startup process.
If you decide to write an original program or to modify some of the capsule routines. Omega's excellent text editor is invaluable. You can cut, copy, and paste with ease, as well as include capsule routines with the click of a button or the touch of a key. A search-and-replace command would be a nice addition, as would the ability to import ASCII text files (for tank logic written at work). But Origin makes up for these limitations with its push-button programming palette that includes the most commonly used commands. You can write an effective, if rudimentary, program using only your mouse, joystick, or arrow/enter keys. In short, you cars assemble almost an entire program while hardly touching the keyboard.
The benefit of this approach is that you can learn in increments. Finish a lank program, for example, and a debugger tells you if there are any problems. Not sure how a program works? View ii concurrently with the tank itself. In this mode, the program text scrolls on one side of the screen, showing you the commands that the tank is executing, as your tank performs its maneuvers on the other side of the screen. This is an excellent way lo study how effectively your tank moves around obstacles, for example.
With your tank's body configured and its programming completed to your satisfaction, find out how your work measures up. Before you can send your offspring to war, its "intelligence" must pass muster. This process, authorization in Omega jargon, is where your program is debugged. If an error is found, you are notified onscreen. Exit the authorization process and you are returned to the edit screen at the point of error.
After you pass authorization, you're ready to roll onto the battle-field. You can test your tank against Omega's, best on predesigned fire zones (Austin, Houston, and a claustrophobic little scenario called Small), you can design your own simulations and include your new creation in them, or you can send the tank to your friends. You're ready for war, no matter where.
Victory resets with the smarter tank.
You can also present your tank for evaluation, which is how you get promoted, earning more money to build deadlier tanks. An evaluation consists of ten one-on-one battles, just your tank and one of theirs, chosen to match your current level. To advance to the next level, you need to win seven of the battles.
You've designed your tank. Its AI is authorized. You're ready for your first battle. And while programming is key to winning your wars, you should know that weaponry will carry you a long way. In the lower levels, the right combination of hardware can outfight Omega's tank. You can pass some evaluations on the strength of your gun. (This approach falls apart pretty quickly once you're past level 5. By then Omega's tanks are smart and strong.)
As the battle begins, the edit/design screen gives way to the battle screen, which is split into two parts: On the left is an overhead view of the battle, with your tank holding the center position. On the right are several monitors that gauge the damage inflicted on your tank, its fuel and weaponry supplies, the number of battles fought and won. From overhead, you watch your tank as it scans for the enemy, following the pattern your program demands. Search patterns, attack and retreat strategies, and tracking patterns are all included in Omega's capsule routines.
At first, the battlefield graphics may disappoint you. There's not much, if any, differentiation among the various tanks. Animation is a bit twitchy, and terrain is two-dimensional.
That disappointment quickly fades as you realize how Omega gives you a window onto tomorrow's battlefield. The action resides in the tanks' logic rather than in their appearance. Watching one of your tanks move around the battlefield, scanning for the enemy, all the while conscious that the enemy is scanning for you is almost hypnotic. Depending on the placement of the tanks al the start of the battle (manual or random), searches may take some time. To make the search go faster, you can switch to a satellite view, in which the tanks are represented by blips and move much faster than on the closeup screen. Go back to the main battle screen when your tanks are in close proximity and watch the fireworks.
When the fight begins, the tanks tend to simply dig in and slug it out, especially at lower levels of logic. Weapons are represented as spherical projectiles (for explosive devices) or as shafts of light (for lasers). Sound effects on the PC version are quite limited. Origin should consider supporting one or more of the sound boards now available.
In its effort to create a realistic illusion of a futuristic cybertank design center, Origin occasionally goes too far. While the opening screens, with the security check and retina scan, are fun and fuel the game's futuristic feel, an in consistent tendency to label disk drives slots may confuse some players. This problem isn't major, but it does extend to the documentation. The game's quick-load reference guide, however, can help you find your way around.
Omega's screens on the whole lack strong visual effects. What you see throughout are metallic-gray screens with drop-down menus, push buttons, and windows for your text entries. This results from the nature of the game—designing tanks and writing programs is text-intensive.
The lack of visual effects, however, doesn't detract substantially from the game. Omega engages your mind, not your eyes. This is no arcade-action game for twitch-wristed vid-heads. It's more like a chess game in which you gel but one move.
Like all fine games, Omega fulfills expectations while it encourages possibilities. For example, it would be exciting to see the battle unfold from the tank's perspective, leaving the overhead view for clearance evaluations and debugging. Origin does expand the definition of group entertainment, however, through use of a special BBS it has set up for nationwide warring.
A visual display during the hardware design process would also enhance the game. Picture a spinning graphic of your cybertank, taking on the attributes you assign it and displaying them for your inspection. Or, imagine these cybernetic soldiers rolling across the field accompanied by a full Wagner score.
It will be interesting to see if Origin expands this kind of programming game beyond the field of combat. A noncombative scenario would offer nonwarring gamers a chance to explore their own programming skills.
All these wishes are mere speculative observations. Origin has given no indication that it intends to pursue any of these avenues in a future release of Omega or any other game it has on the boards. But it's fun lo think about. That's the mark of a good game—it unleashes the imagination.
Apple II—$49 95
IBM PC and compatibles—$49.95
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