Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 136 / DECEMBER 1991 / PAGE 110

Heart of China. (computer game)(column) (Evaluation)
by Richard O. Mann

After the Great War, the old ways of life in China changed forever. During this era of turmoil, American ace flyer Jake "Lucky" Masters, slightly down on his luck, flies trade goods such as silks and paper parasols from the interior to Hong Kong.

As Lucky's alter ego, you immerse yourself in a part of history that Americans consider romantic, and, as any red-blooded American would, you rise to the challenge to become a wisecracking hero.

Beautiful nurse Kate Lomax nobly works to save downtrodden Chinese children, until she's kidnapped by an evil war-lord. Kate's father, ruthless American tycoon E. A. Lomax, determines that you, Lucky Masters, must rescue her. E. A. Lomax's clever plot forces you to accept the assignment, and he assigns an impossible deadline.

Once free of E. A. Lomax and the introductory sequence, you begin actual play on a dock in Hong Kong, alone (except for a friendly and later useful seagull) and in charge of your fate again. Thus starts your dynamic crusade to recruit a ninja, rescue the girl, and escape to the safety of Paris.

Along the way you'll visit the back alleys of Hong Kong, the warlord's palace in Chengdu, the primitive village of Kathmandu, and the bazaars of Istanbul. You'll ride the Orient Express to Paris, and--if you do everything exactly right--win the heart of saucy Kate Lomax. You haven't won the game until you're married.

The plot intrigues with its attendant puzzles and mysteries but lacks great inspiration

The game's gorgeous graphics and the near-cinematic look and feel push Heart of China to the cutting edge. Most adventure games, including the Sierra line (Dynamix is a division of Sierra), amount to little more than animated cartoons.

Though excellent drawings to be sure the screens and characters of such games remain, nevertheless, just artwork.

More movie than cartoon, Heart of China includes still pictures with small moving parts added, but it approaches realism. Shot like a movie with actors and sets (although, as in a real movie, many of the exteriors are paintings), the images were then digitized and, in some cases, animated.

These sequences of what Dynamix calls full-motion video--movielike animations of video footage--consume vast quantities of hard disk space. Don't expect to see a lot of it in the game, which already takes up a full eight megabytes of disk space.

This visual treat does, however, remind us that the day when computer games and movies will integrate fully isn't that far away.

Easy to master, the interface works best with a mouse, since it allows you to point at anything on the screen. Click the right button to get a description of the object under the pointer and click the left button to see if there's anything you can do to the object or with it.

Click on the character icons in the lower corners of the screen to view the objects you carry. Once you learn to drag the gun from the inventory to Lucky's hand to arm him and to drag the ninja hood over Chi's picture to have him change into his ninja garb, you're well on your way to controlling the situation.

You can also change your viewpoint character. Click on the Chi icon to become Chi, a necessity in certain parts of the game. Later, you'll need to play the part of Kate to spring Lucky from a Turkish prison, where he's incarcerated for committing certain unspecified acts with the nabob's daughter (before he met Kate, of course).

As you confront the characters, you may choose to talk to them. Usually, a series of ornate dialog boxes provides the first part of the conversation without any action from you.

After these necessary preliminaries, a dialog box offers you three or more choices for your reply to what the character said. The choices you make will either get you what you want (if you happen to know) or eventually get you killed.

You'll need to save the game frequently, as you will die innumerable times on your way to your wedding in Paris.

The dialogs with the characters provide challenging fun. Some conversations give you a series of five or more consecutive sets of possible comments, depending on what you say each time.

There are many ways through this conversational maze to your objective, some quicker than others. Some paths lead to unfrotunate dead ends. I particularly enjoyed the romantic verbal jousting on the Orient Express, played from either Lucky's or Kate's viewpoint.

If you select the right series of comments, you'll end up in wedded bliss. Say the wrong thing, and you'll end up in a Paris bar trying to impress a new girl.

These conversations add depth to the game through characterization. To get what you want, you must deal with characters' motivations and personalities as revealed through dialogue.

Your relationship with Kate, which leads to the ultimate goal of the game, serves as the primary example, but in other situations, understanding the distinctive personalities of each character can assist you significantly.

On the other hand, the preset paths through the conversations limit your choices. At times you want to scream something at a character, but it's never one of the choices. You have to have faith that somewhere in all that conservational blather something useful will emerge.

In an effort to please everyone, Dynamix threw in a couple of essentially gratuitous arcade sequences, but then, don't most movies include gratuitous violence these days?

As you escape the warlord's stronghold, you thunder away in an old army tank. As the arcade sequence begins, you have option of skipping it entirely. If you opt to play, you'll work through a tank chase presented in simple filled-polygon video. After a while, if you haven't found your plane, a dialog box pops up asking if you're tired of playing tank and if you want to move directly to the plane.

Another arcade sequence on the Orient Express has Lucky and a thug brawl on the top of the train as it roars through a series of low-clearance tunnels--a traditional cartoon-character game. I suspect most of us will skip these parts after playing them once or twice.

Dependable overall, the documentation contains some frustrating minor inaccuracies. For example, the explanation of how the mouse works will slow you down as you puzzle it out; it should have been clearer. In reality, the mouse and the interface won't give you the least trouble; the manual just makes it appear that way.

Heart of China represents another step forward in game technology. Its exciting (if somewhat limited) full-motion video sequences and romantic elements make for fresh and pleasant gaming. If you have the 286 or 386 computer with a VGA monitor and eight megabytes of free hard disk space--by all means--lose your heart to China. Heart of Chima might not offer enough challenge to fervent adventure game veterans, with its readily solvable puzzles and mysteries and its involved but not wearisome story line. For the rest of us though, the visual experience alone should have us clamoring to climb the Great Wall, if need be, to buy our own copies.