Posted by: Ben | April 24, 2010

Man vs Genre: Alternate Reality: The City

The Facts:

Developed by Paradise Programming originally for the Atari 8-bit, released circa 1985 by Datasoft (whose best-remembered title might possibly be Bruce Lee). This is, or was, the first in a projected 6-part series which to date has reached part two, although part two doesn’t really count because it is technically the second half of the planned part one. The Wikipedia entry outlines the ambitious plans for the saga and notes that “The City is mostly an open area designed to serve as a hub for the game series.” So I wouldn’t be expecting great things, if it weren’t for this gushing review. This is the Amiga version (because I know how to work an Amiga) dating from circa 1988. Emulation courtesy of WinUAE.. And for another perspective, the CRPG Addict has already taken a look at it here.

The Cover

A strangely familiar-looking image featuring a juxtaposition of Star Trek-style computer panels, a ringed planet, the titular city and some experience points, that makes no sense whatsoever until you look at…

The Lore

“Kidnapped by an alien spaceship, you find yourself in a room with only one exit. Through this opalescent doorway is the city of Xebec’s Demise. Overhead is a panel displaying constantly changing numbers. At the moment you pass through, the numbers freeze. Whatever levels of Stamina, Charm, Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Skill and Wealth you begin your adventure with are determined at this point.”

One of the reviews linked above makes much of the similarity to The Matrix, but just from the blurb and image I’m getting a strong Star Trek: The Next Generation vibe, only two years early.

If my character can see a doorway leading into a city, why does he think he's on a spaceship?

Character Building

My stats are chosen at random, so that’s not a problem. But my name ought to reflect my background, and if it’s present-day Earth I’ve been kidnapped from (which the animated intro appears to confirm) that means it’s time for a brand new character, to better reflect the “present day Earth” side of my personality. After a quick think, I’ve decided to call him Desk. John Desk. Here, for what it’s worth, are his vital statistics:

Stamina 22
Charm 10
Strength 15
Intelligence 20
Wisdom 13
Skill 10

I have no idea whether that is any good or not, and neither do you. But whatever “skill” is supposed to represent, John doesn’t have very much of it.

The Game

As I have already implied, we start with that classic feature of the 16-bit era, the animated intro, in this case complete with credits and, more unexpectedly, lyrics for the theme song that light up on screen as the notes are played. It worked for David Crane’s Ghostbusters, but only because that song was already a hit. Here it just feels over-earnest and kind of creepy.

Then we land in the opening alien spaceship location, which is probably familiar looking because I remember it from the computer magazines of my formative years, although I honestly never thought I’d be lucky enough to be able to get to play this. By the way, I’m using a cracked version that told me to give my character a specific name to work properly, only I forgot what that name was and just typed John Desk, so I might have inadvertently activated the allegedly sneaky copy protection. Don’t be surprised if I die suddenly.

Cool!

I spend a while being attacked by a swordsman, probably losing some of my hit points, while I battle the controls. Eventually I plug in my hardly-used Xbox 360 controller, and lo and behold the bloody thing works. I’m moving around in a 3D world like it’s Crysis or something! Except in Crysis, when people (be they noblemen or alien monsters) appear and attack you for no reason you could just shoot them. Here you have a menu with six options: fight back (with your bare hands), trick them (doesn’t seem to do anything),charm them (which never works), offer them something (doesn’t seem to do anything), lunge at them (with your bare hands) or simply select “leave” and they will, once they have knocked a few lumps out of you.

That's not very noble of him.

I enter a shop, which sells nothing I could possibly want except for an overpriced compass. By the time I leave it is snowing, which slows the game down beyond the ability to respond to any of my commands (although the emulator still claims to be working, so maybe it’s the sneaky copy protection.) I am soon noticed and killed by a passing swordsman.

What's going on? Where am I? I'm dead! I'm dead! Help meeeeeee....

Total play time: 10 minutes

Verdict

A faltering step into the Exciting World of Tomorrow. From this later version it’s difficult to assess the importance of the 1985-model 3D engine, but if the original Atari 8-bit version was anything like this it was a generation more advanced than anything previously seen, ie Ultima III or Wizardry.

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