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Countdown (DOS)

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MobyRank
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
3.6
MobyScore
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (170973)
Written on  :  Oct 07, 2014
Rating  :  3.67 Stars3.67 Stars3.67 Stars3.67 Stars3.67 Stars

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Summary

Technologically impressive, yet lacking as an adventure game

The Good

Access Software had a good grip on contemporary technology during the VGA revolution of late 1980's. With their Mean Streets, they were among the first to jump the bandwagon of 256-color graphics, digitized sound effects, and even a bit of live action.

Countdown continues this trend, relying on smart usage of technology to impress the players. Right in the beginning you are shocked by screaming samples and horrifying images of real people; afterwards, you are being transferred into a photorealistic rendering of an asylum cell, complete with minuscule bugs crawling through sagging wallpaper. The game starts strong, setting the right tone and establishing the grim atmosphere for a promising horror tale. It should be noted, however, that the game completely abandons these stylistic traits once you manage to escape.

The first part is generally much better than the subsequent material, and is only hampered by unrelenting difficulty level stemming from any lack of direction. Still, it is much more involving than the on-rails gameplay it's eventually replaced by: it is fairly open-ended, with more gameplay variables taken into account. It is also quite tense and atmospheric, leading you to believe that you'll emerge into an even less restrictive world full of dark imagery after you escape - a promise which the game, unfortunately, does not keep.

In general, the gameplay is functional: although the interface is anything but comfortable, there is enough experimentation involved, and the game will generously comment upon your attempts to think outside of the box. More interesting, however, is the conversation system, which could have been the star of the game if it were handled in a less seemingly random manner. Any conversation allows you to choose between different attitudes on the part of the protagonist, leading to fairly complex trees with some branches being essential to game progression. It feels very refreshing to try out different approaches during the early stages of the game, seeing how correctly chosen variants help you in your predicament. It is a pity the game overuses this device and reduces much of the experimentation to simple trial and error.

The Bad

Once the effect caused by its audiovisual prowess and gameplay gimmicks wears off, Countdown reveals itself as a fairly ordinary adventure game.

For starters, the game's pacing has serious problems. It is divided into two unequal parts - breaking out of the asylum and investigating the global conspiracy. The first part is interesting, but excessively frustrating, forcing you to retry multiple times in order to find the right path through the monotonous maze. Once you are out, however, you are treated to a restricted, linear romp through one-screen locations: travel to your destination, figure out which attitude gets you through the dialogue, unlock a new similarly confined area, etc.

The problem is that neither of the two gameplay modes (talking and investigating) is really fulfilling. Conversations are very erratic, and guessing the right path is mostly a matter of trial and error. Investigation segments are plagued by extreme pixel-hunting exacerbated by an awkward interface requiring way too much precision from the player. The puzzles lack spark and are mostly forgettable.

Clearly, the developers put more effort into the extravaganza of real actors and digitized effects than in actual adventure game design. Unfortunately, even as an interactive story, Countdown doesn't really deliver. The campy presentation coupled with unnecessarily cheesy, often badly written dialogue (sometimes even with grammatical mistakes) and unsuccessful attempts at comic relief ruins what could have been a suspenseful piece of globe-trotting spy fiction. There is also a stark, jarring discrepancy in tone between the first and the second part of the game. The escape from the asylum has a strong atmosphere with horror overtones. The following investigation shatters it to pieces, severing our emotional connection to the hero by subjecting him to a series of nonchalantly handled dialogue and contrived adventure game situations seemingly taken straight out of a Leisure Suit Larry game.

The Bottom Line

Countdown is a an interesting title worth checking out for being an early example of rudimentary multimedia technology. As an adventure game, however, it is not entirely satisfying: pixel hunts and pacing problems prevent it from joining the upper echelon of the genre.