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SummaryWatch and learn, kids: this is how you design a multimedia adventure
The GoodAccess Software emerged in the late 1980's as a developer of interesting (if somewhat odd) adventure games distinguished by their cutting-edge technology and nifty effects. Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum, set in a post-apocalyptic "noir" future, featured the lonely PI Tex Murphy solving cases involving interplanetary conspiracies and a lot of mutants. Under a Killing Moon is the next installment in the series and also the most important one. In this game, the designers' technological ambitions - more daring than ever before - finally matched the quality of gameplay, resulting in a much more polished and very impressive work.
As fun as all the digitized photography and sound samples were in the previous games, Under a Killing Moon blows them out of the water with its visual splendor. Poor interface and awkward presentation hindered clue-gathering and other detective work in Martian Memorandum. A serious adventure like it desperately needed a more flexible interface that would allow richer gameplay, and a fitting environment to use that interface in. Access could have made a third-person perspective game with the main actor moving through the graphical world, or they could have chosen a "screen-jumping" first-person view with pre-rendered backgrounds. They did neither. Instead, they created a real-time 3D world - undoubtedly one of the most daring graphical experiments in the history of adventure games.
What had been hitherto reserved for first-person shooters became legitimate technology for adventures. From first-person perspective, you can move through the virtual reality, actually feeling the movement - not just clicking and jumping from screen to screen, but physically manipulating the invisible hero - or, better to say, exploring the game world. Of course, instead of 3D characters and objects there are sprites or photos of real people. But those pictures and sprites are situated in a true 3D environment. More important is the fact that the game actually makes practical usage of 3D, so that it becomes an inseparable part of the gameplay rather than mere embellishment. Many puzzles or other actions require flexible camera management and unlimited movement through a three-dimensional world. An integral part of the gameplay is changing the position of the protagonist (which is in fact the point of view of the player himself) and looking at the world from different angles. For example, at certain points you must find clues which are "invisible" when searching the room while standing up; you have to get down on your knees and look for hidden objects under beds, tables, carpets, etc. Sometimes you should also hide from enemies, and in order to do that you have to duck behind covers. Needless to say a non-3D environment would have turned such actions into mouse-clicking pixel-hunting, which is of course much less exciting.
The game's puzzles set a new tradition for the series. They can be divided into three kinds: traditional inventory-based combinations, pure detective work, and self-sufficient logic puzzles, which are quite tough, making the very handy in-game hint system too tempting to abuse. Some of those feel a bit out of place, but others are well integrated into the detective routine - such as restoring a letter by putting together torn pieces of paper, etc. Detective work, i.e. interrogating people and picking up clues, was highly developed already in the predecessors, and there is plenty of it in Under a Killing Moon. In general, the gameplay is noticeably more fleshed-out and rewarding. Physical interactivity hasn't damaged the verbal one in the least: there are many, many objects to examine, and the game generously provides unique and elaborate descriptions and comments.
Great engine and solid, challenging gameplay are complemented by fantastic presentation. The rapid growth of CD ROM technology led to the appearance of video games focusing primarily on all the multimedia extravaganza allowed by gigantic data storage possibilities. Freeing the space for full-motion videos disrupting the flow of gameplay eventually became a goal in itself, resulting in catastrophic reduction of interactivity in challenge in favor of overblown, cheesy movies and special effects. Under a Killing Moon has those as well, but it never sacrifices the gameplay to them. Even the mighty Sierra fell prey to the temptation; but the guys from Access Software were wise enough to know what really mattered.
Under a Killing Moon is far from being a great movie - its direction, acting, and a few other cinema-related aspects leave a lot to be desired. That said, the B-movie-like, semi-humorous presentation is quite endearing and adds a surprising amount of charm and weight to the game. Instead of standing in the way of gameplay and irritating the players, the movies enhance the immersion by complementing the playable segments. Some of the acting is decent, and Chris Jones himself, the game's lead designer also starring as the main character, delivers an excellent performance, adding plenty of energy and charismatic vigor to the movie portion of the game. With all its pseudo-sci-fi silliness, the plot is interesting to follow, and the humor in dialogues and descriptions comes in just the right doses, warning us against taking the story too seriously without treating it like a comedy.
The BadThe interface, while greatly improved upon the company's previous offerings, can still get a bit awkward. Switching between exploration and action modes requires some time to get used to, and navigating between commands can become slightly cumbersome. Transitions between searching rooms for clues and interrogating suspects could have been smoother, though they aren't as jarring as in the predecessors. The logic puzzles, while interesting and appropriately challenging, sometimes feel artificially pasted into the game, having little to no connection to the actual investigation. I also wish the game could let us explore more of the futuristic San Francisco, with outdoor areas and individual locations all being part of an interconnected world.
The story starts strong, but soon deteriorates into something overly corny that makes little sense. The various aspects of the plot are only loosely tied together, most explanations of the mysteries border on ridiculous, and supernatural elements don't fit the cool retro atmosphere at all. Expect showdowns with cartoony villains and conspiracies collapsing from lack of internal logic. At certain points, the story gets so comically banal that I even suspected it was one of those "it's so bad that it's good" cases.