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Under a Killing Moon (DOS)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168604)
Written on  :  Sep 29, 2003
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4.83 Stars4.83 Stars4.83 Stars4.83 Stars4.83 Stars

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Take THIS, first-person shooters!

The Good

What a game it is. What a game! It came, out of nowhere, to smash forever all the prejudices against adventure games: that they are not interactive, that they are too slow-going, that they can't use realistic 3D engines, that they lack realism and tension. In any argument with an adventure-basher, you can simply fork over a copy of "Under A Killing Moon", install it and show him just the beginning of the game, and he'll say "wow", no matter how he had hated adventures before.

What can I say about "Under a Killing Moon"? It is true it had quality predecessors: Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum. It is true that it appeared on the scene when the golden epoch of adventure games already had belonged to the history. It is true that its story is not among its strongest sides. But nothing can change the fact "Under a Killing Moon" is stunning. Stunning not only visually, but also as a gameplay experience. Never before was an adventure game so realistic, so highly interactive, so detailed, and so rich. Never before was it possible for the player to immerse himself so deeply into the world of an adventure game. Never before - and never after! - was the concept of an "interactive movie" brought to life with such clarity, precision, and depth. "Under a Killing Moon" is the ultimate proof of the genre's vitality and flexibility. Even now, almost ten years after its release, it hasn't lost its importance and reminds to us again and again: adventure games could have been the leading genre in the industry if they hadn't chosen the wrong way.

"Under a Killing Moon" was created by a company named Access, a group of highly talented developers, who had brought to us technically outstanding and innovative adventure games in the early nineties: "Martian Memorandum", Countdown, Amazon: Guardians of Eden. While being undoubtedly ground-breaking, those games suffered from rather poor puzzle design, and interface problems that made them very uncomfortable to play. In "Under a Killing Moon", for the first time, Access was able to produce an adventure game with an outstanding gameplay, that were so good that it became the central aspect of the game - of course, coupled with the totally new engine. It was the time of a miraculous development of technology. CD ROMs revolutionized programming by offering enormous data capacity. Small, awkward videos and almost immobile pictures of actors now became stunning full-motion videos. It wasn't surprising that Access decided to use the new FMV technology for their next Tex Murphy adventure. The decision proved to be right. "Under a Killing Moon" was a great success as an "interactive movie", despite some poor acting, ridiculous "special effects", and other movie-related flaws. The greatness was in the way how its creators captured the spirit of a PI story, how they carefully chose the setting - an original mixture of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and retro à la film noir. Movie cut scenes added a lot to the realism of the game, and helped to interest the player and to immerse him. The most pleasant surprise was Chris Jones, the genius behind the series, in the role of Tex Murphy. In my opinion Chris Jones delivered in this game (and in its two wonderful sequels, Pandora Directive and Overseer) the best acting ever to be seen in a video game. The witty, charismatic, bitterly ironic, and kind private investigator came to life as one of the most charming and unforgettable characters in the history of games thanks to Chris Jones' talent as actor. I can't even imagine Tex Murphy played by someone else, and I think the series would have never been the same without Chris Jones in the main role. This is one of the chief reasons why "Under a Killing Moon" surpasses "Martian Memorandum", where Tex had been more like a pale copy of what he became later.

The other main reason is the game's absolutely revolutionary engine. Poor interface severely hindered clue-gathering and other detective work in "Martian Memorandum". A serious adventure like it desperately needed a more flexible interface that would allow a richer gameplay, and a fitting environment to use this interface. 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 perspective 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 reserved until then for first.person shooters became also the property of adventures. The result was simply amazing. From first-person perspective, you could move around 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 were sprites or pictures of real people. But those pictures and sprites were situated in a true 3D environment. What's more, the game actually made practical usage of 3D, so that it became an inseparable part of the gameplay rather than a mere embellishment. Many puzzles or other actions required a flexible camera management and unlimited movement through 3D environments. An integral part of the gameplay in "Under a Killing Moon" and its sequels is changing the position of the protagonist (which is in fact the point of view of the player himself) and viewing the world from different angles. For example, at certain points you must find clues which are "invisible" when searching the room while standing upright; you have to get down on your knees and to look for hidden objects under beds, tables, carpets, etc. Sometimes you should also hide yourself 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 pixel-hunting and clicks of mouse, 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 what I call puzzle-game puzzles: objects which are puzzles in themselves, that don't require external actions, and can be solved rather by deep calculating and thinking than by trying and guessing. Such puzzles were perhaps the best in "Under a Killing Moon", in any case much better (and less frustrating) than those of "Overseer". One of them, for example, involves combining a letter from torn pieces of paper - a really thrilling detective work. Those puzzles are usually also much more interesting than standard inventory-based puzzles, which often feel out of place in the game. Detective work, i.e. interrogating people and picking up clues, was highly developed already in "Martian Memorandum", and there is plenty of it in "Under a Killing Moon".

There is a lot of humor in the game. Beside the humorous remarks made by Tex, there are also many ironic references to modern-day affairs found in newspapers which are scattered around the futuristic San Francisco. The dialogues are colorful and witty, with interesting and unusual people to interrogate, and of course the love interest - Chelsee. There are plenty of genuinely suspenseful moments in "Under a Killing Moon". Especially later in the game there are many possibilities to die or get caught (which is the same for the outcome of the game), and especially cool are the parts where Tex has to infiltrate enemy grounds and to seek for vital evidence. The feeling that you are somewhere where you aren't supposed to be is incomparable to any other emotion we might have while playing games. "Under a Killing Moon" makes a great usage of this psychological phenomenon. And of course, detective/mystery genre is always a plus, because it makes the player curious. A private investigator is a figure that fits perfectly the medium of video games, and it is not surprising many great adventures belong to detective genre.

A fantastic decision was to add a built-in hint system into the game. I really wished all adventure games had it. Adventure games are generally tougher than action games of RPGs, simply because so much in them depends on meticulous searching and thinking - much more tiresome activities than taking decisions in battles. I personally find the established tradition of "secretly" using walkthroughs ridiculous. Walkthroughs are considered cheats, while in fact they help you to proceed in the game without changing anything in its programming. Using walkthroughs is like masturbating - everybody do it, but are ashamed to admit. A built-in walkthrough allows the players to get help with a clear conscience.

The Bad

The weakest part of "Under a Killing Moon" is its story. It starts rather well, and contains some interesting moments, but goes downhill the more the game progresses. Its various aspects are only loosely tied together, most explanations of the mysteries are ridiculous, there's little sense in the plot, and supernatural or sci-fi stuff doesn't fit the cool retro atmosphere at all. Quite frankly, the game is so good that it doesn't even need a better story, and I wasn't really bothered by it when I played the game. 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. A very amusing "behind-the-scene" sequence that appears after the game ends convinced me I shouldn't take the game's story seriously anyway. But if you are looking for a great story in addition to everything "Under a Killing Moon" has to offer, try Overseer.

Minor problems include some interface issues (the need to switch between exploring and action modes, somewhat cumbersome command management), occasional poor acting, and several unnatural puzzles.

The Bottom Line

A legend among legends. If only other adventures had followed this game instead of "Myst", life would have been better for the fans of the genre. A unique, groundbreaking, totally amazing sci-fi/detective experience in a virtual reality, such as never seen before and only imitated after - and even that much too rarely. Ignore it at your own risk.