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SummaryI am acting!
The Good1996. It was the year when DOS was dying a quiet and slow death and some of us knowing the tragedy behind that process waved for a goodbye. It was the year when a great era of gaming came to an end while a new began. It was the year when classics like Master of Orion II or Daggerfall were released and as one of the last jewels for this platform Terra Nova finally reached the Monitors.
During that episode I was more immersed into C&C: Red Alert and Mechwarrior 2 than anybody else in my social environment, so I didn’t even notice anything about Terra Nova. Years later it came to me as a free version by buying a game magazine and still, even after installing it, I was not ready to play it. The whole interface was too much for me and yes the graphics did the rest to it. So again, years passed by till this year when I found this particular CD and gave the game a last chance. Well, I was not even a bit prepared for this gaming experience. So I would like to share my research on this game with you.
Terra Nova takes place in the future of mankind, more than 300 years from now. Space is not a frontier anymore and the Solar-System is colonized. It could be a nice trip in space but only because time and technics have changed, that doesn’t mean the same for the human race or politics. It is a struggle between the colonies in space and the almighty government of earth, called the Hegemony and willing to do anything to protect and to fulfill their beliefs. Earths government is (of course) not very happy about the ideas of independence which have emerged throughout the colonies. And as the pressure grew, the colonists moved (or were forced to move) to the Alpha Centauri System and started a new beginning there, including sovereign economy and a new society system, established in so-called Clans. Sounds a bit familiar to Battletech? Well, I’ll catch up on this later.
Because of the lack of an alien oppressor which one could fight, the two parties (Terran Hegemony and the clans of Alpha Centauri) have to fight each other. Actually, I really like these fictional universes (like in Battletech or in Freelancer) where there is no appearance of any alien incident. It sounds more realistic to me and on the other hand it offers the possibility the set the focus on human problems. The struggle of independence between the Hegemony and the Clans of Centauri reminds of the same problems the early United States had with the British Empire. But instead of our own history things in Terra Nova are different. The Hegemony accepted more or less Centauri’s autonomy but did impose a lot conditions; creating an atmosphere full of suspense.
So for the people of Alpha Centauri the enemies in the first place are pirates, smugglers and other thugs but while time passes it is getting obvious that the earth government is planning something big for Alpha Centauri. To handle these common threats the Clans established a Strike Force, combining the best soldiers including YOU as the best of the best of the best. Of course! You play the 24 years old Nikola, who is not only one of the youngest team members but also the leader of this pack. Some words to credibility and its importance to games will follow later…
Basically Terra Nova shows up as an ego tactic shooter with a perfect dash of strategy. Your weapon is not a tank or a Mech, the weapon is you … and your super-sophisticated-armed-to-the-teeth-full-body-armour or short: PBA. Like in games as X-Wing or Wing Commander your Base are a few screens, where you can check mails, news, reports, medals and prepare for your missions. Before it gets hot you can watch a nice mission briefing and then have to equip yourself and your team-mates. Weapons, equipment and extra stuff improve in later missions. And there are a lot of them. Exactly 37! The variety of the goals you have to achieve is as enormous as the variety of your opportunities in the field. From ‘Seek and Destroy’ to ‘Rescue and Protect’ to ‘Stealth is key’, the missions leave no strategically heart untouched. Furthermore, you have a vast range of field tactics. It is possible to give special orders to each team mate or orders to the whole team, from ‘Attack this’ to ‘Scout here’ to ‘Defend Location’ and so on. Your comrades in field can act cautious or aggressive and they do a hell of a good job there.
If one thinks about the year this game came out it surely is impressive that the AI of your team-mates is done so well. They have no problems to find the right way or fight like intelligent people and the most important thing: they obey! Well, most times. The Developers did not miss out the opportunity to put some character into the characters. Some of your followers have made cruel experiences through the enemy and so they act very emotional sometimes, which means they attack earlier and more aggressive and don’t listen to your orders when the see the enemy. It is not a problem to the gameplay though, because it doesn’t happen so often but pushes the atmosphere according to the credibility. Furthermore it is to mention that some of the Strike Force soldiers are specialists in demolitions or electronics and more, which is in some missions the key to success.
In the field you look at the events through your armoured suit, the PBA and for the first time playing the game one get overwhelmed quickly by these many buttons, menus and instruments. Here it comes to sight that Terra Nova is more a real simulation than a fast shooter. Fortunately all your suit systems can be controlled by mouse and keyboard while the movement is keyboard only. This has the advantage of walking around and doing some tactical stuff on your mini-map for example.
When it comes to combat the game gets an interesting twist. From one to another second you are thrown out of your office-like tactical work into vivid fighting. When enemies appear, all hell breaks loose and you have to act quickly but with consideration. Playing the fast hotshot works sometimes but a team can only work efficiently as a team. It is more important to pick to right weapons, watch out for friendly fire and to have an instinct when it is time to retreat or to regroup.
The repertoire of weapons is a nice one. Really! You start with standard lasers but with the time you’ll also get projectile weapons like missile- and grenade launchers and high advanced energy weapons to get your foes toasted. All in all there aren’t so many of them like in other games and the fact, that only four weapons can be carried at a time sounds pretty boring. Indeed, most times you walk around with your favourite ones and do not change them so often. But first of all they are very different in range, accuracy and effect and second, it gives me a more realistic feeling of the situation; the military may have the most advanced weapons but they don’t get new ones every week.
Despite all the hectic and the terror appearing in the first fights, combat in Terra Nova is real fun. When you jump 200 metres above your enemies and fire missile after missile into them while listening to this stunning soundtrack is just awesome.
The environment is fully 3D and so it is to high importance for your tactical decisions. For example when your walk up a hill you are in cover but will get slower and the opponent have a tremendous advantage if they catch you in this situation. Jump Jets will be your best friends to pass the most difficult areas. On the other hand it can turn out into a real critical situation while you are in the air. Otherwise you could launch a drone to check out the area but that time you seldom have. And you have a handful of nice gimmicks which help you through the day like a personal shield or a stealth device. But only one of them can be select for a mission and they are all limited in their use. I think one can easily imagine here the many opportunities to combine things in this game.
The difficulty is tuneable from the easy “Neighbourhood Watch” to the extreme hard “World War”. It is possible to switch between these modes during the game which makes it very helpful because even the second difficulty-level is hard enough.
The enemies AI is ok I think. Most times their attacks seem not very organized but in the end they really force you to fight with all your senses. The most missions last from five to fifteen minutes, so you never have to walk miles to get into action. Of course, if you want to you can walk around for hours but due to the performances PCs had back in those days they created smaller levels. The mission design itself does increase its demand when you keep on playing. The first ones are relatively easy to handle while the later missions are really a job for your brain. After each mission it comes to a debriefing including a lot of statistics. If you have finished a mission with extra care for your team-mates or did show great bravery you may be honoured with a medal. It does not have any effect on the game but it’s always nice to watch your decorations. Before I forget it; if you die the mission is over but if your companions meet Dr. Death it is still possible to finish it. Your killed team-mates will survive anyway; you just get a negative score for it.
As I said it before the environment is real 3D; well most of the others things are not. Your team-mates, enemies and the trees are pure bitmaps, like in the old days. When these bitmaps come too close your screen turns into a battlefield for pixel. I am exaggerating but sometimes it looks really ugly in contrast to the environment. Yes, with the 3D-Environment the people at Looking Glass did a perfect job. To think about the publishing year and the fact that the highest resolution for this game is 320 x 400 px VGA, it is astonishing what these people created here. Beautiful! Even for today. The horizon is not limited, the sky looks great and so do the textures. I think this game is a perfect example for a time when designers or programmers were forced to work with a graphical interface for years, so they could improve their ways of working with it. Nowadays, graphics in games look fantastic but the developers do not have the time to max things out anymore. But after all, graphics are seldom decisive for a good game. Much more important is:
What makes Games so different from other media? Other media like movies or books can only be experienced one-sided. Don’t throw pebbles at me; I will explain it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of all kind of movies and I love books even more. A movie can create so vast emotions, deep characters, wonderful story and so an atmosphere, where you can forget all you surroundings. The experience may follow you a week or sometimes a lifetime. A good book can do that either. But there is always only ONE level of experience. In these two media you will always be the passive consumer. Of course, a book can awake your imagination even more than a movie or a (modern) game could ever do but at least your act is plain reading. In books and films people can identify at least with one person but they are not this person. Within games, it will always be the player itself who is in the focus. The game not only tells its own background story but also tells the story of the (human) player, whose actions have consequences on the story and the game itself.
It is no secret that in games everything is scripted as well but the players actions decide which events will be triggered and maybe in which order. This is fantastic! Let’s assume that 99% of the games are constructed in a linear way, the player still has the option to decide which road he wants to follow. This is an option you just have in real life. Sorry I’m deviating. But I’m writing this since in older games the storytelling and the player actions were strictly divided. For Terra Nova there are the video cut-scenes which tell the plot and the other part: the gameplay, including team-management and combat. Not really new stuff, I know. Why I am saying that, is because of the difficulty to review a game rightfully when there is an enormous gap between these two sides. But I will try it.
The video cut-scenes are kind of semi-professional, combined with very nice rendered scenes and scenes where real actors had to deal with a blue screen in the back. But the visual appearance is throughout ok. When it comes to acting it becomes different. Oh boy! These actors during the cut-scenes are far the worst I’ve ever seen! One can almost see the line floating over the heads saying: “I’m acting!” Well, I must confess that, after three times playing Terra Nova, I became much attached to them. As others reviewers noticed, there is a nice little charm of B-Movie-Style with them. The biographies for your team-mates yet are written very well. At all there is so many background material to read. In the library section a whole universe waits to be discovered (even including a 17 Pages long annexation-contract of the Hegemony). Of course it is nothing compared to the written background in Mass Effect but it goes into that direction. And that is the point what I like most of Terra Nova. One can clearly see with how much passion the designers worked here. The story is not new at all, the actors are ridiculous and linearity is trump but still it seems like a believable universe in every little detail.
This background, combined with the situation on the battlefield where your comrades scream realistic radio voice signals and the whole behaviour of the game does not remind you of a super Hollywood-Blockbuster-Action-Movie gives the player the opportunity to immerge completely in the game. I mentioned before the similarity to the Mechwarrior game series and indeed there are several parallels. But this game is not a copy. It took the good features from these games like the whole organisation thing before and during a mission. Mechwarrior 2 was a game with good graphics but nowadays it looks laughable. But what did Activision did at that time to improve the atmosphere? They created through the sound, the handling and the whole detailed background something how it feels piloting a real mech. And if putting on your headset you were not just playing it, you were in the game. Here, the same thing happens with great success and for people who love the Mechwarrior series I strongly have to recommend Terra Nova.
The BadEvery good game has bad days. That’s life. For Terra Nova it is (apart from the actors) the thing that most people will be deterred by the interface and all the buttons. The lot of functions you can activate and play with will not help either. For most old games it was a duty to read the manual to get into the game. But Looking Glass was ahead of the times and created two tutorial missions which explain really everything. All you need is to listen carefully and with patience … young Padawan.
The other thing that I really missed in Terra Nova is a multiplayer mode. This could have been the feature to lift this game to other spheres or so. Well; not implemented. Though luck!