Written by  :  Maury Markowitz (248)
Written on  :  Aug 27, 2002
Platform  :  Windows 3.x

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A harbinger of things to come

The Good

You know, there was a point in time where the Mac was a better games platform than the PC. No, stop laughing, I mean it. While PC's had VGA and a beeper, the typical Mac of the mid 90's was running 640x480 or higher at 8bit, 16bit multi-channel sound, and - this is the important part - a CD. So all the interesting firsts showed up on the Mac first.

Such is the case for Iron Helix. In some ways IH is similar to Myst, in that the CD is basically a collection of graphics for scenery, along with clips of films for action. But the two games couldn't be more unlike each other, Myst is an adventure (sort of) whereas IH is an action game.

The basic premise is that a Navy ship has "gone bad" due to the release of a deadly virus onboard, and as a result it's going to blow up a planet. Your cargo ship is the nearest, so it's up to you to stop the disaster.

Of course, with a deadly mutagenic virus on the ship, you can't go over in person. Instead you send over a maintenance robot from your ship while you fly in formation. With this robot you need to penetrate the ship's defenses and lockouts, and somehow stop it.

The game is played as seen from the robot's control panel. About 1/4 of the screen is a view of the ship from the robot, while the rest of the screen is taken up with various displays, maps, and command buttons. You play the game by sending the robot through the ship using the buttons, and plugging into data ports where you try to learn what happened.

Some of the ports are used for simple things like opening doors or moving the elevator. Others are computer interfaces that contain entries and logs from various crew members about what's happening on the ship. For instance, plugging into some of the ports in the medical lab will give you clues to the nature of the virus. The captain's personal log may give you clues on controlling the ship.

However all of the ports are protected by reading the "persons" DNA when they try to use it. Typically the ports can be accessed by everyone on the ship (ports for doors and the elevator for instance), but most of the interesting ones can only be operated by a small subset of the crew. To operate these, you must first find a sample of that crewmembers DNA, which you can find in appropriate locations with a scanner device. So quite a bit of the game concerns finding these samples in likely locations - crew quarters are a good place to look, but to get in them you might need someone with security clearance first...

The game is thus a puzzle, where you have to find the right samples in the right order to eventually figure out a way to stop the ship. A body's sample gets you into the medlab, where they were working on a security swabby, who gets you into the security office where you find the 2nd in command's DNA... etc. Eventually you'll have enough "keys" (DNA samples) and information to get into the navigation controls and stop the ship. I believe there were actually three ways to stop it, but this is the solution I discovered.

Making the puzzle harder is the presence of a security robot. At lower levels of gameplay the robot basically travels around the ship randomly and will only start following you if it gets close. Meanwhile you can see it on your 3D map. As you increase the difficultly, the robot gets a lot smarter. Every access of a dataport sends it rushing to that point in the ship, and since you use a dataport to travel between levels in the elevator, this can get very difficult. There's also a shaft you can use to move levels, but at even higher levels it knows this and spends more time hanging around it. If it does happen to catch you it will kill your robot, and you have only three.

Someone had to be the first real CD game, and Iron Helix was it.

The Bad

For a game that's all about plot, the plot seems terribly weak. So apparently this virus is mutating people, eventually to the point where the security robot thinks they're aliens and starts killing them. Ok, that I can buy. But why the heck is the ship going to blow up a planet as a result? And since the game starts with the ship moving out from what looks like a fleet, why don't they just blow it up? Good game, but definitely a 1+1=3 situation.

And while the difficulty levels certainly did change the nature of the gameplay, it didn't change the mission itself. So basically there's no replay value at all. After solving it the only thing to do was crank it up and let the security robot kill us so we could see what it looked like.

The Bottom Line

Definitely worth the one play, if you get the chance. It only takes about three hours from start to end, so give it a whirl.