Monday, 15 December 2014

Game 46: Countdown – Final Rating

Written by Aperama

This is the first game officially played since the revival of the blog, so I don't mind saying that the hardest post to write is most certainly this one. Trying to use the even-handed approach that I definitely feel Trickster always managed to offer out is sure to be a challenge and a half – and it doesn't help that I find this game to have been one that had a small gem that, were I not playing this game for the sake of the blog, I feel I would have given up on or just followed a walkthrough to beat. The game was challenging only ever in the points that I don't appreciate a game in being challenging – giving a largely artificial time limit that would take being rather daft to not manage to complete the game by, but leaving that incessant clock in the corner of your screen making you all the more cognisant of the looming possibility of a deadline – being the perfect example. Oh, and the timing-based walking puzzles were just insipid. On the other hand, I did like the story, as it managed to be plausible yet out there enough to keep my interests piqued. The end results? Let's see..


Puzzles and Solvability

Countdown is a game that, were only a few things changed, I might not even consider an adventure game. It most certainly is – but if you, for instance, removed the inventory system, the game would almost certainly have fallen more upon the 'creeping around' sections that were quite simply silly. It wouldn't have been hard to enhance them, either – all that would have needed to be added would be the ability to look into the next room whilst in Sanctuary and the death screens would have been much less prevalent. Still, I don't feel I can really deduct points for this – however, having a game that has no inventory interaction (which existed, after all, in King's Quest 1) is a big no-no for me, and the puzzles themselves were almost farcical every time they popped up. On the plus side, there was never a point where I was stuck staring at my screen wondering what had just happened – everything was clear and made sense, even if it wasn't particularly difficult. The real shining jewel could have been the conversation system – but instead of feeling organic, the puzzles that arose from that were largely the result of trial and error. So, to check – it had puzzles, and they were solvable – but they just weren't very good. Well, except for the parrot dropping the key to Mason's drawer – I still don't get how that happened. I'll also note here that Trickster similarly found that the puzzles were almost universally too easy within Mean Streets – so this really tells me that they didn't even learn from their mistakes! I feel thoroughly vindicated giving this a low score.

Rating: 3

The clues were there to let me know to give him wine – he wouldn't stop drinking! But the 'getting' there never felt right.

Interface and Inventory

I've already mentioned the inventory – it's rather woeful. There's a single, shining light in this once more, being the CAD system – it makes sense for a spy-styled person to have an advanced tool to fingerprint and do other such analysis. Unfortunately, it didn't let me continue to examine items, which is where the CAD system falls apart and you're left with a non-interactive inventory that largely depends on memory. Not being able to check the amount of cash I had on hand in my inventory (and only learning at either the video blackjack game or during travel) is a perfect example of the failure here! The conversation system was definitely also a positive at least in idea.. I wasn't a fan of the implementation, but the idea was quite good. They also tried to tell me in the manual that it'd work by using mixtures of conversation trees, so I can only blame myself for not realising that one. In practice, it really came down to 'click all of the buttons in every order until things progress'. The other main interface was the 'Look, Open, Move, Get, Use, GOTO, Talk, Taste and Travel' one.. while not quite as egregious as some of the early Lucasarts games, the 'taste' and 'travel' buttons felt fairly useless (there were about five objects that 'taste' even reacted to, and the 'travel' function was largely unusable except in instances where there was an alternative in just walking through a door to leave), and the 'goto' function only ever really came into play when attempting to scale things. I'd almost be willing to call it passable in this regard (though the either ESP or Reed Richards-like powers that Mason sometimes uses to open doors from across the hall and walk into them past a guard has to be considered impressive) – but even in this one, there's just too many damned flaws! You can walk up the sides of walls, the 'goto' function is almost unusable.. and all of the overhead sections were simply dreadful. Some might note that this was essentially the first game under a new engine, and that hiccups are bound to be made – to this, I say that these people haven't played Countdown.

Rating: 2

Also, pixel hunting. I won't go on about it, but it's there. If you see a key on the screen.. well, you're a clairvoyant

Story and Setting

If it weren't for the story that Countdown threw out, I'd be almost worried that this game would be wandering into the Psycho/Emmanuelle category. The game starts out hazy, and I'm almost entirely sure that a lot of people never got to learn more about the main thing that makes this game worth playing. There's a rich and well-thought story with an atypical twist or two that after wading through the horror that is the Sanctuary really makes the game more enticing. It's quite unfortunate that the game takes the amount of time it does to get to this point, yes – but I'd feel remiss saying bad things about a story that simply takes a while to come into its own. You can learn a lot of what's on offer over and over again, but everyone has at least a slightly different opinion, leaving you sifting through a lot of familiar information with little tidbits that can easily draw you down the wrong path (and did for me, several times!)

The game takes you to all sorts of locales, and is definitely adept at making one place seem different from the next

I almost find the story a touch hard to summarise, yet I fully understand it – this gives a decent idea, I think, of the way in which the game manages to both draw you in with intrigue and keep itself coherent and rich. I'll try to sum the story up quickly – there's a conspiracy going on in the CIA, with a fake terrorist organisation operating from within the 'Company'. This is entirely a scheme to get a hardline President elected. You happen to be one of the fall guys to throw those who are investigating off the trail – but through a mixture of luck and cunning, you manage to escape your captors. In an attempt to stop a world-shattering terrorist event, you end up inadvertently exposing the nature of the 'Black December' group. The game ties off many of its loose ends quite well.. the only real negative I can give it here is that by keeping the entire game within the settings of the Middle East and Europe, the opportunity to explore some of the wider world was lost. Looking over Trickster's posts, though, I realise that he typically notes the NPCs for a richness of feel – and that was definitely a flaw. A couple of caricatures could very easily have stood out (a la Buzz Brezhnev, the jolly KGB agent) but you're simply never around anyone for long enough to really get to know them outside of a simple question and answer session with each portrait given character. Also, the 'fake terrorist group' idea came from Die Hard.

Rating: 6

Come to think of it, Lisa and Hans Gruber die in the same way.. coincidence? Perhaps not!

Sound and Graphics

I'm definitely of the thought that these two categories can be split perfectly down the middle. Unfortunately, that would mean that it only has a score of 'one' in sound. Why? There's one musical track (the one that plays during the introductory sequence) and some of the most grating audio effects that can be imagined. There's a gunshot (that breaks the game when played), a few pieces of heavily grainy digitised speech (which is where the single point comes from for at least offering that rarity in this era), a brain-shatteringly annoying shriek that occurs dozens of times.. and then nothing. On the plus side, this means that the gunshot which breaks the game is largely missable.. but the fact that the game doesn't even introduce music where it would be a natural fit is quite jarring.

Ever been to a strip club/cabaret without music? I mean, of course, theoretically, if you'd ever been to one..

The graphics, on the other hand, are fairly impressive for the rich detail that has clearly been poured over them. There's small amounts of animation – just good enough to not look ridiculous – the walking looks natural without feeling forced. There's also a technical pallet swap near the end with Mason donning the vestige of a priest.. taken from the body of an unconscious person who had previously taken it from a dead body. (He wouldn't take any of his dirty laundry in his apartment, though – that'd just be gross!) The backgrounds never left me guessing as to what something was (with the exception of certain pixel-hunting objects), and while some things perhaps could have been slightly clearer, the graphics are definitely quite good for their era. There's one thing that I have to take a step back on here and mention – the portraits. They were all universally ridiculous, and felt entirely out of place. They essentially turned what I definitely felt was supposed to be a serious spy thriller into a game where everything looked as though it was tongue in cheek. They're unique, most certainly – but 'unique' also means 'nobody was silly enough to go this exact route beforehand'. They're cringeworthy for the most part, and probably have to be considered a negative, even if the game otherwise looks crisp.

Rating: 4

Fontaine is written as a hard-nosed, ruthless assassin. He is drawn as Alfred Hitchcock dressed as Dr. Who.

Environment and Atmosphere

The game has good and bad points in this category. I think it goes without saying that the vast majority of people who have played or will play this game probably only experience the opening area – it does work, in spite of how much I do loathe it. The 'Sanctuary' is largely infeasible, but it does give you the legitimate feel that you're in an unforgiving place where there are terrible things happening. Access Software proved in Tex Murphy that they were more than happy to make ridiculous things happen in spite of a serious setting, and I definitely think that this detracts from the overall experience. If they'd committed more to either a humorous setting or knocked off all of the goofiness, there's every chance that the game would feel a lot firmer in one boot or the other – but instead, it consistently struggles to decide whether it's all a self-referential joke or a serious spy thriller.

The notion of finding a skeleton in the observation room of a hospital could be horrifying. This? This is not.

If you have the patience to traverse the catacombs and escape the Sanctuary, there is definitely one strong point that simply begs to be addressed. The entire game takes place around Mason not remembering exactly who he is. He regains enough of his memory to know people from one another, sure – but the game is more about remembering the exact details of the incident that led to him being thrown into Sanctuary in the first place. Consistently littering the game with triggers – broken glass, blood, his name – and assuring that the entire cutscene when played has a decent amount of digitised voice all are points in its favour. The fact that they didn't actually put many more locations after the fact also has to be a sticking point – you can visit three places in Turkey, one place in Greece, two places in Italy and then the endgame takes place on a train and in Paris. You also visit a few other places – but they're just explained in a short, textual blurb as opposed to giving much real interaction. I'm also shaking my fist at the game for its treatment of both the Jackal and Fontaine – they're supposed to be these scary individuals, you drug them, leaving them prone to whatever you would do to a mass murdering criminal hitman (as they both are)? And you.. leave them where they are. It just reeks of incompletion. I'm not even suggesting that they need to be killed – but you don't tie them up, call the authorities on them – you just leave them where they are! Still, I can't be too harsh on the game for what is otherwise one of its strong points.

Rating: 6

Really? Sounds interesting! Wish I could've seen it for myself..

Dialogue and Acting

This game is probably one of the first that I feel the 'acting' term could be used against.. but I won't be that cruel. (The portraits giving the short animations to show what happens between 'neutral' and 'angry', for instance, would be a great instance of some of the earliest acting in video games. Well, they could be. As I say, I'm not that mean.)

And the Academy Award goes to.. Buzz Brezhnev, for actually having multiple faces to cycle throughout

The dialogue is, for the most part, wooden. It's not hard at all to find an example of rushed writing that simply doesn't feel realistic. The doctor in the first act seems entirely too calm for someone who is being threatened with a scalp(a)l to the neck the entire time, for instance. There are a couple of good instances slipped down in the interim – the three dialogues that occur in Venice are actually quite noteworthy. Golden Desire, for her utterly ridiculous name, actually manages to give an impassioned speech over the way her boyfriend was being treated. Brezhnev's speech isn't too forced – it actually could be 'English spoken as a second language' as opposed to 'Yakov Smirnoff' levels, yet still makes him sound like a clever man. Scorpio also gives a few good diatribes. Unfortunately, they're the bar set, and much of the rest of the dialogue feels either forced or simply bad. I've also got to address the writing, here – the entire game is absolutely littered with spelling mistakes, which for a game that has far more text than it does graphics or sound is definitely a huge minus. The occasional typo is almost guaranteed – but they're prevalent enough that you can't go an entire conversation without seeing at least one mistake that would make an English teacher shudder.

Rating: 4

Probably because they try to insist that they spell it 'psychiatrist', eh Jackal?

Total

Adding up my scores, 3+2+6+4+6+4 = 25, which divided by 60 equals .4166 recurring – so 42 rounded up. However, I'm going to insist and give my discretionary point of deduction for the litany of death screens that utterly flood Countdown – not to mention the fact that the game simply feels unpolished. Just a few tiny changes would have hugely made for a better game – unfortunately, it was released in the state it was. It can probably be noted that the game was released between Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum – it's possible they were just using the game to try and polish up their ideas for the coming sequel to Tex Murphy. As it stands? I feel that this game thoroughly deserves its position as 'the largely forgotten game by Access Software between two far better games'.


And the closest guess to 41 is... Fry with 43. Fry's cunning plan to guess a rating based on the ratings of Mean Streets, Deja Vu and Deja Vu 2 has paid off. 10 CAPs coming your way. Andy Panthro also generously offered a Tex Murphy game to the winner so if that's still the case there's also a Tex Murphy game in your future.

CAP Distribution

100 CAPs for Aperama
  • Blogger Award – 100 CAPs – For blogging his way through the game for our enjoyment

60 CAPs for Ilmari
  • True Companion Award - 10 CAPs - For playing the game along with Aperama and completing it with some assistance
  • Adventure Award - 50 CAPs - For writing the Missed Classic post on Adventure

25 CAPs for Kenny McCormick
  • "Violence IS the answer" Award - 5 CAPs - For encouraging Aperama's violent tendencies with the goodly Dr. Hashish
  • Dragonborn Anonymous award - 10 CAPs - for starting an off-topic discussion in the 'Join The Tag Reviewers' discussion and discovering that others share the same addiction
  • Missing Title Award - 10 CAPs - For finding a loophole in Ilmari's contest in Adventure's Missed Classic post

20 CAPs for Andy Panthro
  • Sponsor Award - 20 CAPs - For sponsoring the blog with a free game

20 CAPs for Zvonimir
  • WYS Award - 20 CAPs - For sending his answers for the 'What's Your Story?'  questions

15 CAPs for Fry
  • Psychic Prediction Award - 10 CAPs - For getting the closest prediction for the final rating
  • Man Eating Plant Award - 5 CAPs - For giving a correct answer to Ilmari's riddle in the Adventure Missed Classic post

10 CAPs for Deimar
  • Kickstarter Award - 10 CAPs - For noticing an adventure game related Kickstarter

5 CAPs for Charles
  • Spelunker Award - 5 CAPs - For finding out the reference to Jules Verne 

5 CAPs for Joe Pranevich
  • Beanstalk Award - 5 CAPs - For giving a correct answer to Ilmari's puzzle in Adventure's Missed Classic post

5 CAPs for TBD
  • Genre Support Award – 5 CAPs – For announcing a new adventure game sale on Steam

Now, to pass the baton onto whoever's next! Spellcasting 101 and Elvira, here we come!

16 comments:

  1. I'd be tempted to deduct a point somewhere for all of the dark-blue on black text. Seriously, it's hard to read.

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    1. Congratulations on getting the nearest to the score! Which Tex Murphy game would you like, and from which digital distributor?

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    2. I like the Steam platform. I haven't played any of the Tex Murphy games, so I'll leave that choice up to you. Maybe not Mean Streets since I already spoiled myself on this blog. Which game is the most fun?

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    3. If you're willing to wait a little while, the Steam sale will be starting and the Tex Murphy pack might just go on sale, which would mean you'd get them all.

      Search for me on Steam and add me as a friend, then it'll make the gifting easier (I'm Andy_Panthro on there too, same avatar)

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    4. Cool, I added you on steam, same avatar. No rush, if Gaben wants to make Tex cheap, who am I to argue?

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    5. Awesome, Andy gifted me the entire Tex Murphy collection! What a great guy. Playing through Mean Streets now!

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  2. Spellcasting 101 and Elvira? Why do I get the feeling we'll be waiting a little while before the next genuinely good game? Hopefully they will at least be entertaining!

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    1. Game 52 will be the next very well known game (King's Quest V)

      Spellcasting looks like a fun game (hopefully fun to read about other people playing too) and Elvira has always been about a bit of lighthearted fun (though I think, like Operation Stealth with James Bond, the Elvira license may have been an afterthought)

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    2. I remember beating Elvira (beating, not beating to) when I was in my late teens. It was... well... part RPG, part Adventure game. Not QFG caliber but, still, a rather innovative little game on its own without (like what TBD mentioned) Elvira's name.

      I'd volunteer to play Elvira but I'm still playing another game which is stupidly big but enjoyable.

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    3. Also, Spellcasting 101 was a really fun game by Legend. I didn't beat it as the puzzles were really nonsensical and requires a lot of contrived and illogical manner of thinking to solve them. Finally, for anyone tackling it, please set it to Naughty as soon as you start the game.

      That's how it's meant to be played. Nice mode is for losers who still believes in Santa Claus.

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    4. Spellcasting 101 is not that bad at all! It has puzzles involving wonky magic, but you can usually work them out, especially if you are a diligent student and take good notes of what you are taught. There's one part of the game that is very boring and repetitive (lbh unir gb fbyir znal chaf), even if the game offers you help after a while.

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    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    6. Definitely looking forward to KQV, even though it has an obnoxious number of pixelhunts and deadends.

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  3. CAP leaderboard and spreadsheet have been updated to include the last two final rating CAP Distributions - no movement in the top 10 but Joe Pranevich is rocketing his way up the charts to 15th after blogging through Operation Stealth and Mystery House.

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    1. Speaking of which, I need to give Andy his Dr. No DVD. Anyone have any good ideas how to coordinate that? :)

      Details, details..

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    2. Add me on steam, or Trickster has my email address, I'm sure we can sort something out!

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