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Review by
Philippa Irving

 

 
Welcome to Game of the Week! Each week there will be a new featured game on this page. The game may be good, average or diabolically bad, it really doesn't matter! Just look at the pics, read the text and enjoy the nostalgia! :-) Game of the Week! is open to contributions so if you would like to contribute a game article for this page you're more than welcome to! Every article we receive will be considered!
The Armageddon Man
1987 Martech
Programmed by ?
 
Most text of the present article comes from the review published in the thirty first issue of the British C64 magazine ZZAP!64 (street date: October 8th, 1987).
 


SUN, SEA AND STRATEGY

There doesn't seem to have been too many exciting wargames released over the summer -- either for the Commodore or the Spectrum. I wonder if the software house's marketing men are using the right brand of logic in timing their releases. I assume that things have been slow over the summer because software companies deem it sensible that the nation's youthful game-buying population are out enjoying the fine weather (or have fled the country in search of fine weather), and it is imagined that when the nights draw in, the consumers will turn once again to the computer as a means of entertainment . . . almost like a good book in front of the fire.

There might be a certain reality in the inverted logic of student life -- that the more there is to do the more time gets spent on irrelevant activities like flying bombing missions to Ploesti or re-mobilising D-Day -- but I think the assumption that computer-minded schoolchildren abandon their computers over the holidays is wrong. In some ways, computer gaming is a compulsive occupation. With school out of the way for a few weeks, there's nothing to get in the way of 16 continuous hours in front of the screen. The fact that the weather outside is nice and hot is an irrelevance to be screened out of the room by closed curtains because the sun shines on the television. Family holidays are a desolate computerless nuisance.

It seems to me that the software houses ought to concentrate their releases over the holiday period. This is a time when schoolchildren are also more likely to have money, generated by gainful holiday employment. But as usual, I expect there will be a cluster of new game coming up in time for the Christmas market. Now the Christmas break really is a time when schoolchildren have got other things to do with their spare time. There are so many interesting programmes on television for instance.

The undoubted power of a computer game to be so all-absorbing is certainly alarming to anyone who worries about the intellectual health of the nation's youth. Although it isn't immediately clear why computer gaming should be seen as a less valid occupation than reading a book or watching a play, I think it's true that we have that feeling. Part of it is the compulsive nature of some games. Books might be compelling, but it's rare to read for seven hours solid without feeling strained. Plays and other dramatic entertainments are specially tuned to last for only a couple of hours. Computer games can swallow up hours on end without causing the player any mental fatigue.

It's all to do with the human mind's need to be stimulated. Computer games -- particularly the fast and simple type -- provide a continuous high level of stimulation. They can be what I call 'junk food for the mind' -- strong in flavour, low in nutritional content. The computer is interactive too, which is probably its greatest addictive factor. It's impossible to be lonely while involved in a computer game.

Strategy games are only slightly different. They provide interaction without the nuisance of a complicated human presence, and they simplify reality to a manageable level. The fact that they require a thoughtful input from the player is something which makes them even more likely to be played for long periods at a time.

I for one never was convinced by the 'lovely sunshine' argument, long before I became a computer convert. But I think we ought to be aware of the dangers of letting computer games be an easy substitute for all other intellectual activity.
.

 

THE ARMAGEDDON MAN
Martech, 12.95 cass, 14.95 disk


Both of the games reviewed in this month's issue take a similar sort of concept as the basis of their gameplay. The player is put in an omniscient position, more or less holding the fate of Earth in the not too distant future in his hands. In Armageddon Man, from a software company which has a reputation for producing classy and unusual strategy games, this idea is taken to its extreme. The player has just landed what must surely be the most uncoveted job in history. The 'Armageddon Man' of the title has been given the task of coordinating the satellite network above Earth, acting as a sort of super-diplomat to negotiate continuing peace between the world's collection of paranoid and nuke-happy superpowers.

It's quite obvious that this scenario is more than a little improbable, but that isn't a fair criticism of it as a game -- at least it wouldn't be if Armageddon Man didn't attempt to be so sophisticated, subtle and politically realistic that the game itself vanishes into a web of open-ended diplomacy. In fact Armageddon Man falls into the familiar fatal trap that always lies under the feet of designers of 'pure' strategy games; the player has lots of basically simple decisions to make, which affect the mass of events in some way, but which a) don't give the player enough control over what happens and b) don't give the player enough to do. Pure strategy games can be designed around a structure of simple decision making, but can still make the player feel that his participation directly and visibly affects the outcome. The best strategy games of this kind can be very addictive, and ironically they usually have a pretty simple 'storyline'.

Listening in on secret discussions between the
superpowers with a high-tech radio receiver

The story line of Armageddon Man is ambitious in contrast to one of the classics of the genre like Football Manager. The superpowers of the world do not appear to combine in any broad alliances, which is essential for the gameplay, but unrealistic if the scenario is really trying to project current trends 50 years forward, and are all more or less suspicious of each other. Most of them have nuclear capability and are quite ready to discharge a few missiles at nations they dislike. In the role of Supreme Commander of the satellite defence and espionage network, the player has four aims. He has to learn to get on well with individual countries, promote relationships between countries and make sure that the economic and military balance is maintained. The game is supposed to simulate a computer system set up to make the job of communication easier. If I were inclined to take that literally, the first thing I would do as Supreme Commander would be to fire the programmer.

The screen display shows a finely-etched map of the world -- which is largely for display purposes only -- and a collection of the indispensable icons which allow the player access to the various functions. Via these icons, the player can position spy satellites and what amount to SDI satellites over the world map. He or she can also check the level of food, technological and military resources currency at the disposal of each country, can move the one UNN troop unite about the world, can receive and sand hate letters, and can attempt to intercept the world's radio transmissions.

Putting defence satellites over countries where trouble is anticipated is a good idea, because they can reduce the severity of a nuclear attack if one comes. Spy satellites can let the player know if any countries are deploying extra troops in secret, and also what the country under surveillance thinks of any other power. Not that this is under the player's control; reports from the spy satellites flash up at random. If a country notices it's being spied upon it tends to object, and I imagine you go down in its estimation by a few points. If a country doesn't have a good relationship with the player, it is more likely to ignore requests from the controller to do anything from reducing its number of nuclear warheads to holding peace talks with an aggressor.

In addition to the spy satellites, which rarely seem to come up with anything useful anyway, the player can attempt to find out what's going on in the world by intercepting radio transmissions. Quite a lot of thought has gone into the design of the equipment which enables the player to do this. You can choose to let the computer scan rapidly between certain wavebands or just listen for transmissions on or near a likely frequency. The first option gives a greater chance of picking something up, but it will be in code. A clever unscrambling device, which involves switching on and off a bank of six filters until you find the right combination, allows the message to come through clearly. The unfortunate thing is that once the messages have been deciphered they turn out to be most inane and repetitive. Japan gives preferential import factors to Australia, America complains of missing diplomats, and the Islamic Alliance announces that its opinion of Europe Unite is 'average'.

I refuse to believe that the most efficient way to gain information about the relations between countries is to act like an amateur radio ham. I don't need to put a spy satellite in the air to find out that Iran's view of Iraq is unfavourable. Willing suspension of disbelief is as necessary when playing a computer game as when watching a play, but self-evident absurdities like this don't help the process, and a scenario which has realistic pretension makes them all too conspicuous.

The game is played in real time, but there is no sense of urgency about it. In fact the background tune (a fine piece of Commodore music) gives the play a relaxed and jazzy atmosphere. From time to time reports appear out of thin air, informing that the Black African Republic and Argentina are arranging cultural exchange visits, or have record trade with each other, or have launched a conventional attack on each other. Usually the player is given the opportunity to respond immediately, by supporting or criticising or remaining neutral.

If two countries look like they might be warming up for a fight, you can ask for talks which may or may not take place. A beautiful plastic coated map and vinyl friction stickers provided with the game are used to keep track of relationships that seem to be developing between countries. In theory this is an excellent idea. In practice, it is impractical. The amount of information the program presents is too much to keep track of, and every time you pause to re-arrange a sticker on the map a few more seconds of game time have gone. In any case, there is no real sense that anything the player says or does makes much difference in the end. Canada may decide to nuke Australia -- and this has happened to me -- without warning. Once a country has launched a nuclear attach there is nothing the player can do but watch pin-point missiles flying across the world map and hope that one of the defence satellite catches some of them. Although rules drop dark hints about escalation, it doesn't seem to happen. Countries chuck missiles at each other in glorious isolation, and the most dramatic thing that can happen is their mutual annihilation.

 

Success is not really a possibility; the object of the game is to stave off failure as long as possible. Each nuclear war raises the world radiation level, and once that level reaches a point at which life on Earth has become untenable, the game is over. At the end of each game year the player is offered an assessment of his performance based on the radiation level, which is almost inevitably worse than before.

Despite its good physical components, and its classy presentation, this is a muddled and slender game which doesn't offer strategists any satisfying challenge.

   


Presentation 90%

Smooth appearance, high-quality music, and a lot of little vinyl flags to play with.

Graphics 80%
Comprehensive and well-written.

Authenticity 55%
The power groupings are quite convincing -- the scenario itself is unrealistic.

Playability 70%
Very easy to play, quickly dull.

Overall 65%
Disappointing, for a game with an original idea and imaginative presentation.
.

 
 

 

Htmlized by Dimitris Kiminas (11 Oct 2005)
Only the first from the above screenshots existed in the original review.

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