Although by no means as significant as CES, the bi-annual ECTS (European Computer Trade Show) is nonetheless a significant event in the calendar of the entertainment software industry. Its relatively small size (in terms of attendance) being more than compensated for (in exhibitors eyes) by its quasi trade-only status. Under-18's and students are excluded and a hefty entrance charge for `off the street' attendees is intended to discourage non-trade visitors. Pretty much any company with a significant presence in the European market can be expected to attend, or organise presentations around the show. Although the show itself covers essentially all main-stream games formats (Amiga and consoles as well as PC) physical exhaustion and a lack of personal expertise (and interest!) in console games meant that I concentrated exclusively on PC games products. Obviously, following on relatively close after Winter CES meant that a lot of what was `announced' at ECTS tended to have already been said at CES. The following is, therefore, summarises only what seemed to be genuinely new and/or interesting as opposed to everything that was there at the show.
These guys were definitely in the running for the least helpful exhibitors prize. All attempts to get any information, press badge or no, were rebuffed with comments to the effect that `this is a closed meeting room'. Presumably the 3D0 machines will be so wonderful no-one need be told about them except by personal invitation. Actually, judging by the sparse references to 3D0 made by developers at the show, and the total absence of even hints of 3D0 hardware, it may be that this potential format is heading for serious trouble. My sample may have been unrepresentative, but with 3D0's approach to public relations there's no way I could get a more accurate impression.
Sharing a stand with Novalogic, CH were showing off their collection of Joysticks, flight yokes, and related products. Sadly, information on the forthcoming rudder pedals and proposed throttle controller was very sparse. CH weren't talking about the throttle, and the pedals were only visible in the form of photocopied sketches and spec sheets. Nonetheless, the specifications looked good. The ability to decouple the pedals for separate use in driving games is one of the blindingly obvious ideas that makes you wonder why no-one thought of it earlier. CH also stood out very positively in terms of their handling of press visitors. When I looked gloomy at the lack of information about the pedals and throttle they cheered me up by offering to send me a free Flightstick pro to wean me off the joystick I had purchased from a well-known rival! This proved rather fortuitous since one of the potentiometers in this joystick decided to expire (irritatingly early for such a costly device) a few days before CH's parcel arrived. Needless to say, the master-plan for next ECTS is to visit the CH stand loudly complaining about my lack of rudder pedals and/or throttle. They certainly get my personal award for `friendliness to amateur journalists'.
For me, this was the highlight of the show. With hefty backing from their publishers (Ocean) Digital Image Design were previewing their forthcoming space-flight combat game INFERNO. Based around what appears to be a derivative of graphics engine used in the TFX flight simulation, Inferno looks like it could be something really special. Graphics, certainly, break new ground. There is, of course, the now almost obligatory support for Gouraud shaded / textured mapped objects, with an excellent `virtual cockpit' view. However, rather than just swanning around in space (a la Wing Commander, Elite, and all the rest) Inferno allows you to fly down to and over the surfaces of planets and even fly around *inside* huge bases and space-stations. This latter is particular impressive. The interior walls are decorated with beautifully executed texture maps and many obstacles intruding into the `rooms' and corridors to avoid / hide behind . The overall effect is startling, almost a live-action interactive rendering of the `Star Wars' movie scenes where the hero's fly (and fight) inside the baddies enormous `battle station'.
The game's details also seem right: your craft's head up display has the right `space hi-tech' feel, glowering angry reds in backdrops and scenery add to the mood, and slick ray-traced cut-sequences with an appropriately melodramatic comic-book speech-track present wonderfully evil (fanged, insectoid) baddies and earnestly virtuous goodies. The whole lot is polished off with a `graphic novel' manual/scene setter by Sean Pillips (2000AD / Judge Dredd) and a soundtrack from goth rockers `Alien Sex Fiend'. Three levels of play are promised: an open campaign where later missions are dictated by the outcome of earlier missions, a `directors- cut' with a pre-defined mission around a narrative story, and an arcade mode. Release is aimed for July/September, so it is not entirely impossible that copies might hit the shelves before next Christmas. I'll be in the queue...
One of the real innovations on show at ECTS was Crystal Vision's 3D headset. This small company (designers of the highly regarded Ultrasound 16 bit sound card) were showing the prototype of their new low-cost virtual reality headset. Comprising the usual pair of eye-pieces displaying a pair of miniature colour LCD screens and a pair of stereo headphones the headset is intended to retail at around the 1000 US dollar mark. What Crystal vision seem to have done to achieve an affordable price is to replace the expensive position sensors and wide-angle optics of professional headsets with inexpensive motion sensors (laser gyro modules?) and ordinary binocular optics. The drawbacks (gradual position drift and a narrow field of view) which would hurt badly in professional virtual reality applications are much less critical in the games arena. After all, ANY head mounted display is still a huge improvement on a flat CRT: the field of view though small by VIRTUAL REALITY standards is enormous compared with a CRT, and a little drift in head-tracking is easily handled by a `centre' button.
The consumer orientation of the design is also reflected in features as well as cost-saving measures. The headset is driven from a standard VGA card rather than a separate proprietary adapter, and the optics are mounted on a flip-up visitor so that keyboard/spouse/offspring can be accessed without having to completely remove the headset. If Crystal vision can deliver on their target price this product might come high on any serious gamers purchase list. It would undoubtedly be *the* way to play 1st person RPG's and flight simulators. Even a simple demo using the headset's motion tracking through a pseudo `mouse driver' for DOOM proved quite a crowd-puller . Folk didn't even grumble when prototype headset's focus controls seemed to have been lost to demonstration wear and tear! Sadly, no amount of pleading and inflated of readership figures could persuade Crystal Vision to donate a prototype to GameBytes for `evaluation and long-term durability test'!
Nothing major from Impressions over and above their CES announcements. Minor exceptions were the renaming of CASTLE CONQUEST to LORDS OF THE REALM. and the fully working demo of D-DAY.
As at CES, Novalogic's main attraction was a playable preview of the forthcoming ARMOURED FIST armoured warfare simulator based on the latest revision their rather impressive `Voxel Space' rendering engine. State of the art features include superb translucent rendering of smoke and explosions and some very convincing landscapes. Sadly, release (supposedly imminent at CES) has now been put back to September. No explanation given, though judging by the frame-rate achieved on the demo 66Mhz DX2, performance on affordable hardware may have been a consideration. There is a sweetener for impatient would-be players though: lots of extra animations are promised.
In the interim, the rather good helo simulation COMANCHE has been given a facelift with the launch of a CD-ROM version offering the basic Comanche game and mission disks along with another 10 new missions.
In addition to the various goodies already shown at CES, Microprose were also showing of more details of the forthcoming strategic/tactical wargame `UFO'. The basic game premise is not unlike the Gerry Anderson TV series of the same name: a secret organisation has been set up on earth to defeat UFO's sent from outer space to cause mayhem on earth. The game- play is somewhat novel in that it provides both a strategic `wargaming' element and a tactical interactive element in which you control teams of agents exploring UFO landing sites and bases in 3D isometric view. The major draw at the Microprose stand was however the impressive almost- complete demo of PACIFIC AIR WAR. This looks every bit as good as the excellent F14 FLEET DEFENDER, and deserves to land Microprose a very respectable share of the WW-II simulator market. I suspect the competition are cursing already!
With RISE OF THE ROBOTS, Mirage Technology are promising the beat em-up to end all beat em ups. Using 3D modelling software to create gorgeous backdrops and articulated models of battling robots Mirage aim to produce an enormous game that should, quite literally, be to arcade standards (the arcade version of the game was being demo-ed). The story-line may be the usual `bash your way through to the ultimate baddy' but the graphics really were exceptionally pretty. Game-play is hard to judge (I don't play these kind of games) but none of the teenagers on the stand seemed to be grumbling. On the PC three versions are promised: SVGA floppy, VGA floppy and CD-ROM (VGA/SVGA user selectable).
In this case the news was no news. Electronic arts did not exhibit, contenting themselves with a joint presentation in combination with Intel before the show. What either side hoped to gain from this bit of marketing fluff (apart from some free trips to London?) was difficult to comprehend. Even the least informed buyer can safely be assumed to ignore nonsense to the effect that `Electronic Arts endorses Intel CPU's because they process bytes better'. Indeed, such a joint marketing effort runs the very real risk of leading more cynical buyers to conclude that: `Intel endorses Electronic Arts because their next games will be outrageous CPU hogs'!
In addition to DID's `INFERNO' (see below). Ocean announced two new upcoming PC releases: CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE and IRON ANGEL. Iron Angel appears to be an arcade flight simulation game derived from the TFX game- engine. Central Intelligence is a CD-ROM based strategy simulation placing you in charge of a covert mission to topple a South American government. According to the (very sparse) information the CD-ROM's huge capacity is used to provide hugely intricate/realistic scenarios. Given the total lack of detail or demo's, the promised summer release dates for both games seem very optimistic.
The Philips stand made it abundantly clear, should there be any doubt, that games are to be just a small part of the CD-i consoles intended repertoire. According to Philips what really counts is full motion video.
Consequently the stand showed a modest collection of the usual CD-ROM fare (7th Guest, et al) that was almost lost amongst wall-to-wall movie- format TV screens showing Hollywood block-busters and interactive Digital Video music CD's. Interesting stuff if you own a chain of high-street consumer electronics stores, deadly dull if you're a computer games fan!
As might be expected from on of the big UK houses, Psygnosis (now actually owned by Sony) had a good selection of new goodies to show at ECTS. The highlight for me (by some margin) was the preview of Maelstrom Software's new 3 part CD-ROM based outdoor RPG game. Provisionally titled `NIBELUNG'S RING', this will be based around the Germanic myths which form the basis of Wagner's famous `Ring Cycle' of Opera's. The game, like the almost completed LORDS OF MIDNIGHT, which Maelstrom developed for Domark, uses ray-tracing techniques to produce a convincing close-up 1st person rendering of outdoor scenes. Fractal interpolation is used to produce an outdoor playing area that is simultaneous highly detailed and very large. As a final technological twist, 3D objects on the landscape are texture- mapped, with moving objects (e.g. people!) properly articulated.
With release still a some way in the indefinite future, plans for the game- play are as ambitious as the rendering technology: multiple alternative paths leading to the end-game, multiple sub-quests drawn from the myths, 30 or so major non-player characters acting (and interacting!) independently throughout the game. The ability to enter building and wander around inside dungeons is also promised along with lip-sync speech for character interaction sequences. Combat is intended to be real-time with the players character learning new sequences of moves (executed by the articulated body model) as game-play progresses. The soundtrack will, needless to say, be based on the music from Wagner's Opera's. Stirring stuff!
In comparison with Maelstrom's ambitious developments, the almost complete WIZARD (title subject to litigation by Sir Tech!) looked rather stale and hackneyed. Following the usual formula of a team of assorted characters fighting through a dungeon filed with miscellaneous objects, monsters, traps, and puzzles Wizard certainly isn't breaking any new ground in the game-play department. Similarly, graphics aren't anything new either. Although a the player can move and rotate freely, the world itself is a simple 2D map built up from square tiles. This results in some annoying anomalies: two narrow pillars with what seems to be a wide gap in between form an impenetrable barrier, and walls and doorways are always precisely one map square thick. The impression of `old technology' also extends to the technical specifications. Wizard is a real-mode game that could, theoretically, run on a 286 with EMS. In practice, however, this probably isn't a game to cheer up RPG fans stuck with an old PC. Even on a 486DX2 the frame-rate of the demo was no more than adequate.
Fans of puzzle solving games will be pleased to hear of two new announcements from the home of the irresistible LEMMINGS. Firstly, and predictably, work has already started on LEMMINGS-3. No real details were available, but Christmas release seems the likely target. Secondly, the peace-loving Swedes of Digital Illusions who developed PINBALL FANTASIES for 21st Century have almost completed the initial Amiga version of BENEFACTOR. This game is a rather original combination of platform game and lemmings-style puzzle-solver. You control a character who has to leap, duck, time and puzzle-solve his way through a large multi-level 2D world to rescue a bunch of trapped victims. The twist in the game is lies in the presentation and the victims.
The hero and victims are tiny Lemmings-like sprites so that a lot of each level can be seen at once. Furthermore, many of the puzzles require the hero to be assisted by suitably freed and equipped victims. Figuring out what the volunteers can do to help, how to free them to do so, and how to get them to the right place alive become part of puzzle. Only Amiga and Megadrive versions have been formally announced, but a PC version is promised `unless there is a complete disaster'.
Renegade's news for the PC was the impending release of the Bitmap Brother's multi-player `steam cyberpunk' beat-em up / platform game THE CHAOS ENGINE. Promised to be a development rather than a mere port of the Amiga version, the game should be a welcome addition to the relatively small stable of classy 2D scrollers available for the PC.
The French house, Silmarils, announced two new games at ECTS. ISHAR-3 is the 3rd instalment in the ISHAR series of heavy-duty RPG's. Graphics are still forward/left/right tiled 1st person perspective but of considerably improved artistic quality. If a very fancy combat / character system plus lots of puzzle solving sounds like fun this might be a game for you. Otherwise you'll probably find it a bit dull and rather dated in presentation. ROBINSONS REQUIEM is, by contrast, both technically advanced and somewhat original in concept. The basic premise is that you've been dropped onto a nasty jungle prison planet and must somehow find a way to escape. The twist is the extent to which the realities of survival (diseases, injuries, food, water, clothing) have been modelled, and the outdoor setting. As with COMANCHE or LORDS OF MIDNIGHT landscapes are rendered using voxel-space techniques. In this case the effect is further enhanced with a sophisticated lighting model, mapped textures (e.g. grass on the ground), and pre-rendered 3D objects (trees, monsters) etc. If the reality even comes close to living up to the promise and initial screen shots this could be a product to watch out for.
Virgin were a notable presence amongst the publishers with an utterly deafening stand (ouch my ears!) featuring previews and animated screenshots from a whole stable of developers. All, apparently `aiming for June 1994 release'. Yes, and we mean that most sincerely folks...
Slated for release in the summer OVERLORD/D-DAY looks to be a classy WW-II fighter simulation following on from `Reach for the Sky' with texture- mapped/gouraud shaded SVGA graphics. Judging by the performance of the demo running on a 66Mhz 486, you'll probably need a Pentium with a really fast SVGA card to play this game to its full potential. If the flight models and game-play `under the hood' in the final version are anything like as nice as the graphics in the flying demo this could be a very serious contender indeed in the WW-II fighter simulator market.
WEREWOLF KA-50 is the latest simulation from the SIMIS stable. Featuring the next stage in SIMIS' steadily evolved graphics technology, Werewolf is a near-future simulation game in the Style of Strike-Commander or TFX. The game puts you in the pilots seat for a band of mercenary chopper pilots fighting piracy for the UN in the South China Sea (not as silly as it sounds - the piracy really exists!). You and your chums fly SuperCobra, Kamov KA-50, Lynx, or Mi-8 `Hip' helicopters. As with SIMIS' recent Harrier simulations, the game features an extensive campaign engine mode as well as flying action. As we have come to expect from SIMIS' both VGA and SVGA graphics are supported. In VGA mode the landscape is Gouraud shaded to give a smooth curved appearance. Performance limitations, apparently, mean that the Gouraud shading is unlikely to be available in SVGA mode. An interesting feature is the proposed price: 35 pounds in the UK. This is a clear 10 pounds below the usual launch price of full-size games. Perhaps the first sign of Virgin beginning to flex a little muscle in a profitable market with numerous smaller competitors?
Of less personal interest for an old fogey like myself, but nonetheless a solid technical achievement is the forthcoming CD shoot em up CREATURE SHOCK. One of several `pre-rendered background + 3D studio monsters' CD games at the show, this one stands out from its rivals through the cunning way frames and object bit-maps coming off the CD are intercut/interleaved to provide just a little bit more freedom of movement than most of the competition seem to be offering. Officially a 386SX and single-speed CD- ROM will suffice. However, since Virgin were demonstrating with a 66Mhz DX2 and a rather upmarket CD, I suspect this should be taken with the usual pinch of salt. However, I can well believe the chap on the stand when he claimed a fast graphics card counted for more than a fast CPU on this one.
THE 11TH HOUR - the sequel to 7TH GUEST - was also on display and apparently in good shape to actually hit the intended summer release date. Even more enormous than its predecessor this game entirely fills 2 CD's (7th Guest, apparently, only just missed fitting on one). Cue a sudden linearity of plot around point where you get prompted to `insert disk #2'?
European/British sports-games fans will also be pleased (or dismayed) to learn of the forthcoming `SENSIBLE GOLF' from the folk who did `SENSIBLE SOCCER'. Little hard information at present but the aim seems to be to see how a bit of gaming pizzazz (animation, `characters', music etc.) might go down in the otherwise rather staid, SVGA, world of Golf games. Personally, I don't see it: in the UK at least the Golf games gravitate inexorably into shelves holding MS Windows, cut-down spreadsheets, and multimedia encyclopaedias.
Lesser announcements for the PC were `COOL SPOT' a console style parallax scrolling platform game with plenty of animation frames and a few snippets on LOST EDEN a quasi-strategic game of man vs. toothy dinos from the folk who did KGB and DUNE. The target market for Cool Spot can be gauged by the fact that it is to be released for PC and Game Boy. Virgin ensured slower journalists got the message by liberally sprinkling the press release with words like dude, skankin' and chillin' (emphasised in bold face for the truly dim-witted)!
1994 is, undoubtedly, the year of pre-rendering. The introduction of mass-market CD-ROM drives/consoles has given the games houses all the excuse they needed to move into truly gorgeous ray-traced backdrops, cut- sequences, animated bitmaps, and so on. Autodesk (developers of the 3D studio modelling and rendering software) must, by now, be wondering what on earth to do with the all the money! Obviously, some have used this newly available technology more imaginatively than others: whereas some have been content to simply spool off pretty backgrounds to otherwise conventional foreground graphics, others have cleverly intercut subsequences to partly alleviate the rigidity of game-play that inevitably arises from pre-rendering. The availability of advanced rendering software and the mass-market CD-ROM drive has also acted as a stimulus to an entirely new gaming genre: the interactive movie. Typified by products such as `The Lodge' these products emphasise visual impact and story-telling over game-play and interaction.
The move to ray-traced sequences is itself part of a larger trend: using the capacity of CD-ROM to add extra value. In the future, the CD-based gamer can undoubtedly expect goodies - extra missions, cut-sequences, extended intros - that his or her floppy based friends will miss out on. However, in my opinion at least, there *still* isn't really the killer game/gaming technology out there that moves the CD-ROM drive from the `nice to have' category to obligatory'. Ray-traced cut-sequences and arcade games are nice enough, but the initial `wow' soon wears off, and the cynic might describe an `interactive movie' as a `not-so-interactive graphics adventures game'! Indeed, a gamer with oldish hardware on a limited budget might be well-advised to look at other ways in which the price of a CD-ROM drive might be `invested': games intended to be available only on CD-ROM were relatively rare at the show, but hefty hardware requirements were ubiquitous.
Minimal hardware for state of the art games is now (at the very least) a well-tuned 33 Mhz 486 with a fast localbus graphics card. Enquiries about games' performance on slow 486's and 386 machines almost always reduced developers representatives to embarrassed looks and sotto-voce allusions to `reduced detail options'. Leading edge games undoubtedly require 50 or 66Mhz 486 CPU's to perform well. Furthermore, distribution on CD-ROM by no means eliminates pressure on hard-disc space. Even a `fast' double- speed CD-ROM drive is many times slower than a hard-disc. Many CD-ROM games require generous amounts of hard-disc space for critical data that has to be accessed quickly.This report is Copyright (C) 1994 by Andrew Stevens for Game Bytes Magazine. All rights reserved.