OUTPOST by Sierra On-Line

Reviewed by David Charles Reed
See also the review by Scott Sumner

When you consider both the improved fidelity of music and the increased data exchange, the CD and CD-ROM revolution have been amazing. Then again, every so often, along comes a CD or CD-ROM which saddens you when you realize that the same CD could have been used for a Mozart concerto or a brilliant encyclopedia or the works of Shakespeare. And then there are some CD-ROMs which would achieve new heights if they'd been used to record rap 'music'. Outpost from Sierra On-Line falls somewhere in one of these latter categories.

The Concept

First, the theory. Outpost is a planet development simulation. Earth has been destroyed by a asteroid, and a handful escaped to colonize the stars. (Why they didn't colonize nearby planets or return to a devastated Earth with all the cool technology they took with them is a mystery.) Technologies, ideas, and theories developed by NASA are employed in the simulation, and your only help as the commander of this new colony will be your intelligence and an Artificial Intelligence. High-level graphics, Autodesk Animator video clips, and a variety of resources to build and develop make the system much more versatile than something like the original SimCity or the current Master of Orion.

Okay, now for the facts.

Sierra and a couple of programmers were overly ambitious and someone said "Ship It!" before they were done. What they've released is a crippled bit of object code around some cool videos and thrown it all into a box with a decorative manual and an advertisement for the strategy guide you'll almost have to order for $19.95 in order to understand the game. They've put pretty screen shots you cannot reproduce in actual play, complimentary quotes, and some game features which may or may not exist in the game itself on the box and called it software. (I refuse to reward Sierra by buying the 'Official Strategy Guide', and from the comments I've seen, this publication by Prima Publishing is not a lot more help than the manual.)

Simulation Technology

Like many, I use my computer for everything from programming to word processing to high-level fractals, and I also use it to unwind and play a game, preferably one which challenges my mind in a new and interesting way with puzzles to solve or a strategy required. Something I can use for a long time to come since each and every time is different. As such, I tend to gravitate toward simulation games in which you must play for many hours to achieve your goal. Games, granted, but with some sort of interesting new twists each time that make it challenging.

Although there are few constants outside of the periodic table, there are some common aspects of computer simulations. Usually you are in charge of some group (city, fleet, ant colony, railroad), trying to expand and grow and maybe conquer, using and managing the various resources at your disposal. The things you learn in one playing will either enhance your subsequent scenarios or maybe not apply since the same circumstances may not come up. In some simulations, there is a computer generated opponent (or multiple ones), and in some you must balance supplies and demands.

In this regard, Outpost is ambitious. The number of resources you must manage boggles the mind, but a slip at turn forty can doom your colony at turn three hundred. So rather than having a computer opponent, it would seem that the simulation itself is trying to kill you. At the same time, the manual doesn't include enough information from which you can base your initial decisions on, necessitating many plays before you can get even a good start going. Furthermore, there aren't any decent report generating functions from which you can garner information and make the subtle corrections we make in everyday life. Imagine driving a car in which the windshield only becomes translucent once every five seconds.

Outpost is severely limited in this regard. For the casual player who will maybe launch it and spend an hour or two a day (week?), there's just too much to learn by trial and error to ever be enjoyable unless you have a photographic memory. It's rather amazing to see how many user created help files have appeared on the various information services, trying to help out other Outpost users. And it's also something of a sign since it shows what Sierra didn't see fit to include for their users.

Technical details which are almost required for success are excluded from the manual (should you send one of your four probes to a Class G9 star or an M3?), and things which would be helpful are out of the picture, too (how much ore does a smelter process in a 'turn'? How many turns to clear some ground with a Digger?). And there are features in the manual which you'll never find in this release of the game, such as roads, monorails, and trade.

It has been suggested that whoever wrote and/or allowed the current Outpost manual to be included with the package should have the spacebar broken off their keyboard and their mouse cable snipped to prevent them from committing similar crimes in the future.

A difficult simulation is one thing, and that's what difficulty levels are for in simulations, allowing the user to start with the easiest level and learn and then progress. However, in over two dozen attempts at Outpost, all on the easiest level, I've run out of resources about half the time, never managed to develop the much ballyhooed nanotechnology, and can't finish playing a few others since the saved games won't run without causing a General Protection Fault in Windows.

Cockroaches and Missing Features

For as long as I can remember, Sierra On-Line has developed and distributed the highest quality software in the computer entertainment industry. As such, I've purchased many adventure-type games from Sierra and have never been disappointed, getting many hours of enjoyment from each of them. Never have I had to immediately run to an information service looking for an upgrade or patch or extensive release notes. That era has ended with Outpost.

I was lulled into a false sense of security by my history with Sierra products. So much so that I neglected to note that Outpost--although on CD and for Windows--does not bear either the Windows or MPC logo. Although these are not a guarantee, the fact that a product can be certified to display these logos is usually a positive sign. (And never, ever, buy a piece of hardware like a CD-ROM drive that doesn't display the MPC logo.) If Sierra even bothered to apply for Windows or MPC certification, I'm quite certain that they didn't pass. (Note: some other Sierra titles do have the MPC certification on them, showing that they know about it.)

With some companies, it's just generally a good idea to check the various information services before purchasing to see what other users are saying. Granted, few log onto their local Internet node to praise, but it does happen. Look for complaints beyond sound card configuration errors or packaging errors. I wish I had done that with Outpost. I could have saved some money. Many outraged buyers are spending a good deal of time and money on-line complaining about what Sierra has released with Outpost, and I can't say that I've seen many unreasonable complaints.

In the first place, Sierra is guilty of false advertising with Outpost. Features of Outpost which were discussed in advertising blurbs and on the box (trade, monorails, roads, plagues, artificial intelligence) are not included in the current version or aren't what one would expect. The readme file tries to put as much of a positive spin on it as possible (after all, who misses the plague?), but the fact that it's misleading advertising cannot be ignored, and I suspect this puts people on edge to begin with.

Beyond this, Outpost is riddled with what I would consider plain and simple bugs which should have kept Outpost from even reaching the beta stage of development. Crashed saved games, long load times, heap errors (I've never had one, but I've seen enough messages about them that I think Sierra should be concerned), internal program inconsistencies, a user interface which violates Windows standards--the list goes on.

Sierra has accomplished one amazing thing: they've made Windows run even slower. With the advent of faster hard drives, CD's, and graphics adapters, things have improved greatly in Windows in the past few years. And the drop in memory prices haven't hurt, either. Outpost will bring Windows to its knees, gobbling up resources faster than anything while ignoring all of the standards that Windows users know and love, changing your screen colors while the game is running, and allowing users the opportunity to go out and wax their car while running multiple turns. As with much software nowadays, you have an option when installing whether to install a large version of the game or a small one. Unfortunately, there's no in-between. A 'small' installation takes up over five megabytes of hard drive space and runs even slower. A large installation takes up over thirty-five megabytes, mostly in bitmaps, and improves speed a little. (And if you pull the liner out of the CD case, you can read about a third installation option that you'll never get.)

The 'Artificial Intelligence' brings new meaning to that term. You get to name your AI in setting up each game you play, and I happened to name mine Eliza after that first attempt at pseudo-AI that old-time computer users will know of. Ironically, this AI is much less useful than Eliza ever was: at least you could swear at Eliza and get a response. This is her emotionally challenged younger sister, I suppose. She'll send you the same messages over and over without giving you any hint of what to do. After awhile, you'll just turn off the sound effects since they drag the speed of the game down even further. (I don't know if the News Reports could qualify as AI, but you can pretty much stop reading them after the first couple of dozen since they just repeat without passing on any valuable information.)

If Outpost is based on actual NASA research, we better pray that an asteroid doesn't wipe out Earth in the near future because the human race is doomed if that happens: your mining operations will fall apart if they're too far away (even if you've packed along a communications satellite), and the ones close enough will cease to produce without warning (although my 'Mined Out' mines report as producing 60 something's per turn that's not there). This research hasn't managed to produce any decent means of gathering information about your colony as Outpost is severely lacking many of the reports which would improve your understanding or enjoyment of the simulation. Instead, you must spend a lot of time each 'turn' running around to check on everything in your colony and making extensive notes somewhere.

And it seems that the human race gets dumber, too, never getting out of grade school or university (if you bother to build one) while all of the workers and scientists die off, and they'll love you while you're starving them to death. And unlike other simulations such as SimCity, your colonists will never come right out and demand anything of you; instead their morale will just drop and you get to try everything to reverse it, often spending valuable resources and dooming the entire colony.

Improved Labs no longer appear on the lab report, the computer colony (a rebel faction that splits when you reached the colony) doesn't have to obey the same rules you do, and you can't use much of anything there when they throw in the towel and surrender to you, and the only guide of how much crime you have is when all of the residential units turn into whorehouses, (euphemistically called 'Red Light Districts' in Outpost).

Outpost Into The Future

Want more? Of course, Sierra has accounted for this!

The back of the manual has two pages about future expansion modules planned for Outpost which will include other technologies, aliens, planet builders, and multi-player modules for Sierra's on-line service, The Imagination Network. Where they're going to get the programming resources for these when it seems that their programmers should be fixing the existing game, I don't know.

Sierra has already released an 'upgrade' that isn't. All it does is add or delete a few small things without any of the substantial fixes which keep being promised. (Interestingly, this 'upgrade' deletes all references to the features in the help file not included in 1.0, and I suspect if they could figure out a way for a patch program to delete pages from the manual, that'd be in there, too.) This '1.1' includes a tutorial and a 'Beginner' level which doesn’t require any resources, although that wouldn’t seem to train you for actual use of the simulation since they're so vital.

According to Sierra's Customer Service, the actual upgrade may or may not come out sometime around the autumn of 1994 and will be provided free to users through downloads from their local on-line service (which charges for the download time, so it ain't really free). In the meantime, it would seem that many buyers (myself included) are taking advantage of Sierra's money-back guarantee (which is one of the only worthwhile things in the manual) and shipping the product back to them within thirty days with the reason for the return. This works even if you bought the product retail. (Interestingly, three computer stores I went to after I bought Outpost said that they weren't carrying it since they were getting too many returns.)

It's unclear whether the update will have an improved manual or help file (the current help file is less help than the manual, although it talks) or whether any of the things users are asking for (reports, etc.) will be in there of if it'll just be a bug fix.

The Other Side of the Fence

Sierra and designer Bruce Balfour, a former NASA researcher, were ambitious. At the same time, they seem to have hit on a few interesting ideas. Sierra's main defense to date is that Outpost is designed to be a 'learn as you go' simulation, which is not something I can find fault with in principle. There are many very enjoyable simulations out there with a similar idea in mind. However, some sort of decent starting point is required. In Master of Orion, a galactic empire building simulation from MicroProse, the manual includes information about lines of research and what will be developed--in general--from each. Only with play will you discover that some things are more important to research and will dedicate more resources to them in the future. At the same time, making a mistake will not doom you to destruction as it will in Outpost.

Perhaps with a decent manual, Outpost could be enjoyable. Perhaps devoting six to ten hours of each day to it would make it more enjoyable as you could learn all of its intricacies by heart. As it is, for the common user who will spend maybe an hour or two a day on it, they will need to run to their nearest BBS to find files giving hints about what research will produce what so that the colony can succeed. (For those of you with CompuServe accounts, information can be found in Sierra's section [11] of the Game Publisher's A forum (GAMAPUB) and in various sections in the GAMERS forum.)

The interconnectedness of the different areas of the colony are impressive to say the least, but it's never entirely clear what affects what. With more reporting features, perhaps it would be, but a lot of it now seems to require guesswork, a great memory, or lots of notes.

The video clips which are part of the CD-ROM version of Outpost are impressive to say the very least, including beautifully rendered space shots. However, they are also incredibly slow on an MPC1 system and only tolerable on an MPC2 compliant system. It would seem that far too many resources went into developing clips most users will turn off after one or two plays when those resources could have been better used to improve the simulation. Furthermore, the clips are in Autodesk Animator format (.flc files), which is something I would question to begin with since no software compression/decompression technology (codec) exists for this format while many very good codecs are out there for Video for Windows files (.AVI). Granted, Autodesk's format is much more impressive and the standard output of most rendering packages, but speed becomes an issue in almost any system.

Sierra's comments on all of this has been a bit confusing. It seems that they know they screwed up, but part of it seems to fall on blaming the consumer for demanding the game (which may have something to do with the fact that it was hyped for more than six months prior to being shipped), and the rest is just being ignored.

Consumers are demanding more and more value for their dollar. At close to sixty dollars retail, Outpost falls far short of the mark, although it may bring about a new marketing strategy: more bugs per dollar.

It would seem that the day is approaching when users will rise up and demand some sort of industry watchdog agency to confirm the quality of a piece of software, and I can only see Outpost as bringing that day closer, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

System details: 486 DX/2 66 with 32MB RAM, double-speed CD, 16-bit sound card, VESA local bus graphics adapter.

David Reed is Senior QA Engineer for a software developer in the Seattle area, and has worked for a variety of software and hardware developers in quality assurance. He also has a degree in English and writes for a variety of CD-ROM publications.

This review is Copyright (C) 1994 by David Reed for Game Bytes Magazine. All rights reserved.