It is a scary place.
I’m saying ‘is’ because I am currently walking a group of fine fellows through it. These ‘fellows’ (men or women) have decided to strike out as heroes and make their names known. On their way to riches and renown, they’ll be assaulted by bandits, solve mysteries and recover holy relics. Why else would they do this though? I mentioned heroics and bankroll, but there is a third, even more important reason.
In 1992, Microprose, the masters of depth and realism, intended Darklands to be a simulation of high adventure in fifteenth century Germany. However, the Germany you’re in is not real, but what people at the time believed. You’ll not only fight bandits, but gargoyles. The mysteries you solve are why the mine goblins aren’t letting the miners do their job anymore and the holy relics you recover are magical.
Darklands is controlled in many ways, the most common being a map screen. Similarities to 1998’s Baldur’s Gate are many, but with the travel mechanics reversed. Baldur’s Gate, which came six years after Darklands, has your heroes being directed manually through towns, where as the map view is almost a menu with no freedom to go anywhere, apart from the preset locations. Darklands has the town interaction menu driven, greatly speeding up the process of getting around. In the outside mode it allows full control over where the player can take his adventurers. It is this quick, menu driven interaction in towns that allows Darklands to still be playable and slick so later.
Comparisons to Baldur’s Gate come again with the combat, which is in real time. Pausing the game lets you assess the situation and assign different tasks to your characters. Strategy and planning generally flies out the window about ten seconds after any fighting begins, particularly since you are outnumbered in almost every encounter. Generally, combat is a few seconds of throwing potions and spears, shooting arrows, or firing early handguns and then your opponents will close with mêlée weapons.
I mentioned God earlier for good reason. Religion is key of almost every part of Darklands. All characters that are in your team are practicing Catholics. There is no doubt in their hearts and minds who the one true god is. However, because this is set in a semi-fantasy world, praying to St. Clotilde will really improve your abilities in healing wounds for a few days and St. Christopher means your horses travel faster than ever before. In a time when even those who thought the Catholic Church was corrupt and failing, there were few who didn’t believe in a god, miracles and the power of prayer.
Perhaps more important than god is that other religion, money. Medieval Germany has three coins, pfennigs, groschen and florins,
which are roughly equal to our old pennies, shillings and pounds. Money is hard to come by and you’ll initially be shocked at how expensive anything good is (which I was). Do a few missions for the right people though, and you’ll be showered with riches. I daresay thirty florins is more money than most people would have ever seen in their life, and if you kill a robber baron for the Medici, you will receive that big money.
There is so much to cover in this game. The character generation is in-depth and fun, allowing a large variety of specialists. Whoever you decide to create, make sure everyone is strong and tough. Everyone will need to be able to stand toe to toe with soldiers, wolves or other horrors. Someone needs to be able to make potions and
another needs to be able to heal. Speaking Latin, reading and writing as well as using swords are important skills. Your characters can take a few weeks off from adventuring and earn money as smiths, clerks or even physicians!
This is a very ambitious game, where dealing with heresy is as serious and real as Sauron’s influence in Lord of the Rings. Do you help the merchants getting attacked by bandits or do you hide and let them be robbed and killed? Will you visit the university in Leipzig for training in Alchemy or will you plunder an ancient tomb to recover a lost family heirloom?
I have played Darklands for two long periods never stuck with it long enough to finish it. I did get close once. I am certain that even if I were to finish it a dozen times, I’d never have seen everything in it.
Darklands is vast, slick and twenty-two years old. It’s still a hell of a game.
I have some amazing memories of my Amiga days. Unfortunately uniform stats didn’t exist, so I can’t go back and measure the hours spent on this or that game. If I could find out these stats, MicroProse games would have many hundreds of hours dedicated to them.
Primarily a strategy game developer, MicroProse was making just what I wanted to play. Their release history is literally a catalogue of the most influential games of all time. MicroProse games are among my favourites for many reasons, but primarily because they had a great sense of achievement and continuation in an age when the arcade game was still a viable medium.
Gunship, Silent Service II and Pirates! all had very different scoring systems. Gunship was one of my favourites because it awarded you medals, combat ribbons and promotions. Trying to keep your pilot alive while accumulating these was immensely satisfying. The original Civilization’s method of comparing you to a famous world leader has yet to be beaten. Doing poorly would result in comparisons to Neville Chamberlain or even… Dan Quayle.
I’ve always thought games during my peak Amiga years (1989-1996) to be more niche and with a steeper learning curve than the years after it, yet, I managed to figure out the controls to these games without a manual. As a ten-year old I piloted my AH-64 Apache through the jungles of Central America, destroying those dastardly FSLN forces, after some trial and error of course! I’ve always looked back and found surprising at how willing I was to figure out games from scratch. The pre internet days really gave me no choice in this matter!
Deciding to play these on Amiga emulators or through DOSbox is a tough choice. The Amiga versions are generally slower and less responsive, but have great sound and music. The PC versions run smoothly but sound very ‘tinny’.
I could go on about MicroProse, but I’d rather praise them on a game by game basis. I felt it was important to give the company as a whole some love.
After writing the article on Covert Action I sunk another ten hours into it. Some classics will never leave me!
It seems even Turkey has fans of Gunship 2000 and MicroProse!
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Espionage, or spying as it is more clumsily known, is an old profession. Knowing what your opponent/rival/best friend is going to do is always going to give you an advantage. Knowing without them knowing you know is even better. Successful intelligence gathering is most useful in preventing wars rather than winning them. The vast networks of agents, contacts and moles employed by the Soviet Union and United States in the latter half of the 20th century went very far to convince both sides that the other guy wasn’t going to fire first.
We come to the game Covert Action, or more properly Sid Meier’s Covert Action, which is set in the Cold War world of international espionage. Your place in this game is that of Max Remington (Maximilian or Maxine) a spy (agent) for the CIA. Your goal is to stop terrorist attacks before they happen. These attacks range from sabotaging a bus right up to destruction of whole cities. To stop these crimes you need to apprehend members of the criminal gang or confiscate their contraband, money or weapons. Breaking one chain in the crime’s plot will cause the plan to fall apart sending the conspirators into hiding. It pays to try and arrest people in such a way that stops the gang members going into hiding before you can arrest them.
The game is divided into five sections. Traveling and reviewing evidence (kind of an over world), infiltration/combat, electronics, cryptography and driving. Skills points are allocated to these depending on how you like to play. I’d always put my skills into infiltration/combat and cryptography. I generally avoided the driving, since it was the weakest mini-game of the four. Also I’m not a driver, so that makes sense I guess…
I used to love doing the combat in this game, which is generally slow paced compared to most other shooting games. Infiltration/combat is a top down, third person view, with Max navigating a randomly generated building, looking for clues. He/She can plant bugs, photo evidence and arrest suspects if they are present. It is possible to avoid all confrontation with enemy thugs/agents and take apart a crime via cryptography and wiretapping.
Like many Microprose games, Covert Action has an ongoing campaign where you can accrue rank (expressed as your double 0 ranking) and points. If you’re lucky, during a mission you can capture a mastermind of a criminal gang. These organisations are based on real terrorist groups from the mid to late Cold War period. Islāmic Jihad renamed Muslim Jihad, Black September is called Red September and so on. Capturing all the masterminds ends the game and is a process that will take many weeks of playing. Masterminds don’t appear in every mission and each mission generally takes half an hour or more so it is a long commitment.
As much as I loved playing this game, I never got close to finishing it. Secondly, Sid Meier himself realised the error in making a game in four distinct parts;
The mistake I think I made in Covert Action is actually having two games in there kind of competing with each other. There was kind of an action game where you break into a building and do all sorts of picking up clues and things like that, and then there was the story which involved a plot where you had to figure out who the mastermind was and the different roles and what cities they were in, and it was a kind of an involved mystery-type plot.
I think, individually, those each could have been good games. Together, they fought with each other. You would have this mystery that you were trying to solve, then you would be facing this action sequence, and you’d do this cool action thing, and you’d get on the building, and you’d say, “What was the mystery I was trying to solve?” Covert Action integrated a story and action poorly, because the action was actually too intense. In Pirates!, you would do a sword fight or a ship battle, and a minute or two later, you were kind of back on your way. In Covert Action, you’d spend ten minutes or so of real-time in a mission, and by the time you got out of [the mission], you had no idea of what was going on in the world.
So I call it the “Covert Action Rule”. Don’t try to do too many games in one package. And that’s actually done me a lot of good. You can look at the games I’ve done since Civilization, and there’s always opportunities to throw in more stuff. When two units get together in Civilization and have a battle, why don’t we drop out to a war game and spend ten minutes or so in duking out this battle? Well, the Covert Action Rule. Focus on what the game is.
Sid is correct. I don’t think Covert Action suffered as much as he thinks it did, but any game should be a focused experience. I had much fun with Covert Action and I intend to start a new game tonight. Wish me luck!