In which SEAN MASTERSON gets some hands-on experience with the new game from CRL, due out in time for Christmas.
One thing about being a Crash minion — there’s no rest for the wicked. And so it was on a sunny morning in late September (in fact it was late in the morning, but you wouldn’t believe the relationship I have with British Rail) that I entered Crash Towers with a smile on my face, ready for a peaceful day at the office. On entering the chambers of the Holy Ones, I was introduced to Ian Ellery and Pete Cooke from CRL.
‘They’ve come to show us their new game,’ said Jeremy in his usual explanatory manner. ‘Ah...’ I said, wondering if this meant that I couldn’t grab an urgently needed coffee. ‘So look after them and do a preview. Bye.’ Whereupon Jeremy retreated to his Amstrad, muttering something about the superiority of CPM as opposed to MSDOS. The two bearded men from CRL looked horrified that they had been left in the hands of someone who was obviously only moments away from death through overwork. But, as with all good stories, everything worked out for the best, as you will see...
Pete Cooke, the programmer, is obviously into science fiction and admits taking inspiration from authors like Niven and games like Elite. I soon realised I was dealing with a man of taste. ‘Elite was good — very good. But I knew something could be done with solid graphics and shading,’ Pete explained. He reached for the microdrive...
Tau Ceti is only set a hundred and ninety years from now — relatively soon for a game scenario with such a history behind it, and involving such technological advances. Tau Ceti’s history is in the form of Pete’s own vision of the future: Humankind invents the interstellar ram-scoop, an efficient way of travelling between the stars at sub-light speeds. Colonisation of nearby worlds follows and this includes an expedition to Tau Ceti because it has a G type star (similar to our Sun).
Colonisation of Tau Ceti is successful, but eventually links with Earth are lost and the colony is destroyed. A recolonisation attempt takes place and reports are sent back of robot activity being maintained on the planet Tau Ceti III. Shortly afterwards, contact with this mission is lost and it is presumed destroyed. Better prepared, a second expedition sets out from Earth. In 2174 AD the expedition arrives...
Defence robots continue to patrol the cities of Tau Ceti III, following their original instructions to eliminate intruders even though their masters have long since died. Your mission is to explore the planet, and shut down the main reactor which powers the defence robots. This may be achieved by collecting segments of cooling rods which have been scattered across the cities and need to be assembled and installed in the main reactor. Needless to say, the robots don’t want you to succeed and so they threaten death at every turning.
You pilot a craft despatched from your mothership and sit in the cockpit with the screen display in front of you. Pete hadn’t quite finished coding the display when he showed me the game, but all the major elements were there. The main window can display a planetary map which reveals the pathways between cities (useful for Inter City warp travel — they do it better on Tau Ceti III!). This window also provides your view onto the cityscape when you are exploring at ground level, and is used for the construction and placement screens for the cooling rod puzzles.
Below the main screen there’s a text input display for special commands. On the right there is a clock (presumably running to Ceti III mean time), compass, view confirmation (such as front, back etc) and various status indicators. All are clearly laid out and the ‘control panel’ effect works very well. The main thing missing from this version was the small area map which had yet to be added.
Once you enter a city, you may begin your explorations. Most of the landscape before you will be in the form of hi-tech ruins. Various robots will inhabit the city and they are your main worry. Some are harmless, like the hoppers and the servo droids. Others are more deadly, like the saucers, and attack you instantly with laser beams. You have a variety of weapons to counter them with. Lasers are cheap on energy but not overly effective. Missiles are deadly but you have a limited supply. You also have anti-missile missiles for point defence.
Because you will sometimes be operating in night zones, you have an infra-red vision capability which you can use — alternatively you can set off a flare. When I played this unfinished version, my ship was indestructible and I could wipe out everything in sight. Of course Pete Cooke intends to change all this by the time the game is released in October — but I didn’t mind. I actually did well on an arcade game for once!
If you find what you’re looking for then the best move is probably to leave straight away. A kind of matter transport network still exists, linking the cities in a complex grid which you can examine from your planetary map. You can find operating jump-junctions in every city but they have a limited number of destination points. Journeying between the cities is accomplished by entering the vicinity of one of the jump points (they have four, cornered boundaries at the limit of their effectiveness) and setting up the right command. An interesting ‘hyperspace’ sequence follows and when it is over, you are in the next city.
As you fight or explore your way around a city, the day is going by, the sun changes position accordingly. This results in what is one of the most cunning features of the game. As the angle of incident light changes, so do the images of the buildings and robots. Shadows lengthen and silhouettes appear, until total darkness eventually envelops the landscape. If you fight by nothing but starlight, then all you see are the vaguest of outlines and the occasional laser beam. That’s why you need the Infra-red option. On the final version, infra-red will actually turn things red on black but at the time of writing, everything was yellow on black. Flares will only last a moment but they should provide quite a stunning effect because they, as well as lasers, will cause reflective flashes on nearby objects. The robots also will explode in different ways, depending on their design.
CRL are justifiably proud to be publishing Tau Ceti. Graphically it’s quite different in terms of the use of light and shadow and some of the displays I was treated to were quite stunning. It’s difficult to describe the effect when a robot flies by and you turn around to follow it, seeing it in silhouette as it flies towards the sun, before exploding across the screen as a homing missile plunges into its rear armour! Look out for Tau Ceti. It promises to be very good indeed.