Tuesday, 28 July 2015

ZX Open World Part 3

Isometric 3D wasn't the only game in town, of course.

There were a number of other games that came out on the Spectrum during the "isometric wars" that can't be ignored, either because they were direct attempts at open world games, or contained elements or ideas that would later prove essential for future advances. Funnily enough, the programmers or teams writing games with non-isometric 3D views tended to produce very unusual, individualistic (and sometimes downright odd) projects.

One that came out in late 1985 was Gyron. I can't say I ever really fully understood what the hell was going on in this one. You were in a series of mazes, which had giant balls rolling around in them, and towers that kept shooting at you.

It was apparently a great game once you understood what was happening, but I never got that far, I'm afraid, so I can't report in any detail, and I'm not prepared to play through it on an emulator to find out. Life, I fear, is too short.

Tau Ceti: Four views of the game, there

The other game I always group with Gyron is Tau Ceti (and as it turns out, the latter was directly inspired by the former, so there's a nice thing). Tau Ceti was actually a great game and given the excessive delays that were affecting the Spectrum port of Elite (as mentioned in part 1), it sort of stole its thunder. Elite appeared on the Spectrum at much the same time, but Tau Ceti was more immediate, had better graphics, was faster, etc.

Elite had its fans but the Spectrum version could never hope to replicate the massive success of the versions on other platforms; it had simply been beaten to the market and no longer really had a USP. In fact, there was a comparitively vast space-based exploring/ collecting game with vector graphics that had been out over six months already, in (Z80 programming pioneer) David Webb's Starion.

The Sentinel: Absorb energy and ascend, or something
The next obvious game to mention is The Sentinel (early 1987). It was the first that I can recall to attempt full-screen "solid" (OK, solid/shaded) graphics to create a game world and it still managed to be vast, with ten thousand large landscapes (the screens shown here each show only a tiny part of a landscape) to get through.

Also I'm pretty sure that it must have been one of the first tries at procedural generation for its 3D landscapes - if I remember correctly, which I probably don't - the graphics were all generated from algorithms depending on your position and direction of view. As I understand it, the program could render the view of any point on a landscape from any other point, i.e. as close to the way modern procedural games are done.

I think.

All that said, it was more of a puzzle or strategy game than an arcade explorer and as your character teleported, there wasn't the freedom of movement that a true open world game would allow. To be honest, it's just as well; whilst the game could render the graphics at a reasonable speed, jump-cuts for character movement were essential to keep the pace up.

Driller: all singing, all dancing, but
unfortunately verr-r-r-rry sloo-o-o-ow
The final game I think fits into this section is Driller, shown here at something like five times normal speed in a clever animated GIF wot I made and then forgot to take the logo off.

You can imagine what it was like at the regular Spectrum speed, but if you've no imagination then I can tell you - it was fucking slow.

That wasn't really all that important; although complete freedom of movement was allowed, this was another game that leaned towards the strategic, so its being slow was often quite useful in allowing you more time to work out what on earth to do.

This was autumn 1987, which was pretty late on in the Spectrum's lifetime, and Driller (plus its sequels) probably best represented the limits of what the machine could do with an solid 3D, arcade style open world game. However, it isn't (in my opinion) the best 48K Spectrum open world game that was produced during its normal lifespan, another game that appeared in that autumn takes that title for me.

But before going on to that, there are two other games that really have to be mentioned - given the excessive length of this never-ending piece, it would be rude not to - as they encapsulated the essential elements that would prove to be so influential in one particular genre of future open world game. I'm talking GTA and its clones, so you know what's coming - FIGHTING and DRIVING.

Saboteur: killing had never been so much fun

Turbo Esprit: this is the real proto-GTA 3, trust me

Coincidentally, both Turbo Esprit and Saboteur appeared at much the same time, around Xmas of 1986. I say coincidentally, because they ended up being two of the handful of games that I would regularly play long after I'd moved on from the Spectrum and had got fancy computers like the Amiga and PC (I had a Spectrum set up until the mid-1990s for programming anyway, so it wasn't a totally weird thing to do).

I mention these two in particular because the similarities to GTA and its successors are so obvious. Saboteur introduced the tone of amoral violence and Turbo Esprit the drive-anywhere freedom - including the freedom to run pedestrians over - that are essential parts of any modern urban open world game.

And in part 4, I'll finally get round to saying what I think was the best effort at fitting an open world game onto the Spectrum. It was a game that first appeared for the Commodore 64, but the Spectrum port was just as good. I still think it's an all-time classic that plays well today.

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