Terra Nova – Day 1

Terra Nova was published in 1996 by Virgin, but finds a place in this blog because it was developed by Looking Glass Studios. With a past record of Ultima Underworld, System Shock & Thief, it is high time I gave this game a go. I’ve said it enough times in this blog but I know next to nothing about this game before I start playing it. In this case I really have heard next to nothing about it and it seems to have been largely ignored by game players in general although it did receive good reviews at the time.

I’m taking a slightly different approach to writing this game up. Basically, I’m going to type this post as I play the game after every mission, rather than coming back to it retrospectively the next day. This could lead to the post being even more disorganised than normal but it should mean that I can recall any relevant details at the time.

One of the first things that strikes me when I start the game is the SVGA FMV scenes complete with real actors. There weren’t many games using this technology back then and I’ve always been partial to some FMV to flesh out an action game. I realise when I’m watching this that I really don’t know much about what is going on and I should probably have read the rather hefty manual that came with the game. I press on regardless for now anyway. The plot doesn’t look like it will be too complicated. Basically there are a load of pirates causing trouble and I’ve been flown in to head an elite strike force to sort them out. I meet with the council who are arguing about what we should be doing and whether our team should be here at all and then head to meet my team.

My team are the usual irreverent bunch you expect to find in this sort of game, and it also includes my older brother. He is apparently something of a maverick although my character is a by the book model soldier it appears.

Once the FMV ends and I get to do something, I can’t help but think of Wing Commander as the interface puts me in my bunk with all the usual parts of the interface, including a terminal to read news and email. There is even a killboard in the hangar bay next door.

My first couple of missions are training exercises. The game swaps down from SVGA to standard VGA as soon as I’m in game which is something of a shame. There is a high resolution mode somewhere but I’ve not seen it in the options yet. It uses the rather unusual 320×400 VGA mode which I’m expecting will do strange things to any screenshots on here when I finally get it working. I’ve only ever seen that mode used in an adventure game called Normality before now. It’s a good compromise when 640×480 would be too slow and I’ll figure out how to use it when I get around to reading the manual. For now I’d like to have a look at the game.

The training mission is extremely basic. I just have to walk over to a target range and shoot two targets. The movement controls are based around WASD but manage to use all 9 keys around the S so I have to sidestep with Z and C which feels very strange. I’ll get the hang of it quickly enough I expect. I have a mouse pointer which I can use to interact with the various controls at the bottom of the screen, to change weapons and the like. I can also shoot with this pointer by clicking in the view window. The combination of mouse and keyboard works well. I quite like this system compared to always aiming straight ahead and it should give me a few more options in combat later in the game.

For the next learning mission, I get to outfit my suit if I wish, although I go with the default. I need to figure out what I’m doing before I start playing with these options.

There is a bit of a launch FMV this time around, in true Wing Commander style. There seem to be several variations on these and I get one before and after every mission. This game is feeling more and more like Wing Commander all the time.

For this second mission, I have to walk into a base and take out some turret defences + a building. The tutorial talks me through things like setting nav points, using jump jets, using my map, etc.. I also have a drone I can send in to spy out an area before I get there. I can take control of the drone in full screen if I want. I also get to drop a turret in this mission which takes out a building for me. Presumably I can lay traps or defenses later in the game with these turrets. This sort of detail is pretty impressive in a game of this age. I’m quite liking the graphics also, although they look a lot better in these screenshots than when they are in full screen. There is quite a lot of detail to the world with trees, hills and the like, considering the age of the game.

At the end of the mission, a dropship flies in to pick me up.

That concludes the training missions and it’s time to start the game proper. There is an FMV briefing before the mission giving me instructions. They are simple enough – go and kill the pirates. It seems like most of the FMV only sits in the center of the screen with large borders like this which is somewhat disappointing. I’d rather it played it in 320×200 instead and have it in fullscreen. Better still, the game could have been on an extra CD or two with fullscreen video. It’s only a minor quibble but if you are going to go to the trouble of making all this FMV you may as well show it in detail.

The mission proves to be extremely simple. I run in shoot a couple of pirates and that’s it.

After the mission, I get to meet up with one of my team members, Maggie. Through the conversation, I learn that my family were killed by pirates years back which is why I ended up as a soldier. I can see that the plot is going to be more or less throwaway in this game already. It’s your typical clichéd space marine fare and the acting is less than impressive. It’s fun enough though and as long as the game doesn’t take itself too seriously I’ll still enjoy it I’m sure.

Mission 2 has me clearing pirates out of a shipyard. I have to make sure not to damage the ships. For this mission I get a wingman (for want of a better word). I can order them around using the usual interface but for this mission I just keep them in formation and they offer useful combat support. There are a lot more pirates in this mission and I have to start learning what I’m doing. I’m slowly getting the hang of the interface. The little green blob on the display apparently shows my shield strength. It’s in quadrants which go down when I’m hit and then slowly regenerate.

I’m quite impressed with the terrain for this level and it all runs extremely smoothly. I do feel like I’m missing out not seeing any of this in high resolution though so I figure at this point it’s time I go away and read the manual. From what I’ve seen of the game so far this is game is basically a combination of System Shock and Wing Commander. I’m quite impressed actually and it’s certainly fun. The interface feels slightly clunky and really does remind me of System Shock. It’s intuitive for the most part but the fact that I haven’t managed to find the options screen to turn the resolution up says something.

Well, I went away and read the manual and considering how many pages there were, there really wasn’t a lot in it. The plot isn’t much more complex than what I’ve already described. The back story is that sometime in the 22nd century there was a disagreement between Earth and the colonists of Jupiter and after a war and uneasy truce the colonists relocated to Alpha Centauri. These colonists have managed to establish a civilisation but are under threat by pirates. Apparently, the colonists consist of 12 clans each with their own armed forces but my group is an elite force made up from all clans. That’s all there is to it.

The manual did at least tell me where the options screen was. I just needed to press o in game which is simple enough when you know how so I’ll swap to 320×400 from here on.

After a brief cutscene where I get more grief from my brother while at the bar, it’s time for mission 3. This time it’s a scouting mission to try to examine crates like this in a pirate base.

I get some new technology for this. I can’t honestly say that I notice much difference in the new suit. I’m sure it’s a bit quicker and the like but it feels about the same.

The extra resolution helps a lot and I see that Dosbox is smart enough to upscale in the other direction so that my screen shots don’t end up being tall and thin. This is a night time mission. I could use infra red goggles if I wanted but opt not to. In hindsight, if it made the pirates stand out it might have been a good idea.

I have to try this mission a few times as it’s not easy seeing the crates and I have to stay well away from the base to remain hidden. There is a zoom option I can use to magnify my view, and by approaching the base from the North I manage to get a clear sight of the crates I need to scan. This mission is basically about trying a few different approaches until you find the right one. When I came from the South there were a dozen pirates in the way and no line of sight to the crates.

It’s raining for the next mission. It turned out that the crates last time held some stolen grenades which we want back. They are being escorted in a convoy and we have to take out the escorts to capture them back.

Finding the convoy of trucks doesn’t take long. The trucks aren’t dangerous but they are escorted by large numbers of pirates. I manage the mission on the first attempt but only using a brute force approach.

This results in me being hurt when I return. I’m not sure what (if any) influence this has on the next mission. It turns out that we haven’t recovered the grenades after all, just a load of packing foam.

There is another cutscene with Maggie. I learn that she is actually 232 years old having spent 200 years in hibernation. During this time the pirates stole her children and she joined up with the strike force to try to get them back.

We may not have found any grenades but I still get a grenade launcher for the next mission. This is an extremely slow weapon + I only get 15 of them for the mission but they cause a lot of damage over a large area.

The mission involves taking out some pirates blocking the road into one of the clan factories. Since they are making weapons in these factories we need to go in and destroy the pirates and reopen the supply line. I get two wingmen for this one, but my tactics are as simple as ever and involve going in guns blazing. I use my grenades at the first opportunity while there are a few pirates to hit.

For the next mission, it’s back to that factory I was scouting out before. This is a dead easy mission and I complete it in no more than a couple of minutes. In fact I’m getting through all these missions extremely quickly which gives me some concern about the games longevity. The box says there are over 30 missions. I don’t think there are losing paths but at 2 minutes a mission this game is going to take longer to write up than play unless it gets more difficult.

It appears that the pirates are getting weapons from somewhere although the ambassador from Earth denies it. He looks like a B movie villain if I ever saw one so I expect that it will turn out that Earth is behind all these pirates but for now we just have to get on with the fight.

The next mission is a rescue on a colleague from another strike force. I have to go in with a repair and an electronics expert to get him fixed and then get out of here.

I get a good look at the games sprites while they are carrying out the repair. It’s a curious system actually that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a game before. It uses the usual 2D sprites that you got in most games at this time. However, they move very smoothly and the bodies appear to be made up of several different sprites, so the arms and the legs move independently. It’s actually very effective and looks a lot better than a few polygons would have done. I expect there are similar effects on the pirates but I try not to get close enough to see them in this sort of detail. After fighting through a load of them back to the pickup point we complete the mission.

For the next mission, we have located some of our stolen supplies and have to go and destroy them and the base they are being transported from.

I get another new weapon although I have to say this sounds particularly useless at the moment. Since I just want to take out pirates as quick as possible I don’t see how this is going to help me out.

The mission is as easy as ever and this time I even get a medal for my trouble.

Back at the bar I meet another of my team who sounds like a robot when she talks. I seem to want to know why and another guy who apparently has implants allowing him to transfer memories steps up.

After a one second flashback, I learn that pirates cut her throat out to stop her talking when she was 13 which would be her reason for joining.

I get a choice of tactics for the next mission. Pirates are blocking the waterways and we need to clear them out. They are getting a delivery from a convoy and we can either take the convoy out first or wait for them to all come out to the convoy and take them in one go. I don’t like the sound of taking on the lot in one go so I go for the first option.

This mission is a bit trickier and takes a couple of attempts. The graphics continue to impress  for 1996 standards. Large valleys like this appear to be rendered with no cutoff and the texture detail is not bad at all. I’m awarded with another Devon Medal for Valor at the end of the mission. Each time I get a mission with 3 objectives (2 being optional) and do all 3 I appear to get a medal. I don’t think the missions actually branch on these optional objectives though, there has been no obvious connection between most of these missions so far. No branching is probably a plus point as the missions are fairly quick to play through. If they branched, I’d only have to play about half of them and would  finish this game in no time.

The next mission is another stealth one. We have located the base of operations for all the smuggling that has been going on and we need to go in and recon it. I can take the enemy on if I want but after attempting this the first time around I’m hopelessly outnumbered. I try again with a more sneaky side approach. I have to reveal my forces at the last moment to get near enough to scan the base. I then leg it back to the pick up point. Two of my squad decide not to follow at first but they eventually regroup and we can take off.

I receive another medal for my actions. The bad (and entirely predictable) news is that the base is run by the Earth Hegemony which is going to mean all out war.

While I’m discussing the situation with my commander, the ambassador pops up to gloat. This ends with us both threatening to kill each other – I expect that will have to wait for the games final mission.

There is more new equipment for the next mission. It keeps on coming thick and fast. This time it’s a defensive mission where we have to defend one of our mines from the Earth forces.

The enemy bring in an artiliary vehicle to destroy the mine but after a failed 1st attempt I head out with my squad to intercept it. By destroying all the escorts we capture the gun intact and save the mine.

When I get back to base, I discover that it looks like a traitor is in our midst. Yet another similarity to Wing Commander then.

I ask my brother where he has been disappearing off to recently but he doesn’t give me an answer. I’m sure he is too obvious to be the traitor anyway, not that I’ve met that many people who it could be. My money is on the barman at the moment.

The next mission is the first on the moon. We want to capture an old facility, specifically this telescope. The moons lower gravity means I can jump higher and it also affects grenades. Girraud comes along to fix the telescope but something goes wrong and he is hurt.

I don’t think this is anything I could have changed and we are sent back out to do it again. This time he fixes the telescope but we are attacked by waves of Earths Hegemony forces. After failing the first time, I swap the squad to heavy suits for this defensive mission and the second time round it’s much easier.

I return to news of Earth using some sort of clones or selective breeding program to produce their forces.

There is a cutscene showing Councillor Walker arguing with her daughter (who is in my strike force) about telling her something. They also mention their clan doing a deal with pirates. I expect she knows something about Maggie’s family.

I leave that for now and get on with the next mission. This one I struggle with and it takes numerous attempts. I have to destroy a fuel depot which mean blowing up some fuel tanks. The big problem is the large number of enemy and the fact that they all throw grenades at us. I experiment with my squad and put in a repair specialist instead of the demolitions guy that comes as default and as soon as I do this I finish the mission with ease. The amount of choices available with squad selection and weapons is getting quite large by this point and there is a clear tactical element to the game.

This has put me 15 missions (+ the 2 training ones) into the game. I guess somewhere I’m near halfway so I’ll leave it here for now. I’m enjoying the game so far. It started off a bit too easy but it appears that these were just training missions and it’s representing far more of a challenge now. I’m not so sure about the FMV and storyline. It’s better than not having anything but it’s certainly not up there with the likes of Wing Commander 3, never mind it’s sequel. My main criticism is that these scenes are too short. There is a definite lack of atmosphere and the story isn’t driving the game in the way it should be. In fact, it’s almost stretching it to say the game has a story. Other than the main character I don’t think anyone has been on screen more than 30-60 seconds total which is hardly enough to get any character interest or plot going. Having said that, compared to games like Duke 3D and Quake which could be seen as Terra Nova’s direct competition at the time, there is no contest. This game is a little less accessible than either of those two, thanks to the complex controls and strategy element but it’s shaping up to be at least as good as either of them in it’s own way.

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