It's the 21st Century. In Patrol Zone 106 on the planet Isis a series of unexplained and puzzling events require investigation. As a newly assigned pilot to Echelon - a top secret flight facility - you are awarded the mission of collecting artifacts and information to help unravel the mystery.
The game is played in three modes: Scientific (exploration without engaging enemies), Patrol (mild resistance faced) and Military (non-stop enemy attacks). The peaceful mode permits exploration and practice flight through the landscape's obstacle training courses. Combat additionally involves action against grond installations or airborne enemy craft: to speed up these sequences, there is an option to turn off ground features. Three types of missile are available: HDAPPs (High Density Anti-Proton Projectiles - useful at short range), Photon cannon (a high intensity pulse laser) and missiles (medium range solid fuel rockets).
Game parameters are altered by accessing the Data Link with the main computer, selecting game options and setting the combat strength between 0 and 6. This computer also provides information on docking procedures and options, alters the sound filter setting, displays pirate maps and allows games to be saved/loaded.
A voice verification procedure is activated with the Lipstik before beginning a game; thereafter the program only responds to the current player's voice. Once the game is fully loaded, the player is presented with a view from within the Tomahawk inside the orbiting main base. Should the craft be severely damaged or run out of weapons or fuel, the base station provides appropriate facilities. Pressing Fire and pushing up on the joystick leads into the action.
The display is divided into a half-screen viewing section and a control panel. Zone 106 is shown in 3D first person perspective vector graphics, updating at between two and ten frames per second relative to the on-screen action and whether or not the ship's radat is enabled. Six views are available: front, rear, left, right, up and down; in addition a Remote Patrol Vehicle is launched for closer inspection of dubious ground installations.
The control panel details the ship velocity, current location, altitude, shield level, fuel, missile type active and ship status. The status indicates the heading, pitch, bank and vertical speed of the craft. In addition, the Top View window displays a permanent plan view of the planet surface, which is magnified up to 22 times.
The keyboard allows full control over the Tomahawk's additional features: the six views, object teleporter, RPV deployment, a timer for training courses and hover facilities. Zone and area maps are accessed to detail current location and area explored, as well as providing a hyperdrive facility.
The game requires the player to collect 240 artifacts found within the zone's 36 areas: each area is loaded in from disk, the cassette version involving searching for the appropriate section. Once objects are teleported aboard the Tomahawk, they are cashed in for credits, and a section of one of six coloured pirate maps is filled in. Information and objects collected also provide cyphers detailing pirate operations and locations.
Once all six maps are filled in, accompanying pirate text - which needs to be deciphered - details the missions to be fulfilled. These involve flying to a specific point and performing pre-determined manoeuvres; once all are completed *in a specific order* (there are 720 different combinations), the cloaking system is deactivated and the game won.
On first hearing of the Carver's new game, my initial feelings were of extreme interest: it sounded like Mercenary with faster vectors, improved perspective, more depth and a realistic combat sequence...
Unfortunately the reality is considerably less than the dream: Echelon is slow - very slow. The frame update is surprisingly sluggish, considering the simplicity of many of the features and the small screen size used.
You're constantly battling a horrendous buffer between command and action in both flight and combat, which is made particularly infuriating because of the time delay during the flight of the missile. Moving around the game takes quite some time, and exploring the whole available surface strikes me as a real chore.
The perspective of the graphics, rather than being an improvement over Mercenary, is very often wrong; this is mainly in evidence when next to tall, thin buildings, which shimmy around like fairground inflatables!
The Lipstik is effective, and is an added attraction that can be used with other programs that use the space bar for a function! Full marks for the attempt, but Mercenary still holds sway over the 3D adventure world.
Full marks to Access for attempting such an ambitious project, but after several Echelon sessions, it would appear they've bitten off more than a C64 can comfortably chew.
The level of apparent depth is quite extraordinary, with major landscape features which each have a history, and obstacles placed specially for practice purposes. Unfortunately, these are rendered useless by the awful slowness of screen update, as well as the unrealistic ability to fly through them without any shield damage.
Trying to negotiate something like the floating tunnel requires a ridiculous amount of lining up and slow flying, only to have the aircraft drift through the wall at the first bend. So why bother? Combat under such conditions is hopeless, even with most of the display switched off, and doesn't come close to the standard set by Mercenary all those years ago.
Bearing all this in mind, the enormity of the task is intimidating to the point of being discouraging. The Lipstick adds quite a bit of atmosphere to the game, but whether or not you think it's worth purchasing is dependent on how much you like these sort of games in the first place.
Echelon is an absolutely incredible game let down by only one feature: the slow speed of the vector update. Even at its most rapid, you tend to overcompensate on the controls - a situation which proves frustrating (and fatal) during the otherwise frenetic combat sequences.
Having said that, Echelon has an amazing amount of depth. The sheer size of the playing area is awesome, matching by an equally daunting task which proves genuinely compelling to tackle.
The control over the game's parameters and six difficulty levels make exploration very addictive. The package includes a superb instruction manual, map and keyboard overlay, and the on-screen presentation is excellent.
Echelon is the ultimate in exploration games, and offers weeks and weeks of intensive and rewarding play. If you don't mind the fact that it plays slowly I recommend you buy it immediately.
Zone map, keyboard overlay, detailed screen display and Lipstick option. The controls, however, prove awkward to use because of the slow movement.
Even at their fastest, the vector graphics are jerky - a situation slightly appeased by the wide number of viewing options.
Realistic aircraft noises balanced by some feeble spot effects.
Until you're accustomed to the controls, the gameplay proves both difficult and a little tedious. However, the weight of the task and freedom of movement keep you coming back for more.
One of the largest tasks in any computer game, but the slowness of the action could discourage interest.
An innovative and profound simulation marred by its on-screen action. Try it before you buy.