Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. After having been rather, well, let us say not exactly complimentary about Infogrames' previous releases, I did so want to be able to rave about this latest effort. And... er... Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear...
Murder On The Atlantic is set aboard the ocean-going mega-liner, SS Bourgogne. The action takes place at the end of the 1930s, and some poor chappie by the name of de la Valliere has been rubbed out by one of the voyageurs. Your task, mon cher, is to cherchez la femme (or l'homme) qui have done it.
The screen presents you with a sectional plan of the boat. It isn't exactly brimming over with graphical virtuosity, but simply shows the boat carved up into a number of boxes of varying shapes and sizes. Down on one side, when you first start playing, is a tiny flashing cursor which you can move about using the arrow keys. This is your position.
Of course just moving a little blob about the screen would not a Number 1 Game make, so what you must do is press the Copy (display) key followed by the F (examine) key, whereupon a little graphical picture of your location flashes onto a small window below the boat and, in another window alongside, you get a brief text description.
Ninety-five percent of the time, this text description reads "There is Nothing".
Other commands (and I give you all of them) are: R - look at characters - there are quite a few of these, and each one is represented by a rather snappy little digitized cameo portrait. There's even one of Captain Haddock from the Tintin books (surely a breach of copyright or trademark there).
O opens things, A (action/autopsy) performs certain pre-programmed actions, or in some cases (where bodies are concerned) an autopsy. I (interrogate) elicits statements from some of the characters, P gives you a list of pics of the cast (halted by pressing CLR), and ESC... escapes.
With these at your command, you manoeuvre your flashing cursor about the ship (waiting at lift shafts, where you call the lift by pressing the up-arrow), looking, interrogating and finding things. All the time you would need to be taking notes so that eventually you can piece together all the evidence and point your finger at the criminal(s).
So what's wrong? Why is such a good game idea (which it is) not such a great game?
Well, the first thing is that Murder On The Atlantic is appallingly programmed - in Basic, I suspect. The main display at which you stare as you move about is devastatingly uninteresting and could have done with a bit of attention from a good graphic artist. The textual responses are for the most part extremely brief - the program accesses the disk to load in most of them, so I can't imagine why there couldn't have been more. Incidentally, this access point is pretty significant if you've got a 464 without disk drive - there is a tape version, but quite frankly, I wouldn't want to touch it - another example of poor program design. Finally, there is very little true interaction between the game and the player: for the most part, you simply press a button and receive a brief textual message. What fun there is in the game comes from your own efforts at deduction rather than from what you're seeing on screen.
The game comes with all sorts of bumpf in the package - ink cartridges, visiting cards, a piece of string, rather after the Infocom style of presentation. Alas, the packaging is where all comparison ends. Even then, I'd rather have had just one good manual than, for example, a slip of paper with words "My honeybun, I will see you tonight for you know what at the usual place. M" written on it. The manual is clumsily translated and, in parts, unclear as to how you should actually play the game.
However, in the final analysis it's the programming that lets this idea down. The game itself doesn't really do any work at all - it simply allows you to discover a series of facts which you then have to piece together. I can appreciate that the deductive process can be quite intriguing, but people buy computer games in order to see exciting and interesting things happening on the screen, not in their own heads.
Things would be different if. for example, there were a parser that enabled you to communicate properly with the suspects, or if there were a complex screen display showing things happening in different areas of the ship. As it is, the player has to do all the work and the computer just behaves like a filing cabinet. Compare this with Arkham Manor (previewed elsewhere in this month's issue) - a game that gives you information, a ram notebook, animated graphics, and even your own newspaper.
This game reminds me of the days when home computers were just taking off in this country - when people were happy to type in simple game listings from magazines (or buy them on tape from the classified ads) for the thrill of seeing their computers do anything more than display "Syntax error" or work out biorhythms. Good ideas were legion but the market simply didn't have the programming expertise to turn out the sort of stuff we expect nowadays. The French have tremendous enthusiasm for home computing - and for l'Amstrad in particular at the moment but this title at least would seem to suggest that they still have quite a way to go on the programming side.