There we were cruising up the Thames courtesy of MicroProse, and this bloke was telling us how Origin games last about ten times as long as the average game. As we staggered off the boat, I was reminded of a brand of bubbly gum that made the same claim. The reason it lasted longer was that it was hard as rock and tasted like a farmer's bootlace.
The reason Autoduel lasts so long is that it's disk only and just about every disk access takes four weeks to accomplish. OK. I exaggerate, two weeks. For a challenging fast-action, thrills 'n spills game, this is unfortunate. Like the bubbly gum, it makes you want to spit.
But let me tell you the story. You are in a futuristic age in which drivers don't bother much about their paintwork or their no-claims bonus. They'll shoot each other up on the highways and in the arenas, where regular organised events take place - like terminal stock car racing.
Like most car drivers, you'd like a bigger and more deluxe model. The way to get one is to earn money either by winning in the arena, or by transporting cargo from city to city, or by becoming a vigilante and ridding the Interstates of people who care even less about the Highway Code.
Apart from this motorised carnage, Autoduel does have a few elements of strategy. You're given $2,000 at the beginning of the game. The first thing you do is buy personal armour and go down to the car assembly plant to buy a car. You do this by specifying various options: like body type, chassis, size of power plant, weaponry, tyres, etc. It's all spelled out for you in great detail in the manual.
But you don't get much for $2000 so you'd better go down to the Arena for Amateur night and enter an event (car provided) to win some money. When you've completed Amateur status, you enter events in your own car. And so it goes on. Acquiring more money lets you build a better car which, in turn, allows you to transport more lucative cargo. Getting even more money lets you buy powerful weaponry to dispose of even more crazy cruisers. That's it really.
Most towns have a Truck Stop (buy armour, listen to rumours, get a bed for the night), a Joe's Bar (get gossip and a drink), a weapons shop and a garage. Only three towns, Boston, New York and Pittsburgh, have a car assembly plant. As you progress, you go up in the leagues in the Arena. With this increased status, you can cruise around the towns to compete on evenings featuring your league. Every arena has a weekly schedule of events. You might even buy a few more cars and store them in various towns.
The scenario sounds reasonable and expansive but what's really bad about Autoduel are the graphics and the abysmally clumsy gameplay. Graphics both in the arena and on the road are embarrassingly sparse and amateur. Scrolling so jerky it reminded me of a CU type-in. All the roads and towns look much the same. And sound is confined to the very basic. They didn't even bother to throw in a few engine noises.
So it doesn't matter that the game fills two sides of a disk and that it's likely to keep you occupied for the next ten years. The problem is that it's too slow, it has no proper gameplay and really minimal graphics. Where have the programmers been hiding these last few years? Have they neve seen a real game?
This is all a great pity because Autoduel's packaging is really classy. There's a very well produced 30-page manual with lots of information and detail. There's fold-out roadmap, a player reference card, and a little toolkit thrown in for good measure. Maybe they felt guilty about the ludicrously high price tag.
The Origin MicroProse duo have more 'challenging' games planned for this summer. Let's hope they can do better than this first offering - it wouldn't be difficult.