This article originally appeared in Pyramid #5
IRON HELIXProduced by Drew Pictures
Distributed by Spectrum Holobyte
Available for Mac and PC, on CD-ROM
Retail Price: $69.95
About every six months there is a convergence of hardware and software that makes possible a new level of computer performance, a better paradigm or a higher strata of capabilities.
For us, this means better games.
CD-ROMsThe countless clips of video that create the gestalt of being in another environment take up a lot of room. Luckily, the last six months have seen both CD-ROM drive prices take a dive and the speeds of their mechanisms double -- popular rumor has it that Apple alone says they'll ship 1,000,000 double-speed CD-ROMs in 1993, both with new machines and as upgrades for old ones. As Pyramid went to press, NEC announced a new triple-speed drive, and there's nowhere to go from there but up.
If you don't have a CD-ROM, you might want to look into it. If you're thinking about buying a computer in the next year, your dealer will probably throw one in. Most vendors are including them with bundles both to help create a market for the CD-ROMs they've been trying to sell (unsuccessfully) for so many years, and also, on the PC side, to fully comply with Microsoft's MPC (Multimedia Personal Computer) standard, laid down last year from by Bill on high.
Even if you don't get it with an encyclopedia, even if you don't get into the vast catalogs of photos and video clips, even if you don't care about anything from Alice to Ocean, get a CD-ROM so you can explore a spaceship.
Today's entrant in the desktop computer's "State of the Gaming Art" competition is Iron Helix, a CD-ROM game for the Macintosh, created by newcomer Drew Pictures and distributed by Spectrum Holobyte, to add a little cachet to the endeavor.
In Iron Helix, you are witness to a small space armada's war games. Of course, something goes horribly, horribly wrong, as one of the ships is accidentally reprogrammed to home in on a real target, the peaceful Earth-like planet of Calliope. How? Why? Who knows? That's a mystery -- one that never gets solved, to my knowledge. It's just one of those things. That's what the space armada gets for accepting the lowest bid on a project.
Regardless, some crazy virus has been engineered to screw with the genetic structure of the crew, preventing them from accessing their computers to engage any sort of countermeasures. The ship's internal defense mechanism, a small robot probe, has gone through the ship systematically and destroyed the crew -- remember, it doesn't recognize them now.
Lucky for the planet of Calliope that you were nearby -- you've got 90 minutes (yes, 90 real-life minutes) to somehow stop the ship from ending the lives of billions of innocent, defenseless sentient beings. No pressure.
Lucky for you, you have three probes which may be sent into the ship, and controlled remotely from your little shuttle -- which, of course, lacks armaments of its own.
The crew has left behind some video clues, codes that will enable you to stop the ship's destructive mission in a variety of ways. Your probe has the rather convenient capability of taking genetic samples from various scraps of organic material that remain on the ship -- in hallways, bathrooms, garbage cans -- to fool the computer into thinking the probe is that particular crew member. You are the digital DNA code sampler, the iron helix. Different crew members' genes will gain you access to various parts of the ship and various areas of the computer's database, which you will scour mercilessly in search of the information you need, before the 90 minutes are up.
One minor problem, of course -- the ship's internal defense automaton is still very much active, and will be gunning for your probe. Watch out.
The rendering of the interior models of the spaceship were produced by a Mac-based program called Electric Image, which some of you may remember as the same program that was used to create the nuclear destruction of Los Angeles in Terminator 2. Even without that piece of knowledge, the game's graphics are hot, and the Ridley Scott lighting-through-fog sets the mood perfectly. While it lacks a great soundtrack like that of Journeyman Project (see Pyramid #2) -- or really any soundtrack beyond the title piece, evocative of heavy industrial dance tracks -- the mood of the architecture and the feel of the lighting heighten the tension enough by themselves.
The interface is fairly simple. There's a video window in the upper-left corner, which sends you what your robot probe sees. There's a data readout in the upper-right corner, through which you exchange information with the ship's computer, manage your inventory of genetic samples, raise and lower the probe's manipulator arm, et cetera. In the lower-right corner is a map of the ship, which can show you two-dimensional maps of the floor you are on and the floor the robot sentry is on, as well as a three-dimensional map of all six floors of the ship, and your relation to the current location of the robot in three-d space. Lastly, the lower-left corner of the screen has directional keys, for remote-controlling your probe.
Certainly, the most interesting thing -- and perhaps the one feature that puts this game over the top, both as a reflection of the state of the art, and as one of the most amazing gaming experiences you can have in your own home -- is the video window, where you see where your probe is and check out your environment. The tiniest details were modeled and rendered; this game nearly surpasses The Journeyman Project in its recreation of an imaginary space. When you're just sitting there, looking at the screen, nothing happens, but when you hit a key to move forward or backward, or to pivot right or left, the feeling of being in a three-dimensional space is uncanny. Some especially nice touches, like a slight camera tilt as you come around a corner, or the brief sense of vertigo as you spiral up a tube, were very much appreciated. On the other hand, I wished the "steps" you moved in were smaller; I didn't like pressing to go forward once, and having it move me all the way down a hall. So what if there's nothing to do there and being able to stop in the middle of a hallway has nothing to do with the game? It's not good VR. Give the player as much control as possible over the virtual environment, but only as much as he would be expected to have, given that the situation was truly real.
Script XSet the Way-Bac machine for roughly two years -- IBM and Apple were shaking hands, cementing the details of a historic cooperative venture. The two new companies that IBM and Apple created to develop their mutually beneficial technologies are Taligent (to develop an operating system) and Kaleida (to develop a new multimedia platform and standard).
While Taligent is still almost a year from unveiling its new OS, project name Pink, by the time this goes to print the other offspring should have released Script X, the project name of Kaleida's universal multimedia scripting language. Script X is a standard, not a package in and of itself, and will be released simultaneously for both Mac and PC. Script X-compliant programs will be able to spit out Script X code to disks or CDs, which can then be run on any Script X platform.
What this boils down to is the ability to create a graphical presentation -- a business plan, a home movie, an art piece, a game -- and play it back on anyone's Mac or PC that has a copy of Script X. There will be small Script X game boxes, like a Nintendo unit, that will run the code through a television, and it will look the same on your friend's computer monitor or TV as it does on whatever platform you used to author it.
In another six months -- or sooner -- we'll begin to see the fruits of Script X. And I wonder what those games will be like.
Much of the art of playing Iron Helix boils down to the quick cat-and-mouse between yourself and the robot probe. Always look at where he is, always leave yourself an exit. Between this, and picking up the random tissue sample, it works well as a game, but as a story it runs into some snags. Like: if you can fool the computer into thinking you're a crew member, and the reason the ship's internal security blew away the crew was because they had been infected by a virus and were no longer recognized as crew members, why would you be considered a threat by the robot sentry? After all, you "are" a crew member. Or several crew members.
And if the crew no longer had access to the terminals, and thus couldn't access the overrides on the ship's programming, how were they able to leave elaborate video clues and self-destruct sequences? Why didn't they just tell us what the destruct sequences were? All together now, "Because then there wouldn't be a game."
Though it's easy enough to let yourself get into the game and not think about the story, I would hope future games will give such plot holes more consideration. There is no doubt that Iron Helix, with its relatively quick action, vivid realism and dynamic controls, is an interesting game -- the question is whether or not you will find yourself enveloped in an interesting story, as you race to uncover its mysteries.
- Derek Pearcy
Article publication date: February 1, 1994
Copyright © 1994 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.