Alternate Reality - The City

Reviewed by John Sweeney

 

Issue 21

May/Jun 86

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Datasoft/U.S.Gold
48K Disk (2 disks)

16.95 Joystick/Keyboard

1 Player

'The New Dimension in Role Playing Fantasy ... 3D scrolling screens - combined joystick and keyboard action - original music'. That's what the advertising blurb says. Sounds good... but the 3D scrolling is just like in Asylum (endless mazes on a square grid, with all the walls looking the same) and Ultima I (and we are now waiting for Ultima IV) had combined joystick and keyboard action. Yes, I suppose the music is original (although it is very reminiscent of the style of Passionately), but is it all enough to make a really good , new, exciting game?

While we are on the subject of the joystick I had better warn you not to believe the instructions which state that the joystick is optional. Deep inside the packaging you will find a last minute addition - a small piece of paper saying `IMPORTANT NOTICE You need a JOYSTICK in this game. Without a joystick, you can't exit the Banks'. This is indeed true, and applies to numerous other situations as well, e.g. the Healer's if the Healer is not in. This failure to program a LEAVE command for the Bank highlights a major failing of the game and the instructions - not enough thought has gone into the interfaces between the game and the player and it has not been adequately tested to ensure that it is playable. I'll come back later to some of the games shortcomings, of which you should be aware if you are planning to buy Alternate Reality but first let's look at what it is all about and some of the good points.

Alternate Reality is a solo version of fairly standard Dungeons and Dragons. The computer throws some dice to determine your Stamina, Charisma, Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Skill, Hit Points and number of copper coins. You then set forth to explore the City - you start in the middle and the whole city contains about 3,800 squares for you to explore. Well not quite that many, since you can't enter the Palace or Arena until they produce those as later parts of the game (the same applies to the Wilderness outside the City and the Dungeon below it-. If we also exclude the Main Streets and Royale Walkway, which cut great swathes across the City and are mainly shown on the map provided with the game, that cuts it down to about 3,000 squares to explore and attempt to map. Since the City abounds with Secret Doors and One-Way Walls, usually in the most awkward places, trying to create a map of the place is the second biggest challenge in the game. Those who enjoy mazes will get plenty of fun. (Hints: Don't waste too much time looking for Secret Doors until you have explored around an area and have isolated some squares which appear to have no entrance. Make a couple of photocopies of the provided map and make sure you have a rubber handy! Practice walking along a wall and working out it's length in grid squares - I find that if I walk along with a wall on my left I can make out the joins between panels. If your compass keeps getting nicked try navigating by the sun or the distant mountains).

The biggest challenge is of course staying alive! Finding yourself in the middle of this strange City, the first thing you do is check your weaponry - you are immediately distressed to discover that you have no armour and are armed with nothing better than Bare Hands! But what is that sound over to the West? Could it be a Blacksmith hammering and quenching? You hurry to the West and enter a Smithy. Two diskette changes and 35 seconds later you are rewarded with some very nice graphics of the Blacksmith hammering away, plus some excellent music as he sings you a song - the words flash up across one of the top lines on the screen. You check your funds and discover you have about 200 copper pieces, you enquire about the price of a sword and you get quite a shock when you discover that a sword costs 12,000 copper pieces! Even a dagger costs over 300, so you eventually decide to leave, empty handed (you could try bargaining for the dagger, but then what would you use to buy food, drink, lodgings and a compass?). You start to wander down the road when suddenly the screen flashes, music sounds and you are in the middle of an Encounter. It is a Courier. A menu appears on the lower part of the screen, the window in the middle of the screen (as usual full of lots of rectangular walls and buildings scrolling past) now has a small figure in the foreground. Various letters on the menu are flashing, offering you the chance of Hailing, Charming, Tricking, Engaging in combat, Leaving, etc. You decide to hail this
friendly looking character and press H. You are surprised to find yourself dealt a swift blow with a short sword - 2 Hit Points gone - not very friendly round here are they? A for Attack - missed, Ouch! he got you again. P for Parry - missed again, so did he. L for Lunge - your Bare Hands have no effect. And so on... until you are dead. Unfortunately you can't restart in any way. You have to reload the whole game from the beginning. and that takes four minutes! (No it's not on tape, it takes four minutes to load from diskette! - Yes, I know you can load 48K in 48 seconds. - No I don't know what it does for the other three minutes!)

Anyway, Alternate Reality has most of the usual D&D elements - killing 'monsters' (i.e. anyone you meet!) results in you gaining Experience and, if you are lucky, money, jewels & gems (which you can sell at the bank), potions (varying from magical through harmless to deadly poison), weapons, etc. As your Experience increases you will suddenly find you have been granted a higher Level, along with suitable increments in your characteristics and Hit Points, so you can now fight bigger and nastier monsters and, hopefully, get
bigger and better rewards, and more Experience so that you can fight even bigger and nastier monsters and ... That's a good question, what is the point of it all?

This is one of the flaws that I find with the game - after playing for a couple of weeks, and establishing a level 7 character with 27,000 Experience Points, 33 Hit Points, 35,000 in the bank, lots of weapons and potions, and twelve days experience of living in the City, I still have no clear idea of what I'm trying to achieve! I have mapped about 80% of the 3,000 squares, found about 70% of the establishments (Banks, Guilds, Shops, Armourers, Taverns, Inns, Healers - even the House of Ill Repute and the Casino! - unfortunately the two latter establishments seem to have been permanently Closed By Order Of The Palace!), been refused entry by seven Guilds (Red Wizards, Blue Wizards, Thieves, Order, Assassins, and the Wizards of both Law and Chaos) on numerous occasions, listened carefully to the songs in all the best pubs and clubs (even those requiring you to join at extortionate cost!), and still don't know what my objective is, assuming that there is one. Is this game complete in itself? Or do I have to get the next six parts in the series? Ah well, as long as one enjoys solo D&D one can set one's own objectives until something better comes along, like getting good enough to kill one of those Small Green Dragons I met last night (Small? - it filled most of the screen! (nice graphics) - best to avoid night time for your first few days in the City!), or getting one of the Guilds to accept me as a member.

More of the good aspects of the game. The graphics and sound effects are all of very high standard. As the sun moves across the sky the light changes, rain falls at times, obscuring your view, often accompanied by thunder and lightning. The wind howls. The amount of detail is very good in some cases. Your status, for instance has screens for each of valuables and potions, current weapons/armour in use, rings, miscellaneous equipment, clothing, compass, weapons on belt and back, spells ready, active magic, work allocation, and ailments. If you get drunk (either in a tavern, or from drinking the wrong potion) the screen starts blacking out and the computer reacts uncertainly to your commands - great fun!

Now to the bad news. The biggest problem is the delays that they have built in to the program. For instance if you buy some food in a tavern the screen flashes up 'Right away!' and then pauses like that for five seconds - this means it takes about a minute to buy 6 flasks of water! When you check the time at an Inn it stays on screen for ten seconds (this is made even worse by the fact that it takes two diskette changes and associated pauses to get in and out of the Inn, so finding out the time actually takes nearly a whole minute!). These, and many other, unnecessary pauses (I am quite capable of pressing a key or button when I have finished reading a message, thank you very much), combined with much unnecessary diskette changes (for instance every time you try and enter a closed establishment) nearly put me off the game completely to start with. Initially I was waiting 15 seconds for each move in a fight - but fortunately discovered that this is one occasion (completely undocumented) where the space bar will cause the action to continue, cutting the time for a fight down from 2 or 3 minutes to a few seconds.

This major failing of intentionally wasting the player's time is compounded by lots of silly little things that could have been programmed better. For example, you have to hold the joystick button down when turning a corner, you can't tell whether you are still hungry or thirsty while in a tavern - you have to come outside to find out (two more unnecessary diskette changes!), you can't Pause the game while in a fight (what am I supposed to do if the phone rings, let the computer destroy the character I spent the last three hours building?), you can only buy a compass if you say you are NOT interested in a shop's wares, there is no documentation on how to use a potion if you have saved it (U for 'use' will do it at any time in fact), despite the fact that you can Hail people, nobody wants to talk - all they ever do is ignore you or fight you - gets a bit predictable after a bit, and so on.

The final problem is to do with the initial difficulty of the game and the ability to save. You CAN save your character, but when you reload him next time you play, the 'save data' is marked invalid so that if you die you can't reload him again. Now if I have spent two weeks getting my character up to level 7 and want to try him out against a Small(!) Green Dragon I am hardly likely to want to try it without taking a backup of him. The documentation tells you how to do this by using the Copy Utility on Diskette Two, BUT it takes ages to do - thirty seconds for the save plus four minutes for the game reload plus however long it takes to back up your character. (I only use one character on a diskette - he then only uses sectors 1 to 100 - and I can use a sector copier to have seven different backups of him on the back of the diskette). Since the whole point of the game is to have fun trying out new and dangerous things it is a bit silly to make it so time consuming to do so. The general we're- only- here- to- fight attitude of the game, together with the difficulty of 'saving' makes it very difficult to get anywhere to start with, and may well put off some of the less persevering games players, while the apparent lack of problems to solve (apart from staying alive and mapping I haven't found any thing to tax the old grey matter yet) may dissuade those who initially persevere from continuing.

Still, this is only the first in the series. Maybe if the authors listen to some of the feedback and give a bit more consideration to the playability of the game, subsequent modules of the game may be better, and Alternate Reality may earn its place on the shelves beside Ultima. If AR III is as much an improvement on ARl as Ultima III was on Ultima I then WOW!!!

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