Thursday, 27 September 2018

COUNTDOWN


Access Software may be best known in the adventure-gaming community for their excellent Tex Murphy series of games, but right around the time of that franchise's birth, another adventure popped up. Released in 1990, Countdown didn't get the same cult status that Mean Streets or Martian Memorandum, but this conspiracy spy thriller perhaps deserves to be far more fondly remembered.

You begin the game incarcerated in a Ch√Ęteau d'If style prison in Turkey called The Sanctuary. Formerly a remote stately home, it is now a place where rogue CIA agents are permanently held and in some cases experimented on. It's not entirely on the up-and-up and the fact that you, as Agent Mason Powers, have been falsely accused of killing your superior only proves it. There's a conspiracy afoot!

By means of the usual point-and-click adventure tropes, your first task is to escape the depressingly dank confines of your cell. While the LucasArts style verbs are there, it's not entirely locked into their recognisable and established way of thinking. For example, the 'Use' verb will bring up your inventory, and cannot be used in the main game screen on its own. Flipping on light switches or activating catapults are instead assigned the verbiage 'Move', which doesn't always accurately describe the outcome. The 'Use' function is reserved for such item based activities as using keys on doors or wine bottles on heads. To confuse matters even further you can also 'Taste'; an action rarely needed and if used on the wrong thing, could even kill you. Yes, you can die so save often.

When travelling the halls, watch out for the guard (left).
Fall foul of him and say goodbye to your prefrontal cortex (right).

Conversations are also a little different. While you can select from a number of specific subjects learnt while playing, you can also 'Hassle' them for information, 'Bluff' your way to it, be 'Pleasant' or simply ask for 'Help'. Sometimes, you'll have to do one of these actions a number of times or in a specific combination of them to get the desired response. Other times it's as simple as offering them a cash bribe. Few adventures go beyond simple dialogue trees so it's nice to see a more complex version of it here.

While these changes can throw off players more used to the likes of Monkey Island or King's Quest, they'll only really be a problem in the first few moments. The opening screen has you perform a fair amount of these actions too, getting you to grips with the game's quirks early on. It's here that you'll also learn that you need to walk close to an object to interact with it. While a single left click on a nearby floor tile can do the trick, I found moving Mason directly with the arrow keys far more accurate.

This opening screen will also subtly introduce you to the game's time mechanic, though don't expect too much from it. A guard will occasionally walk by your window, and you have to catch him for a good chat as he's key to getting out of there. He'll appear every minute or so and you can almost set your clock by him. His punctuality also extends to his routine once you've found your way into the halls. Here you can clearly see how time works by studying where the guard's pattern which is imperative if you don't want to get caught. The stealthy spy work is no Metal Gear, but it does introduce some nice mechanics and some much-needed tension.

While Countdown does have a dreaded maze, it's fairly benign here (left).
You have to be in a very specific position to begin your climb (right).

There are 96 in-game hours in all to solve the game. A good chunk of that is taken up by fast-travelling to a number of places around the world. When on location it appears to run in real time so I had assumed this is so attentive players will know where certain people are in a proto-Shenmue sort of way - much like the wandering guard I mentioned earlier. In reality, it's not much more to it that a countdown (it that how it got its name?). I did notice time passing as a game mechanic more explicitly when exploring the grounds of The Sanctuary. Stepping through a door into the halls could lead to an immediate capture which is pretty much a game over. This appeared to be random. Either that or the logic behind it eluded me. I got around this by saving just before leaving a room and if I'm unlucky enough to be caught (which was often), I'll reload and wait 20 seconds or so for him to pass. If I exited immediately after a reload, deja-vu would kick in and I'd be captured in the exact same way.

Once in the corridors, the camera shifts to an overhead view making it look and play like a cheap clone of the early Metal Gear games. It can get incredibly frustrating but as part of a graphic adventure, I found it still found it added a sense of excitement and danger to what would otherwise be a rather slow and thoughtful prison-break. I would've still liked a bit more clarity on how to avoid guards but this is thankfully the only section that has this problem. It's an interesting if poorly implemented stealth mechanic and I can imagine newbies quitting on this basis alone. If you do, though, you'd be missing out on some great interactive storytelling.

The plot is a little elusive at first. While the prison warden does seem dodgy in a Frankenstein's monster sort of way, it's obvious the facility's limited number of employees are not the main villain. Any ideas as to why you're there are hazy as you have no memory of the last few days. A smack on the head and a bout of plot-convenient amnesia will do that to you. All you know is that your friend, mentor and boss has been murdered and you've taken the fall. And you have 96 hours to figure it all out.

Once you're out, the whole world opens up to you, though you can't go anywhere unless you've uncovered a reason to. While you can eventually travel to a number of locations in Turkey, Egypt, Isreal and many European cities, few areas will be as big as The Sanctuary. Most will have but a single screen to explore while others will only involve a plot-progressing conversation. Only select sites will open up to a larger area. Nevertheless, it's a credit to the story and pacing that it still feels like a globetrotting adventure.

Countdown is quite the globetrotting adventure (left).
You can access your CAD from the same screen (right)

When on the world map, you can also access your CIA commisioned PDA device - or you can once you've found it in your Istanbul apartment (with a little help from a neglected, foul-mouthed parrot). Called a CAD (Computer Access Device), it contains an information database on people relevant to the case along with emails and an interesting feature that allows you to analyse documents up close. The use of CAD in this way offers some of the most fun and revealing puzzles, but not necessarily the most taxing. The majority of puzzles are inventory based with a strong, plausible logic behind them. They vary from fairly obvious to satisfyingly hard, though the most difficult aspect of the game (beyond the stealthy bits) is the pixel hunting. It's not always obvious what you can pick up and some items don't appear to be represented on the screen at all (though their immediate surroundings can draw your attention). To top that off, there are no hot areas so you can only tell if you can interact with anything by using the 'Look' command. Generally, I found that there were few moments where I got completely stuck, but it's the thrilling plot that pushed me through them.

Each time you boot up the game, you'll be confronted with some control and sound options. While not unusual for the time, most games would still save and remember these options after the first launch. Countdown, for some reason, does not. While selecting the mouse as an input device is self-explanatory, modern players may be a little confused when choosing the sound device. The game was designed around Realsound, a means to play high-quality audio without a sound card. I recommend choosing this option too, as Soundblaster (the most common card for the time) will not play the few voice samples quite so clearly.

Overall, I found Countdown to be a very satisfying old-school adventure. It has decent graphics for the time, some fun puzzles and a gripping spy plot. Highly recommended.



To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DOSBox to bring the game to modern systems. Manual included. Tested on Windows 10.

File Size: 10.9 Mb.  Install Size: 14 Mb.  Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ

Download


Countdown is © Access Software
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me


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13 comments:

  1. Very appreciated, thank you!

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  2. As a trivia, this was the time when Access adventure games were developed say 50% by Chris Jones (Tex Murphy himself) and Bret Erickson, who went forward to make the curiously similar Noctropolis.

    I love Countdown because it was one of the first adventures I played. I got it of course pirated, and that pirate copy had several saved games. SO whenever I was stuck I restored an advanced saved game, which added a meta Memento quality to the already puzzled narrative. And helped me with some annoying puzzles as that lonely brick that opened a wall.

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    1. Thanks for sharing. I did find some save games online too, though I didn't use them for my playthrough. I did use a walkthrough on more than a couple of occasions though.

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  3. Whilst Countdown is a fine adventure game, I want to point out that it is easily available on many abandonware sites, as are most early 90s DOS games. These DOSBox emulations are not difficult to do. What I treasure most about this site is the emulation of Windows adventures from the late 90s. These emulations are much harder to do for ignoramuses like myself. Also, I can't find these emulations on any other site, which is what makes this site so invaluable. Biffman can certainly expand his collection to include all the DOS adventures too if he wants, but that would mean more hard work for him. I'm just saying that it seems too much work for one man to tackle. It's entirely up to him, of course.

    Anyway, I have some suggestions for late 90s Windows adventure games that he has missed:

    Alice: An Interactive Museum
    Amber: Journeys Beyond
    Byzantine: The Betrayal
    Cosmology of Kyoto
    Cracking the Conspiracy
    Cydonia - Mars: The First Manned Mission (aka Lightbringer)
    Dark Side of the Moon
    Dogday
    Gadget: Past as Future
    Gilbert Goodmate and the Mushroom of Phungoria
    Hollywood Monsters
    Inherent Evil
    Rent-a-Hero
    Stupid Invaders
    The Arrival
    The Watchmaker
    Wrath of the Gods

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  4. Three more additions to the list, to round it to 20:

    Animal
    Ark of Time
    Ripper (1996)

    Most of these 20 are considered good adventures by sites like adventuregamers. I wouldn't request poor adventures.

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    1. What a list! Most of them are on my radar. I've tried getting Dark Side of the Moon several times, each with no luck. The same with Stupid Invaders. Two of them I and have scheduled for October! I'll keep you guessing as to which ones ;).

      DOS games are a lot easier to make, and less time consuming too (though playing through them may not be). Generally what I release is down to what I'm interested in playing and reviewing at the time regardless of age and original OS. And most of them are adventures.

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    2. I believe it is Biff's main concern to leave a legacy of old(er) games with a certain originality in their core that distinguishes them, and which, besides, are pretty unknown sometimes or not being remembered any more by the average gamer. Games of which Biff thinks are worth to be preserved and recalled to an interested audience's mind, no matter how easy or hard the efforts actually are that need to be made for emulating the associated software.

      In my humble opinion, it is not just the actual playing experience that counts here, but the always excellently written reviews which can be regarded as formidable appetizers (if the game tends to be your cup of tea) on the respective Installers, making for a great overall presentation of the featured bits & bytes. So, if I am asked, a precious combination like this is neither to be found on any Abandoned Software site nor somewhere else in the whole blogosphere.

      Bye for now,
      Thomas

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    3. Thanks Thomas. You're spot on. I try to give a good idea of what the game is about, plus a few points on how to play that may not be easily found elsewhere. My newer reviews are better than this than my earlier ones though.

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  5. Let me guess. Would the first one be Amber: Journeys Beyond, by any chance? ;) What an excellent game. I have no idea what the second one might be, but I noticed somebody else requested Wrath of the Gods recently, so I'll take a wild guess that it's that.

    Both Dark Side of the Moon and Stupid Invaders are available on the legendsworld site. Most of these adventures can be downloaded from there, though of course they have not been emulated, so can't be run by most people on modern computers. I am assuming you are familiar with that site. I hope so, because I have seen a few uploads from the Collection Chamber there. I really hope it was you who uploaded them and not somebody else!

    That was a very good point from Thomas. Whilst Countdown is available on numerous abandonware sites, I doubt such an extensive presentation, with a review and screenshots, can be found anywhere else.

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    1. Thanks. Thomas is spot on, though I am aware that this amount of effort means less posts than other sites.

      I own Stupid Invaders, but I did get Dark Side from AdventureLegends. Their Chamber links lead to the review page rather than the download site, which is nice. I believe I talked about the Dark Side troubles on the Temujin page and one of my update posts but both games are close. Perhaps a few PCEm updates from now they'll run nicely without sound or graphics issues.

      My original goal for CC was to talk about media that I like and believe is underrated, including film and TV. Even before this site I used to create installers for old games to give to friends and family whose technical knowledge prevented them from playing them, so I included them on the site anyway. The feedback was such that I focussed solely on games, plus I love it when I finally get a long-desired game to run and can add it to my virtual shelf.

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  6. Yes, I can imagine the immense satisfaction in making a difficult emulation work. And I look forward to Dark Side of the Moon and Stupid Invaders at some point in the future. I did manage to run Dark Side smoothly on an old Vista computer, but not on Windows 10. I only played through the early scenes, but it seemed like one of the best FMV adventures ever made.

    If you want to talk about films as well, I for one would be delighted. I urge everybody here to scroll back and read Biffman's recommendations for the best films of 2017. (Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a link to that list in the Other category at the top.)

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    1. Thanks! I'll continue to do by year-end recommendations. I never think to add them on the Others page. Will do so now.

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  7. Great installers, do you have small guide on have to make clean and pro installers like this? Peace

    ReplyDelete