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 Château 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.
As of 26th April 2021, Arthur's Knights is now available to buy on GOG.
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Countdown is © Access Software
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me