Thursday, May 14, 2020

Game 31: Midwinter

Genre:FPS (?)
Time: 16 hours

I was first aware of Midwinter as a child, my parents had a couple old Microprose games, complete in box, back when that didn't really mean anything. Midwinter was some small advertisement in a catalog of a soon-to-be dead company. There wasn't much, beyond a strange description of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It sounded interesting, but ultimately of no consequence. Every time I vaguely heard of the game since then, it was with a subtle, "Oh, yeah, I remember that."
Midwinter is interesting. Not good. Not bad. Interesting. There's a lot of little things, some I think I take for granted, that made it feel really high quality. But that was offset by key gameplay parts that were just bad. Nothing that ever outweighed the good or made me wish I was playing something else, but just enough that I have that nagging feeling in my head. Its like Sid Meier's Pirates! and Covert Action in that its a bunch of tiny sections making up a whole, but unlike those, the action sections aren't very good.
The amount of enemies is every bit as difficult as it sounds.
The backstory is very long, almost like a novel. Its okay. It explains how the game got to this point. A meteor hit the Earth, causing a new ice age, and Midwinter is some island that was submerged and then surfaced after some time. A group of people go out to it, because the land they're currently in is pretty bad. They discover some more people there, and they build up a community. Refugees come in, some good, some bad. Eventually there's a dictatorship in the southeast, while the rest are the Free Villages. The game begins with General Masters, the bad guy, starting to invade the Free Villages. What there isn't an explanation for, is who General Masters is, beyond some disgruntled Englishman. He's just some random refugee in the backstory.
If you're lucky, this is what happens when you ask someone to join.
There are two different parts to the game, the strategy section, where you see how your characters are doing and have them do things in towns. The idea of different stats for each character is clever, but changed little in my opinion. There was surprisingly little difference in shooting abilities, and it didn't matter how hard your character was breathing when the enemy vehicles were driving around like a maniac player. I had maybe three different vehicle kills with a gun. The only real difference was in endurance and skiing. Vehicle driving didn't seem different, and hanggliding was too rare to be noticeable.
Shooting these down is about as fun as simulating a papercut.
In towns, there's a bit to do. You have areas that give ammo/bombs, fuel, vehicles and food. None of that really matters since the optimal strategy is to blow everything up that the enemy can capture. There is no protecting these towns, short of a miracle in vehicle combat.
Cable Cars offer a brief respite from enemies and driving.
The action section has three parts. But first, loading times, I only mention because they're basically a non-entity. Its like Morrowind, the loading times happen so they can load the rest of the island. Might be as big as Morrowind too.
A rare finding, actually hitting someone dead on.
Your modes of transportation are skiing, snowbuggies, and hanggliding. These are all difficult in different ways. You are going to feel put upon in some way.
Towns being captured is rarely interesting
Skiing is a joy, even if you're playing as a fat Welshman instead of a ski instructor. I didn't realize how much I wanted a first person skiing game until now. A lot of good effort went into this and there's nothing like the feeling of going down a hill after spending too much time climbing it. My only complaints are that its a pain to cross not so bumpy territory, and shooting is bad. You can only shoot when your stopped and the PC breathe. As I mentioned, enemies are insane in their driving skills, add the view bobbing like crazy and you have a recipe for failure. There are grenades, but you have to get close to do that. Fighting is not fun. Fleeing isn't fun either. The enemy's missiles follow you, and they are faster than a skiier. You've got to turn like mad and hope you don't suddenly stop.
Snowbuggies are okay. They're basically snowcars. There's three kinds, with different speeds, passenger capacity, and firepower. In practice, I found I never really cared too much. I never ran out of missiles, and I usually only had two people in at once. But these are vital to the game, without it, most of your characters are just sitting around, waiting to get run over. Fighting enemies is possible, but requires a great deal of practice. Fighting a complete enemy unit, which is around 100 vehicles, good luck with that.
Character backstorys are a fun stop from the grind of the game.
Hanggliders are basically a quick burst of speed atop a mountain. They're at most cable cars. You just sort of glide around, hoping you hit one of the odd updraughts. They're equipped with air-to-air missiles, useless against ground targets. Its not very effective at long distance transportation.
It looks like I'm about to hit him, but looks can be deceiving.
At this point, you run around in a mad dash, hoping to stop Masters before he takes all the heatmines, the only source of power here. While fighting in a direct confrontation is very difficult, you can find ways around that. See, the game takes into account how well equipped the enemy is, with it being a plot point that they're not in great shape. By blowing up every equipment plant, warehouse and anything else the enemy can capture, you make their advance slower. The practical advantage to this is you slow their advance before the guy you sent into the southeast blows up the enemy's HQ, but if you're feeling confident, you can try to wait the enemy out for 40 days. That causes his remaining forces to rebel.
This actually hit, which should tell you about combat here
Fighting against these enemies is not particularly fun. All of the enemy's forces are vehicles, mostly snowbuggies, with some drones, some bombing, some sighting for mortars. You can toggle off the aircraft, they increase the difficulty quite a bit. The game offers a kind of radar where you can hear which direction the enemy is in. This a point. At one point, I was seriously trying to fight off the enemy, and half the time, the area they were supposed to be didn't have them. The AI doesn't screw around, as they move like a player would, erratically, hoping to not get hit. Supposedly there's a commander around these enemy units, but I've never seen 'em. It doesn't help that enemies attack you one at a time.

These depend on how your moving around, with the sniper and grenade being delegated to skiing, and missiles of various types delegated to driving/flying. There's not really much fun to be had in the act of using them. 1/10

They were all basically the same. There's more variety in types than I mention, but they're basically unnoticeable. 1/10

There's not really any as such. Any characters not controlled by the enemy are eventually controllable by the player. 0/10

Despite not having much to it, I really like the island. It feels like an island. An island I'd like to explore. 4/10

Player Agency:
Its clear that despite its failures, a good chunk of effort was put forth here. Little things make it fun, big things don't. I want a skiing game made in this engine, and I'm never getting it. 6/10

I am reluctant to give points here, as the only interactions are in the strategy sections. Most of which are simple strategy game actions. 3/10

Despite doing little to actually produce an atmosphere, the game does a good job of feeling like you're in a really cold environment, desperately trying to stop an evil enemy from taking over the free areas. 6/10

The pixel art has a few issues with it, leaning toward gruff-looking dudes. I like the simple terrain, but whenever a vehicle or tree or building comes on screen, it becomes obvious how bad the 3D is. Terrain far away fades into white, a fitting use of a now obvious limitation. 3/10

Despite the amount of backstory, little comes up in the game. Despite the much hyped relationship between characters, its not much deeper than a generic action game. 1/10

A lot of nice sound effects for the era. Different levels of speed, for each vehicle. The only thing I didn't feel was satisfactory was the sound for enemy vehicles. They always came off as more confusing than helpful. 3/10

That is 28 points. Below Spear of Destiny and above Catacomb 3D. I actually still suggest it despite the relatively low score. Its off the wall and most of its appeal isn't in the shooting aspect. Especially if you like other simulation/strategy/RP games like Pirates, Covert Action and Sword of the Samurai, although I would put this in an inferior category to those. Come to think of it, Covert Action applies as a shooter by my logic...oh, good, another game to add to the not win column. But enough about that.
This game is almost universally praised. In the past it was much loved by those who played it, and today its called a hidden gem by everyone who's heard of it. Its curious as to how outside of this praise there is very little in the ways of casual discussion on the game. Curiously, this consists of nearly no Youtubers. I guess nobody wants to upload something with the early 3D look. Its even gone as far as to be included in the 1001 Games You Must Play Before You Die book. Now, while I do agree that it was a good game, and certainly a hidden gem, but it isn't that good. Part of this game is action, and the action part isn't the best. Vehicle combat is tricky at best and seriously off-the-wall at worst. I'm not going to repeat about what I've said about other kinds of combat.
Next time...its getting moved up a bit, but Catacomb Apocalypse, the sequel to Catacomb Abyss. Does it live up to its predecessor? I don't know, I haven't played it, but I need something that isn't untextured polygons for a while.


  1. Like many of Mike Singleton's games Midwinter takes place in a frozen land where the player starts with 1-4 characters and can recruit more.
    Alas, they also tended to suffers from design flaws.
    In Doomdark's Revenge you could just enter an underground tunnel (which only player controlled characters and armies could enter) and wait things out until Shareth Heartstealer got herself killed. In Midwinter, when I decided the game was more frustrating than fun, I just headed to the enemy HQ and blew it up.

    1. Having briefly played The Lords of Midnight, assuming it's the same in the sequel, I can see why. I remember it being somewhat hard to understand. Midwinter on the other hand, I applaud anyone who actually understands the combat here, it seems like absolute chaos in the best of times.