Sunday, November 27, 2022

Galactic Empire (1990)

Name:Galactic Empire
Developer:Coktel Vision
Time:6 hours 20 minutes (final playthrough)
Won:Yes (53W/52L)

It feels weird, finally summarizing this game after so long, and being able to say that's the last I'll ever play of it. Like most early FPS titles, its playstyle and influences are unique from what would become the eventual proper form of the genre. Unlike most of those, what makes this game unique is generally a good thing. While it lacks the kind of control scheme we today are used to, what it has in most other categories is a unique and interesting experience that I think is a shame we haven't seen elsewhere.

Galactic Empire is based off the French tabletop RPG Empire Galactique, written by Francois Nedelec who also wrote the computer game along with Frederic Chauvelot, a Coktel graphic artist, whose only other writing credit was on the similarly ill-fated The Last Dynasty. Nedelec started his career off in the French tabletop scene before going to Coktel Vision in 1989. His first titles? Racing games and E.S.S., that space simulation I briefly covered a while ago. From TTRPGs to action games seems like a strange shift to me, but Sandy Petersen started off much the same way.

The tabletop game, which I will refer to as Empire Galactique for the remainder of the review even if it means Galactic Empire in French, seems to be inspired by Megatraveller. Each character has 6 attributes, skill, force, endurance, charm, intelligence, and will. Skill seems to be a cross between education and general ability, while force is strength. Each attribute has a desired career path, some normal like adventurer, soldier, priest and merchant. Some stranger, like "navyborg", a cybernetic navigator who apparently hold a monopoly on interstellar navigation, and "tekno", a character archetype the booklet says is the Donald Duck character Gyro Gearloose, who can fix anything and everything. Europeans make references to Donald Duck in everything, don't they?

The creation aspect reveals a few things about what kind of stats the player is expected to have. Each guild, that is every character archetype except the adventurer, expects the player to have at least 7 in their chosen attribute and a number of skills to advance each time period. Each skill has a number, for instance, Mechanics has 63, which means the Teknos guild teaches it as well as the army. Each skill goes from 0 (which functions like a penalty) to 6, which means you're practically unbeatable. I can see why they eliminated this from the computer game, because this sort of thing is hard to make matter in the virtual world, although the number of skills seems lower than Megatraveller-related RPGs.

Now, interestingly, going through the books I managed to snag off a fansite, Ether, the setting of this game, is entirely an original creation for the computer game. Despite one of the planet's trademark weapons, Arachnopistol, appearing before it. The weapons lists between RPG and computer are different in a few places, including a few weapons that were invented for the computer game yet don't actually exist inside it.

Which brings us to the game itself. A weird combination of action and adventure that doesn't acknowledge that it was even based on anything. Indeed, it took me to the most obscure corners of the internet to find out that information. Released in a hap-hazard manner by companies that seemed indifferent to its success. In one territory the game even had screenshot from the wrong game on the back of the box. In retrospect, the development of this game must have given Coktel Vision no confidence in the game, or that they just didn't know how to advertise it.

We are treated to an intro that depicts this warfare, although if you didn't read the manual you'd have no idea what is going on. Its not really an important sequence either way, but it looks pretty neat the first time you see it. Its skippable, but you really have to press the key a few times, which is just annoying. And prone to skipping the text intro, which explains a bit of the story.
The story, as I've managed to piece together, is that you are a top secret agent of the titular galactic empire. The planet Ether is undergoing a vicious civil war, with one party being the racists concerned about the economy and obtaining medicinal materials called the Scarlet Militia, which has turned into a brutal dictatorship. Led by a man called Voltar, they have seceded from the Empire, which the other factions aren't too keen on. The merchants guild remains neutral, but the Teknos are fighting back.

One tiny problem exists within Voltar's plan, and that is that Ether is a hellhole inhabitable only through the use of mobile tanks. Gravity is ten times that of Earth, there is no oxygen, its temperature is 450 degrees centigrade, there is considerable acid rain, it is desert, either arid or volcanic, and the local wildlife are cannibalistic sex machines who live for a few days and may or may not eat their parents after birth. In short, a place I wouldn't put at the top of my vacations spots. Its chief reasons for existing in this state are tourism and exports, people want to see the weird wildlife, and that same wildlife can have their venom glands extracted to create anti-riot weaponry.

So you are to go in, under the cover of being Ted Fost, a reporter for a "homeo-newpaper", in order to determine what the situation is and what actions the Empire should take. While the Empire leans towards the various non-Scarlet factions, they're willing to negotiate with them should they end up being the winners. Its interesting to see a game where the vast intergalactic force are not only the good guys, but also who you're working for, albeit window dressing. Far too often it seems like its one or the other. Well, excepting strategy games to a certain degree.
This is kind of an interesting game, because by modern standards the amount of story inside is what you would get from a modern game that would be considered storyless, but I think the less is more approach generally worked in this case. That said, I note that the manual is 100% required reading, not just because of the controls, but because without it, you will not understand what is going on in this game very much. The intro text explains some, but the English is questionable. This doesn't work against the game when future people are talking, but when the game is explaining information to you, it does. There's simply more text in the manual so you get a better grasp of what they're trying to say.

To give a demonstration of what I mean, the game starts you off on Ether, in the city of Tiph-Ether. An obvious failing of the game, as you've probably noticed, is that this looks awful. It doesn't really look great in motion either. A number of simplistic, crude vehicles intended to contain humans, as you can see by the GUI. This is clearly a compromise on the developers part to make something that doesn't look totally awful in motion, but I still don't understand why they didn't just try a completely 2D title. I like the games of Coktel Vision, but there's no denying they sometimes overstepped their limitations in a way that didn't work out for them.

The less obvious failing from the screenshots is how annoying this game controls. The numpad moves your view around, fair enough, but to move forward and back you need to use the + & - keys. 8 & 2 just looks up and down. There's no reason to do so. To move sideways, hold down Ctrl and 4 or 6. What's worse is that this is the alternative mode of moving, the default is your semi-typical FPS keyboard control scheme of the time. Left and right turns, forward moves forward. The issue is that this isn't the kind of game that really works. Imagine if you had to right click your mouse every time in Ultima Underworld you wanted to do something with an item, because that's the control scheme Galactic Empire has.

Oh, yeah, manipulating items. Fun. Now, the lower left box you see contains your item, whenever its red you're using the item. This isn't too hard to figure out, but you do need to click on everything to use or pick it up, including talking to NPCs. Then with NPCs, you click the C button around the person representing your character. This enters dialog if the guy doesn't want to shoot you. The game will let you know if you're too far away to properly use something, which isn't a problem except that sometimes this is shorter than I'd like, and if you walk into something, you get damaged, since collision is a thing. Oh, and every time you move or shoot you need to wait to regenerate health/power. Which I'll get to my big problem with that in a moment.

Selecting items from your inventory is quite the chore, as you have to select rotating items. With the mouse. And they have tiny hitboxes. If you miss you exit the inventory without selecting anything. And its slow. So don't do this in the middle of combat.

Which despite the wealth of equipment in the game, is pretty much just a game of guess the right weapon. There are weapons good against the living and weapons good against robots. If you don't have the right one before combat happens, well, you're probably going to die. Because the biggest problem with combat is that you have no ability to survive against enemy fire. There are shields, but they never seemed to work. This seems like its a guessing game too, since I noticed some enemies changed my vehicles temperature, meaning they weren't using lasers.
Since health regenerates, one might think to wait it out. Well...that's not going to work. Because you're on a timer for most of the game. You constantly need to get more oxygen and supplies of it are very limited. Ammo is a concern too, but looking back, I think there's just enough to make it through the entire game, whereas oxygen puts the entire game through a constant desperate struggle. There are locations where you can restore all your vehicle's stats, but these are at the ends of the stages you need them the most.

The player's dialog is on the top, the NPC's is on the bottom
Now despite all that, I didn't just play this game for 2 years because I wanted a win, there are interesting aspects of the game. Let's go back to dialog, because I glossed over that. There's a man in the space port right next to the start, who is the perfect demonstration. Talking to someone causes the screen to turn black, and a dialog window to literally roll down and show you talking to whoever you've just engaged in dialog with. This is the one time the game's 3D aspect actually works, although Fost isn't really 3D.
Fost has 5 dialog options, which vary from, hostile, in the sense that you openly threaten to murder your conversation partner, to suspiciously friendly, since you are a reporter. Its akin to Alpha Protocol's aggressive/casual/professional system except you can see dialog ahead of time. This is useful since not everything is a hostile choice straight off, and some people don't respond well to professionalism. Correctly dealing with each character is important, because you can find out important information or get useful items. And also, if you aren't careful, they will start shooting at you and you will die. Yes, its that kind of game. You are in a war, after all.

Despite this, and my eventual decision to just start shooting everyone, I liked the dialog. It has a distinctly alien flavor to it. Whether its down to translation error or if it feels this alien in French is something I doubt I'll ever really know. What I do know is that lines like "Hello at home" or "Stuff yourself with the robots", while not perfect English, sound pretty cool, and characters are informative when you can finally wring things out of them. There's one moment that sticks out to me, that only works with this game's dialog system, where upon certain statements, all of Fost's replies will be "So what".

Trading is also something you can do, with actual merchants or sometimes with civilians that just feel like doing so. You can, in theory, threaten people into giving you stuff, but I never figured it out. Trade works exclusively on an item for item basis. Galactic credits must not have value for people who might not be able to use them when all is said and done. Characters will ask for things like ammo, oxygen or a weapon in exchange for a weapon, or the key to advance through the level. Navigation through the game requires careful consideration of your own resources and if you truly need something someone is selling.
Or you could just shoot them. Yes, unlike a lot of games Galactic Empire feels like you have a lot of freedom in how you act in the game, and that includes the ability to just shoot anyone who has an item you want. This isn't as much of a free thing as you might think, as shooting people costs ammo and ammo is finite. There's also a very good question as to if this causes later NPCs to become less eager to talk to you.

This leads into why this game, despite its flaws, was actually pretty good. There is a sense of openness in the game along with little direction that actually works in its favor, even if in practice its more linear than it appears. Perhaps its for this reason I was so fond of the game over the more open early FPSes like Corporation and Sleeping Gods Lie, in which the openness came of as a complete lie. (pun unintended) Yes, levels do generally progress along one path, but this makes the game feel like a tight experience. Too tight at times.
Each level is fairly small, Wolfenstein 3D is a good comparison, but you have a short draw distance and move slowly. Its also very dense, possibly one of the densest commercial titles I've ever seen. Not just every building and person, but each section of road has an item or challenge to deal with. How many games can you think of that require smuggling a weapon through customs? Puzzles are very real world like that. Perform a series of deals to get the item you need, deal with guards in buildings you need items from. Most of these deals tend to be in the player's favor to, you'd think having a flamethrower would be useful, but you are on a planet where the temperature is unreasonably warm, so its not the most effective weapon.
What passes for a turret in this game
The game has 4 levels, which in practice are 3 levels with one being repeated with a twist. The first is where most of the interesting stuff happens, while level 2 is where I got stuck. For about 2 years. Better than me still trying to beat Elvira without consulting a walkthrough for going on about 10 years. Basically, you teleport to a wildlife enclosure, put a specific animal into it, which then shoots an otherwise unkillable robot to get an exit badge for the teleporter. Simple in theory, awful in practice. The game outright tells you this and it took that long. You need to find a specific animal, you need to kill the animal chasing after it, at least in my playthrough, then you need to move this animal in such a way that its pathfinding doesn't get stuck on the walls of the enclosure.
This is really where I got the feeling of this being an adventure game in a 3D environment. Because done like an adventure game where all these are static actions, this is fine. Kill the other animal, bait the right one to the gate, and boom, you now have the key. I am about 75% sure that the baiting an animal to something to get a key has been done in a Coktel Vision game before, so clearly even someone there knew.
A very nice full-screen graphic, something the game doesn't show enough of
Let me make an aside about the game's geography. This doesn't really matter, but its not consistent. Like I said, you start off in Tiph-Ether, the city where the spaceport is. Then you get teleported down to the planet's surface. Which I guess means outside of the high gravity dome in this case. What is confusing is that after teleporting out of this area you get sent to...Tiph-Ether, according to the loading screen, but is supposed to be in actuality be the Tekno Dsehe city. Most of these I assume are translation errors, but the last one bugs me.
Tekno Dsehe or level 3 is a madhouse, consisting of traps which may kill you, soldiers who chase you down and kill you in one shot, civilians who if you talk to wrong kill you in one shot, police who take all your weapons if you talk to and then kill you in one shot. The difficulty is cranked up so high its practically a different game than the previous levels. Resources become very tight here, so much so that using too much ammo in the mostly generous first level is an unwise move. Meanwhile, you start getting weapons that don't really feel distinct from one another.

I'm not really sure I could have won this particular section without cheating, because between having a time limit in the form of oxygen, along with the numerous sources of damage and having to wait for that to heal, I might have had to have spent four times longer in this game than I did. Its not even something that would be that hard to fix, just add a few more oxygen and ammo items and lower the damage you take to one shot instantly kills you, because its honestly clever once you take away that extreme element.

I'm ultimately not going to spoil the overarching plot in this review, although if you don't want to play it yourself you can click on the Galactic Empire tag at the bottom of this post. That said, I will note that the game's plot wraps everything up quite nicely, including several game mechanics that seem like they're incompetently done. The ending is one of those rare things that manages to pull off a final level that just completely twists your expectations in a satisfying way.

Interesting variety, but it seems like you basically have three different types of weapons which are only mildly distinguishable. 3/10

In a weird way, almost everything is both an enemy and not an enemy. Of the ones that attack you no matter what they're mostly only distinguishable by what type they are. 3/10

While I sort of figured out what the trick is in the dialog, its not necessarily any more complex than your average Bioware title, its pretty clever for an action game from 1990. Outside of the dialog system, NPCs are a bit weird, since while they're nominally friendly, they're very easy to make hostile, which does make a game already eager to kill these guys feel less intelligent than it promises to be. 4/10

I feel like despite some issues, this was much better than it had any right being for the time. The first and third level, despite being really linear, feel like a tight experience, and the final level is something I'm going to be thinking about for a long time. 5/10

Player Agency:
I guess I can say it controls in at least something understandable, but it seems like every decision they made was a poor one here. Selecting inventory items, your ability to defend yourself properly, and of course, the whole bizarre control scheme. 1/10

A bit too limiting for the most part. Scenery is affected by weapons, but for the most part, all you can do is click on things and hope that did something. 2/10

Putting aside the cool factor of being an intergalactic spy, this just feels inately alien and cosmic. Things like unusual phrases and mannerisms, to the equipment, wildlife and locations. This just succeeded in creating an alien world, and its just one of a vast galactic empire. 8/10

Not very appealing primitive 3D graphics. I liked the 2d art though and I guess you could tell what everything is at a glance. 1/10

I admit distaste for the final twist, but otherwise this was executed wonderfully. The limited amount of space they could use for things and the absolute requirement of the manual do drag it down. 6/10

My only real problems are in the game's limited usage of both. There's only one track, and as interesting and moody as it is, you're going to get sick of it. Which makes sense considering that you can't listen to the soundtrack and have sounds. The sounds are low-bit, but very effective. There's a decent variety of enemy screams along with weapon sounds. 6/10

That's 39. Befitting that, its the highest rated FPS chronologically, and the second highest game chronologically, behind Dungeon Master.

Despite the relatively high rating, I do not recommend this game, for the simple reason that for everything it does right it commits a grievous sin to make up for it. Plus part of the appeal, I feel, is that twist. That, the awful controls and graphics makes it difficult to actually play. Nevertheless, this will always hold a place in my heart, because of what it has done and because it is tentatively the highest rated FPS chronologically.
I'm actually going to point out that in some senses you could consider this the kind of game that gets punched on in internet reviews, and if it weren't for the difficulties in getting it to run in DOSbox, this would be a popular punching bag. But as it stands, people who tend to do that sort of thing rarely put in any effort, certainly not enough to figure out an Amiga emulator.

How about old reviews? Not great, or more precisely, middling, which by the standards of the magazines I could find, is less akin to playing a video game and more akin to coming back from a vacation to find all the drains in your house have been clogged with feces and there's a dead hobo in your bed. Amiga Joker, infamous for giving bloated scores, gave this a 59%, citing poor controls and graphics. Huh, interesting, they didn't praise the graphics. Rare moment of lucidity? ASM's review perfectly sums up what a modern reaction to the game would be, taken from about 15 minutes into the game, if that:

At this point I want to break off the description of what is happening in the game, I also did not get much further. Maybe it was because of the terrible controls or the unmanageable graphics or simply because it was absolutely no fun for me.

The English reviews, the two which I could find, either describe the game boringly, or rave about the dialog system on and on. Not a lot of love for a supposedly action-based title, which may have contributed to its failure.

In comparison to the two other confusing early FPS released around this time, Corporation and Cybercon III, I think this is superior, obviously. While both broadly come off the same way, confusing, badly controlling messes that far overstepped what should be done with the technology at the time, the badness and confusion of this game disappears. Its bad controls are just bad, they work. I'm not sure I ever understood the others, they're incomprehensible. And for every bit as tight resources were in this game, the other two are worse.

I think Coktel Vision could have made this far, far better than it was simply by making the game a graphic adventure. This game performs a lot worse than it should thanks to the game's control scheme and graphics. I've given it some thought over the past year or so and I'm going to start working towards making a graphical adventure/RPG remake of this title. Though I should note, that I don't mean this year or probably even the next year, but eventually. Kind of want to make that as close as possible to what they would actually make, warts and all. I have something I'm going to try to make first, and I don't know if its going to turn out worth it or not.

Pierre Gilhodes, who didn't work on this game, later said that Galactic Empire had a mediocre run. In retrospect, I assume the sequel was due to contractual obligations...for some reason. Advanced Galactic Empire, or A.G.E. will be played sometime in the future, but that is actually a space simulation. I plan on getting to that sometime before Inca 2 is reached over at The Adventure Gamer. It might be tricky because I also want to play titles like Black Crypt and Bloodwych before replaying their respective developers' FPS titles.  Yeah, I've got myself some work to do in the coming months.

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