Windows - 1996
Description of Tracer
Log on and fry your brain
William Gibson has a lot to answer for (although the blame isn't entirely his). The introduction of the terms cyberpunk and cyberspace has given games developers a whole new niche to abuse. 7th Level, together with Future Endeavors have unleashed their interpretation on the unsuspecting game playing world. Tracer is a DirectX Windows 95 game which uses Direct3D to good effect. Basically, you as the ubiquitous hacker have taken on a contract to ahem, obtain, some information for your client, only to find that it's a set-up and that the Tracer virus has been let loose to track you down and turn your brain to mush. Thus the scene is set for you to race through 50 levels of 3D puzzles attempting to evade the virus, reach the data core and make it out in one piece.
As ever, the game opens with a lengthy FMV sequence just to get you into the mood. Once you've set up your controls, tweaked the graphical and audio settings to your liking you can select a virtual persona which represents you in cyberspace, as far as I can see the differences are purely cosmetic, but it at least lets you choose an on-screen persona appropriate to your gender, or even the opposite, should you so wish. The characters are rendered in textured polygons and are apparently motion-captured. They are nicely animated and if left alone for long enough will amuse themselves by doing back-flips, stretching, or even doing a little Highland dance.
The aim of the game
The game is set on a 3D grid, scattered with various objects and background scenery, intended to represent the symbolic cyberspace. To traverse the grid you must have a "platform" on which to stand. These are known as code pads, of which you have ten to begin with. They are divided into four triangles each of which is coloured. You begin standing on one and to place more they must be laid such that a matching coloured triangles are adjacent. More pads may be obtained from special reload sites located around the level, but you can only carry a maximum of ten, so if you have five pads and step onto a reload site you will then have ten pads and five will be lost. Secondly, a particular reload site can only be used once. On a given level you have one of three possible tasks to complete in order to move on to the next level :
- Move to and step onto the level access port.
- Collect a number of special code pads, known as code keys, which must all be laid on the grid adjacent to each other.
- Collect a number of alignable code keys, each of which must be inserted into the corresponding code key port.
However, your task is complicated by the aforementioned Tracer virus which will begin tracking you as soon as you step off the first code pad, absorbing the code pads as it goes (However, it won't absorb any laid code keys, just pass through them). Furthermore, some grid squares are missing (known as "microchasms") and can only be crossed using bridges, which may exist initially or be activated by stepping on a switch pad. Bridges nonetheless are only special grid squares and still require code pads to be laid across them. Alternatively, you can use special pads you can collect called "extended code pads". These once placed will move up to three squares in the direction you were facing when it was placed. They can be used in both directions, but can be absorbed by the Tracer virus.
If that wasn't enough, some grid squares are unstable (bad sectors) and may disintegrate a code pad placed on them, hold firm or perhaps even change it's configuration. Oh, and the grid is 3D so some areas are on different levels and you can only step up one level at a time, which introduces the need for elevators, which may be switch operated or already active. Then to move across microchasms or between two raised grid squares of equal height there are "floating pad bridges" which act like horizontal escalators. Other features include teleports, power surge emitters which destroy code pads and stun you for a short time. Then there are magnetic distortion pads which take the Tracer virus longer to absorb, zipper pads which allow you to move anywhere you wish on the grid for a limited time and the non-lethal Seeker virus which slows you down if it infects you and infected sectors may not have code pads laid on them, fortunately it's effects only last for a short time.
Would cyberspace really look like this?
The graphics aren't exactly state of the art but they're well animated and once you get used to the game that vital reload site is instantly recognisable. The viewpoint is customisable and has an auto setting which generally gets things right most of the time. Resolution and detail levels are all configurable to enable the less able machines to run at a reasonable rate. If necessary the screen size can be reduced as well. The FMV is quite good but ultimately only background fluff to do a bit of scene-setting.
The soundtrack is quite good and suits the game theme. The sound FX are very run of the mill.
On the whole, Tracer plays well, my major niggle is that your character has too much inertia and too much momentum, resulting in you heading off to collect a magnetic distortion pad, and then running back to head down a different route only to plunge headlong straight into the Tracer virus. Sometimes you feel that your game strategy consists of conserving your code pads as much as possible and then finding the best route by trial and error, but nonetheless, it has a certain compulsion that draws you back for one more go to try and beat that level. There is of course, the secondary goal of trying to complete a level as quickly as possible. My first impression was that the game requires you to place pads so quickly just to keep away from the Tracer virus that you couldn't form any real strategy. However, there is one important feature that avoids this problem, if necessary, you can move your viewpoint around and zoom in and out to consider your surroundings and form an initial plan of action. Then, armed with this plan, it can be quickly executed gaining you some breathing space to plan your next move. On higher levels the precise selection of code pads becomes more important in order to succeed. For example you may be two squares from a reload site with three pads left but if you can't match the right colour then you've had it.
Future Endeavors have tried to increase the life-span of Tracer by using the increasingly popular level editor idea. This is a standard Windows application which enables you to lay out levels which you (and your friends, with the multi-player patch) can then play. Indeed, 7th Level's Web site proclaims that user designed levels will soon be available from it. The level editor is functional and usable, but could be helped by the provision of a drag and drop feature toolbox, rather than the current context-sensitive menu which is a little unwieldy.
A patch has been released by 7th Level which adds multi-player capabilities using DirectPlay which means that Internet, IPX, TCP/IP, modem, serial link and any other supported network protocol should be possible, supporting up to eight players. I haven't had the opportunity to test this but I feel I should point out that the patch caused my copy of Tracer to become less stable than it was before application of the patch.
Well, is it worth the folding stuff?
I have to say that irrespective of whatever I had heard about it, Tracer isn't the sort of game I would normally buy, but it turned out to be quite a promising, challenging puzzle game, good for several hours play at least. If puzzle games are your thing then it could well be worth a look, particularly as several mail order companies here in the UK are advertising it for less than 20 UK pounds.
Review By GamesDomain
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