Written by: Stoo

Date posted: March 17, 2010

I think these platforms floated over from Commander Keen.

I think these platforms floated over from Commander Keen.

As long time fans of PC gaming we feel we should salute when the Apogee logo pops up on screen. Especially if accompanied by a cheerful do-do-do-do midi theme. It feels like one of the signature features of early 90s PC gaming. I might do the same for the Sierra logo. Even if the game in question isn’t necessarily all that great, it’s a part of that experience of beige desktop boxes, floppy drives, adlib cards and MS-DOS.

Apogee were originally known for traditional action gaming, especially platformers. The PC was at the start of the 90s still regarded as an inferior system for such things, but Apogee gave us some solid titles that helped make up for not owning a Megadrive or an Amiga. They also pioneered the Shareware model, whereby a chapter of the game was given away for free. This might be 10 or so levels, certainly more than what we’d call a demo today. This allowed for widespread popularity (although I wonder how many of us actually bought full versions).

Anyway as we progressed into the 90s, PC hardware muscle was expanding, Amigas were slowly being squished out of relevance and an awesome new thing called a first-person shooter was being created. Apogee were involved right from the early days, publishing iD’s Wolfenstein 3D which was pretty much the common ancestor of the genre as we know it. Over the next few years they realised that 3D was the way forward and shifted focus in this direction. Going under the new name of 3D Realms they developed and published the famous Duke Nukem 3D. (then took over a decade to not create the infamous sequel).

Today though we’re looking at a release between those two landmarks, Rise of the Triad, which looking at the back catalogue was I think the first one Apogee did in-house. Here’s a disclaimer: I only actually played the shareware episode. These tended to lack a few features (as well as obviously the levels) of the full game, such as some of the weapons, so if you feel the first ep gives an inadequate impression, write in and let me know.

diediedie

diediedie

The plot is, er, something to do with government agents sent to an island off the California coast. Apparently some cult has taken over an ancient monastery. I guess they run the Triads too or use them as footsoldiers or something. Okay I’m actually reading this off the Wikipedia summary. It’s not like we cared about story back then unless we were playing System Shock. Anyway Apogee logo: check. do-do-do-do, check. Standard-looking menu, check. All good so far! So let’s kick off the first map and have a look.

My first impression: the maps are all quite abstract and blocky. Now you might say of course Stoo, it’s a goddamn 1994 shooter, what exactly are you expecting?. However I’d contend that this one is *extra* blocky by the standard of the day. That’s because its running on an enhanced version of the Wolf3D engine, a generation out of date at the time now that Doom was out. A lot of the Wolf3d limitations that Doom had improved on are still present, for example all walls are at 90 degrees to each other as if drawn on a big grid. Also while it is now possible to move vertically, there’s no variation in floors or ceiling heights within a map so they’re completely flat (although ceiling heights can vary between maps).

To be fair to Apogee they did some further tinkering. There’s now an ingame map, destroyable objects and you can look up an down. Some maps can have “open” ceilings, i.e. sky above, although each one has to be entirely open or enclosed. Also example to try get around the flatness they added in floating platforms (which are actually sprites instead of level geometry). These can be chained together to form staircases, raised walkways, and some also move around. There are also sometimes walkways near ceiling height formed basically from walking on top of of rows of vertical grates between walls. These two features allow a kind of “floors above floors” which Doom couldn’t do. Still it’s progress of a surreal and rather limited kind.

gibs!

gibs!

Still the maps serve as spaces for shooting things lots until they fall over. For action the game delivers well enough, in that 90s run-and-gun way. Shoot mooks in the head, grab the health powerups randomly scattered around the edges of the room, find some more to shoot. If you hit them with a rocket they’ll disintegrate into a shower of gore, catch a few at once and the game might gleefully announce LUDICROUS GIBS! Which gives you a pretty good idea of the vibe Apogee were going for.

For dispensing death, you have up to four weapons at any one time. Three are pistol, dual-wield and submachinegun, with infinite ammo to save you the bother of scrounging for clips. Then you can only have one heavy weapon, from a selection of several, which seems an odd concession to realism at first. Still it’s never hard to find another once the current one is used up. Many are variations on rocket launchers of some sort, and the multiple careening shots from the drunk missile launcher are always quite impressive in a sort of “HAHAHA TAKE THIS” way.

There’s also a whole load of extra “action features” strewn around levels. The catapult-pad-things you encounter can help add to the sense of frantic, chaotic shootouts. Stand on one and you get flung several tens of metres – preferably while spraying missiles around for best effect. There are hazards too like jets of flame and spinning blades. Also moving columns, which force you to keep on the run. Although enemies seem unable to dodge them, and I was bemused to see to see one or two rooms effectively clear themselves of baddies for me.

The enemies themselves meanwhile aren’t hugely inspiring. They’re just soldiers yelling “shoot ’em”. Given how silly the game is aiming to be anyway, I kinda wonder why Apogee felt restricted to human enemies. I might even say it reduces the LUDICROUS-ness. Again though, this is just the shareware ep so if something more exciting turns up later, I’ll gladly reconsider this bit.

about to be gibbed

about to be gibbed

I guess there are a few more things I could mention. Enemies sometimes beg for mercy when nearly dead, so you can forgive them and they return to their homes to reconsider their lives of terrorism and seek to dedicate themselves to a more productive career in carpentry. No of course not they just get up again and open fire in a cowardly manner, meaning their lives must end. Oh and there are apparently several playable characters – strong but slow, weedy and fast as usual, although the shareware version just gives you Captain all-rounder.

So overall I had some fun with this one. Still, once the shareware episode was over I’d had enough. Just to be clear, we do think shooters of this generation can sometimes be worth a look. Otherwise we wouldn’t be reviewing them in the first place. Here though I really couldn’t shake the feel of doing the same thing I had in several other shooters, but in squarer levels without the atmosphere. Ultimately anything it relies on to stand out comes across as a bit gimmicky. So it’s not awful and I had a few do-do-do-do Apogee moments, but this really is a deeply average entry in the Doom era.