Written by: Stoo

Date posted: October 3, 2002

Zapping a pirate.

In the far future: Earth is controlled by an repressive totalitarian regime known as the Hegemony, and is seeking to extend its rule to all the human worlds. You take on the role of Nik Ap Io, leader of a crack team of soldiers charged with defending the colonies founded in the Centauri system. Your people originally fled their homes on the moons of Jupiter to evade the Hegemony, and now they must make another stand…

TN is essentially a 1st-person shooter set outdoors, with features of the “Big-robot” games bred into it. Instead of huge tanks on legs, your squad lumber around in man-sized suits of powered armour, laden with weapons and high-tech gubbins. Which sounds like a great start to me. Surely right-minded people would have rushed out to purchase this game? Sadly not: Terra Nova never sold very well, in fact it was a commercial disaster (which contributed in part to the downfall of Looking Glass) and this saddens me. Power-armour and firepower – what more could you want? “A decent game,” I hear you cry. Well, I propose to you that TN is indeed more than decent. So let’s take a look.

One strong point of this game is the gorgeous environment in which it takes place, you fight, scout and run through rolling hills, plains, canyons and valleys. Each level provides you with huge areas of this countryside to romp across, and the engine renders it all the way to the horizon too. It’s a minor shame that TN is stuck in low resolution (320×400 at best), as apart from this the terrain is almost as good as the best you’ll see in modern games. Looking Glass also made a decent stab at weather effects, to their credit, although they did cheat slightly with bodies of water which are always waist-deep. As for soldiers, they seem to be built from separate sprites for the bodies, arms and legs, which was a quite novel idea. They’re well animated, so they generally look quite good despite not being true 3D models.

Extensive rolling terrain, and no fogging! Also, more zapping.

Combat meanwhile encourages you to have a few thoughts towards tactics; FPS blasting skills can’t hurt but you need to keep a slightly broader view of what’s going on. Keep an eye out for how the terrain can help you – a mad charge across an open field might seem more simple to carry out, but how about coming coming in from over those highlands behind the enemy position and bypassing their sentries? Also, you quickly learn to stop fighting as an individual and make use of your squad. The enemies are no easy targets, and wading into combat without your guys is asking for trouble. Some of them are combat experts, whilst others have special skills in demolition, repairs or scouting. They’re reasonably intelligent, doing their best to fight together under your direction rather than running off on their own agendas or wandering from A to B like automatons. You can assault the enemies as a tight group, split into two sections and come from different angles, or if things go horribly wrong stage a Holy-grail-esque ‘run-away’ scene. The constant radio chatter as they spot enemies, begin and attack, report damage etc also helps you believe you have ‘real’ soldiers under your command, instead of just gun-wielding drones and adds a lot to the atmosphere of the game.

An added dimension is added by your power-armour and the hardwired enhancements. As well as lasers and particle beams, your arsenal includes ballistic weapons. The latter range from little grenade launchers, to what is essentially a portable artillery cannon, and they can be hugely entertaining if used with a little skill. The computer allegedly works out the firing trajectory from you, but you still have to place your shots carefully so as to obliterate the bad guys, and not yourself and everyone within twenty metres. Add to this various utilities built into your suit, the most fun being the jump-boots, allowing you to propel yourself about a hundred metres into the air in order to surprise the enemy or get yourself out of trouble. You also carry a few airborne spy drones, which can be used to scout for enemy positions, check out a fortification from a safe distance and so on. Other utilities include a personal forcefield, automated turrets and night-vision. These gadgets aren’t just toys to make the game more flashy; using them properly will add to your chances of success.

A squadmate poses for a pic by the lake.

What might take a second to get used to is the control setup, which is very similar to LG’s previous title System Shock (and overall the game does occasionally have a faint “Shock goes for a walk outside” feel). There’s no ‘mouselook’ as we know it today; you move a set of crosshairs around the screen with the mouse, but to turn or look up and down you must use the arrow keys. It’s a little clumsier than what you might expect from a modern first-person title, but doesn’t take too long to ge the hang of. Meanwhile, most of the onboard functions like the night-vision, or arming different weapons, can be handled with one or two mouse clicks. The one set of commands that can get a little fiddly is issuing orders to squadmates, by clicking through menus, but there are keyboard shortcuts also. Overall, there’s certainly not as much to remember as in the ‘real’ big-robot games with regards to controlling your suit of armour. The HUD meanwhile is fairly unobtrusive; there are small displays that pop up with the map and systems info, but these can be dismissed for a full-screen view of of the action.

Once you’ve got the hang of piloting your suit, you should be pleased to hear that your job isn’t just wanton destruction. For example on some missions you’ll be frantically defending your electronics expert from waves of enemy soldiers whilst he tries to get a turret back on line. At other times your could be out scouting and evading detection, or guarding a convoy. There’s certainly enough variation in objectives for you to have to think up tactics for each new mission. Generally some of the most frantic action ensues when you’re trying to keep something apart from yourself alive (such as a convoy of trucks). Well laid plans go completely to pot as you desperately scream orders to your squadmates, trying to hold off waves of drones bent on fragging whatever you’re trying to guard. In contrast to this is the tension of sneaking past enemy guards on a solo mission, infiltrating their perimeter and spying on their base, knowing that if you’re spotted things could go horribly wrong. Terra Nova throws all kinds of experiences at you and at the end of the day it’s deeply satisfying to complete the missions.

Between combat sessions, the storyline is played out in a series of FMV sequences in a Command-and-Conquer style. The acting is fairly mediocre as is usually the case for computer games, in fact in places it’s downright awful. Still, given time you should warm to Nik Ap Io and his comically overacted friends and foes. Whilst the mission structure is are entirely linear, one after the other, they are well integrated into the plot. So you do feel like you’re a part of the story, rather than some faceless grunt.

These guys haven't really gotten the hang of camoflage.

All in all TN is a sadly underrated classic, and its general failure to shift copies is in my mind a disappointing reflection on the gaming community in general. I remember avidly playing the demo back in 1996, reading glowing reviews of TN in the gaming mags, and then rushing out for a full copy when it hit the shops. So why did most gamers either ignore this game, or fail to even notice it, when I found it so impressive and many critics seemed to agree? I suppose the usual lack of publicity is to blame; perhaps it was overshadowed by the “mecha” series like Earthsiege and Mechwarrior. This is a shame; not to say that such games aren’t a lot of fun, but TN is in my book superior to just about any of them. It certainly deserves better recognition, successfully mixing first-person action with a simulation of futuristic squad-level combat. Options for hi-res and also some kind of multiplayer would have helped but; this is still an excellent example of a classic from yesteryear that can still hold its own today.