Written by: Rik

Date posted: April 12, 2007


When you think about it, it’s hard to understand the appeal of the whole ‘looking at games’ process that many of us are nevertheless happy to indulge in during lunch-hours, weekends, or indeed any other period of time that could be more usefully spent not gawping at the back of a DVD case alongside frowning teenagers, screaming kids and confused parents. After all, there’s not really a lot to take in – the price, whether it’ll run on your machine, the tiny screenshots – frankly, it’s not a lot to mull over, even if your brain has been half destroyed by the drudgery of everyday life and a spiralling drink problem.

This is Hobbins. He supports West Ham (probably).

Of course, there’s always the blurb on the back of the box, but that’s rarely worth paying much attention to, mainly because a) it’s written in infuriating ‘marketing speak’ which passes straight through your brain without pausing to leave any information behind and b) it’s probably all lies anyway. It is another thing to spend time mindlessly staring at, though, and even the most cynical of gamers can be swayed by some endearingly enthusiastic boasting on the game’s packaging.

Still, if you take this approach you’ve got to be prepared to be disappointed once in a while. Take the packaging for Beneath A Steel Sky, for example (I know, it’s ancient now and you’ll probably download it without ever seeing the box – but humour me). Aside from the cool title and black-and-white box, the guff on the back leads you to believe you’re in for a dark, futuristic caper along the lines of DreamWeb:

“[BASS] is a gripping science fiction thriller set in a bleak vision of the future…where oppressed civilians live and work in soaring tower blocks, while the corrupt, covetous and rich lie underground, shielded from all pollution”.

Hmm, sounds kind of interesting, if not terribly original. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t really paint a particularly accurate picture of the game itself. Okay, the game is set in a slightly depressing version of the future where the poor live high up and the rich live lower down, but frankly, the phrase ‘gripping science-fiction thriller’ is stretching it a bit.

The text captions are occasionally CAPITALISED for NO REASON at all.

Things start quite promisingly, with a comic-book style introduction (noted comic book artist Dave Gibbons contributed the cut-scenes, along with some of the backgrounds in the game), which sets things up nicely. It emerges that your character, Robert Foster, narrowly escaped death as a child when a helicopter he was travelling in crashed outside the city – leaving him stranded in the wastelands known as ‘The Gap’. With all passengers and crew killed, and no means of returning home, Foster grew up outside the city, raised by the tribe that found him. Some years later, with Foster now an adult, the city’s security forces mysteriously appear in ‘The Gap’ and force him, against his will, to return. However, when a technical glitch inexplicably forces yet another helicopter crash, it gives the unhurt Foster a chance to escape – which is where you come in.

As soon as the immediate danger passes (you have to escape the attention of a guard searching for you), there’s a noticeable shift in tone. The first character you meet is a disarmingly miserable ‘comedy’ cockney, which comes as a surprise if only because those who featured in the earlier introductory cut-scene (including Foster) all had American accents. As you progress through the game you’ll hear the full range of regional British stereotypes – people from ‘The North’, Brummies, Scots and the Welsh are all represented here, although it’s not clear exactly why. In terms of the game though, it’s not the accents, but rather the script and general attitude of the characters which seem a little questionable. Frankly, everyone you meet seems want a bit of a laugh and a joke, and, to be honest, that goes for Foster too. Conversations are littered with crass remarks, innuendo and below-par gags, and at times you feel like you’re trapped in an episode of [terrible UK sitcom] The Brittas Empire rather than – what was it again? – “a gripping science fiction thriller set in a bleak vision of the future”.

The comic book style scenes are very impressive. And so they should be.

It’s not that the future depicted in BASS isn’t bleak. The city looks and feels pretty grim, there’s a quasi-fascistic regime in place, and a couple of people you meet end up dying quite horribly, but somehow you never really get a feel for the story. While the set-up may not be very original, with a bit more effort, it could certainly have made for a passable sci-fi adventure. It would have helped if some of the characters seemed a bit more interested in what was going on, especially Foster, who occasionally suggests he wants to escape the city, but generally seems pretty unconcerned about his plight.

There’s also a lack of urgency about things, too – though you’re meant to be a man on the run, very few people seem to be looking for you, and you can walk about quite freely without any need for a disguise or a convincing cover story. While a certain suspension of disbelief is always necessary to enjoy games like this, there are times when you are almost willing someone to recognise you – just to see what happens. For example, you can march straight into the city police station without anyone batting an eyelid – and even when your stolen ID card raises suspicions, you can allay the cops’ fears by explaining that you must have dropped it in your breakfast cereal. Clearly, fascist regimes aren’t what they used to be.

Of course, none of this prevents BASS from being a perfectly serviceable adventure, and though the tone of the game may not be exactly what you’d want or expect, it’s certainly nothing that should deter you from giving the game a go. This was the last game that Revolution made before they unleashed George Stobbart on the world, and certain features of the game will be familiar to anyone who’s played Broken Sword – the way you’re occasionally ‘fenced-in’ by the game in order to solve a particular puzzle, for example. There is the occasional possibility of death, too, though as with Broken Sword, the warning signs are usually pretty clear.

In cyberspace, you're purple and naked, and are constantly under the watch of a giant eyeball. Sounds like a dream I once had.

The puzzles are all fairly standard stuff, with the usual crowbarring-open of doors and crates mixed with slightly more unusual situations. Without too many objects to pick up or different areas to explore, BASS is quite a small game, but it does mean that you don’t spend too much time wandering around aimlessly wondering what to do next. One minor innovation is the inclusion of ‘cyberspace’ sequences, where you have to connect to a computer interface, Neuromancer-style, and caper about inside the system. For some, these sections may represent a disappointment or a missed opportunity, but if, like me, you’d run screaming from the cyberspace sections in, say, System Shock, then the basic puzzles on offer here will come as a welcome distraction, rather than a nightmarishly tricky sub-game.

As far as graphics and sound go, everything is as you’d expect for a game of this vintage. The graphics, while a little blocky, still look pretty good, although for some reason the backgrounds tend to look a little ‘washed out’ and faded compared to the character sprites. Despite what we’ve said already about the script, the voice acting itself is fairly solid, but the music is a little bit on the ‘jolly’ side for my liking. At other times, while the intention to produce epic, movie-style strings is clear, the limitations of the MIDI chip are all too apparent.

Summing-up time now, and though Beneath A Steel Sky may not be one of the better adventure games out there, it’s still enjoyable enough to be worth a play through, especially if you’ve played and completed the more celebrated titles in the genre. At the end of the day, it’s pretty short and relatively undemanding, and available as a freeware download, too, so there’s really very little reason not to at least give it a go. Just don’t go expecting DreamWeb or Blade Runner. Which you shouldn’t, frankly, because we’ve already told you that it’s nothing like either of those games – weren’t you paying attention? Actually, don’t answer that.