Written by: Rik

Date posted: December 20, 2005


Doesn’t look like the most promising start to a game, does it? Don’t worry – it gets better. And weirder.

When you talk about point and click adventures, the obvious places to start are the respective back-catalogues of the two heavyweights of the genre, LucasArts and Sierra. Of course, plenty of other developers have had a crack over the years, even if their efforts haven’t been remembered quite as fondly as some of their more famous counterparts. While the Delphine “Cinematique” adventures (of which Future Wars – subtitled “Adventures in Time” – was the first) may not be instantly recognisable to all, they aren’t particularly obscure, and certainly weren’t considered also-rans at the time: for a brief period in the early 90s new releases from the French developer were eagerly anticipated by adventuring fans (especially if they happened to own an Amiga or Atari ST). However, despite the success of Future Wars and spy-caper Operation Stealth, their third adventure game, Cruise for a Corpse, was generally considered a disappointment, and with LucasArts starting to come into their own, Delphine switched their focus away from point-and-clickers, focusing on eccentric (but well-received) action-adventures such as Another World and Flashback.

Speaking of which, Future Wars employs a similar “ordinary guy transported to a far-off world for bizarre adventures” approach for its plot. You play a nameless window-cleaner who indulges in a spot of snooping around in the boss’s office one day only to find himself transported back in time to a strange and sinister world. And then forward in time, to a, erh, futuristic world. You see where the “adventures in time” subtitle comes from? Anyway, it turns out that a sinister and aggressive alien race from the future, the Crughons (amusingly referred to as “Croutons” throughout by the player character) are causing trouble in time in order to win their war against humanity in the year 4315. Put like that, it sounds a bit like The Terminator, a notion quickly dispelled on your arrival in the future, with the brightly-coloured backdrops and spandex outfits rather more reminiscent of Buck Rogers. Before that, though, there are plenty of other adventures, which involves, among other things, going back in time, stealing a guy’s clothes, dressing up as a monk and destroying a mechanical wolf.

As ever, the bad guys look cool in black while you ponce about in your purple bodysuit.

If all of that sounds a little strange (and it does, even to those with a keen awareness of the various oddities involved in “adventure game logic”), then it’s a testament to Future Wars‘ originality. While it isn’t the first game to utilise the concept of travelling through time, the story unfolds in such a way that even this well-trodden path appears relatively fresh. For a start, the game gives you very few clues as to the nature of your “adventures in time” and it is left to you to stumble through the game and work things out for yourself. Moreover, the plot’s twists and turns are actually pretty strange; although you eventually get an explanation, some of the goings on, especially in the medieval village early in the game, are downright creepy.

The general sense of unease is exacerbated by a combination of other devices used by the game to toughen things up. First of all, you can die. And you will. A lot. In fact, death lurks almost around every corner in Future Wars, and anyone who glibly proceeds through a few scenes without saving will be heavily punished. Some of the dangerous bits are pretty obvious – fighting a creature/alien, for example, or finding yourself in a passage that’s closing in on you, Indiana Jones style – but at other times, merely snooping around a little bit can bring about sudden death and game over. Secondly, the game lets you proceed through the story without an object in your inventory which will be vital later on. While this may be seen as fair punishment for lazy players who don’t take in every aspect of each scene, when you consider that there are times in the game when extreme urgency is required to avoid death. There’s also a bit of a problem with pixel-hunting, made worse by the interface, which demands that you use “Examine” to identify objects with which you can interact rather than doing so automatically.

However, by far the greatest source of annoyance is the fact that you have to be positioned extremely precisely in order to perform actions. Those used to more sophisticated interfaces where the player character automatically moves to the appropriate area will quickly become frustrated with the demands of this game, which aren’t helped by the frequently small playing area and the often erratic movement of the protagonist. This can be irritating when you know death is probably imminent and you’re wasting time fiddling around, but it’s downright annoying when there’s absolutely no pressure and you know what you have to do, but for some reason the game doesn’t think you’re standing in the right place (see “Come a little closer!”).

Looks like the future really is bright. And orange. (chorus of boos)

Whether by accident or design, the fact is that these various frustrations serve to add longevity to what is essentially quite a short game from start to finish. There aren’t that many locations, with something essential to do on each screen, and there are also very few objects in the game – no ‘red herrings? for you to pick up and try to make use of, and frequent cases of something extremely handy turning up where you wouldn’t really expect it to. In its defence, you might say that this is a deliberate approach: unlike a lot of adventures where you spend a lot of time wandering around wondering what to do next, Future Wars is more of a tense, taut affair during which the emphasis is on being thorough and doing things right.

Mention should also be made of the arcade sequences, although whether they count as another annoyance or not depends on your perspective on this kind of thing. Personally, I don’t mind too much as long as they’re not stupidly hard – in Future Wars‘ case, there’s a shooting section which is a little fiddly but not too difficult, and a point-and-click platform game with ladders and a time limit at the very end which is more so. Both have the capacity to invoke bouts of mild swearing and occasional mouse-bashing, but if you can get through the shooting section, you can always make use of a walkthrough for the platform bit if you don’t consider such things a legitimate part of adventure games.

If it seems like I’ve mainly focused on the negative aspects of Future Wars, it’s probably because I had fond memories of playing it when it was first released, and consequently unreasonable expectations second-time around. One of the most impressive aspects back then was the movie-style presentation (I suppose this is where Cinematique comes in) and though it obviously doesn’t seem so technically awe-inspiring now, this is still apparent. In fact, the general feel of the game is perhaps even more reminiscent of a film than other point and clickers, with tight scripting (we’ve already mentioned the lack of exploration, but not the complete absence of conversation choices), the gradual unravelling of the (initially mysterious) plot, occasional non-interactive cut-scenes, a couple of action sub-games and the frequent need for urgency to avoid death at various points all adding up to something slightly more dynamic than the more laid-back approach favoured by other adventures.

The old ‘bucket of water on top of the door’ trick – classic…

Unfortunately, though, attempts to appreciate Future Wars‘ merits are frequently undermined by the more frustrating aspects of actually having to play it. And while there are lots of occasions when you find yourself being impressed by the game’s presentation, in a fifteen year-old game there’s nothing that’s particularly going to blow you away graphically, while the sound is mostly conspicuous by its absence (and I’m sure the ST version had better music than this – maybe it’s just nostalgia again). At the end of the day, we’re supposed to be asking whether old games still have enough in the tank to distract us from other things – not least playing newer titles. In this respect, Future Wars definitely offers enough to be worth a few hours of your time – but not much more. While hardcore adventurers who haven’t come across it before might want to plough through it unaided, others might want to (dare I say it) keep a walkthrough handy and enjoy it on a more superficial level.