Preview - Cyberia (DOS, 1994)

Technology alters our daily lives in countless ways, but its effects are perhaps most blatantly obvious when it comes to computer games. With the exception of key inventions like the radio and the television, electronic entertainment is perhaps the easiest field in which to see this cause and effect relationship. As soon as a major new piece of hardware is even rumored, along come a dozen games to require you to ante up and buy into the new toy. Now that we all have CD-ROM drives and computers fast enough to take advantage of them, we have a wave of products that attempt to bridge the gap between traditional computer games and the Hollywood movies they often try to simulate. This is how we get cinematic games like Rebel Assault and Alone in the Dark. It's also the trend that is soon to bring us Cyberia, a new Interplay game designed by Xatrix Interactive.

Cyberia is an action/adventure game that's about as close to being a movie as a game can get before it ceases to be a game. In it, the year is 2027, and the world economy has cracked like a rotten egg. (I think it's illegal for a game with "Cyber" in the title to have a cheery, optimistic future setting.) You play Zak, a hacker with a background in nanotechnology and a penchant for shooting things. Zak has a big weight on his shoulders: there's an insidious doomsday device hidden under the permafrost of Siberia, and as usual, Superman and Powdered Toast Man are off boozing it up somewhere.

Cyberia is essentially a graphic adventure connected by action scenes. Much of the fun in the game comes from walking around the beautiful SGI-rendered backdrops and talking to other characters. Unlike typical adventure games, this is handled in the "fly-by-wire" style of Rebel Assault or Dragon's Lair; there are predetermined paths you can choose, each of which take you to individual predetermined sections of the game. Many of these terminate in an action sequence; if you're successful in the action phase, you get to continue moving about and exploring the different paths.

The gameplay may not sound striking in print, but this is hardly a text adventure. Thanks to the power of Silicon Graphics workstations, Cyberia is a graphical tour de force which leads you from one beautiful scene to the next. The animation of the characters is arresting; they move like humans, with seamless fluid movement never before seen on full-screen characters. The computer generated character images get their movement from real-life human actors, similar to the way Origin is generating the animation for Bioforge. The result is reminiscent of the rotoscoped characters of such games as Flashback, but on a much larger scale. It's an effect game owners will be showing off to their friends for a long time to come.

The action scenes usually involve you shooting at moving targets as you are whisked across vivid terrain in a vehicle beyond your control. For these scenic fly-bys, Xatrix turns once again to the advanced performance of Silicon Graphics computers. Hand-drawn texture maps are applied to 3D objects and rendered to create the terrain. Once rendered, visual effects like atmospheric haze, camera angles, and light sourcing can be added to the terrain in real time, something 3D Studio would have to completely re-render the scene to accomplish. After the scenery has been completed, establishing the flight path is another task the SGIs turn into a simple matter. By using a 3D controller, even a non-tech type can fly through the terrain just like piloting a flight sim. This flight is then rendered at 30 frames per second at 1280x1024 resolution in 32-bit color, then saved out as a footage file. When ported over to the DOS platform, the result is an extremely smooth and realistic flight scene that doesn't tax your computer's processor nearly as heavily as it would had it been created with more conventional means. And since the background scenery and the targets you'll be shooting down are all generated by computer, the "cut-out" effect of blue screen filming disappears totally.

Cyberia has been designed not with the hard-core gamer in mind, but as a product to appeal to casual and non-gamers and suck them into the world of computer entertainment. If this is its goal, Cyberia should be an unqualified success. If its beautiful visuals can impress jaded game veterans like magazine staffers, just think how an uninitiated spectator will react! Shocked mumbles of "I didn't know a computer could do that!" are bound to be a common response among Cyberia's target audience. Even if you think you've seen it all, every last 3D trick in the book, take a gander at Cyberia. With Hollywood-style games like this, can the attentions of Dino DeLaurentis be far away?

Download the demo for Cyberia here