Review - Under a Killing Moon (DOS, 1994)

For the past year, game buyers have been deluged with facts and rumors about a product that proclaimed itself to be "simply the biggest and best entertainment CD product ever produced." That product is Under A Killing Moon from Access Software Incorporated. It's that sort of hype that puts the most negative twist on the familiar catch phrase "Interactive Movie." In other words, the last time I saw this level of pre-release propaganda was when Batman Returns came to town.

As a result of my innate hostility to this kind of saturation campaign, I may have started in on Under a Killing Moon with a more negative attitude than I would have otherwise. But despite my cynical reaction to the game's over-promotion, I am shocked and delighted to say that this gargantuan product actually deserves most of its hoopla.

If anyone has somehow managed to avoid all the ads and articles, it goes a little something like this. In 21st century San Francisco, Private Detective Tex Murphy (seen previously in Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum) has seven days to solve a case that starts out as a simple search for a missing artifact, but turns into a battle with an evil presence that dates back to the days of World War II.

This game is one big tribute to the classic hard-boiled detective stories of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The artifact Murphy goes after in the storyline is a valuable crystal bird. Does the Maltese Falcoln ring a bell? Heck, Murphy's office is even on Chandler Avenue.

One of the big selling points of Killing Moon is its sheer size, and it's certainly worth a mention. Initial publicity reported that three CD-ROMs would be required to bring the San Francisco playing field to life, but when all was said and done, Moon actually took up four CD's. While that means a tremendous amount of flexibility and places to travel to and explore, it also means that computer games are coming full circle back to disc swapping again. Swapping does get to be particularly annoying in this game.

As for the claim that the game let's you go anywhere and do anything, that's simply not true. Within the beautifully rendered SVGA sets, you do have a great deal of flexibility. But there are only so many closets that open, only so many drawers you can peek into, and everything else might as well be wallpaper. This is not really a drawback, nor is it a tremendous surprise. Even a four CD game has finite space capacity.

The mouse-click interface is amazingly well designed. There's hardly any need to look in the manual. But I'd suggest having a peek anyway. It's beautifully laid out with lots of screen shots. If you find yourself having trouble with the puzzles through the course of the game, or if you just don't want to have to worry about them, you can use the numerous saved games and the online hints.

The digitized video and sound work really well. True, the performances are not neccessarily Oscar quality stuff, but we're not talking about Lawrence of Arabia here, either. Thankfully, the comic tone of the product allows lots of leeway for the occasional mediocre performance. While much of the hype revolves around the "name" celebrities that worked on this product (Russell Means, Brian Keith, and, of course, Margot Kidder), almost nothing has been said about the actor who plays Tex, the sarcastic, occasionally drunken private eye. The part is brought to life by Chris Jones, who is also the co-designer and director of the game. He has done a fine job on both sides of the camera.

While all the bells and whistles in Under A Killing Moon work pretty well, the most remarkable thing to me is that it's actually very funny. The dialogue is good, and usually delivered quite well. When Murphy is talking with another character, the player options are not direct quotes, but attitudes Tex can take. This way, when Murphy is supposed to deliver a "crushing insult," the exact words will also take the player by surprise.

While there are puzzles in this product, and a certain amount of action the player needs to take, it really doesn't feel like a game. There's so much entertainment here that it really does feel like an "Interactive Movie." Gee, a product living up to its hype. What will they think of next?

Download the demo for Under a Killing Moon