Review - Zephyr (DOS, 1994)

Let's talk about concepts for a minute here – specifically the concept of the racing/shooting game. These games have been around basically forever in arcades, and on home cartridge systems they've met with considerable success with titles like Super Mario Kart and Road Rash. (Okay, Road Rash doesn't have any actual shooting in it, but biker-to-biker combat does play a big role in your success or failure.) Why is it, then, that the combination of racing and combat has such a hard time getting converted to the PC with any degree of success? I'm not saying that there has never been a good game of this type for the PC. Far from it; Activision met with early success with Deathtrack (a much copied game that still has fans 19 billion years after its release), and shareware Mario Kart clones like Apogee's Wacky Wheels can be great fun when you're in the mood for a simple arcade game. Still, more often than not this type of game doesn't fare well on the PC. Remember CyberRace? That was not a good game. I managed to get a couple evenings worth of entertainment out of it, but I was well within the minority. Now New World Computing has stepped into these most uncertain waters to release Zephyr, a racing and shooting game with hover tanks. Zephyr boasts of intense 3D rendered graphics, adrenaline-pumping multi-player games, and cunning computer opponents. It sounds good, but in reality Zephyr falls short of its promises. Right on its face.

To start off with a nit-picking criticism, Zephyr has one of the worst box designs I have ever had the misfortune to manipulate. The box is folded into an odd shape à la Nova Logic, but the true misery lies inside. Upon opening the top or bottom of the box, I found that you can't get the CD-ROM out of the package without yanking out the cardboard support insert. Very stupid. Is this an important failing? No, not in the least, but it's still annoying. Call it foreshadowing.

The install program of the game is also counter-intuitive. There are two ways to install Zephyr; you can copy about one meg of files to your hard drive, or you can let it copy about five megs to decrease loading time. You wouldn't think this choice would be terribly confusing, but it was certainly odd with Zephyr. To select the five meg install, you tell the program to copy the extra files first, then tell it to install the game. Huh? Why? I glared at the monitor, scratched my head and moved on.

With the installation complete, I moved on to the game. One of the first things I noticed was that the digital sound and music were fantastic. When a game comes on a CD, there's no real excuse for not including top-notch music with it, and in this department Zephyr delivers the goods. Still, the opening music suffered from regular "dropouts", a condition where the music stops playing for a split second while the program catches up to it. That seriously marred an otherwise positive first impression of the game's sound. Then the animated intro started, and I could barely believe my eyes. Could it really be running that slow? Yes it was, a low-res VGA animation running on a Pentium with all the speed of IndyCar Racing on a 286. "Maybe my CD drive's too slow for the game," I thought, cursing the overall poor quality of my NEC triple speed tortoise. I switched to another Pentium, which I knew to have a good CD drive and a decent graphics card. Same result, a mind-bogglingly choppy and slow intro screen. I timed it and found it to be running at two frames per second. And the graphics didn't look good, either. I could understand poor speed if it was working with SVGA Silicon Graphics rendered images, but this stuff was ugly and shouldn't have taken any amazing feat of processor power. It was just plain slow, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.

Well, I've seen plenty of good games with bad intros, so I didn't let it dishearten me too much. Still, minus the sound quality my experience with Zephyr so far had been decidedly unimpressive, but I still had a little faith. My faith was about to suffer another blow. At the game's menu screen I looked around, curious to find the settings for the modem and network games, since here at IE we have a network full of Pentiums which we look for every opportunity to misuse. When I found no mention of these options, I took another look at the game's manual, and when I did a little card that had previously escaped my attention fluttered down to my desktop. In part, this is what the card said: "The version of Zephyr you have purchased does not include multi-player capabilities. Multi-player support is presently being tested by our quality assurance team and will be available shortly. To receive your free upgrade all you have to do is mail in the enclosed registration card." I was annoyed, but not nearly as much as I would have been had I paid money for this game instead of another title with multi-player support. I checked the back of the box and found multi-player games to be prominently listed among the game's features. Twice, actually. When a game ships without advertised features and makes no mention of the omission on the box, I get angry, and I'm sure I'm not alone. At least New World Computing offers a free upgrade, unlike Sierra who makes you pay for their mistakes twice.

All this disappointment and irritation and I hadn't even played the game yet! Finally I started the game, and was not surprised at all by what I saw. The sound was just as good as it was in the intro, and the dropouts were gone; that's the only good thing I can say about the game, but I DO give Zephyr high marks for sound quality. My problem with the gameplay started superfluously enough with the graphics, which I found to be ugly and several years out of date. The colors were garish and the overall look of the game was reminiscent of a thrown-together Hanna-Barbara cartoon. The colors were garish (Has anyone ever seen a city with an orange sky and all orange buildings? Does anybody want to?), and the hover tanks looked like they had been dropped into their surroundings with a crippled shareware paint program.

Poor graphics won't necessarily kill a game if it has decent gameplay. Zephyr didn't. The speed problem I encountered in the intro sequence returned to maul the game. It wasn't as bad as the intro, but it was bad. Racing games are supposed to be fast. Zephyr was not. I never felt that I was piloting a speedy craft, and the frame rate of the animation, while better than two frames per second, was annoyingly choppy. Shooting at enemy tanks was mildly entertaining, but the graphics were poor enough that it was hard to tell if I was hitting or missing.

Remember that I said that Zephyr is a combination of shooting and racing. Well, whoever designed the "scenarios" must have forgotten about the racing element. (I picture Kevin Kline typing code into a computer; he pauses, dons a confused and vacant look, and asks, "What was the middle part?") You play in various cities, and they are laid out like cities. Racetracks aren't laid out like cities, and these cities didn't resemble racetracks in the slightest. One of the goals of the game, apart from killing other tanks, is to complete the most laps around the track. Completing laps actually pays better than wasting tanks, so I would assume that the game's designers deemed it a more important task. Damned if I could figure out where the race course was, though. During one race I concentrated wholly on killing other tanks, and my post-race stats credited me with six laps completed. Early in the next competition I found a checkered flag marker, so I did nothing but run circles around the city's perimeter, crossing that checkered line upwards of ten times. At the end of the scenario, I had completed one lap. I considered putting my joystick through my monitor screen, but after several seconds decided against it.

After honestly trying to like Zephyr, I can't recommend it to a single game player in existence. Its one positive characteristic is its sound quality, but I can buy a music CD for far less money than this turkey costs. Zephyr is a wreck from start to finish, surprising considering the quality of games New World Computing is capable of. To paraphrase a country song I dislike, "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to play Zephyr."