Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Future Was Then

Before Bethesda did mega-games like Morrowind, Oblivion and Fallout 3, they made First Person Shooters for the Terminator franchise.

Those of you who think the light gun cabinet game Judgment Day is the only worthwhile game on the license will be forgiven (it is, after all, pretty sweet). But Bethesda’s two titles, Future Shock (1995) and Skynet (1996) were not only good – they were prescient, sophisticated and half a decade ahead of its peers.

Given the license, I’ll try to refrain from time travel jokes. But Future Shock and Skynet couldn’t be more ahead of the curve if they arrived in a fence-melting bolt of lightning.

Before I go nuts singing these games’ praises, bear in mind that this was 1995. FS was playable only in 320x200, until advances made by Skynet made it playable in a stunning 640x480. Got it? Swell. Let’s go nuts.

Ask any Terminator fan pre-Salvation, and they’ll say the only thing they ever wanted was the first five minutes of Cameron’s Terminator 2 – the battle between the resistance and the machines – expanded into a full-on, kickass movie. For those fans (for us, my friends), Future Shock was a godsend. You played as a resistance soldier reporting directly to Connor.

If the post-nuclear palate was a little drab (even for then), the thrill of creeping around nuked-out LA was undeniable. The whirr and whine of Terminators was dread-inspiring, even if their polygonal models were a little laughable.

Future Shock was one of the first games to use freelook – the mechanic used almost without exception today, whereby the mouse determines where one’s head is pointed and the arrow keys move them along. No more imagining what was outside the strict x-axis of your field of vision – you could look wherever your smitten heart pleased.

Think that’s hot shit for 1995? Get this – you could walk in and out of buildings. See a convenience store? Wonder if there might be a box of satchel charges in the back? Check it out! Just be prepared to wait a minute or two while the textures load.

If the sheer modernity isn’t redirecting your blood flow, perhaps this will – there are vehicle levels. Granted, this isn’t an open world shooter – you can’t drive-around willy-nilly – but the ability to drive a laser-turreted jeep or even (gasp!) a flying Hunter-Killer was new to me. If the controls took some getting used to, that was fine – it was neat stuff, flying above that 320x200 landscape, mostly immune to the physics that, so far as first person shooters were concerned, didn’t exist yet.

In the future, where machine conquers men in spirit if not in body, these conventions would become commonplace, even mandatory among first person shooters. But in 1995, they were revolutionary.