What gamer hasn't complained about weak artificial intelligence? In fact, it's often the skill and deviousness of computer opponents that make a good game. This is not so in MindRoverThe Europa Project. It's an innovative strategy game with puzzle elements that puts the task of artificial-intelligence programming in your hands - so you have no one to blame but yourself when things go poorly.
Available only from developer CogniToy at the company's web site, MindRover is essentially a robot-programming tool kit. You must equip and program a vehicle, or rover, to go about accomplishing a series of specific tasks. The concept may sound simple, but each task is a test of logical thinking and problem-solving skills. You don't actually control the rovers when they set about their duties; instead, they rely solely on the programming you give them. If you can imagine those robot-building contests typically run by M.I.T. and other tech schools, you'll have a good idea what MindRover is like.
Some tasks are simple, such as winning a race around an oval track or locating and ramming another rover. Others include a full capture-the-flag game, a hockey game between hovercrafts, and even a high-speed chase between a police rover and a taxi. The tasks require complex solutions that may challenge even the most seasoned gaming veterans.
For each scenario, you first select a rover chassis appropriate for the task. Rovers can be hovercrafts, tanks, or cars. As you might expect, each works best in different situations. Similarly, each requires different types of equipment to operate properly. With the scenario goal in mind, you must select the proper equipment to load onto your rover without going over preset weight and point limitations (each type of equipment has a point value). These components include weapons, sensors, engines, and some interesting options such as police lights and speakers. Once your equipment is in place, you can wire it all together using a series of script commands that make up CogniToy's ICE programming language.
The scripting is done on an intuitive work screen, where each component is displayed as an icon. By dragging one component of your rover to another, you link them with an ICE script. For example, you might connect the steering mechanism to a radar so that you can direct your rover toward an object that appears on the scope. You can augment your scripts with variables and timers, or you can try to rough it with brute-force programming techniques. That's one of the joys of the game: You are free to tackle each puzzle in any way you choose.Though the scripting is far simpler than most programming languages, it can still be rather intimidating. Many of the terms are a little thick, and the tutorial material runs out all too quickly. Some items, such as the LootSensor, are not covered by the tutorials at all. Still, if you have ever whipped up your own level for a first-person shooter or customized a game using scripts, you will have little difficulty learning how to use ICE. If you ever do get stuck on something, you can always get help at the CogniToy web site, primarily from other MindRover players who actively post useful ideas, suggestions, and solutions.
The game's OpenGL-based graphics engine is solid, and it features nicely rendered settings for most scenarios. There is only a handful of settings that evoke images of Europa, but otherwise the rover arenas are nicely done. The rovers themselves look like oversized, well-detailed Matchbox construction vehicles, and each component added to them is completely animated in the 3D view. Although the graphics aren't especially impressive, aside from a few collision-detection problems, they do look pretty good.
There are problems scattered throughout MindRover, including an intermittent crash bug that occurs while exiting the game, and that the camera clips through enclosed spaces when a rover gets too close to a wall. The game may also prove too limited for players who don't enjoy tweaking and replaying their scenario solutions for optimum results. The 23 scenarios are not linked, so if you just want to complete them all without trying different solutions for each, you may be disappointed by the game's relative brevity.
Finally, the game could have really benefited from a better tutorial mode. While the printed manual is very thorough, a more complete audio-visual walkthrough of the game's basic elements would have gone a long way toward making MindRover more appealing to a wider audience.
MindRover is an unusual game. It's interesting and addictive enough to deserve the notice of any adventurous gamer, though it will appeal most of all to those who enjoy programming and logic puzzles.