Have you ever seen the Excedrin commercial where the guy says he uses Tylenol for everything except headaches? I always thought that was a really lamebrain ad because it mentions the competitor's product before - and almost as often - as the one it's trying to sell.
Why am I talking about an Excedrin commercial instead of Powerslave, Playmate Interactive Entertainment's entry into the insufferably crowded first-person shooter market? Because at PIE's web site they do exactly the same thing: In the section for Powerslave is a caption that reads, "Duke May Rock But Ramses Rules" - not a wise comparison when the game you're pushing lacks several key features of that classic.
Hey, I'm not saying Powerslave is a bad game: When you stack it up against stuff like ZPC, Alien Trilogy, and Rex Blade, it comes out smelling like roses. But put it against the cream of the crop - Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, SKYnet, and the freeware demo Redneck Rampage - and it moves quickly into the "just OK" zone.
You play as a covert operations specialist who's been ferried into the Egyptian city of Karnak to find out who or what has sealed off the town from the rest of the world. The only information you have is from a villager who somehow managed to escape; before he died, he said someone had invaded the city, stolen the mummy of the Pharoah Ramses, and was attempting to bring him back to life. The intruders are also embalming and mummifying live villagers to keep the populace in line.
As you start the game, all you have to defend yourself is a machete, but just as in any one man war, there are plenty of weapons and pgwer-ups just waiting to be grabbed: an M-60 machine gun, hand grenades, a flamethrower, and a slew of magical items that do everything from making you invincible to replenishing your life meter.
For a 3-D shoot-'em-up, Powerslave has a couple of nice twists. Some areas aren't accessible unless you push objects around, either revealing new doorways or providing a stepping stone to jump over a wall. Because there are several places where you have to perform some accurate leaps, the inclusion of a third-person perspective can be a big help in calculating jumps. And the magical items add depth to gameplay because you have to decide what to use and when to use it, not to mention collecting enough "magical essence" to enable to you unleash the spells. And a training mode allows you to get used to the interface and various commands without worrying about enemies.
Powerslave also earns fairly high marks in the graphics department: The enemies are nicely textured and shaded, and you have to get almost on top of them before you start noticing pixels. The sound effects are also good, marred only by your character's apparent multiple personality disorder: He sounds like three or four different people, depending on what he's doing.
So far, so good. But compare it to Duke Nukem 3D - they did it, not me! - and its weaknesses stand out like the Great Pyramids in the Valley of the Kings. Probably the most annoying is the game's wretched save-game feature, which reveals the game's PlayStation's origins. Instead of being able to save a game at any point during play, you have to give a new game a name and then save it at certain points within each level; your progress is automatically saved at the end of a level.
What this means is that if you quit and load a saved game, you're forced to start at the beginning of a level regardless of how far you progressed in that level the last time you played. The save game feature is a little more forgiving if you don't exit the game because you're only taken back to the last mid-level save point, but it's still a far cry from being able to save every single bit of your progress as you can in Duke, Quake, or about any other quality shooter you care to name. I've got no problem with a PlayStation game being ported to PC so long as the translation takes advantage of the new platform - something that clearly wasn't done here.
There are other problems in Powerslave probably related to the slapdash conversion from console system to PC. Want to use your fancy programmable gamepad to play Powerslave? Well, that's too bad, because there's no joystick or gamepad support whatsoever. Since most of us like to move as fast as we can in these kind of games, the absence of an "always run" button - another common feature in first-person shooters - is a real mystery. There are no adjustable difficulty settings; strafing left or right is too slow to be effective, even if you're holding the run button; and at seven weapons, counting the near-useless machete and a boring (but effective) Cobra Staff, the arsenal's not exactly breathtaking. And the shortcomings continue in multiplayer mode. While 12 multiplayer-only levels is acceptable, it doesn't begin to approach the number of multiplayer levels in Duke or Quake. What's more, there's no option to play with monsters on, and you can't exit from one level to another - to move to a new level you have to quit and start a new game. There aren't any armor bonuses in the levels, so the only way to get new armor is to die. And though the advertising copy at the Powerslave web site claims you can use Windows 95's dial-up networking for head-to-head play, a call to the PIE Tech Support department revealed the truth: The game only supports multiplayer games over an IPX-compatible network.
If you can find a copy of Powerslave at a discount - say, $20 to $25 - it might be worth a look; despite all its flaws, I still had fun playing it. Pay any more, though, and it will be like shelling out full price for day-old falafel.