Anybody who grew up watching the Apollo space missions on TV must have at least a little desire to be an astronaut. The fiery magnificence of the early morning launches, the tension-filled minutes leading up to lunar landings, the bizarre image of the Lunar Rover crawling across the barren landscape of the moon - these events were on the edge of both science fact and fiction, and the sheer drama surrounding them has never been rivaled. Apollo 18 tries to re-create the exhilaration of those Apollo missions by letting you take on the duties of a NASA astronaut, but about the only thing it truly succeeds at is proving there's a whole lot of tedious work that goes on behind the scenes of a moon shot.
Part of the reason for this tedium is the game's extremely heavy emphasis on procedure - you must activate systems at the proper time and in the correct sequence - but sloppy coding and sparse, uninspired graphics are to blame too. The first puzzler is why the game says you must run the training missions at 640x480x256, while the actual missions can apparently be played at the resolution of your choosing. It's bad enough that a product being released in the US in 1999 runs at such a low resolution, but what's more annoying is that the instructions are wrong: The training missions ran just fine even when I didn't change from my usual 800x600x16-bit resolution.
The training consists of numerous true/false tests and simulations, and it was during the first test that I realized that astronauts must log countless hours memorizing all the operations they have to perform - and that performing them after they've been committed to memory can be fairly monotonous. You're well advised to study the training videos provided on the Johnson Space Center disc (for some reason, all the people training you have patches for the Kennedy Space Center), but be ready with pen and paper before you view: None of this info is available elsewhere in the game or the manual, and the smallest tidbit that's mentioned in a video might pop up on your next test. Of course, the fact that the guy who's droning on about gimbal angles looks like a model from Men's Health and has a delivery as dry as moon dust means you might miss an important fact no matter how studious you are.
After finally passing the first written test, you move on to the launch simulator - which once again drives home how difficult commanding a space mission must be. The manual has entire sections devoted to assisting you in following the oral commands from flight control. The challenge here is knowing when to push buttons on the various control panels; it sounds boring, but the sound effects and voices from mission control as they go through the prelaunch sequence actually do charge the whole proceeding with an air of realism. As the engines make a dull roar and mission control asks you if you copy, you finally start to get the sensation of being there. The second simulation involves reentry, and while much of it's rather sterile - you mainly click buttons when you're told to - I've got to admit that I had a severe twinge of anxiety when mission control advised me of a loss-of-signal period, and I knew I'd be out of contact with them.
But just when things start to get a little interesting, problems crop up that constantly hamper your enjoyment. Although your progress is supposed to be saved when you exit, I found that I had to take a true/false test again (ouch!) even though I'd already passed one and had moved on to the simulator. To be fair, it only happened once, but it was troubling nonetheless. Then there's the online glossary that only scrolls seven entries per mouse click: Getting to the description of "PGNS button" takes about 20 mouse clicks, and before long you'll wind up flipping through the glossary in the manual - real space-age technology, eh? And when I hit the Esc key to end a video sequence, I was kicked out to the desktop on several occasions.
The overriding problem with Apollo 18, though, is its static nature: You listen to a command, then click the appropriate button. Repeat this about 200 times, and you've got an idea of how thrilling things can get. Now, there are points during actual missions where unexpected events occur, and there's a palpable sense of tension and danger when you have to react on your own. But even these moments aren't nearly exciting enough to make up for the boring procedures that precede them.
Apollo 18 might have nailed all the procedures involved in launching a man into space, but it never really conveys the spirit of the thing - and isn't that what it's all about?