As game reviewers continue to face the glut of 3-D first-person shooters bloating the market each season, some may rue the day Doom or Wolfenstein ever shipped. Nowadays the impulse, I believe, is to find fault with any but the best examples of the genre. Try as I might, I could find little fault with DeathDrome beyond its addictive nature.
A heavily armored super bike, some missiles, and a countdown to scrub - this simple scenario is the basis for one of the best games of its kind to arrive on the scene in quite some time. The story is vaguely reminiscent of Stephen King's Running Man: The year is 2057 and you are serving hard time for the odd crime against humanity. Unfortunately for you, a special interest group bent on eradicating the overpopulated superprisons in the name of entertainment is about to disrupt your peaceful existence. You have been selected to compete in the DeathDrome, an arena free-for-all where convicts fight convicts to stay alive. You were not given a choice.
As the game begins, you choose from a variety of "Runners," motorcycle-like vehicles (looking like something out of the Japanese animated film, Akira) with different levels of performance in four categories - speed, armor, weapons, and handling. All Runners have their strengths and weaknesses so you'll want to test a few before you settle on a favorite. Runners can jump and all come with two identical basic weapons, lasers and an "electro-barrier" which acts like a traveling wall that you deploy from the rear of the vehicle as you drive - a great alternative to the old oil slick. Beyond those two primary weapons, as with every other first-person shooter I've ever played, secondary weapons and other goodies appear as pick-ups during gameplay.
There are five secondary weapons, all creative, my favorite being the "Nitro Ram" which allows you to lock on an opponent and ram him to oblivion if you are within striking range. (Very satisfying.) In addition, there are shields, power-ups, extra life credits, and keys to locked areas lying around the area. The pick-ups represent one of my few gripes about this game. All the weapons and other pick-ups are outlined in the manual and all appear in the first few levels of the game. The designers effectively give everything away too early, leaving us no secret weapons to find and use in the higher levels. Consequently, the skill level of opponents becomes very important as you climb up levels. Thankfully, the program's AI does a good job of dealing with this inevitability.
Each arena level has three rounds - all arenas start with rooms one and two wide open, with rooms three and four opening in successive rounds. When a round begins, all the Runners start on a podium in the center of the arena, facing out. When the clock starts, they head for the arena's side rooms in search of better weapons and their first kills. As you go up in levels, the arena rooms become more elaborate and difficult to navigate.
Scattered throughout the arena to wreak added havoc are many "fusion towers." These small pyramids, if glowing, will set off a deadly radius blast when struck by a laser or Runner (very similar to the "shockwave" weapon available for Runners). One trick is to sit back and shoot the towers from afar, killing your hapless opponents. My favorite maneuver, however, is to drive right into one while being chased and jump up at the last second. The blast expands under you and takes out the enemy - you land after the blast and live to seek another kill.
The object, not surprisingly, is to rack up a certain number of kills before time runs out. Once you've taken out your quota, simply head back to the start podium and the warden will open the exit. One of the slickest parts of this game occurs when your time runs out. If the clock hits zero, the system begins the "scrub" - a cleaning process that will kill any player in its path. The scrub manifests itself like slow-moving, traveling lightning and converges on the center podium. When you see it coming, you'd better head for the center room - even the computer opponents are smart enough to do that. The real race occurs when you have one kill left and you see the scrub enter the podium room. Nerve-racking doesn't begin to describe it.
Perhaps my biggest gripe with this game is its obvious gameplay loophole. In single-player mode, rather than racing to the side rooms in search of secondary weapons, you need only to stay in the main room and gun down your slower-thinking computer opponents. And, as all Runners restart at the center podium, you have an endless supply of fodder - watch that old high score go down in flames. Further, even if you do play the game as it was intended, in single-player mode, you will probably finish the game in an afternoon; I reached level seven (of eight) in my first few hours of play. Clearly though, the most fun to be had with this game, like many other first-person shooters, is in multiplayer mode. DeathDrome may be played with up to eight players over a LAN using IPX or TCP protocol.
The rave music soundtrack is, well, rave music. On a positive note, it didn't give me a headache until about the end of the three-hour session. The graphics are outstanding. I was duly impressed by full screen 320x200 before I even knew there were two higher resolution levels. The developers suggest a Pentium P166 for the highest resolution (640x480) and, while it is beautiful, I wouldn't use that resolution with anything less than a P200. This game is so smooth on the lower resolution settings, it seems a crime to trade playability for a few more dots per inch.
A bit different and a bit innovative, this 3-D first-person shooter is very well done. Get a copy for the criminal on your holiday gift list - it'll make the hard time just fly by.