First posted on 01 July 2012. Last updated on 01 July 2012.
|Flashbacks trigger fragments of Mason's memory about his past.|
|Watch out for the inmates at the asylum!|
|Mason finds an unfinished letter disclosing a plan to kill him.|
|Mason seeks help from his ex-fiancée Lisa Loomis.|
Countdown, released in 1990, is a much underrated point-and-click adventure game from Access Software that features near photorealistic graphics, impressive sounds and music, and limited digitized speech. It is a game that fans of classic adventure games will enjoy and a game that delivers a media experience which is ahead of its time.
Set in the near future of 1992, the game begins with a note informing your character that he has no memory of who he is or where he is. He soon discovers that he is locked inside a cell in an asylum, a mental hospital that is only referred to as the Sanctuary. With clues he gathers from his cell and the patrolling guard, he learns that his name is Mason Powers and that he has developed amnesia after having been in some kind of accident. He also learns the he has been committed for shooting and killing his friend and coworker McBain and that somebody wants to kill him in the morning.
Rather than sitting around to wait for his own death, Mason decides to escape from his cell and to try to figure out what has happened to him with an intent to clear his name. Eventually, he discovers that he has once been employed by the CIA (referred to only as the Company) and that it is responsible for committing him to the Sanctuary in an attempt to try to silence him.
After Mason escapes, he begins to investigate, though not really knowing who to trust. Certain clues he finds triggers flashbacks which reveal small parts of the night when McBain is found dead. He soon remembers McBain's dying words, "Get Scorpio". He also learns that a mole exists inside the Company and that a terrorist organization called Black December is planning a major terrorist attack in the near future.
When interacting with a character in the game, a close-up portrait of the character is brought into view along with the dialog choices. Each character has a few different portrait poses, so that it is possible to elicit some kind of emotional feedback when Mason questions the said character. The developer claims that the portraits are made from scans of real actors, thus giving the game's visuals a level of photorealism that is rare in video games of this era.
In a few flashback sequences, a series of static frames are stringed together to mimic video animation. Sound effects and even voices are also added to these flashbacks. The game supports dedicated soundcards such as Sound Blaster and Ad Lib, but these peripherals are rather rare at the time of the game's release. As an alternative, the game supports the internal PC speaker to output the sounds. Using a proprietary technology called RealSound developed by Access Software, the game can emulate sound effects and voices to good effect. RealSound has been used successfully in earlier games from Access Software, including Mean Streets.
The game uses a point system for scoring, and the score is displayed at the top of the screen. Gathering clues, gaining information, picking up items, and performing key actions grant different numbers of points. The game can be completed by scoring only 348 out of a total of 515 points. Some points are optional, since there are several objects which can be picked up but which are never used or do not grant any information. The game also uses a time system, and the current in-game date and time are displayed next to the score. This is important, as the game has to be completed within 96 hours. The time clock runs at normal speed, except when traveling which speeds it up. When traveling, Mason can choose to spend more time to travel by train or more money to travel by plane. Both time and money are limited, so managing these resources is an important strategy in this game.
The game supports both the mouse and joystick as supplemental input devices but can be played using the keyboard only. Actions can be selected by clicking on the action verbs with the mouse or joystick, but navigating Mason can only be done using arrow keys on the keyboard. Spacebar is used to toggle between these modes when using the keyboard only. There are 9 predefined action verbs: Look, Open, Move, Get, Use, Go To, Talk, Taste, and Travel. The action verbs Look, Open, Move, and Get are used to interact with objects in a scene, but Use is only used to select items from the inventory. Thus, Mason can only Move but not Use a light switch to turn on the light. Go To is used to navigate to another room or scene, such as through a door or out of a window (arrow keys cannot be used to navigate Mason out of a room or scene). Taste is an unusual action verb that is also entirely unnecessary, in that the game can be completed with full points without ever using it. For most parts of the game, Travel is disabled (such as when Mason is trapped inside the Sanctuary). When available, selecting this action verb opens up another interface where Mason can choose to travel around Europe and Middle East. In most scenes, Go To can also be used optionally to open up the same interface.
When interrogating a character, there are 7 additional predefined action verbs: Help, Hassle, Pleasant, Bluff, Ask About, Offer, and Leave. The action verbs Help, Hassle, Pleasant, and Bluff are used to interact directly with the character. There are no standard dialog trees. Instead, dialog choices change depending on which character Mason is interrogating. Further, different combinations of action verbs can trigger different responses during an interrogation. For example, Help and Hassle will trigger a different emotional response from the character than Hassle and Help. In some interrogations, the dialog tree can be rather deep (5 to 6 levels or so). Replies from Mason such as "I don't know much more along these lines, try a new approach." is triggered whenever the dialog tree is reset. Some characters can be insulted and terminate Mason's interrogation, so that Mason must restart the interrogation to reset the dialog tree. Infrequently, choosing the wrong verbs will lead to Mason's death. Ask About is used for questioning specific topics, usually about other characters. Each topic has to be acquired before it can be used. Topics can be acquired by looking at objects or talking to other characters. The use of Ask About is not influenced by the dialog tree, but some characters may refuse to answer questions initially. Offer is used to give an item to another character, usually cash.
As with all graphic adventure games of that era, the low resolution graphics can sometimes lead to bad puzzle design. Some pixel-hunting is unavoidable, but not to the extreme. Most of the times, Mason can usually stand anywhere in the room to perform an action, such as picking up an object, even when he is far away. In a few times, Mason needs to get close to the object in order to perform an action. It is possible to reach a dead-end simply because Mason runs out of time or money. Saving the game often will keep the frustration to a minimum of replaying the large parts of the game after hitting a dead-end.
Countdown is a game that offers up a memorable game experience with impressive visuals and audios for its time. It is easy to criticize a game of this vintage for design elements that are now seen as flaws, but such criticism ignores the historical context of game design philosophy within which this game is made. Overall, Countdown is an underdog adventure game that many classic adventure game fans will enjoy, for both the story and the media experience it manages to deliver.