Black Ice/White Noise
Ambient Distortions has ended years of speculation and expectation with its excellent CD release of the "alpha" version of BI:WN. Although it lacks some of the features that have been found in the later versions of this game (which are, yes, in existence), this release offers the largest and most stable gaming environment for Jaguar gamers to explore.
BI:WN became a collectible on the day it was released, but Jaguar fans should do themselves a favour and actually play this title instead of keeping it pristine in Ambient Distortions' handsome CD jewel case. It's clear that Atari spent a lot of money in developing this title, and the results are certainly notable. BI:WN is, in itself, a fantastic demo that truly does show off the graphics capabilities of the Jaguar, but it's also an important milestone marking the height -- and the end -- of Atari's in-house programming efforts for their remarkable console.
BI:WN opens in the middle of one of the many streets of "New San Francisco," a gaming environment which seems to have been conceived as a bleak, dangerous, urban blightscape set sometime in the future. Because most of the danger hadn't been coded into this version, though, the effect is more "Oakland, 2003."
No general gaming "plot" can be ascertained in this version of BI:WN. It may be possible to complete some gaming "tasks" in this version of the game, but the true purpose of Ambient Distortions' release is to give all Jag CD owners the opportunity to wander -- and wonder -- at the half-finished treasures that this game has to offer. BI:WN is best regarded, then, as a "demo" of a finished game, rather than as a complete game in itself, although it is fully playable and provides to players an absolutely huge gaming environment to explore.
The playing screen is divided into a number of windows which all convey important information. The central playing field is bordered on the right by an "accessories field", which displays all items currently in your character's possession. Your character is initially equipped with a small amount of ammunition, weapons, and a device called "my first deck" which appears to be a transportation device. The number of blank slots in the accessories field indicates that other items were to have been coded for later releases of the game.
The top portion of the screen contains important information regarding your character's location in the city. New San Francisco has been plotted on a standard grid layout, and players should be able to orient themselves fairly easily despite the size of this town.
The status bar at the top of the screen will also alert players to incoming "mail", which they'll start to get after starting the game, but, despite many frustrating attempts, I haven't been able to read it. With my luck, it'd probably just be spam.
Unlike most games for the Jaguar CD, load times are brief and incorporated well within the structure of the game. It seems as if, with one of its last projects, Atari finally realized that gamers had little patience for titles that forced long and boring interruptions. It's too bad that this important lesson was learned too late.
Many buildings can be explored, although most of them are empty. Many of the rooms also contain elevators, but I haven't yet found one of these that works. Most doors will be closed to players, and these are non-operational, but I've found that the control character can simply walk right through them. I'm sure that some security feature would have been present in the final version of the game to prevent players from accessing buildings too easily.
Your character is also equipped with a "taxi-whistle" with which one is supposed to theoretically call one of the red taxis that you'll occasionally see whizzing overhead. Don't New San Franciscans have cell phones or pagers?
Despite my best attempts (which have included various joypad combinations of kicking, jumping, hopping and shouted threats at my TV), I haven't been able to flag a cab. Maybe I should try waving around some of that virtual money.
People also inhabit the world of New San Francisco, but they're hard to find. It's not clear how many people populate the streets of New San Francisco, but it's probable that most of them are unknown to anyone but the coders. Clint Thompson of Ambient Distortions advises that, despite hours of gameplay, he's "nowhere near" finished exploring every area of New San Francisco, and it's apparent that this game holds many surprises for the intrepid explorer.
Ambient Distortions' "Alpha" release of BI:WN does not include an in-game soundtrack, music, or even sound effects to spice up gameplay. I'm told that the full-motion video clips of various characters are presented with full audio effect, but as I have not yet met anyone in the game ( I prefer to wander the streets instead of exploring buildings), I cannot test this claim.
Unlike most adventure games, silence does not particularly impede or detract from gameplay in BI:WN. A gaming soundtrack is available from the Ambient Distortions website, which is quite good in itself, but I've had just as much fun selecting my own background music to create the appropriate gaming atmosphere. Something from Brian Eno's "ambient" phase or the soundtrack to "Blade Runner" is nicely appropriate; Debbie Gibson's "Greatest Hits" is not.
BI:WN should, once and for all, lay rest to any claim that it's impossible to create an effective 3D gaming environment in a Jaguar game. The graphical world of BI:WN is, simply, breathtaking, and is in my mind superior to all other Atari-released titles.
BI:WN is described as a "first-person adventure", but I think that it's more appropriate to describe it as an "ass-view first-person adventure"; perspective is both slightly behind and above the control character at all times. Character viewpoint is altered by horizontal directional joypad movement, just as it is in both Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. The result, which approximates the effect when we swivel our own heads to obtain better lateral vision, is not unpleasant.
Players never see a full frontal view of their control character, and this is a fact that I find to be more than slightly disturbing during gameplay. Ambient Distortions' instructions suggest that it's possible to pick your character's sex, but I've only been able to select the character who I'm assuming to be (from the CD jewel case) the "cyber/punk girl". She (he?) is pretty sexless, though, and with that nice black hair and oh-so-'80s "Captain Eo" outfit, I can't seem to stop visualizing Michael Jackson as the control character. Thriller!
Weirdness aside, the control character is extremely well-drawn and player-controlled movements are both smooth and realistic. It's possible to make your character jog, walk, hop, and kick, although none of these movements are required to explore the game in Ambient Distortions' release.
The cityscape of New San Francisco is also presented extremely well, although, in keeping with the game's punk/futuristic/noir theme, the environment of BI:WN is exceptionally dark and gloomy. The City's buildings are, for the most part, all tall skyscrapers, but they're largely distinct from each other. Occasional shops and government offices, such as police stations and medical centres, do liven up the endless city blocks. The dark, sleek visuals of BI:WN occasionally replicate the look of both "Blade Runner" and are prescient of those later featured in "The Matrix", and it's clear that Atari was attempting to build a high degree of coolness factor into the game. This is mostly successful, although some visuals (e.g. character wardrobe and building interiors) are more camp than cool.
The central core of the city appears to be more complete than other areas, which I call "the suburbs". In the "suburbs", which are typically located on the edges of the gaming environment, only the outlines of streets have been completed, and there are large, dark, blank, untraversable regions between them. It's unclear at this point whether or not these areas would have contained a different type of building, parks, or even residential areas.
In total, however, the graphic environment of BI:WN's "New San Francisco" is extremely impressive and similar in scope and detail to worlds depicted in more highly-touted PlayStation and Dreamcast games.
BI:WN is a fascinating product that all Jaguar owners will want to own notwithstanding its semi-finished status. I'm not convinced that this game would have been completely successful had it been finished and released as scheduled, but, in its open concept, stunningly innovative graphics, cool visuals, and weirdly exotic features, it's clear that BI:WN presaged such ground-breaking games as the Grand Theft Auto series.
Ambient Distortions has provided a remarkable service to all Atari owners with its authorized release of this extraordinary title. BI:WN provides a fascinating glimpse of what Atari had in mind for the Jag in the dying days of its life. That the Jag does this so well, and with so little effort, suggests that most released software did very little to exploit the Jag's advanced hardware.