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MICROCOSM REVIEW - February 1994

Oh God. I'm two minutes into the genuinely impressive intro sequence.

Skyscrapers are gliding past in a beautiful slow pan, traffic zooms along below railway bridges carrying busy trains full of commuters, helicopters thwup lazily across the sky. Moodily-lit security guards in body armour stand alert beside huge gun platforms mounted on penthouse roofs. Inside, a nervous surgeon stands ready beside the motionless body of a super-corporation's chief executive, two heavily-built men with ponytails and guns standing by to punish any hesitation. The tension is almost unbearable. And then... and then... picture of a compact disc. Disk Accessing. Please Wait. Bloody hell.

Sometimes, when I'm playing games, the well-practiced mask of cynicism slips away, and I accidentally permit myself to be truly and honestly surprised and horrified at the utter crapness of programmers. The only people in the world who could expend such huge amounts of effort and talent into building up an atmosphere over a minutes-long intro sequence, only to blow it all in one act of brainless stupidity. I DON'T WANT TO KNOW THAT YOU'RE ACCESSING THE DISK, YOU USELESS, CRETINOUS, MORONS.

(Strangest sensation of deja vu then. Never mind.) How hard is it to conceal a disk-access pause? About as hard as it is to keep the previous picture on the screen for the four or five seconds it takes to load in the next bit. Or as hard as it is to come up with some kind of linking screen, even a logo of the game or something as simple as that, anything which wouldn't actually wrench you bodily from your newly-entered virtual world back into your tatty bedroom with its ugly plastic console and knackered old TV and unwashed lager glasses. Not hard, in other words. But no. They have to let you know how clever they are.

'Look,' they say, the smug smiles almost bursting their cheeks, 'We're using a CD. Isn't it great?', and the atmosphere dissipates faster than a fart in a force-nine gale.

If you think I'm overstating the point here (and before I get any letters, by the way, I'd like to point out that I know the screen doesn't actually say 'Disk Accessing, Please Wait', it's just the picture of the CD, because they use it - oh, joy unconfined - as the Pause screen as well. But it means the same thing, and it has exactly the same effect. Okay?), then you obviously understand as little of what playing computer games is about as the programmers of Microcosm do. But I'll get on with telling you about the game anyway.

It's Sewer Shark. Or, if you're not familiar with that particular Mega CD title, try Space Harrier as a reference point. You fly 'into' the screen, following a predetermined path (except at the occasional Outrun-style junction where you can choose one of several, although it's usually two, different routes). Waves of enemies (in this case, mostly meaningless geometric shapes and blobs, crudely superimposed on the backdrop and not appearing to be related to it in any way, which look less like enemy battlecraft than cheap potato snacks from Marks And Spencers - Spicy Tomato Flavour Wagon Wheels, or something like that) attack in predetermined patterns, and you shoot at them. And that's everything.

Now there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that. I loved Space Harrier, even on home formats where most people couldn't get past the loss of the arcade machine's hydraulic chair. And Silpheed, by common consent the other good game on the Mega CD after Thunderhawk, uses much the same formula as Microcosm, albeit in a much more stylish way. But Microcosm isn't even a very good version of Space Harrier - the graphics, nice though they are, aren't (be honest with yourself) nearly as pretty, for one thing.

You get the odd genuinely exciting moment, like when you come out of a long, narrow, claustrophobic tunnel and suddenly find yourself in a big, open, dizzying cavern which gives you a disturbing rush of vertigo, but generally the first ten minutes of play will show you everything there is to see. There's little of the ancient coin-op's variation in background and enemies, and none of Silpheed's limited interaction with the scenery. You shoot, you circle (as with almost all Space Harrier-type games, the best way to avoid enemy fire is to circle round and round the screen with your finger wedged on the fire button, although the icky control responses and CD32 joypad don't make it easy for you), you hope you get to the end of the current section before your thumb falls off, and you map.

Oops, I almost forgot about the second gameplay element - mapping. Yep, you don't just fly around shooting at stuff, you have to find your way to the things you want to shoot at. You do this by bringing up a map (which doesn't pause the game, and hence inevitably loses you a quarter of your shield power when you look at it) which shows your ship as a white square inside a white circle with snaky green lines scrawled all over it to represent the passageways of the bloodstream (did I mention you were inside a miniature spaceship flying around inside someone's body? Well, it's not very important anyway). Great, eh?

Circling, shooting and mapping. Sounds thrilling, doesn't it? Oh, it tries, alright. Well, sometimes. The presentation veers wildly between super-slick and amazingly sloppy - there's no title screen, for a start, you get dropped straight into the game from the intro, and you can only switch the sound effects off, not the music. Onscreen messages are printed in almost unreadably tiny text against constantly shifting backgrounds, and can't be skipped through no matter how many times you've read them before.

But the actual game tries a bit. Every now and again the tunnels do a quick bit of rollercoaster side-to-side or up-and- downing (although these bits were obviously too complicated to have any enemies in), and there's no shortage of digitised video sequences all over the place (including a hilariously pointless bit where you land in a refuelling base and have to walk through it with the joypad to the take-off point, although there's only one direction you can walk in and nothing to be gained or lost by either going quickly or taking all day), but nothing manages to disguise the inherent nothingness of the gameplay. Forty-five quid, Psygnosis? You must be joking.

UPPERS Well, there's no escaping it - the graphics are nice. Not as nice as Stardust, though, and that's interactive as well.

DOWNERS Precious little gameplay, mates, and what there is isn't done very well. Oh, and if I wanted to listen to Rick sodding Wakeman forever with no chance of respite, I'd have gone to a Yes concert in 1975, alright?

THE BOTTOM LINE 45 quid for a less coherent and less pretty version of Space Harrier? No, I don't think so, thanks. Can we have the new state-of-the-art now, please?


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