Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lost Games: Body Harvest

I haven't cared too much about gaming since my beloved N64 died many years ago. Being an N64 fan back then was like choosing to support the underdog in a a cup final. It was like hiding members of the Rebel Alliance in your basement while living on a planet where everyone wore stormtrooper helmets. Allright, maybe that's stretching it somewhat. What I'm saying is that public opinion, by and large, held that Playstation was bigger, badder and cooler. These things matter when you're 13. The PS did have rubbish loading times, but that wasn't enough of a handicap, and we knew it. The N64 itself was undeniably childish, awkward to programme for, couldn't do FMV, and had graphics fuzzier than Obama's plan for Iraq.

Being an N64 fan in that climate was like being in some exclusive club. You knew everyone else in your area who had one. You bought games that came in big, chunky, honest-to-God cardboard boxes. You collected N64 Magazine, an independent British publication full of writers who took the piss out of each other regularly and printed only the strangest of reader input. I remember it fondly. Also, you hung out with other distinguished gentlemen and spun globes around while trying to decide where to colonize next. Ok, so maybe it wasn't that kind of club.

But the best reason to own an N64 in 1998 was Body Harvest.

If Body Harvest had been a movie, it would have been the most unapologetic, balls-to-the-wall alien-killing action slugfest ever released. Schwartzeneggar and Stallone would have poisoned each others' steroids in order to play the lead role (no contemporary actors would be up to the task. Jason Statham or Vin Diesel would faint after just reading the script).

The plot was simple- aliens conduct massive invasions of earth 25 years apart over a period of a century, and one genetically engineered soldier from the future (Adam) has to travel through time to stop them. During each invasion, an enormous energy 'wall' seals off some area of the earth, and millions of loathsome insectoid aliens beam down to consume the citizens. Sounds epic, doesn't it?

Well it IS epic. The time periods are Greece in 1916, Java in 1941, the US in 1966, Siberia in 1991 and the alien's homebase, an artificial comet in 2016. Each of these locales is absolutely HUGE, especially considering the time that this game was made. Adam can travel for miles and miles, across mountains and valleys, through cities and villages. Before GTA went 3D, this was a big deal. The sense of freedom was incredible. The variety of locations meant that Adam could hop into a model T, a WW1 tank, a creaky old fishing boat, a gigantic liner, a bomber, or one of many other period-appropriate vehicles. Cruising across the map, helping out civilians (or just running them over) was the order of the day. You could make your way across many miles of desert or jungle, finding abandoned vehicles, and simply exploring. This what I remember best about the game. It's not such a big deal now that we've seen the 'sandbox' thing done so many times, but I still reckon it was something special and unique at the time. For whatever reason, I haven't ever got that feeling from any game since.

Of course, let's not get caught up in the scenery (such as it is) and forget why we're here. To kill some damn aliens.

Taking the best parts of Alien and Starship Troopers, Body Harvest's aliens are a varied bunch of arachnid and insectoid horrors. As a biologist, I find this unlikely but thrilling. Incidentally, I've often thought it odd how little originality we expect from our games. I remember a contemporary review of Dino Crisis 2 (another under-appreciated piece) that praised it for lifting its siege-scene directly from classic movies like Zulu and, eh, Starship Troopers. Now I've just done the same. Anyway, the aliens in our current subject beam down to earth with an eerie green glow, and as soon as they do, the music changes from an innocent tinkling of piano to a rousing orchestral score. This seems a small point now, but at the time it was extremely creative and effective. There are horrible green dragonflies that buzz overhead like helicopters, purple armoured scorpions the length of a city block, and some one-off villains like the sandworms that only appear in the deserts of (presumably) Nevada. I'm presuming it's Nevada because a) it's where you find Area 51, and b) the sandworms have obviously been -(cough)- inspired by the movie Tremors.

There is simply so much stuff to do in this game. Between bouts of alien carnage, smaller quests appear. You might have to use a fire truck to out a burning village. You might have to drive a soviet chemical transport train (while under fire) to prevent the local populace from becoming zombies. Later on, you will probably end up using a combine harvester to pulp said zombies into green goo. In the desert, native Americans will provide you with wisdom that will eventually result in your piloting a flying saucer from Area all the graphical splendour the N64 can muster.

Ah, the graphics. Even when this game came out, its release had been so delayed that it already looked dated. Everything is fuzzy. 'Fogging', the age-old N64 trick of having things that are faraway fade into mist, is very apparent. Seriously, Adam can't see two feet ahead of him. His own nose disappears into the pea-souper that's an inch from his face. (I still prefer this technique to that used in some of the early PS1 games, where scenery just 'popped' into view). It's as if the designers were bursting with so many awesome ideas that they forgot the actual capabilities of the N64. No wonder everything looks a little tired. That little grey Body Harvest cartridge is probably so stuffed to the gills that it's about to vomit its chips all over my copy of Banjo-Kazooie. Good enough for it.

The verdict, many years on? Still an absolutely spiffing game. If it sounds like the company responsible (DMA, soon to become Rockstar) was more ambitious that the hardware available allowed them to be, then I respect them all the more for it. Ambition beyond means is a precious commodity in today's world, gaming or otherwise.

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