|Publisher: Virtual Programming Genre: Strategy & War|
|Min OS X: 10.1.2 CPU: G3 @ 300 MHz Graphics: 16 MB VRAM|
|MindRover - The Europa Project|
December 1, 2003 | Nat Panek
Once the wiring is finished, all that remains is to turn the rover loose and see what happens. The scenarios all take place in full 3D environments that reflect accurately the scale of the relatively small rovers. Thus, your robotic vehicles will be winding their ways through corridors, underneath tables and around chairs, and sometimes over the frozen surface of Europa itself. Once the scenario begins, thereís nothing you can do to influence the action; unlike the Robot Wars-type shows, all the activity is controlled by the circuits of the rovers themselves. So if by accident youíve programmed your rover to spin around in circles, or ram itself repeatedly into a wall, thatís exactly what it will do, and continue to do until you hit Escape, end the scenario, and quite literally head back to the drawing board. What you can do in the middle of the action is change camera angles, viewing things either from above and behind your vehicle or an opponent vehicle, or from the point of view of a free-floating camera.
If all this sounds like a really cool idea, building and setting loose your own robot competitors, youíre right. It does sound like really cool idea. Unfortunately, MindRoverís ambitions are hobbled by a number of shortcomings that make it frustrating, and occasionally impossible, to play. First off, the overall look and feel of the user interface is dark and rather unpolished. This wouldnít be such a big issue if three quarters of the game werenít experienced through this interface. As it is, most of the icons youíll be selecting and pushing around are slightly blurry-looking and not immediately intuitive (itíll take a while, for example, before you can tell a track sensor from a waypoint sensor, or a long-range radar from a medium, and so on, just by looking at them).
Secondly, there is the issue of the rover programming. While attempts have obviously been made to give users drag-and-drop tools that are fairly easy to use, the fact remains that much of the terminology used in conjunction with these tools retains a raw, coder-style feel. Take the demux, for example. Because I am a geek, Iím somewhat familiar with the concept of multiplexers and what theyíre used for. In the context of the game, however, Iím certain that, with a little effort and creativity, this logical component could have been given a more user-friendly name and description. Similarly, the tutorials go nowhere near the mathematical operations available (which extend into trigonometric functions) or how they might be used in directing the actions of a rover. Basically, unless you have a background, or at least a very healthy interest, in computer coding, MindRover will leave you scratching your head very early on. This game cries out for more extensive documentation; itís one of those titles like Alpha Centauri that requires a manual at least an inch thick.
Finally, thereís a big stability issue with MindRover. I began testing it on a desktop G4 450 with more than 800MB of RAM and an admittedly ancient 16MB video card, but one that still met the system requirements for the game. About eight out of ten times, the game would crash within five minutes of startup. Exasperated, I switched to a higher-end PowerBook, and the crashes dropped to maybe three times out of ten. Regardless, the software was woefully unstable for a final release, and it kept me from progressing very far into many of the scenarios.
GraphicsMindRoverís graphical presentation is spotty. Most of the pre-combat phases take place on a ďworkbenchĒ-style screen, where you can drag and drop components and wire them together. However, there are so many components to choose from, and so many different ways in which to connect them, that space quickly runs out. The workbench view may be scrolled and zoomed, but the screen still has a dark and cluttered appearance, as if the designers simply tried to squeeze too many options into the interface. The game switches into three dimensions once the action starts, but thereís nothing very special to see here either. Textures are kept to a bare minimum on environments and rovers, and the models are fairly basic as well. There are some interesting lighting effects, and color schemes that occasionally veer in cartoonish directions. For the most part the graphics are pretty spare.
SoundSounds in MindRover are even more basic than the graphics. For some reason, there is a techno-sci-fi-type instrumental theme that plays low and menacing in the background during the construction phases, in addition to a small number of audio cues while working with components. During the action phase thereís not much more audio in evidence, and what there is seems rather crudely sampled and edited, with abrupt starts and stops.
ConclusionItís a shame that this title couldnít have been better put together, because itís a great alternative to the FPS and RPG titles that dominate the market out there. Itís got a huge educational potential as well, and I think children could learn a lot from it about programming concepts and the scientific method in general (thereís a ton of trial and error involved here) if it were better documented and presented. As it is, this game will appeal to a very narrow segment of the gaming public with the patience and native skills to get the most out of its often arcane tasks and challenges.