Cyberspace! It's a whole new world on the verge of being explored and mapped in the realms of fiction. As a concept that is a creation of the Science Fiction genre it is no surprise that its exponents take their images from this genre even though I can see no good reason why. NET:Zone does exactly that, its floating spheres, flying ships, banks of computer terminals and other electronic devices fit neatly within the Science Fiction psyche and will, undoubtedly, cry out to Science Fiction and, in particular, Cyberspace fans.
It's a familiar story of good versus evil, and this is not necessarily a criticism because where would many of our great epic tales be without an evil fiend to overcome? And it does present some ambiguity as the 'fiend' in this story is a computer generated lifeform of human origin striving for freedom for artificial intelligence within a human controlled environment.
NET:Zone, however, is a first person perspective adventure, with minimal character interaction except for a few video sequences that feature other 'characters', so there is little scope for a story to unravel or for motives to be explored. This means it is more or less a task based game with your primary task spelled out at the very beginning, and with negligible plot development. Of course, there are various obstacles to sort out along the way or it wouldn't be an adventure game. Once again, this is not necessarily a criticism, just an observation. I have played, and thoroughly enjoyed, other games that lack a distinct story line, Zork I, for example.
In this game you play Newton, son of Zel Winters, former Managing Director of the CYCORP Corporation, who has mysteriously disappeared. Your father has somehow been trapped in Cyberspace and the police have given up the chase after fruitlessly searching for a year. Finally, you come into possession of Zel's personal files including his VR Interface. After a minimal amount of bother you crack the code and read these files where you receive an SOS from your father and learn about a conspiracy that threatens the security of the world's computer networks. You access the neural interface and follow your father to the Genecys Zone.
Cracking the code is easy, the video introduction does that for you, but now your problems really begin. You travel in the Genecys Zone under your father's name and he has lost his privileges and been demoted to a mere maintenance engineer. With the help of a familiar PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) you have access to a map of the various sectors of the Genecys Zone and, ultimately, you must re-create your father using his personal databank and, with his help, seek out the conspirator.
NET:Zone is a Myst-type game in which you are able to pan around 360 degrees simply by holding down the right mouse button. It has a point and click interface with a cursor resembling a joystick that indicates when you can interact with an object and in which direction you can travel. I've never owned a joystick, but I can see now why they are sometimes referred to as phallic symbols. This cursor is a phallic symbol if ever there was one, but I won't go into details here.
There are several areas of the Genecys Zone to explore, all made possible via the courtesy of colourful flying craft reminiscent of Thunderbirds. Each trip you make is featured in a quite spectacular video sequence where the craft cruises through the facility and speeds off to your destination. Entertaining for a couple of 'rides', but if you are anything like me, a tap of the mouse button will move you in a split second.
Your PDA is an integral part of gameplay. As well as your map it holds your inventory, and through it you can receive messages, make notes, and interact with all the Genecys Zone objects such as computer terminals and a couple of 'lifeforms'. It also provides access to your save games and a few hints to help you out here and there. The dialogue in NET:Zone is mostly accompanied by text, but there are slip-ups in this respect to annoy anyone who relies on these translations.
As a lowly maintenance engineer one of your first problems is to access the various craft and find the code to enter the core computer. There are also terminals with malfunctioning bits to replace, a small maze, computer viruses to squash, your Dad's 'blueprint' to find, and, of course, the big job of re-creating him which involves more terminal interaction (no pun intended here), and going through a four step 'test' to hone your creation.
In order to succeed there is a lot of zapping around to be done and, although you can skip the video sequences of the various 'flights' you still have to make your way to the relevant craft and then continue on to your destination. Believe me, futuristic travel can get tedious after a while, on many an occasion I found myself wishing that there were wormholes in Cyberspace. The various environments, the design centre, the manufacturing facility, testing grounds, etc., are intricately linked in a process so that you have to visit each in turn to solve certain problems.
Also, NET:Zone is promoted as a non-linear game, presumably meaning that you can pretty much go anywhere after you have opened up the game world. This term has always been a problem for me, because, in spite of this claim, you still have to perform actions in sequence. You can't, for instance, test your creation before you have made it, and you can't make it before you have the design. However, this 'openness' or lack of a clear path through a game such as this one, means that you are likely to spend plenty of time wandering around contemplating just what to do next. To be perfectly honest, I appreciated this even though my nails suffered a bit of gnawing, but I imagine it will severely test some players. The lack of character interaction or any other assistance such as books to read that offer advice, also contribute towards this lack of direction. It's just you and the game world.
In the light of the last point, many players may find that NET:Zone is a difficult game to get into and it will be frustrating for some, but for anyone like me, it does have something to offer. Even though I don't usually like such soul-less games with no game characters and all mechanical/electronic bits and pieces, I quite enjoyed this one for a while because of the challenge it presented. I say 'for a while', because it ended so abruptly. I felt like I was just getting into it, and it was all over. Disappointing. And, sad to say, there was another disappointment for me too, a timed sequence at the end. I know there must be some players out there who like the clock ticking in their ear, but I dearly wish game designers would build in a 'delete clock' function for people like me who detest playing under pressure. Surely, that's not too much to ask? So not only was NET:Zone a little too short, but part of the game I didn't appreciate anyway because I was too busy panicking.
Copyright © Rosemary Young 1997.
All rights reserved.
486DX2 66Mhz, 8MB RAM, 17MB Hard disk space, 2xCD-ROM drive, SVGA with 1MB, Sound card and Mouse. (Recommended) Pentium processor, 16MB RAM, 50MB Hard disk space, 4xCD-ROM.
Pentium, 8 MB RAM, 15 MB Hard disk space (19 MB if you do not have DirectX (tm) on your system). 2xCD-ROM, SVGA Monitor and any supported DirectX (tm) video card. Sound Card: Any supported DirectX (tm) sound card. Mouse.(Recommended) 16 MB RAM, 48 MB Hard disk space, 4xCD-ROM.