When it comes to people tampering with things I love or with which I am comfortable I immediately fear the worst. It's a defensive mechanism. It enables me to prepare to be disappointed, or very pleasantly surprised. So when I first heard about Discworld Noir the alarm bells began to sound. How could they make a Discworld game without Rincewind? How could they tamper with the Ankh-Morpork I have come to know and love? I immediately feared the worst! ... and was rewarded by being very pleasantly surprised.
Discworld Noir, as the name suggests, presents us with a view of the dark under-belly of Ankh-Morporkian society that would not be a pretty sight, were you able to see it. Clearly, this Discworld-after-dark is no place for one such as Rincewind who no doubt remembered that he had an important engagement elsewhere. Into the breach steps Lewton, the Discworld's first Private Investigator, a man with a hard-boiled interior monologue and his name on the glass door to his office. The familiar Ankh-Morpork is still there, sort of, it is so tangible you can smell it ... it's just difficult to see.
In keeping with the 'Noir' theme the bright, colourful, cheerful, friendly and fondly-remembered graphics of the first two games have been replaced by dark, brooding scenes in a shadowy night-time world where it is constantly raining. Barely illuminated locations are starkly, if briefly, revealed in a flash of lightning. Lewton, a man with a shadowy past (and a trench coat) is very much at home here.
Though this game is dark it is never mean. It is in fact a humorous, at times brilliantly witty, parody of some classic films from the '40s and '50s such as Casablanca, To Have and Have Not and The Maltese Falcon to name but three. Well-known characters, scenes and dialogue are all given the Discworld treatment (Sidney Greenstreet in the form of an unusually articulate Troll and a Peter Lorre Dwarf) and part of the fun is in identifying the reference source. Even if you are not familiar with the movies you will still recognise the 'Noir' style and, no doubt, appreciate the irreverent send-up. As well as these movies the game roams far and wide for its humorous material and pokes fun at other computer games such as Tomb Raider. And I'm sure I recognised in the Wizard Satrap's megalomaniacal speech the words of Davros from an episode of Doctor Who.
Discworld Noir is a third-person perspective adventure game and you must direct Lewton in his investigations. The introduction shows Lewton being chased through the streets of Ankh-Morpork by an unknown assailant and ends with his untimely demise. Don't worry, all will be explained as you play. The game starts in Lewton's office and, appropriately, his first client is the femme fatale, Carlotta, who hires him to find a man named Mundy. With not much to go on, but with nothing better to do, he takes the case. Before long Lewton, with your help, is embroiled in a series of murders in which he is the prime suspect. Are the murders related? Is there some deeper, darker conspiracy behind them? You'll have to play the game to find out.
In the course of your investigations you will talk to many weird and wonderful characters. Some are helpful and some are less forthcoming. You will be able to quiz them about clues you have scribbled in your notebook or ask them about items in your inventory. In one sense your notebook is your main inventory where you keep topics for discussion. Later in the game you will have a third inventory at your disposal where you will keep some rather ... ah, unusual items. Sometimes your questioning will result in the discovery of a new location to visit which will then appear on your 'map' which is an aerial view of Ankh-Morpork and so the game opens up as you learn more and more.
For those of you who don't like too much dialogue in your games I must stress that this is an investigation and as such it involves lots of talking to many characters. I didn't mind this at all as much of the dialogue is humorous if not always crucial to solving the game. The conversation with a Lara Croftian Tomb Raider character is simply brilliant. There are a couple of cut sequences though that are rather extended, but if you enable the text option you can read the dialogue rather than waiting for characters to deliver their lines and click through them fairly quickly.
Discworld Noir is a mouse-controlled game (though you can use your keyboard if you absolutely must) and it is crucial to read the manual carefully to understand the various mouse functions. For example, if you move your torch-beam cursor over an item in your inventory and click the right mouse button Lewton will give you a brief description, but if you double click the left mouse button his response may be more enlightening. You can use a similar procedure to 'muse' about clues in your notebook and you can select a clue and use it on another clue or inventory item to try to get Lewton to make a connection between them. When you select a character to talk to a conversation window pops up on the screen enabling you to ask about things in your notebook or in your bag. Don't forget to click on the head icon as this allows you to make general conversation and may also open up other areas for discussion.
Items and characters with which you can interact in the gameworld are identified by a text tag when you move your cursor over them. Some are not easy to find so you must explore each location carefully. I was stuck for a while because I missed a crucial item when searching a very dark room (ok, so all the rooms are dark, but it's the best excuse I can come up with). I was also stuck late in the game until I asked a character a question that I had previously asked of them and suddenly a whole new conversation thread opened up. Making the result of this question dependent on where you had reached in the game was, I thought, a bit unfair. By this time I had well and truly trained myself not to repeat questions as there are so many conversation choices available.
Discworld Noir is not a crushingly difficult game if you take care to exploit all the functions of the interface and explore every conversation thoroughly, but even experienced adventurers are likely to be tripped up occasionally. It is played out in four fun-filled acts and features the familiar voices of Rob Brydon, Robert Llewelyn, Kate Robbins and Nigel Planer. The graphics are suitably 'Noir' if a little too 'Noirish' for my taste. The music is excellent throughout and really adds to the atmosphere of the game, an atmosphere that is considerably lightened by the humorous dialogue and the sense of ridiculousness that is generated by its Discworld setting.
As you have no doubt guessed from this review I thoroughly enjoyed the game though my preference is still for the style of the earlier two and I hope that the developers have not completely rinsed their hands of Rincewind. If you don't play Discworld Noir you will regret it. Maybe not today ... maybe not tomorrow, but soon ....
Note: I had no technical problems playing this game at all, but since this review was written some people have contacted us about difficulties in getting it to run in Win 95a and Win 98. There isn't an official patch available at the moment, but you may want to visit Chris McMullen's unofficial Discworld Noir Page for more information and assistance.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1999.
All rights reserved.
(Minimum) P166 or greater (P266 recommended), 32MB RAM (64MB recommended), Win 95/98, 8xCD-ROM or faster, Soundcard, Mouse.