Cracking the Conspiracy

Developer/Publisher:  Pixel Shop Inc.
Year Released:  1999

Review by Len Green (May, 2000)

ctc.jpgCracking the Conspiracy (CtC) was developed, published, distributed and marketed towards the end of 1998 by the Pixel Shop. Amazingly, this company consists solely of two Wisconsin brothers, Brian and David Mennenoh, who worked on the game for 2 ½ years ("with a little help from their friends"). As such you might imagine it to be a very amateur affair, but the exact opposite is the case. Although it has some rough edges it is well produced and can be compared with several other Quest/Adventures released during the past few years. I personally would not rank it in my 'best ever 20 games', but it is a solid adventure and an astonishing achievement for such an incredibly low budget project.

Out of the blue you (John) receive a top secret communications device from an ex-girlfriend (Kelsey Hart) who ostensibly left for Africa 5 years ago to research emerging viruses. It transpires that instead she was actually in Nevada engaged in the ultra hush-hush cloning of aliens. Trouble is ... things have got out of hand resulting in a potential threat to the very existence of civilization. Your mission ("should you decide to accept!") is to gain entrance to the highly restricted Area-51, find and then decipher the seven hidden communicator passwords, take a whirl on the Matter Transporter, and finally [quoting the blurb] "save humanity"!

Not the most original of themes, but it is fleshed out gradually and intelligently, and keeps you pressing on towards your predictable objective. Actually the narrative is fairly thin (like many similar games) and somewhat ambiguous; it is really a peg upon which to hang quite a large number of varied puzzles, and a very great deal of information ... some true and a lot fictional.

Graphics, sound, interface and gameplay
The graphics, music, speech and SFX are good but not outstanding. The graphics are extremely clear, accurate and functional, but for the most part somewhat pedestrian. They are limited in that they consist almost entirely of indoor corridors, rooms, halls, offices, labs, hangars, etc. This makes the game appear a trifle monochromatic ... if you're looking for eye candy you'll go rather hungry. There is very little speech (and no subtitles for the tiny amount included), this is not of great importance since there are few people to talk to.

CtC is a straightforward 2-D, mouse driven, point-and-click game. It is a first person sci-fi quest where the interactive sessions are punctuated by several short (3D?) animations. The inventory contains very few items; the maximum is about eight, but for most of the game only about half this number. There are a couple of situations where you type in your answers to short interrogations ... a nice nostalgic touch for those reared on text adventures. Also included is an addictive old-time arcade game ... for anybody who has a few hours to while away!

The interface is uncomplicated, efficient and exceptionally easy to handle ... so much so that no printed manual is supplied and none is needed. Everything you require is included on the CD and in the game itself. Movement, and all 'controls' could hardly be more intuitive. There are thankfully no, I repeat NO, timed puzzles. You can be killed quite often which is annoying, or thrown into "The Hole" which is even more frustrating. But don't panic ... you can usually spot most of the dangerous situations, and you are frequently given fair warning before being stricken!

There is a sort of points system but it is more of a 'death-countdown'. Apart from one inevitable 10% penalty near the beginning of the game, I easily managed to finish the rest with no further bodily harm (albeit, saving frequently and judiciously!).

Some unique technical attributes
CtC does not attempt to provide any technical innovations such as 3Dfx, surround sound, snazzy camera angles, or the like. But considering that it was produced by only two individuals, it's inspiring to find that it contains several admirable features which are lacking in most of the latest and most prestigious games. It is shipped on one CD-ROM only ... so there is no disc swapping whatsoever. It plays directly from that CD so there is absolutely no installation and not one byte is taken up on your hard disk. Possibly due to this I have not heard of ANY incompatibility problems due to today's multiplicity of audio or video cards, and no troubles with different drivers or different versions of DirectX, etc. Although a faster drive is preferable, it played pretty smoothly even on my oldish Pentium/100 with only a 4x CD-ROM drive.

True there are only 5 save-game slots. But this is only a minor drawback. Each small save-game file can easily be moved, renamed, and stored permanently. Since I like keeping a lot of saves (partly because my younger grandchildren sometimes get stuck!) I saved eleven batches which covered the whole game. In any case, this slight inconvenience is offset by the fact that my whole (zipped) 55 saves take up a total of 5 kilobytes. Compare this, just for example, with Grim Fandango whose final single individual save alone occupies 1 megabyte!

There is a personal built-in notepad for any who wish to keep track of their own info ... and believe me there is plenty to keep track of. I myself cannot obviate the habit of scribbling down all my doodles on scraps of paper which inevitably finish up on the floor. Nevertheless, the game-notepad is freely available for tidier touch typists.

Since there is no installation, the game played immediately both on my new high-end and 4 ½ year old computers without any hiccups. I did not encounter one single bug or crash throughout the whole game.CtC is so robust and trouble free that there are no patches available or indeed needed. Since the game was launched, only 3 extremely small mini-inconsistencies in the gameplay have been reported, none of any import ... they are detailed on The Pixel Shop game site. Moving and panning go like lightning, and of course so do saves and restores.

In all, I have not experienced any game released recently by any company which can boast such unblemished technical quality. My sole criticism of the setup is that the playing area covers only about a third of the monitor screen. I much prefer a larger picture, but in this case the graphics are so clean and sharp that I soon forgot about that.

Puzzles and Info
There are many puzzles in this game. They are generally introduced in order to overcome obstacles or disclose vital passwords, passcards, ID's, and the like. These puzzles are of various types, including a slider, two (short and easy) mazes, pattern recognition, very simple maths, a riddle, a short simple memory task, an electrical circuit teaser, and many others. They are all fairly easy. If you can't figure out the logic involved, nearly all can be solved through just a little trial and error.

In general, my main difficulties were in filtering out some of the passwords from the masses of information scattered very liberally throughout the whole game. This material is presented in a number of different formats:- most is written and often lengthily; but much is visual, graphical, audio, and some is animated. As you would imagine, there's LOTS of stuff on conspiracies. There's also plenty on UFO's, aliens, extra terrestrial manifestations, coincidences, astronomy, simple maths, technology, and whatever. There is even a homily on the legalization of cannabis, contrasted with the lethal potentials of (lawful & popular) roasted coffee. These guys have such fertile imaginations that it's difficult to discern what's truth and what's their fiction. But fear not ... you don't need to be a whiz at maths or science to get through this game. In any case, most of the very extensive info is window dressing and is not required to solve puzzles or progress through the game. The trouble is, you never know whether some esoteric detail is essential or just a red herring!

Cracking conclusions
CtC is a game which warrants playing by all devoted Q/A fans; particularly those who appreciate games of the first-person, sci-fi/conspiracy variety. There's a whole scientific complex to explore accompanied by an assortment of hi-tech equipment and a good serving of information to feast on. It can be purchased relatively cheaply over the Net, and mailed to those like myself who live far from the USA. The brothers are already at work on another apparently much more ambitious project. Let's give them as much encouragement as possible and thereby perhaps influence others to emulate their success. Since the biggies seem to be having problems in keeping our favorite genre flourishing, maybe a few small developers like them can keep the flag flying?!

Overall, CtC is a valiant and noteworthy example of what can be done with minimal resources. Give us more! rating:  

Copyright © Len Green 2000. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
Windows 95/98 or NT 4.0; 60 MHz Pentium or faster; 16 MB RAM minimum; 640x480 display, high color; 4x CD-ROM (8x recommended), Windows compatible sound device.