Derailed by the Last Express

By Peter Smith (October, 2000)
Playing Jordan Mechner's game "The Last Express" isn't like playing other Adventure games. The game is set at a real date in history (July 24th, 1914) in a real location (the famous Orient Express travelling across pre-first world war Europe.) Your fellow passengers move around the train and talk with each other whether you're there to observe or not. If you're not in the right place at the right time you may miss a vital conversation or fail to stop something untoward happening. This makes playing The Last Express or TLE very different, very like real-life. Most other Adventure games by comparison are quite static. Playing them is like wandering round a zoo - you know that the lions will still be in the lions' cage after you've seen the elephants.

I came to TLE regarding it as a must-play from the praise and critical acclaim it has received. It is some people's favourite game and good for them. I found TLE very immersive - to begin with. There were a number of factors that alienated me from the game as I got further into it. I'm going to discuss these factors for the benefit of game developers. I waste too much time playing Adventure games so anything that makes them less fun to play would leave me more time to eat, drink, sleep, fill in tax returns etc.

Time and time again
TLE is a real-time game in that the clock is always ticking. But the experience of playing it may not be real-time. If you fail to do certain actions by when you're supposed to you can get caught in a dead-end. This means having to rewind the clock and start again. As soon as you have to rewind the clock it is no longer a real-time game to you. And it may not be obvious you're caught in a dead-end.

The existence of dead-ends in a game breaks for me a kind of trust between me and the game's developer. If I get stuck in a LucasArts game I continue playing trusting LucasArts I'm just missing something. If I get stuck in a game with dead-ends or bugs then I reach for a cheat - there's nothing worse than finding you've been playing hours and the game is unfinishable.

There is a bug in TLE concerning the concert Anna Wolf gives in Prince Kronos's private car. You can get the game into a state where the NPCs don't go to the concert as they should - for me this seemed to happen if I got the whistle too early. This bug is a showstopper and means having to turn the clock back hours. I found myself replaying stages again and again as I tried to get around the bug, sitting bored stiff for minutes waiting for the game to move forward.

Yes you can manage to play through without turning the clock back at all. But if you do you will have missed clues which help the story make sense, or delightful cameos like August Schmidt waltzing in the dining car. And if you do play straight through the game is actually rather short, not value for money.

When is an Adventure not an Adventure?
TLE contains several combat sequences of difficulty that increased to impossible as far as I was concerned. TLE is an action-adventure hybrid not a pure Adventure game. None of the claimed ways to skip the combat sequences worked for me so I was cheated out of finishing the game. In the future I shall avoid games with any hint of action.

I have no problem with people developing games that are cross-genre or hybrids - such games can be very interesting. What I have a problem with is the term 'Adventure' getting used so loosely that it becomes meaningless. It's useful to me to have some term which covers the games I like playing. I like reading SF and in a bookshop I gravitate to the SF bookshelves. It wouldn't be very helpful if under SF was filed natural history and crime and DIY surgery.

Similarly the term 'Adventure' is no use if it covers First-Person Shooters and strategy and pure puzzle and fast reflex games. You might as well just say "game". I don't mind what the term is just so long as I can avoid games that are not suitable for me (as excellent as they may be.)

History is bunk
Is it fair to criticise historical accuracy of a game? Does it matter if the background details are correct or not? In our post-modern age doesn't history depend on what mood you're in? I understand what George Orwell meant in 1984 by the present controls the past, and the past controls the future. However TLE lays great stress on claiming to put you really back into history without making sufficient effort to make its history correct. The historical mistakes don't detract from the gameplay perhaps, but they annoy if you notice them like inkblots on a letter. (There is also a slight concern that TLE will to some extent mislead as regards the truth about the past.)

Let's cover a few of the anachronisms. Like Robert Cath at one point commenting on how many times Rasputin had to be killed before he would die. Rasputin was killed in 1916 and the game is set in 1914. The game's main story line has the Austrians in a nefarious plot to start the 1st World War by selling guns to the Serbs. War was inevitable as soon as Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914 (4 weeks before TLE starts.) The Austrians had already started on the war but had to spend a few weeks first translating all the invitations into 20 odd languages.

The Delnikov character is a temporal anomaly. Tatiana calls him a liberal (the liberals were educated idealists who tried to persuade the Russian peasants to be revolting in the 1860s.) In his love of things which go bang in the night Delnikov more resembles the Nihilists of the 1870s who ended up assassinating the reformist Tsar Alexander II in 1881. The actual revolutionaries of the game's period were from the newly emerged urban working classes (who formed themselves into workers' councils called Soviets and in 1905 won the setting up of a parliament the Duma.)

"The Last Express" has a number of time critical situations where quick reflexes and good hand-eye coordination are required. This makes it unsuitable for both the purist Adventurer and those (like me) who find such situations difficult if not impossible. "The Last Express" is not a real-time playing experience. You are likely to have to repeat chunks of the game - indeed this is the only way to experience the full story. In terms of puzzles (or story come to that) the game is curiously short. The overall experience is like reading a book with someone else turning the pages - they're either too fast or too slow.

Copyright © Peter Smith 2000. All rights reserved.