FROM THE ARCHIVE: Frontier: Elite II – A Retrospective Review

Frontier: Elite II is a 1993 PC/Commodore Amiga-format space simulator game, produced by David Braben of Frontier Developments, formerly known for co-development of the seminal and groundbreaking Elite, and the first solid three-dimensional game ever produced, and published by Gametek and Konami.

Continuing in the steps of its predecessor, Frontier: Elite II starts you off with a spaceship and a small amount of money. The plot, in so far as there is one, puts you in the role of one of the grandchildren of Commander Jameson from Elite, bequeathed a small amount of money and the space fighter that you begin with, but the rest of the story is left to the player to imagine, for this is a sandbox game of the greatest order.

With only the vaguest of directives instituted in the game – make money in any way that you see fit, and eventually aim towards Elite combat rating – Frontier is an example of sandbox gaming taken to the extreme. There are several possibilities for making money, ranging from the legal to the very-much illegal, and from the safe to the overwhelmingly dangerous. Trading, bounty hunting, asteroid mining, piracy, smuggling, military missions – all of these are possible and perfectly legitimate ways of making a profit.

The game encourages the objective of making money by giving you a very modest starting spaceship by game standards, and the suggestion is that you will want to upgrade your spacecraft to a larger, more powerful model as soon as possible. In order to facilitate this, there are several trading routes in the game which are very safe, if rather boring ways of making a quick profit and getting to the larger spacecraft as quickly as possible. But if the starting player wants a challenge, this is facilitated just as well, with highly dangerous anarchic trading routes, or illegal goods which can make a player a quick profit – if they can avoid the police.

The other objective in the game, to reach Elite combat rating, is significantly more difficult, and it will only be the committed player which will achieve it. Piracy, bounty hunting, military missions and trading in anarchic systems all bring the potential to reach that objective, but they all bring substantial danger to the forefront of the game.

Frontier delivers an almost-unrivalled variety of gameplay, delivering every one of its ways of playing the game with detail and balance. Certain choices, like trading routes through stable star systems, are particularly good for making profit, but lead to repetitive grind; others don’t make very good profit, like piracy, but greatly increase the excitement of the gameplay, along with bringing the possibility of improving the combat rating or military rank of the player.

All of this is delivered in easily one of the largest universes ever seen in a computer game. The role-playing genre often advertises their games as having gigantic game-worlds; even the largest game-world ever seen in a role-playing game, that of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, is dwarfed by the universe of Frontier. Using procedural generation, an enthusiasm in astronomy and the skills necessary, David Braben created possibly the closest simulation of the Milky Way galaxy in a computer game. The universe is so large that no matter what spacecraft you use, there is no way to reach the edge of the galaxy, short of hacking the game files. The universe is so large, it makes every other space simulation look puny in comparison.

This picture doesn’t even begin to show the scale of the universe.

Not only is the universe gigantic, almost absurdly large, but even using procedural generation, the star systems aren’t cookie-cutter images of each other. The central star systems, surrounding our very own sun, have been named and detailed appropriately, while even the outer systems, which have been named and generated procedurally, carry enough surprises to make even the longest-playing Frontier player want to go out and explore.

It’s certainly possible to explore as well. Despite the vague directives issued at the start of the game, it’s possible to ignore even these once enough money has been obtained, and a player can simply load up their spacecraft with fuel and explore the periphery at their leisure.

All of this is possible because of the gigantic level of detail that has gone into this game. David Braben was already known for pushing the boundaries of computer game design, but Frontier: Elite 2 really stretches the limit. A universe so large the limits can’t even be reached, enough spaceships to cover every eventuality, realistically-sized planets with their own characteristics, and unflinching realism – I’ve only begun covering the amount of detail in this game.

Not only does this detail stretch to elements of the gameplay, it stretches to those little elements which improve the atmosphere of the game. Every shipyard in the game will have a few obsolete ships which are useless or mostly-useless for any element of the game, just because that’s what you’d expect to find at a realistic shipyard. Surrounding the space stations of Frontier are gigantic unplayable cruisers and transport spacecraft, too large to fit into the space station, just because you’d expect them to be there in reality. Unlike many space simulators since, you can realistically land on planets, without there being any animations to simulate your landing, or planetary restrictions – what’s the point of having realistically-sized planets without the ability to interact with them?

And that brings me onto a point where the detail is so obvious as to completely change your expectations of a space game. This is one of the most realistic games I have ever played. While Elite was a playful game, taking inspiration from science-fiction sources such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Frontier is altogether a far more serious affair. From the police who will catch you for crimes ranging from smuggling to landing without permission, to the realistically-presented planets, to the Newtonian physics which dictate the way the game is played, you will never pick up another space game which puts this amount of detail into making the game realistic.

The Newtonian physics are the most stunning element of this realism, and one of the most stunning elements of the game altogether. In this game, it is possible to hang in geostationary orbit. It is possible to gravitationally slingshot around supermassive stars and large planets. Bear in mind that this game was produced in 1993, and that in the same engine, it is possible to read the accurate time off a clock on the surface of a planet, and you have one of the most technically advanced experiences ever forged on a personal computer.

But I haven’t yet got to the most impressive part. All of this, the huge detail, the gigantic universe, the realistic gameplay – this all fits into a single floppy disk.

Remember these?

David Braben, in 1993, on Intel 386 and Commodore Amiga machines, managed to do more with a single megabyte than most developers can do with a gigabyte or more. He managed to fit an entire universe full of realism and detail onto a storage medium so obsolete and so small by today’s standards that most modern boot-loaders can’t even fit onto one of them. That is the most impressive feature of this game, and it hasn’t been matched since.

But the sort of unflinching realism that David Braben created comes with its own set of compromises. The Newtonian physics make combat realistic, if not particularly intuitive, and without the autopilot feature, which realistically takes up space in a spacecraft, it’s all too easy to shoot off past a planet, wasting time and fuel. The police, who fine you for obvious things like smuggling, also fine you for realistic but frustrating elements like firing weapons outside a space-station, or launching from a planetary space-station without obtaining the appropriate permission. Spacecraft have to be serviced every year at least, a feature which contributes to the impossibility of reaching the edge of the universe, and one even has to pay every time they land at a space-station. For the person searching for a truly deep and engaging game, these features add atmosphere. For those looking for a quick thrill, these features just serve to frustrate.

Coupled to this is a somewhat unintuitive control system, which one must read the manual in order to discover properly, and the necessity to switch manually from automatic speed control to manual controls in order to get the upper hand in space combat, and it becomes apparent that Frontier is a game with a steep learning curve. That said, the controls never make the game unplayable, and they suffice acceptably.

Being from 1993, there is one other issue that does make itself particularly apparent, and that is the low level of graphical detail. While, thanks to the release of the Frontier source code, third-party developers have devised versions with higher resolution, the game is never going to compare to modern games in that respect.

A screenshot from GLFrontier shows the low level of graphical detail that you’re in for.

Regardless, Frontier: Elite II is one of the most fantastic games I’ve ever had the pleasure of picking up. Despite its age, the gameplay still rings true today, while the experience is unrivalled by any space game made since. David Braben transcended his former classics with a game so detailed and unique that it’s impossible not to be entranced by its charm, and thanks to the release of the source-code, it is possible to play a slightly updated version right now.

While the original source of the game is no longer available, there should be archives of it around the internet; for a more modern approach, do a search for GLFrontier for a version of the game more suited to modern operating systems. Fame and fortune await you; the choice is clear, choose Frontier!

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Probing The Inaccuracies – The Automobile

Author’s Note: This article was the second in the Probing The Inaccuracies series, first written in November 2009.

More Power Doesn’t Always Mean More Speed

So, you want to make your car go faster, so it would be a good idea to jack up the power, right?

Not necessarily. There are far more factors in play than the amount of power that you’re producing. The amount of torque is more important than the raw power, and that’s before you get to things like weight, transmission, suspension, chassis design, aerodynamics, et cetera.

The power generated by a car is a function of its level of torque and the revolution speed of the engine. A car with either low torque or a low revolution speed isn’t going to generate much power, while a higher-revving car in the vein of the Honda Civic or a car with a high torque, such as the Dodge Viper, will produce much more power.

But there’s no point producing a huge amount of power if you can’t transmit it to the road. The world is full of car designs by back-shed mechanics and huge car companies alike which produce ridiculously high amounts of power and torque, yet can’t take advantage of it except when the pedals are under the feet of trained professionals. You see, in order to use that torque effectively, you have to use a sufficient transmission.

Some of the most famous cases of a car having far too much torque for its transmission to handle come from the AMG division at Mercedes-Benz, famous for its factory-modified sports models. Some of their more powerful cars include 6.3 and 6.5L V12 engines, which produce so much torque that not only have they had to use a five-speed transmission because their newer seven-speed automatic can’t support the torque, but they’ve had to artificially limit the torque level to help stop their tyre-shredding might.

An excess of power was also experienced in the prototype engine of the TVR Cerbera Speed 12. The Speed 12 was a 7.3L V12 engine produced by TVR for motorsport, and was produced by fitting two of TVR’s straight-six engines to a common crankshaft. The motorsport engine was limited by the addition of air restrictors, and when it came to trying to produce a road-legal car with the engine, they removed the air restrictors and attached the unrestricted engine to a dynamometer rated for 1000 horsepower. The engine produced so much power as to break the shaft of the dynamometer, and TVR estimated that it had produced 940 horsepower. Not deterred, Peter Wheeler, then owner of TVR, took out a prototype car with the Speed 12 engine and declared it far too powerful for useful use. It’s perhaps useful to note that this is a man who regularly competed in the Tuscan Challenges and who didn’t put airbags or ABS into his cars because he didn’t trust them, a man who owned a company where the cars had attained a reputation for ferocity and insanity, and that was what it took for him to relent. A single Cerbera Speed 12 was later sold, with the engine detuned to 800 horsepower.

Let’s say you’ve modified your ridiculously powerful car with a transmission capable of smoothly taking the strain. Surely, you’ll be able to go fast now? Yes, but within a very narrow context. Those insanely modified 1000 horsepower Skylines that I’m sure you’ll have heard about and seen on the front of modified car magazines are only fast in one direction: In a straight line. While modifying these cars for outright power, these people have sacrificed the ability to use these cars effectively around a track. I don’t really care if your tuned Skyline has more power than some trains if you can’t use it effectively for anything but drag racing.

When it comes to circuit racing or road use, there are still far more pressing issues which dictate if your car will be effective. Weight is one of the most pressing issues. You see, every extra kilogram of weight on your car is an extra kilogram that the engine will have to move, and an extra kilogram that the brakes will eventually have to stop. Racing cars are rarely more than a tonne, and commonly much less. I’ll address this issue regarding modified motors later on, but when it comes to a racing car, the lowest weight possible is imperative.

A properly-sprung suspension is just as imperative. American car manufacturers have long been developing their fast cars for long stretches of motorway, as opposed to the European and Japanese approach of modifying them for the track and for twisting country roads. While various American car manufacturers are beginning to see the importance of car dynamics, chief among them being Chevrolet with their Corvette – tested at the Nurburgring and produced as a grand touring racer for the Le Mans Series of endurance races – for a long time, a less powerful car from the likes of Lotus could easily beat the most powerful muscle cars around a track.

Finally, we have the issue of aerodynamics, and this is one where laypeople often confuse matters. I’ll get into this one closer with my next point, but a car which is shaped like it’s made of Lego obviously isn’t going to go as fast as a car specifically designed for favourable aerodynamic qualities, unless there’s a gross power difference.

Every so often, a car manufacturer manages to combine these qualities to make a powerful car which can go outrageously fast in most conditions. The Koeniggsegg CCX is a good example, with 800 horsepower. The Bugatti Veyron, somewhat surprisingly, considering its protracted and difficult development, is a fabulous example, being the fastest-accelerating production car in the world. However, despite the amazing top speeds and accelerations of these cars, remember something: The Ariel Atom, a car with only 300 horsepower, can almost match them around a racing circuit by virtue of its extremely low weight. The Bugatti Veyron, despite its huge amount of generated power and torque, isn’t even as astounding a track car as you’d expect – it’s a heavy car at almost two tonnes, and isn’t set up for track conditions.

Big Spoilers on Front-Wheel Drive Cars? That’s Just Stupid!

I noted that I’d get back to aerodynamics. This really is an issue which people seem to get wrong far, far too often, and it irritates me greatly.

You’re doing it wrong!

The spoiler is a device which could be described as an analogue to an aeroplane wing, except that instead of generating lift, it’s mounted upside down in order to produce downforce. In a rear-wheel or four-wheel drive car, a spoiler can help to avoid instability in corners by forcing the driving wheels into the road, controlling the rear end of the car as it comes out of a corner and thus reducing excessive oversteer and the possibility of a spin-out.

In a front-wheel drive car, though? Not such a great idea. In a front-wheel drive car, many of the positive benefits of having a spoiler are lost. A front-wheel drive car is inclined to understeer in any case, and adding a spoiler on the back just increases that inclination. Essentially, you’d try to turn a corner on a track and either you’d end up having to slow to a crawl, or else you’d end up unable to turn the corner and just end up crashing into a wall.

That’s not the only problem with misplaced spoilers. Something which few car modifiers take into consideration is the fact that a spoiler adds drag. It doesn’t increase acceleration and it doesn’t increase top speed – in fact, it reduces both. What this means for car modifiers is that they might add a spoiler to their front-wheel drive car and end up slowing it down. Well done, you stupid clots, you’ve just made your car worse.

But maybe I should consider something else as well. You see, there are various limitations on a front-wheel drive car which limits the amount of power that can effectively be transmitted to the front wheels alone – torque steer among them. The front-wheel drive cars that the boy racer community uses are typically lukewarm Japanese hatchbacks with no more than 200 horsepower. They don’t usually go at speeds where the spoiler will actually work effectively, and this just makes me laugh. These fools have decreased the maximum speed of their car with a device that they’ll usually never have any reason to use, and which is placed onto a car for which it serves few practical benefits.

They’ll never learn.

Big Wheels And Spinning Rims Make A Car Slow

There’s been a popular movement recently to put the most ridiculously gigantic wheels possible onto cars, accelerated by shows like Pimp My Ride. I contend that this popular movement is spread by a series of morons.

There’s a grain of truth in the idea of changing your wheels. The wheels that are used are made of various alloys, typically stronger and lighter than the materials used on production cars. A modern alloy wheel does make a lot more structural sense than the 1960s wire wheel. It’s a pity, then, that the grain of truth appears to be surrounded by a Sahara of stupidity.

Large wheels add weight to a car, which has already been suggested to be an important component in producing a fast car. What’s more, it’s unsprung weight as well, which isn’t supported by the suspension, and therefore, a large set of wheels is going to ruin the driving dynamics of your car. Great work, dolts. Your massive wheels have just slowed down your car again.

What’s worse than the overly-large wheel, which at least makes some sense on a car like a Rolls-Royce Phantom (although if I see people trying to bling up that specific car any more, I will erupt with rage at their corruption at the core values of a Rolls-Royce), is the additions to a wheel in the vein of a spinning rim. This is probably the ultimate and most tasteless variant of the “form over function” principles which seem to guide many of the more clueless car modifiers. These devices have absolutely no practical benefits, adding unsprung weight which can’t even be justified, and frankly, I’d rather have a more subtly designed car which can actually field the performance to back its looks.

This isn’t just a problem that exists with wheels – the stereo systems of a car are one of the most popular modified components. Now, there’s nothing wrong at all with wanting a good stereo system in a car – within reason. But these car modifiers are rarely reasonable, and their stereo system layouts indicate this perfectly.

First of all, it’s hopelessly stupid to load a car which is ostensibly designed to be fast with a whole load of heavy electronic components. Again, every kilogram that you put into your car is one more that the engine has to pull along, and the weight of a stereo system isn’t going to improve the performance of your car in any way. Secondly, it is completely unreasonable to have a stereo system loud enough to hear it from the other side of a country. As soon as you can hear what a driver is listening to while they have the windows shut, the music is almost certainly too loud. Now, I wouldn’t mind this so much, but boy racerdom seems to come with a like of the most horrific music ever devised by the human mind. When I’m trying to sleep, concentrate on driving myself or else listen to my own music, I don’t want to be interrupted by a constant repetition of whatever “oonts, oonts, oonts” crap that these tasteless individuals seem to think is appropriate.

Facepalm time, methinks.

Drifting Is For Posers And Rally Drivers

Drifting is one of those favourite sports of the car modifier, along with drag racing. Now, strictly speaking, drifting should be taken as more reasonable than just massively turbocharging your Skyline’s RB26DETT engine to the point where you have to reinforce the cylinder heads and just zooming off in a straight line. You need a different type of car for drifting, and you need to keep it under control. You don’t get the big spoilers which are endemic in the car modification scene. Yet, you don’t see most racing drivers drifting during a race. Why? Because it’s completely impractical!

Drifting around corners doesn’t increase your speed around a circuit with modern, downforce-heavy cars – it slows it down. When you’re drifting, you are specifically allowing the car’s driving wheels not to grip properly, which means that you’re not transmitting the power of the car onto the road. Instead, you’re wasting your energy hopelessly spinning the wheels and, in the process, wearing down your tyres.

Now, there was a time when you may have seen drifting in an automobile race. During the 1950s and 1960s in Formula One, the cars had almost no downforce and rock-hard bias-ply tyres, and so, with their massive amounts of power, they were inclined to oversteer very often. Indeed, the late 1960s were probably the most dangerous time for circuit racing ever, with deaths all too common on the Formula One circuit, and legendary drivers like Jackie Stewart, John Surtees and Denny Hulme attaining their reputations by stepping into fundamentally unsafe cars and giving Death the finger.

However, in the late 1960s, developments by Lotus and other teams in Formula One led to the fielding of the first spoilers, which drastically increased downforce and led to a battle of technical driving, with precision being imperative. (Note: The huge power and rear-central position of a Formula One engine makes it a very useful application of spoilers – unlike the lukewarm hatchbacks you occasionally see it on). Since then, drifting has been considered a waste of time, and some of the most spectacular racing comes from the wet when drivers try to battle the rain to maintain their technical driving in less-than-desirable conditions.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to have told film makers and computer game designers that drifting is a waste of time. It’s absolutely endemic. I know that if I sit down and watch a film like The Fast and the Furious, that I’m going to see people drifting. I know that if I play a game like the Need for Speed games, that drifting is going to be imperative to win.

Some of you will not realise how frustrating it is for somebody who has spent their time watching technical displays of driving on a circuit to suddenly see people throwing their cars around on drifting – or be expected to do it in a driving game. I suppose the next time I see somebody drifting around corners in a computer game that I’ll be inclined to say, “Go straight, not sideways, you stupid clot!”

But then, there are places where drifting actually is useful. It isn’t on the circuit, where precision cornering is the order of the day, but instead on the rally track. The title may have made you think that I was suggesting that rally drivers were just posers – not by any means. They’re extremely talented drivers who can deal with conditions that would frustrate most circuit racers. Now, real life circuit drifters can be exceptionally talented as well, but then, I feel that they’ve wasted their time going sideways instead of conforming to effective driving techniques.

Any non-tarmac rally circuit will have very loose particles under wheel, and attempts at circuit-style driving will only result in very slow times. The rally driver does manage to get quicker results from a car by drifting it around corners using techniques like the Scandanavian Flick. However, when they get onto tarmac, do they drift around then? No! That would hurt their times in the same way that circuit-style racing hurts their times on dirt or gravel.

Now, you’re not going to hold a game like Mario Kart to any semblance of physical accuracy, so drifting is still acceptable there. Games like Need for Speed and the Ridge Racer series, on the other hand, aren’t so lucky. I would call upon driving game makers to stop this horrible obsession with an inefficient technique, because really, I feel you can have just as much fun with a slightly more realistic model which doesn’t use something which irritates me so much.

Nitrous Oxide Is Not Magic

Here comes yet another device, probably popularised by The Fast and the Furious, that seems to have become popular with the car modifying community, even if most of them never use it. In the media, nitrous oxide is portrayed as some sort of magic device, which sends a car into “win mode”. If this is the mechanical knowledge of computer game designers, I don’t want them tinkering with my car.

Nitrous oxide is an additive, usually contained in a separate tank in the car, which increases the oxygen level inside the combustion chamber while it is being injected, effectively increasing the combustion rate of the fuel and therefore the horsepower. It can be effectively used to increase the acceleration of a car while it is being injected. However, it’s far from being magical – it’s absolutely loaded with limitations.

Nitrous oxide most effectively increases the acceleration rate of a car at low gears. There’s absolutely no point, as many games would have you do, in injecting nitrous oxide into your engine when you’re already close to top speed. It would be far more effective to use it when you were just coming onto a straight, but then, arcade driving games don’t rely on the brake pedal very often, do they?

Of course, this would be presuming that nitrous oxide was actually a practical idea for racing – but it’s not. Nitrous oxide may increase horsepower, but that will probably strain a car’s components. I’m still waiting to see a show or a game where somebody puts nitrous oxide into their car with the pretence of making it into a winning car, and then has his engine explode immediately because he’s put it into a car with insufficiently strong components.

Even if you do have a car which can use nitrous oxide effectively, it adds weight to the car, making it more difficult to steer around corners, and then, you can only use it at limited intervals, because extra power around a corner is just going to increase any tendencies to understeer or oversteer.

And this guy’s ruined his engine forever.

There’s another reason why racing cars don’t use nitrous oxide – because they already have oxidisers in their fuel. They use methanol fuel, which has a high octane level and an increased oxygen count over standard unleaded petrol, and therefore don’t need ridiculous contrivances like nitrous oxide. In real life, nitrous oxide is usually for losers who can’t build a car properly in the first place, with very limited applications in the world of motorsport.

Unfortunately, this inaccuracy doesn’t look like it’s going to die out any time soon, and it will likely be perpetuated in the short term by the introduction of the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) technology in Formula One. This system allows various manufacturers to store kinetic energy while braking in electric or mechanical systems and use it for a small amount of time per lap, effectively giving themselves an 80 horsepower increase for the duration of the KERS boost. Actually, it’s a very interesting system – precisely because it’s limited by the weight restrictions that I talk about above. A car with KERS is going to be heavier than one without the system, and it isn’t a game-breaker either – almost all of the Formula One races of the 2009 season were decisively won by cars without KERS, and the possible re-introduction of the system in 2011 won’t necessarily change that situation.

If driving game manufacturers must include some sort of boost system, I’d hope they look at KERS first, making cars with a boost heavier than ones without, instead of perpetuating an inaccuracy about the massive advantages of nitrous oxide. As it stands, the boost isn’t done well in driving games at all.

The Turbocharger Isn’t Magic Either

Unfortunately, nitrous oxide isn’t the only “go faster” technology which people portray inaccurately. The turbocharger isn’t properly understood either.

The turbocharger, short for the now-antiquated terminology, “turbo-supercharger”, is a device fitted onto the exhaust of a car, consisting of a turbine which is propelled by the exhaust gases of a car in order to force more oxygen into an engine. The word “turbo” isn’t just a synonym for “fast”, then; it relates to the component that the turbocharger is made from.

I expect that many people treat the turbocharger as a “win more” device, basically massively improving a car’s performance. Unlike nitrous oxide, it’s actually practical to put onto a production car, but like nitrous oxide, it’s limited by various restrictions.

A turbocharged engine can be outrageously powerful, producing huge amounts of power from a very small engine. The aforementioned RB26DETT engine in the Skyline GT-R series is a 2.6L twin-turbo straight-six which can produce more than 600 horsepower with a stock engine block, and up to a megawatt (1300 horsepower!) with specially-reinforced components. The 1980s saw a massive development of turbocharger technology in Formula One, with 1.5L engines producing 1500 horsepower in qualifying trim. Despite these huge amounts of power, there is one distinctive limitation that a turbocharged car can have which a naturally-aspirated car doesn’t: Turbo lag.

“Turbo lag” is the name given to the phenomenon in turbocharged cars when, at low revs, not enough exhaust gas is going through the turbine and as a result, the car is slowed down. Particularly endemic in turbocharged cars in the 1980s, it has improved significantly since then, but often necessitates a twin-turbo design, where a smaller turbocharger runs at low revolution speeds and a larger turbocharger runs at higher speeds. A turbocharged diesel engine will almost always get a benefit from the turbocharger; a turbocharged petrol engine won’t always benefit.

For production cars, improper turbocharging can also lead to unreliability – even engine explosions. Trying to fit a massive racing-car spec turbocharger to a turbocharged hatchback is not only going to give the car so much lag that you’d have to start it at full revs, but it’s also likely going to make the car overheat or even explode. Too much turbocharger boost is not safe for an engine, and in a spark-ignition engine, maximum boost is usually limited to about 1.5 bar.

Turbochargers can be useful devices. They’re very useful at some of the higher echelons of motorsport, but they’re not some sort of amazing device that can instantly make cars go faster. Anybody who thinks that they are should gently be directed towards the books on motor vehicle technology before it’s too late.

Petrol-Electric Cars: Not The Future, And (Mostly) Ridiculous

I move onto an issue which is more in line with most people’s normal lives. The hybrid car is one of those new technologies which various car manufacturers are trying to push forward. In this age of ever-decreasing petrol reserves, any sort of efficient alternative to the reciprocating petrol engine would be a step in the right direction. Whatever the alternative happens to be, though, I doubt it’s going to be the petrol-electric hybrid.

My feelings towards the petrol-electric hybrid is that it’s a marketing exercise, a way to make people feel better about the planet without actually having to do anything. The problem is that it doesn’t work that way. The petrol-electric car isn’t particularly more efficient than its petrol alternatives, and is, when practical tests of efficiency are used, often less efficient than an equivalent diesel engine.

A petrol-electric hybrid works on simple principles. Along with a standard, albeit usually low-power, reciprocating petrol engine, it has a secondary electric motor, which propels the car at low speeds, with the petrol engine taking over at higher speeds. The electric system is usually recharged by regenerative braking, a way to convert the kinetic energy of a car into electrical energy, or, when the batteries run out of power, by an alternator powered by the petrol engine.

Such a system is very complex, and with complexity comes weight. Weight, as anyone who remembers the first point will have realised, is one of the enemies of car design, particularly when it comes to speed. So, hybrid cars aren’t particularly quick, but then, when you’re driving a car like a hybrid, I don’t suppose that speed is your main objective. But weight also leads to lower fuel economy, which means at high speeds where the electric engine is unable to keep up, it’s at a decided disadvantage versus more conventional cars.

So, let’s take a closer look at the fuel economy of the hybrid. A car like the second-generation Toyota Prius gets a fuel economy of about 65mpg (imperial), according to official UK statistics. That’s pretty good, actually, but it would be a lot more impressive if the Volkswagen Polo Bluemotion (a diesel) didn’t get figures more akin to 80mpg. The official statistics don’t tell the full story either – according to more practical tests by What Car? Magazine in the UK, the Toyota Prius can only get about 50mpg when driven in a normal fashion, which starts to put it down near a series of more powerful and larger diesel engines, let alone the Polo Bluemotion, which could probably call upon a 70-75mpg fuel economy with practical use.

Actually, petrol-electric cars aren’t particularly good for the environment either. Because the Toyota Prius has components sourced from all around the world, and isn’t even built in the American or European factories, they have to ship the cars around the world, probably causing more emissions than they’ll ever save by virtue of their hybrid engines.

Then, there’s those batteries. They’ve got a limited lifespan, somewhere on the region of eight years. This doesn’t hold up well compared to conventional cars. European and Japanese cars in Europe often last for more than a decade, with my own car being twelve years old. Certain collector’s sports cars, particularly a car like the MG B, could last much longer. Many of them are now thirty or more years old. Because it’s not cost-effective to replace the batteries in an eight-year-old hybrid, the whole car will be scrapped, and it is for that reason that a Toyota Prius is considered by some sources to be more damaging to the environment over its lifetime than a Land Rover Discovery.

The Toyota Prius: That veneer of environmental consciousness is merely a veneer.

“But my favourite celebrity drives a Toyota Prius,” you might say. Well, obviously, there’s a problem with that sort of reasoning. When it comes to matters of automobiles, celebrities are more often than not very ignorant as to how a car works. Go and ask somebody like Leonardo di Caprio how a catalytic converter or a gearbox works.

Well, maybe you’ll have a hard time getting in contact with him. Now, there are celebrities who know a lot about cars, people like Jay Leno and Rowan Atkinson, and a few very talented racers in the set, including the late Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Do you know what sorts of cars they drive? Big V8 or V12 supercars, not pokey little milk floats with stupid hybrid engines. The fact that so many celebrities seem to be driving cars like the Prius and the horrible, abominable, disgusting REVA G-Wiz is precisely because they want to be looked at as having done something to save the planet without actually having to realise that they’d have done a lot more by buying a diesel.

At this point, it might look as I’ve completely shrugged off the hybrid as a possibility altogether, but surprisingly, I haven’t. There is still one hybrid technology that I think might have some practical benefits, and I’m surprised that it wasn’t developed sooner. All you have to do is replace the petrol engine with a diesel engine, and you get the diesel-electric hybrid. It’s more difficult to produce, but suddenly, the fuel economy goes from 65mpg to somewhere over 100mpg. That sounds a lot better, doesn’t it?

(Currently, Vauxhall are looking at a concept for a diesel-electric hybrid that can theoretically get 170mpg, but of course, being attached to General Motors doesn’t help the chances of that technology being developed any time soon.)

Flying Cars: Completely Impractical And Not That Clever

I finish with a feature of cars which almost everybody associates with the future. It’s very present in science-fiction: the flying car, avoiding traffic jams by just flying over them. Nobody’s ever made a practical, efficient design, and I’m convinced that nobody will make a mass-production flying car which actually has any practical benefits.

The flying car, unfortunately, has the fundamental weakness of being impractical. A flying vehicle needs to defeat gravity – which needs a lot of power directed downwards. We can generate hovercraft now, but they have a limited hover range, and can’t be controlled. In order to give the vehicle an effective command of the skies, it’s going to have a lot of lift, which requires a lot of energy.

Once you get your flying car into the air, you’ve got another problem. While cars on the road can rely on friction to stop, flying cars can’t. So, in order for it to stop, you’ve got to spend substantial amounts of energy in propelling it the other way.

By the time that we develop a technology that allows us to have flying cars, we’ll likely have more efficient ways of travelling around anyway. But don’t despair! Not all flying cars need to be made into an obsolete idea – those used for racing may remain. For once, I’m going to allow for Rule of Cool to apply to an inaccuracy, and suggest that flying cars used for racing will remain precisely because they are impractical. These flying cars, such as the ones in F-Zero and Wipeout, work on a better level when you suggest that they are driven by extremely talented drivers that know that they’re impractical and dangerous, and that they drive them for other people’s entertainment. For once, the popular opinion has allowed an inaccuracy to survive – and I welcome it!

Volvo: The Game – A Gaming Review

Advertising tie-ins in the world of computer games are nothing new. Neither, for that matter, are advertising games for the purposes of advertising cars. On the face of this evidence, Volvo: The Game would appear to be nothing peculiar, but a cursory look at the game reveals elements which are really quite novel. In mid-2009, SimBin Studios, developers of the officially-licensed GTR and RACE series of driving simulators, collaborated with Volvo to produce a game designed to advertise Volvo’s line-up of cars.

Volvo: The Game is built on the same modified ISI engine as the rest of SimBin’s games, and as such, could be classified as a proper racing simulator, complete with representative physics for each of the cars. At this point, some people may be scratching their heads, wondering why exactly a car manufacturer like Volvo would be wanting to play up the sporty characteristics of their cars. Apparently, though, they’ve had a bit more success on the racing front than would be widely acknowledged, with some success in the domestic Swedish Touring Car Championship and the British Touring Car Championship. Considering the reputation of SimBin for producing solid racing simulators, they might just be trying to find a market for their cars outside the large family which just wants to cocoon their children inside solid Swedish steel.

The game comes with seven cars, unfortunately only two of them being the iconic “designed-using-a-set-square” models from Volvo’s past. Three of the remainder are more modern touring car racers from the STCC and BTCC, and the remaining two are based on Volvo’s recent S60 concept, a slinky, sporty-looking car which doesn’t seem to owe much to Volvo’s design concepts of the past. Each of these cars can be raced on two tracks, the STCC track on the streets of Göteborg, and the Chakaya Sports Complex in the Ukraine, the latter of which is unique to this game and hasn’t yet been represented in any other racing simulator.

Compared to SimBin’s commercial simulators, the list of options and features available in a race is rather limited; there’s no damage, there can only be a maximum of twelve cars on the grid, and cars are randomly placed on the grid, for one thing. That said, the game is free (as in beer), so what SimBin has given us in the game actually seems quite generous. It’s a lot more flexibility than you get in most free advertising games, which is commendable.

What is also commendable is the amount of detail that’s gone into the actual racing action. The cars feel responsive and realistic, which makes a nice change from the floaty arcade-like handling of cars in other automotive racing games (yes, I’m looking at you, Yaris!). In typical SimBin fashion, the external and internal details of the car, including dashboards and decals, have been replicated in-game. The work that’s gone into the tracks also has to be congratulated; even though the Göteborg track was previously used in STCC – The Game, the Chakaya track was replicated solely for this game, and both of the tracks feel like they’ve actually been used, with rubber laid down at the braking points along the corners, and along the straights at Göteborg.

The graphics aren’t fantastic, without some of the more modern shadowing effects found in other games. Of course, SimBin’s other simulators aren’t graphical masterpieces either, and the slightly low-spec graphics do make it possible for a greater variety of gamers to experience the game. In contrast, the sound design is decidedly impressive, particularly on the engine notes of each of the cars. The touring car growls, with their burbling notes on deceleration, are as good as any found in RACE 07, and again, this deserves commendation.

All in all, this leads to a surprisingly impressive game. However, there is one rather glaring weakness of the game – like most proper racing simulators, it really needs a steering wheel to play it properly. A keyboard and mouse will just about suffice at the lowest difficulty setting, with all of the game’s driving aids turned on and the AI set to a low difficulty setting, but for the full experience, you really need the proper peripherals. Considering that gamers who already have a PC steering wheel are probably reasonably hardcore sim-gamers, it seems strange to be targeting a niche market with your products. As I mentioned above, Volvo are probably trying to aim for a new market, but it seems like an odd move to me. I’d say that the game actually works better as a sales pitch for SimBin’s games, but as the saying goes, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” – and you could hardly consider this to be bad.

Bottom Line: Scoff all you want about the idea of Volvo’s cars going racing, but this is still a surprisingly competent game. It may be limited in its scope, but for the price you pay, you get a proper racing experience.

Recommendation: Simulation gamers with their own steering wheels may want to try this game out as a somewhat different experience to the norm, but shouldn’t expect as many options as in their usual games. For other gamers, this is a polished, but difficult and occasionally frustrating experience which it’s worth trying, but which would require a disproportionate investment to get the most out of.

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Beneath A Steel Sky – A Retrospective Review

“What happened here?”

“Sabotaged chopper crashed… Destroyed the hospital!”

“A hospital? That’s tragic!

“Could’ve been worse… It almost hit the factory!” – Robert Foster and an agent of the Union City Security Services, Beneath a Steel Sky

Beneath a Steel Sky is a 1994 PC/Commodore Amiga-format point-and-click adventure game, developed by Revolution Software and released by Virgin Interactive. Later supported on the ScummVM project, Beneath a Steel Sky was released as freeware by Revolution Software, and is available on their website to this day.

The game takes place in a dystopian future in Australia, where the states and territories have been taken over and consumed by their respective capital cities. These cities are highly stratified, with the poor living in the polluted upper reaches of the cities, surrounded by factories, and the rich living in the unpolluted bottom. Two of the huge entities that rule this dystopian land, Union City and Hobart Corporation, are engaged in an economic war over “market” dominance through the use of sabotage.

The main character, Robert, was the sole survivor of a helicopter crash in “the Gap”, the name for the Australian Outback in the game. The helicopter crash killed his mother, who was born in Hobart, and who was attempting to escape Union City. Being too young to look after himself, the young Robert was taken in and adopted by a group of indigenous Australians. Giving him the surname Foster, from a can of Foster’s Lager, the native Australians teach him all of the skills that he would need to survive in the Gap. Robert even learns engineering and technology, and manages to build a talking, sentient robot named Joey.

However, Foster’s life in the Gap cannot last forever. There remains the suspicious circumstances that his mother died by, and the mysterious issue of his father, whose status is unknown. One day, agents of the Union City Security Services go on the search for Robert Foster, finding his tribe, annihilating them and abducting Foster. With only the rescued circuit board retrieved from the destroyed body of his robot, Joey, Foster is brought to Union City.

But then, just over the skies of Union City, the helicopter which is bringing in Foster starts to malfunction, crashing into the tower blocks at the top of the city. With the Security Services agents on the chase, Foster runs into a factory, managing to escape his captors, in particular, Officer Stephen Reich, who managed to survive the helicopter crash. Reassembling Joey in a discarded robot shell, Foster looks for a way out of the factory, but runs once again into Reich.

However, when Reich attempts to capture Foster, he is held back and killed by a mysterious benefactor. With everybody he knows dead and nobody to assist him through Union City, Foster must rely on the few clues he possesses. Who is Overmann? What is LINC, and what are its intentions? Why exactly has Foster been brought to Union City in the first place? With Joey at his side, Foster must make his escape from Union City, but there are people who have plans for Foster.

The plot, while not the strongest ever, is competent and strong enough to keep the player interested at all times. Full of whimsy, even in the dystopian world of the city-states, the plot never takes itself too seriously, a point which is hammered home in the narrative.

Happily, this isn’t the best the dialogue gets.

The relationship between Foster and Joey is a great example. As Joey is activated, he becomes embarrassed at the robotic shell that Foster has implanted his “personality” board into, insulting Foster, making sly sexual innuendoes when Foster wants him to restart a robot by probing it and generally being a sarcastic and snarky character. It’s a great case of humour in the game, and certainly not the last, as you meet a shiftless factory manager who is more interested in his comfortable position and his cat than his job or his employees; Billy Anchor, the insurance salesman ready to sell a policy for anything and the Security Services officers, who seem overly happy about the state of the city.

At the same time, Beneath a Steel Sky is perfectly capable of being serious when it needs to be. The creepy Gallagher is a good example of this, showing up throughout the game, his unnerving calm creating a counter-point to the whimsy throughout the game.

The setting is a great strength of the game as well. From the grungy factories of the upper levels, with breathtaking, but hardly pretty vistas from the tower blocks, to the middle-class domiciles with their relatively small, but comfortable living spaces and businesses nearby, to the upper-class lower floors, with the exclusive (but seedy) St. James club and the remnants of underground railway systems, the entire game drips with charm and personality, and it’s a pleasure to navigate through it.

The tower levels of Union City, pumping out enough pollution to make the United States look clean.

The game is exceptionally well-written and extremely well-set, as befits an adventure game, typically a genre which relies on its plot and narrative to keep the game interesting. Perfectly counter-balancing wit and charm with the seriousness of the later plot, it kept me enthralled all of the way until the end.

Pity the end came so soon, then. Adventure games have never typically been known for their length, but Beneath a Steel Sky felt disappointingly short, especially as the plot was so good, and the setting could have inspired so many more things. Beneath a Steel Sky was so full of professionalism and humour, and it ended so quickly.

The gameplay is an offender in this regard. The gameplay is strong, but it’s also very simple. There are only two ways in which you can interface with an item – look at it, or use it. For those for which this is the first adventure game they try, it’s welcome, for there will never be anything too obscure, but those who have played some of the SCUMM-engine LucasArts games, such as the Monkey Island series, Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle or even the more simple Full Throttle will be disappointed, as figuring out the way that items interact is a large part of the gameplay of adventure games, and unintentional or deliberate mistakes can lead to some of the greatest dialogue in the SCUMM games.

While Beneath a Steel Sky doesn’t lack the humour that the SCUMM games displayed, it does lack that complexity, which means that even though the gameplay is strong, it doesn’t last very long, leading directly to the shortness of the game.

The game is lacking in a few other aspects, and the one that stands out strongest is the voice acting. The voice acting isn’t bad by any means; in fact, it’s very well-done. However, it’s not really appropriate for a game set in Australia; most of the characters speak in various British accents, with Foster done in an American accent, and only one character speaking an Australian accent. Perhaps this was a result of a low budget, or the consequence of being developed in Britain, where the audience would sympathise more with the characters if they could use their accents as a tool to figure out their social status. Whatever the reason, it’s a logical error, and while it doesn’t exactly ruin the game, it does affect that polished atmosphere that they’ve created throughout.

Another aspect of the game that tends to grate after a short time is the collection of music present in the game. Apart from the excellent opening track, the rest of the soundtrack is a bit of a miss, not fitting in properly with the game at all. The jingly track experienced on the floor housing the middle classes is extremely irritating and overly cheerful, and represents the definite low-point in terms of the sonic experience. Many of the other tracks suffer from being overly cheerful also, especially dissonant considering the darker tone that the game takes nearer the end.

The graphics aren’t exactly technically advanced, either, but then again, you don’t expect a game from 1994 to look like Crysis. What’s important is the style, and the style is good. It’s colourful where it needs to be, and dull where that’s a necessity. It’s also very vibrant throughout, and is in fact one of the most superior aspects of the game.

A perfect display of the mixture between colour and drabness that defines this game.

Despite being a rather short experience, Beneath a Steel Sky is one of the best adventure games that I’ve ever played. Full of wit, charm, vibrancy and humour, the narrative and style of the game are triumphs. Turn off the music, and this is a brilliant adventure game, one I recommend to any fan of adventure games, and a great introduction to the genre for any person interested in getting into the genre.