Commodore User


Border Zone
By Infocom
Commodore 64/128

 
Published in Commodore User #54

Border Zone

The convention of the spy thriller a la 'The Third Man' has come to the C64 via Infocom. The plot shifts and changes over a series of chapters in which the player adopts a number of roles.

Chapter 1: The Train. An American businessman returning from the Eastern state of Frobnia, to Vienna, your train is nearing the border at Litzenburg. Suddenly, an American agent staggers into your compartment, bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound, and thrusts a document in your hand. "Deliver this to my contact, who will bump into you at Ostnitz station," he implores. "He will say 'Pardon me'. To this you must reply 'It's my fault'." Pinning a white carnation on you for recognition purposes, and telling you your task is vital to prevent the assassination of an American diplomat, he staggers out.

Before long, the train is being searched for the agent, and every passenger is interrogated. The secret document will do you no good if you are still clutching it when the man in the trench coat arrives! On reaching the border at Ostnitz, trench coats conducts a thorough search of the train and baggage... How you deliver the vital information to the contact forms the basis of this Chapter, which in hindsight, turns out to be quite short, albeit complex.

Border Zone

Chapter 2: The Border. Now you are the wounded American spy who passed you the document in Chapter 1. Fleeing from the train before it reached the border station, you are on the run in a hostile land and must cross the border. To help you, a map of the countryside is supplied in the package.

Bleeding, freezing cold in the snow, and pursued by dogs, you make for a hut in the forest clearing. Let's hope its occupants are friendly...

Chapter 3: The Assassination. Now you are a KGB agent - the one from whom the American agent received the document. You have been sent to Ostnitz to supervise the assassination, and keep the Kremlin's name out of it. But in fact you are a double agent and must prevent it from happening without blowing your cover.

Border Zone marks yet another departure from the usual Infocom style. Apart from being the first Infocom spy thriller, more significantly it is their first adventure played in real time. Until now, the clock has stopped ticking whilst the player thinks. In Border Zone, time does not stand still - except when you use the PAUSE command.

Furthermore, Border Zone is in three chapters. Each chapter is basically a separate mini-adventure, but three minis don't manage the same depth and complexity of one single game of the same overall size.

Like Nord And Bert, Border Zone has built-in Invisiclues. Type HINT, and you get a pick-list of clues appropriate to the chapter you're playing. Select one, and a sequence of hints, in order of increasing helpfulness, is presented. At any time during the sequence you can QUIT the hint section and return to where you left off in the game.

Written by Infocom founder and co-author of Zork, Marc Blank, Border Zone doesn't disappoint in its puzzles - I love those where the game is (nearly) always one step ahead of me! The typical Infocom humour is there, too, in the trenchcoated man who tries to light a cigarette while he interrogates you, and fails dismally. Not funny? Try lighting a match from the Frobnian Railway matchbook supplied with the pack!

But the game was spoiled for me in two ways. Firstly, the way it was split into three chapters. However well done it is (and it is well done), the game immediately loses impact. Surely, it might have been one of those three-parter GACked games on tape - and they come at less than half the price.

More instrumental in spoiling the game for me, was the inclusion of Invisiclues. In Nord And Bert, basically a guessing game, they worked well, but in Border Zone the trouble is they are there! It is all very well saying "You don't have to look at them" but you now I know that when you're stuck you will use them, instead of doing what you should do to get the most out of the game - leave the computer alone for a while and puzzle through the problem logically, until inspiration hits you. So instead of a real mystery, you get access to an open book. This spoiled Border Zone for me, and led to the low Puzzleability rating, which would otherwise have ranked about 8.

By the time Beyond Zork is released, four in a row of Infocom's games will have been 'different' from the standard adventure which gave Infocom its high standing amongst adventure players. And there's Infocomix to come. Innovation and experiment in adventure formats is to be welcomed, but not in every release. Please, please, Infocom, Border Zone is good, but like Nord And Bert and Plundered Hearts, it has failed to get those top Valley ratings at one time almost guaranteed for an Infocom adventure. When can we have some more like Stationfall, Lurking Horror and Leather Goddesses?

Footnote

A word of warning about the C64 version. If, like mine, your pack contains only a C128 operating card, note that the way to start up the game on a C64 is different. You must type LOAD"STORY",8 and then type RUN at the 'Ready' prompt. Also, some copies of the C64 version are bugged. This manifests itself by preventing use of the SAVE command (extremely useful in Border Zone) and causes the computer to lock up. Then the whole game must be reloaded from scratch before play can continue.

Activision think that all faulty copies have been taken out of circulation, but should you find you have one, take it back to your supplier and ask for a replacement.

Keith Campbell

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