Microprose claim it's "the game of the decade". Heard that before? For once, the hype might be right. A combination of intensive research and inventive programming, Midwinter depicts the future after a meteorite has collided with the Earth, bringing a global freeze. Pull on your snow boots and find out just why Midwinter conjures up memories of Populous...
It's taken four man years of programming and research for hit-making team Maelstrom to unleash Midwinter. Set in the future after a meteorite has struck Earth, the scenario is based on research predicting the long-term effects of a global freeze. The impact of a meteorite causes polar wobble, shifting the North and South poles, lowering river levels and causing new land masses to rise from the sea. It's the advent of one such land mass that provides the setting for Midwinter.
We're in the year 2099 and in an heroic bid to stay alive despite sub-zero temperatures and daunting ice ranges, your group of 32 survivalists have constructed food factories and heat mines. This frost-bitten utopia is disrupted when a hostile band come to the island and make their base come to the island and make their base at Shining Hollow. They advance, seizing your factories and heat mines and capturing your people. They've already taken control of three radio stations, disrupting your communication with the rest of your team.
Playing the role of Captain Stark, you trek across hills and valleys searching for a team to take on the enemy. The people you encounter often turn you down but that doesn't mean you can't ultimately enlist them. You have the ability to play any character already drafted into your team, so you can send another team member to try recruiting the reluctant individual - which may or may not prove successful. As the game evolves, you begin to learn which characters communicate best with others.
Once you've established an army of approximately ten people, you can advance on Shining Hollow. You attack their factories and radio stations and release any of your team held captive during play.
Before you suspect this is another techno-challenge designed to make you spend six long months digesting a weighty manual just to get past the loading screen, it's time to explain Midwinter's biggest asset. Despite its apparent complexity, the game is astonishingly easy to get to grips with - once you've spent a short time fathoming the controls, nothing is going to hold you back. A very logical icon set-up enables you to master the game in no time.
The game is played on a large map that details the contours of the land and displays useful landmarks. By clicking on a row of landmark icons on one side of the map, you can highlight anything from garages and heat mines to factories and churches. All these places are important to you: garages enable you to refill your snow buggy, churches boost your morale and factories produce food.
Midwinter is played as a series of turns. Within each turn you have two hours playing time for each character under your control. As a result, the more characters you recruit, the faster you progress. In practice, however, you won't get the full benefit of two hours of play, because when a character performs an activity, his energy levels sink. If they drop low enough he starts blacking out and his decision-making skills are affected to such an extent that important icons (such as the detonator) no longer appear.
In this case, your only option is to put him to sleep for the remainder of his two hours and move on to another character. During this time, the enemy may advance and capture your factories and heat mines.
As you obtain more characters your options expand and you can develop some cut-throat strategies, such as starving out the enemy by blowing up his food plants or going for a head-on attack and storming into Shining Hollow guns ablazing. You can also try controlling the full team of 32 characters by destroying the three radio stations blocking your broadcasts and then lead your team to the enemy base together.
Strong and exciting visuals are an important part of Midwinter's appeal. The main map effectively represents hills and valleys by shading and if you want a more realistic view, there's a fractal-generated satellite-type photograph of the map that gives a striking impression of heights.
Moving around the landscape on skis, in snow buggies or hang-gliding introduces exciting 3D views of the ice ranges as they zoom towards you. These are constructed as a set of polygons similar to those in Freescape challenges, but they've rarely been used so smoothly or effectively.
Sound effects consist of atmospheric skiing and snow buggy noises. There are also warning noises that increase or decrease in volume when the enemy is nearby but out of sight. Although undramatic themselves, you find yourself listening out for them with some trepidation.
The objective is to build up a large team from the 32 friendly characters on the island and head towards Shining Hollow where the enemy is entrenched. Study the map and work out the proximity of other team members and the location of food and transport.
Your first likely step is to head for the nearest garage and pick up a waiting snow buggy. Using the list of place types down one side of the map, you can highlight garages, cable cars or other useful places.
In this case, the garage is on flat ground and relatively close so you consider skiing there and picking up a snow buggy. But when you look closer, you see a team member who's much hearer. It's only by taking into account the heights of mountains that you realise you'd need to ski uphill to find this person, so you opt for the garage instead.
It's one thing deciding where you should go, but it's another finding the right mode of transport. You have two hours of playing time for each character to make his moves. When all characters have moved, the enemy takes his turn - so moving efficiently is important.
You're kitted out with skis at the start, enabling you to skim across flat ice fields. Unfortunately they don't help much on uphill climbs! Skiing drastically reduces your energy level, and if you tire quickly you may not last the full two hours of playing time. Couple this with a tricky control-method which sends you slipping if you don't pay attention, and you'll realise the importance of finding a snow buggy.
Cable cars are the safest form of transportation. They're sprinkled on the tops of high mountains and carry you over long distances. Spending time in the cable cars is useful since they allow you to rest and restore your energy levels. Here, you can see the cable car hut in the distance.
The buggy is the most common mode of transport and can be found in any garage. It carries youo up and downhill fast and even allows you to carry a passenger. Snow buggies come with varying degrees of weaponry and speed. Unfortunately, the snow buggy runs out of fuel, so you must find a neighbourhood garage to stay stopped up.
If you yearn for a more adventurous sport, why not try hang-gliding? Get to the top of a mountain, find the hang-glider, climb in and fly away. You have to ride the thermals which makes them difficult to control. This form of transport diminishes the energy levels in your arms but with care you can hang-glide over miles of difficult terrain.
A lot of classic games capture our imagination but the last time a genuine master appeared was when Populous stormed onto the scene. It was addictive, unique, had enormous long-term value, and, best of all, it could be quickly understood. Midwinter has all these essential ingredients and they should ensure it's as successful as Populous.
What keeps Midwinter addictive is the strategies you can employ to win. Depending on your position on the map, all sorts of possibilities present themselves - do you rescue another team member, do you go for the buggy instead, or do you blow up the factory? The choice is yours and any option may lead to success.
If any criticism is to be levelled at the game, it's only that repeated disk accesses can become frustrating, but this is a small price to pay for what is certainly going to be one of the big hits of the year. If you miss any other game in 1990, don't miss Midwinter.