William Shatner’s TekWar

William Shatner’s TekWar
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Game Name: William Shatner's TekWar
Platforms: DOS
Publisher(s): IntraCorp Software
Developer(s): Capstone Software
Genre(s): First Person Shooter
Release Date: 1995

It’s the early 90s, and William Shatner is tired of being forever associated with Captain Kirk. He’s focused now on being something of a Hollywood renaissance man – writer, director, actor, horse trainer, and now, video game producer. A contemporary interview in the game’s official strategy guide revealed Shatner had a lot of grand plans for multimedia entertainment. There was a “TekWar: New York” sequel already being discussed. He formed a “Shatner Interactive” label with Capstone, with the intent to produce more projects. The fact that all of this died a quiet death should give you an idea of TekWar’s quality. This is a game that kills empires.

Central city streets usually look pretty great.

Central city streets usually look pretty great.

TekWar the game is based directly off of Shatner’s series of novels, TV, and TV films. In it, you play as series protagonist Jake Cardigan in everything but name – you’re a cop, framed for corruption and later thawed out of cryo-prison by the enigmatic Walter Bascom (Shatner), head of a private security firm. The “Tek” of the name refers to a digital drug that causes users to hallucinate their fantasies, with irreparable brain damage from extended use. Tek had previously been delivered locally by data disk, but in tonight’s gripping episode, the seven TekLords of Los Angeles have found a way to covertly deliver Tek through the Matrix (the series’ future Internet). Your job is to shut this system down before it infects millions of unwitting users.

To pull this off, you’ll be taking on each of the seven TekLords in a district of the city they control. You select which boss to hit next from the main menu. A central subway acts as a hub, with different “stops” opening up depending on the TekLord selected. You’ll be searching early areas for color-coded keycards, which open up the boss’ lair in a stop on down the line. Defeating the boss gives you a Matrix key. With all seven keys, you can enter cyberspace yourself and shut down the Tek distribution node.

It’s heavy stuff for a 1994 game, and the ambition is certainly worlds away from blasting monsters in a maze. In fact, the futuristic city is clearly meant to be the star of the show. Each level has a different style, including downtown at night, beachfront shops, a filthy slum, and – as it’s a 90’s FPS – a sewer level. Cars and boats drive around town in preset loops. Civilians mill about the buildings, streets, and plazas. Bathroom mirrors function. The aforementioned subway actually works, in that the train car will move around an indoor track and pause at platforms. Cops patrol the streets. Some effort has been given to provide a purpose to each building you can enter, including corporate offices, bars, museums, and hospitals. Many of these buildings have clearly designed lobbies, patient rooms, atriums, and shops.

Running with weapon out isn't advised, you just don't have the health to take on everyone.

Running with weapon out isn’t advised, you just don’t have the health to take on everyone.

Even the gunplay has realistic limits. Your weapons are concealed by default. Pressing the Fire key draws a pistol from your coat, and nearby civilians scream, cower, or flee. Police will draw their own guns and command you to drop yours. If they see you shoot, they’ll spend the rest of the level trying to take you down. There’s even consideration given to using non-lethal weapons versus very lethal ballistic ones – kill civilians and and Bascom’s FMV debriefing will change to an outright browbeating. Civilians can also get caught in the crossfire, and you’ll get blamed for that too – even if their death was clearly not your fault.

Your opposition consists of that boss’ minions. Most of these fellows make no attempt to hide their affiliation – they’ll shoot you mercilessly on sight. Though advanced AI was promised here, it doesn’t appear in practice. Goons will freely open fire in full view of police officers, who show no reaction whatsoever. Fire your own weapon in defense, and now both police and goons team up to take you down. Perhaps the cops are corrupt and “on the take,” but it’s one of many points where the virtual city starts to break down. Also, forget about enemies taking cover or using tactics – it’s all standing around or patrolling in limited areas. When they spot you, they’ll shoot relentlessly, ignoring all damage, until one of you falls.

In fact, the whole game is a similar combination of big ideas and small execution. It seems clear that the development team ran out of time. Many buildings are blatantly unfinished, with barren rooms, hallways to nowhere, or stairways that dead-end at a second floor that was never built. There also aren’t enough textures to go around. For every unique location (like “Stinky’s” bar, or the hospital), there are countless buildings with repeated, tiled textures and generic, “rough draft” rooms. Textures are so scarce that I sometimes missed doors because they used a texture that had been a wall in a previous level. Scale also never got a pass. Civilians must be about seven feet tall, while ammo clips and medkits are as large as barrels. You’d have to use both hands to grab them!

Not enough textures and not enough polish. Most areas look like a first pass.

Not enough textures and not enough polish. Most areas look like a first pass.

There’s also some apparent struggles with the Build engine. Many textures are misaligned. There are a few sections where you can optionally go underwater, but you simply move around (and breathe!) as if on land. Ladders were clearly hacked in, and climbing them is ridiculously slow. Most decals (like the subway maps) float a few inches in front of the geometry they’re supposed to be stuck on. And many switches are unintentionally hard to hit – see the one hidden behind the desk in level 2 (hint – crouch in front of it and hammer the “use” key as you stand up).

Ultimately, the biggest annoyance is that the idea of a “living” city is wasted here. The Build engine makes for plenty of opportunities for exploration, but while you can enter every building in an area, there’s nothing to see. Gameplay a keycard hunt through blocky architecture with scarce decoration. You’ll need red and blue keycards to access a boss’ lair, but you’re never given a clue as to where these reside. I was expecting Shatner’s briefings to make use of the city – something along the lines of “This TekLord works out of the Amalgamated Tetrahedron building, go check it out.” Instead, you’re left to wander around, enter just about every room, and shoot the goons until you pop the one with the keycard needed to continue.

Shooting seems meant to take a backseat to the exploration, but it’s still a frequent feature, and it’s similarly flawed. Enemies have perfect aim from any distance, and the occasional one can shoot through walls or corners. You can only tell you’re hitting someone by a slight jerk in their marionette animation. Bullets leave no marks on walls, show only a difficult-to-see puff on hits, and only affect the occasional explosive barrel or window. Ammunition for all but the pistol is ridiculously scarce (to encourage more exploration, I suppose), so your meatier weapons go unused. With nearly no visual feedback, your weapons feel like popguns and fighting baddies feels unsatisfying. The tradeoff is that you can take an impressive amount of damage yourself, with scattered health kits around to keep you going.

An entire building made out of one texture. Those gangs were really dedicated to their graffiti.

An entire building made out of one texture. Those gangs were really dedicated to their graffiti.

Further, your foot speed seems designed for open areas. You walk at a Doom-like jog, even in what are supposed to be small office lobbies. Sprinting is even worse. This makes turning and going for cover a chore during a battle, and dangerous near windows or ledges. There’s also no vertical autoaim. You will need to stop and manually adjust your view (with Page Up/Page Down) to hit anyone on ledges above you, or try to avoid them entirely. You can engage a mouselook toggle, but the view distorts sickeningly and I wouldn’t advise leaving it on.

The game’s lethal/non-lethal system somewhat encourages you to use the default stun pistol. It’s slow, but it has infinite ammo and knocks enemies out for the entire level. If a citizen happens into the crossfire, you can stun them without penalty. You also get a yet another different FMV debrief for capturing a TekLord alive. All of this funnels you into using the stunner exclusively, instead of swapping around as I believe the intent was. On the other hand, you can kill anyone – cops, civilians, the entire population of a level – with the only penalty being the “bad” FMV. Your game never ends, you can always try any level again, and Bascom never ships you back to cryo as he continually threatens to.

Once you have a key from any TekLord, you can enter the Matrix (though it’s probably best to wait until you have all seven). This is cyberspace at its most 90’s, and a complete mind fuck. You’re given no help in navigating this world, and it’s a completely alien maze by design. In general, you’re “flying” through the world with the new ability to shift vertically using crouch and jump. Most of the walls are jet black, with neon art and icons meant to simulate the interface. You can find teleport rings that move you to new areas and switches that unlock doors… somewhere. Most of your time will be spent trying to “use” everything, and that’s the intent. You’re supposed to be experimenting and decoding the visual language.

I appreciate the attempt, but cyberspace here is pretty much a mess.

I appreciate the attempt, but cyberspace here is pretty much a mess.

Whether you think this is any fun or not is up to you. I think it might be if you were able to move a little faster. Instead, your slow movement makes the aimless backtracking and 3D mazes that much worse. New enemies also appear here, which the manual indicates are AI defenses (geometric shapes) or other users (flying hands, like something out of Zelda‘s dungeons). You have to collect ammo for your glove to defeat them. Overall, it’s a hassle, but the combination of in-game map and quicksaves make it at least possible to complete. Once you set all seven keys – and, of course, stumble upon where to do so – you’ll have one last mission before you’ve won the game.

I have no affinity for the TekWar series, but I actually wanted to like the game. The city desperately needed more development and polish, but I like the focus on exploring it over shooting through it. I like being encouraged to keep your weapon holstered, but wish the cops would come to your aid if appropriate. I actually like that civilian and TekGoon models are reused, because it sets up situations where you potentially don’t know if someone will draw a gun on you – the overused holograms and underused exploding android enemies further play on this. There’s potential here.

Unfortunately, there either wasn’t enough time, or not enough skill, to pull off TekWar’s best ideas. It’s a playable mess, with levels that remind me of the most amateurish Duke 3D user maps. Buildings are often empty and hardly worth exploring except for powerups. There’s some early Build showcases, like moving vehicles, catwalks over levels, and seamless indoor/outdoor transitions, but endlessly reused textures and unfinished, meandering levels ultimately just waste your time. The shooting feels hollow, and even Shatner’s involvement is limited to a handful of FMV sequences with the game’s logo as the background. Check out CyberMage or Strife for much better contemporary implementations of a living city.

 

The Good

Large, futuristic city for your mostly nonlinear exploration. Variety in each of the districts. Engine can create some attractive, realistic areas when it wants to. An attempt to focus on exploration over shooting.

The Bad

Terrible AI and animation. Blatantly unfinished levels. Boring combat. Shatner’s briefings are no help. Good ideas that just didn’t see completion.

 

“Don’t blame yourself that Sonny Hokori got away… let ME do that.” — Bascom

 

7 Comments

  1. Rob K. says:

    Another great review J Man (as good as AVGN or better) and I will mention to J Man and others
    reading this that Strife was a great game, Cybermage too but this game, well…. It does indeed
    remind me, back when playing these games in the 90’s, of a Duke 3D user map. Indeed, lol.

    On another note here, the representation of “The Matrix” is also indeed very much 90’s inspired
    (good thing the Matrix movies gave us a glimpse of the real Matrix, lol, jk) what comes to mind, for
    some odd reason are Tron (The Movie) and also The Simpsons THOH episode where Homer
    gets trapped in another dimension and becomes 3D, then gets spit out into the real world at the
    end of the episode (it was a 90’s episode, so it was classic Simpsons btw). It also leaves much
    to be desired.

    p.s. Love the quotes at the end of some reviews 🙂

  2. Uncle Dave says:

    Killer review as always, Chief, but I gotta admit, when I checked on JGR last night, and was greeted by the picture of ANGRY SHATNER on the Featured Post bar, that made me jump back a bit.

  3. Disthron says:

    I think this game really suffered from being built with a very early version of the engine. Still, could have been been much better.

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