Every now and then, in my misadventures, I stumble across little known things, or people. Such was the case when I almost tripped over Cognitoy, a handful of people in Massachusetts, and their flagship title, Mindrover. I admit it, like most people I'm a little leery of small operations. Without all of the usual PR, hype, and massive marketing campaigns, how I am to judge what is good and what isn't? In this case, Mindrover came highly recommended from a source I trust. So what the heck?
In Mindrover's future, humanity has taken to space, and bored scientists, trying to find a way to pass the time, have taken to programming vehicles of various sizes to participate in competitions. This, in a nutshell, is Mindrover. It consists of various scenarios of 4 different types (of escalating difficulty/complexity). Your task is to assemble a vehicle (rover), select the necessary components, and wire (program) the components together in such a way that accomplishes the objectives of the scenario. All of Mindrover's commands boil down a variation of the if-then statement. For example, if the medium radar detects an object, it fires the lasers. Additional components and additional commands make for more complex behaviors. The scenario objectives vary quite a bit, for example, in one scenario; the goal might be to build a rover for a drag race. In the next, you may be trying to destroy the opposing rover with various weapons. If it sounds complex, quite frankly, it is.
That's part of Mindrover's genius. Cognitoy would have us believe that Mindrover is a 3D-strategy/programming game. I disagree. I think it's a puzzle game of astonishing depth. When you boil away all of the bells and whistles, the task at hand is to assemble the parts you have available in a way that accomplishes the scenario objectives. Like many of the greatest puzzles, there's more then one way to a solution, but that is pretty much the only thing that Mindrover has in common with what most of us think of as "Strategy".
Mindrover's graphics are surprisingly good. Vehicles and levels are all surprisingly detailed, and very colorful. Level design is excellent, with an exceptional sense of scale. Mindrover doesn't use the traditional vehicle battle arenas, in favor of enormous bookcases and mammoth hallways. The effect is completely consistent with the idea that the rovers are mini-vehicles, the tools of bored scientists who use them to pass the time between research shifts. Explosions appear somewhat crude, and deaths are downright silly. (Rovers explode in a torrent of feathers, like pillows meeting an untimely demise). There is also an odd vanishing wall bug that occurs when viewing your rover through the "follow camera" next to a wall. (It's particularly bad in corners) As jarring/annoying as that is, it's relatively minor. All things being said and done, Mindrover paints a surprisingly good picture. Sound and sound effects are few and far between, but not poorly done. Mindrover's soundtrack is somewhat haunting, yet it fails to leave any lasting impression. More likely then not, you will switch it off as you're designing and put something in your CD player instead. (Believe me, you'll spend A LOT of time designing).
The jewel of Mindrover's crown is its interface. The design screen is conceivably one of the best pieces of interface work I've seen this year. Despite somewhere near: a dozen different vehicle types, dozens upon dozens of components, and thousands of different command combinations, Mindrover never gets bogged down in anything more complex then point-and-click, or point-and-drag. Though the screen can get somewhat cluttered, there are always tools available to organize and keep working. Out of Mindrover's 250 page spiral-bound manual, approximately 50 pages are devoted to "how to play the game", 50 are dedicated to tutorials to help you understand the game's concepts, and a whopping 150 are dedicated to explaining Mindrover's various components. (How's that for substance?) Though Mindrover may not be easily solved, it WON'T be because you didn't understand the controls, interface, or how to play the game.
Regrettably, much like most things in life, there are downsides. As a gamer, I hate to use the S-word, but it's true. Mindrover has serious stability issues. AUGH! I mean, "make my Voodoo3/2000 cry, crash a half dozen times in a few hours" kinds of stability issues. Apparently, 3Dfx based boards are the worst culprits, and Cognitoy has no solutions short of "write 3Dfx and tell them to release new drivers". I don't want to be cynical here, but somehow I don't think 3Dfx is going to release new drivers to accommodate a small startup somewhere in Massachusetts. Still, it doesn't really end there, because while I was reviewing Mindrover I experienced lockups on RIVA based boards as well. Cognitoy does have a 3mb patch available that addresses some issues (version 1.02), but all things being said and done it's still unplayable on 3dfx based boards.
My last complaint is a rather trifling one, but Mindrover lacks a dynamic campaign. Since each of it's scenarios are independent, and the results of one don't affect the start of the next, there isn't really any possibility of building upon past accomplishments, only knowledge gained in past scenarios. In short, there isn't really any sense of growth as you move from one puzzle to the next. (Changes occur because of changes in the scenario rules not because of past accomplishments). Those who enjoy a strong sense of accomplishment through growth should perhaps look elsewhere.
Mindrover is an astonishingly innovative product, were it not for the crashes, I would have to consider it the best puzzle game of 1999. Despite that, it remains my first choice for the dubious honor of "the best game no one played" of 1999. Cognitoy has certainly delivered on the first half of their motto, "Intelligent Toys for Intelligent Minds." Now does anyone know where I can find an intelligent mind?
Graphics: not what you'd expect!
Sound: bland as sugarless ice cream
Enjoyment: A deceptively interesting experience
Replay Value: This one will last as long as that fruitcake you're probably still eating
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