Theatre of Death. Now if that's not a smart title for a game I don't know what is, it just sets the scene so well. Obviously there's going to be a sort of theatre and some sort of death taking place. And sure enough, that's precisely what happens.
The basic idea is that your computer has somehow been connected to a Geo-stationary satellite hanging above the virtual landmass that comprises of the Theatre of Death. You must lead a campaign across four different terrains (including the moon) to prove your worth as a military commander and all-purpose death-dealer. Well, that's what the instruction manual says anyway. What this means in plain English is that you have to guide loads of little soldiers around lots of big landscapes completing heaps of different missions. These missions vary from the simple "wax all the enemy soldiers" variety, to much more complex tasks like having to infiltrate and destroy enemy bases and saving hostages.
On the main action screen you control your Rambos, Commandos and Stuart Pearces either individually, or as a platoon by clicking the point on the landscape you want them to stroll over to. The screen scrolls along with the men, but if you want to (and you often will) you can scroll the screen independently of the men by using the cursor keys. This makes it possible to look around the whole landscape and to keep an eye out for approaching enemies or useful places to send your own platoons. There is also a map screen showing a scaled down version of the full level, and the locations of everybody and everything on it. This screen is vital for planning mission strategies, while it provides the best way of moving your troops over long distances.
As you usually have considerably more than one soldier at your disposal on each mission, it is obviously impossible to always have direct control over all of them (in fact most of the missions can only be completed by splitting your men into a minimum of two groups). On the map screen however, you can set the general attitude of your troops to attack, defend, patrol, or (call yourself a soldier, yellow-belly?) retreat whenever they run into a hostile situation. Thus your men are perfectly capable of running, hiding, maiming or slaughtering under their own steam. Well, that's Theatre of Death's basic premise for you. Sounds rather nifty doesn't it? And happily enough the game lives up to its promise.
One of the best things about Theatre has to be the way that its gamestyle effortlessly throws up almost infinite possibilities for different strategies. The large landscapes contain all sorts of features, including helicopter hangars, bunkers, forests and ammo dumps. This makes it possible to finish each mission in many different ways. If you want to get far into Theatre of Death you have to be prepared to thoroughly explore each landscape and use it to its fullest advantage. For instance, if you're doing a mission where you're heavily outnumbered, it will soon become pretty obvious that the first thing to do is move your troops to a well-protected position, before you start to consider some sort of attacking plan.
All this exploration, planning and reaction-thinking (while constantly having to fend off an increasingly hostile enemy) makes for a deeply involving game in itself, but thanks to the variety of the missions there's more to Theatre than that. Different missions require completely different methods of approach. Therefore it's generally left up to you to figure out whether to just charge in, bullets and grenades flying, or to approach cautiously, maybe in small groups, to avoid detection until as late as possible.
The game's programmers have obviously really tried to make their game play as freely as possible. As well as making the scenarios big and the ways of finishing levels numerous, they have also ensured that missions don't have to be accessed in linear order. Although you can only tackle the four different landscapes in order (grass, desert, ice and the moon), you can do the individual missions within each terrain in almost any order you want to. This just makes the game even more addictive. So, if you gel totally at your wits end with one mission, you can always have a crack at another. You never feel like you're completely stuck (especially as you only have to finish 10 of the 15 missions on each terrain before moving onto the next).
This is not meant to imply that Theatre of Death is an easy game, it certainly isn't. When you first start playing I guarantee that you'll have absolutely no idea what's going on. If you've chosen the mission where all you have to do is wipe out hordes of totally unarmed opponents (now that's the kind of war I'm into, chicken that I am), then you'll probably find you somehow win the level even though you hardly managed to gel off a shot yourself. It's your clever little troops that do all the work. Pick one of the others though, and you'll be missile-meat in no time.
The whole thing is not made any easier by the rather tricky control system. You use the mouse to move your men around, but if you want to scroll round the landscape independently of your men you have to use the cursor keys. This system gives rise to one of the game's only real problem, simply because it doesn't quite work properly.
Sometimes, (usually just when the action is at its most frenetic) the scrolling seems to get stuck for a moment, often with disastrous results. Also, if you've got a posse of men walking together and you scroll the landscape, some of them vanish off the screen. These men don't seem to keep walking in time with the others and get split off from the main group. Finally, and this is my biggest gripe of all, the combination of having to click with your mouse button and scroll the screen with your cursor keys is a bit too fiddly to be totally effective.
With perseverance the control system, although imperfect, at least becomes manageable. Now you can really start getting to grips with the game and from this point on you'll be hooked. Wiping out the enemy even when you're vastly outnumbered, calling in an airstrike (I didn't tell you you could do that, did I? Well, you can.) which drops its bombs right on target and rescuing a team from certain death, all bring an enormous sense of achievement. On the other hand every time your misguided efforts end in a massacre of your troops, the sense of failure and a will for revenge 'next time' is just as strong. Basically Theatre of Death really brings the sad, macho, male-bonding side out in you. Completing a mission as your sole surviving soldier successfully waxes the last couple of enemies, will have you whooping and punching the air in a particularly sad fashion - hardly the sort of thing you would like to do in front of friends and certainly not the kind of thing you want to reveal in a magazine.
And on that note I'm just going to shut up before Steve or Paul write anything else about me being a spod. They don't mean it of course, they like me really, it's just jealousy, I had a girlfriend once, I prefer to have a few close friends than lots of casual ones, etc, etc.
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Theme Park, Syndicate: American Revolt, Shadow of the Beast 1, Test Drive 2: The Duel, Universe, Pinball Dreams, Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge AGA, Space Hulk
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