Tex Murphy, played by Access Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Chris Jones, started his rise to stardom with a little known fantasy role playing game, Mean Streets, published in 1989. Mean Streets game was followed by the sequel, Martian Memorandum, which won the Software Publishers Association (SPA) Codie for best fantasy role playing game for 1991. Under a Killing Moon followed with the 1994 SPA Codie for best fantasy role playing game, and since its release late in 1994 has sold over 400,000 copies, translating to sales of over 60,000 copies per month over the half year.
Is it any surprise that the current installment in the Tex Murphy saga would do no less than fly off the shelves. Assisting in the process of breaking sales records will be a top notch cast, some new professional actors' faces replace Brian Keith, Margot Kidder, and Russell Means. The game is a cinematic graphic adventure that has hot spots on the screen to investigate and a branching plot with several parallel plotlines. The plot unfolds with puzzles of the treasure hunt type with a few pattern recognition and word puzzles to spike the mix.
A new element was added which improves the award winning recipe. A top-notch Hollywood movie director, Adrian Carr, who directed the Man from Snowy River, Prisoners, D.A.R.Y.L., and Quigley Down Under, adds his considerable talents to the professional production. Adrian is a man who understands actors, and this shows in his work. While initially reluctant to direct a computer game, Adrian found the process infectious and now thoroughly enjoys the game medium and is hoping to do more direction of computer games in the future.
Heading the cast of notables is of course, Tex Murphy, played by Access executive, Chris Jones. Chris shows a wide range of ability in screen presence, display of emotions, and other areas and returns to reprise his role as the moody, self-depreciating, but persistent private eye. Barry Corbin, of Northern Exposure, who is known for his portrayals of nice, friendly characters, was excited to portray the evil renegade federal agent, Jackson Cross.
Other excellent actors include Oscar nominee, Kevin McCarthy, as Gordon Fitzpatrick, James Bond and Charlie's Angels girl, Tanya Roberts, Golden Boot Award winner and vetran movie and television actor John Agar as the brilliant Thomas Malloy, sexy singing Nicole Tindal sings a rock fusion ballad and plays the part of the young love interest of Malloy. The cast has many others playing excellent parts. Access has an excellent internet site with further information on the stars.
The story starts with Tex down on his luck, behind in his rent, and in the doghouse with his on-again-off-again since the beginning of the series paramour and beautiful newsstand vendor, Chelsee Bando, played by Suzanne Barnes. Will Tex finally reconcile his differences with Chelsee and get married or even score with this lovely heroine? The mood is a mixture of bad puns, sight gags, and deadly serious dread, depending on where in the game you are.
Early in the plot, Gordon Fitzpatrick hires Tex to find his friend, Thomas Malloy, who has disappeared. Flush with $4,000, which is just barely enough to pay off all of his past debts, Tex begins to unravel the web that includes aliens, federal agents, UFO nuts, and the old cast of regulars from previous Tex Murphy romps. The plot is non-linear to an extent with three basic paths and seven different endings which allow Tex to save or not save various characters and his relationship.
Puzzles are used to advance the plot in the game. If you do not solve the puzzle you do not move into the next part. Some of the puzzles are word games. some are the treasure hunt type, where you must know how to use what where and when. Some are knowing where and when to combine up to six from the up to hundreds of objects in the inventory to form other objects. The pattern recognition puzzles put together pictures and jig-saw pieces to match paintings on a wall, which have been improved enough to remember where you put the parts when you leave the puzzle to return later - Bravo! Gadget puzzles, one must understand how to use the gadget to analyze a picture, dial a phone, and many other things to explore.
Speaking of exploration, the game still has the delightful auto mapping and automatic travel system seen in Under a Killing Moon. Once you visit a location it appears on the map, by clicking on the location and selecting travel, you move to that location, skipping over the boring repetition of traveling manually over old ground. Other than the areas where the travel system is turned off in the NSA vault and the Hanger 41 underground installation, Access deserves a hearty round of applause for learning from the past to produce good games today.
What would one of these games be without mazes and you will have a maze in the Mayan temple and a maze in the airducts of Area 51. There is a small laser maze at the entrance to Area 51's underground complex and one in the sewers under your home street. These mazes must be manually passed from one to the other, no travel menu here.
The online help system, is sometimes a little simple with every detail explained, but this should help even the most unenlightened find the light at the end of the tunnel. By clicking on boxes and paying a fee in points, puzzles can be bypassed, and specific clues are given that will walk you through the entire game. So if you are stuck you are spared the cost, inconvenience, and embarrassment of a midnight call to the "900" hint line.
What would a graphic adventure be without the obligatory arcade sequence and a time dependent puzzle. The arcade sequence is on the roof of the fun house where you must wait for the killer to turn away, run down the stairs, duck behind an air conditioner cooling unit, go around the unit to the right (behind the killer) and jump to subdue him. The time dependent puzzle requires you to assemble a generator in the Area 51 underground complex before the energy monster kills you. Both sequences are not too difficult, but I recommend saving before you start these just in case you do die. Why can't we bypass these arcade and time dependent puzzles if we want to?
There are several cut scenes where the full motion video action takes control of the game and delights the audience with some brilliantly composed and shot sequences. There seems to be enough of this video to cut into a film, and the Access group is seriously considering filming a movie along with the game for consumption. If you are curious a fictional novel from Prima based upon the game is available. This is highly recommended after you play the game, while waiting patiently for Tex Murphy mystery number 5, which should take at least two years to finish.
The interface is just as clunky and hard to use as it was in previous games. The spacebar controls whether you are in movement mode or interactive mode. You have complete freedom to explore the environment by walking or clicking anywhere. Many of the hidden objects are virtually invisible unless you spend time looking for them. The screen can pan up and down, raise the height of the character and turn and walk a full 360 degrees. Many objects elicit little known facts about Tex's life, like the electric hobby horse from his youth that when a surge hit it threw little Tex through the roof making a Texas-like impression on the ceiling, resulting in the nickname, "Tex."
This particular game has three different tracks, good, neutral, and evil, which can lead to seven different endings. Each of the three endings, one with Tex and Chelsie getting together, the other with Tex wanting Chelsie but not getting her, and the third with Tex, well you should have something to look forward to, so you need not know everything. The paths are somewhat better than the divergent paths seen in the Wing Commander III and IV cinematic adventure games, but they are still a far cry from the pre cinematic free form games of the distant past that were long on plot and entertaining game play, but short on multimedia video, human speech, sound effects, and music. Perhaps Tex is right and a game has to know its limitations. If that is so, the Pandora Directive is as good as it gets.
Conclusion: So the interface is clunky and the plot line is not truly multiple, but as close as it is gonna get. But this is one of the great games. Not only does it have a great cast, a great story, and a truly innovative if clunky interface, but this is one game that has class. Sure it is the kind of movie you would love to see in the theaters, but it does more in engaging the game player and providing a true go anywhere and do anything environment. We should expect that Tex Murphy will get better, more parallel plots, less awkward, and more fun. If you have not seen this one it will really bite you. It has my almost perfect rating. Hey, nothing is perfect.
Besides now we all have to wait for the next installment in this wonderful series. Pass the munchies, Boris.
Aaron Conners, The Pandora Directive, A Tex Murphy Novel, Proteus, Prima, 1996, $6.99. A wonderful adaption of the game into a novel. If you cannot get enough of Tex, this is the place, unless you want to wait on Access’ front porch for another year or two pining.
Al Giovetti, Under a Killing Moon, Computer Player, volume 1, number 9, February, 1995, pg. 54-55, 9/10 (90%).