Posted 1 July 2000 to rec.games.int-fiction
By Michael J. Sousa
Reviewed on behalf of the IFRC
by Ben 'Yahtzee' Croshaw
Right, this is my first review, so I'd better not screw it up or I'll never get offered a game again. But you don't want to hear about my problems. You're reading this because (presumably) you want to know about Above and Beyond!
The title rather threw me when I first heard about it, thinking the game to be something to do with aviation. Apparently not. The addition of an exclamation mark clearly adds a new meaning to the phrase in a way I haven't previously been aware of.
No, this game revolves around a vast office complex in the middle of nowhere. Apparently (according to some of the built-in blurb) it's based on a real place, as are all the characters (based on real people, that is, not places), so if you really wanted you could go and visit and wander around going all giggly and impressing everyone by knowing their names. If your tastes run that way.
You play a man named Alex. Personally I prefer the game that doesn't let slip the main character's name or lets you type in your own. That way the player finds it easier to project him/herself onto the protagonist and finds the experience a lot more involving. But this is no reason to condemn the game, so let's get down to it (I'm no-one to talk, anyway, both the characters in my games available on FTP have names).
Alex (hereinafter referred to as 'you') has been recently snapped up as a programmer for this office block (come to think of it, I don't remember being told what this building's purpose is, but it presumably involves programming. There're quality assurance offices and management types as well, but hey, doesn't everywhere?). You arrive in your Toyota on your very first day having absent-mindedly forgotten your ID card. Hey, we've all done it.
So far, think you, so dull. What's so great about a game where you play a bloke who starts a new job and forgets his ID? Surely the whole idea of playing any game is to escape from the mundanity of everyday life and enter a complete fantasy existence? I know I can't speak for everyone, and there may well be people out there who actually want to play a complete nobody who goes to work. I shudder to think.
The action soon heats up, however, and CONSPIRACY is the name of the game. Right from the intro you get thrown into a web of intrigue and suspicion. Your co-workers, who at this stage appear briefly swiping their IDs, constantly whisper in hushed tones to each other on matters such as a wave of recent abductions (We find that out in the first few turns, so you can't say that's a spoiler). The guys are blaming each other and rival companies, and there are two weirdo federal agents snooping around and restricting your access to certain areas. As a conspiracy theorist I suspected the feds right from the start, but I won't give away the ending by saying whether I was right or not. There're also several references to an old army base under the building, but that doesn't really become relevant until part 3.
Things take on a rather surreal turn, however, when you have to explore a nearby forest and find a way to infiltrate the rear of the building without being detected. This is all very well when you're James Bond sneaking round the Iranian Embassy, but did it not occur to your character to just explain the matter at reception?
The puzzles in this first part of the game set a good standard for the remainder. They were difficult enough to provide a challenge of the ol' hippocampus but easy enough so you won't give up in despair. The addition of in-game hints (Three cheers!) keeps the action ticking over nicely, so you won't have to keep pestering the author for help - like I did on several occasions, incidentally, but in the later cases I simply forgot about the in-game hints. There is a LOT of NPC interaction in A&B!, most of which involves getting them out of your way.
Once you're in the second act of this escapade, which is the one I needed the most help from Mike on, the puzzles take on what I like to call an 'icy hillside' style. You know how it is on an icy hillside; you take one step forwards and have to slide two steps backwards. The game structure is a bit like this (and the following isn't in the game, it's just an example) -
Let's say there's a man in a lab whose signature you need on a form. The lab is locked and the man won't respond to your knocks. To get the key you must grant bizarre sexual favours to the secretary. But you need the baby oil before you can grant the bizarre sexual favours, but the man who has the baby oil won't give you it until you tell him the name of his cat. Then, when you've finally got the key and got into the lab, the man's listening to his Walkman and is ignoring you. To make him pay attention you have to find him a mint-condition first edition of Penthouse magazine. To get this you must eat enough boiled cabbage so you can propel yourself to the Moon by farting. Then, once you've finally got the form signed, you need to get it photocopied in triplicate ... and so on ...
This stage makes the game a little infuriating, I'm sorry to say, and without the benefit of a solution (as the in-game hints were rather vague at this point) you may lose interest. You really do have to pay close attention to the text in this game, but that's particularly important in this stage, as even the slightest apparently irrelevant fact (the name of the engineer's cat, say) may turn out to be a vital password, or a hint for a puzzle later.
Thanks to the vast numbers of NPCs in the middle bit of the game you'll also find yourself typing "ASK X ABOUT Y" a lot, and getting more and more frustrated as you try to work out how to phrase Y and which X to phrase it to.
When that section's over (and you'll certainly know when it is) you'll find yourself in the third and final chapter of our tale. This bit's more fantastical and less mundane-day-in-an-office than the last bit, but the puzzles this time are laid out in a very linear style: do this then do that then do the other. It also gets infuriating when you get stuck in some corridor because you forgot to take an important item with you from the last room, and I'm sure you'll find yourself at some point in this bit constantly re-doing a puzzle because there's always something you forgot to do before solving the big finale puzzle.
And to illustrate what I'm on about, an example: A man is about to come into the room who's a big fan of Napoleon but will murder any stranger he finds. You have to look around the area and find a Napoleon hat, an eye patch, a Napoleon jacket and a pair of Napoleon trousers. Then, after putting them on, you must remember to PUT HAND IN JACKET, drop everything you're carrying and hide them in a rabbit hole before opening the door and letting the psycho Napoleon-lover into the room. Only then you find out that you forgot to AFFECT FRENCH ACCENT.
The puzzles in this stage also depends on eavesdropping on NPCs quite a lot. You really have to pay lots of attention to whatever is said, again even if it seems irrelevant. I found myself constantly reloading save games because I didn't notice an apparently mundane piece of information divulged in a lengthy cut-scene twenty turns ago that turned out to be the code to a safe, for instance.
Well, I've written word after word on the plot and
puzzle structure, and so far I don't seem to have written much
praise. So, here we go. What you've all been waiting for. Those four
I found the plot, although outwardly mundane, gripping in a sort of subdued way as the mystery unfolded gradually and the conspiracy was gradually explained. The big revelation at the end, although seen coming a mile off, served to tie up most of the remaining loose ends as the ending of all good mystery stories should. As I said earlier the puzzles were not too hard and not too easy, and even when I did get stuck fast it only took a little nudge in the right direction for me to speed through a few more puzzles. It's not a slow trundle, more of a leisurely glide.
And finally, a few words on the game's writing. Although not what you would call verbose (room descriptions are often virtually the same for certain maze-like areas), it at least gets straight to the point. The people who see interactive fiction as fiction often prefer longer descriptions, to give them a better image of the situation in their minds, but those who see interactive fiction as interactive prefer shorter descriptions so they can get on with playing the game. I'm easy either way, but A&B! is definitely a game for the latter bracket.
So, if you like games with smaller descriptions, a mysterious storyline, loads of observational puzzles and a squillion and one non-playable characters, then Above and Beyond! is for you.
This article copyright © 2000, Ben Croshaw