Observations on Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space Enhanced CD-ROM
by Drin Gyuk
I approached this CD-ROM with a great deal of trepidation. Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with it, but rather I dislike CD-ROM technology in general. The disks are expensive when they shouldn't be, the drives are too slow to do what is needed, and the medium is read only. I particularly disagree with the last quality. I like to fine tune and customize every program I run. Messing with systems settings, replacing bitmaps with my own and altering fonts is an integral part of computing for me. But a CD-ROM just sits there. I can play it, I can make choices about which part to view (called "interacting"), I can immerse myself in the sounds and sights, but I can't really own it. Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space Enhanced CD-ROM will always belong to a company called Interplay and no matter how many times it passes through my grubby hands, it will never be personalized by my own additions to its function.
All this aside, the concept is cool. Basically I get to play the head of either the Soviet or American space effort during the early years of rapid advancement to the recent present. As master of my country's high tech resources, I get to promote research into boosters, re-entry capsules, moon landers and spacesuits. Launch schedules are promoted at my whim and astronauts get recruited, trained and chosen for missions based on my wise decisions. If I do all this right, then everything will run like clockwork and my country will enjoy the glory of successful mission after mission. I can smile broadly as I watch my score rise rapidly as I beat out the competition time and again. First into space, first to orbit, first to land on the moon.
Of course the reality is much different as accidents happen, delays that should be hours turn into weeks and my pesky adversaries keep beating me to the punch. My first try as the Soviets saw me triumphantly launching a man into space, only to learn with horror that he didn't make it down! I slowed up, becoming cautious and then paranoid about safety. Soon the Americans had absolute control of the high ground and I never recovered.
So I decided to try the patriotic option and see how I fared with American might guiding me. Again I flubbed the first launch, but this time I learned that the key is to keep a level head (and budget) and plan for the long term. Sure enough, the aluminum stars and stripes was first to wave in the lunar wind. And everyone made it back alive.
The game supposedly first came out on disk and the basic interface seems to bear this out. It isn't heavy on ray-traced graphics or 2000 dpi photographic images. The sound is all computer generated. It isn't until I got to actual events (not the planning) that the power of multimedia revealed itself. For the CD-ROM version Interplay has packaged an impressive array of old footage of live-action news reports and old NASA video sequences, as well as more modern still images (probably taken by satellites rather than astronauts). The feel is nice and archaic. It truly made me worried about the souped up firecrackers I was using to launch my brave astronauts into space with. I got very annoyed when I lost both Gus Grissom and John Glenn to an oxygen fire.
In the end, though, I felt a little let down. Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space isn't really much of a game. Play it a few times and the events become awfully repetitive, as does the footage (though there is a lot). It also isn't much of a history lesson because there is so much variance in who did what and when. And because the pictures and names are so obviously real, it isn't properly a work of fiction.
Also, the periodic waits while images and sounds loaded were distracting. I was using only a double-speed CD-ROM player with 8-meg of RAM and I was often more concerned about whether I had beaten those capitalist dogs into orbit, than in seeing another mighty rocket belch fire and soar into the heavens. Especially when that rocket tended to lose its resolution periodically and the announcer frequently sounded like a teenager whose voice was breaking (cheap 8-bit sound blaster wannabe card).
So I remain unimpressed by CD-ROM's. Eighty bucks is a lot to pay for a simple game, and a load of graphics, video and sound that I can probably download from the web. Especially when the technology readily available can't quite handle it. Or the creators for that matter. It strikes me that to put out a good book, there has to be a good writer behind it (plus an editor). But to put out a good CD-ROM there has to be a whole team of talented professionals, or a couple multi-talented workaholics. Graphic design, music selection, scripting, editing and video processing are all very important to a quality product. Movies employ hundreds of people getting less than two hours of film just right, and often they fail. How good can a CD-ROM be with a tenth of the input?
To be fair, Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space mostly uses existing footage. Other CD-ROM's also borrow a lot from the work of others, so the number of staff needed can be reduced. But if a quality product only requires quality pictures (or sound), then wait a second while I put the Mona Lisa on my home page. OK, now you can call me Leonardo. And send me a fat check if you download the file.
What I should really be paying for when I buy an $80 CD-ROM is virtuoso orchestration and award-winning cinematography. The cuts should be clean, the arrangements masterful, and the expert direction obvious. I should get a lot. After all, if I was to shell out a bunch of twenties for a book, I'd expect something at least as good as Azimov or Allende, and preferably a trilogy by LeGuin or maybe a fat novel by Marquez. If I was buying a video, I wouldn't want last years mildly entertaining summer comedy.
Let me backtrack and firmly deny the idea that CD-ROM's are a waste of time. I totally realize that they are experimental (even if the publishers deny it) and as such they have room for improvement. The technology will get better, the talent will congregate, and the price will go down. Maybe this won't happen next year, but certainly not too far in the future. I guess that's what all the excitement is about. The future of CD-ROM's is so obviously bright that people can't wait to be in on it. Well, slow down, get it right and please give me the option to edit at will.