Konami’s Mission: Impossible – PC Review

Mission: Impossible was not the best show on television, nor was
it the worst. At its best it was ingenious and suspenseful, though
implausible and politically naive. At its worst, it still filled an hour
better than, say, Starsky and Hutch. More often than not, it fell somewhere
in the middle. Despite its general mediocrity, however, Mission: Impossible
was one of the best-known and most-loved shows of its day,
and few would deny that it is remembered today as an important piece of
our pop-culture heritage. There may not be annual IMF get-togethers the
way there are Star Trek conventions and the Franklin Mint may not be
knocking down anyone’s door to solicit orders for an IMF chess set, but
ask the average Joe what show “Your mission, should you decide to accept
it” comes from and chances are he’ll be able to tell you. Granted,
the word “mission” is something of a giveaway there — but test the man
on the street with “This message will self-destruct in five seconds” or a bit
of Lalo Schifrin’s famous theme music from the show and the results
won’t be much different.
The same generation that can name all the Brady kids and recite lines
from Get Smart — the same people who saw the recent Addams Family
movie primarily as a reference to a TV series rather than as a cinematic
tribute to a series of Hew Yorker cartoons — feel toward Mission: Impossible
the way an earlier generation felt toward Robert Stack’s The Untouchables
and a later generation feels toward The A-Team. These were
entertaining television shows, not great ones. People remember them
fondly.
It is clear, therefore, that Konami has not gone off the deep end in digging
up this old series, currently seen only in off-network, off-hour re-runs,
for a computer game revival. (It doesn’t hurt that the series was briefly
revived on television a few
seasons back when a writers’
strike made it impossible to
get new scripts in Hollywood.)
There is bound to be more
of an audience for a Mission:
Impossible game than for,
say, a Welcome Back, Kotter
or a Man From Atlantis
game, though Konami may still find a certain age group scratching its
head in puzzlement at what is to them an unfamiliar title. The series format
— a team of undercover agents using gadgets and deception to infiltrate
and foil criminal enterprises — also has the advantage of lending itself
naturally to game design.
With everything going for it from name recognition and nostalgia to
ready-made game scenarios, Mission: Impossible is as close to a sure
thing as any software company could ask for. All that Konami had to do
in designing the game was stick close to their source material… which
they did.
Unfortunately, Konami stuck so close to their model that along with the
original’s trademark gimmicks and devices, they seem to have duplicated
the show’s mediocrity. Mission: Impossible, the game, is very much like
an episode of Mission: Impossible, the series — only not a very good
one. More unfortunate still, even the worst episode of the television series
was over in an hour and was followed a week later by a better episode
(or at least a different one), and cost nothing to watch. Mission: Impossible,
the game, goes on and on, tells only one story, and retails for a
suggested $49.95.
Your Mission, Should You Choose…
The game opens with an exciting VGA/MCGA shot of Peter Graves lighting
a sputtering fuse, which then burns along the bottom of the screen to
the accompaniment of the digitized series theme music. This opening
gets players in an appropriate mood, as does a passable VGA slide-show
prologue in which Jim Phelps gets his self-destructing assignment (this
time from a tiny computer screen rather than a tape recorder). One immediately
misses the spoken-word audio that the scene deserves, as well
as some real animation (rapidly switched still pictures are used instead).
Nevertheless, the scene is effective.
However, the extra mile that the designers do not go in the prologue
should make players suspicious about what they are going to get in the
rest of the game. Sure enough, immediately after the opening, the program
sinks into a sixteen-color, EGA-quality play mode, at which level it remains for the duration of the game. (Actually, the EGA graphics the
game offers are worse than those in the VGA/EGA-quality mode, but
only marginally.) The feeling of having been duped by a false front —
how appropriate for Mission: Impossible — is inescapable.
Before starting to play, one is asked to choose a team of four agents
from a roster of twenty. That none of the original series characters are
available, including Jim Phelps, will be most players’ first disappointment.
(Imagine a Star Trek game in which one has to select one’s crew from a
roster of nobodies.)
The characters who are available have digitized portraits which appear
at the start of the game and which double as a truly annoying anti-piracy
scheme. The scheme is annoying mainly because the software doesn’t explain
what it wants the player to do. A certain amount of trial and error,
as well as flipping through the “Agent Procedure Manual,” is necessary
before one figures out how to get into the game. There is no reason a
player should have to go through this. One sentence either on-screen or
in the manual would have eliminated the problem.
Once one is allowed into the game, one gets to review the team’s statistics.
As a tip of the hat to the sort of role-playing game Mission: Impossible
clearly wants to be, each agent has an extensive dossier of skills
and abilities. Some of these come into play — lockpicking, for example —
while others are just window dressing as far as this reviewer could tell.
After one’s team is selected and activated, one begins the game itself.
A scrolling overhead city plan gives a general view of the locations in
which the story unfolds. The city contains some residential houses, estates,
hotels, docks, eateries, a library, a park and a golf course. Though
the playing field seems big at first glance, one quickly hits the edges and
becomes familiar with all its contents. As soon as this happens, the game
suddenly starts to feel small. Part of the fun of the television series was
the feeling that the agents were traveling all over the world (though not
necessarily in any single episode). The fact that the game is limited to
one fairly ordinary suburban scene removes a good deal of the romance
and adventure from the plot.
Actual gameplay takes place on side-view screens which are available
for each location and which allow one to “zoom in” from the map screen,
as long as at least one of the player’s agents is present in a given location.
Some locations have multiple levels and multiple rooms to explore;
others do not.
In the center of town, a nondescript house conceals the headquarters of
the IMF (Impossible Mission Force, for those not in the know). From this
computerized nerve center, agents can equip themselves with weapons
and espionage tools, set and monitor phone taps, recuperate from their
exertions (in other words, take a nap), and prepare those famous Mission:
Impossible disguises which make an agent look just like a captured
criminal.
One’s progress through the game is non-linear in a loose sense — one
can go anywhere at any time, with or without a reason — but there is a
fairly clear order of operations to follow based on the leads one gets from
each encounter. A name dropped by one criminal suggests a new phone
tap that might be worthwhile; tailing one suspect typically leads an agent
to another.
The player’s four agents can work independently and, in fact, the best
element of the game is the need to have several operations underway at
once. Everything happens in real time in Mission: Impossible, including
travel from one location to another, and a single missed appointment or
encounter can mean the failure of one’s mission. (The game kindly offers
a save/restore function for such emergencies, which the manual
euphemistically refers to as “[times when] you’ve gotten off track with
your investigation.”)
You Call This Impossible?
The storyline one has to uncover, bit by bit, involves a shady plot by
unidentified bad guys to kill leaders of industry and government and
replace them with crooks. (A cynic might ask, “Who’d notice?”) Several
hits have already been carried out and in each case the killer has been
released by a sympathetic judge. The IMF has to prevent further murders
and get to the bottom of the plot.
If this sounds as memorable as yesterday’s horoscope and as spicy as
chipped beef, it is partly because the story is not one likely to inspire en
thusiasm either in ordinary players or in game reviewers … especially
not in game reviewers, who see every game that comes out and, therefore,
have to digest generic plots like this one by the dozen. To be fair,
the presentation of the story in the game is slightly more enthusiastic
than its in-a-nutshell presentation above. On the other hand, it’s also
longer and consequently duller.
Furthermore, the plot lacks the element of heightened suspense that
made the best episodes of the television series work so well. There was a
sense in those episodes that no one on Earth except Jim Phelps and his
team had the necessary combination of wit, technology, intellect, and ingenuity
to bring about a subtle and happy resolution to the problem of
the week, which was always fraught with grave dangers. Hence, the title
of the show, Mission: Impossible — like Captain Kirk in Star Trek II, who
found a way to win the no-win Kobayashi Maru simulation — the IMF
team is supposed to do the impossible. In the game, their job seems
much too tame, the results they achieve too readily accessible to anyone
with a good computer, a parabolic mike, an accurate wristwatch, and half
a brain.
As one plays Mission: Impossible, one is constantly reminded of
similar games such as Microprose’s Covert Action; yet Covert Action is
a much better game, if only because it offers dozens of different stories
for players to investigate. If one story is dull, the player can switch to
another. That is not possible in Mission: Impossible.
The sad fact is that one gets to a point with this game at which one
simply doesn’t want to go any further. It will be a different point for different
players, but it will come all the same. It’s the point at which one
knows the proper “moves” to make, but feels that there’s no reason to
make them.
As with a tedious movie or play, the temptation is to walk out in the
middle. The temptation is doubly strong with a game like this, since one
can quickly survey most of the locations, hear all the music there is to
hear, whiz through a couple of encounters, and then sit back and ask,
“Now what?”
Without a compelling story to hold the player’s interest, there is no
answer to that question. If this game really were the TV re-run it so often
feels like, most viewers would just change the channel.
In Re: Mission
Despite all its weaknesses, though, Mission: Impossible is not the
worst game on the market any more than Mission: Impossible was the
worst TV series. The graphics are not what one might hope for (which
would be something closer to Dynamix’s Heart of China or, at least, a
Sierra “Quest” game), but for their mid-range standard look they aren’t
bad. Despite some embarrassing flubs (houses are red on the map
screen but yellow and green in close-up) and weird animations (when an
agent turns, it looks like Leslie Nielsen breakdancing in The Naked
Gun), most of the scenes are crisp and attractive. The sound effects are
good, as is the music, and when either or both get irritating, they can be
disabled.
The controls are a combination of point-and-click and menu-driven and,
for the most part, work well. The system for moving agents from place to
place and estimating distances on the map screen is somewhat
over-complex (click on this, then that, the other, in a set order), but one gets
used to it. The system of alternating, in close-up sequences, between
using the mouse/joystick/keyboard to control an agent’s movements and
using them to control an on-screen crosshair (which can itself control the
agent’s movements) is as cumbersome here as it was in Access’
Countdown, the last game that used it; but one can just set the controls
to the crosshair and ignore the rest.
If there is one good thing to be said on behalf of Mission: Impossible,
it is that it does succeed in evoking the look and feel of the TV series —
in some respects superficially, perhaps, but it does it. Fans of the series
will have their share of cavils, but the game should be a treat for them
nevertheless.
For the wider audience, however, this game cannot be recommended.
A player looking for a good thriller or espionage game would do better to
get Countdown or Covert Action instead. A player looking for a good
Mission: Impossible adventure is directed, with regret, to the late-night
listings of the current TV Guide.

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