3-D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent
Sierra's 3-D Ultra Pinball series, of which this is the third installment, has established a firm reputation of being highly innovative, frenzied, and a bit wacky. Its extra-wide playing fields, the clever links among the tables and the incredible number of moving objects on the screen at any one time set it apart from the competition. Unlike excellent competitors such as Full Tilt! Pinball from Maxis or the more recent Pro Pinball -- Timeshock! from Empire Interactive, the Sierra series attempts to present not an accurate simulation of real arcade pinball, but rather a truly fun game only loosely related to traditional pinball that embellishes the gameplay with cute animated sequences that could never be part of the real thing.
While the first in Sierra's series dealt with outer space and the second (Creep Night) dealt with a ghoulish haunted setting, this current release is a thinly veiled attempt to capitalize on the expected (but perhaps not realized) popularity of The Lost World, the recently-released sequel to the movie Jurassic Park. The story begins with a plane crash-landing in a dense African jungle with three survivors: Rex Hunter, a heroic mercenary; Professor Spector, who provides ingenious problem-solving advice; and Mary, an assistant to the Professor who fights off both Rex's advances and ominous perils along the way. Meanwhile, the evil Doctor Heckla is plotting to convert the primitive local population into dinosaurs that will fight his battle to rule the world. Rex must ultimately figure out how to destroy Heckla and his army and return safely home.
This game is generally a riot to play, and with fifteen extraordinarily innovative tables the fun never seems to stop. The tables incorporate many different types of challenges, and you never get a sense of repetition when moving from one to another. In many tables, the storyboard is one side and the playing field is the other, making it easy to see the connection between your success in directing the ball and your ability to progress through the plot. However, one of the major problems with the gameplay is that within a given table you often have to repeat a sequence of hits multiple times in order to accomplish the overall objective, and this becomes a bit wearisome. Moreover, even on fast computers the ball occasionally moves at an agonizingly slow crawl; the causes here appear to be either the number of animations occurring on the screen at any one time or the tendency of the game to need a constant data stream from the CD-ROM drive (even with a large hard-drive installation), which by necessity slows the game down. These two problems combine to detract significantly from the enjoyment of the game.
The controls are quite intuitive, and I especially appreciate the full gamepad support provided by Sierra, as that seems superior to the keyboard, the mouse, and the joystick to play computer pinball. I love the practice option which allows you to play any of the tables in any order you wish just to get familiar with them, rather than being restricted to the linear progression among them mandated by the plot of the game (too many games do not let you see levels unless you painstakingly work your way up). The game includes well-implemented play options relating to the skill level, the number of balls, gravity, a targeting bullseye, audio and video quality, saving games, keeping high scores and allowing multiplayer competition.
The quality of the graphics in the game is generally excellent, with more vibrantly-colored tables and more detail even than Creep Night had. The opening video is super, and many of the animations contain effects never before seen in a pinball game, including faces slowly disintegrating with every ball hit. The hallmark of this kind of pinball is that a ton of activity is going on at any one time, and this helps the excitement of the game considerably. Some of the animations are exceptional, such as the running waterfalls in one table. But a few of the animations had noticeable glitches, and this detracted from the overall positive effect.
The sound and music in this game is uniformly superior, as one has come to expect from Sierra. The music is varied and quite helpful in communicating the differing moods of the various tables. The sound effects are clear and in some cases really original. The vocal effects add a lot to the game, giving the player a sense of what to do or how things are going while at the same time communicating a wonderful sense of humor. This is truly a game that would be a disaster with the sound turned off.
An extremely thin and sketchy jewel-case manual is included as the only form of printed documentation (other than a Quick Reference Card). The manual includes only how to install the program and how to get technical support, with no information whatsoever on how to play the game. Despite the presence of a useful online manual accessible from the Help Menu, this situation is totally unacceptable. Even with the recent trend in increasingly skimpy printed documentation, for games of its kind this product sets a new low.
System Requirements and Comments
Required: 486/66 CPU, 8 MB RAM, 2X CD-ROM drive, a Windows-compatible sound card, Windows 3.1 or Windows 95
A separate version is included that will run on a Power Mac under System 7.5. These minimum requirements are exceedingly low compared to most current releases.
3-D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent has the potential to be the best in this very exciting series, but it misses the mark a bit due not to game design, but to execution. The sluggishness of ball movement in many circumstances, even on extremely fast computers, combines with a few key animation glitches to keep this from fulfilling its promise. However, the incredibly diverse, exciting and creative tables in this game almost compensate for this weakness. Fans of this series from Sierra will not want to miss this one, but we can all hope for better in the future.