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Burntime is a strategy game set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The object of the game is to gain control of what's left of the world. You dp this by conquering ghost towns and assembling an army of followers (although why on earth you should bother when the most logical thing to do would seem to be to sit down and start crying, is never explained). The action takes place against the clock, with computer-controlled opponents or a real live human battling against you.
Step one is to choose a face and name for your character. Choosing a face was easy enough (they range from ugly to very ugly to Nigel Lawson), but for some reason I found choosing a name extremely tough -I dearly wanted to call my character Noel Edmonds, since I figured that the idea of taking control of Noely boy as he went scavenging for maggots in the middle of an irradiated desert would cheer me up a little and help offset the overriding air of total bleakness that the game inspires. Tragically, I couldn't fit his surname in, so eventually I decided that "Bungle" would suffice. Oh well.
You begin the game armed with a knife, a flask of water and a lump of meat. Now that every single branch of Sainsbury's in the world has been razed to the ground, these meagre supplies aren't going to last you very long, so the first step is to find a source of water and some more food. From the main map you can see your current location, the position of your opponents, and the travel routes available to you. Since each journey takes a S couple of days, it's a good idea to choose yourself a destination that looks like it may well lead on to somewhere else - the last thing you want is to get stuck in some dead-end, post-holocaust version of Reading without so much as a boiled snake to eat. Furthermore, some places are still so radioactive you need a protective suit to go anywhere near the place, so you'd be well advised to steer clear - unless you're considering a new career as a glow-in-the-dark skeleton in a fairground ghost train. Once you arrive at a new location, a simple click with the ol' mouse button lets you explore it in detail. An overhead view of the area pops up, complete with rundown buildings and the unlucky inhabitants wandering hither and thither. You control your character with the mouse a la Cannon Fodder or Syndicate, but unlike either of those games the characters are monumentally stupid and can never work out how to walk around the tiniest of obstacles. Clicking on another person will enable you to talk to, or fight, them. There's loads of people to talk to, but unfortunately, like heavy metal fans, many of them look alike and hardly any of them ever have anything interesting to say. There don't seem to be any women either. Everyone is either a fighter, a technician, or a doctor, each of which are useful in different ways. Fighters will help you dish out a few good shoeings to your enemies; technicians are handy for constructing water pumps, rat traps and the like; and doctors will tend to all your wounds. Occasionally you'll bump into a tradesman with whom you can barter ("I'll give you two chunks of rat meat and this rusty spring in exchange for that snake-trap, mate."). Building up a large following is highly advisable - not only does it mean that you can carry more objects, but more importantly, members of your party can be ordered to stay behind and defend any new locations you come across, thereby preventing your rivals from getting a look in. So that's it really: you stumble around from here to there, exploring, recruiting and gathering supplies. But is it fun?
Fun & giggles then?
No, it bloody well isn't. It's an endless struggle. You can never find enough food. You can never find enough water. Everybody you meet is ugly and bad mannered. Wandering con-men habitually rip you off. Dogs bite you. Mutants dribble on you. Opponents attack you with axes. Ninety per cent of the buildings you search are totally empty. Members of your party drop like flies. Your health points seem to decrease by the second. Towns with names like "Nirvana" turn out to be bombed-out shells inhabited by two dogs and an incoherent, slavering mutant. It's all a bit like one of those package holidays that the viewers of programmes like That's Life! and Watchdog always seem to get sent on.
Okay, okay, the subject matter is inherently depressing anyway - but the game structure itself isn't any better. The controls are fiddly. Combat is ludicrous -you have to make the members of your party chase their would-be victims around all over the place in the most ineffectual way imaginable - in fact, it's so bad it's almost impossible to describe. (Remember that stage in It's a Knockout, where a blindfolded team member, usually dressed as a gargantuan Tweedle Dee, had to negotiate their way round an obstacle course, relying solely on the crys of "Right a bit!", "Left a bit!" from their other team mates for navigation? Well, the combat in Burntime is almost like that.)
There are very few things to discover and the things that you do discover usually kill you. The graphics, in places, are so bad they appear to have been designed by a team of pre-school children, and stupid ones at that. The sound effects appear to switch themselves on and off at random and the music stinks like a decomposing wino with a bowel disorder.
As for the strategy element - well, who cares? After you've starved to death in the desert for the umpteenth time and had to restart yet again, you simply no longer give a toss who wins. It's hard enough just trying to keep your main character alive and kicking for more than five minutes, let alone worrying what the computer-controlled smartarses are up to. The two-player option will be of interest only to pairs of patient, forgiving Doom-mongers, or schizophrenics who warmly welcome the opportunity to play against themselves. This has to be Bumtime's major flaw: it simply does not inspire the will to succeed. It just makes you want to smack the Reset button and play something -anything - else.
Food, Glorious Food
The world of Bumtime is a vegetarian's nightmare. In order to survive in this post-nuclear hell, you've got to be prepared to chow down on the most disgusting food imaginable. Your diet consists mainly of maggots, rats, snakes and dogs. Lentils don't get a look in.
You're not going to find food just lying around either. To catch snakes and rats, you're going to have to construct a trap, and that means finding all the components first. Dog meat is slightly easier to come across. In almost every town and outpost you'll find at least one scraggly mutt wandering aimlessly around. This is the one moment of light relief in the game -1 laughed out loud as I watched my on-screen persona, brandishing a pitchfork, frantically running after a tiny little pooch in the belief that it was dinner time. Well, I found it funny anyway.
Another option is the restaurants and cafes you'll occasionally encounter. They serve up generous portions of Rat Souffle and Snake Wellington, but you'll have to barter away half of your belongings first to get fed. Ronald McDonald, where are you now that we need you?
It's tough to think of another game which you could compare Burntime to. It has the odd Civilisation-esque element, a few role-playing style bits, some Dune-y bits and a tiny, tiny Syndicate-like element. But all of those games are great. Burntime isn't.