Death Drome is a new futuristic shoot-'em-up from Viacom New Media that resounds with echoes of some of the classic arcade games. The year is 2057. Crime is rampant and prisons badly overcrowded. Something must be done to make space for everyone needing incarceration. For a solution to this modern problem, the authorities turn to an ancient society, namely Rome, and borrow one of its most gruesome traditions: that of throwing fugitives into the arena to battle with lions. In Death Drome, instead of Caesar and his boys we get C.O.R.T. -- that is, the Committee of Recreational Termination. C.O.R.T. puts criminals into high-tech driving machines, called runners, clearly reminiscent of Tron's light cycles and lets them battle each other in various fortress arenas starting with Alcatraz II, located menacingly in Death Valley. Kill off all your opponents and you win your freedom.
A simple premise gives way to a relatively simple game. You can control your runner with either the keyboard or a combination of keyboard and joystick -- the route I took. As you careen through the various sectors of Alcatraz II (as well as other arenas in later rounds) you encounter missiles, ion swords and other weapons of mass destruction just lying around. Drive through them to pick them up, hit the Shift key and you can toggle through your weapons choices before firing at another fugitive. There really isn't much to learn here. From the beginning it's round and round you go till you've blown everybody away -- a no-brain game.
But a fun one. The environment of _Death Drome is dark and claustrophobic -- imposing gray walls tower above you on every side. While you can look in every direction by hitting various keys on the keyboard, the action moves so quickly that often you don't have time to use the keyboard. The result is a constant state of panic as you run in and out of mazes, over ramps and through doors trying to find the other drivers before they find you and lock on with a missile. You spend most of the game awash in adrenaline and chaos. With all this scurrying and jumping and spinning, I was strangely reminded of times I have tried to catch mice in the kitchens of various houses I've lived in. In this case, I was the mouse.
As the game begins, players choose their driving machine from a group of eight. Each of the machines is generally similar and yet each has slightly different capabilities. One might offer superior handling but only average weapons strength, while another might be loaded for bear in the weapons department but leave you wishing for better abilities in the turns. I did notice a difference in the vehicles I chose -- primarily in their handling. One of the keys to success in Death Drome is your ability to maneuver tight corners as well as to stop abruptly, turn on a dime, reverse on impulse. Some of the driving machines drove like my grandfather's 1976 Cadillac: a lot of power under the hood, can really get up to speed, but if you want to stop you've pretty much got to check your calendar to make sure you won't be doing anything for the next while -- stopping that boat can eat up a good day easily. The same is true for some of the machines in Death Drome: there were times when I wanted to stop to turn on an opponent, or to pick up a weapon; I'd pull back on the joystick and then just watch helplessly as my machine coasted across the screen, finally halting far from my desired weapon -- or worse, dead in the crosshairs of an opponent's Disrupter. Because there really is a handling difference between the different vehicles and since once the game starts everyone has access to the same weapons within the arena, it seemed logical to me to drive a superior handler; I think that gave me an advantage.
There is a vision problem with Death Drome, though, I think -- one that stems from the inability of its producers to reconcile their desire to create a realistic gaming environment with the need to give players enough perspective to know where they are and what is around them. In terms of realism, a person sitting inside one of these runners would suffer limited vision, without a doubt. But they'd also physically be present in the arena and their other senses would help them to paint the full picture of their environment. For the gamer playing Death Drome at their computer desk, vision is all there is. And in Death Drome the default view we are afforded, while it is a third-person view situated behind the runner, is situated so close to the runner that the result is a tunnel vision offering very little sense of what's on either side. You can choose to play with a first-person perspective -- looking out from inside the runner—and while that increases the excitement and the feeling of really flying through these environments, it also increases the degree to which you are blind to the rest of the arena.
Each runner is equipped with a Heads Up Display (HUD), which is essentially a dashboard displaying, among other things, level of health, weapons accumulated and number of kills. Also among the displays is a radar screen that is supposed to indicate the position of opponents relative to your runner. In practice it amounts to little more than a screen with colored dots skating back and forth across it. The environment of the arenas is so disorienting and things move so quickly that the radar screen is more of a distraction than an aid; I never found it very useful. It might have been helpful to offer a third perspective in Death Drome -- something from above, perhaps from the spectator's point of view, allowing a view of the entire arena at once. Given the lack of vision and the relative uselessness of the radar screen as a real tool, I found myself encountering opponents by hit or miss rather than through calculation and planning. It's true that you are a criminal and you're fighting for your life with limited time, but strategy still plays a role in Death Drome. With a greater variety of available perspectives, strategy would become even more important and might increase the replay potential of Death Drome in the bargain.
Death Drome supports up to eight-player network play, so if you have access to a network you can take on your best friends and fight to see who pays for dinner next. Unfortunately, if you don't have network access, then you're out of luck. In what amounts to a very curious choice, Viacom New Media has not equipped Death Drome for two-person modem play. I really can't explain why any game maker would make such a choice these days. Clearly the success of other shooters like Quake or Duke Nukem can be attributed, in large part, to the fact that both support modem play, thus making head-to-head action available to the common player. To neglect modem play in Death Drome -- a game that presents the same head-to-head potential as the popular shooters -- indicates an almost careless attitude on Viacom's part, or at the very least a misunderstanding of their target market.
The strength of Death Drome is the excitement of its gameplay, not its graphics. I'll leave it to you to determine whether that's a criticism or a commendation. You have the option of viewing the game at 300x200, 640x400, or 640x480 -- you have those options, though the higher resolutions demand high powered systems: 133MHz for 640x400, 166MHz for 640x480. I played Death Drome on a P120 system, and while I found movement smooth and seamless without halting or dithering at the lowest resolution, there was a considerable degree of halting at the highest -- so much so that I found myself oversteering. But I didn't feel at a disadvantage playing at the default resolution. The fact is that regardless of the resolution, the only real difference in the game's look was the relative sharpness of my own runner's lines. There isn't enough diversity in the details of the arenas to make it important visually to play in one resolution over another.
The relative lack of imagination displayed in the graphical environment of the game disappointed me. Runners move; weapons rotate on invisible axes as they wait for you to collect them; but beyond that, Death Drome offers a pretty static environment. One of the most visually impressive games I've seen this year is Electronic Arts' The Need for Speed. NFS offers tremendous detail in the cars on the racecourses, but it goes a step further by offering the same stunning variety in the environments lining the racecourses. The result there is a virtual world through which you race while other things are going on. Death Drome would have benefited from the same patient approach to graphics. While the game is exciting, visually there's little here to separate Death Drome from any one of a number of console racers I used to see in the shopping mall arcades of the mid-'80s.
Perhaps one reason that the ancillary graphical detail is so sparse in Death Drome is because Viacom put all their extra energy into the audio -- specifically the music. The general game sounds -- explosions, revving engines, voices -- tend to be rather muted, at times difficult to decipher. Ah, but the music. The soundtrack to Death Drome is a pulsing, electronic disco extravaganza. It's truly intoxicating to listen to, and maybe Viacom knew that, because you can listen to Death Drome on your Discman as well as playing the game on your PC. All in all, the music is a good addition to the game environment. It contributes to the flow of adrenaline and it goes a long way toward fleshing out the environment of the game, filling the void left by the unimaginative graphics.
Windows: Windows 95, Pentium 75 MHz processor, 16 MB RAM, 50 MB free hard drive space, 2X CD-ROM drive, VLB or PCI, Windows 95 compatible video card, DirectSound compatible sound card, DirectPlay compatible network for network play
Recommended: Pentium 90 MHz processor, 4 button DirectInput compatible joystick
Had I given this review the day after I first tried Death Drome I might have said, "Fun game, but wait to buy it until you see it in a bargain bin somewhere." That's good advice any time, of course, but having now played Death Drome many times I feel less sure that you'd be throwing away money if you paid 30 or 40 bucks for this. In fact, if you buy Death Drome you'll have a good game on your hands. Not an exceptional game—there isn't enough variety to it, or innovation to make it exceptional; and the absence of modem play severely limits the game's potential. In many ways Death Drome might appeal most to nostalgists, classic arcade game enthusiasts; there's much about it that reminds me of Tron or Hydra. Death Drome is not a great game, but it's an enthusiastic game, an addictive game. Though its graphics are repetitive, its structure simple and its plot paper-thin at best, Death Drome is the kind of game that you'll think about when you're at work or at school and that you'll make a beeline for when you get home. Bottom line: shortcomings aside, it's just fun.