Where in Space is Carmen Santiago? (computer game) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Clayton Walnum
Encounter the strangest aliens ever seen in our solar system as you track Carmen Sandiego.
The world's favorite villain, Carmen Sandiego, sure does get around. She began her illustrious career by hopping across the globe, committing new crimes wherever she set down her jet. Since then, not only has she victimized every corner of the earth, but she has also managed to find her way through time and America's past. Now, in Where in Space Is Carmen Sandiego? her crime spree leads into the great expanse of the universe, where a gang of dastardly aliens joins her to terrorize the solar system from the sun to lonely, frozen Pluto.
If you're familiar with the other Carmen Sandiego games, you'll be able to slip into this new installment like a pair of favorite slippers. Although your crime stopper vehicle has metamorphosed into the Cosmohopper and the game controls have been rearranged, the basic gameplay is identical to that in the other games in the series.
You begin by getting your assignment from the chief, a bizarre alien who looks like a cross between Jabba the Hut and a parakeet. Because the squeaking and squawking he passes off as language is incomprehensible to human ears, your Cosmohopper's main screen displays the conversation in English. When you get your first assignment, you learn that, as always, Carmen and her gang are snatching valuable artifacts. For example, the chief may tell you that the culprit has stolen the Skynd crater from Uranus's moon Umbriel, the Sacajawea from Venus, or Hermes's winged hat from Mercury.
With your mission recorded, you blast off to the place the Sandiego gang was last seen. To complete your mission, you must search several of 32 locations for 1 of 15 suspects. Locations you'll visit include not only the nine planets but also the sun, asteroids, Halley's comet, and many moons. The 15 aliens that make up your suspect list are as different from each other as a tomato is from an anteater. Sporting such punny names as Astro Fizzix, Avery Littlebit Phelps, and Hanover Fist, these creatures represent some of the strangest life forms ever seen in our solar system.
Besides the villains, you have your on-board computer, VAL 9000, to keep you company. Using VAL, you can access an online database, dossiers on the various criminals, a travel log, and the game options. In addition, VAL sometimes uses her digitized voice to relay such sarcastic comments as "What do you think the little E stands for on your fuel gauge?" and "A rocket scientist you're not. You've eliminated all suspects."
Upon arrival at your new location, you gather clues by questioning witnesses, tapping into V.I.L.E. radio frequencies, or performing a star search for incoming messages from your colleagues. Witnesses and V.I.L.E. radio transmissions immediately give you clues to your next destination. When performing a star search, however, you must first use the star map to lock onto the constellation from which the transmission was sent. To find the constellation, you use the controls on your Cosmohopper to scroll the star map to the correct longitude and latitude, at which time the selected constellation spins to the right of the screen and displays its associated animated image (for example, a bull for Taurus).
Finding where the culprit has fled is only half of your battle, though. You also need to learn the criminal's identity so you can get a warrant for his or her arrest. To do this, you contact an informant, who tells you about one of the creature's seven characteristics: gender, number of eyes, feature, locomotion, favorite writer, favorite astronomer, and favorite food. You might, for example, discover that the creature has no eyes, loves the writings of H. G. Wells, or snacks on space cadets.
After deciphering the clues, you choose your next destination. To help narrow things down, the Cosmohopper's display offers a menu of four locations, one of which is correct. Clicking on a location sends you Cosmohopper blasting into space. When you arrive, you're shown a digitized NASA photo of the location. If the location you picked is correct, you enjoy a short, animated sequence of a V.I.L.E. henchman's outerspace antics. One animation features a one-called creature that divides into two and, upon seeing its twin, flees in terror. Another depicts a creature covered with suction cups that gets stuck to your screen. All told, there are about a dozen of these humorous sequences.
After the V.I.L.E. henchman skedaddles, you begin the clue-gathering process again. Eventually, after several jumps to various locations in the solar system, you catch up with the criminal and make your arrest--assuming, of course, that you arrive in time, don't run out of fuel, and have the proper warrant.
One thing that sets Where in Space apart from the other Carmen Sandiego games is its huge online database. Although the game comes with Peterson First Guide to Astronomy, you don't need it to play. All answers to the clues can be found in the online database, which is accessed through your Cosmohopper's VAL 9000 computer.
The database menu allows you to select any of 18 general topics, including each of the planets; such topics as astronauts, astronomers, and explorations; and a glossary of astronomical terms. When you select a general topic, a list of subheads appears, enabling you to jump to a specific topic of interest with a click of the mouse. To find topics even more quickly, you can enter a word into the text entry area, and the computer will search the database for every occurrence of the word, after which you can browse all the identified entries for the information you need.
Most entries in the database include digitized graphics. As you browse through the database, you'll come across portraits of astronauts and astronomers, photos of planets and moons, cross sections of celestial bodies, and images of satellites, just to name a few. Animation, too, is used to good effect in the database, from orbiting planets to the birth of the sun to an awe-inspiring flight over the surface of Mars that was constructed from actual photos taken by the Viking.
In short, the astronomy database included with Where in Space is worth, by itself, the price of the entire package. And it's very easy to use; you can access it without having to play the game simply by typing carmen val at the DOS prompt. Even after you've grown tired of the game (if that's possible), the database is sure to continue to fascinate.
If Where in Space has a weak point, it's the same one found in previous games in the series: There just aren't enough animated sequences. Although the animation adds much to the game at the start, it doesn't take long before the sequences start repeating. You can stop an animation at any time by clicking a mouse button, so you aren't forced to watch them again and again. But the game would be much improved with enough animated sequences to carry the player through a full game with minimal repetition.
Still, Where in Space is Carmen Sandiego? is yet another wonderful entry into an already long and successful line of educational computer games. Plus it's a fascinating romp through the solar system featuring awesome digitized photos from NASA's own files and a clever gang of otherworldly characters. You have to wonder, though: Now that Carmen has made it through America, Europe, the world, time, America's past, and space, where can she possibly go next?