The Horde. (computer game) (Entertainment Choice) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Scott A. May
Recent years have shown us how devastating floods, earthquakes, blizzards, and tornadoes can be. Yet even Mother Nature's fury is calm compared to the voracious and totally disgusting appetite of the Horde. Doubters should take a cautious step into the mucklined boots of Sir Chauncey, the beleaguered hero of Crystal Dynamics' outstanding foray into PC entertainment, The Horde.
As with so many other twists of fate, the protagonist just happens to be in the right place at the right time. An orphan raised by a herd of kind cows, Chauncey becomes a lowly servant in the court of Winthrop the Good. One day, during a royal banquet, High Chancellor Kronus Maelor amuses the guests with his usual egocentric boasting. Suddenly, between belly laughs, the king begins choking. Only Chauncey has the clear mind to rush to the king's aid, dislodging a lump of turkey from his majesty's windpipe. The king declares Chauncey a hero, knights him, and rewards him with a tract of land in the Shimto Plains. He also hands over his trusty sword, the Grimthwacker, to help Chauncey defend his plot of earth from the evil, ravenous Horde.
And you, as Chauncey, will need it to overcome the Horde, the most vile, hideous, and comical race of fantasy creatures to emerge since the Grues infested Zork. The members of the Horde have no qualms about making their presence known as they stomp, hop, giggle, snort, and burp a blue streak. When these brainless brutes get down to business, they eat and destroy everything they can lay their nasty little claws on. Hordlings come in eight revolting types, each indigenous to certain types of terrain. Blowgun-toting Forest Hordlings hide in trees and plot their attack. Desert Hordlings burrow like moles, making them extra difficult to detect. The massive Juggernaut Hordlings won't let anything - even the strongest fence or wall - get between them and food. Ice Hordlings, armed with snowballs and insatiable hunger, are similarly tenacious. Of special concern are the Shaman Hordlings, whose magic tricks include teleportation, deadly fireballs, and the ability to regenerate their dead friends.
The object is to cultivate your barren plot into a thriving community. Gameplay unfolds in seasonal phases, each lasting two minutes in realtime, where you can plant trees, cultivate the soil, buy cows, and prepare yourself for the inevitable attack.
Members of the Horde come in various numbers and from all directions, with one goal: destruction of everything you own. Cows, your top money makers, are the Hordlings' prized food staple. Luckily, although the Hordlings are ravenous, they're also easy to dispose of. Moats and spiked pits provide your first line of defense, followed by walls and fences closer to the village. When all else fails, whack 'em with your mighty Grimthwacker. One slice of your sword sends most Hordlings exploding like overripe tomatoes - complete with a sickening, yet satisfying, "sploosh," leaving only eyeballs swimming in a wet pile of red goo.
As your territory expands, your ability to patrol the entire village is severely limited. Hire knights and archers to guard your borders with spiked maces and Hordebursting arrows. As your finances grow, visit the castle shoppe to buy more powerful tools and weapons, including flamethrowers, bombs, teleportation rings, healing rocks, and spells. You can even buy bait to lure Hordlings to their demise.
You also need to be aware of the one creature worse than the Horde: the vengeful High Chancellor Kronus Maelor. He'll do everything in his power to make your life miserable, from raising taxes beyond reasonable limits to destroying or confiscating your property under the guise of a fictitious royal decree. As the game progresses, you're given additional tracts of unreal estate, each more inhospitable to humans yet perfect breeding grounds for new strains of Hordlings. Life as a land baron sure isn't what you had imagined.
Released exclusively on CD-ROM, The Horde has multimedia tricks and techniques that rank far above average. Rather than simply augmenting gameplay with shallow video segues, the full-motion sequences are tastefully short, seamlessly integrated, and crucial to the story line. Unlike many lesser efforts in this burgeoning medium, The Horde boasts unusually high production values and professional acting.
The Hollywood connection includes Kirk Cameron as Chauncey and Michael Gregory as the delightfully malicious Maelor, Michael McCarthy is jolly good as the kindhearted, but hopelessly dense, King Winthrop. But it's Henry Crowell Jr. who repeatedly steals the show as Herald, the wisecracking FNN newscaster. His hilarious reports help ease the sting of the Hordlings bite or Maelor's dastardly deeds. Crowell also serves as narrator and makes a brief appearance as one of Maelor's torture victims.
Over 35 minutes of live-action video fill the disc, rendered in one of three user-selected modes: high definition (small window), low resolution (full screen), and a unique "exploded" view that combines the advantages of each.
Game graphics are exceptionally colorful and eloquently detailed, featuring stunning 3-D texture-mapped animation of all major characters. Villagers' movements are incredibly fluid, and the tiny cows bob their heads and graze with amazing realism. The biggest kick, of course, is the wild, unpredictable antics of the various Hordlings. Especially impressive are the hulking Juggernauts, whose brainless advances exhibit some of the game's most sophisticated animation.
Sound also plays an important role. Interestingly, there's no setup routine - the program is apparently smart enough to automatically detect and utilize your hardware configuration. Beyond the obvious inclusion of digitized speech, the game features a large number of sample sound effects. Players with 16-bit sound cards will thrill - and cringe - at the call of the Hordlings, rendered in bone-chilling stereo. Sound effects also alert you to Hordling attacks. Juggernauts pause between noisy bites to exclaim, "Oh! Yum-yum!" They're so cute, in a revolting sort of way, that you almost hate to run them through,
Game speed is acceptable on a 33-MHz 80386 machine, although the controls exhibit a slight response lag. When the game is run from a singlespeed CD-ROM drive, video quality suffers. Given the full power of today's latest multimedia machines - 80486, 8MB RAM, and double-speed CD-ROM drive - performance is exceptionally smooth. Although the manual warns of potential problems with compressed drives and third-party memory managers, the program seems well behaved even under such configurations. Mouse control is acceptable, but a joystick is preferred. A stick that emulates digital input, such as the Gravis PC GamePad, works best.
Clearly, The Horde's greatest attribute is its careful balance of streamlined - if not comfortably repetitive - gameplay and an enticing, gradually increasing challenge. Like most classic designs, it proves instantly accessible, yet enjoyably difficult to master. Likewise, it appeals equally to arcade and strategy players. Toss in generous amounts of outrageous humor, sprinkled with some of the best video sequences in recent memory, and you've got the makings of a truly original multimedia hit.