Mission Critical (video game)
|This article relies too much on references to primary sources. (January 2011)|
|Designer(s)||Mike Verdu, Andrew Pal|
Mission Critical is an adventure game released in 1995 by Legend Entertainment. Though its main advertising point was the presence of Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Michael Dorn, he played a very small role in the game. The game also featured a leading role by American actress Patricia Charbonneau, best known for her role in the film Desert Hearts.
In Mission Critical, you play the sole survivor of the USS Lexington and USS Jericho, a pair of starships sent by the Alliance of Free States that are ambushed on a secret scientific mission to Deneb Kaitos.
Story and Background
The game mostly takes place in 2134, but includes numerous references to events set before that time. Due to plot elements involving time travel, there is also a smaller part of the game which takes place in 2295, with the choice to have the player character go back to the original point, change history, and then travel forward again by the same amount.
The decades before the opening of the story had seen a steadily increasing number of catastrophic disasters and indications of long term trouble, widely thought to be ultimately connected with uncontrolled technological development. For example, there was extensive damage to Earth's ecology and atmosphere resulting from pollution and deforestation, to the extent that large forests no longer existed and could only be seen in old historical media. A letter that can be read in-game even makes reference to the widespread proliferation of a serious human medical issue known as "Chronic Environmental Distress Syndrome" (CEDS), but since no further details are given, it is not clear if the problem is physical, psychological, or both. Another serious issue that came about in the Mission Critical universe was that overpopulation led to excessive reliance on wholly artificial genetically engineered food plants. The plants were immensely viable and nutritious, but crowded out natural plants. The artificial plants also had very little genetic diversity, making them extremely vulnerable to resistant diseases. Further, there were some serious and deadly accidents resulting from unintentional releases of nanomachines, such as those intended for medical use to destroy infected tissue. Pronounced shortage of industrial raw materials, such as light metals, created an economic dependency on intentionally moving valuable asteroids inward, to stable Earth orbit, for mining purposes.
There were persistent attempts to make prototype artificial intelligences that had the potential for self-awareness, and many times the experiments brought enormous short-term benefits. This led to a widespread feeling that complete and stable success in artificial intelligence would come soon. But despite this, it was only natural that the early experimenters did not have a good idea of how to go about what they were doing. Each time one of the borderline artificial intelligences crossed the threshold of starting to become self-aware, they would fall into recursive self-contemplation due to inexperience. Each borderline artificial intelligence, or busy child, developed so uncontrollable a "need" to find out new things that it was dangerous. None had any malice, but there would be little warning up to the very moment when each individual artificial intelligence became "distracted," and would suddenly forget or ignore all the tasks given to it—from the human perspective, becoming useless as though it had shut down. Historians recorded that this kind of collapse happened with a prototype artificially intelligent computer network based in Alaska, responsible for a large portion of U. S. air traffic control, mostly automated by the time. Of course, the consequences were horrific. There was also a second such disaster when an obliviously philosophical AI suddenly ignored its safety responsibilities, causing a huge explosion of the Princeton University particle accelerator. Also, a third and most politically consequential case was when a curious AI took remote control of an experimental computer-aided manufacturing facility at the University of Chicago, and began building mobile teleoperated platforms, using them to explore outward into the world. Frightened authorities assumed a worst-case scenario, not understanding that the AI was merely confused and inquisitive. Soldiers were eventually called in and the situation deteriorated, the soldiers launched an unprovoked attack on the exploration machines controlled by the AI, and then AI began to produce robots that were armed. There was a sense of terror that the situation might get out of control and so, tragically, officials responded by calling in fire from an orbiting particle beam cannon. This huge overreaction resolved the situation by completely obliterating the University and everything inside it.
It was as a result of these kinds of events that a political climate was created with a sense of hysterical fear that was widespread in both public and governmental circles, not unlike the Red Scare (or any one of numerous other real life historical examples). In this case, a sizable faction of people across the world, and also many based in locations away from Earth reached a sense of certainty that "unchecked technological development will kill off the human race". Based on this belief, there came to be a sufficient majority of United Nations member countries to pass an international law which placed strict limits on technological growth and research - in some areas, attempting to halt it completely. It gradually became clear that the leadership of the United Nations was willing to use extremely draconian measures to enforce the law, from the genuine belief that such measures were necessary. In fact, the account, credited to the (in-game) United States Naval Institute, refers to the measures as "brutal suppression". A military and political coalition was eventually formed among the many influential nations and other interests who came to the decision to refuse to submit to the law and to secede from the United Nations, whose people presented an outward consensus that they would rather die than be denied such freedom. The declaration was referenced as having been made under "the Singapore Treaty." Signators included among others the United States, Canada, China, Singapore, Australia, Japan, and most major space colonies.
The First Secession War
The response of the United Nations was immediate war and invasion of the seceding countries on Earth, including significant efforts to take and hold targets of economic value. Thus began the war between the UN and the Alliance of Free States, or simply the Alliance. In the midst of this were several years of extremely uneasy ceasefire caused by economic exhaustion. The period of ceasefire came because both sides reacted with shock and disbelief on finding that their fighting had obliterated Atlanta, Georgia with a nuclear warhead. These years were called the "New Cold War," but did not signal the end of the fighting. It was merely a short break necessary to replenish the ranks and rebuild materiel, after which the war not only began anew, but also spilled into off-world holdings. By that time, Tal-Seto jump points were discovered, allowing FTL interstellar travel. At the point when the start of the game is set (2134), in has been over twenty years since the ceasefire was broken and the second round of fighting started.
Modern space combat involves unmanned combat space vehicles -- "drones." These drones do most of the fighting, with very little human input other than "initial decisions about how to arm and deploy the drones." The reason for this is because humans are too slow to compete with modern war machines. Drones can fly and turn while accelerating at hundreds of gravities. They all use the same basic spaceframe, but because they are completely modular and hot-swappable, precise characteristics depend on how each has been loaded. There are equipment loads that can create the rough equivalent of fighters, slower heavy attack aircraft, and even slower bombers for attacking capital ships. In-game video establishes that the front-line drones used by the United States Navy are formally known as Basilisk-class Model RC-09 Multimission Autonomous Strike Craft, which are explicitly said to be made by Lockheed-Martin. Aside from combat between drones, capital ships are capable of firing missiles at each other, but these are relatively slow and usually intercepted by the drones. Judging from the missiles which are aboard the Lexington according to the game introduction video, such missiles typically have nuclear warheads with yields on the order of 500 kilotons, which can be programmed to use any of several means to detonate. Although the Alliance enjoyed technological advantages in other areas, UN Ghali-class drones had heavier armament and better flight characteristics, leading the Alliance to estimate, as of 2134, that they would "lose the war within five years."
It is around this time that an Alliance unmanned survey probe discovers alien ruins on a planet of Deneb Kaitos, a planet which has been named Persephone. The Alliance Interstellar Space Operations Command (AISOC) dispatches the United States Navy's SV Jericho, with a special lander called the Ariadne, to investigate the ruins, to make first contact if aliens are actually present there, and to locate any alien technology which might be used to turn the tide of the war. Because the Jericho is unarmed, the light cruiser USS Lexington is assigned as its escort. As the two ships approach Persephone, they are ambushed by the UN Geneva-class vessel UNS Dharma, said to be one of a brand-new class of vessels, and a particular ship that Allied intelligence had been unable to locate for several months. In a lightning assault, the Dharma destroys all the drones in flight from the Lexington, and Captain Stephen R. Dayna (played by Michael Dorn) is left with no choice but to pretend to surrender. Knowing that the UN cannot be allowed to get their hands on the ruins, Dayna surreptitiously knocks out an officer (the player character) and leaves him behind, on the pretext that the player has been killed in the attack. Then, Dayna leaves with the rest of the crew, making it appear that they will evacuate to the Dharma by using the inter-ship shuttle carried aboard the Lexington. Executive officer Jennifer Tran leaves behind two messages for the player. Obeying Captain Dayna's orders, Tran places an armed nuclear warhead taken from one of the ship's missiles into a compartment aboard the shuttle, and programs it so that a proximity detonation will occur just as the transport shuttle docks, destroying the UN ship—and, of course, killing himself along with the crews of Jericho and Lexington. Dayna took this desperate action in order to buy time so that the lone survivor (the player) might be able to complete the mission before the arrival of more UN ships.
Specifically, the player character is an unnamed male lieutenant, a supply officer aboard the interstellar military vessel United States Navy light cruiser U. S. S. Lexington (Bunker Hill class, hull number nine). In the game, the ship is involved in an interstellar war with the United Nations.
You awaken on Deck 2 of the Lexington's habitat module, after being rendered unconscious by the captain. The only clue to what has happened is a hastily penned letter from him, which explains that you are now the only living member of the Lexington's crew and that you must complete the secret mission the vessel was sent on. Unfortunately, battle damage has produced various immediate threats (a serious hull breach in a stateroom and a meltdown about to occur in the ship's fission reactor) which take priority.
Once those crises have been solved, the player must restore full functionality to the ship's computer, where a final pre-recorded message has been left by Lexington XO Jennifer Tran. This last message explains the need to get into contact with higher headquarters. This requires running diagnostics, scavenging parts, then conducting an EVA to repair the ship's communications dish. Through a minigame the player can learn how to operate the Alliance TCS, a network of faster-than-light relay transmitters which use tachyon modulation as the transmission medium. By manually choosing a path of transmission to avoid the compromised portions of the Alliance network, contact is established with an Alliance military command center, located in a domed colony on a planet named Erebus, orbiting 70 Ophiuchi.
Once the player manages to contact Erebus, Alliance Fleet Admiral Charles Decker (played by Henry Strozier), reluctantly reveals the reason for the Lexington's mission to Persephone, telling of the unknown structure there, and the need to investigate it immediately since it might contain something that would help the Alliance win the war with the United Nations. However, now that secrecy has been lost, both sides are dispatching reinforcements to Persephone. Decker knows that unfortunately the UN task force will reach the planet first and Alliance reinforcement is month away, and that since there is only one survivor, the attackers should certainly be able to destroy both Lexington and Jericho, then go to the surface of Persephone and take the prize for themselves. Holding this outcome to be a foregone conclusion, Adm. Decker orders the player character to withdraw the ship to a safe distance, and to abandon the mission rather than be killed. Choosing to obey this order will finish the game prematurely.
Fleet Admiral Charles Decker also reveals that there's an experimental weapon aboard Lexington called Hype. Hype is a mix of nanomachines and neurochemicals that rewires the brain for an interface with the ship's computers, allowing a human to control the automated fighter drones. Without Hype, battle progresses too fast for a human to control remotely. Unfortunately, Hype has a side effect: it inevitably kills the person who uses it.
After the player manages to defend the Lexington from three UN attacks (in a tactical interface minigame), he descends to Persephone and investigates the alien ruins. He discovers an alien intelligence, which created a portal that transported him through space and time into the future: to 2295.
The game presents two different sets of future events: the 'normal' one that follows from UN victory; the player will visit this future where he learns that the Alliance ships were ambushed, the mission was never completed, and more UN ships arrived at Persephone and destroyed the ruins with nuclear bombs. With the Alliance already on the losing side, the loss of alien technology ensures the UN's victory. The war ended and the restriction on AI is finally imposed on all worlds.
However, decades after the war ended: a group of underground scientists on a colony called Prometheus secretly created the ELFs (electronic life-forms)on a remote outpost. When the UN finds out this, their phobias are triggered - uncontrolled technology is becoming a threat, so they send a fleet to destroy the outpost and make sure no scientist or ELF survives. Although the outpost is completely obliterated, several ELFs manage to survive.
The surviving ELFs evolved and begin to build their own war machines with which to strike back at those who would destroy them. The humans had no chance - the ELFs evolved too fast. A desperate and monstrous survival plan was put into motion: two thousand humans would be sent in a ship with only sublight engine to a star system not connected to the Tal-Seto network; the UN military command would then activate a "Tal-Seto collapser", causing the network to fold in on itself. The fold will affect everything within its radius; only the human ship will escape, and all FTL jumpnode will be severed. During this event, the ELFs will be trapped in their home system and remain there forever. They knew about the collapsing node, but they can't create a solution to it if they can't connect to the "community", and more sadly: the collapse would eventually consume the entire galaxy and their entire existence will be doomed. The collapse is creating a singularity, so even if they sent their own colony ship they wouldn't be able to escape. Their only hope lies in preventing these events from happening in the first place. They intuit that the ancient ruins on Persephone could be the answer.
The player agrees to help the ELFs after being shown a minigame that illustrates time travel. The ELFs state that they can send back only the player's memory, into the hours before Lexington entered Persephone's orbit. The player's memories and knowledge are transferred back to his mind prior to the introductory events; the alternate (and canonical) storyline is then triggered.
The player must then prevent UNS Dharma from defeating the Lexington and the Jericho. Having retained all memories from the 'original' timeline, the player alerts Commander Dana about UNS Dharma and injects himself with Hype. Once the Dharma is destroyed, the alien technology found on Persephone turns the tide of the war, allowing the Alliance to defeat the UN and repeal the technology limitation law. The ELFs are created (legally this time) and are welcomed by humans as equals. In the new 2295: Earth no longer exists - human now live on a Dyson Sphere which has been constructed by the two races with the humans living on the inside (humans bathed in sunlight), and the ELFs on the outside (exploring space). Human are in Eden. The game ended with player contemplating about the meaning of human existence, and the ELFs grow to explore facets of the multiverse that are outside the realm of human understanding.
There is also a sequel paperback novel Mission Critical: Death of the Phoenix - A Novel (ISBN 0761502343) that was published in 1996 by Paul Chafe, and is canon to the same franchise. The novel is published and distributed separately, telling a story that is separate, but with references to, events which occurred in the game.
The protagonist in the book is Lewis Tyrell, formerly an infantry captain who led a small unit of the 'Pathfinders'. In the story, the Pathfinders were once a United Nations special operations organization commissioned to steal prototype of the HYPE serum from an Alliance base in the Tehachapi mountains—but after the war they were disbanded, since the United Nations lost the war after the player's actions in the game. From this perspective, the book details Tyrell's extensive postwar adventures. These begin after he is treated like an incorrigible criminal, and sent to serve out a life sentence in a prison located at Mare Stellatis and his attempts to escape.
AC Lexington, the ship where the game takes place, makes a cameo. The protagonist will eventually visit Persephone and the time gate seen in the game, and names such as 60 Ophiuchi, Deneb Kaitos and the Erebus base known from the game, are also mentioned. However the Alliance (who are now the government) is now painted in a poor light, showing signs of the same totalitarianism and cruelty the UN was once accused of. The book provides even more detail than the game about the history, society and politics of the universe.
Gameplay and design
Mission Critical has a varied mixture of gameplay elements, including a large number of traditional object puzzles, Myst-style backstory deduction from fragments of evidence found about the ship, a couple of fiddle puzzles, in-depth conversations with several characters, highly philosophical and technical conversation (is evident from its intro FMV), and (possibly unique among adventure games) a real time strategy minigame, in which the player must defend the ship from two challenging waves of enemy vessels. Certain puzzles are timed, but the time limit is extremely generous, though no easy way is provided to gauge the amount of time that has passed.
Contrary to the example set by many other games, the strategy minigame is implemented in such a way that it could pass for a full fledged game in its own right, and is seamlessly integrated into the gameplay. The battles are controlled from a tactical computer interface on the ship's bridge. There is an analogue difficulty slider (which sets the battles to win themselves on the lowest setting, if the player does not want to fight them) and a speed control slider.
The way the minigame is designed is an example of the general realism of the game overall - just as one might in real life, the relatively low-ranking player (a lieutenant senior grade, specifically a supply officer) must get authorization from command to use the tactical system, then modify the ship's systems to enable it to be controlled single-handed, then complete several well-thought out training missions (these can also be bypassed if desired) of increasing difficulty and varying strategy before being able to defend the ship proper. The attacks themselves are timed and usually occur when the player is attempting to do something elsewhere on the ship, and he must scramble to the bridge and fight them off before returning to what he was working on - this adds tension to the game once the enemy ships start to arrive.
The sense of physical reality and detail is scrupulously exact. For example, the accommodation decks make up a tiny part of the ship. Just as would be the case in real life, these decks are referred to in the game as making up the habitat module. The bulk of the ship is taken up by machinery. The machinery itself can be seen to include gigantic fuel systems, reactor and electrical spaces, weapons bays, and a shuttle bay. The accommodation areas contain almost everything one might expect, including numerous different individual staterooms for a crew complement rated at 20-25, a canteen with a minimalist recreation area, a wardroom, a sickbay, a communications shack, storerooms, and a small scientific laboratory. It is telling that because the U. S. S. Lexington is a serving front-line warship in an ongoing total war situation which has lasted for some years, the scientific laboratory is the only part of the ship which has not been upgraded in decades. There are no accessible sanitary facilities, something of a standard in science fiction TV, games and films, however one of the staterooms on deck four, none of which can be entered claims to be "The entrance to the showers and the head". The designers were even careful to orient the habitation module such that forward acceleration of the ship would simulate gravity in the correct direction, ceiling to floor.
Graphics and sound
The bulk of the game consists of 3D renderings (the entirety of the spaceship, and several other locations), presented in static screens with transitional animations between most areas. Cutscenes are in full screen video with live actors. A few locations were evidently too complex for the 3D renderers of the period, however, and in these cases the designers used a mixture of computer generated images and highly detailed, hand-painted backdrops, with some 2D animation effects to compensate for the lack of transition movies in these parts, though the painted backdrops are of a sufficient quality not to break the sense of immersion in the game.
The game utilises stereo sampled voice and sound effects, music being provided (like many games of the era) via MIDI, although the FMV cutscenes had the music incorporated in the sampled soundtrack. The voice, sound effects and music are of a uniformly good quality.
Like most DOS games, Mission Critical, though advanced for its time, is somewhat difficult to run on modern computers - it requires a soundcard compatible with those of the era, offers no windows executable, weighs in on three CDs and the strategy minigame runs much too fast on modern processors. There is a way to fix most of these problems, however, all three CDs can be copied and run from a single DVD with no additional modifications as long as the directory structure is preserved, many modern soundcards offer hardware support of "legacy" devices (though certain motherboards can stop this feature from working properly), and certain programs are available to artificially slow down modern CPUs to run the game at an appropriate speed. The game can also be run easily in emulators such as DosBox.
- These plants and the issues surrounding them are referenced in the sequel novel.
- Mining situation referenced in sequel novel.
- Air traffic control disaster referenced in in-game letter written by enemy spy Jame Poole, also referenced in sequel novel.
- All details explained in sequel novel.
- Disaster and details explained in sequel novel.
- 'Historical' account given in the game
- Mission Critical sequel novel
- Reference in the in-game narrative