The Last Express
|The Last Express|
|Developer(s)||Smoking Car Productions|
|Distributor(s)||Phoenix Licensing, Inc.|
|Release||Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, MS-DOS
March 30, 1997
Microsoft Windows (Collector's Edition)
January 14, 2011
September 27, 2012
August 28, 2013
Microsoft Windows (Gold Edition)
November 21, 2013
The Last Express is an adventure video game designed by Jordan Mechner and published by Brøderbund in 1997. It takes place on the Orient Express, days before the start of World War I. It is noted[by whom?] as being one of the few video games that attempts to realistically simulate real time. The game was a commercial disappointment, but received highly positive reviews and a positive post-release response. A Sony PlayStation port was planned and was almost finished for release, but was cancelled for unknown reasons.
Set on the Orient Express in 1914, the player takes on the role of Robert Cath, an American doctor on the train's final journey from Paris to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) before World War I. Cath, already wanted by French police as he is suspected of the murder of an Irish police officer, is contacted urgently by his old friend Tyler Whitney, to join him on the Orient Express, gateway to the East, and a possible exit from all his troubles. Cath boards the train via a motorcycle and looks for Whitney, who is already on board. However, from the moment he steps onto this luxurious train, Cath becomes involved in a maelstrom of treachery, lies, political conspiracies, personal interests, romance and murder.
The game has 30 characters representing a cross-section of European forces at the time, including Serbian freedom fighters, a German arms dealer, a Russian anarchist, an Austrian concert violinist, a Persian eunuch and his private harem, a mysterious art collector and others. As the train races east, the player must stay alive while interacting with these characters, which includes eavesdropping on conversations, sneaking into compartments and defusing a bomb. The story is non-linear, with the player's actions (and failures to act) determining the course of the story; as a result, the game's script is 800 pages long.
The Last Express is unique for taking place in almost complete real-time, albeit accelerated by a factor of six. The player can also rewind and occasionally fast-forward time at will. The game begins at 7:14 p.m. on July 24, 1914, and ends at 7:30 p.m. on July 27 (if the player has reached the proper ending). The only events during which the game does not proceed in real-time are times when Cath is sleeping or unconscious, as well as a few cutscenes. One of the game's most notable uses of this technique during a concert, in which two of the non-player characters perform a piano/violin duet that lasts approximately twenty minutes of real-time: the player character is free to sit down and enjoy the music, or move as he pleases. The game's some thirty characters have their own artificial intelligence and individual agendas, moving around to accomplish their goals, or changing their plans due to player intervention. In this way, the game has a higher replay value than a similar-length linear game, with no two playthroughs exactly alike. Additionally, the game features multiple endings; about thirty are "fatal", in which Cath is killed or arrested, and four are "non-fatal" endings, of which only one is considered to be the proper ending.
Mechner founded Smoking Car Productions to create The Last Express. The company was located in San Francisco from 1993–1997 and at its peak had sixty full-time employees.
The game is notable for its unique art style, with characters illustrated in the "art nouveau" style popularized by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that was in style in 1914, the year the game's events take place. Since illustrating a game of this magnitude by hand would most likely take an exorbitant amount of time, the look was achieved by using rotoscoping, a process that Mechner had used to a lesser extent in his earlier games. During a 22-day-long live-action video shoot, every action by every character in the game was photographed by actors wearing distinctive makeup and costumes against a bluescreen on 16mm film and digitized. From this, a limited number of frames were selected and put through a patented process developed in house, where the frames first had all colour removed. Then, a powerful computer program created black-and-white line drawings of the frames, which were then coloured in by hand. The finished product has 40,000 frames in total.
Following a bidding war between several major game publishers, Brøderbund, SoftBank, and GameBank split the worldwide distribution rights for the game. Dubbed versions of the game were released in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian (unofficial bootlegged localization) and Japanese.
The game was released 1997 after five years of development, at a final cost of US$5–6 million, on a multi-platform 3-CD set that covered Windows, Mac OS, and MS-DOS. The Last Express received highly positive reviews both in print and online. However, the game only remained in stores for a few months.
Brøderbund, the game's publisher, did little to promote the game, apart from a brief mention in a press release and enthusiastic statements by Brøderbund executives, in part due to the entire Brøderbund marketing team quitting in the weeks before its release. Softbank pulled out of the game market due Asian financial crisis, dissolving its subsidiary GameBank and canceling several dozen titles in development, including the nearly finished PlayStation port of The Last Express. As a final blow, Brøderbund was acquired by The Learning Company, which was only interested in their educational and home productivity software. The Last Express was out of print within a year. Also, Mechner's company Smoking Car Productions quietly folded.
In 2000, the Fallout video game series creator and game publisher Interplay bought the lapsed rights and began quietly selling the game as a budget title. A short time later, Interplay went bankrupt, so the game was once again out of print. In 2006, the American subscription-based game service GameTap began offering the game on its network.
On January 14, 2011, DotEmu released the Collector's Edition of the game, which includes the soundtrack, a making-of video and a walkthrough. On January 26, 2011, Phoenix Licensing (the current copyright holder of the game) re-released the game in GOG.com, with all the extras of the Collector's Edition –except the walkthrough– and only in English.
Mechner was later able to reacquire the rights to the game and worked in 2012 with DotEmu to release iOS and Android ports of the title. On March 16, 2012, Mechner announced an upcoming release of the game for iOS devices, with "additional enhancements to make it more iOS-friendly." The iOS version (iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch) of the games was released on September 27 by DotEmu.com and is available in the App Store. A version for Android was released on August 28, 2013 through the Google Play Store.
Running thirty-nine minutes, the soundtrack for The Last Express was published by Intrada Records in 2000, but is no longer in print. It was composed, orchestrated and conducted by American composer born in Czechoslovakia, Elia Cmiral, who later composed the scores for Ronin and Stigmata. Consisting of a mix of dominant synth instruments and occasional solo violin, the score was recorded at Forte Muzika Studios in Los Angeles. The lone exception is the Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major by César Franck featured in the game's concert scene.
Reception and impact
The Last Express received highly positive reviews both in print and online. Newsweek called it "exquisite" and "thrilling" and MSNBC said "the mystery and characters are very fascinating" and "this game is definitely for everyone". Games Magazine declared it the Best New Adventure and Role Playing Game, and it received Editor's Choice awards from PC Gamer, Computer Gaming World, Next Generation, and dozens of game websites, including a gold medal from GamesDomain. In 2010, the game was included as one of the titles in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die.
Despite the positive reception, the game was considered on original release a commercial failure. Released in April, the game was not a success, selling only about 100,000 copies, a million copies short of breaking even.
On April 13, 2010, MTV's Movies Blog posted an excerpt from a recent interview with Dutch film director Paul Verhoeven. In the interview, Verhoeven is quoted as saying, "I am working on a movie now that is... situated in 1914. Basically, Indiana Jones-ish you could say, but also Hitchcockian." He also states that the source material is a video game, and that "the writer of the video game has asked me to keep [the identity of the game] secret until he has a script." Subsequently, several other websites speculated that the video game in question is The Last Express, considering the relative dearth of games set in 1914, as well as Jordan Mechner's work on the film version of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
In October 2011, Verhoeven confirmed that he is working with Mechner to develop a film adaptation of the game. The film would most likely be filmed in 3D, although it may not be Verhoeven's immediate next project.
Notes and references
- "DotEmu.com launches " The Last Express Collectors Edition"". Gamasutra. 2011-01-14. Retrieved 2014-01-11.
- Valve Corporation (2013-11-21). "Now Available on Steam - The Last Express Gold Edition, 25% off!". Steam. Retrieved 2014-01-11.
- The Last Express: Behind the Scenes (short film). Interplay. 1997.
- Mechner, Jordan (2010-02-04). "In memoriam Tomi Pierce". Retrieved 2011-07-12.
- Remo, Chris (2008-11-28). "The Last Express: Revisiting An Unsung Classic". Gamasutra. Retrieved 2009-02-28.
- Barba, Rick: The Last Express: The Official Strategy Guide, page 194, Prima Press, 1997
- Back of box, Brøderbund release of The Last Express, 1997
- Griffiths, Diana (June 1997). "Mark Moran joins Diana for a chat in the smoking car of The Last Express...". Games Domain (archived). Retrieved September 28, 2012.
- "Broderbund Software – Press News". Coming Soon Magazine. Retrieved 2006-08-19.
- "Conference Call, 03/27/97: Broderbund Q2". The Motley Fool. Retrieved 2006-08-19.
- Burch, Anthony (2006-08-15). "The Games That Time Forgot: The Last Express". Destructoid. Retrieved 2011-07-12.
- Joe Martin (2011-01-14). "The Last Express re-released". bit-tech. Retrieved 2014-01-11.
- GOG.com (2011-01-26). "Surprise release: The Last Express". CD Projekt. Retrieved 2014-01-26.
- Conduit, Jessica (2012-03-16). "All aboard The Last Express on iOS, Mechner's classic adventure revamped". Joystiq. Retrieved 2013-02-15.
- Mechner, Jordan (March 16, 2012). "Announcing Last Express for iOS". Retrieved March 18, 2012.
- "The Last Express (iOS)". 2012-09-27. Retrieved 2011-07-12.
- Mott, Tony (2010). 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. London: Quintessence Editions Ltd. p. 343. ISBN 978-1-74173-076-0.
- "Mark Moran – Programming – Interviews". Mark Moran. Retrieved 2006-08-19.
- "Mark Moran – Programming – The Last Express". Mark Moran. Retrieved 2006-08-19.
- Rosenberg, Adam (April 13, 2010). "EXCLUSIVE: Paul Verhoeven Pushes Play On Video Game Adaptation Set In 1914". MTV Movies Blog.
- Sciretta, Peter (April 13, 2010). "Paul Verhoeven Developing Big Screen Adaptation of… Jordan Mechner's Video Game The Last Express?". /Film.
- Schaefer, Sandy (April 14, 2010). "Paul Verhoeven Bringing 'The Last Express' To The Big Screen?". Screen Rant.
- ""3D Could Become as Normal as Colour" – Paul Verhoeven". 3D Focus. October 11, 2011.
- The Last Express at MobyGames
- The Last Express at the Internet Movie Database
- Gamasutra interview with producer Mark Netter and technical designer and lead programmer Mark Moran (2008)
- The Last Express on game designer Jordan Mechner website
- Preview on Broderbund website
- Images from TLE launch party: October 8, 1996