Review: Midwinter 1

Midwinter

ST Format Review

My Review

For this review I’m running Steem with a 1MB STFM, running TOS 1.04. On this occasion I’ve chosen Pompey Pirates 28. The intro features some well-drawn artwork, decent music and the usual scrolling text.

The loading screen isn’t quite up to Midwinter 2 standards, it’s solid but those trees are awful. That said, there are hints of the artstyle that would come to define Microprose, that beautiful pixel-art for intermission screens away from their 3D engines.

This options screen feels quite of its time, a little less exciting than the beautiful screens of Midwinter 2, but then again Midwinter 1 was a risky project and probably didn’t have the resources that its sequel would later enjoy as a known quantity.

So to put this game into a bit of historical context, the cold war was ending (as you’ll have seen from the reports about each magazine issue where I cover that month’s news) and environmental awareness was definitely becoming more of a thing. Captain Planet (kids cartoon) would arrive in September of that year, and people were starting to worry about holes in the ozone layer. However Midwinter harks back to an older climate panic, the fear of a new ice age which was prevalent in the 1970s, and indeed the politics of its world are also closer to the 70s [and presciently to the 2020s] with radical left-wing terror groups gaining popularity.

So.. I’m about to discuss the manual and the story – if you want to get straight to the TLDR skip down to “Hariseldon’s guide to things you need to know when playing”.

The manual begins by detailing an assassination attempt on the US President in 2015 (the future) by the Global Green Army, a group of eco-terrorists. These eco-terrorists wanted to see governments act together to combat the greenhouse effect. A second newspaper story from 2017 tells of governents conspiring to have people believe that a mini ice age will solve the climatic crisis. This does not appease the eco-terrorists.

We then get what looks like a top secret government report, The Midwinter Report, which details how a mini ice age may be achieved. It’s actually pretty technical stuff, remarkable work to go into ‘only a computer game’. Anyway, the report initially details how one might predict an ice age. Continental drift is discussed, given the idea that position of continental landmasses accounts for some ice age activity. The next discussion centres around reflecting sunlight where cloud and ice reflect the most. It then details the trapping of heat through atmospheric gases and how this creates a greenhouse effect. There is then some discussion of the need to change one of these many variables if one is to achieve an ice age – that is the need to either increase reflectivity or reduce the trapping of heat. We determine that reducing the strength of the trap by reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would not work due to the effect it would have on plants, and further this is impractical when it is the addition of carbon to the atmosphere by man which is the problem in the first place. Next we have increasing reflectivity. We get a pretty deep meteological discussion of clouds and fog, before alighting on particulate matter entering the atmosphere, much as happens with a supervolcano, or with a large meteor crashing to earth (the science of which is discussed in some depth).

We return to news reports with 2039 seeing a large meteor (initially suspected to be a nuclear weapon) landing on earth, creating huge shockwaves, killing millions and sending the world into darkness. Over the next year temperatures continued to drop, with summer never coming. Mass-migration and war followed, and in the US there was a complete breakdown of law and order. In 2045 we get volcanic explosions all over the world adding to the mess and plunging the world deeper into winter (this bit seems less scientific, more dramatic), and we arrive at 2056 where in London temperatures are below -25C. As ice enveloped the world humanity fractured into small communities scavenging for food, living a medieval existence. Populations still sought equatorial climes but these were massively overpopulated and tensions rose.

And so, in this mess, a group discovers that, with sea levels having plummeted, the archipelago of the Azores has become an island. What follows is a novella which is slightly less interesting than the preceding material, as they join up with another group and slowly make the island viable using sub-surface heat. By 2089 a population of over 500 spread over 50 settlements, and in due course they started taking in refugees who built settlements and made new lives for themselves. The indiginous people tended to congregate near the heat mines in the North West, while the newer settlements, having arrived later, had the less wonderful option of the South East. Their attitudes to life were tainted by the wars they’d fled, and they resented the indiginous people for their lifestyles, which led to feuds. Amid these feuds General Masters arose, creating a rival government and police force/army. Then, finally, Operation Snowstorm was to proceed as planned.

With only a tiny peacekeeping force available, and potential recruits who often weren’t talking to each other, the odds looked grim. Time to fight back.

So, we arrive at the team screen where we see what recruits we have. Currently there’s only Captain Stark (that’s you). When I get going I’ll be out looking to recruit agents and send them (and myself) on missions to sabotage enemy resources or recruit more team members. One interesting thing is the damage system is quite sophisticated. Damage an arm and you’ll not be able to snipe. Damage a leg and you can’t ski. Snow-buggying needs at least 1 arm and 1 leg working. It’s all pretty cool. You can recover by resting, but first aid is faster. You have muscle power which basically functions a lot like action points in a turn based strategy.

Hariseldon’s guide to things you need to know when playing

So, what are the best routes to victory? Well, the objective first up is simple. I need to destroy General Masters’ base. However, that’s difficult, and there are some things I can do to make that easier.
– His army has 6 colonels who each lead a brigade of 5 attack squadrons, of which they run one and the other 4 are delegated to Captains. Destroying the colonel’s vehicle (the lead vehicle in each squadron is the cheese-wedge-shaped Snow-Witch) will cause that brigade to disband. So defeating 5 brigades will see Masters without an army with which to invade. Destroying one or two will at least slow him down.
– Destroying the fuel tankers (snow-bears – the most lorry-like vehicles) in convoys will slow a squadron down
– Destroying all enemy-held radio stations will get a message out which will automatically recruit all 32 people.
– Destroying enemy-held warehouses deprives local forces of fuel and weapons
– Destroying enemy-held synthesis plants makes it harder for them to refuel, slowing them down

On the recruitment front, I’ve done a couple of things to help. While I’ve provided the manual below, the details of the people you recruit are scattered throughout the manual, while figuring out who can recruit who involves scanning all that text. To save you some time if you’re playing too I made these:
– https://www.mediafire.com/file/37mxcayecali8j8/midwinter-recruitment-guide.xls/file – Who can recruit who and what skills they have in a simple Excel spreadsheet
– https://www.mediafire.com/file/4u9ub7evugd1g7n/Midwinter-people.pdf/file – The personnel pages all in one collection, separated from the rest of the manual and rotated to be easier to read

The game is turn-based in a way. Time is split into 2 hour blocks, in which you’ll use each member of your team to do something in real time. When time runs out you move to the next team member. When everyone’s done you synchronise watches, and the next turn starts. Any spare time is used to rest.

Eating and resting are vital to keep energy levels up. Rest transfers energy from energy reserves to muscle power, which is where energy is drained from during actions. Eating replenishes energy reserves. Sleep replenishes alertness, as without sleep you’ll be a mess. You can sleep in a hut, a house or a police station, though the latter will lead to capture if the enemy arrives.

You can get ammo at Magazines (I stupidly thought it meant somewhere that publishes reading material) and stores, the latter also providing food.

The enemy will begin in the South East and work their way up to the North West taking control of Heat Mines. When they have all of them, you lose.

When you get to a settlement, press X to switch to the icon view so you can make use of buildings, sabotage things, use the church or a bunker for sniping, get food and ammo from a store, rest in a house or police station, etc.

If you’re being attacked, get to a tree or settlement – if the former, then press S to go into sniper mode – the tree will give you a bit of height to help you pick vehicles off. You can one-shot anything. You may of course go to sniper mode at any time, but you might be in the open without cover.

End of Harisedon’s guide to things you need to know when playing

There you go, I just saved you the need to read a 195 page manual, though you might want to anyway as it’s not a bad read.

Anyway, so I had a couple of goes at the game just wrapping my head around the basics so I could go into a proper playthrough for the purposes of a review. This is a big game, which requires a big review. For this review I’m going to decline the kind offer of bombers and mortars attacking me, but I’ll also decline to put it in training mode (which basically means nobody shoots at you). I feel like that’s a happy medium. I’m not a complete masochist and the controls add enough difficulty on their own.

So here I am at the start. My team consists only of me. Not much to do from here for now so I’ll just click on Captain Stark (that’s me).

I’ll explain this profile screen a little. Two watches on the left – the brown one is my current time, and the grey-blue one is the time at the end of this turn. Next, the red running man – the red will drain down to the bottom, replaced by white, as I lose muscle energy (think of that as action points). Next we have the icons for the Map screen (m on the keyboard if I’m in 3D mode), the Decision screen (I’ll explain more in a bit), back to the team screen we saw previously, two icons to cycle through the team profiles, and finally an SOS rescue which can only be used once per character which takes you to the nearest settlement. The body under qualities and skills will colour parts in different colours, green going to red, as those body parts sustain damage.

This is the map of the whole island – I’ve selected people so you can see them. Settlements are green dots, and if they have white borders they’ve already been captured. The black crosses are enemy forces, and you’ll note that the blue mouse pointer is pointing at a greeny-yellow arrow which is me, and near that there are enemy forces.

Zooming in two levels we can see a bit more clearly, hopefully you can see my arrow pointing straight at the enemy. Clicking ‘People’ on the right brings up a key so I can see what’s at each location. Mousing over each green dot I can see what’s there. The person I can see nearby to my South East is Llwellyn – he’s a good recruiter in that he can recruit all the other peace officers except Gaunt (or at least that’s my current impression reading the docs). I’d like to do some recruitment so clearly I should get to him. However, that may not be easy with forces near him and right on my tail (you always start with enemy forces on top of you). However, on this occasion I’ve been lucky. The dot very near me to the North East is the bottom station of the cable car service, which leads directly North to the dot above it. Now that may not sound useful, but the top station always has a glider, which might be useful to take me either to the garage to the West, or down to the Barefoot Valley settlement where I’ll find Llwellyn. It’ll be tricky given the enemy forces near him, but if I can recruit him it’ll be useful. The settlement has a white border which means it’s been captured, which means I must destroy the police station. Onward.

So I closed the map and clicked throught to the Decision Screen. A little explanation. First up, we get a short profile, I’m currently in Barefoot Valley which is Llwellyn’s territory if you read my recruitment guide or the manual. Two watches and muscle energy (it’s red because it’s full – counter-intuitive I know) are as described previously. In this case there’s a picture of me on skiis but if I’m driving a vehicle I think I’ll see that. Below that I get icons – left to right they’re Map, Profile, Team, Snipe and Ski. The last 2 are of interest. Snipe lets me take some pot-shots at the bastards chasing me, or ski lets me run away. The icons shown here will vary depending on injury, what vehicle I’m in and if I’m near a settlement or building (in which case icons will appear for any relevant buildings).

So I’ve decided to whip out the sniper rifle. The graphic shows while I wait for the disk to chug.

So to explain this screen. I’ve used the mouse to look around, annoyingly up moves up and down down instead of reverse, but otherwise it’s fine. My guy is a bit wobbly, probably because he’s cold. See the 3 lights on each of the bottom corners? If they’re cycling then the enemy is in that direction. I’m going to hit space and blow the vehicle up.

I shoot the vehicle, it hurtles towards me having been destroyed, hopefully it won’t kill me. I can still hear a vehicle. Let’s see what’s out there to the left. I take a couple of hits but I manage to get a second vehicle. More humming, let’s see what’s out there. Eventually silence – they’ve run away. I’m safe, for now. Time to go ski. Press X to get to the decision screen, then click the skiier.

The loading screen for skiing and it looks like I don’t have any injuries, which is handy.

I take my first steps into the huge world. Time for a screen explainer. First up, the bombs either side of my ski mask – I think they’re grenades. At the bottom the direction indicators are showing me where the enemy is (and it looks like they’re nearby – I can hear an engine drone so they must have turned back). And across the top we have a picture of me, an indication that I’m skiing, my Muscle Energy (as you can see, some white so I’ve expended some), the time (I’ve used 26 minutes of the 2 hours of this turn), a speedometer, a rate of incline (the icon will show you skiing up or downhill, a compass and below that an indicator for your turning rate (which moves as you move your mouse left and right), and a map (the arrow is me, the dots are buildings – in this case there’s a line of dots and I think that’s the cablecar where only the bottom and top dots matter). Time to head to that cablecar. The vehicle chasing me unwisely steps into my sights, a tossed grenade (space) and he’s done. No drone so it looks like I’m safe to go about my business.

There’s more droning – something is chasing me and missiles fly, but I don’t care. I can see the bottom station of the cablecar line. Time to head straight for it. I get there, stop and press X for the decision screen, where I click the door to go in.

And here I am in the cablecar station (with a little picture inset). Time to click that cablecar icon and see where I end up.

A nice loading screen then I get to ride in real time in the cablecar. One benefit of cablecars is that you rest for the whole journey, and another is that you’re safe from being shot at. Finally we arrive at the station.

Before moving onto playing some more of the game I want to talk a little bit about graphics, sound, performance, all that technical jazz. So first up, the pixel art isn’t bad. Not quite as good as it would later be in F-19 and in Midwinter 2, but definitely above average. Meanwhile the 3D engine does chug a bit, especially if you compare it to Damocles which isn’t too far from release at this point. However the complexity of the geometry is far greater than that of Damocles. The rendering engine is also doing some really remarkable things, using dithering for shading to generate extra colours where most 3D engines even later in the ST’s life were simply content to have a flat colour for each surface (off the top of my head I think we got some form of texture-mapping in Legends Of Valor but I’ve not played that so I don’t know how well that performs). The frame rate is undoubtedly poor then, averaging around 2 frames per second, but thankfully the weapons are forgiving which means you can largely get away with it. Audio is primarily chip drones for vehicles and chip explosion sounds – nothing to write home about. The Amiga seems to have had proper engine sounds and some other effects, but ST owners weren’t quite so lucky.

So for this top station’s decision screen I can ski, or I can hangglide, or go back down the cable. I didn’t come this far not to hang glide. I’m going to go North-East to the garage to get a vehicle seeing as I want to show you around the game a bit.

Loading, waiting to jump in…

And here’s me pranging it. The graphic actually animates quite nicely. Needless to say I reloaded my emulator snapshot. Numerous attempts don’t go any better. Some googling tells me that not many people could actually get hang-gliding to fucking work. Eventually, I conclude fuck this, and ski towards the garage. At least up here on the hill I can get some momentum and thus speed.

And I go arse over tit. Inevitable at the speed I was doing – still, I will keep going to get my vehicle, hopefully I can get my injuries healed when I meet Llewellyn.

I’ve made it to the garage, but I’ve run out of time and need to wait for the next situation report. Back to the team sreen and click the synchronise watches (the two watches in one icon) icon and this is what I find.

So, the enemy has prisoners, numerous factories, too many mobile vehicles for my liking (I’ve destroyed 4 of them but that’s not made much of a dent). The big problem here is the 3 radio stations they hold. I could do with getting hold of those. Looking at the map, I’ve highlighted settlements with radio stations with white fills – the ones with white borders are captured.

I’ve added to the ST’s display here to show you some points of interest on the map. Now I can only find two occupied radio stations, which makes my goal of destroying 3 a bit of a challenge, and they’re a fair distance apart which also doesn’t help. I’ve also located Masters HQ, which is down on the South East. That is an option, if I can figure out how to get to it without dying.

At last I have a vehicle. I’m going to make a break for it, I’m going to try to take out Masters solo.

And I get shot. Luckily within range of the garage 0 I get repaired and go again. May as well try to rescue Llewellyn on the way…

And here’s a settlement. Let’s go in and have a look. The red person icon next to the police station tells me I need to go there to get my man. I go to the store and get some explosives.

I wonder what happens if I hit this plunger.

I’m out of time.. sit rep time.

So they’ve gained a factory and a synth plant and two warehouses. Crucially no radio stations. No change to the state of their army. I enter the ruin of the police station and get a hands-joined icon which must be recruitment.

Woohoo, I’ve got my man. That was easy. Onwards we travel, stopping at a store on the way to eat and rest.

The enemy was thankfully leaving us alone, but time was running short. Another sitrep, more losses – another radio station chief among them. I had to get to the General’s hideout. My vehicle was gone. Bugger. Had Llwellyn stolen it? He had. Well, it looks like it’s on Llwellyn to make that journey then. Doing 70 mph sticking to the lower flatter land I mostly outrun my opponents, firing the odd missile when they’re in sight (my vehicle is fast and well-armed though not particularly sturdy).

Here’s where I crashed and had to borrow another vehicle.

I’m slowly getting there – not too far to go now til I’m deep into enemy territory.

I’m so close I can practically taste the victory! The drone of enemy vehicles is starting up again – they know I’m here, but it doesn’t matter, I’m too damn fast.

I’m in Shining Hollow – am I about to defeat Masters?

I crash into the base because why wouldn’t I? Sitrep time, but I don’t give a shit.

So, here I am. I’m at the Shining Hollow settlement. But I have no fucking dynamite. NOOOOOOOO! I need to find a store to get some. Next town over to the left. I reload a previous emulator snapshot and get the supplies then rush to Shining Hollow, the enemy swiftly on my tail and firing missiles.

Headquarters is destroyed – time to sitrep and see if I get an exciting ending screen.

Oh my fucking god I’ve done it, I’ve destroyed the HQ and killed General Masters!

So is it any bloody good?
I’ve already gone over the technical aspects above but I’ll summarise again before moving to more substantive matters. The 3D graphics are damn clever, throwing a lot of polygons around. The fractal-generated landscape is pretty on a map though perhaps too undulating vs real life. Frame rates suffer but they’re not unmanageable. 2D art is well-drawn, though not yet to the signature Microprose standard.

So, to gameplay. I’ve clearly taken an easier route to victory, the proper approach being to either capture the radio stations or recruit all those people manually, perhaps destroy a couple of brigades. As it is though my playthrough demonstrated most of the activities on offer – skiing, sniping, vehicles, hang-gliding, recruiting people, getting supplies and sabotaging buildings. To that end I’m reasonably qualified to talk about the game. First, difficulty is brutal. The enemy is shooting at you with homing missiles and it’s not entirely clear what the best evasion technique is though I found getting a fast vehicle and flooring it helped. However, this posed its own issues. The landscape being so brutally angular means you can very easily find yourself on a piece of land that’s at a bad angle and tips your vehicle over, and it’s not terribly clear where that line lies. This could have been alleviated if the autopilot and programmable routes of the sequel were present. The difficulty of the game then comes in part from brutal opposition but in part from the game itself, such that perhaps playing in training mode is best as at least you don’t have to worry about being shot at. This leaves you free to concentrate on getting around, recruiting, and doing the longer approach, with a little less stress.

While the multi-character stuff is innovative, I found myself playing it more like Midwinter 2’s single-character game, and that may just be my problem, but keeping tabs on different recruits would, I suspect become quite long-winded. I will say that recruitment is a bit anti-climactic, in that, if I recall correctly, Midwinter 2 lets you define certain skills for your character like sex appeal, threats, etc and the people you meet would have weaknesses to particular diffferent techniques and you’d have to figure that out – and getting it wrong or talking to a traitor can get you captured. As much as the 3D was developed in the sequel to provide that beautiful tropical feel with beaches with real tides, the 2D elements of the game were also really hugely improved in the sequel.

So then, is this game worth playing or should you head straight to the sequel? I never played Midwinter 1 until this review, and I had a fucking brilliant time with it. It took a lot of figuring out, and getting my head around the controls was a challenge, but those controls are the same in the sequel so you’d still have that same learning curve. There’s definitely a lot of actual entertainment to be had from Midwinter and of course it’s a historical curiosity as it’s the ancestor of the Ubigame in so many ways (and the sequel did the icon map much much better by the way). So, in short, go play it.

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