In Countdown you play as Mason Powers, a CIA agent who wakes up in a Turkish mental hospital, suffering from partial amnesia and accused of murdering his supervisor. Powers must escape the hospital, find out who framed him, piece together his memory, and prevent terrorists from blowing up a peace conference.
As the title of the game implies, you’ve got a limited time to finish this game before the bomb goes off. I’m not actually sure if this is communicated as you first start playing or if it’s in the game manual, but you’ve apparently only got 96 hours of game time to get everything sorted out.
You start off in the insane asylum and can see something glinting under the bed. Using the mouse you can select from a number of verbs, which you then use to interact with the game environment.
Character movement appears to be rotoscoped, and instead of tiny sprites on screen everything is big and detailed. Though this game seems to use a similar engine as Mean Streets (which only came out a year earlier), the quality of the graphics is much much better. You can move Mason around the screen with the keyboard and use the mouse to interact with the environment.
As you progress you’ll encounter certain characters you can interact with. This is done via a menu that offers options as to how you can approach the conversation. For example, you can ask for
HASSLE them, be
PLEASANT, try to
OFFER something or
ASK ABOUT a keyword. There’s actually a HUGE amount of trial and error required here as you need to try different approaches (combinations of actions) with each character before they’ll let you ask them about anything.
This isn’t immediately obvious and if you don’t approach a conversation correctly you need to exit and re-initiate or you can’t proceed. This is not intuitive and can leave you feeling like you’ve hit a dead end.
Some game sequences involve an overhead view where you have to avoid guards as you make your way to the next room. The guards will all follow a predetermined path so once you know what this is it’s not that hard to avoid them. Unfortunately when you leave a room and go back into one of these scenes the guards may be nearby and if they spot you it’s game over, so make sure to save often.
To escape the initial sequence in the asylum you also have to navigate an arbitrary maze. Thankfully there are no guards in this section, but I hate mazes and find them tedious … and this one was no different. It really feels like it’s artificially delaying your progress and is just “busy work” for the player. Thankfully this is the only maze in the game :)
Travel in this game is done via a menu, and you can select to either take a train or a plane to most destinations. Taking the train will take much longer (time-wise) and since the game is on a timer this can be problematic. The endgame sequence requires you to catch a train to Paris, but if you’ve taken too long getting to the terminal the train will be gone and you have to start over (either from an old save file, or from the very beginning).
Unlike Mean Streets the travel mechanics in this game are pretty straightforward, but you have limited money to move around Europe with so make sure you’re paying attention as the story unfolds and try not to backtrack too often.
When you return to your apartment you’ll find a CAD system, which is sort of like a laptop. This can be used to look up information on characters you learn about, analyze inventory items or read email. You’ll only get a couple email messages throughout the game, and when you read them they’re gone … so pay close attention.
Certain items (such as notes, memos or documents) can be analyzed. This is done by zooming in and out using the CAD system, which at a certain resolution will result in you being able to read some additional text on screen. Once you find the correct resolution you’ll typically be given an additional keyword you can ask characters about or a new location you can travel to.
Unfortunately as new information becomes available you’re not given any audio or visual cue.
The story is actually quite good, and each character you interact with drops clues as to how you ended up in the asylum, who you work for, what the mission was and ultimately what you need to do to stop the terrorist plot. Assuming you don’t miss anything by approaching a conversation incorrectly you’ll be able to piece everything together from these interactions.
Not everything is obvious though … For example, in Venice after you meet with the stripper and get some additional information from her you’ll want to search her dressing room. You don’t know this is a goal, but assuming you do you’ll need to wait for the guard to leave. There are no clues that the guard even will leave, so unless you have the foresight to just stand still for 2-3 minutes until he moves … you’re stuck.
This was not obvious, and from the character interactions in this area there are no clues that he might leave on his own for some reason.
As good as the story may be, this game is HARD. You can’t move the mouse around the screen and have hotspots identified - you have to select a verb and click on EVERYTHING. What’s worse is on some screens there are SO MANY dead ends that you can interact with but don’t really offer anything useful. Additionally, you’ll need to try and
MOVE literally EVERYTHING.
This game mechanic must be a carryover from Mean Streets - where it was also extremely frustrating. You never know when something will be hidden beneath something else.
There are a handful of puzzle sequences as well. Most puzzles are pretty straightforward, but you’ll likely still die a dozen times trying to get the timing “just right”. For example, when you’re captured and tied up above a tiger, once the rope burns and you fall you need to lure the tiger into a cage, then run out and close the cage. This seems easy, but trying to navigate the mouse and keyboard together fast enough will result in the tiger getting out and eating you the first few tries.
If all goes well and you didn’t forget to pick up any key items, and you didn’t screw up any of the character interactions, and you didn’t run out of money, and you didn’t run out of time, and you didn’t get stuck because a puzzle was non-obvious … you’ll make it to Paris where you have 60 seconds to defuse an atomic bomb. No pressure …
Assuming you’ve used the CAD to review EVERYTHING you picked up one of the notes does give you the info you need to properly defuse the bomb (or you can just use a walkthrough). Once you complete this, the game is over and you’ve saved the world. Good job!
I really liked this game, but found it to be pretty challenging. You’ll die A LOT just trying to get out of the initial sequence in the asylum, and you might blow a good hour in the basement maze if you suck at mazes like I do …
The underlying story is compelling and kept me interested enough to keep on plugging away to the end. If you’re going to try this out for yourself, be warned that this is definitely an adventure game from the “non-LucasArts” camp, where you can die literally everywhere, and end up in unwinnable situations.
See here for a refresher on how we’re scoring these games.