Tex Murphy is your typical private dick in the not-so typical world of California, circa 2039. A third World War has slagged most of Earth, causing lingering radiation, a lowered population, and ghastly deformities for those unlucky enough to become mutants. A few safe havens, populated by a mix of radiation-immune “normals” and segregated mutants still tick steadily along, and Tex calls a mostly-intact San Francisco home. He hasn’t gained any notoriety for the events in Mean Streets, so Martian Memorandum begins with Tex in his seedy office, looking to pay the rent, and hoping for a job.
As the game opens, Tex is contacted by Marshall Alexander, the wealthiest man in the solar system. Marshall is the CEO of Terraform Incorporated, the sole company responsible for colonizing and developing Mars. His daughter is missing, presumed kidnapped, and an item of “great importance” has been stolen from his possession. He refuses to elaborate on either, but a few leads, and the promise of a substantial paycheck (did I mention he’s one rich dude?), set Tex off on his next adventure.
Just like Mean Streets, Access has rendered the world of Tex Murphy using a combination of digital photographs and realistic artwork. The cityscape of San Fran is well-realized, with some transition scenes or background slides that use detailed, digital photos of what appears to be the actual city. When the scene calls for something fantastical (Mars, anyone?) hand-drawn art kicks in that manages to hold its own just as well. This same quality extends to the backgrounds for locations that Tex visits, and there are a wide variety of truly impressive scenes. The ritzy Earth hotel gets high marks, as does the penthouse on Mars with majestic views of distant Martian mountains and canyons. Some places are just downright seedy, but the atmosphere of all of them is perfectly translated through the art, and keeps you excited to see where your investigation will lead you next.
Digital photos of live actors are stitched into basic animation to create the characters that populate the worlds (a trick that Sierra would later use for their VGA games). Tex is the most prominent, and while his animation is extremely jerky due to this process, he at least fits in with the backgrounds of just about everywhere he goes. The game really shines when you interrogate someone. Questioning characters results in a windowed video of the actor speaking their lines, with matching digital voice played in perfect sync. Not every line has a recording, but the ones that do use unique video “takes” for that line, with unique and appropriate gestures and emotions. This isn’t the old “cycle between a few still frames of talking” trick, no, it’s (ahem) full-motion video. Impressive for the time, and a clear evolution of the same “interactive movie” idea that helmed the first game.
While technically impressive, nobody’s going to be winning any awards for their performances here, and more than a few moderately-attractive women try to get passed off in bombshell roles (let’s just say the text sets up expectations that the video doesn’t meet). We’re still at the level of community theatre and secretaries for minor parts here, and the budget is the lowest of the low. In that sense, it may have been better to stick to text, but either way, don’t play if you don’t want campy.
Gameplay is similar to Mean Streets, with the same focus on grabbing items and chasing leads. There are no complex item puzzles, while safes and the like are defeated with the correct keycards, not any minigames or manipulation. It’s also a bit less social this time around, and Tex will be required to put significantly more foot time into tossing locations and avoiding traps. The action scenes from the first (where Tex had to shoot his way through streams of goons) have been removed; overall a positive. They’ve been replaced with scrolling puzzles, where Tex has to figure out the correct path through quicksand, or navigate around laser beams; something of a negative. These puzzles are now game’s main method of creating necessary tension, but they can be frustrating, and call on trial and error by design. Luckily you can save pretty much anywhere you like, even in the middle of one of these path puzzles, making them all a little more tolerable.
Also, if you hated the speeder sections from the first (where you were required to take time to actively fly between every contact and location), it’s gone now, replaced with a simple instant travel list. Click the “Travel” button on your action bar, pick from any of the locations you’ve learned about, and you’re there. A nice block of text and a photo will introduce each area; written well and further selling the film-noir mood.
A rudimentary point-and-click interface has been established, borrowing from the the LucasArts standard scheme. You “arm” your cursor with a specific action from a list of buttons at the bottom, then click around until you wish to change your interaction method. Objects are small, frequently only a few pixels in length, but a clear crosshair cursor makes them easy to line up. You also no longer have to walk Tex through a room to be able to interact with objects on the other side, allowing you to focus on working through the scene and not have to keep adjusting Tex’s location within the room. Some specific events are exceptions (like having to move next to a control panel to disable a trap), and in these cases, you can either move Tex with the arrow keys, or click to send him to a specific point.
The humor and pop culture references from Mean Streets return here. Item descriptions are lighthearted, a few good gags show up, and the characters aren’t all taken seriously. Keep an eye out for the grieving wife played by a burly guy in a wig (with no attempt to cover this, it just is what it is), the posh leather office couch you find is actually recycled from a Chrysler Cordoba, and the goon named Rocky Bullwinkle. It’s not so campy that it can’t be taken seriously, and not as outrageously funny as a LucasArts or Leisure Suit Larry adventure, but it does keep things lighthearted without becoming obnoxious.
Overall, the investigation isn’t going to be too taxing. You have a limited number of items, and obvious places to deploy them. Most conversations get reset every time you visit that character, so you can’t piss them off or frustrate them into refusing to help. Conversation paths get introduced in this game, and it can be tricky to divine the correct order of options for success, but you can trial-and-error your way through them without penalty.
An in-game hint system exists as well. Click the “Help” button, and you’ll get a list of items in that room (including your inventory). Clicking the item gives a fairly blunt suggestion of how to use it. The catch is that the system will also show “hidden” items you haven’t found yet, kind of blowing the point. You also don’t appear to have a way to examine your inventory and see what you’ve just picked up – this Help menu is the only real option, which tells you less of what an item is, and more of how to use it.
Sound is low-fi, but if you accept a few squelches and crackly voices, it uniformly serves the game well. Music is appropriate, and sparingly used. The voices really do work to liven up the characters. Sound effects are limited, but match when they appear. A number of rooms would benefit from background sound effects instead of just light MIDI music, but it’s not a deal-breaker. There’s also a distinct digital pop after every voice actor’s line, which can get distracting if you let it. As a final note for fans, you finally hear Tex’s voice at the very end of the game. And yes, it is Chris Jones, who will play him in the “live-action” games to come.
Martian Memorandum has more in common with Mean Streets than with the later FMV titles, but does fit into the Tex-a-verse nicely. It’s a fitting sequel that improves and streamlines some of the flaws from the original, while offering a new case and vastly different locales. If you’re coming from the series backwards, you might not be as impressed with this title as you will be with Under A Killing Moon, but it’s still worth a play if you want another chance to slip into Tex’s gumshoes.
Fantastic artwork and design. Digital voices and video for all characters. Can save anywhere and retry conversations easily. Many of the frustrations from Mean Streets have been removed. Worthy second case for Tex.
Interface is clunky compared to other point-and-clickers. Fair amount of hintless trial-and-error. A few frustrating moments.