The Terminator: Future Shock

Future Shock is Bethesda’s next attempt to show the post-apocalyptic world of my beloved Terminator franchise, after succeeding mildly with Terminator 2029. As I said at the end of that review, the ideas they were going for were indeed better-realized in this game. Future Shock is a true three-dimensional world with mapped textures and polygonal enemies, a little less than a year before Quake was released. The results are mostly what you would expect – an engine not as refined as Carmack’s, with a couple of growing pains not quite worked out. Yet for the time, it was astounding, and captured the idea of being a dogged member of the resistance with far more clarity than any previous games, or many of the comics.

It’s not a pretty future, but Future Shock recreates the look of the films’ nightmare landscape quite well.

For me, the definitive example of the ashen Terminator future comes during Kyle’s dream in the first film. He’s running solo, dodging fire between hulks of cars and concrete slabs, loses his partner, but destroys his objective. But before he can enjoy his victory, air units are sweeping in and he’s trying to escape in a speeding truck. He’s under constant assault, and desperate to use the rust and rebar of his surroundings for shelter. All of those moments and feelings are captured in this game.

Similar to Dark Forces, every mission has a briefing screen before it, laying out objectives and backstory in dialogue screens. Every mission then accurately references that briefing in terms of directions or objectives. If someone tells you to go down the freeway until you pass an abandoned warehouse and turn right, those very directions will help you navigate the map. If you’re ordered to go into a complex and disable a generator, sure enough, you’ll find a generator, plant a satchel charge, and run like hell. Many games before have tried to set up this level of interaction with the world and then copped out or given you directions that ultimately didn’t matter. But Future Shock comes through in spades.

It’s also one of the earliest first-person-shooters requiring you to move your character with the keyboard and look around with the mouse, again beating Quake to market. Simple, flat-planed FPSs are done here – Future Shock requires you to keep a full 3D awareness, with constant harassment from high turrets and flying bombers, while expertly providing you with all the control you need to survive. It took a bit of adjustment at the time, but if you’re used to playing a modern FPS then you’ll be able to jump right in, and can even configure all the controls to something you’re more familiar with (WASD). You’ll need the precision to stay alive.

The world Bethesda created is eerily beautiful. “Beautiful” might mean something different to you if you’re used to modern games, but at the time, the realization of standing on an empty street with cold wind whistling through the tilting, shattered skeletons of buildings was unmatched. Terminator 2029 offers a good example of these previous attempts – they were mostly a lot of barren plains and indistinguishable rubble. Here, you’re stepping over twisted rebar and weaving between buildings, you’re driving the I-10 to Santa Monica, you’re staring up at the shattered Hollywood sign, and so on. You’ll have ample opportunities to recognize bits of the world that was, and plenty of opportunities to dive behind various kinds of rubble while robot killing machines stalk you.

Any building with an unblocked door can be entered. Most have loot inside.
Any building with an unblocked door can be entered. Most have loot inside.

Your metal foes are indeed plentiful, including everything seen or referenced in the films, plus many inspired by. Everything, of course, wants to smoke you. You’ll find floating mines that track you, two-legged walkers that chase you over all varieties of terrain, and even giant spider robots stalking through the streets. Various flavors of the flying machines from the film patrol the skies, making it worth ducking inside a building or under a freeway to avoid their plasma fire or bombing runs. The giant tank from the films also appears – though it shrank a little in size to accommodate the game engine, it’s still plenty nasty.

And of course, there are the Terminators. Part of the plot of the game involves the development of improved models of them, so while you start with the naked steel skeletons, they’ll soon be sheathed in rubber skin and worse. They are also the toughest of the enemies (except for the massive tank), which is appropriately befitting of the canon. Your early weapons (Uzis and shotguns) are almost ineffective against them. As you start to collect plasma rifles and stronger weapons that allow you to deal with them properly, they will likewise increase in numbers. It also seems you can never quite nail down exactly how much punishment is needed to reliably kill one – blowing up a gas station while one of the damn things still walks, unscathed, out of the explosion is awfully cool.

Your weapons range from pre-war rifles to technological marvels like the phased plasma cannon. Each number key has a corresponding “class” of weapon – bullets, lasers, and plasma, and most of these weapon classes have three different guns to them. You’ll start with a pistol-type weapon, then graduate to rifles and finally cannons. You can cycle through the three flavors by pressing the same key repeatedly. Though each new pickup in that class is clearly more powerful than the previous, it is sometimes valuable to stick with a mid-class version to save valuable ammo. You will frequently be short on supplies, and the heavier versions of the guns eat greedily from their respective pools of ammo.

The night scope actually works once the game is patched.

Other “stand-alone” weapons like rocket and grenade launchers have no upgrades, use their own ammo, and are fantastic against tougher opponents. You also have a separate repertoire of thrown weapons, like pipe bombs and molotovs, selected by the function keys and thrown with the right mouse button at a moment’s notice. Not only can these thrown weapons be directed through doorways or aimed near enemies to hit them with shrapnel damage, any hit on a robot with an explosive always produces desirable results.

In the course of the story, you will also encounter driving and flying levels. These are all individual levels that count toward the total – 17 levels/missions in all – though you will not be able to run along and hop in a Jeep (or stop driving and leave on foot) inside the same level. These vehicle levels often work along with the plot; you have to infiltrate a complex, so your first level will be to drive there, or take out some defenses from the air. There will be plenty of action along the way, and having mounted rocket launchers and recharging laser cannons is balanced by having most of SkyNet’s nastiest machines after you in these sections. These levels also manage some pretty cool moments, from weaving around while aerial units chase you, to driving on a side road and trading fire with tanks keeping pace on a parallel freeway.

These sections also show off Bethesda’s X-ngine’s enormous levels. You get a sense of almost overwhelming openness in the walking levels, but when you’re driving down the freeway for miles, you really appreciate the size. They make the directions in your briefings, and the compass on your HUD, all the more necessary. There are still artificial blocks of course, such as tunnels conveniently blocked by debris, but most of your exploration is contained by pockets of radiation. The level continues on to the limit of your vision, but walking further into these invisible zones kills you quickly. A Geiger counter built into your HUD (and some panicky red vision) alert you to when you’re reaching the edge of inhabitable space.

The driving sections are even faster than the on-foot sections without getting choppy, and certainly without getting boring.

Sound is used to great effect, primarily in a solid stereo mix that allows you to track the clomping, whirring hydraulics of your mechanized stalkers. It’s a bit of a downer that all walking machines use the same walking noise, but it is helpful that they’ll have a hard time sneaking up on you. Your guns sound unique and convey a plausible amount of power based on their size. Trashed robots satisfyingly combust into individual polygonal pieces, which scatter around and blow up themselves in nice, discrete, and bassy explosions. If it weren’t for the overall lack of variety – classes of machines sound the same and all their weapons sound exactly like yours – then this aspect would be nearly perfect.

Regrettably, there must come some serious criticism. First, you absolutely MUST patch the game before you attempt to play it. Some levels will not complete without it, others allow you to get stuck on geography or killed on inclines. Though you will get a few neat additions, like a nightvision scope on one of the guns, the patch is more for the things you won’t see – and don’t want to see – while playing the game. Next, the engine handles indoor areas, running from cramped apartment buildings to large machine factories, but despite their relative lack of detail, they all seem to run slower and choppier than outside (probably because of having to draw walls and a ceiling). This can cause some trouble in missions taking place almost entirely indoors, but with the same amount of enemies in much tighter quarters.

Also, even in the patched version, the game crashes far too often. It is completely playable, and can be finished, but you should expect crashes along the way and save accordingly. I noticed the game seemed to become more unstable the more you saved and reloaded during a single game session, but no matter what, you don’t want to get caught without a recent save when you’re staring at the cascading hex code of a page fault.

Yet the biggest problem of the game isn’t a technical issue at all; it’s a simple design decision that will almost certainly frustrate the holy hell out of anyone trying to enjoy the game. Time travel is obviously a big theme of the Terminator films, and the game attempts to explain the backstory of this as well. As you progress though the game, machines will suddenly appear in front of you in blue flashes of light. It’s confusing at first, and the “mystery” is a central part of the plot, but if you’ve seen the film then you’ll quickly recognize the time displacement for what it is. Plotwise, it’s neat to have SkyNet react to your incursion and place “reinforcements” accordingly. Gamewise, it’s absolute murder.

You’ll want more than a shotgun to take a Terminator on.

I understand it’s supposed to be unfair; that it’s part of the plot that SkyNet is using time to tip the hand in its favor. But as the levels progress, the effect is steadily and increasingly overused. You’ll take care of the enemies that are there, see nothing ahead, and then suddenly “BzzZAP!” – rocket turrets have appeared next to you out of thin air. Or, you’ll be heading for an open doorway when a Terminator suddenly appears to block your path, firing the instant he materializes. It’s a lot like playing Doom on Nightmare mode, and having them come out firing is just plain cheap. I had full health and armor when a robot with missile pods appeared in the same tiny room and fired an entire volley, killing me instantly. Changing the difficulty level only affects the health and damage-dealing of your enemies, not their numbers.

There are some other, minor complaints, like that the scale of the world would make most downtown multi-story buildings the size of a single small room, but the biggest trouble is ultimately the time-phasing aspect. It takes a game that is fun and engaging, and makes it absurd and frustrating by the end. Even though it fits in – I mean, it wouldn’t be Terminator without some form of time travel – it drags the game down with its sheer overuse, and results in a game where you’re spending more time cautiously saving than actually playing.

Terminator or post-apocalyptic fans will probably forgive this, just to see the game through to the end, and it is a fantastic look at the future world of the films. However, it makes it hard to recommend to any average player, because they won’t be as driven to power through to the end. Certainly enough good here to warrant a look, but don’t be surprised if you don’t want to see it through to the finale.


The Good

An impressive rendition of the films’ nuclear future. Plot and mission-based levels are used to great effect. Driving and flying levels mix up the action with experiences just as enjoyable as the regular game.

The Bad

Way, way, way overuses SkyNet’s time travel ability to make powerful robots appear right next to you out of thin air. Nearly ruins all the work put into the world by sapping the fun out of the game.


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2 thoughts on “The Terminator: Future Shock

  1. Great review, could not agree more and this game would crash on me, even with the patch,
    during or after one of the driving levels so I never got to complete the game, or see Skynet, sadly.

    On another note, this game is a precursor in a way to Fallout 3.

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