UGH! This is the kind of crap that really grinds my gears. A half-ass story twisting the Terminator timeline yet again is just a transparent excuse for a Wolfenstein clone feeding off the popular film license. It’s another weak attempt to make a strictly rote game more appealing by giving it a recognizable name. Is this really needed? The game’s not even close to what was in the movies! It’s like they expect Terminator fans to just pick up anything with a metal skeleton stamped on the front and not even… wait a minute. Why am I holding this game? You mean I bought thi…? DAMMIT, they tricked me again!
The latest stop in my lackadaisical quest to play all things Terminator is Terminator: Rampage – Bethesda’s fourth game about the ruby-eyed robot terrors, and easily the least inspired. Riding the wave of Wolf3D’s success, Rampage is a mostly gimmicky attempt to merge the most popular license in BethSoft’s stable with the hottest new gameplay style on the PC. So, corridor crawls aplenty await, while your faceless soldier avatar rips apart significantly weakened Terminators (they’re scrapped together using modern day parts, you see) with a variety of military weapons. Nothing more substantial is offered, and even the most fanatical of Terminator fans will certainly find more enjoyment out of one of Bethesda’s other attempts.
Acting as a direct sequel, SkyNet is faced with impending defeat from your actions in Terminator 2029, and responds by shooting an orbital pod into the past. That pod lands in the 1990s and delivers the “Meta-Node” – a hulking mega-T-800 that carries all of SkyNet’s blueprints and schemes in its CPU. After capturing NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain complex and eliminating everyone inside, it sets about repurposing the shielded bunker to build SkyNet anew.
You arrive as a solo future commando out to crawl the labyrinthine complex, fight SkyNet/Meta-Node’s minions, and cobble together a prototype “VTEC” plasma rifle that will allow you to zap the Node into dust. It’s a pretty silly plot, and setting it inside an enormous indoor military bunker plays to the strengths of Wolf3D-esque rendering tech, and not necessarily anything identifiable to The Terminator. But, to be fair, the plot’s not significantly more hokey than one about sending a robot assassin back through time to kill the mother of your enemy’s leader.
Pre-Doom, the way many companies tried to squeeze more mileage out of Wolf3D-equivalent technology was to replace the sprites with bitmap photos (see also: Rise of the Triad and Operation Body Count). The 90-degree angled walls and 2-D cutout props still remain, but the immediate boost to visuals and “realism” by using digital images made the stills on the box look awesome. That is the highest praise that can be given to Rampage – for the time, it looks pretty sweet. Blocky and pixelated, yes. Levels made of frequently duplicated textures, sure. But it was the best you were going to do for the period, and it certainly adds some immersion to the locations you fight in. The areas do indeed look like office floors and labs, without requiring an excess of imagination.
However, the tradeoff to framerate was not worth the cost. Bethesda’s engine clunks along regardless of your actual processor and available memory; like the code itself wasn’t designed to display this many textures at the resolution it’s asked to. You can disable various options like the textured floors, ceilings, or draw distance, but they will not improve performance on a modern machine – your problem will not be lack of processing power. You won’t get more than 10-16 FPS (with wild variance throughout) no matter what you do, or how many DOSBox cycles you allocate.
If you manage to steel yourself against the framerate, your next challenge will be against a significant design flaw. Bethesda seems to have mistaken what was actually fun about Wolf3D – it wasn’t running around the mazes. Unfortunately, the focus here is a treasure hunt inside the massive complex. Access cards and VTEC parts will have you scouring obnoxiously enormous 100×100 levels for the next piece required to continue. You have a minimap, which is the only support that makes the game playable, but only elevators are highlighted. There are no clues in the architecture, like a lone, out-of-the-way room suggesting a goodie might lay inside, so you’re truly expected to search every barren room across all 31 levels for the ones that might have the key to proceed. It’s like looking for a special needle in a stack of other needles. The best 3D games don’t make key hunts feel like a chore. Rampage does.
Bethesda seems to have known this, or decided to proactively appease maze-haters like myself, and has included x,y coordinates of all notable pickups in a HINTS.TXT file included smack on the disc. I initially shied away from this extra help, thinking that I would be cheating and ruining the experience. Not so. Once you actually know where to go, the entire game (for me, at least) elevated to typical enjoyment for this kind of FPS. With an AK-47 in your paws and a clear destination, it became surprisingly fun to mow down reams of budget Terminators along the way.
It also doesn’t help that any new player stands to be turned off by the game’s lame first impression. The first two levels have you wandering through impressive-looking offices, sniping at undistinguished flying machines and floating bombs. The title baddies are absent, giving you two full levels of generic shooting to notice all the flaws. Nothing particularly grabbed me, and I was prepared to walk away disappointed. Then I met my first Terminator. I popped open a routine door to find a civilian in slacks and tie. I actually hesitated – even knowing from Terminator: 2029 that everyone moving is certainly a machine, the obvious disguise still worked! He draws a gun, I snap out of it and open fire. Flesh splats away to reveal the metal endoskeleton underneath; very nice. The machine finally falls and I move on to the next room.
On my way back, I happen to pass by the room again, and noticed that the body wasn’t there. I had just enough time to process this new information before the half-shredded Terminator rounds the corner and opens fire – they actually GET BACK UP if you don’t put extra rounds into them after they’ve fallen! Even with the points stacking up against this particular game, Bethesda demonstrates again why they were always good stewards of the series.
This is a surprisingly tough game, too. Even on the Normal difficulty setting, you’ll take a heavy beating through a combination of Wolf3D’s distance-based damage (don’t meet a Terminator around a corner!) and what seems like less protection as your armor level goes down. Armor and health pickups are uncomfortably rare – usually no more than one or two rooms per level will have some token repair kits – and the more you search the complex, the more you open yourself up to damage. You only have one life to save the future with, but free ability to save anywhere means you can, at a minimum, use your deaths to recon ahead.
Still, even with such appropriate Terminator touches, the game never gets past being slightly below average. The core gameplay of searching an oversized complex for parts just isn’t that attractive. The game engine and textures do look nice, but the choppy framerate can’t deliver the smooth and fast action expected of an FPS. Your enemies put up a challenge mostly by absorbing more bullets than you’re likely to have, further forcing you to check every room of every level for supplies. Again, if you’re interested at all, there’s no shame in using that hint file. There’s a serviceable game here when you get away from the artificial padding, and not wandering for boring hours helps the choppy framerate become more forgivable.
In all, Rampage demands more from your patience than it pays off, but it’s not worthless. I probably would have played the hell out of it in 1994, though it’s doubtful too many would feel that way about it today. Not awful, but easily the worst of Bethesda’s series.
Looks great for a Wolfenstein clone. Dynamic music transitions from level-specific background tunes to action beats when bullets fly. Terminators have basic (dumb) AI, but some classic tricks.
Jerky framerate no matter what you play it on. Enormous levels require too much “needle-in-a-haystack” searching for keys. Less speed and action (without something like strategy to compensate) compared to similar FPSs.