18 June 2010


"When the Freescape idea was conceived several programmers approached turned down the opportunity to be involved, saying it couldn't be done." - Ian Andrew, Incentive Software
In the time before dedicated 3D graphics cards, true 3D games were a rarity. The most common approach was to fake 3D: often isometric projection was used, usually by carefully layering pre-drawn graphics - see Head Over Heels, Rasputin or Knight Lore for examples. There were some genuine 3D games, of course: Elite, with its simplistic (yet astounding) vector graphics, and Sentinel, whose filled vector polygons were a step up on Elite, but came with the disadvantage that they took longer to draw. Even with these precedents, upon its release Driller was considered an astounding achievement.

But this was late 1987. Incentive had spent some time developing Freescape, their trademarked system for displaying games in three-dimensions. It was slow - each screen took a second or so to draw, and consequently smooth movement was out. The game advanced in a series of one-frame-per-second cut scenes, but you could understand why; these graphics were amazing! Perfectly shaded polygons (at 176 x 256 stippled monochrome on my Spectrum 128) with perspective - you wouldn't give it a second glance nowadays, but back then to see that kind of thing on your screen was a rare treat. The Freescape engine lasted for a couple more games, as well: Both Castle Master and Total Eclipse would take the gameplay to a higher, more polished level, and the 3D Construction Kit allowed you to inflict your own levels upon unsuspecting friends.

Which is not to say the gameplay of Driller was bad, but compared to later efforts there was definitely something lacking. The game itself took place on the fictitious mines of Mitral, a small moon. For the purposes of the game this moon turned out to be eighteen flat, square panels joined together at the edges, forming a polyhedral surface. The original game provided a cardboard model to fold up and make, at which point it quickly became apparent that there were gaps on the surface of the moon - basically it was a rhombicuboctahedron and the triangular faces didn't exist as far as the game was concerned. Walking blithely over the map quickly resulted in death - drop off the edge of the wrong platform and you were done for.

Careful (and slow: don't forget that drawing delay!) exploration of the surface, however, provided plenty to do. All manner of buildings and vehicles cover the surface of Mitral. Plenty of puzzles to solve, switches to toggle, crystals to find and, of course, gas to release. Ah, yes - the gas. That's why it's called Driller. Your job is to release a build-up of gas under the surface of Mitral by appropriately positioning drilling rigs and pressing the right key to relieve the pressure.

We're told that Driller took a year to create, and upon its release the widely held opinion was that it showed. Your Sinclair's Phil South gushed over the graphics, describing them as 'brilliantly rendered' and described the 'quality of workmanship' as superb. Driller was, in its time, a milestone.

I never finished it.

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