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Connections (PC) artwork

Connections (PC) review

"There are some words that, while individually appear harmless, placed together make a terrifying combination. It's like putting ingredients for a bomb together, or something. One of those words is 'Educational'. Sure, it may bring up memories of days at school where the teacher who you know hated you more than everyone else made you read your 'F' grade homework to the class, after which the school bully hung you up by the underpants, but as a word it's not all that offensive. Another word is 'ga..."

There are some words that, while individually appear harmless, placed together make a terrifying combination. It's like putting ingredients for a bomb together, or something. One of those words is 'Educational'. Sure, it may bring up memories of days at school where the teacher who you know hated you more than everyone else made you read your 'F' grade homework to the class, after which the school bully hung you up by the underpants, but as a word it's not all that offensive. Another word is 'game'. Now, I love games. I'm guessing that since you're reading this, you do too. The word 'game' is a good thing, then. However, put the two words together and you get.... 'Educational Games' - possibly the last genre to be infiltrated by any semblance of quality whatsoever. Which brings us to Connections for the PC. A quick glance at the box and you'll see the proud announcement that this game was created by Discovery Channel Multimedia. Oh dear.

In all fairness, though, Discovery seem to have placed the emphasis mainly on the 'game' part of the... well, game. Based on 'the award-winning TV series', Connections tells the tale of a Bearded bastard who has managed to travel back in time to ancient Egypt. From his pyramid base he proceeds to tamper with history, generally messing things up, and it's down to you to stop him. Thankfully, though, help is at hand, in the bespectacled and balding form of James Burke, presenter of 'Connections', who is on hand to help you put history right.

Spread across two (woefully short) discs, Connections is a first person adventure game, in the vein of Myst, with a dash of Monkey Island thrown in. In order to save history, you must travel each location to find the five items in a chain that connect to each other. The connections are very tenuous, so learning about how a pencil, say, connects to a television set is where the educational aspect of the game fits in. Therein lies the main flaw of the game, though: the objective is to find items that connect - if you don't know how they connect then you are taught, but only after you collect them (meaning that working out what to collect is a frustrating case of trial and error), and if you know what you're looking for then you don't need to be taught, since you know already - the educational sections can be skipped, but that pretty much removes the purpose of the game, making for a very uncomfortable experience. There are many other flaws in the game, too - it isn't only the connections that are obscure - the everyday puzzles are, too - need to lower the drawbridge so that you can get into the castle? Use the oscilloscope - simple when you think about it. The game is also riddled with bugs. Even on a PC which is well above the required specifications the game will freeze, sometimes for seconds, sometimes for minutes, sometimes to the extent that the PC must be reset. The graphics also glitch considerably on occasion - items in your inventory can become garbled and unrecognisable with little or no provocation - it feels very much as if you are playing through an unfinished version of the game. Most criminal of all, though, is the encounter with the final boss. When you finally face up to Captain Beardo (I say finally, but assuming your computer doesn't freeze, it takes less than an hour), you don't fight him. You don't have to solve any puzzles, use any items.... I don't want to give too much away, but suffice to say that you don't do anything. It really is unbelievably anticlimactic.

While that makes it sound like the game is without redemption, in all honesty there is much to be enjoyed. Although intrusive at times, many of the facts that Jimmy B. spouts out are genuinely interesting, and since they are often fairly obscure, it's likely that most people would find something that they didn't know before. Also, well, the game is fun, despite the fact that it goes wrong every few screens. While you are hardly likely to get genuinely stuck on any of the puzzles (due to the trial and error nature of the game as a whole), solving them does give you a sense of satisfaction that is key to games of this genre. The game also becomes delightfully surreal the further you progress - in the later stages turning a corner in a pyramid brings you into a 1950s, Pleasantville-style kitchen, complete with 'Mom'. It makes the game genuinely unpredictable (and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the developers threw in whole sections on a whim, with no preplanning whatsoever). However, despite the game being enjoyable, you can never shake the nagging knowledge that this game is clearly unfinished, and contains very lazy puzzles (a sin made even worse since the game is supposed to be educational).

The interface is very simple to use. The majority of the screen is filled by a static image of the room or environment you're in, your inventory is down the right hand side, a 'tool' item is accessible in the bottom right-hand corner (allowing you to save, load etc.) and the current chain of items you've connected is on the bottom of the screen - it's a set-up that will feel familiar to fans of games such as Shadowgate or Deja Vu. If anything can be interacted with then a simple mouse click will do the job, and to move to a different screen then just click the side of the screen that you wish to face. It's a little over-simplistic, perhaps, but when you'll be finished with a game for about the length of time it takes to go to the shops and back, you don't want to spend any significant time grappling with the controls.

Graphically, this game absolutely shines - the presentation is clearly what Discovery Multimedia wanted to sell the game on. The environments are superbly rendered, looking just like photographs (the non-interactive parts of the background may even be photographs), and the use of flesh and blood actors to portray the incidental characters is a nice touch (even though their acting is, well, rubbish). All in all, though, the lack of any real movement (other than the rare occasions when you find someone to talk to) means that playing this game is like watching a series of screenshots. Pretty, but not very engaging.

The sound, too, is very impressive, but fails to evoke any atmosphere. The voices (other than our Jimmer, who is in his element as he explains about carbon paper and such) are very hollow and soulless - it's clear that no-one but Burke cared one bit about the game. The sounds effects are very nice, but fairly standard efforts - birds chirping in the trees, wind blowing, doors creaking - and the music is instantly forgettable. It's all quite nicely put together, but like the rest of the game, it feels like it was rushed out so that everyone involved could get on with something else.

Connections is probably one of, if not the best educational games - it manages to have some actual gameplay, and is truly interesting (this is how it should be done, 'Mario Is Missing'), but as a game in it's own right it is nothing more than average. If it had had the bugs ironed out, and the two discs had been filled with game rather than with pretty graphics, maybe it could have been a contender - it is fun while it lasts, after all, but ultimately it is doomed to be forgotten. Watch an episode of the TV show instead - it lasts about as long, but it's much cheaper.

tomclark's avatar
Community review by tomclark (February 03, 2004)

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