Cyber Assault 556
The Best Game Ever?
This was an April Fools' Day article published for the april edition of The One Magazine in 1990. It centered around a massive space trading and combat simulator similiar to Elite, making many fantastic claims on what technological and gameplay boundaries had been breached. Backed by astonishing looking screenshots and mock-ups partly by Simon Hunter (which had been made on the PC - so strictly speaking these aren't Amiga graphics, but as an april fools' day hoax I'll let it pass)
Bullfrog at that time had been hugely successful with Populous and was well-known for taking a different approach to game design. This together with the amount of information in this article lead many to believe this to be a genuine game making this a very successful April fool.
BULLFROG Productions, the award-winning team behind the classic God simulator Populous, is currently working on what it describes as "the fastest, deepest, biggest and best game of all time." And if what's been developed to date is anything to go by, this is no idle boast.
Sporting the working title of Cyber Assault 556, the game looks set to expand the world of 16-bit gaming, bushing the Amiga far further than it's ever gone before – and that's no exaggeration.
Cyber Assault 556 has been in production for well over a year. It was at storyboard stage long before Populous was conceived, but it's only now that the team has chosen to reveal its potentially Earth-shattering project.
Set in the year 5409, the player is cast as the last member of a hyper-intelligent yet ruthless alien race that is none too happy to see thousands of other races expanding their empires throughout the Universe. The task you are set is to wipe out the entire universal population (!), so you can repopulate your species and assume absolute power. This is achieved by traveling between galaxies Elite-style and stirring up trouble between conflicting races to they declare war and wipe each other out.
But it's not quite as simple as that – each of the game's 50 BILLION (!) plantes has a different culture, along with its own delicate political and economic balance, and this dictates both how they behave towards you and each other. As they progress through the ages they develop technology, become more advanced races, and the governmental and psychological situation changes accordingly. By swapping technology, goods, information and scientific knowledge between plantes (which Bullfrog cals Culture Trading), it's possible to directly affect the advancement of a world – you can bring about terrorism and civil war, and subsequently turn them into warmongering races.
Artwork by Simon Hunter
However, it becomes obvious that small-scale wars don't help much – with so many planets to obliterate the process could take years, so you must device a battle plan. By subtly `stirring the pot´ it's possible to start wars that have economical and political `knock-on´ effects to other planets and so create chain reactions. The ultimate objective is to trigger one huge intergalactic apocalypse!
Peter Molyneux, co-designer of Populous and now the driving force behind Cyber Assault 556, explains: "It's a little like Carrier Command or Elite in the sense that it's a combination of action and combat and complex strategy. But we believe we've created a game design which is much much more complex, with the diplomacy and technical trading aspects. We've got 50 billion independent planets interacting, trading, and fighting with each other, and you're caught in the middle. This isn't a game – it's a real Universe inside a computer!"
But while all of this may sound pretty astounding, it's Cyber Assault 556's technical achievements that are most breathtaking. By taking time to dissect the Amiga's by-and-large unexplored hardware, the team's approaching it from a innovative programming angle and has managed to `trick´ the machine to perform at almost FIVE TIMES its normal processing speed.
Supposedly a screenshot from the game rendered on the Amiga 500 – the caption for this image promised even more:
Cyber Assault isn't just a complex strategy game – it's also a full-scale flight simulator! With hundreds of alien races on your tail (as well as the Galactic Police) for a multitude of reasons, combat is commonplace, both in deep space and above the heavily-populated cities on the plantes' surfaces. As you wreak havok over this planet, cars travel along the roads, people mill about on the streets and there's even a working railway system complete with trains and stations! "Everything on every planet can be destroyed," enthuses Molyneux. "You can blow up cars, strafe people with laser fire, knock out the trains as they travel and even blow up the skyscrapers!" To watch this section in action, as you weave through the city's buildings at top speed and fly down onto the streets, is nothing short of mind-blowing.
"Cyber Assault is entirely vector-graphics based," Peter elaborates. "The starfields, alien space fleets, planetary surfaces, back holes, and space platforms are all line-drawn, filled and light-source shaded, giving a ray-traced feel. Wee took a long hard look at the Amiga's Copper and Blitter chips, and worked out ways in which we could put them to better use. Now we can use the two custom chips to boost the Amiga's processor power nearly five-fold!"
The result of Bullfrog's breakthrough is only too clear. Cyber Assault can deal with over 400 MILLION vector computations at a time – allowing over 1,500 objects to be manipulated in real 3D space at any time, with no loss of speed or fluidity. And with over 64 colours on screen at a time (Bullfrog has devised a way of `fooling´ the Amiga into displaying more colours than it's actually got), it's nothing short of incredible. "We've yet to see anything – even a coin-op – that can manipulate filled vector graphics at this speed. Hard Drivin' in the arcades is probably the closest thing speed-wise to Cyber Assault," Molyneux reveals. Cyber Assault runs at 25 frames a seconds – the average update speed for graphics this detailed is usually nearer to one frame every two seconds!
And that's not all. Bullfrog has pioneered a new system of artificial intelligence which it has used to set up SimNet, a computerised network whereby all planets in the galaxy interact, and it's through this system that you communicate with worlds. "We've developed the most advanced artificial intelligence ever seen on home computer – you can actually converse with the leaders of different planets at length!"
Similarities to Elite become apparent
All interaction with alien races is icon-controlled, and the conversations are all – get this – relayed through sampled speech! By storing samples as phonetics rather than complete sentences, its possible for the program to build words and phrases and make them flow realistically. It's a technique Cinemaware attempted to pioneer (see Work In Progress, Issue Nine) but discarded after many months of labour due to technical problems. But these are problems that Bullfrog seems to have ironed out, and the result is an exceptional, unnerving, almost human voice.
Combined with the artificial intelligence, talking to an alien in Cyber Assault is almost like having a conversation with a real person! And as an added boon, everybody you talk to is `real´. "By using an Ultrasonic 3D Digitiser, which was loaned to us by Surrey University, we've texture-mapped a variety of real people's faces and converted them into vector graphics, so now we can make them talk perfectly in time with the speech and completely realistically. It's really weird. The faces look as if they're alive, as we can convey virtually any facial expression – fear, anger, contentment, sadness, embarrassment – we can hardly believe it ourselves!"
Not at all unbelievable if it had been a PC game in 1990
Work on Cyber Assault is currently in full flow – but even so there's still plenty of programming and design work to be finalised, and so Bullfrog doesn't expect to have the project finished until next year – at the earliest! Electronic Arts has already set a tentative release date for March 1991 on Amiga only. But as Peter Molyneux adds: "You never know – we might yet coax something out of the ST and PC, too."
Meanwhile, Bullfrog's other two projects in progress (as exclusively revealed in The One in Issue 12) are nearing completion. You can expect to see Flood in the late Summer, but as for its incredible Super Populous-alike... well, work has almost come to a standstill with all enthusiasm being channeled into Cyber Assault so a late Autumn release is a more realistic prospect.
The One Magazine – April Issue 1990