Hardware exclusives hold a special allure, especially when on failed or underdog systems such as the 3DO. Along with legitimising the ownership of such a machine, there's an added layer of excitement to discovering and playing something which requires that extra bit of effort to acquire. You either have to track down the machine it's exclusive to, or hope that emulation has caught up with it. Of the few games exclusive to the 3DO, Immercenary is the most interesting - especially since the FreeDo emulator can't run it properly, and there isn't anything similar on other systems. If you want to experience Immercenary properly, you need to get a 3DO and copy of the game.
Seemingly the first and last game from developer Five Miles Out, its premise is startlingly original for the time. Imagine a Massively Multiplayer Online First Person Shooter, with 255 simultaneous players over an entire city, encompassing a stadium, power-plant, pyramid, graveyard, mansion, and various districts, each with their own unique architecture and texturing. Imagine the entire city and its inhabitants portrayed in a qausi-Lawnmower Man style.
Of course this was in 1995. The 3DO had no online capabilities and something like Ultima Online was still a few years off. So the game is actually a massively-multiplayer offline FPS, albeit for only one player. Even so, the vision created by Five Miles Out was way ahead of its time and, even today, is still incredible to behold. Take the map for instance: it's one gigantic city constantly streaming off the disc with no load times. The only loading is very briefly when entering a boss encounter, or the neutral healing zone. Take a look at this screenshot, where every single green block represents a building (the red zones are bosses).
The premise is like a bizarre cross between the Matrix and Lawnmower Man films (as explained by those who made the game, a key influence was the book Snow Crash). Scientists have banded together to work on perfecting astral projection (the ability to remotely transmit one's consciousness to anywhere in space and time). One scientist, Dr Rand, then receives an astral projection from the future, from a woman warning him that the Earth has become trapped inside a virtual reality network called Perfect. She asks him, as a "psi warrior" from her past, to help save the future. Rand continues his experiments, some people die, he almost dies, he's incarcerated inside a mental asylum, then escapes and starts up the Project for Intertemporal Communication. Described as part science, part political movement and part religion, PIC is an illegal underground organisation that has recruited you (Number 5) as the latest psi warrior test-subject to attempt saving the world. Your consciousness will be projected into the future's cyberspace, into the city known as the Garden, to shutdown Perfect1, the rogue operating system which has trapped all of humanity inside a virtual hell.
Before reaching Perfect1 you need to climb the ranks, all the way from 255. There are 11 top ranked Rithms, as they're called, which act as powerful bosses. The remainder of the Garden's inhabitants are comprised of 244 lower-ranked Rithms, and an infinite number of rogue programs called Goners. Your basic task is to kill the weaker Rithms, build your strength and, when you feel you're powerful enough, take on any of the bosses in any order you please. But it's not all shooting, there's a neutral zone called the DOAsys where you can heal and chat with the various Rithms to get information. To see where each boss is situated, use this annotated map. Each number represents the boss' ranking.
These guys get their name because they're made of polygons (as in polygoners). They're actually system glitches in Perfect – rogue programs without host bodies that have slipped through the Buffer Zone. They are the weakest of all Rithms and infinite in number. The red, yellow and green Goners have increased stats for those colours, the grey are evenly blanced. Be prepared to hunt these guys A LOT before taking on others.
Being two-dimensional these guys can be hard to hit. They have balanced stats and are the lowest ranking of the normal Rithms. As you kill them your rank will go up by one each time.
Very tough and with very high defence. You will sometimes find them hunting down Goners. Make sure you've got a HEX or other weapon handy.
The next evolution up from Torks, these female figures have extremely high agility and stamina and will likely outrun you unless you've got stamina to spare or an Ashflay.
Named after the Roman Goddess of Love, these naked women have a strange pigmentation pattern. Their offence is extremely high and they will cause major damage quite fast. Be careful, they often travel in pairs and will use pincer ambush attacks.
Named after the Michelangelo creation. The highest ranking of the lower Rhithms, there are only eight of these and each is deadly. Unpredictable and cunning, they will sometimes pretend to be injured and run away, only to turn and blast when you get close.
Location: Pyramid, E of DOAsys
The lowest ranking boss of the game and fairly easy. She's supposed to turn up in the DOAsys to chat, but never turns up possibly due to a glitch. Image taken from the manual. Prefers head-on attacks because she can deflect frontal assaults. Considered by some the spoiled princess of Perfect1.
Location: Power Station, NW of map
Electrified dude with detached arms and torso. Boss of the industrial district. He talks tough in the DOAsys but is surprisingly easy when you confront him at the power plant. He can recharge when touching the electric orbs, so take him down quick.
Location: Playground, NE corner of map
This guy must have been some war nut in the real world before getting stuck in virtual reality. Makes references to desert storm and bunker hill, and is trying to take over all the residential districts. He hides out in a children's playground and is actually quite tough. Looks like a horned devil in leather clothing.
Location: Lake Fountain, N of DOAsys
A latter day siren, she claims to be the lover of Perfect1. She also flirts with the player, encouraging him to come back to her place. Her lair is the fountain on the lake, and she can run on water, making her extremely deadly. Don't let her playful nature fool you.
Location: The Hive, SW of map
Creepy woman/fly hybrid. If you visit her hive be sure to have stocked up on supplies, because she uses a high-pitched attack which disorients your vision. There's also a blue recharging spire inside which can help out.
Location: Phonebooth, S of map
A man made of ribbon; regarded as "the crazy one". Finding him involves accessing the phonebooth at the south of the map, which takes you into a wormhole and an underground maze filled with skulls and traps. Says he hates the Stunya weapon, but it doesn't do much to him.
Location: Mansion, far E of map
Good luck trying to find this creature in the DOAsys, it's completely invisible and only stumbled upon through trial and error. Other NPCs in the game refer to the Chameleon as a she, and yet the voice actor was Christopher Stashuk, who was one of the staff on the game. Inhabits the foreboding mansion on the east of the map, which makes for a cool showdown.
Location: Church, W of DOAsys
This guy loves Japan and dresses up as a kabuki character. Speaking with him yields all manner of mystical quotes and philosophies. Fighting involves touching the gong in the centre of the church buildings, whereupon dozens of Goners appear, weakening you before he makes the final kill. Extremely tough - you have been warned.
Location: Stadium NE of DOAsys
Named after a Norse god. Can transform his appearance at will. You'll fight him inside the stadium, alongside Raven, who he often takes the appearance of. But frankly if you've gotten this far, to unlock the Stadium, he should be a pushover. Extremely loyal to Perfect1, he hates Raven for trying to shut things down.
Location: Stadium NE of DOAsys
She's the one who contacted Dr Rand from the future. She has risen to second place in the rankings but still isn't strong enough to take out Perfect1. She wants you to take her out and absorb her energy, so you can become strong enough to end things for good. Defeating her causes the entire world go strange, with textures randomly flashing over all the buildings.
The OS of the virtual reality network known as Perfect, and the ruler over the entire Garden. Perfect1 is feared and revered by most of the other Rithms, and holds the highest rank. Takes the form of either a Robot, a Man or a Woman. An "unholy trinity" or sorts. Doesn't appear until the 10 Rithms under its rank have been crashed.
Crashing a Rithm causes it to leave behind a patch of static, which when collected boosts your stats (this is called Huffmanning). How much depends on their rank, so even a single point increment is going to require a lot of Goners, but less of the others. Having collected a lot of static, returning to the lab allows the stat increases to be added to your yellow Defence (HP), red Offence (ammo) and green Stamina bars. Run out of Defence and you die, winding up back in the lab with a reduction in some stats (effectively you lose EXP), but ready to be redeployed. The Stamina bar depletes whenever you move, but recharges when standing still. Weapons are found inside special billiard balls dotted around the map, with icons representing what they do. Your default laser weapon requires no ammo, and several collected weapons are one-time use only (striped balls), but some weapons such as the Boomerang and explosive HEX are multi-use (solid coloured balls) and draw power from your Offence bar. If this runs out you default back to the laser.
The game controls and plays similarly toWolfenstein 3D, rather than Doom, in that the entire map is a flat plane. It lacks the pseudo-height found in Doom, which had stairs, elevators and the like. One big difference is that movement is akin to gears on a car: push forward once and you continue in that direction. Push forward again to increase your gear speed, and press down to reduce it. The Left and Right shoulder buttons together result in an instant stop. Another major difference from Wolfenstein 3D is that the strafe in Immercenary is utterly broken. Holding down the L or R shoulder buttons on the 3DO controller does nothing, but releasing them causes you to nudge sideways slightly in that direction. It's more like a dodge button than anything, but the amount you move is so small as to be useless in a fight. Tapping the button isn't any good either because this just results in a series of slow side-steps.
It's not such a problem because there's not much opportunity for tactics. Success is based on numbered stats not skill. This will disappoint the Halo crowd, but it plays much more like a first-person RPG with gun combat, than a true FPS. Aiming is even automatic, in that pointing in an enemy's general direction will cause you to lock on. As long as you've earned enough EXP by crashing Rithms and Huffmanning them, and have found some decent items, bosses can all be toppled without strafing. The enemy AI does do interesting things though, since the higher ranked Rithms can sometimes be found hunting down and killing the weaker ones, allowing you to swoop in and Huffman, before blasting the original killer and collecting his.
The one major complaint about the mechanics is the need to manage your Stamina. Any kind of movement at a reasonable speed drains it fairly quickly, and unless you've got an Ashflay item to recharge it, or it's been maxed out, you'll often find yourself stranded and unable to move until it recharges. There's a secret cheat menu to boost it, but this is a poor solution to something which doesn't really add anything to the gameplay, apart from forcing you to stop and take a break every few minutes. Once you've raised it to around 50% of maximum, it becomes less of a problem.
Your Defence and Offence bars can be recharged either in the neutral DOAsys, or by standing on the square at the base of a healing spire. These can be seen from a long way off and act as handy guide points - the main white spire of the DOAsys can be seen from most of the map. Yellow spires recharge Defence; red Offence; blue recharges both. Once they're depleted they're useless until a storm occurs. Roughly every 5 minutes the sky blackens and the spires are struck by lightning, a process taking around a minute. Standing on a spire during this time will drain your energy, so stay away. When a storm happens all special ammo is disabled, as are the boss locations.
What makes Immercenary worth playing, despite its clunky control scheme and staggered movement, is the feeling it creates. You're free to roam the entire city at your leisure. With the exception of the Stadium no area is blocked from entry - and then only because the penultimate battle takes place in the Stadium. Likewise any boss apart from the top 3 can be tackled in any order. It all works together to create a fascinating and unique atmosphere. As technology has progressed since 1995 the internet and virtual worlds have matured and refined themselves, and so the bizarre visions of the future people had at the time now make for enjoyable viewing. The surreal cityscape of Immercenary is filled with beautiful and horrifying structures, some adorned with flowers, others seemingly built out of human flesh. Some of them slant in haphazard ways, like an Escher nightmare come to life, while others defy description. The music is ethereal and ambient, pierced by heavy metal or techno as you approach a boss zone. The closest equivalent Immercenary might have is L.S.D. The Dream Simulator on PS1, but even then, that lacks combat.
Immercenary requires a lot of effort to appreciate now. You need to look beyond the low-resolution textures and acclimatise to the stiff controls. You need to invest the time to level up and move beyond the initially high difficulty level. But it definitely gets better the more you put into it and, once you've taken down a few bosses, its dystopian vision of the future should prove captivating. Failing that, since a sequel will never be made, one can only hope that someone creates a remake using a modern FPS engine. There really is nothing else quite like it.