Here’s another Blast from the Past… this time it’s Trespasser, the game that tried to do everything and ended up doing pretty much nothing.
I initially wrote a DisCONNECT article about this one back in 2009, but I left it to sit on the shelf because I wasn’t happy with it (and my history was a bit off). I figured I’d just rewrite it entirely. I can’t decide whether this is a “Best Game” you’ve never played or a “LOL SHITS AND GIGGLES!” game that nobody ever played except to laugh at it. I’ll get one thing settled right here – this game isn’t particularly good and it hasn’t aged well. Doom has aged well with its classic gameplay and active community. Deus Ex has aged well with its thrilling storyline. Half Life has aged well because we’ve all got a soft spot for it. Arguably Gabe Newell has aged well. This game? Not so much.
Before we get into the storyline, I want to explain a bit about this game’s troubled history and why it’s significant. Trespasser is a victim of feature creep and ambitious dreams that were way ahead of their time, and way ahead of the hardware as well. It was released in 1998 for Windows 95/98, which as we’ll recall wasn’t exactly super stable, and 3D acceleration was still pretty much in its infancy at the time (the gold standard was the old 3dfx Voodoo chipsets, with the most powerful card being the Voodoo 2 which wasn’t common). Trespasser did however attempt to do a lot of things well before other games managed to catch up, chief amongst them was physics simulation, and serves as a cautionary tale of hype.
Developed by Dreamworks Interactive, Trespasser was hyped up as the next big immersive FPS game, and I suppose in many ways that’s true. The game has no HUD save for a pair of breasts (and I’m not making that up, it’ll make sense later) and your hands. We’ll talk more about that later. The level maps were huge, open maps with lots of trees and vegetation, water, and buildings. Look at the screenshots. Yeah, they look like an absolute mess, but this was back in 1998! 1998, people! Most other environments were tiny compared to this. Some levels just go on and on and on with the amount of walking you end up doing, we’re talking Far Cry size here in terms of how the game felt. The engine also supported bump mapping and specular highlighting, which was very uncommon back in 98. You might be able to make it out on some of the dinosaurs in the screenshots, but since the entire thing has some kind of ambient fullbright light, you rarely ever notice it.
Also added into the engine was a physics simulation. The physics are fairly rudimentary by today’s standards but unheard of back then. It uses a dodgy system based on the Penalty Force Method, which means that when two objects collide, it makes them push away from each other until the collision stops. Now that I think about it, this probably was the system behind Doom 3’s physics engine, which had a lot of odd behaviour. Anyway, under this system stacking things becomes pretty difficult because the “collision” causes the objects to push away, leading to odd behaviour. The collision model had pretty much one shape – a box. None of this sounds particularly exciting but remember this was back in 1998. Also supported were ragdoll physics.
The dinosaurs themselves are also interesting. The animations for the models aren’t baked, but instead were done using inverse kinematics in the engine itself. The reasoning behind this was that there was supposed to be a complex AI system that simulated dinosaur behaviours, including fear, hunger, rage and stuff like that. The dinosaurs had to attack the player and the other dinosaurs, as well as display a range of behaviours. A system that can fluidly animate all this would be pretty cool. Unfortunately the AI were half-finished and buggy, so the system was abandoned. Wikipedia tells me that the dinosaurs would suffer some kind of AI equivilent of catatonia from major mood swings, freezing in place without any idea of what they should be doing. In the end it didn’t matter; the animation system isn’t perfect either and the models frequently deform in interesting and impossible ways.
Anyway that’s the general state of the engine. Even today this thing runs like a dog, there’s some weird timing problem leading to wildly variable framerates. On release the game ran better and looked better in software mode due to the dirty hack job they did to get all the visual effects to run at all on high end hardware like the Voodoo 2. Basically, the game was a mess on release. For all the hype and interest, it simply wasn’t good, and was pretty much unplayable. The entire thing was rushed, unfinished, and in need of patching, which it got but it didn’t help much. The team were simply trying to push well beyond the limits of the hardware at the time, so what was a fairly innovative engine for the time ended up being a terrible game full stop. Despite this there are periods where the brilliance shines through, and you can’t help but think “They did this back in 1998”.
Enough about the engine. What was the game actually about?
Basically it takes place a year after The Lost World, and features John Hammond talking about a bunch of bullshit. Seriously, he never shuts up. You can walk near a lake and his voice will drone on about rain and stuff. Christ Hammond, this raptor is trying to chew my hand off and you’re talking about rain? Piss off! Sorry, had to get that out of my system. You play as Anne, the sole survivor of a plane crash or something, I really don’t know. Actually I thought she was looking for someone. Anyway, it turns out the island is actually Site B, InGen’s godfactory dinosaur creation lab or whatever. Naturally you’ve got to get the hell out of dodge. I hope the breasts make sense now that you know the player character is female. On the left breast is a tattoo which serves as your health meter. Oddly enough this game also had regenerating health mechanics, another innovation perhaps?
The entire game world is manipulated by moving your hand around. The left mouse button extends your right arm and hand, allowing you to manipulate things in the game world. You can pick up a rock, aim a gun, throw that rock, fire that gun, or pick up a plank and use it as a weapon. On one hand (haha, geddit?) this is pretty cool on paper, but it’s actually a very cumbersome system to come to grips with (hehehe, we could go on like this forever!) and requires a hell of a lot of patience. Pressing the right mouse button lets you grab something, which makes sense in a game world where everything can be a weapon, but grabbing things can be fiddly and downright impossible at times. It’s pretty difficult considering the game expects you to use anything as a weapon that happens to be handy (oh man, I’m loving this).
Aiming weapons is even worse. I’ll give them a round of applause (ho ho ho!) for trying to make an interesting and realistic system here, but it’s just too friggin’ hard to use! Anne will pick up a gun and say “Feels half empty” or “6 shots” for ammo counts, and count off the final few shots, which is pretty cool because in real life you don’t have an ammo counter telling you how many shots are left. Each weapon can only be used once; there’s no reloading. You can carry two weapons at once though; one in your hand, the other on your back or hip depending on what kind of gun it is. There are pistols, revolvers, SMGs, assault rifles, and even a fixed sniper rifle for you to use to defend against the dinosaurs. They’re all essential because using any of the melee weapons is way too difficult.
The problem with the system is that it’s far too easy to drop the gun. Simply nudging the gun against a tree or wall is enough to cause it to fly from your hand. Secondly, aiming these things is impossible at times. In order to actually shoot straight, you have to line the entire thing up with the sights actually set up correctly or you’ll fire in weird directions. That’d be kind of cool if this was easy to accomplish, but it isn’t. It involves holding SHIFT and moving the mouse around randomly to try to get the wrist to rotate, and even then moving the gun away usually causes it to screw up. And god damn is Anne strong, firing AK-47s and shotguns with only one hand. What happened to the left hand? Did it get cut off in the crash? Maybe. Maybe it was never there to begin with. Oh, alright I’ll tell you – supposedly it was too difficult to use so it was cut from the game. The entire thing becomes an exercise in chaos; your arm flops around like a sad pink fish with a gun attached, while you struggle to figure out some sort of logic to the system. After picking up a gun you have to spend a few moments aligning the sights before setting off, because you won’t have the time to do so when the dinosaurs attack!
I’d like to give them a hand (HAHA! You walked right into that one!) for trying something new, and I kind of like where they were going, but it’s way too hard to use. It makes the game far too hard. If you can’t even get player control down pat, who cares about the rest of the game? It’s borderline unplayable, and I cringe at the thought of trying to play this back in 1998 on a regular home PC. It would have been a god damn mess. The hardware simply wasn’t there, and it wouldn’t be there for another 4 or 5 years. Despite the limitations they did have a really good shot at making something interesting; for what it’s worth it does feel like Site B and spending ages trekking through the jungle watching for dinosaurs feels sort of impressive, so long as you remember that this was released in 1998. Then the texture errors, weird pop-in and other issues come around and you forget all about it.
Trespasser is a pretty poor game; it’s buggy, slow, difficult to control and frustrating to play. There’s very little appeal here from a gameplay perspective, but plenty from a technical perspective. The devs certainly did a good job at making an interesting game, but the tech wasn’t there and it wasn’t yet fully cooked. The game was supposed to be released in 97, but it wasn’t. It had been in development for 3 years already, which really doesn’t sound like much considering Valve took from 98 until 2004 to release Half Life 2 but was still a long time back then. It was also over-budget, but given how much they were trying to cram in, that’s no surprise. The idea was to meet The Lost World’s film release, so by the end of the game’s development things had to be cut and left unfinished. They paid the price for it, with only 50,000 copies sold and scathing reviews.
It was a damn good try, and probably one that set the stage for physics puzzles and large environments. The game is worth playing just to see what the World of Tomorrow looked like in 1998, in its broken form. I have no idea where you’d find Trespasser these days (well, nowhere LEGAL at least) but there is still a small community that maintains a few patches and mods to make the game run on newer computers. Trespasser will go down as one of the examples attempts at making dreams become reality…
…but in the end, it was only the sound of one hand clapping.
(Ahahaha, sometimes I even amuse myself.)