Released in 1996, tactical mech simulator Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri [GOG page] was one of Looking Glass’s most interesting games – and one of their biggest commercial failures. We asked Rob Zacny to explore what made the game so interesting in the wake of its recent addition to GOG.com.
Peggy O’Connell and her husband Kevin Kulp tell a story about her days at Looking Glass Studios, where she worked as a designer on Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri.
She’s asleep in bed while Kevin is playing Terra Nova on the computer in the next room. He’s been playing a ton of the game lately, and he’s got it pretty well figured-out. The mission he’s playing, however, involves deploying his squad of battle-suited soldiers against a pirate base on a moon. A pretty routine mission, and he treats it as such. He finds a safe vantage to scout the pirate defenses well out of range of their missile launchers and grenade launchers, while he rallies his squad and prepares to assault.
“I’m far from the pirate base,” he says. “Way too far for them to target me. I’m advancing slowly. Suddenly one of my squadmates shouts, ‘I’m hit! Systems critical! I’m out of here!’ Or something similar.
“I’m bewildered. What hit him? I glance at the pirate base and — WHAM! My second squadmate goes red, systems critical, and evacs. What? Now I look at the pirate base closely, see the thin line of the missile arcing in a low-gravity trajectory… and WHAM. Hits me head on, both the missile and what was happening.”
Kevin gets up from the computer and bursts into the bedroom. “Oh my God that moon mission is amazing! The low gravity! I couldn’t figure out why the pirates were hitting me until I realized, OF COURSE they can hit me. Because of the low gravity!”
Peggy is still half-asleep as she squints at Kevin. “It’s Dorian’s level. Leave me alone,” she growls, then turns over to get back to sleep.
It’s a cute story about their early days as a couple, but also about the place she worked and the way that work affected people. It’s about the way Terra Nova was a game that was built to let players make discoveries and figure things out for themselves. The kind of things that make you wake up your best friend in the middle of the night because the most amazing thing just happened, and you want to share it with someone.
Terra Nova was one of the biggest flops in Looking Glass history. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also their most unusual.
While you could call Terra Nova a first person shooter, it’s really an attempt at simulating, in detail, the kind of powered battle armor so lovingly described in books like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It looks and plays more like a sub sim than an FPS, focusing on systems management over gunplay. While you are looking at the world through your suit’s visor, the real focus is on all the displays and tools that surround it. Information, communications, flexibility, and firepower are what Terra Nova is all about. The world outside is just a canvas where you can apply them.
“We just wanted to set up a lot of world systems that just worked, and worked together and made sense,” Dorian Hart, Terra Nova’s lead designer, says today. “So, with the moon mission, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, because of the low gravity, we’re going to set up these specific things because of it.’ …Obviously you can keep that sort of thing in mind when you’re building new missions, but it didn’t come from a desire to fake out the player. It came from a feeling that it would be cool if the moons had less gravity, like a real moon. And then players will have to discover that and its consequences on their own.”
That was how Looking Glass approached game design, Hart insists. “At any given moment, in the LGS hallways, you could find anywhere from 2-6 people hanging around, having talks about things like that. That’s a very LGS thing to have happen. It was just in everybody’s mind all the time. What little details can we add to this world to make it more real, more simulation-y?”
This isn’t a surprise coming from a veteran of the studio that practically created the “immersive sim” genre. Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief are renowned for the ways that sophisticated systems created space for unexpected and life-like interactions between players, NPCs, and their environment. And Terra Nova, despite a number of mechanical and thematic differences compared to LGS’ more celebrated games, is more like them than it first appears.
“It was going to be a really hardcore powered battle armor simulation. Like, every tiny little detail simulated. And the game was mostly going to be about that, rather than shooting pirates and bad guys.” But turnover in the team, Hart explains, led the game in a different direction. “We wanted to make more of an Underworld-style, fun game. So we started making decisions that were decidedly not hardcore simulation.”
It may have been easy to say, in the mid-1990s, that Terra Nova had taken a turn away from simulation. But playing it today, it’s still surprising how detailed the game is. You can give your squadmates incredibly specific orders. To the point where you can basically let them do the majority of the fighting while you micromanage them via radio commands. You can deploy and control drone scouts and turrets, and use oddball “weapons” like an electromagnetic detection device that launches a grenade that briefly reveals enemies on your radar.
And it all takes place on maps that, back in 1996, were both enormous and surprisingly life-like. The terrain textures and models may not have been cutting edge even at the time, but they allowed Terra Nova to have sprawling levels full of realistic, contoured terrain.
It was, in some ways, a precursor to games like the early Spec Ops games or Ghost Recon: your small force is extremely capable, but gets overwhelmed if you don’t make sure to go into every battle from an advantageous position. So much of the game becomes about sneaking around hills, scouting out valleys, figuring out where the enemy is… and then murdering as many of them as possible before they can get a return shot off.
Yet Terra Nova is almost the forgotten Looking Glass classic, even among fans of the studio. It sold disastrously at the time of its release and, unlike Thief, never really enjoyed an afterlife as a widely-available discount title.
“When people see me over the winter, wearing my old Looking Glass jacket,” Hart says, “I often get people stopping me and being like, ‘Looking Glass?! You mean like the computer games?!’I still get that, even though it’s 20 years after the fact. Anyone who recognizes the name Terra Nova tends to treat it with the same reverence as the other LGS games.”
“It’s just that fewer people have heard of it,” he adds.
Terra Nova was one of Looking Glass’s self-published games, a decision that many feel the studio did not have the experience to successfully execute. A hapless marketing effort didn’t help matters.
“No one knew how to sell it, or what it was,” Peggy O’Connell says now. “It didn’t get press or good promotion. It succeeded, inasmuch as it did, on good word of mouth and reviews. The smiling, polo-shirted marketing types really didn’t know what to do with it.”
You can still find the marketing trainwreck smoldering on YouTube, where the game’s trailer features strange, distorted voices and disembodied mouths repeatedly warning players that they’re probably not good enough to play Terra Nova. Especially not those who play “mindless shoot ’em up games for children”. Like Doom fans. It’s a strange, dick-measuring approach that sits awkwardly alongside the reality of Looking Glass’s cerebral combat sim. It’s so busy putting people off the game that it never successfully explains what Terra Nova is.
But the real body-blow to Terra Nova, one that sent its production time spiraling out of control, was the decision to wrap the entire game around FMV narrative cutscenes.
“If any one decision torpedoed the game, it was that decision to go to FMV, to be just like Wing Commander,” Hart recalls. ” We weren’t’ going to have FMV, we were just going to have 2D cutscenes between missions. And then Wing Commander 3 came out, and the marketing guys’ minds were blown and suddenly it was all, ‘If we don’t have FMV, we will look second-rate!’ So, strangely, our answer to that was to produce third-rate rate FMV.”
Despite the fact that LGS was a small company, they kept the filming in-house. Audio and video engineers from the company suddenly found themselves charged with shooting what amounted to a small movie. Designers and writers, including Hart, were taking time away from game development to do script rewrites.
“It was an INCREDIBLE time sink for the team,” Hart says. “I weep when I think how much more polished and fun the game could have been if the team had spent all the hours we spent worrying about and working on the FMV and instead spent it on anything else. I remember spending months and months of personal time making [the script] actually match the gameplay.”
FMV delayed Terra Nova by a year, Hart estimates, and it turned out to be a critical year. Look at screenshots of Terra Nova, release in 1996, after MechWarrior 2 had already been out for months. Graphics that would have been nearly cutting-edge if the game had come out in early 1995 were looking dated and smudged next to the state-of-the-art in 1996.
“MechWarrior sold the fantasy a bit better,” Hart admits. “You were actually in the powered battle armor. In Terra Nova, you weren’t, really. You had your HUD, but it wasn’t as cool a the MechWarrior HUD if you put them side by side. [In theory] Terra Nova …should have tapped into the teenager’s regard for putting on a giant metal suit, but it wasn’t quite the direct needle in the vein they wanted out of that experience.”
So Terra Nova’s fate was sealed. It was late to market behind an instant-classic that worked in a superficially similar vein, saddled with expensive and low-quality FMV and a marketing campaign whose chief argument in favor of Terra Nova was that it was “not for beginners”. It sold 100,000 copies, an abysmal number even by the smaller-scale of mid-90s PC gaming.
And yet Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri remains unique. Since it came out, nobody has really made a convincing future-combat infantry simulation. It was at odds with what came before and what followed. Ironically, this has kept it fresh and original in a way many of its contemporaries no longer are.