Why Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri Is Looking Glass’s Forgotten Classic

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.

30 Comments

  1. Demiath says:

    I remember booting up the demo many times and being impressed by the draw distance but then never really understood the gameplay. Was too young and impatient…and these days I’d probably be too stupid and impatient.

    • bill says:

      Same here.
      I remember running around the demo a bit, liking the terrain but finding it all a bit muddy and unclear, shooting stuff mostly like I was in doom, probably dying, and not really knowing what I was supposed to be doing.

      Then going back to trying to get enough memory to run the mechwarrior 2 demo properly.. (and also not really knowing what I was supposed to be doing, but having fun blasting everything anyway).

  2. ResonanceCascade says:

    Thanks for this article. I was really blown away when I finally got around to playing this many years after it released. Hopefully the GOG release will get it some of the exposure it’s always deserved.

  3. Alistair says:

    Fine game. Apparently I was clever enough back then. Who knew.

  4. The_invalid says:

    It’s a crying shame it got so overlooked. Genuinely one of my favourite games ever made.

  5. The Sombrero Kid says:

    Terra Nova was special to me because it was a looking glass game, but unlike other looking glass games, it was a looking glass game that only I had, it was personal. I think it didn’t show through as a looking glass game till quite a bit in and that ironically turned a lot of their own fans off, but didn’t endear it to the wider audience it felt like they were trying for, it really was excellent and a technological marvel.

  6. chris1479 says:

    Played this at the time, it blew my mind, along with Earthsiege 2! Some of the sound effects were kind of annoying, but I loved jumping with those jetpacks too. And the graphics were awesome too, I think it ran on DOS though which was a problem sometimes.

    • Rane2k says:

      Earthsiege 2 was fantastic, still have the disc sitting around somewhere!

      I think that´s the only game where they got the “You are in a mech.” feeling right.
      Each thumping step as your squad marched towards the landing ships shaking the cockpit.
      Switching between the HUD and the HDD actually looked a bit like you were now tilting your head downwards, inspecting the tactical map and giving orders to the other guys.
      You could even look out of the side windows of the cockpit.

      And the music was great!

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        Mechwarrior 3 is to my mind the one game that got mechs truly 100% convincing. But Earthsiege 2 gave it a run for its money. Loved the campaign too.

        • Rane2k says:

          Didn´t get too deep into the Mech Warrior series, probably because when MechWarrior 2 was the newest one my PC just couldn´t handle the graphics. ;-)

          I also liked Shattered Steel, they got the Mech feeling utterly wrong (too wobbly/fast), so it was more of an FPS than a simulation, but it had nice destructible terrain, and past a certain point the missions were rather interesting.

          Come to think of it, back then, escort missions were actually rather good.

          • LexW1 says:

            Another thing Earthsiege 2 had over it’s contemporaries was that it’s multiplayer combat was more balanced and generally more exciting than the MechWarrior games (despite or because of their boardgame roots). It was a good time to love giant robots.

          • Rane2k says:

            I´m confused, the Earthsiege 2 I played didn´t have any multiplayer.

  7. edwardh says:

    It’s weird – I really enjoyed the concept of the game back when it was still relatively new but for some reason, I didn’t play the shit out of it. I simply don’t know why. And now I feel that it’s too late because well… lack of immersion due to the graphics and IIRC, it also had a quite complex control layout. Which was fine when I was still at school and had lots of time to learn and get used to something like that. But these days… nah.

  8. padger says:

    OMG this game. Remake THIS, stupid Kickstarter.

  9. fuggles says:

    I love these insights into classic games, but this does sell the game slightly short. The stuff you can do with camera drones, squad mate view cams, deployable turrets – heck ai that has accurate and useful barks and personality. All so good! Microwave guns that negate shields, smoke grenades that block laser weapons, head tracking…ah.

    I even read the lore whereas mechwarrior 2 undeniably had the better intro, but the story was impenetrable, dull and much slower and awkward to play (by design).

    Plus it had fake cocktail recipes in the readme and kept tracks of trees killed. Also, I like the fmv… I wonder if something like arma could handle a remake. Love you terra nova!

    • DarKcyde says:

      bwahaha I forgot about the trees killed! I _need_ to play this again.

    • LexW1 says:

      Yeah the AI on the squadmates and enemies, combined with the complexity of the weapons, the simulation of varied gravities, and so on lead to this being a vastly more interesting game than this article really suggests. I’ve played dozens of games where you’re in command of a squad since – yet this is the only one where I really felt like I actually was in command of a squad, and where giving orders to AI team-mates actually had value (because they could actually carry those orders out!).

  10. Mr Wonderstuff says:

    I still have the boxed edition. Was mind-blowing at the time…expansive environment, jetsuits, lasers….I was actually thinking about this game a few days back…”will we ever see a sequel?” I mused.

    • jontaro says:

      Heavy Gear is a sequel to this, though in Heavy Gear you stomp around with mini-mecha instead of a power armor.

      • LexW1 says:

        Heavy Gear is vastly inferior. You’re in diesel mini-mecha with boring, staid weapon system, and it lacks the quality AI, varied terrain, varied mission objectives, and so on.

        (HG was mediocre even with it was a TT wargame and a P&P RPG, I note, so it’s unsurprising.)

        • LexW1 says:

          There is one big similarity to HG though, both are very much stories of colonists resisting imperial oppression from the world they originally came from.

  11. Rane2k says:

    A friend of mine got this one in a gaming magazine, PC Games or PC Action or something. I think it was after it flopped, as it was the full version, not just a demo.
    Of course we didn´t know back then that it was a flop (And didn´t particularly care about such things, as teenagers), but we played the hell out of this.

    We got stuck really long on the mission where you get one of the space pirate suits, and you have to infiltrate some base. Just get in, blow up some power plant and get out again.
    Of course, during the mission you get discovered and have to fight your way out. You are alone, instead of in a squad, and the pirate suit was reaaaally weak, and you were mostly surrounded.

    I´m not sure I ever finished the game, but that mission is still vivid in my memory.

  12. Kaeoschassis says:

    Been waiting years for this exact article. Spot on.

    I’ve never sat down and organized a list of my faves, but if I did, Terra Nova would be top ten, probably top five. Mainly just because I can’t get what it does anywhere else. It’s entirely unique.

    And yeah, it blew me away back when it was first released.
    Everyone go play this right now.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    Favorite moment from this game: there’s an early mission where a group of pirates are heading to a boat dock to pick up a shipment of weapons, and you have to take them out. It’s a big fucking bunch of pirates, not unbeatable but a decent challenge in a firefight.

    Or: You can bring a demolition specialist, sprint flat-out for the dock as soon as the mission starts and beat the pirates there by a minute or two, and order your demo to deploy her entire pack of charges in the middle of the dock. Then go hide behind a hill, wait until the pirates’ radar dots are clustered on the dock, and hit the remote detonator. Boom. Mission complete without so much as having to look at the enemy.

  14. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    Also, there’s a tie-in novel (Terra Nova: Enemy of My Enemy) that they somehow got actual good sci-fi author David Drake on, and it’s pretty good.

  15. Grey_Ghost says:

    I remember playing this game quite a lot. Pretty sure I even beat the game too.

  16. K_Sezegedin says:

    I remember looking at the adverts in Gomputer Gaming World and being all hmmmm, but with Wing Commander 3, then Mechwarrior 2 then Wing Commander 4 I was all tied up.

  17. Jenuall says:

    Nice article, although like others I think you could have direct a bit more time confirming that despite it’s relative lack of exposure/success it is actually a great game.

    There’s some useful insights into the development of this (as well as most of the rest of the LGS catalogue) in the including the fact that development lasted the best part of 4 years! Also the LGS guys interviewed seem to put the games delay/problems down to the early drive to make it a highly detailed simulation and the struggles they had getting this right before eventually giving up!

  18. Grovester says:

    I beat this, though it was tough as some of the best members of my squad got wiped out in an earlier, absolutely brutal mission. To me, this was the best LGS game, as there was so much variety in how you could play, though of course System Shock was also superb.