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Alien Sheep Crashed My Hard-drive
Nathan Davies



According to the story behind 'Sheep', Empire's cutesy strategy game for the PC, sheep are, in fact, aliens. Apparently these extraterrestrial beings came to Earth millions of years ago from their own system of Orvis Aries on a prolonged survey mission - "posing as passive creatures to take the details of the planet into their collective conscience". However, long days of grazing in the sun helped them to forget their mission and they were soon domesticated by man; not that they seemed to mind. Of course, if the game was simply based upon the placidity of modern sheep it would be mind-numbingly boring, so to make it a bit more exciting (not to mention a lot more challenging), now their alien ancestors want them back. Playing as one of four different herders over a variety of levels, it's your job to help round them up. It's not as simple as it sounds.

Like in Psygnosis/Take 2's classic, Lemmings, the player does not have direct control over the title creatures. The sheep of 'Sheep' have minds of their own, but are, at the same time, exceedingly stupid. If left alone for any length of time they are quite capable of wandering off as individuals or in small groups, then stopping to graze in the path of imminent danger. Not only are they capable of doing this, but they seem to do it just to spite you. To make things even more difficult there are also four different breeds of sheep in the game, each with their own unique characteristics. Where the regular Pastorals are just plain dim-witted, the Factorals (apparently an urban breed of sheep), are slightly more aware of their surroundings, causing them to run or stop at inopportune moments. The Long-wools are the bravest breed (represented in the cartoon sections of the game as biker-style, heavy-metal fans), whereas the Neo-genetics are the most intelligent, and therefore most cowardly of the lot.

The only control that you, the player, have over these scared or suicidal grass guzzlers is your herder. Available for selection are Shep the veteran sheepdog, Motley the mongrel herding wannabe, a private eye turned shepherd named Adam Halfpint and a mini-skirt wearing rock chick version of little Bo Peep. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses in dealing with their woolly charges, but the overall technique is the same for all four characters. You can chase your sheep to make them run, you can creep up on the flock for closer control, bark or call to make them move off in the opposite direction, carry them individually, and even throw them (although this last option won't win you any friends among the flock). On most of the levels there are also items which either the herder or the sheep will have to use to get the critters through various obstacles. For example; picking up the radio will cause the sheep to chase after the shepherd for a limited time (very useful when leading them through mine fields), and the conveyor belt fed converters temporarily turn the sheep into tanks in order to punch through brick walls and other such barricades. This is really good fun, but getting the sheep to go where you want them to isnšt all that easy.

Beyond the difficulties of wilful and stupid sheep, and the inherent dangers of each of the levels (which include, among other things, combine harvesters, vacuum chutes that scatter your sheep, buzzing toy helicopters, and shark infested corn fields) there are also the controls, which are tricky to say the least. Regardless of whether you choose to use a joystick or the cursor keys to move your herder about the screen you will have the same problems. Whereas most top-down strategy/adventure games would configure the controls in respect to the characters perspective (where up is forward and left and right cause the character to turn), Sheep has them set to correspond to the directions on screen (up moves you up the screen, right moves you right, and so on). This caused me much confusion on the training levels, and still had me sending Motley off in the wrong direction during the actual game, which was not only frustrating but also lost me many sheep in the process. While technically there is nothing wrong with this configuration, it feels out of place on this type of game, being more suited to the 2D shoot-em-ups of times gone by. There is also no provision for those of us who want to change it for the more familiar perspective orientated system.

The other game options are also fairly limited with very little in the way of difficulty settings or anything else that would help to control the in-game environment. For example, you cannot dictate how many sheep you want to lead through each level, and as far as I could tell there was no frame-limiting feature (that would allow you to slow down/speed up the game). You are also not able to return to previous levels once you have decided to leave them, and when you do have the option of replaying (at the end of each level you can choose to exit, replay or quit) you are limited to the breed of sheep that you originally selected. Even in training once you have chosen a breed for a given level you cannot choose it again for any of the others. Some of these limitations are understandable (for example; during game levels you can only play each breed of sheep once) but they can be frustrating none the less (how are you expected to find the right combination of herder, breed and level style if you can't try them all out!).

Most of this can be forgiven, however, in light of the games smile-winning silliness. If the story of trying to get the aliens known as sheep home, isn't daft enough consider that it also tells us that the sheep in question only accept the herders help (albeit reluctantly) because they think that they can get them to the sheep paradise of "Blue Hawaii". Also, among the many obstacles in the game are a fruity Bond-villain reject called Mr Pear (who plans to use sheep genes to make everyone in the world as placid as these animals) and his Terminator-esque Hench-cows. And then therešs the bouncy, cute, colourful cartoon graphics throughout and the little matter of the dancing sheep on the options screens!

With the small exception of the limited custom options, Sheep is a good looking and playable little game with the emphasis firmly on fun. It's ridiculously silly, inventive and different enough to be enjoyable; however, as with many PC games there can be certain compatibility issues that can outweigh the merits of the game itself.

Despite matching or surpassing all of the minimum technical requirements of the game, several problems persistently occurred once Sheep was loaded onto my computer. For one, the game would freeze up every time I tried to quit, forcing me to exit the program using the emergency key combination. Then when I wanted to shut down the computer itself, it would crash (it only did this while Sheep was present in the system and had been used that session). I also discovered that most of my other games and programs that used Direct X drivers, including my screen saver, would not run and on a number of occasions crashed the system. Fortunately there has been no lasting damage as everything was automatically restored after Sheep had been uninstalled, leading me to believe that the version of the drivers included in the game conflicted with those on my system and offered no way of synthesising them. It's a shame that such an amusing and otherwise recommendable game should be let down by cut-cornered programming.

***

Minimum System Requirements.

Windows 95/98
Pentium 200 or equivalent
32Mb RAM
Direct X 7 supported graphics card with 4Mb onboard memory
25Mb hard-disk space
8x CD ROM drive


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