1998. The Good Friday agreement is brokered, largely bringing an end to the Troubles in Ireland. The Daily Express enters the second of its pledged 4,000 years of banging on about Princess Diana. NASA discovers enough water on the moon to support a colony. Much of Europe bans human cloning. Michael Bay is destroying the credibility of both cinema and space travel with Armageddon. Japan launches a probe to Mars.
More importantly, Hardwar is released, to a criminal lack of fanfare from its European publisher, Gremlin Interactive (and Interplay in North America).
Hardwar was an ambitious, novel, and all-round terrific freeform flight combat and trading game, best compared to Elite and Wing Commander Privateer. Set in the far future on a Titan mining colony (named Misplaced Optimism) long since abandoned by Earth, the game takes places in half a dozen craters filled with buildings and buzzing with ‘moths’ – low-altitude aircraft incapable of reaching above the craters. The plot concerns the attempts of its inhabitants to develop the technology to escape their hellhole, but the player is free to ignore this in favour of trading, pirating, bounty hunting and/or scavenging in the dynamic economy of the world.
How dynamic? Well, if you want a missile and nobody’s selling any, you can bring explosives and sheet metal to the manufacturer, and they will build them for you. Don’t have any explosives and sheet metal? No problem – go find the raw materials and take those to the proper intermediaries, and they will process them for you. If you’re feeling a bit East India Company, you could blockade a manufacturer, chasing off anyone who tries to sell them materials while building your own stockpile, then flog the lot for a bigger profit. Of course, the police and local corporations won’t take kindly to this. But perhaps you could make it up to them by attacking their enemies?
Despite some AI quirks and minor balancing issues, combat is fierce and fast, and death comes quickly in Hardwar. A range of weapons and craft keep things interesting (it’s even possible, though difficult, to play peacefully, trading and fleeing from or disabling attackers’ weapons rather than killing), and the basic “corporations fighting over technology” story, from the admittedly little I’ve played of it, is entertaining, rewarding (quite literally – certain missions unlock new items), and entirely optional. Unfortunately there are no sandbox-style side missions or subgames, but there are police and faction hit lists as well as whatever challenges you set for yourself.
It remains highly playable, and thanks to the only people I could find selling it (dotemu), it’s dirt cheap and, unusually for an old game, runs on windows 7 with no problems (disclaimer: every PC is different, actual colours may vary, etc.). It even has a built in multiplayer option, which I’ve never tried for lack of an audience, but whose lost potential makes me very sad. Here is a game that could be remade into a masterpiece of multiplayer gaming with very few changes, and with none of the tedious grinding of the WoW-alikes, or elitist joylessness of the generic FPS deathmatch. But I digress.
Having recently rediscovered the joys of moon-flight, and with the untimely death of Cass in Falloutville, I will be continuing the Mushroom Cloud series with a similar take on Hardwar. Stay tuned.