In 1992, 221B Software Development - not a very well-known company - developed an interesting game called Alcatraz. With some help from their publisher, Infogrames, the game was released for the Atari ST, Amiga, and the PC. At first it was meant to be a sequel to another Infogrames production called Hostage: Rescue Mission, but finally it was released as a stand-alone title.
The American government has declared war on a drug cartel run by Miguel Tardiez, Public Enemy #1. Tardiez is holed up on the island of Alcatraz, which has been a "high-risk" zone since the San Francisco earthquake in 1989. Currently it's the year 1996, and the former prison is now the headquarters of Tardiez's drug ring. Two brave crack commando members, known as Bird and Fist, have been selected to infiltrate Alcatraz. Their mission is divided into three parts: gathering evidence of criminal activity, destroying drugs and bank notes, and finally, capturing the cartel boss. To keep the mission as confidential as possible, the helicopter will wait for our commandos, but only for two hours. It's time to get into the canoe and sail to the island.
After the introduction, Bird and Fist stand near the canoe, equipped with two time bombs and some knives. The first thing you will probably notice is the split screen. The game only runs in two-player co-op mode; even if you play alone, the screen will remain split. In this case, the second commando will eventually be killed by cartel soldiers. After that, the other half of the screen will only display "Game Over."
The game's stages can be categorized into three styles, varying in perspective. Most of the time, the game is played in a side-scroller style. During these stages, our heroes need to get to a building which is placed, not surprisingly, at the far right end of the play area. Enemies are walking around, patrolling the island. They all look similar, but carry different weapons: grenades, flame-throwers, or rifles. Fortunately, damage from each weapon's attack can be avoided; you can run from the blast range of a grenade or duck below a bullet. Every weapon used by cartel soldiers can be picked up after their death. In some places, you can hide your commando, so keep your eyes open for corners, open doors and other shadowed hideouts. Being hidden not only gives you a chance to wait until enemies go away but also makes you invulnerable for that time. Last but not least, another advantage of being unseen is the possibility of changing your own weaponry, which you can do with the fire button. At the end of nearly every side-scrolling level, you'll come across a slightly bigger doorway. As mentioned before, the gameplay changes when you enter one of these.
Inside buildings, the game changes to the first-person perspective, and the division of the screen changes from horizontal to vertical. Between the two screens is an inventory bar, and at the bottom of the screen is a map of the building. The inventory screen does not give you much info, but the map is really helpful, as it shows the current positions of your enemies. Apart from the graphics, there are also significant differences in gameplay mechanics. The most important change is that you cannot avoid bullets in these stages - when you or your enemy shoots, the bullets do not fly "in slow motion" but hit the target as soon as they are fired. Another characteristic element is that the number of enemies does not increase - if you kill all of them in the building, you can feel safe. On your map you'll notice that some walls are coloured - these indicate doors. When you enter a room, you may find some enemies to kill or you may be able to complete one of the mission objectives.
As mentioned before, there is also a third kind of stage, but I will leave it as a surprise.
It is time to write some words about the technical aspects of the game. The graphics are clean and sharp so you should not have any problems recognizing what is what. During side-scrolling levels, the scrolling is smooth and the game allows you to move backwards (back in the day, many games allowed scrolling only in the direction of progress). The first-person perspective is not shown in 3D; there are static screens after each step, without any animation, and turning left or right always involves a 90 degree turn. The sound effects and music are good; they are not disturbing. One strange thing is that the music plays only when you are inside a building, never during the "outside" parts of the mission.
To control the game, you need only five keys - the four arrow keys and the space bar for firing - if you are not using a joystick. When you are not in a building, everything works fine and it's easy to figure out what to do. When you duck, you pick up dropped weapons; when it is possible to hide, press the up arrow to do so. During the first-person stages, you need to remember to aim: when the fire key is pressed, the arrow keys allow you to point your weapon in a different direction. If you come across more than one enemy at a time, it can be really difficult to get out of the situation without bleeding.
All in all, Alcatraz can be considered two separate games. In my opinion, the differences between the game-styles are that big. I really enjoyed playing the side-scroller stages in which you can hide or fight. The challenges varied from simple walking enemies, to dogs and mines, and enemies seen only in the background, which are impossible to kill. Ammo had to be replenished often, and I could choose what kind of weapon I wanted to use - a low range flame-thrower, a silent knife, or just dangerous hand-to-hand combat. I could not feel safe, as the enemy could not only walk from the side of the screen, but also emerge from hideouts, jump from windows, or simply step out of doors. Inside buildings, everything was different: enemies were shown on a map, ammunition was endless, and I had to walk around and check every room for items required to complete the objectives of the mission. I assure you, inside the last building there are really a lot of these. Rooms were often empty, but when they were not, it was really hard to stay healthy because of the aiming system. This distinction can be considered an advantage - you get two kinds of gameplay in one production - but in my opinion the first-person stages could have been done better, and that is the reason to reduce the overall score. I would give this game a better grade, since it can be considered a progenitor of the Splinter Cell series, but there are some flaws, so I give it only a three.
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