'Emergency Room: Disaster Strikes' not a total disaster
October 18, 1999
By D. Ian Hopper
(CNN) -- Legacy Interactive, the publisher of "Emergency Room: Disaster Strikes," boasts that their game is targeted toward casual gamers and that most of their sales come from discount stores like Wal-Mart. However, the same can be said of the "Deer Hunter" series, "Rocky Mountain Trophy Hunter," and the rest of the relatively new wildlife slaughter genre.
These games can be typically characterized as having low production values, extensive bugs and gameplay so bad that they bring a seasoned gamer to tears. On the other hand, value-priced casual game defenders say that even though the games may be horrible by standards of the larger industry, they do bring in customers who feel intimidated by more complex games like "Half-Life" and "Age of Empires."
This version of ER doesn't deserve to be in quite the same category, or be targeted by the same scorn, as the above-mentioned critter mutilation games. Subject aside, this sequel to "Emergency Room" and "Emergency Room 2" has fewer bugs than the first two games and it makes a good attempt at being fun as well as educational.
The bug issue is an important one for this series. ER2 was unplayable because of the bugs. Chief among them were the inability to restart a saved game and the frequency of being "trapped" and unable to go back if you forgot a certain step. These game-killer bugs are gone in "Disaster Strikes."
The game, like its predecessors, places the player in the role of a medical student at Legacy Memorial Hospital. The goal is to heal patients that enter the emergency room, starting from the scene of the emergency -- apparently this doctor rides with EMTs -- through the diagnostic exam, X-ray and laboratory, finally to treatment and discharge. The player is helped by wall-mounted medical education screens that give information based on the patient's malady. You can also call the nurse for a tip. In practice, though, the screens sometimes give too much -- and occasionally incorrect -- information, and the nurse's tips are, at best, cryptic.
The only way to really know what to do is to glean information from the questions you have to answer in a little medical PDA. Once you answer the question correctly, just perform those actions. It's a lot safer than experimenting on the patient.
There are a hundred types of cases to take. More can be downloaded from Legacy's site, and the company occasionally releases expansions. You can choose to take a certain type of case, or leave it random. You'll find your patients at the scenes of disasters -- hence the game's name -- but strangely enough the maladies only occasionally have anything to do with the earthquake, mudslide and freeway disasters going on simultaneously in this apocalyptic city. Keep suspending that disbelief as you take the case of a woman who stepped on a piece of glass, or a guy who broke his nose in this supposedly horrible disaster, then shove these non-endangered patients in an ambulance and rush them to the emergency room.
Sure, it's an excuse to ramp up the difficulty, but couldn't it be done another way? Starting the game by assisting a doctor comes to mind.
Much of the game's interactivity comes in the form of QuickTime movies. With the exception of the initial movie of the patient explaining his or her injury, they're extremely annoying. There are also only about 10 each for the admitting nurse, ER nurse, chief of staff, and a few extras. After you've saved a few people you'll see the movies over and over again; click repeatedly to skip them. The use of QuickTime in games was neat when "7th Guest" and "Myst" first came out, but it's 1999. Either render the scene within the engine or, in this case, where there isn't really an "engine," forget the whole thing. Even just an audio track would be less distracting. (A side note: The chief of staff voice when you check your progress isn't the voice of the chief in the Disaster Strikes QuickTime movies. It's the voice of the man who played the chief in ER2. This should have been fixed.)
This version of ER departs from the series in that instead of picking up an instrument and clicking on a part of the body to use it, that process zooms in and the player must perform the action manually. This succeeds in giving the player a little more control over the game, but it doesn't go far enough. Strangely, this was done perfectly in the 1988 Software Toolworks game "Life & Death." Not only did that game give total control over instruments, but the heart monitor -- missing from ER, except in diagnostic tests -- gave the very real impression that you were struggling to keep the patient alive, and one mistake could result in a tag on the patient's foot. It might have been 4-color CGA, but it's the gameplay that makes it still memorable.
For all the things "Emergency Room: Disaster Strikes" has done wrong, it's important to note that it still seems to be a work in progress, and is quite an improvement over the first two games in the series -- it's playable, for one. If Legacy decides to ditch the QuickTime and concentrate more on control issues and gameplay over making it look pretty, they might have a game that appeals to mainstream gamers too.
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