Theatre of Death logo

Remember that bit in Theatre of Blood where Vincent Price straps his victim into a chair and spears his eyes with a pair of rotating knives? That is what I feel like doing to the programmers of this. Theatre of Death combines arcade shoot-em-up and strategy elements based around the fictional Def Com Military Academy. As one of its keenest students you have been let loose on a military simulator to engage in a war of attrition against four ruthless commanders and their armies.

It divides 50 varied and increasingly complex missions among four zones (grassland, desert, snow and lunar). You can be called to launch troop assaults, jet strikes, tank attacks or helicopter raids on a series of enemy targets, blasting everything you see.

The action takes place across two different screens - the first is a map where you can move your forces collectively and plan your strategy, the second is an overhead-and-behind view where you control individual troops, vehicles or platoons.

If you are a fan of gratuitous pixellated violence you are in for a treat. Like Walker, Cannon Fodder and Syndicate, Theatre of Death gives you plenty of tiny blood-spilling sprites. Your chaps even get splatted by tanks, swallowed by sharks or suffocate in the swamps that cover the game area. Sound good? It's not!

Pass the suicide pills
Theatre of Death is plagued by an almost insurmountable number of problems. The control method is incredibly fiddly; you move your troops and vehicles around using a mouse, but are forced to scroll around the Action Screen with the cursor keys, so instead of centring on your selected platoon, the game makes you chase around trying to find them.

Worse still, appalling scrolling inevitably means fire-fights happen off-screen and you get caned by an enemy who is just out of sight.

Another major gripe is the game's lack of artificial intelligence when it comes to moving your troops. Click on the Action Screen to give them a destination and they plough through rivers or swamps, drowning in the process. They also die if you move too close to your own vehicles. Why?

Your tanks and APCs are little better. They manage to get themselves stuck behind every building, tree and hillock going, so you end up wasting even more precious time trying to negotiate obstacles, when the AI should work out where you want to go.

Graphically, ToD looks the part - the helicopters and jets are good, casting convincing shadows, the sound effects are good too with some convincing gun noises, explosions and spine-tingling screams. But it is all spoiled by some dodgy collision detection and flickery sprites which get stuck behind objects and then stay there. What a shame.

Theatre of Death logo

Wem Standard-Ballereien zu primitiv sind, der sollte mal einen Blick auf die militär-strategische Action Marke Psygnosis werfen: Bürgt nicht schon die Grafik im "Populous"-Look für anspruchsvolles Gameplay?

Das Todestheater besteht aus 50 ständig schwieriger werdenden und auf vier Landschaften (Wiese, Wüste, Polarwelt und Mond) verteilten Missionen, an deren Ende der erfolgreiche Abschluß der Militärakademie steht.

Je nach Auftrag kommandiert man bis zu vier Kampfgruppen zusammen oder getrennt per Maus, Icons und zuschaltbarer Karte. Ebenfalls möglich und oft sogar besser ist die Einzelsteuerung der Stahlhelme, weil die Jungs sonst blindlings in Sümpfe, haiverseuchte Gewässer, Minengürtel oder die Arme der Scharenweise auftretenden Feinde marschieren...

Die Gegner unserer Lemming-Landser werden durch simples Anklicken und mit je zwei von insgesant sechs Waffen bearbeitet - von Zielen kann hier aber kaum die Rede sein, so hektisch wie die Kerle herumlaufen.

Herrenlose Panzer, Flugzeuge, Jeeps etc. Lassen sich entern, indem man einfach darüberläuft, ihre Feuerkraft unterscheidet sich jedoch kaum von der eines soldatischen MG-Besitzers. Dafür strotzen die sanft scrollenden Kampfgebiete vor Details wie Munitionskisten, Elektrozäunen, Gebäuden und Bäumen, die eine 1a Deckung abgeben.

Um so bedauerlicher, daß die Maus/Tastatursteuerung etliche Tücken hat und der rasend schnelle Spielablauf überhaupt keine Zeit für strategisches Denken läßt. Grafik und Sound sind also durchaus gelungen, das Gameplay eher weniger: Strategische Elemente haben nur eine Alibifunktion, und die Ballerei selbst ist ultraschwer - außer wenn Luftunterstützung kommt; die ist fast schon zu "bombig" geraten... (md)

Theatre of Death logo

The word 'Theatre' can mean 'a building with plays in it' or 'an area of military operations', you see.

"Life is but a walking shadow that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more." How's that for a bit of culture in AMIGA POWER? Well, it was either that or the review of the 1966 Christopher Lee film Theatre Of Death from Halliwell's Film Guide. But the Macbeth clinched it for me, because the underlying meaning of the metaphoric intent... er... whatever, is basically, "life's like a play and you die at the end", the important concepts here being Theatre and Death concepts which, bizarrely, are reflected in Theatre Of Death. Or, in other words, you kill lots of people. (Sob. - Ed)

So let's set the scene. Despite the title, Theatre Of Death isn't the license of some hammy Hammer film starring Vincent Price. It's actually a vaguely sci-fi, strategic military-type affair with a hefty dose of shoot-'em-up action thrown in.

The setting is a post-apocalyptic wasteland divided into four areas... or is it? Er, no, actually. Y'see this plot is actually a plot within a plot (very Shakespearean). What you're actually playing is, "the most advanced battle simulator ever created" at the Def Com Military Academy and the battle zones are just part of a virtual landscape.

Basically it's a rather bizarre double-take which adds nothing to the game (except the opportunity for the manual to use buzz-words like Virtual Reality). So I'll ignore all this Academy nonsense and treat the wastelands stuff as the real plot.

Right, as I was saying there are four zones: grass, desert, snow and lunar, each ruled by an evil dictator commanding his own private army. The first three zones each have 15 missions, but you only need to complete 10 of them to move on to the next zone. The final Lunar Zone has five missions. Every mission has an objective which invariably contains the subtext "blast everything in sight."

The action is viewed from a satellite position, and there are two main screens. The Live Action Screen is where all the fun happens - i.e. Where you get to see all the blood and blow up buildings - while the Map Screen is where all your strategic missions are made.

At the beginning of each mission you have a number of platoons, usually containing five men, an objective and a limited amount of ammunition. The Action Screen shows you only a small section of the battlefield, for a complete view you need to go to the Map Screen.

Soldiers can be moved individually be selecting them or en masse as a platoon by selecting the platoon leader. Whole platoons can also be given orders from the Map Screen; platoons receiving orders this way will carry them out automatically so that you can leave them to their business while you deal with another platoon manually.

There are a number of vehicles that can be commandeered including helicopters, Armoured Personnel Carriers, Tanks and even moon buggies in the Lunar Zone. Weapons, such as grenades, rocket launchers and flame-throwers can be found in the weapons dumps.

A dog's dinner of a Frankenstein's monster

So, with the exposition out of the way, it's down to the nitty gritty; is the game any good? Well, there's certainly a lot of things that are impressive about Theatre Of Death... which is usually just the sort of things you have to say before going on to list a whole host of faults. Which I'm going to do in a minute, but, as I'm in a good mood, I'll put the case for the defence first.

It's a fast-paced game with a simple and initially appealing premise. The graphics are generally excellent, especially the various forms of transport (although the 3D's a little odd from time to time). The missions also work well, and the progression through the zones has been intelligently worked out so that new challenges - and opportunities - keep the gameplay unpredictable.

The problem with Theatre Of Death is that it's a bit of a dog's dinner of a Frankenstein's monster of game. It's a bit all over the place, trying to be all things to all psychos, and generally falling a bit short in all departments. It's not fast enough to be a shoot-'em-up, or complex enough to be a strategy game.

Okay, the argument might be it's trying to be neither, but because it doesn't strike out in any new directions or offer anything unique, it ends up a rather unsatisfying experience.

Plus, there are a lot of irritating problems with the mechanics of the game, none of which are debilitating in themselves, but which collectively do drag things down. The soldiers are too indistinct and in battles it's easy to shoot your own men. The screen doesn't always scroll when you move the cursor with your mouse; you have to resort to using the cursor keys.

There's no easy way to get the Action screen to flip back to a particular platoon or solider because of the automatic tracking system is a nightmare to use. The land vehicles get stuck behind trees. Half the action takes place off-screen. The list goes on (or rather it would, except that I'm bored of it and I think you get the point by now).

They say time flies when you're having fun. When you're playing Theatre Of Death it manages to take off, glides a bit, then hits some turbulence and nosedives into a swamp. I think Shakespeare said it better, but I can't quite remember when.

  1. Ammunition Indicator: Shows how much ammunition the currently-selected soldier has left.
  2. Health Indicator: How near is the currently-selected soldier to copping it?
  3. Land: Got a soldier in a helicopter who needs to pop out? You'd better land the 'copter first then, or he might end up a splodgy mess (but he probably will sooner or later anyway).
  4. Halt: A brief round-up of how badly you're doing.
  5. Satellite Cameras: These are real pain. Basically you have to select a camera then click on a soldier you want it to track. Why each camera can't automatically track each platoon is beyond me. It'd make life (or avoiding death, at least) much simpler.
  6. Air Strike: Some missions allow you to call in an air strike. Just tap in the relevant co-ordinates and watch your planes swoop in and miss completely because the enemies have gone and move in the meantime.
  7. Troop Assist: Call for some reinforcements: This option is only available on certain missions.
  8. Weapon select: Each soldier can carry two weapons. You can select them here. Weapons can be swapped at ammo dumps. We would show you some sexy grabs of them but the graphics are so weedy they're not even mildly titillating.
Theatre of Death
  1. Show Leaders: Click on this to see your platoon leaders highlighted on the map (why you wouldn't want them highlighted is beyond me).
  2. Skull: Mission going badly? Then this is the coward's way out.
  3. Morale Indicators: Which seem to be more to fill up the space at the bottom of the screen than for any other purpose I could fathom.
  4. Movement Mode: The easy to give a whole platoon orders so that they can be doing something useful while you're concentrating on controlling another one manually on the Live Action Screen.
  5. Platoon Symbols: You can control the movement of the whole platoons from the Map Screen. Just select a platoon, a Movement Mode, and where you want them to go to on the main map.

Theatre of Death logo


It's always the same, just like buses - you wait for ages, and then a whole bundle come along at once. Theatre of Death could be described as Psygnosis' answer to Cannon Fodder, apart from the fact that Cannon Fodder is not out yet. Picture it as a kind of Commando meets Lemmings, with a little Laser Squad thrown in.

You and your little digital convoy have to raise hell in a series of increasingly-tough missions over one of the geographically tidiest planets ever.

Of course, there have to be differences between this and Cannon Fodder. For a start. It's nowhere near as polished, neither visually nor in gameplay. Secondly, it isn't an action game per se. Instead, it's a cross between your 'hold down the mouse button and follow the trail of death' blazer and a 'program the moves' real time war game, where you can shepherd your platoon into the danger zone, and then take over when the action starts.

You have at least 10 men in your platoon to start with, all of which have an extremely limited intelligence. They will head in the general direction of the squadron leader - regardless of terrain, so watch out for quicksand and will all open tire on approaching enemy troops. They won't try to get out of the way of oncoming tanks or attempt to avoid grenades, so you're going to have your work cut out just keeping them alive!

At first glance, Theatre of Death doesn't look like it's up to much. An impression which was reinforced once I'd started to play. The controls are some of the most unresponsive I have come across - it is incredibly hard to move things around accurately. Just getting a tank to drive in a straight line is an effort!

The dodgy controls, plus the fact that the computer intelligence is so pathetic, just combine together to make a good game too unplayable to be fun.