Gravity

Published for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga by Image Works (1990).

This review was originally written for the Amiga Games Database web site in 2008 and appears here in a slightly edited form. It’s a review of an old 16-bit computer game from 1990 and NOT about the 2014 movie starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock!

In my opinion, “Gravity” is one of those 16-bit computer games that never quite got the success it deserved. If you like your science fiction to be grounded in science fact, and you also like complicated 3D strategy games, then “Gravity” would have been right up your street.

Having said that, the plot behind “Gravity” was typical Space Opera stuff. It’s the year 2321AD, and mankind has begun colonising the universe. Unfortunately, they have also encountered the Outies – an alien race who thirst for energy in the form of charged Black Holes. If they can’t find any lying around, they convert nearby suns instead, usually wiping out any orbiting colonised planets along the way.

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It was the player’s job to eradicate the entire Outie fleet. This was achieved by colonising planets, developing technology on those planets and (if they were lucky) tracing the Outies back to their home base and wiping them out for good.

The above description barely does the game justice, as an enormous amount of effort went into its design. In particular, Ross Goodley took some basic principles from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and created a game that was centred around how gravity in space actually works, and how spaceships might be able to travel from solar system to solar system.

“Gravity” is played out in one small sector of the Milky Way Galaxy, with 128 randomly generated star systems to convert or colonise from a possible selection of 65,536.

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Star Command (aka Starcom) is the player’s home base. If the Outies destroyed Starcom, then it’s game over. Starcom is also the strategic heart of the entire game. Once “Gravity” had finished loading from disk, Starcom immediately issues an order to the player’s ship (the UNSS Hawking – one of 16 different Scoutcrafts at their disposal. Many of the craft are
named after famous scientists or Astronomers like Einstein, Herschel and Newton). The ship under the player’s direct control is designated the ‘flagship’, and when the player’s ship is destroyed or they switch to any one of the other Scoutcrafts, that ship then becomes the flagship for the entire fleet.

Initial orders from Starcom usually involve moving to a new solar system and colonising it. Essentially, Starcom issues the orders that should ultimately lead to victory if successfully executed. However, the level of Starcom Activity can be tailored by the player. If set to 0%, then Starcom issues no orders at all. The default setting was 50%, but at 99% Starcom would issue orders to the entire Scoutcraft fleet, leaving the player to only worry about their own ship and orders. If the player takes the decision to make the orders rather than receive them, then they set the activity level to low and can then issue orders to Starcom instead.

Ignoring the strategy side of the game for a moment, the main action in “Gravity” is presented in 3D on a grid known as Einstein – Minkowski Four-Space. Basically, a 3D grid is laid over a backdrop of stars, and the grid shows the gravitational effects of any stars or planets that are in close proximity to the player’s ship. It looks like the ship is gliding along the surface of the grid, following any hills or dips that it encounters on the grid along the way. However, without any counter thrust (from the ship’s own engines), the ship will rapidly slide down into the dips created by the nearby stars and planets. This follows the unified ‘curved space-time’ theory which goes something like this; imagine holding a rubber sheet, and then placing a heavy billiard or snooker ball in the middle of the sheet. The ball would naturally create an indentation (or ‘well’) in the rubber. If you were then to roll a marble onto the sheet it would naturally follow the curve of the sheet created by the weight of the ball and fall inwards towards it. This is a practical way of demonstrating the theory behind how gravity works in space.

“Gravity” the game also takes into effect the proximity of competing sources of gravitational pull on the player’s ship. Once the ship has thrusted away from one source of gravity, another source might also start to have an effect on the ship’s trajectory. This pull (along with the gravity wells) is shown on the player’s long range radar.

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Controlling the ship in the Einstein – Minkowski Four-Space grid is simple – just use left and right keys to rotate the ship and another key to apply thrust. Fuel needed for the engines can be replenished by flying close by giant gas planets. Talking of engines, the ship comes supplied with two different types of engine – an ion drive and an orion system which detonates small fission bombs behind a specially created shield 440 times a second to channel the blasts and thrust the ship forwards. The player can easily switch engines at the press of a key.

Apart from having room for engines, the ship also has a number of weaponry slots. By default, every craft starts with a Nova gun and a missile. The Nova gun is another facet of the game that is based upon a real scientific theory – in this case Stephen Hawking’s ‘Grand Unification of Forces’.

For defence, the ship contains drones that can be launched to deal with any small Outie incursions in the area. They are equipped with an ion drive and a simple laser weapon. They can also be programmed via a Combat Orientated Language (COL) with a mixture of 14 commands.

So how does a typical game of “Gravity” start? Having received an order to colonise a solar system, the player should immediately decide what level of activity they want Starcom to have. For beginners, set this to 99%, then take control of the UNSS Hawking and fly for the nearest singularity by using the long range radar and looking for any local gravity wells that have a singularity (black hole) at their centre. Steer and thrust the ship into the hole and they will emerge at the required destination (thanks to the orders being automatically programmed into the Holocube navigational system).

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Now start looking for a suitable planet to colonise. The player will need to bring up the ship’s Tools module and have a Colony module ready to be launched by the time they encounter the planet. Once in close orbit, launch the module and then wait to be informed if a colony has been established. Once this is confirmed, Starcom will issue fresh orders.

The player might encounter Outie ships en route. If they do, they can either rotate the ship and fire on them manually, or launch a drone and let it take care of them for you. The ship might also encounter a number of naturally occurring galactic phenomena, including asteroid showers and VarSings (variable singularities that simply pop into existence, crushing anything close by, and then disappearing again). Nobody said colonising a solar system was going to be easy!

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If fuel begins to run out, the player also needs to start searching for a nearby solar system with a giant gas planet. Flying close by to such a planet will allow the ship to refuel. Once colonies are established, the ship can also upgrade its drives, weapons, tools and so on once the planet has reached a certain technological level.

There is much more to “Gravity” than what I’ve described here, but this should give most people a good idea of what to expect from the game. It took me a long time to fathom out how to get through the first colonising mission, but gradually things began to become clearer. I won’t pretend to have ever mastered the game or made significant progress, but I was always fascinated by the real scientific principles behind the design and how it all fitted together.

 

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