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Driller (1987)      

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Details (Sinclair ZX Spectrum) Supported platforms Artwork and Media
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Related Titles:
Incentive Software Ltd
Major Developments Chris Andrews, Paul Gregory, Stephen Northcott
Kempston, Interface 2, Cursor
Audio cassette
UK (£14.95)
Dark Side

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Amstrad CPC  NR
Atari ST  6.5
Commodore 64  8.9
Sinclair ZX Spectrum  NR

Same title from other publishers:
Commodore Amiga

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Added: 21 Sep 2010
Driller for the ZX Spectrum was released by Incentive Software who were already well known for their excellent programming utility The Graphic Adventure Creator (GAC) and the brilliant arcade game Moon Cresta.

When this game was released for the Speccy in December of 1987 it was one of those games that everybody talked about. The true 3D playing area with freedom of movement was finally here.

The game took place on a distant moon called Mitral. This planet had (in the past) been mined by exiled criminals - and the mining had caused gas to slowly build up below the surface. Enter you, a space faring drilling expert (not Harry Stamper!) to draw the gas off and prevent Mitral from exploding.

In this fine classic game you explored the deserted moon, locating pockets of gas and placing drilling rigs in each of it's 18 sectors. The game was impressive and used the solid 3D, all-around-viewing system 'Freescape', which was used for the first time ever in Driller. Freescape was promoted at the time as 'the new dimension' - and it was totally amazing.

ZX Spectrum Games Driller In Game Screen
For the first time in ZX Spectrum gaming - it was possible to wander freely around a proper '3D world'. The planet was represented to you in full 3D solid graphics which you could move around in (in the game you were manning an excavation probe) - allowing you to rotate around and view objects and buildings from almost any angle. This was the first time in 8-bit gaming where you were placed right inside a virtual world.

Not only was this world represented in 3D, objects behind other objects would be hidden from your view - a change from 'see through' vector graphics - another jaw dropping feature.

Mitral was made up of large open squares. These square were surrounded by walls, block buildings, trenches, steps and acid rivers. The whole planet was devoid of life, and this emptiness actually added atmosphere to the game. Automatic laser beacons fired upon you (if they detected you) and your vehicles defensive shield was depleted by repeated hits.

But this was Freescape - and you could retreat out of the lasers range or even get behind it - thus preventing it from shooting at you. Wonderful. It was possible to hit back though if you fancied more than just being sneaky; your craft was also armed with guns so you could shoot back or even destroy the lasers power supply and render it useless.

An audible warning would alert you to the presence of an orbital scanner, and the only course of action here was to take evasive action.

For more mobile exploration you could dock with a reconnaissance jet, (not always easy to find!)
The jet was housed inside a hangar - and you had to solve a puzzle before being allowed to dock with it. Once docked you could fly the jet over the surface of Mitral and land anywhere you fancied - making exploring the virtual world easier.

There were also teleports on the planet which you could use to move from point to point- again by the solving of a puzzle.

But the object of the game was unsurprisingly, drilling. When you located a gas pocket, a rig could be beamed down to Mitral's surface and positioned over the pocket where it would begin to syphon off the gas. Once more than 50% of the gas had been 'sucked out', the current sector you were in was marked as safe.

Once a sector had been made safe the you could reach then next by travelling through doorways in walls, blasting away obstructions, or by teleporting.

The game was played against the clock. It gave you just four hours and eight seconds (stange time limit) to complete it - barely enough time to go sight seeing. Pah!

On Release:
As you may have guessed, this title was an amazing game when it was released on the ZX Spectrum. The whole '3D World' (and the Freescape engine) that you were immersed in was astounding - and in 1987 probably represented the pinnacle of graphical acheivements on the Speccy. Once you got over the landscape you realised that Incentive's program was a compelling and addictive game. It was regarded as an instant classic and was so popular that a sequel (the excellent Darkside) would be released a year or two later. Even at £14.95 gamers lapped it up.

The test of time:
I don't know about you, but I can still remember the utter awesomeness this game generated when it came out. Today 3D games are plentiful, but back in 1987 true 3D worlds were hard to come by! Of course that graphics are nothing special anymore - nor is the concept, but this game must go down as a pioneer in the field of 3D rendering, and helped to pave the way for games such as Descent. Here in our own little world of Spectrum games we salute Incentive Software for what they accomplished.

Play it again, you too will feel alone in the cold blackness of a lifeless planet... A bit like my place of work!

We recommend getting hold of the real hardware but if not then download a ZX Spectrum emulator and download this game for the ZX Spectrum. Alternatively you could try and play it online.

GENRE: 3D Arcade Strategy
RELEASE DATE: December of 1987
RELEASED BY: Incentive Software
DEVELOPER(S): Major Developments
PRICE: £14.95 - UK
Added: 1 Mar 2017
Driller comes with a whooping 20 pages of background that tells of a dying Earth, humanity's colonization of the planet Evath and the history of its two moons, Mitral and Tricuspid. There's also a whole bit about the life of the protagonist, Lesleigh Skerrit (the name is usually female in the real world, yet the novella takes care to never attach any pronouns). But all that needs to be understood is what translates directly into the game's mission: Mitral was soon chosen as a place to ban outlaws, so-called Ketar, founding a kind of space Australia. The new colonists, however, ended up overmining the moon and thus creating pockets of gas within. Shocked, the Ketar abandoned the moon, leaving their security system to its own devices. They obviously didn't think things through when they evacuated to an unpopulated continent on Evath, as an exploding moon now threatens to throw the entire planet out of orbit. Thus Lesleigh is sent on a special mission to go to Mitral and drill holes into its surface in order to drain the gas. Only four hours remain until Evath's satellite is going to burst under the pressure.

The journey starts in an excavation probe on Mitral's surface. The tank controls are rather appropriate for the vehicle, and certainly excusable for the time period. The goal is to find the location of the gas pocket in each of the moon's 18 sectors and call down a drilling rig. The closer it gets to the actual source of the gas, the higher the percentage of gas tapped. The threshold for success is 50%, while anything less requires the player to have the rig called back and try again, which consumes energy each time. Sometimes there are hints to the location. The first sector, for example, has the spot marked with a huge "X". Another time two arrows can be found on the ground, and the point where their lines would meet is the place to go. In many sectors the clues are much more cryptic though, and can only be guessed at. Sometimes pure trial and error is the only solution. Driller is therefore not designed to be solvable in one game, but rather forces players to learn from their mistakes and mark their findings on the accompanying map in order to do a better job next time.

This map is not simply a sheet of paper, but meant to be folded into a polyhedron to simulate the weird ways in which the maps are connected. Each sector is essentially a small room, with doors leading to other sectors. Many borders have no walls, and driving off the plane usually results in the vehicle falling sideways onto a little map that only has an indestructible gun turret and nothing else. Navigating the moon's surface can be confusing and frustrating. It's eventually possible to activate a set of teleporters to get around much faster, though, which helps a lot.

The excavation probe is equipped with a laser to defend itself against the many defensive installations on Mitral. All of them are stationary, but it would be too hard to hit moving targets, anyway. By hitting the space bar, the controls switch to aiming mode, which allows to move a crosshair on the screen and shoot at the targets. Usually one hit is enough to destroy those that are vulnerable at all, but most of them are immune to the laser to begin with. The focus in Driller is certainly not on the shooting action. Instead, the laser is used much more frequently as a puzzle solving device.

The gun is the tool for all interaction with the environment in the game. It is used to flip switches, clear obstacles and consume energy or shield crystals (depicted as pyramid shapes). The puzzles are fairly simple from today's standpoint, but when considering they were realized in a 3D engine that couldn't be any more primitive, the possibilities are quite impressive. Many just require hitting switches in the right order, usually contained to one room, but there's also one big switch puzzle that requires travel all around the moon. But there are also a few more intricate mechanisms: In one sector, a building is protected by a particularly vicious turret that can not be shot down, but when shooting all the cables that lead over a pylon to the building, it loses power and becomes harmless. One defense installation has a huge block suspiciously hanging above it on a rope - of course the solution is to shoot the rope, dropping the block onto the enemy. At some point it's even necessary to raise and lower the vehicle to dive under and shoot over obstacles.

The folded map of Mitral from different sides.

All the graphics are put together from very simple geometrical shapes, but they're grouped into forming recognizable buildings and other structures. Movement is choppy, and scaling vertically uneven terrain especially rough, as the view just jumps to the target height in one frame, which can be disorienting. The game also runs very slow on most platforms - usually not more than 1 frame per second. The amount of movement units per step and the probe's turning angle can be adjusted to make things flow a bit more rapidly. But pushing those too far can be very dangerous when maneuvering around gaps, and moving at maximum step size can cause glitches when trying to transition to another area.

On the other hand, the engine was years ahead of its time and featured elements not even the later Wolfenstein 3D and Doom did. Objects are often actually placed above each other vertically without any of the trickery id's games require, and it's possible to look up or down, and even tilt the view to the side, although there doesn't seem to be any practical application for it other than getting back up in the death chamber after falling off the moon's "edge". It's also possible to find and enter a jet, which can fly all over the landscape and discover some places the probe could never reach.

Driller's home platform was the Amstrad CPC, which can rely on the use of colors, but not enough to do away with dithering altogether. (There is no shading in the game - the dithering just represents different colors.) The game was then ported to a number of systems, but the 3D geometry data is the same between all of them. Ports went as far down as the ZX Spectrum, whose limitations forced the game to run in monochrome, so shapes are only distinguished by varying degrees of dithering. The field of vision is also a bit more narrow, and the speed reduced a bit.

One would expect the Commodore 64 version to blow both of them out of the water, given its superiority for just about any arcade conversion in existence, but strangely that is not the case. Either the guys at incentive software didn't have a very good grasp of how to take the system's sub processors to their limits, or they might have been just unsuitable for 3D polygon calculations. At any rate, Driller runs much, much slower than even on the Spectrum or CPC, even though the 3D Window has a significantly lower horizontal resolution. At least it features a SID music track where all the other versions (even the later 16-bit ports) only have minimal sound effects when firing lasers or bumping into walls. There's also a version for the C64's underachieving sibling Commodore 16 around, but it might have been an unofficial conversion. It was definitely not made in-house at Incentive Software, as all the staff names sound Eastern European. It looks the same as the C64 version, except for the loss of some colors in the HUD. It also runs just as unbearably slow. Those who just hate it when a program has any redeeming qualities at all will be delighted to hear that the music is gone, though.

The IBM PC version is not adjusted to system speed, so it requires throttling to be kept at a reasonable pace. It's technically possible to have the game run much faster than any other versions, but that also speeds up the enemy lasers to impossible degrees. It supports EGA, CGA and Hercules graphic cards. The former replaces all dithering with individual colors, using a comparatively garish palette. CGA mode fortunately is not the infamous cyan-pink combination, but kept in muddy colors like brown and green. Hercules is very similar to the Spectrum graphics, aside from a much higher resolution.

A little less than a year after the first release, Incentive Software created enhanced 16-bit versions for the Atari ST and Amiga. Those feature a completely reworked HUD where everything can be controlled with the mouse by clicking on various icons (but the old keyboard shortcuts still work). The laser can be used at any time just by pointing and clicking at the 3D view window, which helps to make the controls feel much more fluid and natural. To compensate for the increase in efficiency, the time limit is shortened to one and a half hour. Aside from minor color differences, both versions look exactly the same, but the Amiga version actually runs at a somewhat stable framerate, while Atari ST users experience severe slowdown when many objects are in view, just like the 8-bit versions. So the Amiga version is by far the preferable way to play Driller.

Driller might actually be familiar to some '80s computer gamers from the US, although not necessarily by that name - Epyx brought it to North America as Space Station Oblivion, a name that sounds a lot more marketable if somewhat pretentious.

Surprisingly, there even is a fan remake of Driller by the freeware group Ovine by Design. It uses a typical modern 3D engine with textured models, W-A-S-D & mouselook controls and a streamlined interface. It plays much smoother as the original, but also feels somewhat lightweight for it. It just isn't the same without the abstract charme of the stark geometrical shapes and overall lo-fi feel, and the remake only really serves to highlight how bare and insubstantial the content is.

Added: 17 Mar 2013
The game also won the Crash! Annual Readers Award in 1987.

Added: 13 Dec 2008
Mitral is a distant moon, once mined by exiled criminals. The mining has caused a build-up of gas beneath the moon's surface, and the gas must be drawn off to prevent Mitral exploding with disastrous consequences for its mother planet. In Driller you explore the deserted moon, finding gas pockets and placing drilling rigs in each of 18 sectors - using the solid-3-D, all-round-view system Freescape, which is used for the first time in Driller and is being promoted as 'the new dimension'.

The topography of Mitral is seen through a large window with controls beneath it. The Freescape system can be likened to a large transparent bubble with the player pinned at the centre. This 'bubble' can rotate in all directions, allowing you to look out and examine objects at any angle, even from behind and below. In Driller think of the excavation probe you drive as the bubble.

14 months' work by Incentive's in-house design team has produced an environment of over 20,000 billion possible window views (though many of these are virtually identical, the result of only a small shift in the angle of view). Information is priority-sorted, so one object can obscure another in true 3-D perspective.

Your excavation probe has controllable speed and turn angle (that means you can set how far each move will take you, whether it's a backward/forward step or a left or right turn), The main body of the probe can be tilted left or right, elevated or lowered to gain more visual information.

Mitral is made up of large open squares surrounded by walls, block buildings, steps, trenches and acid rivers. It is deserted. Laser beacons fire on you when they detect you; your probe's defensive shield gives some protection, but it's diminished by repeated hits.

To survive the probe can retreat out of range, get behind the beacon, or fire upon it with your own targetable lasers. Some beacons can be neutralised by severing their power supplies.

Orbital scanners also fire at you, appearing with an audible warning - but there's little that can be done other than evade their attack.

For more mobile exploration the probe can dock with a reconnaissance jet, if it can be found. To be allowed into the. hanger which houses this vehicle, you have to enter a building and there solve a puzzle (other puzzles in Driller when solved allow the use of a teleporter or provide other options). The jet is activated by docking the probe into its underside.

In the jet, as in the probe, you can look all round, and have even more versatile movement: the jet can go up and down and fly above all but the tallest of Mitral's constructions. The craft can also land at will, and hover. But though its onboard lasers afford it some protection, the jet's limited shield strength makes it vulnerable to attack.

Throughout Driller the controls beneath the main view screen give your probe's present position in x- and y-coordinates, as well as altitude if you're in the jet. Using these coordinates you can pinpoint a drilling position and go back to it game after game; they also help in mapping the huge area of Mitral, and a 3-D blank cardboard model comes with the game to help mappers.

Plan and side-view screens give further navigational support.

Laser firing, craft movement and shield strength all depend on an energy supply, which can be restored by firing on two types of rubicon crystal found all over Mitral.

But the object throughout is drilling. When a potential gas pocket is located, a drilling rig can be teleported down to Mitral's surface and positioned. (You can't drill from the jet, though.)

Once the rig has penetrated the gas pocket, a read-out indicates how much of the gas has been released; if that's more than 50%, the sector is safe. Points are awarded for successful gas extractions, and you can call up information on the total amount of gas tapped and sectors made safe.

Even if a drill is placed inaccurately, it can be teleported away again, though this eats heavily into the probe's energy reserves.

Once a sector has been made safe the next can b
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This title was first added on 17th February 2007
This title was most recently updated on 1st March 2017

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