East vs West: Berlin 1948
for Amiga (OCS/ECS)

Mr Creosote:
Company: Rainbow Arts
Year: 1989
Genre: Adventure
Theme: Espionage / Historical
Language: Deutsch, English
Licence: Commercial
Views: 28880
Review by Mr Creosote (2021-12-11)

For obvious reasons, Berlin has been the settings of countless pieces of spy fiction across different media. A separated city, the western part being an island inside the eastern block. It therefore easily dethroned the former champion Istanbul in this genre. Thoughts of Funeral in Berlin or The Quiller Memorandum came to mind when I first booted up East vs. West: Berlin 1948.

The intro in newsreel style sets the scene, the accompanying audio coming from the audio tape found in the box. The second World War has just ended few years ago. Now that the common enemy was defeated, the blockade of West Berlin put the final nail in the coffin of the former alliance between east and west. The ad-hoc airlift spelt resistance and the conflict could have easily gone 'hot'. As we know from today's history books, things remained in Cold War state for decades, but plans for the seemingly inevitable surely were ready on both sides.

Off to Berlin!

In the fictional setting of the game, the US army has smuggled a nuclear bomb into the city. Of course for the sole purpose of being prepared. Erm… Just that then, they sort of lost it. Erm… CIA agent Sam Porter is tasked to retrieve it again, while staying under the radar as far as possible.

The beginning is rather straightforward. Inside his wallet, Sam finds a first contact address, which then sends him on to the next location and so on and so forth. This, however, already illustrates the inherent issue of this approach to the genre: how to make this neither trivial, nor impossible? If the next location is always explicitly handed to the player on a silver plate, things turn too simple. This probably being the reason why the plot contains a couple of break points where follow-up is not quite obvious. Berlin being a large, busy city, finding the next lead by chance is hardly possible. Even more than in his previous game Mystery of the Mummy, designer Ralph Stock (who later came to fame with Mad TV) attempts to simulate a large game world in which the player has to locate the plot threads by herself, identify them as relevant and follow them.

A protest against… something

In abstract terms, this could be perceived as quite realistic. If there were a concrete lead, Sam's mission may not even be needed. Anyway, a real criminal investigation likely consists of fumbling around in the dark for most of it. Just that this isn't reality and it shouldn't be. Good spy thrillers follow another approach. They tell their story in a compact manner and don't care much about realism. In the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock: the audience will accept anything, no matter how unlikely, if they are well entertained.

The game takes quite an effort to make the locations interesting. The city comes to life through the strolling pedestrians, the omnipresent soldiers of different nations, the talkative taxi drivers, the black markets and the queues in front of the empty stores. This makes roaming around intrinsically interesting. Just that in the sense of actually solving the game, it remains untargeted.

After picking up a lead again, you will come to appreciate the stronger hinting which again follows. One clue leads to another, until the next stumbling point. In any case, genre appropriately, the main in-game currency is information. The unintuitive, but quite powerful interface allows for very detailed questioning of other characters. Objects are often just examined instead of taken. The city map is a constant necessity and even the audio tape is used another time to have an essential piece of the puzzle. Taking down your own notes is expected anyway.

Powerful, but hardly intuitive interface

Qualities on paper may be there, but nevertheless, the game simply remains too mechanical. All too much time is wasted assembling questions from long lists of building blocks. Outside the specific solution path, characters hardly ever provide anything of interest in return. This helps solvability as red herrings are avoided, but makes interaction even more tedious and boring. Even when you learn something, there is still the task of actually finding the mentioned locations. The rather small screen doesn't exactly help. Taxis taking you directly to the desired address only appear randomly, unless you happen to be close to a call box. Whereas taxis never seem to be there when needed, other vehicles or passers-by most certainly will block your way when trailing a suspect (which becomes the main activity in the second half of the game). Similarly annoyingly, it is not completely ensured for critical events to occur at the right time and in the right order. This, of course, is due to the real-time approach. The world doesn't stand still waiting for the protagonist. Once again realistic, but not necessarily helping motivation.

On the whole, it is all rather so-so. The theme is great, aspiration is high (just think how far Stock has come since Stein der Weisen!), production values are extensive – nevertheless, it just falls apart, it's all too mechanically fussy to really draw you in. By today's standards, after decades of attention span erosion, this is even less acceptable than back then.

Archived Review(s) ↓

Review by Mr Creosote (2002-12-08)

The early days of the Cold War. The USSR is blocking all land transports to the western sectors of Berlin. The USA have initiated an air bridge to supply the city. But Berlin is like a tiny island in what is going to be the GDR - when it comes to war, it'll be overrun by the Red Army immediately!

The game's story tells us that the US army, in order to prevent that, has smuggled an a-bomb into the city. This bomb disappears. There can't be an official investigation of course, so it is up to the CIA to find this deadly weapon before it gets into the wrong hands.

You're the agent Sam Porter and the job is almost fully up to you. You can travel freely through the different zones, either by foot (slow, but good for small distances) or taxi (calling one is only worth it for longer travels). The whole city is simulated like this, so you can even walk from one end to the other if you want - at least on the main streets.

You will meet a lot of inhabitants most of which are of course not involved and have nothing to say about the case. The hardest thing is to find out who does know something, even if he/she isn't aware of that. Classic detective work.

Some people will have to be convinced to talk, some will have to be tricked into opening their mouthes, some will lie to you - figuring out how still to get the full and true picture is the fun part.

The not-so-fun part is figuring out where to start. Sure, it might be realistic, but leaving the player in such confusion? Too much freedom for my taste.

What's really interesting about East vs West is the innovative technical ways it goes. The Amiga has a speech synthesizer, but the electric voices it produces are of course not suited for use in games. Recorded speech used too much disk space for a game on a few floppies.

The intro sequence is set in a cinema. A mute cinema? Of course not! The game box contained an audio cassette which contains the audio part of the intro as well as the music and speech for another longer cut scene in mid-game. The game just tells the player when to start playing the cassette. Nice way around a common technical limitation of the machines!

The second major difference to most Adventures is the graphics. It is in third person view, but from top down! If you're into newer games, you'll know this style from the more popular game Dream Web.

Since the game is mainly about conversation, the controls are quite different from the usual, too. There is no real extensive inventory, but conversations with other characters play like puzzles! You have to choose the topic to talk about, your approach (questioning, informing, threatening,...) and some more things in a very detailed way. This is a bit complicated, but as soon as you get used to the system, it works quite efficiently.

If you like mystery Adventures, East vs West certainly isn't a bad choice. It's lacking the neat design of really good games though. Still, it is a must-play for its historical importance. Limited technology didn't stop game designers to make their 'dream game' back then - they just thought of ways because they were still able to think...

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