To the Flying Machine (Oxford Is Taken)

jeff wayne's the war of the worlds - playstation - oxford is takenThe first two-level “arc”, for want of a better word, comes as a significant change of pace for The War of the Worlds. Where level five had us defending Oxford and eventually destroying the Martian base in the field to the south-east, level six reverses the situation: we start with a human base in that same field, and must work to destroy a new alien base built among the ruins of Oxford itself. The level also offers some significant new insights into Martian technology and architecture.

There are three pairs of levels following this format, meaning that The War of the Worlds has a total of fourteen levels across only eleven maps. (In this sense, the game is actually structured quite like a 2005-onwards series of Doctor Who – just shy of a dozen stand-alone adventures, with some two-parters strewn throughout the back half.) The game deploys a few tricks to stop this from feeling like a cheat: the second level in a given setting always features significant gameplay additions, with substantially different objectives and reconfigured terrain, and always livens up the visuals by changing the skybox. Where “Defend Oxford Against Invasion” was a moonlit level, “Oxford Is Taken” takes place in broad daylight.

More interestingly, these paired levels reflect the structure of The War of the Worlds itself. Wells’s book consists of two volumes, “The Coming of the Martians” and “The Earth Under the Martians” – titles which Wayne reuses for the A- and B-sides of his album. Neither the novel nor the album, however, quite live up to the promise of that latter title: the eucatastrophic conceit of the Martians’ succumbing to our bacteria means that the story’s second half focuses instead on the relatively swift collapse of the invasion. The darkly numinous idea of an Earth actually under Martian rule remains only that: a notion, a half-glimpsed terror, theorised and dreamt about but never portrayed. The PlayStation game, reconfiguring the story as an extended and evenly-matched military conflict, actually comes significantly closer to realising this idea – we don’t get a full picture of the Martian colonial project by any means, but we do get to see a version of Britain where the Martian forces are more fully entrenched, with a developed and varied array of alien engineering, architecture, and, if you like, gentrification. The game itself has a broadly bifurcated structure, hinging around a midpoint level centring on the same same event that occurs halfway through the novel and album; but on a more granular scale, these two-part levels also articulate something of the story’s doubled shape, the before-and-afterness that affords The War of the Worlds so much of its power. It would be going too far to suggest that these sojourns let the game explore such settings as Oxford in a deeper or more meaningful way; but speaking practically, they do help to develop a certain sense-of-place, which is a crucial and overlooked part of how video games work on us.

The opening flyover shows us our new base, then glides across the map to introduce us to our four objectives. Across the stream to the west stands a Human Farm, holding fifteen captives. Across the stream to the north is the Human Compound – a more complex structure, containing another fifteen prisoners. The ruins of Oxford City itself stand further afield, to the north-west: here looms another Human Farm with another fifteen captives, this one more heavily defended. Finally, and most intriguingly, we’re shown the woods in the far north of the map, where a Martian Flying-Machine is parked. This isn’t just a rescue – it’s a capture mission.

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We start the level with two Armoured Cars V1, a Mobile Artillery Unit, and one brand-new vehicle: the sublimely useless Fuel Tanker. A dark-blue truck carrying a silver cylindrical tank emblazoned with the red text “Inflammable Fuel Oil”, the Fuel Tanker looks much like the real tanker trucks that would become available only a few years after Wells’s novel was published, albeit with a much larger tank that’s more typical of trucks in use at the time of the game’s development. The Fuel Tanker’s weapon can be used only once, and that weapon is exploding. When we hit the R1 button, our controls are deactivated, the vehicle slows to a halt, and the camera drifts peacefully back as it’s enveloped by flame and, with oddly effective comedic timing, annihilates itself in a massive ball of fire. (This game is quite casual about letting us play as a suicide bomber. In a roundabout way, however, it echoes an abandoned storyline from an early draft of the novel, in which Wells had the Journalist fall in with a resistance cell rather than the Artilleryman, leading to a climax where, prepared to die, the Journalist carried a bomb towards a Fighting-Machine.)

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Subsequent levels make substantially heavier use of Fuel Tankers, but this one feels very thrown-in, as if the developers included it in some earlier version of the level and forgot to remove it. It’s not integrated into the level’s story – how it works is explained to us only if we take control of it, and it’s never mentioned otherwise. It’s also rather startlingly inappropriate to the level’s theme: of our four objectives here, three involve rescuing civilians from Martian buildings, and the other involves capturing an alien vehicle intact. In fact, of the game’s fourteen levels, this is easily the one where the presence of the already-useless Fuel Tanker would be most egregious.

The level is also unusual in that there’s quite a bit of freedom regarding the order in which we tackle our objectives. First, however, we have to find a way out of our base, as it’s effectively an island, with a river running right round us and no bridges to cross it. The nearby Works building, which stood uselessly nearby during the previous level, turns out to be quite important. Approaching the building, we meet an engineer (albeit one who looks like a soldier – I think you got your textures mixed up there, lads). The engineer tells us he can build us a temporary Bridge Section if we bring him some Scrap. There’s one heap, atop a hill nearby, which only the Artillery Unit’s treads have the traction to reach easily – something which might take the player all sorts of exciting Sisyphean misadventures to find out. When we deliver it to the Works building, the engineer turns it into a brand-new Bridge Section in a sprightly fifteen seconds.

jeff wayne's the war of the worlds - playstation - oxford is taken

At this point, there are two places we can deploy the Bridge Section, and two ways we can proceed: west to the Human Farm, or north to the Human Compound. (If we blow up the Works building before it has a chance to make a Bridge Section, it becomes impossible for us to leave our base, and our commander gets mildly snippy at us for dooming humanity: “Well done, you have managed to fail the mission!”) When we start the level, we’re facing towards the Farm, so we’ll discuss that route first. Just like the one we razed in Dover, the Farm consists of a central Martian building and three prison domes. This one is guarded by several Scout-Machines, a Bomb Turret, and of course the token iconic Fighting-Machine.

jeff wayne's the war of the worlds - playstation - oxford is takenjeff wayne's the war of the worlds - playstation - oxford is taken

Not all of the prisoners in the Farm, it turns out, are civilians. When we destroy the dome to the west, two soldiers escape, and make a beeline for the east corner of the field, where their ride is waiting. It’s at this point that we gain access to the level’s other new playable vehicle, and its best by far: the Special Forces Motorbike. It’s a dark-green military motorcycle with a gun mounted on its sidecar, and it’s just parked there in the field – a little mysteriously, since it wasn’t there during the previous level. (When will we get a prequel to explain this continuity error, Pixelogic?) This vehicle is unusual in that we can actually see the driver we’re controlling. Indeed, we control two characters simultaneously when we select it – the driver and his friend in the sidecar – which serves as a weird little reminder that we’re actually playing as a sort of gestalt consciousness. In addition to the music-player, the main menu offers access to a slideshow of playable vehicles – a slideshow which clearly wasn’t double-checked, as it features some spectacularly inaccurate statistics and descriptions. The Fuel Tanker is said to be “Used to deploy troops in the field,” which is pretty much the opposite of what it does; and the Motorbike’s tone-deaf description simply reads “These guys mean business!” Absolutely bizarre. If either of the soldiers are killed en route to the Motorbike, it will explode instantly. A useful feature.

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The game’s Motorbike appears to have been based on photos of the machine-gun motorcycles manufactured in 1917 by British company Matchless – vehicles intended for Russian use in the Great War, but which ultimately never saw action, and were instead sold off to private collectors. Rather than a machine gun, however, our version is fitted with a flare gun. The game is apologetic about this: “A Motorbike is available to use. It can only fire flares though,” our commander tells us, as if it can produce only useless lights. It seems that this is a dry understatement, however, because the Special Forces Motorbike is absurdly overpowered. When we hit the R1 button, it fires high into the sky a projectile… which splits apart at the apex of its trajectory, raining a fiery barrage of devastating missiles down across a wide swath of ground below it. It can vapourise an entire Martian base almost instantaneously. Granted, this attack is unwieldy – five seconds pass between launch and impact, making the Motorbike the only vehicle that can literally fire upon itself – but it can reload quickly, and as long as we stay put or advance steadily, we can easily arrange for this actual hellstorm to clear our way. The Motorbike also handles strangely, with the camera following it much closer to the ground than usual; as when we’re in the Armoured Lorry, we can rotate it only by steering, which makes aiming basically impossible. (Pity the poor fellow in the sidecar.) If we try to use the Motorbike to pick up Scrap, we just bounce off it.

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Meanwhile, if we take the Bridge Section round the back of our base and use it to cross the other way, we’ll reach the Human Compound. This structure consists of three adjacent fields enclosed by what look like smooth concrete walls (with some minimalist line patterns engraved, so we know they were built by aliens). The sole entrance and exit are blocked by blue laser fences; and each of the three fields contains a Martian security device, unique to this level: an autonomous turret which shoots a horizontal beam of mildly damaging blue energy, each roving alternately left and right to sweep its field like a security camera. (It’s impressive how casually our commander uses “laser”, an acronym which will not be coined until 1957. A prescient individual.)

jeff wayne's the war of the worlds - playstation - oxford is taken

With a heavy heart, I must confirm that The War of the Worlds has decided to be a puzzle game for a bit. Situated around the Compound are three other never-seen-before-this-level devices: the Control Boxes. These massive silver contraptions, with their sloping sides and flickering blue screens, resemble chubby, melting mockeries of our own cathode-ray-tube televisions. Which is a bit much, considering that they’re just switches. Shooting the Control Boxes does nothing: to interact with them, we must do the literal only other thing we can do in this game, which is to drive into them. The Control Boxes seem totally unaffected by having a massive military-converted truck ram them, however – we have to rely on those subtitular telegrams from our commander to know whether we’ve successfully interacted with them. The Control Boxes seem to activate, deactivate, or reactivate the lasers somehow, but the correlation is, to say the least, confusing. In any case, it turns out that the only way to deactivate all the lasers at once is to hit the three Control Boxes in a specific order, which we have to guess. The correct order is 3, 1, 2. Good puzzle, lads.

It’s a little odd to see the aliens use such a television-like device, since Wells’s short story “The Crystal Egg”, a sort of honorary prelude to The War of the Worlds, suggests that the Martians surveil distant places by means of crystalline ovoids which can provide a live two-way video feed. The game freely invents weird and colourful Martian architecture from level to level, but, alas, does not feature the Skype gems.

The Compound’s middle field opens out onto an area bordered by woods (or rather, those impassable greenish walls that games of a certain age use to represent woods), and containing three prison domes, without the central building that normally looms over them. We’re told to deactivate the lasers before freeing the civilians, since they might panic and get killed, but as usual, there’s no actual penalty if that happens. The game makes no comment whatsoever as to the purpose of the Human Compound, but it seems to be a sort of living-space for the captured humans. Presumably our blood is better when we’re bred and raised free-range. HG Wells offers us few hints regarding what Earth would actually look like under the Martians, but the Compound is an interesting little touch, showing that the developers were putting at least some thought into that question with their own expansion of the story.

Now that we’ve covered the west and north areas, we’re ready to move on to Oxford itself. There are two stone bridges into the city – one by the Farm, the other past the Compound. Each one is blocked by an Electric Fence, beside which stands a Control Box, but – brace yourself – each Control Box deactivates the Electric Fence on the other side of the map. Which, considering that the one by the Farm is one of the first things most players will see, is quite a confusing way of introducing them. Two pre-made Bridge Sections are hidden in the level, waiting to be picked up – one in the ditch just past the Compound, the other stashed behind the Bomb Turret in the corner by the Farm (perhaps the Martians snuck over and stole the one we had in the previous level, and that’s why it’s missing?). Whichever path we choose, we’ll conveniently find what we need to retrace our steps and take the other one.

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The recapture of Oxford itself is quite straightforward compared to the weirdly contrived adventure we’ve just been through: we have to destroy another Martian building, three domes, and some other Martian units. As we destroy the alien structures throughout the level, we find more Scrap, which we can bring back to the Works building to make more vehicles. For three heaps, we’ll get an Armoured Car V1; for three more, we’ll get another; and for four more after that, we’ll get an extra Artillery Unit. There’s something oddly satisfying about the idea of retaliating against the Martians with vehicles forged from the ruins of the unearthly alien fortresses we’ve torn down; but the fungible nature of Scrap, which can seemingly be created from anything and turned into anything else, makes this seem like the most ordinary thing in the world. We can’t build any terribly interesting vehicles in this level: the fun new ones, for whatever reason, are just lying around.

jeff wayne's the war of the worlds - playstation - oxford is takenjeff wayne's the war of the worlds - playstation - oxford is taken

The Martian airbase to the north of Oxford is a curious place. It consists of a blocky grey building with strange blue windows, seemingly built into the mountainside itself. Nearby stand two landing-pads, concrete octagons, on which the Flying-Machines are parked. It’s all very much in keeping with the brutalist aesthetic of the Human Compound – together with the CRT-like Control Boxes, the Martian aesthetic in this level is very 1950s indeed. As we approach, the nearer Flying-Machine rises slowly into the air and zooms away. It’s actually invincible for part of this animation, which allows us the odd experience of seeing this normally frail vehicle shrug off our attacks as it drifts towards the sky. We can blow it up after a few seconds, though.

The default soundtrack of the level is “The Eve of the War (Martian)“, the game’s second remix of the album’s opening song – the only one to earn the double dip. While not radically different from the “… (Human)” version used in level three – they’re both techno remixes by the same artists, and there’s only so much variance you can expect there – this version is slightly more adventurous. Its basic sound is much more synthesiser-heavy, and it makes copious use of samples from “Horsell Common”, particularly its opening synth riff. The tone here is more industrious, almost metropolitan: it conjures images of Martians busying themselves, constructing their new world, and feels uncannily optimistic.

Like the Oxford mission itself, “The Eve of the War” is split in two: before and after; human and Martian. If you think it might have made more thematic sense for the first Oxford level to have had the “The Eve of the War (Human)” rather than “Horsell Common”, thus reflecting the story’s before-and-after dichotomy in music, you can simply pause the game and use the menu to make it so. Who needs creative direction when you have a sufficiently customisable soundtrack?

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The image which the game’s music-player uses to illustrate “The Eve of the War (Martian)” is Geoff Taylor’s “Panic in the Streets”, a painting depicting a Fighting-Machine attack in urban London, with a low-angle view of civilians fleeing in confusion and terror as a building collapses behind them. The level of detail shades from impressionistic in the background to photorealistic in the foreground; the composition centres on an anonymous young woman in a green dress, her eyes wild and her face smeared with blood. Perhaps this is the Journalist’s fiancée Carrie; perhaps not. It really is a startling image, and it’s no wonder that Steven Spielberg recreated it for his own War of the Worlds film.

If the earlier remix, sticking fairly close to the original song, captures the portentous night that humanity made First Contact, then this latter remix represents the same event from the Martian perspective. It quietly reminds us that all the other remixes, despite their eerie or uncanny nature, maintain a fundamentally human ethos: we can almost imagine similarly alien-positive “… (Martian)” mixes of “The Spirit of Man”, “Brave New World”, “Horsell Common”, and so on; a whole phantom album.

This trace of the Martian perspective, specifically contrasted with the human one, is something of a holdover from the preceding year’s War of the Worlds PC game – the one from which the PlayStation game lifted many of its assets, and which allows the player the choice between controlling either the human or alien sides. (Speaking of Martian remixes: the PC game’s Martian intro sequence briefly features a rousing militaristic version of “The Red Weed”, though unfortunately it’s not developed into a full track.) It’s quite standard to have multiple campaigns in a real-time strategy game – consider Age of Empires, where the player can choose between twelve civilisations – but for the vehicle-bound, level-based PlayStation game, a second campaign would have meant adding a huge amount of content, so the developers’ decision to limit themselves to the human side is understandable. (Still: one wonders if a Martian campaign was ever considered, or if any work was done on one. Now that’s a buggy pre-alpha prototype I’d ritually sever my arm for.) The idea of playable Martian vehicles, however, is still irresistibly alluring: in the end, it seems that the developers took their cue from the Artilleryman.

In Wells’s novel, the Artilleryman spins a delusional fantasy of a human resistance force capturing and reverse-engineering a Fighting-Machine, turning the Martians’ technology against them. Wayne adapts this chapter into “Brave New World”, one of the album’s finest moments. The PlayStation game goes one further: it actually lets us do it. It’s a little strange that the game goes for the Flying-Machine rather than the obvious iconic value of the Fighting-Machine heist, almost as if we’ve skipped that one and gone straight for the weirder follow-up mission. Still: “Oxford Is Taken” ends with us living the Artilleryman’s dream, hijacking a Martian machine for our own side. And we get to pilot it, too – albeit in a later level.

Since the level is non-linear, it’s possible to capture the Flying-Machine before we’ve freed all the civilians, but everything about the thrust of the narrative tells us that the capture is our final goal. The technology is what matters; the people are incidental.

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This is a level where we’re told to rescue civilians while dodging lasers with a kamikaze petrol truck and a bike capable of calling down thermonuclear devastation; where we’re told, again and again, that the “Primary Objective” is to capture the Flying-Machine. This game has some funny ideas about the value of human life, but rarely is it quite so openly cavalier. With the weapons at our disposal, it’s all too easy to massacre every civilian in the process of rescuing them; so long as we tick all our boxes and secure the enemy weapon – complete the Primary Objective – we win. There’s some nihilistic commentary about the military-industrial complex in there somewhere. And so we leave the city of dreaming spires behind. In no other level does the triumphant “Ulla!” that marks our victory sound quite so drily comical.

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