Computer video falls short in excitement, action of a Hollywood thriller

January 03, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Peter Black's vision, sad to say, far exceeds both his production budget and the limits of today's CD-ROM technology.

Black is a software developer and aspiring novelist who owns a Los Angeles company called Xiphias. "Soft Kill" is his attempt to create something his publicists call "a full-length feature film developed exclusively for CD-ROM" -- a Tom Clancy-like thriller where computer viruses and radio jamming, not guns and bombs, are the weapons of choice for World War III.

The idea is intriguing. But "Soft Kill" fails to deliver. The plot is hackneyed, the characters are lifeless cardboard cutouts and the graphics aren't good enough for a Saturday morning cartoon show.

Xiphias also is using "Soft Kill" to launch something called the "Matrix Interface" -- a menu grid that Black hopes will become the standard format for telling stories on CD-ROM. But I found the matrix interface more an obstacle than a help.

"Soft Kill" contains the skeleton of a good plot, based on what appears to be extensive research by Black into a wide range of subjects.

The story opens at a U.S. satellite tracking center, where a technician scanning the Alaskan oil pipeline is stunned by an explosion that destroys a pumping station and blinds an intelligence satellite. An urgent call then goes out to Jeremy Schmidt, an aging operative for the Defense Intelligence Agency, who becomes caught in a save-the-world race against the clock with a wisecracking computer programmer.

The matrix interface, presented as a menu screen from which "Soft Kill" begins, slices the story into 10 columns and seven rows.

Each of the 70 "cells" defined by the rows and columns contains a snippet of action, typically running two to three minutes. There's an "author mode" that guides you through 23 of the 70 cells in 55 minutes, hitting all the plot's high points. Exploring all 70 cells requires 3 hours and 10 minutes.

What's most disappointing is the cells' content. Xiphias has taken photographs and added poorly drawn artwork to portray the "Soft Kill" characters. These images, which change only once or twice in each cell, are accompanied by dialogue, sound effects and music.

The result is something like listening to a radio drama while turning pages in a book.

Finally, "Soft Kill" is hobbled by some technical flaws. There are -- long, annoying pauses in the dialogue while more audio data is downloaded. The program allows users to call up text information during the story to explain such important details as how spy satellites work, but the user isn't always returned to the right place in the action after closing the window.

"Soft Kill," which is being distributed by Compton's New Media, could have been something spectacular if Xiphias had the full resources of a Hollywood studio. This type of CD-ROM will become exciting once personal computer technology allows full-screen, full-motion video in place of still photographs.

Soft Kill

* * 1/2

XTC * Developer: Xiphias-Compton's New Media; 1-800-862-2206

* Format: Windows, Macintosh

* Price: $39.95 list, $29 street

(Contact Mike Langberg by mail at 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif. 95190, by phone at (408) 920-5084, by fax at (408) 920-5917 or through the Internet at "cdrommike(at)".)

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