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US Gold Ltd
Arcade: Shoot-em-up
ZX Spectrum 48K/128K
Multiple schemes (see individual downloads)

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Jonathan Davies
Chris Bourne

There are three things that are guaranteed to make any reviewer's knees tremble - even one as hunky as myself: a 54-page A5-sized manual, a list of approximately 35 different control keys, and a deadline measured in nanoseconds. And all after I've just swallowed the last mouthful of Balisto.

But what is the relevance of all this, I hear tens of thousands of readers simultaneously cry? Well, the whole lot of them just fell through the letter box, along with a copy of Echelon. It's one of those awesomely complicated simulation games that I'm supposed to like so much, set on another planet just for a change.

Your task, should you choose to accept it, and I strongly suggest that you don't if you value your sanity, is to patrol the solar system's tenth planet, Isis, in your C-104 Tomahawk and try to find the base of a group of pirates that have been giving the Space Federation some hassle. In other words, an explore, collect and shoot game.

There are all sorts of puzzles to be solved in order to locate the base, mainly involving finding little flashing dots on the surface. These are 'clues', which are used to fill in the six maps which show how to get to the base. There is also a code to break which will let you decipher the pirates' transmissions or something.

Before you get stuck into that lot, however, there are hundreds of bits and pieces to get to grips with, including a teleporter for getting the things you collect back to base, an RPV for exploring the planet surface by remote control, a hyperdrive for hopping round the planet and all sorts of other things. Hence the 35 control keys.

In case you hadn't gathered, this is one helluva complicated game, not to be tackled by the faint hearted. Left-right-up-down-fire fans can forget it for a start, as the one thing this game isn't is a shoot 'em up, and any pretensions it may have in that directions are best forgotten.

The problem lies in the graphics, which are horribly sluggish. Wire-frame animation is normally pretty smooth on the Speccy (Starglider being a good benchmark). In Echelon, however, you can get the screen update rate down to under two frames per second if you try hard enough. This means that accurate combat is practically impossible, and is best avoided. The only solution to the problem is to turn off various bits of the display, such as the scrolling map and the reference grid on the ground. This speeds up the graphics no end, but makes it extremely hard to see where you re going.

This aside, though. Echelon has a lot going for it. The map is awesomely huge and is littered with different types of buildings, towers, rivers and bridges. There is even a series of training courses to help improve your skills, and a nice touch is the ability to get the RPV to track your ship as it flies around, so you can watch yourself pile into the ground from any number of different angles. There's no sound, though, which is a shame.

If it wasn't for the lack of graphical elegance, Echelon would be a Megagame for sure. It's still blimmin' good though, and gives you more bytes per pound than most other stuff around at the moment. You'll learn some novel yoga positions trying to handle the controls as well.

A brain-blendingly complicated space simulation with plenty of mileage in it.