Leading a revolution is one thing. Having to do so in the punishing environment of a post-apocalyptic winter is a slightly more complicated matter. This is what faced players of Midwinter, a first person action and strategy game designed by Mike Singleton and Maelstrom Games. First arriving on the Atari ST and PC in 1989 and the Amiga a year later the game casts you initially as John Stark, a member of Midwinter Isle’s Free Villages Peace Force. A coup is being staged by General Masters and Stark must quickly rally a resistance to repel the takeover before it is too late.
It was definitely pretentious of the publishers to call it “the strategy game of the decade” right there on the box, when 1989 also saw the arrival of both Populous and Sim City, but there was a lot going on in Midwinter. The game was unique for a variety of reasons. The whole island was faithfully recreated in polygons to a level that was rarely seen – what you saw on the map was 1:1 with what you’d see for yourself. They might have been big polys but it was more than enough to convey the scope of the world you were inhabiting. And you’d see a lot of them over the course of the game too.
Though you take the role of Stark in the beginning, he is only the first link in a chain of 32 characters whom you can recruit to help you in the mission. Each has their own skills to bring to the game (some are great skiers, others can heal, etc) but their backstory is what can bring the true challenge to the game. Each is a character in their own right and not everyone likes each other so if you’re looking for someone in particular you may need to recruit others and have “a friend of a friend” to do the job for you. Stark is a good all-rounder but getting the right expert in your team might help you achieve specific tasks more easily. Good marksmen can better defend villages thanks to better aiming and talented drivers can handle snowmobiles in more difficult conditions.
In Midwinter your mode of transport went beyond just skiing as you could also use snowmobiles, a hang glider and in some locations a cable car. Each had their own pros and cons requiring skill and understanding of the terrain to make best use of them because it was just as easy to crash if you make a bad choice. And those crashes could take their toll on your character physically as injuries are location based. Damage to the legs can slow down your ability to ski whilst a head injury can totally negate any chance you have of sniping effectively. Having a doctor in your team can help get those badly injured member back in the game too… if you can get to them in time.
And the way time was managed was fascinating in that each character has a turn which represents a slice of time (two hours) in the day. Time in the day would advance once each character in your team had completed their two hour turn. Think of it like a turn in Civilization but with each unit representing a character and you getting control over their EXACT movement, not simply going from square to square. It’s an impressive feat of game design that allows real time simultaneous actions to work. With General Masters forces incrementally taking over the island, the time you have available becomes a precious resource to manage. Do you risk losing time recruiting more resistance members to hopefully maximise your time later or keep it lean and try to restore order as quickly as possible? Can you spare a moment to rest and recover or will the village you are hiding in be overrun before you can leave?
For the enterprising players it’s entirely possible to go directly to General Masters’ HQ and take him out (thus winning the game) but the element of risk is greatly increased if you are a resistance of one. That it even exists as an option is a testament to its open world design and the cleverness of the developers. I’ve never been successful enough to win the game but have held them back long enough to feel like I at least accomplished something. The moment I started losing my team members to major injuries usually signalled the beginning of the end as time swiftly punishes players who are forced to wait and heal.
The ST did the best it could at the time and Midwinter is an impressive technical achievement but the frame rate and those chunky polygons are what might hold the game back now for the modern audience and that’s a shame because I feel it’s the kind of concept that still feels fresh. Thankfully the PC version does a better job and can still be found on abandonware sites for those who are curious. The game did receive a sequel in 1991 with Midwinter II: Flames of Freedom which shifted the location to a more temperate climate and an increase in the options available to you in liberating a chain of islands. Attempts have been made more recently to revive the original concept but unfortunately it hasn’t come to fruition.
The core gameplay concepts are still very solid and are begging for a reboot using modern technology. Throw in some random factors for character locations or even a procedurally generated island and the potential for replay value could be immense. But those are just my hopes for a new game which may not ever come and it’s a shame because Midwinter really felt like it was years ahead of its time and still deserves to make a comeback.
Greatest Games is a feature where we highlight our favourite games from the past and try to explain what we think makes them great and worth searching out to play again. If you’ve got your own thoughts on the subject, please feel free to share them in the comments below.