Looking Glass and Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri
A retrospective on the beauty that was Looking Glass Studios, and its classic Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri.
By Bill Hiles | May 1, 2001

A Looking Glass classic.
1996. Though it was only five years ago in human chronology, think of it as 35 years ago in dog and computer software years. Independence Day and Twister were the blockbuster films that year. The summer Olympics came to Atlanta (and suffered a bombing). The Dallas Cowboys took Super Bowl XXX, the New York Yankees another World Series. Gas, on average, was $1.24 a gallon. ER and Seinfeld were the top TV shows. Everyone was doing the Macarena (well, almost everyone). Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole and won a second term. Monica hadn't indulged in fine Cubans yet (not that we knew of anyway). Britney, Christina, and the Backstreet Boys were still in the "Never Heard Of Them" file. The Unabomber was caught playing hermit in Montana…

To bastardize a quote from Dickens: "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. But it was an even better time for computer games…"

Gaming, 1996 Style

Terra Nova
If you had a Pentium 166 with 16MB of RAM that year, you were really cooking with jet fuel. And what great games you could look forward to playing. 1996 was the year that Quake, pushing 3D technology and design to the next level, exploded onto the scene. It was the year that also saw Lara Croft, in all her super-sized polygonal glory, make her debut in Tomb Raider, while a certain wise-cracking, alien zapping, one-man death machine named Duke blasted his way into our hearts and wallets with Duke Nukem 3D. Another soon-to-be classic that came out in 1996 was Mechwarrior 2 -- not only did it have great graphics and gameplay, it also featured one of the best soundtracks ever. And lest we forget, the all-time gaming champ Civilization II put a lock on our hard drives and stole away hours and hours of our life.

In all this gaming goodness, there was at least one note-worthy game that was overlooked. It was published by the late, great Looking Glass Studio, a company that was no stranger to being eclipsed by other games and publishers. Unfortunately, after finally getting the notice it deserved with such gems as Thief (1998) and Thief 2 (2000), not to mention its acclaimed follow up to 1994's System Shock, System Shock 2 (1999), the Cambridge, MA based studio abruptly closed its doors in 2000. Innovative. Original. Ahead of its time. All are fitting tributes to Looking Glass.

Four years before DOOM (1993), Looking Glass revolutionized computer RPG and action gaming when it introduced the technology behind Ultima Underworld (1992) -- arguably the first real-time, first-person perspective games ever made. John Carmack saw the tech demo for Underworld in 1991 at CES and thought he could improve on the technology. From that inspiration (or challenge) came id Software's Wolfenstein 3D (1992), DOOM, and Quake. Another case in point: Looking Glass' System Shock was a solid shooter that outdid DOOM II (1994) in almost every way -- with a near perfect marriage of story, immersion, and action, it has been hailed as the "Thinking Man's DOOM." Though it sold well, it never reached the frenzied popularity of id's shooter. In 1996, it happened again. Looking Glass took a fresh approach to the first-person shooter with Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri, only to see it lost in the shadow of that 30-ton gorilla known as Quake and drowned by such snappy utterances as "Hail to the king, baby" in Duke Nukem 3D.

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