Bethesda, the dev house best known today for their epic sandbox RPGs with their Elder Scrolls series, had been dabbling with the idea of wide open worlds for nearly as long as they had been in the business.
Though the idea of an “open world” has been around for years, pulling players into first-person with The Elder Scrolls: Arena and then stretching that out across an entire continent was amazingly ambitious. But three years earlier in 1991, they did it on a smaller scale with the city of Los Angeles with The Terminator.
Bethesda heavily leveraged The Terminator license into titles that ranged from a Doom-style FPS to a CRPG-like, grid-based shooter that created a number of interesting stories set within James Cameron’s universe. And just like the films, The Terminator was the first.
Players could decide whether to be Kyle Reese, the soldier sent from the future to find Sarah Connor, the mother of the Resistance’s leader. Or they could be The Terminator who was also sent back to the past with the single goal of finding her first and taking her out to prevent John Connor from ever leading humanity to victory over the machines. Either way, the first order of business is to find guns.
How you go about doing that is totally up to you. For example, as either Kyle or the Terminator, you could rob banks for cash to buy guns. Or, just steal the guns. Shopping was handled by actually moving a cursor around and indoor shot of the store and clicking on individual items. Vehicles can also be stolen and driven around LA and a map is also available to find out just where you are as well as help track down your prey. Going through the in-game yellow pages will also point the way to the stores you need to visit – or raid – or find other places like a shooting range to practice.
Sound familiar? It’s hard not to see the game as a sort of test bed of a few of the ideas Bethesda would later implement within their Elder Scrolls franchise. It was open, players could get into trouble with the law and shoot their way out, and everything was a moving target if you wanted to play that way. It could even be seen as a precursor to the 3D direction Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series would take much later.
The only goal in the game was either to take out Sarah Connor or The Terminator depending on whose side you chose to be. You could even tell Sarah, as Kyle, what to do once you found her and even give her a items to hang onto.
It was also visually minimalist with the 3D graphics rendering LA’s streets into giant, colored blocks and similarly bland looking poly people walking about that stood in harsh contrast to the 2D art standing in for the interiors of stores and banks. It was also far from being crowded, sometimes coming off as a more sparsely populated town than as a busy metropolitan megaplex on the West Coast.
But it was free roaming, not grid-based, offering an impressive degree of freedom within an urban jungle. You also needed a slightly beefy PC to run it smoothly. Even though it suggests a 386, that’s on the low end.
Technically, the game didn’t have to end as The Terminator. If you wanted to shoot up LA, you could, though you’re still not indestructible. It might take longer for you to die, but you can still get wrecked in the game. Kyle, on the other hand, wasn’t made for shooting his way through legions of cops especially if he didn’t want to draw the Terminator’s attention.
Bethesda would later follow it up with a number of other games which offered up some of the best variety on the license with settings, story, and even game mechanics whether it was the Doom-like Terminator Rampage or the CRPG-esque Terminator 2029.
The ad used the classic Schwarzenegger version with a few screenshots showing off a bit of the game but, oddly enough, none of the actual in-game action which the back of the box had also skipped out on. All of the shots are of the still images and cuts within the game but not of the actual gameplay which could have surprised players wondering if that’s what they would expect to play with.
Bethesda’s The Terminator broke ground on the kind of things that Bethesda would later roll into their fantasy franchise years later. It stands out as one of the titles that would define what Bethesda Softworks’ early years were like – bold, experimental, and willing to push the boundaries of technology to create virtual worlds.
As for the game itself, it was ahead of its time in some respects and tied down by its limitations which didn’t do it many favors on lesser powered PCs. Its nearly empty cityscape easily gave the impression of a vast open sandbox of opportunities yet could also be as boring since there wasn’t that much out there aside from more buildings and streets. But with all of the HD remakes being put out today, I wouldn’t mind seeing this make its own comeback.