Old Dogs Special: Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds

By Bill Gray 27 Sep 2018 0

No one would have believed in the last years of the 19th Century that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed we were being scrutinized as someone with a microscope, studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this earth with envious eyes. And slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us.

If you remember these words, voiced in deep baritone by Sir Richard Burton, then fused with Jeff Wayne’s progressive techno-rock background music, this article is for you. Here I speak of Rage/GT Interactive’s (spelled Atari) 1998 release of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (WOW for this article) for the PC. Based on the H G Wells novel and Wayne’s 1978 album of the same name, the game was an instant hit and today remains one of the most requested games on GOG.com. It featured graphics drawn directly from the album art and envisioned a Victorian England somewhat more Steampunk and advanced than reality, all done in period style that has carried over current interpretations such as the BBC faux documentary The Great Martian War and the popular miniature wargaming rules All Quiet on the Martian Front. WOW was also one of the first PC games that used 3D terrain and unit sprites, as well as missions determined by the player vice a scripted set to follow.

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Alas, times change, and the original computer game is simply too old to run on modern PC platforms, though there have been several attempts to modify it to do so. I’ve tried most myself and have never been able to get the thing to run. Until now. About three weeks ago I hit upon the right combination for my machine and have been dusting Martian tripods ever since.

Hot diggitty damn: Here’s how and what to expect from the game if you follow my lead.

The Eve of the War

Most modern machines are gonna be way overkill to run WOW. Right now, I’m using my wife’s Dell Windows 10 workstation, running at 3.4 MHZ with 8 GIGS RAM and plain old Intel on-the-motherboard HD graphics. Hardware is not a problem, but the WOW software will have to be modified and a few special switches in Windows 10 flipped to make it work. Also, please note that you will have to have the original game with its two CD ROMs and obviously a CD ROM drive to run them. There is no way I know of to make the game work without one of the CDs in the drive. Really a non-problem as external USB disc drives are ridiculously cheap, and you can still snag an original copy of the game on places like eBay. Just remember what I describe below allows it to work on my PC setup, but there are no absolutely guarantees it will work elsewhere.

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First, simply install the game normally from the Human Disc to your C Drive, remembering to keep the CD in the drive. The game should be located at C:\Program Files (x86)\Jeff Wayne's 'The War Of The Worlds'. In the root of this directory will be a file called wow.exe, which should be renamed wowold.exe. Replace it with a new wow.exe file that can be obtained via MediaFire, but you might have to weed through a couple of pop-up adverts in the process and your antivirus might trigger a warning. I use SOPHOS, have checked this issue several times and the file is clean as is the site itself. On MediaFire you will also find two PDFs detailing issues with WOW, once concerning general fixes, the other about the music. I have the album and its still available on Amazon, so I didn’t bother with the latter. You will also need to find the latest copy of a small file called smackw32.dll and place it in the root as well. Yes, there is one on the Human Disc, but you will need to get a later version if available. Fortunately, the file is available at a lot of reputable sites on the Internet. Finally, right click on the new wow.exe file to bring up the Properties dialog. Under the Compatibility tab click to run the game in Windows XP (Service Pack 3) mode, and you are almost finished. Almost.

OK, here’s the tricky part so be careful as you will have to edit the Windows 10 registry. In Windows pull up the Run dialog and type in 'regedit'. On the resulting screen find the registry location Computer\HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\WOW6432Node\Rage\Jeff Wayne's 'The War Of The Worlds'\1.00.000\Screen. In the right window you will see a list of entries, one of which is named Size and the other Support Screen Size. The former refers to screen resolution during gameplay, the latter for supporting screens like cut scenes, the research screen, intro and so on. Change the numerical entry for both to read 1280,1024. This represents the highest resolution the game can handle. Although the support screens default to 640,480 resolution, WOW will not change to the higher resolution from within the game. Thus, the cut scenes and so on will now run as a quarter size box in the upper left of your monitor but playing the game should be fine, full screen to boot.

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This registry tweak was the missing piece that I needed, and it works, having not had a single problem so far. But once again, for this last part, be careful and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Thunderchild

In terms of playing WOW, if you have any experience with games like Command & Conquer, you should do fine, but there are a few things unique. The game starts with some relatively hokey looking cutscenes whereby the Journalist from the book reads his story line as a briefing to the British general staff. At the end of this dialog the game deviates from Wells by noting the Martian incursion at Horsell Commons was defeated with the invaders now converging into an assembly area in northern Scotland. From there the player is taken to the first of two primary maps in the game, the Campaign Map.

The Campaign Map is divided into 30 geographic sectors with names like Grampian Mountains, which is the Martians’ primary base location. This map has four views, to include Unit (what units by type are in each sector), Resource (availability in sector of steel, coal and oil for humanity, copper, heavy metals – not a rock band – or human blood for Mars), Construction (production facilities with blinking icons indicating units being built in sector) and finally a Research Screen. The last screen looks like a file cabinet and each folder selected will indicate what type of research is available for each facility (e.g., a Munitions Factory upgrade to produce self-propelled artillery) if any. It also indicates the number of days for completion.

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Otherwise, the Campaign Map is a drag and drop. Units, which represent formations of vehicles and not just one, can be dragged to a destination sector, arrows appear to show its route and the clock starts ticking as it moves. A message appears when it reaches the turf chosen and the clock can be paused or speeded up as the player desires. Likewise, pressing and holding the right mouse button over a unit or facility will activate a small pull-down menu offering options like building more of the ubiquitous armored lorry with its 2 lb gun. Should a Construction Vehicle be present, the player can shift into the tactical Battle Map and activate an appropriate pull down to select, place and build specific facilities such as shipyards. New units and facilities automatically appear on the Campaign Map when enough time has elapsed for their production.

Combat occurs when a player’s unit invades an enemy held sector, or vice versa. Here the technique used is pretty RTS standard, but as noted before, there are no preset missions. The player decides when and to what sector his units will move, in what order and with what forces. He could also do nothing and let the enemy come to him. Like Command & Conquer, during tactical combat one or more Battle Map units are selected, and a destination point is picked, everyone moving in that direction until the shooting starts. Then the mouse is used to pick an enemy formation to target and guns blaze away. The tactical map represents typical terrain in the area and not all of the real estate within, but if the player is the defender, there will always be a friendly Command Post on hand as a preset enemy objective. If that facility is torched, then all other friendly forces in that sector ar lost, as in the two steel mills, munitions factory and oil refinery that don’t even appear on the Battle Map. Also, holding down the right mouse button over a friendly unit will activate a drop-down allowing specific orders to be issued as well as other functions. Combat concludes when one side or the other on the Battle Map loses all its units.

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But Battle or Campaign Map, I found the graphics to be quite good, and considering how old this game is, that is no small feat. You can’t zoom in or out, but animation was smooth and realistic while there are a lot of nice touches such as dust trails, shadows and the use of blackout lights during evening hours. Another spiffy touch is that if you are playing Martian, the screen has a healthy green tint to everything. Why? Because that’s what the environment looks like to those green eyeballed slugs from the Red Planet, that’s why.

The game ends when either the Martian home base in Scotland or the houses of Parliament are captured and destroyed. This is pre-Brexit, folks, so no automatic pulling for the Martians or deliberately allowing them to win.

Brave New World

I’ve only been at this a couple of weeks plus now, and I have yet to play the Martian side. Yet, a lot is coming back to me from before. I now know that Martian units are powerful, yet slow and extremely expensive to build or replace, in terms of both time and material. Human units are quick to build, move fast, but are kinda dinky on firepower. There are exceptions, namely British ironclads and heavy artillery emplacements, both with tremendous firepower and exceptionally long range. Indeed, I always have as many ironclads as I can muster supporting coastal provinces as the ”green eyes” have issues swimming, and they will have to capture the sector sometime. On the other hand, Martian heat rays are deadly, but don’t project all that far. It also didn’t take me more than a turn or two (and several dozen burning lorries) to remember not to defend forward sectors at the beginning of the contest and to never, EVER build production facilities with three sectors of the Martian front line.

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And did I mention it was fun? Seriously, my absolute favorite Battle Map confrontation is when I am down to my last sector, entrenched, defending the gates of London. Sure, I eventually lose, but with all the heavy guns and trenches I’ve deployed, I can guarantee the Martians won’t mount a second wave.

It’s been 40 years since Jeff Wayne first published the record album that started it all, and even today his War of the Worlds is still going strong. The stage version of his musical hit – this time with Liam Neeson as narrator – is now coming to the end of its 40th anniversary tour with the next production on 30th November in Glasgow at the SSE Hydrow Arena. The last showing concludes on 17th December at the Brighton Center.

Now that is longevity!  Just play the game and you’ll understand why.

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