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Sunday, June 4, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tech Reviews

Johnny Mnemonic Is True Interactive CD-Rom Movie

Newsday

Two movies based on the same script and bearing the same title arrived recently on multimedia computer monitors and theater screens. The big-screen version of the movie "Johnny Mnemonic", from Sony's TriStar Pictures, stars Keanu Reeves. The interactive Johnny Mnemonic, from Sony Imagesoft, features a no-frills cast - TV actors, basketball player Kurt Rambis and 1993 Penthouse Pet of the Year Julie Strain - and cost only about one-tenth as much to make as its twin.

Of the two, the interactive CD-ROM version of author/screenwriter William Gibson's 21st-century cyberpunk tale is the more culturally significant entertainment event.

Originally published as a short story in Omni magazine in 1980, "Johnny Mnemonic" is a zeitgeist-defining cyberspace adventure with a streetwise "data courier" who transports confidential information on memory chips implanted in his brain. Johnny's current data cargo, an overload of valuable stolen specs of global importance, makes him a target of pursuing hit men. His download code has been destroyed. He has just 24 hours to unload the data before his brain implodes.

The double-disc CD-ROM Johnny Mnemonic, available for Windows and Macintosh, is worthy of an item in any newsweekly's Milestones section. It's the first electronic game that is truly an "interactive movie."

Unlike its most sophisticated predecessors, which shot actors against a blank screen and added computer-generated sets later, Johnny Mnemonic was shot like a Hollywood movie with actors in real sets - two hours of footage recorded with high-definition digital video Betacams is stored on more than a gigabyte of disc space.

And, until now, the live-action video flow of cinematic games has been routinely interrupted - by onscreen multimedia maps and text in Under a Killing Moon and by animated arcade-style aerial combat missions in Wing Commander III. With Johnny Mnemonic, the storytelling is full-screen and seamless motion-picture action. There aren't even any of the usually obligatory onscreen menus to disrupt the illusion that you are guiding actor Christopher Russell Gartin, as Johnny, through a gauntlet of gangsters and helping him find the secret code he needs to save his life.

Directing the action of Johnny Mnemonic is done via the keyboard's number pad. Whenever the movie's full-screen video narrows (black bands above and below the picture), it's time to interact by tapping a key. You can make Johnny look left or right, move forward, pick up and use electronic gadgets, open windows and doors, as well as punch, block or kick during real-time fight scenes.

The first disc's challenge is to search for the clues to the download code. Disc 2 gives you the option to download the lethal data immediately or to risk your life by waiting until you can pass it along to the right people, who can use the information you're carrying to benefit humanity.

A game may take 10 to 15 hours to complete (saving and continuing your progress at the end of each session). There are four possible endings and thousands of permutations: The game's artificial intelligence reassembles variables (like the download code and fighting modes) so they're different the second time you play. The developers at Propaganda Code expect Johnny Mnemonic to be a 30-to 40-hour experience for the average player.

The images are grainy and somewhat pixelated, which adds to the funky noirish B-movie look. Is the game-play as impressive as the fluidity of the visuals? Won't know for sure until we've logged a lot of hours playing this breakthrough interactive movie. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, be advised: This is an ultra-demanding game. A 486/66 PC or 68040/25 Macintosh will deliver only partial-screen play. For full-screen, you'll need a Pentium-powered PC, a Macintosh Quadra 630 or better, or a Mac PowerPC 601/60 or better, preferably with 16MB RAM. The game retails for $59.95

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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