Run For The Hills!
Amongst the horde of Tomb Raider clones, first person shooters, real-time strategy games and sport sims that weigh down shelves across the nation, every now and then a truly unique game emerges. And Sheep is one of them. Let's face it, how many computer games can you think of which involve herding sheep through 28 levels of ovine-shredding, bale bundling, flossy flattening obstacles of the kind that would make your average sheepdog run off with its tail between its legs?
The basic idea behind Sheep is simple enough; all you have to do is guide at least five of your flock of fluffy mammals from A to B without them being squashed, frozen, eaten, diced or otherwise reduced to their constituent parts along the way. Unfortunately sheep are pretty dim on the wider scale of things, and won't think twice before casually wandering in front of a combine harvester or leaping obliviously into a giant blender. The one thing you can rely on them to do is run away from you, although when they get seperated from their friends even this can be rather hit and miss.
Overall though Mind's Eye have done a great job in implementing "artificial stupidity" for the sheep, and getting them to do what you want them to is a real challenge. Sometimes it can get a little frustrating as you watch your herd run straight into a trap, but generally you have enough control over their movements to keep them going in roughly the right direction.
Shepherding essentially involves running along behind your sheep and hoping they all flock away from you, which can get a bit mind-numbing after a while. You do get a choice of four shepherds, but this has little obvious effect on the gameplay. Neither does your choice of which of the four breeds of sheep to use in each of the four levels in an episode - they all behave exactly the same as far as I can tell.
There is slightly more to it than that, but not much. Sneaking along on tip toes allows you to creep up on sheep, and if you are quick enough you can pick one up and carry it off, which can be very useful if you need to get it past a particularly tricky obstacle, or want to place a sheep on a button to open a door or activate machinery. Rather less usefully you can .. ahem .. mount a sheep at certain points in the game, and then ride around on its back for a while. Although charging headlong through a crowd knocking people flying can be mildly amusing, it really doesn't add anything to the game.
Some levels also include special areas which will alter your sheep, varying from a sheep dip which dyes them all sorts of bright colours to machines which kit them out in platemail armour, duffle coats or space suits to get past certain hazards. Some of these are simply for show, while some are actually genuinely useful, but either way there is something strangely amusing (not to mention downright surreal) about chasing a herd of tank-driving sheep through a brick wall.
Luckily the environments in which you find yourself are varied enough to keep things fairly interesting despite the at-times repetitive gameplay, with a seemingly never-ending array of weird and wonderful scenery, obstacles and hazards to navigate.
The game starts in familiar enough territory, placing you in a farm complete with tractors, electric fences and (rather bizarrely) shark-infested fields to watch out for, while bonus points can be earned by herding your sheep through chicken hutches and groups of line-dancing hicks. From here on in things get progressively stranger, and every four levels you find yourself in an entirely new environment. Star Trek style transporter pads and roaming robots await you aboard a space ship that looks like a cross between a PC and the Event Horizon, while rolling boulders and dinosaurs can crush your sheep in the jurassic episode.
It's not just the scenery and hazards which change either. The candy factory marks a welcome change of pace about half way through the game, with two of its four levels focusing on manipulating machinery to shove your sheep around on conveyor belts without you ever getting close to them. There are also some truly odd bonus levels to unlock, including a five-a-side football sub-game and a recreation of Snakes (a firm favourite with mobile phone owners across the world), although sadly accessing the bonus levels can be something of a chore and you're likely to miss most of them on your first time through the game.
The one thing that all of the settings have in common is big, bright and bizarre graphics. It's all very cartoonish, and although you will see whole flocks of sheep getting burnt, frozen, zapped, electrocuted, eaten, run over and otherwise reduced to mincemeat and fluff throughout the game, it's all done in a good-natured manner with a minimum of gore.
While the PlayStation version of the game is rather lacklustre when it comes to graphics, the PC version is sharp, colourful and fast moving. The levels are full of moving machinery, bouncy castles, people to knock over, and all manner of bizarre obstacles from jet fighters to exploding barrels, freezer rooms to vats of boiling oil and catapults to asteroids. Animations are simple but effective, and the sheep themselves look suitably cute and gormless as they canter brainlessly around the levels.
The action is broken up by short rendered cutscenes between different areas, showing your flock being trucked around the countryside, blasted into space on a rocket, and generally maltreated. There's also a hilarious intro movie to get you in the right mood, heavily inspired by "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind".
Sheep is certainly one of the most .. unusual games of recent years, and while the actual shepherding is rather repetitive, there is usually enough going on to keep you interested and amused. The constant changes in scenery and obstacles also help to lift the tedium of endlessly chasing sheep around brighly coloured mazes, and while the game is best handled in small doses it is addictive enough to keep you coming back for more. If you're looking for something completely different, Sheep is well worth a look. Silly but fun.
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