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he’s played a wide range of classic PC games… and is terrible at most of them

February 16th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

Due to my 2016 ban on aquiring games, I hadn’t been keeping up much on gog.com. Turns out, during my absence, they did add a some oldies of interest. Which is heartening to see; it’s great that they stock all those indie titles but for us their primary contribution to gaming will always be keeping the classics alive.

Tanks outside a small colony.

First up is Imperium Galactica 2, the space-based 4x strategy game featuring realtime battles. I wrote about it many years ago and had mostly positive opinions, apart from complaining about how hard it is. I recall doing fine on easy mode, but on medium I always ended up overwhelmed by massive enemy fleets. I’m not sure if the game is really that unforgiving or if I was just playing incompetently. I guess I needed more industry to churn out more ships. Or more research centres to more quickly gain advanced tech, resulting in more powerful ships. Quantity, or quality? Or maybe both.

I do think it was probably a mistake to give one particular race (the KraHen) massive boosts to warship production, then make them immune to spying and unable to interact with anyone via diplomacy. In other words they have a big military advantage, while other means of slowing them down are unavailable. That seems a bit imbalanced to me. Apparently their one weakness is sucking at research but that never seemed to stop them steamrolling me.

Still I wish I had time to give it another try. I recall the colony-management, which was basically simcity in space, is quite engaging. Here you manage the usual 4x stuff like factories and research labs, but also you have to place utilities like housing, police stations, even parks. Plus you have a 3D view of each colony, and could zoom in for a look up close. Somehow these factors made your colonies feel a bit more important and real, opposed to a bunch of numbers and static images.

Then the battles were like something out of a RTS (a genre then in its heyday). Okay, a very simplistic one. Still, these features meant that, while I wouldn’t go as far as calling this game superior to (say) Master of Orion 2, it stood out from the 4x crowd.

Castle Brunwald – a sprawling, tough-as-nails, pain in the arse.

There’s also Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s an early member of the Lucasarts family, and I recall it being rather more unforgiving than their later adventures. For one thing, you can die (and probably will, repeatedly). There’s also the issue of the game letting you permanently leave an area containing some item that will get you past a later puzzle or problem. This doesn’t, I think, result in an unwinnable state, as there’s always an alternative route out of a location. That route may, however, involve more of those difficult and annoying fist-fights. Resulting in much angry button-mashing. You can of course go back to an old save, but the item may be well hidden, or you may not even know exactly what it is you need.

Okay, I admit I’m paraphrasing Rik’s review here. I don’t think I ever got past the castle (I tried telling the butler I was selling fine leather jackets). Indy’s second point-and-click outing, Fate of Atlantis, is definitely a lot less frustrating. The fighting is still there, but entirely optional, and you can’t permanently lose access to useful items.

Oh dear, now I’ve complained about another game being difficult. From now on: only writing about walking simulators.

The rookie wasn’t that sharp after all

February 6th, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Now that all of the CSI games have been half-heartedly evaluated (you’re welcome), we can turn our attention to more genuine retro content. So here’s a look back at the 90s Star Wars shooter that everyone with a CD drive owned, Rebel Assault.

rebelassaulttitle

what secrets lie within this ancient archive?

January 27th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

I’ve been sorting through old computer hardware lately and forcing myself to jettison some of it. I’ve always liked having boxes of spare parts, so I cling onto DVD drives, hard disks, and a Radeon 5770 that’s prone to overheating. I have to ask myself though, what do I see myself doing with four IDE cables? Am I going to build  a PC out of pre-2006 technology? Also I have three USB wifi dongles, so I should really chuck out the two from the previous decade. Epecially when I always connect my desktop to the router via ethernet anyway.

One item I came across was this:

zip

 

You may recall the zip disk: a form of removable magnetic disk, with its own dedicated drive. This particular example was bought in 2001 and could could store 100MB, about 70 times as much as a floppy disk. (re)Writable CDs already existed by this point, and had even greater capacity but I found the zip disks more convenient to use. With no need for faffing around with CD-burner software, you copied stuff via drag and drop, as easily as you would to a floppy. Also a zip disk was easier to fit in a pocket, having about the same dimensions as a floppy disk (albeit, about twice as thick).

I ended up buying a zip drive because they were fitted to many library PCs at my University. At that point we didn’t yet have internet connections in our college rooms, so, a zip disk proved the easiest way of moving large quantities of downloaded data to my own PC. Where by “data” I mean “abandonware games”. I still have them stashed on my current PC, many still unplayed, 16 years later.

Zips with greater storage did exist: there was a 250Mb version and in 2002 Iomega even announced a 750Mb disk. However, within a few years the format was killed off by the USB flash memory stick. I’m not sure if capacity was a deciding factor at first; I vaguely recall that around 2003-2004 the standard was 128-256MB for USB sticks.

However, zips did have one clear disadvantage. I mentioned them being convenient, but that only applied if the computer you wanted to use had a zip drive installed in the first place. If not then the disk was quite obviously useless. Zip drives were moderately popular, but never so much that you could assume one was going to be available when, say, visiting a friend or travelling on business. Whereas a stick could of course plug straight into a USB socket and would work with any vaguely modern PC. Plus USB sticks were cheaper than a zip drive + disk.

(I wonder how mad the university IT department was about all that cash spent on quickly-obselete drives)

My zip clung on a while for backup purposes – I’m kind of curious to know what’s on it. It must be some snapshot of important data I had around 2004. Possibly working files for an early version of this site?  I still have the drive, built into my old computer (so, yeah, I already have a pre-2006 PC…). which is currently hanging around the server room at work. Amazingly no-one’s told me to get rid of the damn thing yet.

2016: not a penny for Gaben or the gog.com guys

January 19th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

When I was 13 years old I had maybe 10 proper games for the family PC, and played them all thoroughly. Now, between my disc, steam and gog.com libraries, and I have over a hundred games I have yet to play.

Rows of them scowl at me from shelves, real or virtual, demanding answers as to why I’ve not given them more attention. Several old RPGs such as Ultima 7 demand their turn, asking exactly how long I’m going to take to complete Might and Magic 6 (been at it 18 months so far). Medieval Total War reminds me that commanding armies of knights and spearmen should be my kind of thing. Old Sierra adventures entice me back to the 90s. I behold so many games either untouched, or barely touched, and am constantly in a state of shame.

The key reason they remain unplayed is time. My existence is not what it was as a carefree 20something, and the demands of real life are significant. (They’re worth it though. Observe the ring on my finger).

I’ve also found that, even when I sit down to try something new, I end up staring at my library, paralysed with indecision. I’ve noticed a similar problem with Netflix – so many options, so little ability to commit. I guess it’s some fear that, if I don’t enjoy the game or fail to make progress, it will mean evenings wasted. So that can lead to replaying games with which I’m already familiar, which is a safe and comfortable option. So that’s how I ended up revisiting the Captal Wastelands of Fallout 3 last year. This doesn’t help the Unplayed list get shorter, of course. Also, looking at this in terms of my knowledge and experience as a gamer, my lack of boldness is denying myself the chance of discovering something new I might enjoy (and review here, if it’s suitable).

So last year I promised myself I would not buy any new games. The Unplayed list had expanded too far, it weighed on me too heavily. I vowed it would grow no further.

This required some willpower. In particular, I have been strongly wanting to get Fallout 4 and Dishonored 2. Also I’m always tempted by the pixelly VGA charms of oldies on gog.com. Even beardy RPGs and complicated strategy titles that I know I’ll never get far with. I had to harden my heart towards steam and gog sales, to delete the constant mails remding me of wonderful deals, to tell myself no Stoo, you do not have time to try Colonisation or Populous.

Still, I held firm. No purchases were made. Unfortunately this didn’t greatly help me reduce the unplayed list. In fact you’ll notice I’ve not added a review in about a year. However at least the list isn’t any longer! And it may go down this year – expect something Star Trek related and something early from Blizzard.

The ban has now been lifted, but, I’m still trying to keep purchases to a minimum. I guess last year had some lasting impact on my habits. If I get one recent game it’ll most likely be Dishonored 2, since the original was both excellent, and a better sequel to the Thief series than the 2014 Thief itself. As for buying oldies, well, I’m keeping at least a “no damn RPGs” rule seeing as I have about four other Might and Magics to play.

2016: Winning so hard

January 15th, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hi everyone.

2016 was generally considered to be a pretty bad year for all sorts of reasons, and as we’re probably all back to work, it seems a bit late for a retrospective. It’s days since, for example, Spotify sent me an end of year email to confirm that I basically use their premium service to listen to music that I already own but have lost the physical copy and/or mp3 of. And those carefree Boxing Day hours discovering the gentle delights of Inkle’s 80 Days (ported to the PC and very kindly gifted to us by Cape Guy Games) seem like months not days ago.

But on the other hand, it was our 15th year, and as we get older fellas like us probably need to keep a running record of what’s happened somewhere. (My own personal how-old-am-I-again-o-meter has swung from “ooh no worries, late 20s/early 30s” to “nearly f*****g 40 oh jesus” in the last couple of years, although the latter is no more true than the former, and wouldn’t really warrant any panic or swearing even if it were).

Dreamfall: A bit talky, but we kind of liked it.

Dreamfall: A bit talky, but we kind of liked it.

We started with our first and last discussion of the year, taking a look at Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Stoo then brought us a write-up of the 00s FPS Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior while I disappeared down a cul-de-sac of old football and racing games: Championship Manager 2006, Striker, Superkarts etc.

Juiced 2: Somehow not as good as the first one, with extra stupidity thrown in for good measure.

Juiced 2: Somehow not as good as the first one, with extra stupidity thrown in for good measure.

In the early part of the year we also decided to mark the site anniversary with a few pieces that were slightly different from our standard format reviews and discussions. I decided to go back through some of my older reviews and pick out some of the games that were important in terms of my history with the site, and with gaming in general, and then waffled on about them in slightly self-indulgent manner. To be honest, I had no idea whether anything worthwhile would result, but I did want to avoid simply reworking some old content.

When I Played: It all started with Wing Commander III.

When I Played: It all started with Wing Commander III.

Anyway, it all seemed to turn out ok (and I had a few messages from people who said nice things, which was, er, nice). Along similar lines, Stoo took some time to talk about his own gaming history, with Tales of a Former Flight Sim Fan.

Stoo on flight sims: “I was never a great pilot, for all my enthusiasm”

Stoo on flight sims: “I was never a great pilot, for all my enthusiasm”

Having clearly made the decision not to go back and rehash old reviews, we both then proceeded to rehash some old reviews. Speedball 2, Toonstruck and Diablo all received updated writeups, and I made another attempt to look at Sensible Soccer without being quite so much of a twat about it.

Football Glory: yet another sub-par 90s football game added to the FFG collection.

Football Glory: yet another sub-par 90s football game added to the FFG collection.

Journeying into the mid-late 00s brought middling results, most likely because of my choice of game: Stranglehold and Prey were a little disappointing, but I possibly enjoyed Space Siege more than most. Then after a fallow period I disappeared down a CSI-shaped rabbit hole and finished off our coverage of the series, including the oft-mentioned Nintendo DS release, CSI: Deadly Intent: The Hidden Cases.

RACE: Plenty of fun to be had, for a sim, beyond crashing driving the wrong way around the track.

RACE: Plenty of fun to be had, for a sim, beyond crashing and/or driving the wrong way around the track.

Things will continue in 2017, and who knows, maybe we’ll be back here again in 12 months with another smattering of new content to look back on. Thanks, as always, for reading, and all the best for the year ahead.

Out of darkness, out of mind, cast down into the Halls of the Blind

January 9th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

Looking back over Blizzard’s history, I wouldn’t refer to much of their output as particularly innovative. That’s not to say they’re not great developers, highly original thinking just isn’t their particular strength. The modus operandi has been to take an established genre, polish and tune it, and release a high quality game. Much more steady evolution than revolution.

Take Warcraft, which was basically Dune 2 with tanks swapped for orcs. Okay it was a bit clunky, but so was Dune 2. A couple of years later, around the time of Command and Conquer, Warcraft 2 was well received. By 1998 we were awash in realtime strategy games and Blizzard’s third effort in the genre, Starcraft, didn’t do a lot different beyond having three different armies. Yet thanks to all the care Blizzard put into assembling its various elements – frantic combat, base building, art direction – it went on to be one of the most successful games of its type. In particular, it had a huge multiplayer scene.

Or there’s World of Warcraft – which owed a lot to previous MMOs like Everquest. Its massive success wasn’t due to being something new, more like taking an existing formula and adjusting it, in this case I think particularly reducing level grinding and being more accessible to casual players.

Nowadays outside of sequels, Blizzard’s releases have all been their own spin on popular online gaming. Hearthstone is a card game, something like Magic Online. Heroes of the Storm represents Blizzard realising the kids are playing MOBAs like League of Legends. Overwatch is a Team-Fortress-esque shooter with scifi-cartoon aesthetics.

Diablo though, I think was an instance where they did try something new, the one game that forged its own (demon-strewn) path. Not to claim it was the first ever real-time isometric-view RPG. Yet there wasn’t much like it at the time, especially not on the PC. It took old-fashioned dungeon crawling, and added fast-paced action, current graphics and a slick, mouse-driven interface. Quests were simple, character stats kept to a few key essentials. Your goal was simple to carve your way through horders of monsters, furiously clicking your mouse to swing a sword or hurl fireballs. As they fell they dropped loot, which you endlessly sorted through, keeping upgrades to your current weapons and armour, and flogging the rest. It was a dark, gothic treadmill of chopping goatmen in half and looking for a sword with a few more damage points.

It was also, of course, massively successful. Ifirst mentioned it here on this site way back in about 2002, when it was just a few years old, but last year I felt a need to re-evaluate. To appreciate its place in gaming history we need to consider not only its own sequels but also other cRPGs that the series inspired. (even if, arguably, its sequel was the really influential one).

This year Diablo celebrates its 20th Anniversary. To mark the occasion and drum up some player nostalgia, Blizzard have released a tribute in the form of a limited-time event within Diablo 3, titled the Darkening of Tristram. It’s a recreation of the original game, featuring the entire 16-floor dungeon. It uses Diablo3 assets for levels and D3 monsters stand in for their original counterparts, but there are graphical filters put over the top to give us that late-90s low-resolution feel. Apparently the animation is even choppier, to match the original. Players and monsters can only move in 8 directions, and player walking speed is reduced to that steady trudge of the original.

The Darkening of Tristram is only around for January, but if I have time to play I’ll return here with my thoughts. I do hope they’ve brought back that wonderfully haunting acoustic guitar theme.

I felt a little like a dying clown, with a streak of rin tin tin

January 8th, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Happy New Year to you all. Hope you had a good Christmas.

Today’s review is of the last of Telltale’s attempts to make a decent CSI game: Fatal Conspiracy.

csifctitle

It’s in the game

December 24th, 2016

Written by: Rik

I like football games, possibly more than I actually like football. A couple of matches in the evening after work during the week is one of life’s simple pleasures. But recently I’ve found it difficult to find a footy game I can get on with. Not since PES 2008 (which. depending on your point of view, was either the worst of the series and death of modern PES, or the last hurrah for Pro Evo as we used to know it) have I invested a massive amount of time in a particular title, instead flitting between various reasonably modern versions of the two major franchises for a season or so without any of them really clicking for me.

Possibly they’re a bit too hard. This is difficult for me to admit, as someone who always felt that more complicated and nuanced football games represented progress, instead of constantly harking back to Sensible Soccer or Kick Off. As a hardened PES nut in the mid noughties I was fairly insufferable, demanding to play at the highest difficulty and scoffing at anyone with a preference for FIFA because it might have been easier to get to grips with. It was about understanding the game of football, us PES knobs used to say, and if you understood the game of football you’d know why PES was better. I never thought the time would come when I wanted an easier game.

*strokes beard* Of course, there hasn't been a really good football game since Pele's Soccer on the Atari 2600...

*strokes beard* Of course, there hasn’t been a really good football game since Pele’s Soccer on the Atari 2600…

These days, I find modern football games do replicate real football, but mainly in the sense that they’re a bit like playing in real life as an unfit 35 year old surrounded by keener and more athletic players: kind of familiar with what’s going on, but petrified of receiving the ball, desperate to get rid of it when it comes your way, and when you occasionally consider doing something vaguely clever you realise that to perform even a basic turn involves a delay of several seconds between thought and action.

In skilled hands, of course, I’m sure this is not the case. But otherwise they kind of feel like a throwback to FIFA ’97 – unresponsive players and animations not keeping up with the action – with stilted and frustrating on-pitch action the result. Bloody minded, dogged persistence can bring some sense of achievement and progress, but it all feels a little too much like hard work. A bit like when football games weren’t just about FIFA and PES, and there were viable, if flawed, third party options that had good bits and bad bits, and finding out provided a few hours of entertainment.

This wasn't the best year for FIFA, although there have arguably been worse since.

This wasn’t the best year for FIFA, although there have arguably been worse since.

There’s a bit of reluctance to look back in football games, as with football itself. Leaving aside the “Sensible Soccer is the best” crowd, the people who cling onto their favourite PES or FIFA from the past sort of seem a bit mad because of their refusal to move on. It seems a bit like me saying I’d rather support the 1992 First Division title winning Leeds team, or the 2001 Champions League semi-finalists, instead of the current rabble. But I think that might be where I find myself at the moment.

CSI: Unsolved!

December 18th, 2016

Written by: Rik

This is another review of a Nintendo DS game, kind of following on from this one, the reasons for which are explained here. Normal service (i.e. reviews of old PC games) will be resumed shortly.

Such was my fondness for CSI: Deadly Intent – The Hidden Cases, I would have been happy for subsequent games in the series to change as little as possible, to the extent that simply providing more cases using the exact same engine would have done me just fine. Realistically, that was never going to happen, given that even the most positive of contemporary reviews didn’t come close to mirroring the almost bizarre levels of enthusiasm that I have for that game.

To be fair, though, Other Ocean’s follow-up, CSI: Unsolved! (hereafter Unsolved, because I really can’t handle quite so many exclamation marks in the same piece) is very, very similar to its predecessor in lots of ways. They’re very recognisably related, and follow much the same format. But certain presentational changes have been made, all well-intentioned and with the aim of improvement, and unfortunately they all add up to an altogether inferior experience.

Start the game and you’re straight into a DS rendition of the TV show’s credit sequence. And, yes, this finally (finally!) includes the theme song, although it’s a bit of a cruise-ship cover version. The cast of characters is pretty much the same as before, except Sara Sidle returns in place of the suddenly-departed Riley Adams (so, basically, the Season 10 cast). In TV, the point of a credits sequence is to introduce the actors who are going to be starring in the show. In a game without any voice acting, you just get a run-down of the character names (in a bizarrely pixellated font, in this case).

CSI: Unsolved! continued »

Horseradish Hill and the Rhubarb Rapids

December 12th, 2016

Written by: Stoo

Today in “news from a year ago that we somehow missed”, that will be of interest to fans of classic platform games: Keen Dreams is available on Steam.

Most of the Keen series was published by shareware giants Apogee, later known as 3D Realms. However the developers, id software, had previously released games through Softdisk. After the first Keen trilogy was completed, id still had an outstanding contractual obligation to write a few games for their old publisher.

So, while this was a bit of a chore for iD, they used it as an opportunity to develop technology for the next keen. What resulted was a kind of prototype for Keen 4 and 5. It has the bolder, more cartoony graphics style of those later Keens, along with sloped floors and and some limited adlib card support. However not all the features of Keen 4 are present – there’s no pogo-stick, no background music and Keen can’t climb onto ledges. So Dreams is sometimes referred to as “Keen 3.5″.

keendreams01

It’s the most surreal of the series (it is a dream after all), putting you in a land of giant vegetables. So you’re up against killer broccoli and potato soldiers. Your weapon is different to the other games, instead of a zapper you throw little grenade things that only temporarily stun enemies. I suppose a spinoff like this is the place to goof around a little with gameplay mechanics.

Another other nickname for Dreams used to be “the lost episode”. The main Keen series has been well known to retro gamers, since two installments were given away for free, and Apogee continued continued to make their oldies available to order via mail or online (and they’ve been on Steam for a while now). Dreams however has been hard to find – it came from a small publisher, we hadn’t able to purchase it for years, and it didn’t appear in compilations with the other Keens.

However, it’s now no longer abandonware. What’s more, it’ll only set you back £2.80 on Steam. The blurb on steam says ” This classic DOS game has been updated to run on modern systems, with new Steam achievements and leaderboards”. I’m guessing that means it’s been recompiled for windows, and isn’t just bundled up with Dosbox.

(side note: the wikipedia page for Dreams says this and the later games had Parallax scrolling. This seems wrong to me – parallax is when the background scrolls at a different rate to the foreground. Which I’m pretty sure didn’t happen in any Keen. Or am I remembering wrong?)