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Vault of Regret: Jagged Alliance 2

April 4th, 2020

Written by: Rik

The Vault of Regret is a very large place, which houses dusty old game CDs and boxes, untouched digital libraries, and the metaphysical concepts of remorse and embarrassment. Here we write about all the games we should have played but haven’t, or that we have played but didn’t enjoy, among other things.

We live in strange and uncertain times. Consigned to our homes, the prevailing opinion seems to be that the current lockdown will lead to an abundance of free time that urgently needs to be filled with quarantine-friendly activities: hobbies, goals or #content. Each person’s feelings on the matter are likely to depend on their own circumstances, but personally, boredom is not one of the main emotions I am feeling at the moment.

Still, even the idea of having an extended period of free time to fill does make the mind turn to previously abandoned gaming projects, optimism undimmed by the hard realities of past experience (for example, my last review here marks the completion of a series of in-progress write-ups I thought might possibly be done by the end of 2019). And there’s plenty of unplayed stuff here already in the Vault of Regret (ah, here’s one now: *blows off dust* “Transfer from Cupboard of Shame – Box #1 of 20”). But at times like this, I do start to wonder: is it time to play Jagged Alliance 2 again? And finish it this time?

We could argue all day about whether you have to finish a game to review it (please, let’s not, though) but I do feel reasonably okay about what I wrote about the game here, and I was up front about where I got up to, and my own shortcomings. A lot of hours went into getting to where I got to, and I definitely enjoyed it up to that point, but ultimately I chickened out of the last 30% or so of the game.

It’s quite hard, you see. Although the game does a good job of helping the player negotiate a fairly detailed setup, even early battles can be tough encounters. As you make progress in liberating the island of Arulco from evil Queen Deidrianna’s forces, your enemy starts to fight back, attempting to retake previously conquered sectors and putting your mercenary-trained local militia to the test. Meanwhile, your offensive campaign gets much harder, and when it came to facing off against tanks, I started to feel like I wasn’t up to the challenge.

I suspect I should probably have made use of some of the more expensive and skilful mercenaries from the huge roster available, but I’d sort of developed an attachment to the motley bunch I’d started with. Even now, some of their individual utterances remain with me: just the other day, I found myself exclaiming “STUPID FOOLS PUSH ME TOO FAR!” (a favourite of Bobby ‘Steroid’ Gontarski) at an ire-inducing work e-mail.

And on that point, Jagged Alliance 2 has likely remained so popular with fans because it’s a game with personality. Although the merc sprites themselves have little to distinguish them, they do otherwise feel like individuals, and you have a sense that the game would be different with a completely new set of heroes. (And in that respect it reminds me of Midwinter, an older favourite of mine based around similar themes).

There’s definitely also a cheesy low-budget aspect to proceedings that even in 1999 was slightly at odds with the general direction of travel when it came to how video games were presenting themselves. The manual, for example, conveyed a rather ramshackle enthusiasm about the experience ahead that sort of convinced you that the game was going to be good, and included some fairly detailed tips for starting out, in lieu of any kind of tutorial or gentle introduction within the game itself.

This was also reflected in the early fan sites I remember, too: less-than-slick Web 1.0 Geocities affairs that were nevertheless chock-full of enthusiasm for the game and detailed information and tips, particularly about negotiating any bugs or glitches. (Although over the years that fandom has escalated somewhat to the kind of situation where hardcore forum-dwellers insist the game is best played with an unofficial mod that allows the player to customise their experience in potentially overwhelming detail).

Having had two previous stabs at the campaign: once when I bought it, then again when I reviewed it, I then spent some considerable time more recently with the generally-loathed 3D real-time remake Back in Action (which I thought was okay, actually), enjoying all the previous bits of the game I’d remembered and revisited, before again getting bogged down when things got tough.

I think, perhaps, it’s not meant to be. So until I finally feel ready to go through the early stages all over again, endlessly defend my towns and mines against counter-attacks, and shell out on the big hard-nut mercs that can wrestle a tank into submission, it’s time to consign this game, and my feelings towards it, to the dusty old vault.

Review: Alpha Protocol

March 21st, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Strange times, huh? Hope you’re all keeping safe.

Well anyway, we keep plugging away with new content, and in today’s review I return to Obsidian’s ‘Espionage RPG’ Alpha Protocol.

20(-ish) years of the PS2

March 8th, 2020

Written by: Rik

I’ve seen a few people mention that this week was the 20th anniversary of the PlayStation 2, which seemed a little early to me (this week was also the 20th anniversary of my wife and I getting together, and the two didn’t seem to quite add up) until I realised it was a reference to the original Japanese release.

In the UK, we didn’t get the machine until late 2000, and I vaguely recall ludicrous rumours about its power, as well as stock shortages upon initial release, which also added to its mystique. Despite all that, the launch games weren’t all that strong, and I still have the issue of Edge (#84) which delivered fairly sniffy write-ups (their favourite kind, of course) about the likes of Ridge Racer V and Tekken Tag Tournament.

Scan sourced from RetroCDN.

The PS2 is probably the console for which I have the fondest memories, although as with its predecessor, I bought a lot of the highly rated platform exclusives but failed to really get anywhere with them. My main priority was to be able to play Pro Evolution Soccer (although, as many retrospectives have acknowledged, the fact it worked as a DVD player too was a nice bonus), and so, with the exception of the Singstar and Guitar Hero games, most of my other favourites were titles that were also released on PC but were beyond the capabilities of my machine at the time.

As a result, I’ve actually written about their desktop equivalents here at some point, and although plenty of other 00s-era games we’ve covered were also released on PS2 (which we’ll also come to: this era saw differences between versions of multi-platform releases narrow somewhat) I’ll stick for now to the ones that I first played on console.

(I’m aware this is a very uncool list, but I can’t pretend to have used the console to play anything other than quite mainstream titles. Also all screens are – obviously – from the PC versions, although as most of them are from my old machine they are at least in 4:3 format).

20(-ish) years of the PS2 continued »

Soundtracks: Need for Speed: Carbon

March 7th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hello and welcome to the latest in the Soundtracks series, the title of which is fairly self-explanatory, but you can read more about its aims and intentions here.

Today’s game is Need for Speed: Carbon, a middling-to-good entry in the NFS canon, but one with some fairly interesting visual choices that create a vaguely sci-fi aesthetic. The combination of permanent blue darkness, motion blur and neon effects lend an otherworldly feeling to proceedings, with the car almost set aside from the road in the manner of 90s FMV racer MegaRace. Meanwhile, non-player characters that feature as part of the accompanying story-line dress like fighting game characters and are introduced as such. Such choices, along with the gentle difficulty curve, especially compared with immediate predecessor Most Wanted (a superior game, no doubt, but one that felt like a grinding battle at times) make it an interesting one to revisit.

Soundtracks: Need for Speed: Carbon continued »

Zug-Zug! – a quick Warcraft summary

February 26th, 2020

Written by: Stoo

I’d say that Warcraft is one of the most important series of games on PC, up there with Ultima, Civilization, Wing Commander and Leisure Suit Larry (just kidding). It’s particularly noteworthy since it’s been active, in one form or another, since 1994.

Warcraft started as an early realtime strategy, taking ideas from Dune 2 and swapping soldiers and tanks for orcs and knights. From here the games evolved and advanced over the course of two more strategy titles. Warcraft 2 was similar to the first but more refined. The third game brought in powerful hero units, lending a few RPG dynamics to the proceedings, also brought 3D graphics to the series.

Then Warcraft made the transition to MMORPG, and would become into one of the most famous and successful examples of its type. 15 (!) years on, WoW is not quite so dominant as in its glory days, but still going reasonably strong, having released its eighth expansion.

Along the way the setting grew from a simple tale of a single war, into a sprawling fantasy mythology. Within the world of Azeroth, many stories have now been told. There are numerous cultures, from doughty dwarves to vengeful blood elves, each of which the narrative has explored in detail. We have come to know countless characters, from noble heroes to the morally ambiguous, to bringers of ruin. We’ve seen both the continuing conflict between alliance and horde, and deadly new enemies emerge.

I will admit I never got on with the first game, but I recall gleefully sending in marauding trolls to smash up alliance cities in Warcraft 2. The later instalments tjem provided me with countless hours entertainment and many memories. Perhaps the personal highlight of Warcraft 3 was the idealistic young Thrall seeking a new home for his orcish people, after their years of slavery to the burning legion. Then in WoW – a game I freely admit consumed too much of my life, I’ll never forget discovering the ancient splendour of Ulduar, amidst the frigid mountains of Northrend. Or just goofing around Hillsbrad waiting for Alliance players to try attacking Tarren Mill.

The series deserves a proper, rather lengthier essay to discuss its significance, but I’m a Dad Gamer now. That means I grab what scraps of time I can to both play and write. So you’ll have to make do with this brief doffing of my cap for now. I was actually writing primarily just to remark that, with the addition of the first games to gog, the entire series is now available on digitial distribution. In fact a couple of installations have now benefitted from a bit of sprucing up. Here’s the rundown:

Warcraft: Orcs and Humans going for £4.59 on gog.com. As far as I can tell the game is untouched from its original state, so it’s a real trip back to the early days of RTS. The VGA graphics are fine by me, I was less keen on the clunky interface. Still, I plan on having another try in the near future.

Note that, like the title says, this really is just orcs and humans; the other races having not yet been created (I suppose we now have to retcon them into just sitting the war out. Goddamn lazy elves).

Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness – this is where the series starts to feel more recognisably like its current self. The two sides become coalitions of races, with the Human led alliance gaining elves and dwarves and the orcish horde joined by goblins and ogres. For an extra dimension to the combat it also adds naval units; oddly these didn’t make it to the next game.

On a practical note, it benefits from a more efficient interface, making it quicker to carry out basic operations like grouping up some soldiers and sending them into battle.

Also available on gog.com for £7.69, and for your money you get two versions of the game. You can play it with original 640×480 graphics, and if multiplayer is your thing (not mine at all) you can still connect to the battle.net servers. Which is kind of amazing when you think about it. Alternatively there’s a version with upscaled graphics more suited to your big modern monitor, however multiplayer here is limited to LAN.

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos – one of the greatest RTS games of its time. The hero units are the key feature; they gain experience, level up, and can be equipped with magical artefacts to boost their power. Each has unique abilities; some are straight up brawlers, others take a more supporting role. Using them effectively can turn the tide of battle even when outnumbered.

This isn’t really a game of battles between massive armies. Instead WC3 tends towards a tighter focus on smaller scale warfare. The heroes are at the focus, making it all a more personal business, leading a retinue of up to maybe a couple of dozen units.

Maps are dotted with extra details such as side-quests, and threats unrelated to the level’s main enemy. There might be a centaur encampment menacing a village, or a dragon lurking in a cave. Dealing with these secondary goals objectives brings extra rewards, and a chance to gain some experience for your hero.

The game features some excellent campaigns, that are both full of varied missions, and driven by the strong narrative. It also introduces some heroes who would later be main characters in World of Warcraft, like Thrall and Jaina Proudmore. In fact it basically puts the world in the state we saw it when WoW first launched.

Blizzard have recently released the “reforged” version of this game; you can get it from battle.net for £24.99. It features improved, highly detailed graphics and animation. Also, the custscenes have been reworked. I’ve seen a questions raised as to whether it’s worth the price tag if you already own WC3; I’ve not played it myself so will withold judgement for now. Otherwise I’d say WC3 is essential to own, in one form or another for any RTS fan. Or even if you’ve not played that sort of game but love WoW, give it a try. The first couple of campaigns aren’t too tough.

World of Warcraft Classic –  A return to what fans call “Vanilla” WoW. This is the game as it was originally, before 15 years of refinement, evolution and new content. I wasn’t around for this myself but I did play the first expansion, at a time when a lot of the original gameplay mechanics still were in place. Also the vanilla regions were still used for levelling up. So I reckon I have at least some idea of what the first days were like.

It was, perhaps a more frustrating time. I’m shuddering at the thought of spending an hour killing about a billion centaurs just to try and get 10 centaur hats to finish one damn quest. Or the endless grind of crafting skills, or the ridiculously convoluted system of hunter pet abilities.

 

Yet it was also a time with a much stronger sense of community. To run dungeons and raids (co-operative play that provides much shiny loot, but requires players to work together as a team) you were encouraged to get to know people, and ideally join guilds. Nowadays it’s all a bit anonymous with automated grouping functions and far more casual single-player content. We also felt a bit more of a sense of achievement back then when we got high-end gear; you had to work harder for it.

The world is bigger now, with more than double the zones to quest in. Yet it also somehow feels smaller when you zoom overhead at 200mph on your magic glowing dragon. Back then we went on foot, you had to immerse yourself in, and experience the world around you. That made it all a bit more real; living breathing places to explore instead of some scenery underneath you.

Those were also the days of barrens chat, of horde and alliance just randomly fighting at the crossroad for lolz. The days of leroy jenkins. Some sort of chaotic, free-wheeling fun has maybe been lost as the whole game becomes a bit more slick and refined.

It’s possible that all this nostalgia is bollocks, that we’re not all 25 anymore and don’t have five hours to gather herbs and try and organise people for a raid. Still, I wish I had time to give it a try.

I’m not sure if it would be ideal for someone who’s never actually played WoW before. Maybe, if you like your RPGs a bit more old-school. Anyway, access is included in a regular WoW subscription, so you can play whichever version takes your fancy. Or both at once if you somehow have time, which I think is basically unimaginable for anyone over 30.

Vault of Regret: Aliens vs Predator

February 19th, 2020

Written by: Rik

The Vault of Regret is a very large place, which houses dusty old game CDs and boxes, untouched digital libraries, and the metaphysical concepts of remorse and embarrassment. Here we write about all the games we should have played but haven’t, or that we have played but didn’t enjoy, among other things.

Over at Just Games Retro, The J Man recently wrote an excellent retrospective about the long-defunct 90s online shooter Aliens Online. As with all good retro writing, it provided great insight into a title of which I was not previously aware, while also inspiring me to dig into my own backlog for another tilt at something similar.

In other words, time to try again with Aliens vs Predator, a game which I first bought over 20 years ago (and again more recently, under the name Aliens vs Predator Classic 2000, so-called in order to distinguish it from developer Rebellion’s 2010 reboot).

In that time, I’ve made very little progress, but I periodically assume that the ravages of time have diminished the effectiveness of AvP’s ability to unsettle and scare, to the extent that I will be able to find my previous reticence laughable and make steady progress through the game while wondering why on earth I didn’t try it sooner.

Such thinking is clearly misguided, given that I’m an accredited gaming coward with a tendency to commit too readily to the atmosphere a game is trying to create, rendering me nervous and jumpy before anything significant has even happened. Back in the day, I lent my copy to a university friend and later wandered into his room to observe him playing the game with all the lights on and music blaring, half-heartedly blasting unsuccessfully at an Alien, which soon brought about his untimely demise. He was unmoved by these developments and turned to me, unimpressed: “I thought you said this game was meant to be scary?”

Plus, the logic that some chunkier polygons and blurrier textures would somehow make things easier ignores the fact that to this day I remain reluctant to revisit the 1986 version of Aliens on the Amstrad CPC, on account of it being extremely tense. Hell, even the side-scrolling Predator tie-in on the Atari ST had its moments, particularly when you found yourself in the sights of the eponymous hunter. In each case, the simple visuals did not mask the grim realities depicted: in Aliens, the static from the headcams of fallen colleagues always stayed with me; in Predator, it was the opening scenes that showed a crew of musclebound army men dashing into the jungle, their corpses littering the ground, or found hanging from trees, only moments later.

I enjoyed the films, but essentially, they show things going pretty badly (spoiler) for their human protagonists, often under fairly horrible circumstances, and given the choice, I would not really want to be put in their position, which is what the games give you the opportunity to do. Plus, you already know what’s going to happen. The opening marine level (about as far as I got on this latest attempt) has your commanding officer telling you to go through a lab containing Alien eggs. Oh, they’ve been sterilised, have they? Not to worry, eh? Well, you bloody well go in there. Even if they are fine, there’s going to be an Alien along eventually: they’re on the box, and in the title.

Yes, I know that the box and the title also tell you that the player doesn’t have to be a Colonial Marine – you can be the Alien! Or the Predator! And that connoisseurs of the series, and the genre, would rightly point out that this particular AvP game isn’t especially effective at building tension through a campaign of missions: the single-player mode is more like a series of individual maps loosely strung together. But I guess it’s time to admit that I want out: I don’t want to even pretend to be part of a world where these things exist.

I mean, if they ever made a movie based on Event Horizon (which may or may not still be as terrifying as it was when I first saw it, but I’ve not been especially keen to find out) I don’t think I’d want to play it. Except apparently the EA space horror title Dead Space is inspired by Event Horizon, and evidently at some point I did think that would be the kind of thing I might like. And so while the mood took me I thought I’d give that a go:

Ok, right, thanks but no thanks, see you later!

Review: Jazz Jackrabbit

January 28th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

We’re going back to 1994 for some DOS-based platforming action today in our review of Jazz Jackrabbit.

Soundtracks: FlatOut 2

January 26th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Soundtracks is where we take a look back at the use of licensed music in games. So far I’ve covered a couple of EA games – FIFA 2000 and Need for Speed: Underground, while Stoo added a touch of class to what was becoming a dangerously flippant series with a look at the music of Homeworld. There’s an overview and introduction to the series here if you want to know a little more.

This time we’re taking a look at FlatOut 2, an absolute beauty of an arcade racer that was perhaps a little overlooked at the time, with some reviewers placing undue emphasis on the slightly tasteless driver-through-the-windscreen mechanic and associated sub-games over the core racing, which was (and remains) thrilling stuff.

Soundtracks: FlatOut 2 continued »

Best of the 2010s

January 18th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hello. While we’ve already done one rather lengthy site retrospective so far this year, I hope you’ll permit this extra little piece of self-indulgence. With the end of the 2010s (or 10s, or whatever you call them) many chose to mark the occasion by selecting their top 10 games of the decade. My own thoughts were: I’m not sure if I’ve actually played 10 games that were released after 2010 (which isn’t quite true, although it’s close enough to be plausible).

However, though the rate of new content around these parts has slowed somewhat over the last 10 years, put together, it all adds up to a reasonably solid block of gaming to look back at. And, given that January is a generally pretty bleak time of the year, in the interests of spreading a little joy and positivity, I thought it might be worth reflecting on some of the best games I played, and wrote about, during that period, and highlighting a few favourites from each section.
 

Action – Tron 2.0

As noted recently, FPS coverage on FFG hasn’t been all that regular in recent times, but I pursued this one in a rare case of actually following up a recommendation from someone else (in this case The J Man, and I took several years to get around to it) regarding A Good Game That I Might Enjoy.

And, guess what, I did. Tron 2.0 remains visually striking (especially with the Killer App mod installed), and makes clever and appropriate use of the fact that Tron is about being sucked into an unfamiliar computer-based world, reconfiguring established FPS and RPG tropes in a subtle and effective manner.

Honourable mentions: Beyond Good & Evil (a favoured underdog of many, it seems) and Sid Meier’s Pirates! (another recommendation, this time from my Dad, who doesn’t play many games, but was nevertheless more ‘with it’ than me on this occasion).

 

Adventure – The Shivah

I rediscovered my love for adventure games through the work of Wadjet Eye Games. Technically I guess The Shivah isn’t their strongest title of those that I’ve played – it doesn’t hit the epic heights of the later instalments of the Blackwell series – but it was the one that made the breakthrough for me.

Well written and constructed, with strong voice performances, The Shivah‘s gentle difficulty curve, short playtime and multiple endings encourage repeat playthroughs.

Plus, in a decade in which gaming increasingly became associated with unpleasantness and stupidity, it was a refreshing reminder of this pastime’s more gentle and thoughtful characteristics.

Honourable mentions: Blackwell (obviously), and (less obviously) Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. We didn’t give the latter a particularly high score, but it’s a game that’s stayed with me nonetheless.

 

Racing – FlatOut 2

What, after all that Need for Speed? Look, you know I love Need for Speed, and that series’ best efforts (and even some of their middling ones) are certainly recalled with some fondness.

However, when it comes to one racing game that I want to recommend, it has to be FlatOut 2. Every time it comes on sale, I want to shout at everyone to buy and play it. Ignore everyone who says the best bits are the silly sub-games: it’s the racing itself that really satisfies.

Honourable mentions: Need for Speed: Most Wanted (the best of the Underground-era titles), the 2010 version of Hot Pursuit (in which Burnout developers Criterion gave the series some much-needed refreshment), and the cheerfully eccentric Test Drive Unlimited series.

 

RPG – The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

We’ve periodically toyed with the idea of each of us venturing far outside of our gaming comfort zones for the purposes of some kind of feature, although nothing really ever came of it, and to be honest most of the time my determined efforts to tackle something unusual have ended in humiliating failure (and no #content).

But the RPG has become a more forgiving beast as it’s entered the modern mainstream, with Stoo’s favourite, The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind arguably being a part of that process. When he declared he wasn’t such a big fan of the follow-up, at least to the extent that a review would one day be forthcoming, I decided to try and step in. And had a bloody good time, it has to be said.

Ok, so long-held and expressed gripes aren’t without foundation, but they don’t override the many enjoyable hours to be found while exploring and questing in Cyrodil. (And that’s a phrase I never thought I’d use).

Honourable mention: Look, I know it’s a bit cheap and shallow, but I did still kind of enjoy Space Siege.

 

Sport – Football Manager 2006

The 2010s were the decade in which I finally lost contact with the fortunes of the latest football games. Despite occasional dabbling, I pretty much stopped playing the newest entries from the Pro Evolution Soccer series (or indeed FIFA, which by common consensus took the top spot for arcade computer footy during this period), and though I enjoyed the opportunity to revisit my favourites from Pro Evo’s 00s glory days here, I’m not sure I can quite bring myself to rhapsodise again about their everlasting merits, in the manner of a myopic Sensible Soccer fan.

It may be the other side of the same coin to turn to another long-running series instead, but what I recall most fondly from the FFG sports section over the last 10 years is the opportunity to revisit Football (previously Championship) Manager. By the hefty standards of hardcore players, my 5 seasons or so of play for my review doesn’t exactly constitute material sufficient for a so-called deep-dive, but I enjoyed the opportunity to get lost in a version of the game again and reflect on what the series, in its various incarnations, does right and how it attracted (and has managed to maintain) such a devoted following. Even if the latest editions might be too complicated for some, the old ones still retain some of their considerable magic.

Honourable mention: New Star Soccer 5 was probably the best of the rest: a charming and original underdog that harked back to 80s 8-bit favourite, Footballer of the Year.

 

Strategy – Midwinter

It’s unfortunate, but sometimes during the process of revisiting an old game that you played first time around, you’re disappointed either by it and how badly it seems to have aged, or by yourself (and how badly you have aged, and how generally crap at games you’ve become), or a combination of both.

And so it is truly a joy indeed to be transported back in time so effectively, in this case to an alternative version of 1990, with all modern cynicism about crap graphics and sound erased by the fact that they still make you feel like you are actually alone and under attack on the snowy plains of Midwinter Isle.

Even better to find yourself successfully executing a plan that extends beyond simply skiing around aimlessly and giving poor Captain John Stark endless bruised and broken limbs.

Honourable mention: The Movies was a fun romp through 90s-era Bullfrog/00s-era Lionhead style territory, even if I do sort of regret the many hours spent creating my own movie, A Force for Bad.

Ok, so perhaps that’s quite enough looking back at what we’ve already done for the time being – let’s look forward to future adventures in retro(ish) gaming in 2020 and beyond! [Are you quite sure you’re alright? – concerned reader]

Review: Need for Speed: ProStreet

January 4th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hello!

Happy New Year to you all.

This is one I was sure I would have time to fit in at the end of 2019, but it’ll have to be our first review of 2020 instead.

Filling a long-standing gap in our coverage of the Need for Speed series, here’s a look at Need for Speed: ProStreet.