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going legit is more trouble than it’s worth – the return of Garrett

March 25th, 2015

Written by: Stoo

Recently I’ve finally found the time to play through last year’s new instalment in the Thief series. This has been something of a priority; the first two were, for me, amongst the greatest PC games ever created. The experience of lurking in the shadows in that half medieval, half industrial city, sneaking past guards and exploring in search of treasure, has never really been matched. They were immersive on a level beyond almost anything else. Also, while it divided the fans, I thought the third entry was a rather solid 8/10. So I was keen to see how successful Eidos Montreal have been in revisiting the series, a full decade after Thief 3.

going legit is more trouble than it’s worth – the return of Garrett continued »

Lucasarts on gog: wave four

March 19th, 2015

Written by: Stoo

A while back I was saying, all this Star Wars stuff is great but can we have more classic Lucasarts graphic adventures please? Now gog have delievered! Along with a couple of other interesting non-SW titles

Loom: A personal favourite of mine. A haunting, atmospheric fantasy tale in a world of dark magic. It was known for an unusual interface – instead of picking up and using items, you cast musical spells to interact with the world around you. It’s a brief game and rather easy but still highly worthwhile. I hope at some point they can add the EGA original (if I recall right the dialogue was text-only but more extensive).
Monkey Island 2 Special Edition: I’m not sure I genuinely like the graphical facelift that was given to the first two Monkeys. I think maybe because while the art was redone, the animation is still rather basic? They feel a bit like something created in Flash. Still, the game underneath is one of the greatest of the graphic adventures, and you can revert back to Ye Olde VGA if you like.
Zak Mcracken and the alien mindbenders: One of their earliest adventures. Not played it but I believe it’s rather unforgiving by the standards of later Lucas adventures. Such as letting you make a mistake that makes the game unwinnable, in a way that you don’t realise until an hour later. I wouldn’t make this one a priority. Still, I kind of like to see oldies made available even when they aren’t all that playable or entertaining any more, especially when they come from a stable that went on to do much greater things. Just for the sake of preserving a bit of gaming history.
Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb: an early-2000s Tomb-raider-ish action adventure. Seeing how heavily Lara Croft drew from Indy’s concept and story themes, I always thought it was fair enough for him to then copy her gameplay. Interesting that they’ve gone straight to this one and skipped its predecessor Infernal Machine?
The Dig: From the later days of point-and-clickers, this one feels a bit like an Arthur C Clarke story, with 3 astronauts finding themselves stranded on an abandoned alien world. Unusually for Lucasarts, its played totally straight, with no comedy elements. I think enjoyed it more than Rik did, possibly just down to being more of a scifi fan, although I share his opinion that the ending was overtly sentimental.
Outlaws:  This was Lucas’ only non-star-wars first person shooter, going instead for a Wild West theme. It was powered by the same engine used for Dark Forces, which was a bit long in the tooth by 1997, so that might partially explain why the game was forgotten so quickly. Still, I’m tempted to give it a try.

the long twilight of the optical disc

March 15th, 2015

Written by: Stoo

After the graphics chip cooked itself for a second time, I’ve finally retired my 6 year old Acer and bought myself a new laptop. While deciding on the hardware configuration, one of the choices I had to make was what to put in the drive bays. A few years ago, it would have been very obvious that I wanted a DVD drive and a hard disk. Now however, Solid State drives are popular and increasingly affordable, and thus another option to consider. I couldn’t go for all three types of drive, as this particular laptop only has two bays.

So let’s weigh up what each drive offers:

SSD – fast! With windows installed on one of these a laptop boots in seconds.
HDD – still cheaper per gigabyte than an SSD and therefore more economical if you want large amounts of storage space.
DVD – required to load anything off a DVD or CD, obviously.

Ultimately it’s the DVD I decided to go without. This then is the first PC I’ve ever owned, without any sort of optical drive. It’s an odd feeling, like something fundamental is missing. CD-ROM drives were standard features in PCs over twenty years ago. DVD drives became commonplace in the 2000s. Now I have nowhere to insert one of those familiar shiny disks. I had to ask myself, though, how often do I actually need to do that? So much of our software and media comes over the internet these days. I can count on one hand the number of games I bought on physical disks in the past 5 years, and movies are so easy to get via google play (or your service of choice). I have another PC (desktop) for when I need to read off a disk, and I can make ISOs to put on the laptop if required. Even if I didn’t I could get an external DVD drive. Which would spend a lot of time sat in a drawer.

Optical discs aren’t dead yet. We do however seem to be in the age of their long, slow decline, heading towards a future where everything comes from that one big network we call the internet, rather than the producer copying it to a little physical package then the user copying it off again onto their own device. I mean, that’s been standard on tablets and phones (which are just little computers themselves) for years now anyway. It’s just plain more efficient. Times change, and being a PC user isn’t what it was in the 90s, or even the 2000s. We’ll just have to accept that, even if we at FFG towers use that latest technology to run 20 year old games.

It’s a bit of a self-indulgent joke for nerds in their 30s and upwards to point at a floppy disk and comment about modern teenagers not having a clue what that is. I wonder if in 10 years time we’ll be saying the same about CDs. Or maybe they’ll dimly remember Blu-rays as the last gasp of the optical disc, something their parents used before finally moving over to streaming everything off online services.

What is the work of God, and what is the work of man?

March 13th, 2015

Written by: Rik

Hello!

Adventure games! You remember them – the point and click ones? With the blocky graphics? Well, they’re back, apparently, although evidently I wasn’t paying attention.

Cheating our site rules slightly – although not really, since the original release falls within acceptable limits (don’t worry, it was agreed by the board, and shareholders) – here’s a quick look at The Shivah.

shivahtitle

The end of Maxis (mostly?)

March 5th, 2015

Written by: Stoo

If you follow gaming news at all you’ve probably already heard this: the headquarters of Maxis has been shut down by their corporate overlords at EA. Some satellite studios remain but it’s unsure what that means for the future of Maxis.

It’s a sad moment particularly for those of us who have been gaming on the PC for decades. Maxis have been around since 1987, and first brought us the famous game of civic planning, Simcity. It spawned a number of sequels, and I remain a fan Simcity 2000, which somehow has the right mix of retro isometric-view charm, accessibility and attention to detail. The next two were, I believe, quite well received. The last outing was more controversial, due to small city sizes and the requirement to be online even for single player.

Meanwhile their other most well known line was the Sims, which proved that the ordinary everyday life of a family can turn out to be source material for a game. I never got into it myself but it shas clearly been very popular. Although the wife tells me the last installment had some problems. Meanwhile, Maxis did also, between these big names, bring out a bunch of other titles. Some of these are little known historical curiosities such as Simfarm. They also brought us Spore, with its rather ambitious goal of letting players guide an alien race all the way through its development from primitive life to cities to interstellar colonies.

EA have a bit of a history of buying up respected developers then later closing them down. In 2004 they killed off Origin, who created landmark PC series Wing Commander and Ultima. In 2003 they did it to Westwood, the guys who were enormously influential in shaping the realtime strategy genre.  Now I think about it, this was the fate of Bullfrog also. Maybe EA had their financial reasons for this latest culling, maybe the fan ire towards the latest sim and simcity games played a part, but still I imagine a lot of fans are rather pissed off today.

This is making me think that, to properly pay tribute to Maxis, I should return to simcity 2000. I never did quite figure out how to best integrate a rail network into the growing metropolis of Stootopia…

The Serpent’s Curse: Part 2

February 24th, 2015

Written by: Rik

It’s taken me a while to get around to it, but I recently played through the second part of the latest Broken Sword game, The Serpent’s Curse. I thought I’d share some brief thoughts [gee, thanks! – a reader].

I think I was expecting to not enjoy the second part as much as the first – which I really did like – and that has largely proved to be the case. I suppose I was fond of part one because it mainly involved capering about in cities, trying to get to the bottom of something as down to earth as an art theft, which is where I feel Broken Sword has always been at its strongest.

At the midway point, however, it became apparent that DARK AND UNKNOWN FORCES may be involved, and my spidey-sense detected (correctly, as it turned out) that the second part would involve flying off to remote destinations, finding secret trap doors in old buildings, some puzzles involving symbols, and an unfathomable conclusion.

I really can't get too excited about this kind of thing.

I really can’t get too excited about this kind of thing.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never really been able to follow the story in these games. I’d have to pause before I could give you the subtitle of any of the previous efforts, and I certainly couldn’t tell you how they related to what actually goes on. Even with this one still fairly fresh in the memory, I still couldn’t even tell you why it’s actually called “The Serpent’s Curse”. There aren’t even any snakes in it! AHAHAHAHAHAH! *falls off chair* [You’re fired – FFG shareholders]

What this means is that, just when the story is supposed to be building momentum, I start to lose interest. The good bits are always the incidentals, the stuff that has little to do with any mystic ancient artefacts and everything to do with trying to work out how George can talk his way past an obstructive minor character. I’d almost rather George and Nicole ran a detective agency and just quit with the rest of it.

Aside from the story, I enjoyed some of the puzzles in this second part, but for others I had to make use of the hint system (which is a welcome feature, incidentally). There was, of course, a symbol decoding effort, which I just didn’t have the patience for. Oh, and a ridiculous one involving a cockroach and some jam. And at least two involving goats (fans of the first game rejoice!)

George vs the Goat. And a gun.

George vs the Goat. And a gun.

Taken as a whole, I still rather enjoyed The Serpent’s Curse. I particularly liked the fact that George and Nicole work through most things together, and when they’re split up you do at least know what the other is doing (which hasn’t always been the case). As I mentioned before, it all looks great, and there aren’t as any major tonal missteps this time – at least until the very, very end, where there are a couple of clunkers. Despite some flaws, though, it represents a step forward for the series for the first time in years, and I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s the strongest Broken Sword game yet.

[EDIT: Just a quick note to point out that it was the Android version, not PC, that I played. I have no idea if they're different. Also, I forgot to mention that you should definitely play this game if you'd like to hear people say the word "ouroboros" a lot.]

But I feel good

February 18th, 2015

Written by: Rik

Hello there.

You’ve probably noticed that we’re in the early stages of the 2015 Cricket World Cup. [Cricket has a World Cup? - a reader]

Ahem. Well, anyway, in case you’re in the mood for a cricket game, we have one here – Brian Lara International Cricket 2007.

BLIC2007titles

Eight out of ten

February 15th, 2015

Written by: Rik

Eurogamer recently announced that it was dropping review scores – pointing to, among other things, the increasingly fluid nature of development, the problems associated with using a single numerical score to summarise a series of words (and the ensuing arguments about that score), and the nefarious influence of review-aggregating sites like Metacritic on game development and the industry in general. I think it’s a good move – although for old lags like us who have the benefit of looking at games long after they’re released, with a small audience who hopefully come for the words rather than the numbers, scores are harmless enough as a quick summary of enjoyment and quality.

Don't talk to me about Aliens on the CPC. Just. Don't.

Don’t talk to me about Aliens on the CPC. Just. Don’t.

Anyway, the whole thing got me thinking about the many years I’ve spent reading reviews and the different systems various publications used. Without wanting to produce an exhaustive list or summary, I thought I’d go back and take a look at some of the magazines I grew up with, aided by a number of archived scans (and thanks, incidentally, to the folk who spend their time providing such a resource).

In the mid-late 80s, and the time – in our household, at least – of the Amstrad CPC, Amstrad Computer User was my first regular source of games coverage. With the CPC being a computer, though, it obviously wasn’t all about reviews of the latest games, with a significant proportion of the magazine devoted to hardware, programming and the rest of it. Whether that contributed to the rather conservative and grown-up feeling ACU had, at least for a time, I don’t know, although they did often recognise the front-cover appeal of gaming ahead of, say, a feature about accounting software.

Anyway, the reviews had a rather interesting approach – much of the descriptive element was covered in a main body of text, and then the opinions of three reviewers would appear below, with each giving a score out of 20. There was no attempt at discussion, or at averaging out the scores to give some kind of ‘overall verdict’ – as if this would somehow be definitive – and no boastful preamble about how their scoring system was ‘the one to be trusted’. Each reviewer had limited space to give their thoughts, and it was obvious at times that each hadn’t had a chance to battle through to a game’s later levels, but looking back now, it seems rather ahead of its time – some information, some opinion, a rough score, and the opportunity for the player to find out about the rest for him or herself.

82% plus 78% plus 85% = tinned curry

82% plus 78% plus 85% = tinned curry.

Sadly, a couple of redesigns later, the magazine had drifted into more familiar territory, with a single reviewer awarding percentage ratings for (groan) ‘Graffix’, ‘Sonix’ and ‘Playability’. Bizarrely, the overall rating was not given as a percentage but as a cartoon picture.

By this point, we’d also started getting rival publication Amstrad Action (an early – in fact, the earliest – Future Publishing effort), a magazine that also referred to ‘Graphics’ and ‘Sonics’ but did at least spell them correctly. Other factors in the overall percentage score were ‘Grab Factor’ – ie the immediate appeal, and ‘Staying Power’ – how long you were likely to keep playing. The main reviewer was named and awarded the score, but there was usually room for a short second opinion boxout from another writer. Scores for individual elements with an overall percentage were fast becoming a staple format.

Future’s ST magazine, ST Format, also identified immediate impact and lasting impression as key factors that needed to be quantified, albeit with a slightly more vague mark out of ten, along with a mark for ‘Intelligence’, which, as the introduction to the review page helpfully explained, meant “How clever do you need to be to tackle the game? Puzzle and strategy games should be tough; few shoot ‘em ups are mentally taxing.” Presumably this didn’t factor into the final score – and, as more and more elements were added into the mix, alongside unlikely claims of ‘accuracy’, review scores occasionally attracted the attention of the mathematically-minded, whose correspondence appeared in the letters pages demanding to know how what calculations were used in coming up with the overall rating.

During this time I was also introduced to the concept of a multi-format magazine, and Advanced Computer Entertainment (ACE, another Future effort) was briefly a regular in my home after it forged a reputation for having the most reliable reviews. Here, the instant and lasting appeal of the game was removed from the scoring system and into a separate line graph predicting how interested you’d be in the game after an hour, a day, a week, a month and a year. Again, the amount of thinking required (the ‘IQ Factor’) was given a numerical score. An overall rating took the graph and the numerical ratings (including something called a ‘Fun Factor’ – as ex-PC Zone writer Steve Hill once said, “Fun is hardly a quantifiable constant”) into account, and was a mark out of 1000, which certainly had a whiff of Spinal Tap about it. My Dad became incredibly annoyed by the rating given in ACE’s review of French adventure game B.A.T, and it was never seen in the house again after that.

725/1000 for Space Ace? Lunacy.

725/1000 for Space Ace? Lunacy.

I’d enjoyed having a games-only mag to read though, and a Christmas gift of an Atari Lynx meant I dabbled with the console kids for a time, becoming a semi-regular reader of Computer and Video Games (CVG). The partisan Spectrum/Amiga baiting that I was used to was replaced with a calmer egalitarian approach, albeit one motivated by a desire not to piss off readers, with some fairly transparent pandering which included writers being asked to name their favourite console, and each naming a different one. Still, at least it meant someone said they liked the Lynx, even if they were lying.

CVG reviews circa 1993 were generally short descriptive paragraphs plopped around multiple screenshots and boxouts, including those where members of the reviewing team gave their opinion on the game in question. Ratings were presented a little like a machine that had been tasked with calculating a title’s overall merits – aside from percentage ratings for graphics, sound, (dun dun duh) gameplay, and value, there were also marks out of ten ascribed to ‘strategy’, ‘skill’, ‘action’ and ‘reflexes’.

Soon enough, we got our first PC, and I graduated to PC Zone, probably my favourite magazine of all time. As far as ratings went, Zone settled for an overall percentage, which gradually became the norm as publications came to see complicated systems as largely meaningless. It still didn’t stop people quibbling about the odd 1% here and there, though, especially at the top end. After some correspondence from a reader about old games remaining in the Zone Buyer’s Guide for too long, they trialled a system which saw older games rescored over time, when measured against the new genre leaders. It was quietly abandoned a few issues later.

Early 90s CVG: likely to give you a headache.

Early 90s CVG: likely to give you a headache.

As a bone-fide console owner, and frequent train traveller, in the early-mid 00s, I found myself an occasional reader of Edge, and for all of its po-faced ridiculousness, they never made too much of a meal of scores, or a complicated rating system. However much I despised their snooty nonsense, even I couldn’t suppress a grin when they updated their explanation of their scoring system to read, “10 = ten, 9 = nine…” and so on. Surely, dear reader, you don’t need us to explain the concept of a mark out of ten to you?

As many comments sections show, some people do need the explanation, the justification, the policy, the ‘calculation’, and for Eurogamer, the problems probably started to outweigh the benefits. While music and film critics have also used – and continue to use – scoring systems (although some don’t), gaming is fairly unique in terms of range and complexity of, and the importance it seems to ascribe to, a numerical value plopped at the end of a review. Unless we can get to a place where they’re seen as nothing more than a summary, and a flawed and often inconsistent one, then they maybe do more harm than good. Perhaps taking them out of the equation for a while is a necessary part of getting to that place.

If you’re now feeling nostalgic for magazines of old, check out some of the following:

www.atarimania.com

retropdfs.wordpress.com

www.cpcwiki.eu

www.oldgamemags.com

Twin brothers who learned to fight on the cold, tough streets

February 8th, 2015

Written by: Rik

It may have passed largely unnoticed amidst all the excitement about Lucasarts, but GOG recently announced the addition of the Double Dragon trilogy to their catalogue. As far as I can tell, it looks like a new package, based on the original arcade ROMS, with a new overlay and a few extra features.

[A quick note - no, we do not have any kind of commercial or affiliate deal with GOG or anyone else! I know we've been mentioning them a lot recently.]

The first Double Dragon was one of those titles ported to every system under the sun; even the Atari Lynx got a version, although it arrived so late in the system’s commercial life that even die-hard Lynx bods had largely given up (it was one of a series of games produced by Telegames, who also brought ports of Megadrive hits European Club Soccer and Desert Strike to the system).

There was a DOS port, too, and I briefly considered it for review on FFG, only to discount it because I couldn’t get the controls to work. Also, it kind of fell into the category of ‘there are so many versions of this, why on earth would you play this one?’

I didn’t even have any past experience of Double Dragon on PC – mine came with the Atari ST version, which came bundled with our machine (I think it was called the ‘powerpack’, or something similar) along with a number of other arcade ports that would never have been purchased for the family machine otherwise. (With good reason – one or two exceptions aside, they weren’t particularly good, and much of the excitement felt at graduating from an 8-bit system dissipated as I realised that the 16-bit graphics I used to marvel at in multi-format adverts didn’t always look so impressive in motion.)

These huge guys make a comedy 'rah' noise.

These huge guys make a comedy ‘rah’ noise.

Returning to it years later confirmed my two main memories: 1) the menu music is a bit repetitive but quite good, and 2) the whole thing is a bit easy and can be finished in half an hour or so. I suppose you could argue that the lack of challenge is down to the generous number of continues on offer, and that attempting to finish on one credit might be more difficult, but it’d be a desperate player indeed who didn’t mindlessly autopilot through the whole thing for the purposes of nostalgia and then never touch it again.

"Do you use mousse, or hairspray?"

“Do you use mousse, or hairspray?”

As a kid, though, I loved it, seeing as games were a million times harder in those days and I had rarely come anywhere near to seeing the end of any of the ones in our collection. It was quite refreshing to me at the time just to be able to get through something without too much skill or endeavour.

Like many home computer ports, the ST version is slightly hobbled by the fact that you only have one joystick button at your disposal, and so in a beat-em-up environment tend to pull off different moves by accident rather than design. There’s not a lot to it really – just a lot of button bashing as fist or foot (or one of the game’s many weapons) hits flesh again and again (here represented by the sound of a football being punctured).

Things that I thought were a bit weird, even at the time:

1) Should you really be punching quite so many women in the face, even if they do arrive mysteriously in a lift and start trying to whip you for no reason?
2) Also: why do these women have the same bouffant hairdo as the player character? (Answer: it was the 80s)
3) The final guy at the end has a gun. A GUN. There are no circumstances under which he should not be able to defeat you.

I am a big man, yes I am; and I have a big gun.

I am a big man, yes I am, and I have a big gun.

(I tried the ST version of the second game but gave up after 10 seconds because it didn’t seem to have any sound. Maybe I’ll pick up the GOG trilogy at some point, I imagine the arcade originals are likely to be a lot better…)

gog and lucasarts – what we do and don’t have so far

January 28th, 2015

Written by: Stoo

More Lucasarts on GOG. They’re delving further into the archives of Star Wars games, including Jedi Knight, the Quake-era sequel to Dark Forces where Lucasarts decided our hero really should have a lightsabre. There’s a bunch more I’m not greatly personally familiar with – Rebellion is Master-of-Orion style strategy. Republic Commando looks like some sort of tactical first-person shooter. Starfighter has you flying around in one of those Naboo fighters from Phantom Menace, I have absolutely no idea if it’s any good.

No sign of more adventures, except for that forthcoming Grim Fandango remake I mentioned last time. I think the titles still not available on gog or steam are:

  • Zak Mckracken
  • Maniac Mansion
  • Day of the Tentacle
  • Full Throttle
  • Curse of Monkey Island
  • Escape from Monkey Island

DotT is my personal priority, with its cartoony style, offbeat humour and lovably quirky protagonists. That said, I’d love to revisit the biker-themed Full Throttle also.

Meanwhile, there are a few we can buy on steam but not yet GOG:

  • Loom
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • The Dig

I mention this because GOG is our preferred source for oldies, due to their no-DRM policy. Also, GOG are pretty good for including extras with their games, including older versions. So with Loom they could sell the VGA remake (with digitised speech but rewritten dialogue to fit on a CD) and bundle with it the EGA original, which is lacking from the Steam Release.

If it sounds like I’m sounding like an entitled nerd here by demanding more, I should reiterate I was happy just to see Lucasarts on GOG at all. I have good faith that the GOG guys are keen to have the entire back catelogue for sale. It’s probably a just matter of persuading Disney execs and lawyers to approve the sale of these old games – and maybe they’re keener to sign off on Star Wars stuff since that ties into the forthcoming new trilogy.