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Hello, my friend. Stay awhile and listen…

May 13th, 2016

Written by: Stoo

Hello everyone.

You’ve probably noticed Rik has recently redone a few of the first reviews he wrote for this site, 15 years ago. There’s Toonstruck, a lesser known point and click adventure, and Speedball 2 for some violent future sport with that distinctive early 90s bitmap brothers art.

Well, I’ve gone and redone one myself – I thought it was time for a fresh look at Blizzard’s early action-RPG, Diablo.

This isn’t something we plan on doing a lot more of; we don’t want to get too caught up in tinkering with old content. Speaking for myself, I don’t produce enough new content anyway. Also I like having articles dated from about 2002 here, even if my own are the slapdash writings of a callow young man just to remind the world how long we’ve been doing this.

In the late 22nd century, mankind took to the stars, to see what wonders the heavens offered

May 6th, 2016

Written by: Rik

Hello everyone.

Regular readers – if they, indeed, exist – will know that in recent years I’ve stuck quite closely to my comfort areas: namely, old football and racing games. Occasionally, I do get the taste for something a bit different, although often my attempts are thwarted by my own ineptitude and/or lack of patience.

Anyway, I’ve dipped my toe into the shallow end of the RPG water with a review of Space Siege.

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Returning to the past in World of Warcraft

April 26th, 2016

Written by: Stoo

Via RPS:

Blizzard On Vanilla WoW Servers

I’ve occasionally considered talking about World of Warcraft here; it was released in the tail end of 2004 which does makes it older than some of the other games we’ve reviewed. It felt a bit wrong to speak of it as an actual old game, though, given how much it’s evolved over the years. Expansions have brought new places to explore, new character classes and races, new dungeons and raids. Character class mechanics are constantly changing, re-balancing, and abilities come and go. The character graphics have received a substantial upgrade. New features like automated group-matching for dungeons add convenience.

Even the old world, where the original pre-expansion game took place, was comprehensively overhauled in 2010. A giant dragon tried to break the planet, you see. So running around the Barrens or the Wetlands is rather different to how it was a decade ago. The quests are all new, you meet different people, new castles and outposts have sprung up and old towns lie abandoned . Sometimes even the layout of the land itself changed.

Also, a lot of content that used to be aimed at max-level characters still exists but becomes irrelevant when new expansions are released. Once upon a time players at level 70 would raid Tempest Keep or Black Temple, for shiny rewards. Now there is no point; we all charge right past it, and past level 70. The monsters of those raids stand around forlornly, forgotten. We only care about raids aimed at the current max level.

WoW players are as prone to nostalgia as anyone else, and sometimes miss the Warcraft they used to play. So some clever folks have managed to set up servers running older versions of the game, some going back to the days before any expansions. No panda-people, no Cataclysm, no modern easy-mode levelling. Your level cap is 60 and you (or, er, your Dwarvern Paladin) will sweat blood and tears getting there, dammit!

So I guess this is where WoW does start to intersect with our interests here. I can totally understand the pull of returning to Wow as it used to be. I wasn’t around for the first days, what we now refer to as Vanilla, but I did sign up at the start of the first expansion, sometime early 2007. So I have my own memories of the Old World in its original state, and also Outland. I spent several weeks in the Barrens, fighting those damn quillboar and waiting for the Alliance to trash the crossroads yet again. I ran around the dungeons of Uldaman with a group who only vaguely knew what they were doing until an experienced warrior tank kindly showed us what to do. I loved Azshara, with its bleak empty coastlands,before an expansion turned it into goddamn Goblin city.

The game was in many ways far more of a chore back then; endless running back and forth long distances on foot just to complete “collect 12 badger arses” quests, the difficulty in finding groups for dungeons, the difficulty accessing half-decent gear if you weren’t in a raiding guild. The hunter pet-training mechanics were especially tedious.

Yet we old-timers look back fondly on those days. Some say servers had more of a sense of community, back before they all got merged, and group-finders removed the need to socialise. Some also say you had to earn your success more back then, without epic purple lootz getting handed out like candy. Plus, well, there’s always nostalgia. A hearkening back to those days when you first started WoW, to good times had with friends in you guild, and probably to when you were a more carefree twenty-something.

I’ve often thought I’d like to play on a classic server. How far I’d get though, I couldn’t say. Maybe I’d make it all the way to level 60, 70, 80, wherever they decided to freeze WoW in time? Maybe I’d join a guild of friendly, dedicated people and have great adventures raiding Karazan? Or maybe I’d run out of steam somewhere around level 32, release what a slog I have ahead of me, and realise god dammit I spent enough of my life on this game already! Seriously I could have churned out so many more retro-reviews between 2007 and 2013 if I’d never played WoW. I am not going back to that. No chance.

Anyways, what I failed to mention so far, but you’d know if you read that link at the start, is that is that these retro-servers are totally unofficial. So Blizzard doesn’t especially approve, and sometimes deploys lawyers (on griffon-back, from its shining citadel in Stormwind city) to shut them down. The obvious answer seems to be for Blizz to run some classic servers itself, but they apparently cite a bunch of technical difficulties. I’m surprised it’s that much work to install some old software on a bunch of servers but maybe making it talk to the modern battle.net infrastructure is the tricky bit.

They do mention turning off a bunch of the modern conveniences that speed up levelling, such as heirloom gear (fancy swords and armour you obtain on one character, then pass to another newbie hero that you create). So you’d take longer to reach max level, monsters would be tougher, you’d have to do more quests and search harder for gear. I guess that’s a compromise worth considering.

Something about ice cream

April 16th, 2016

Written by: Rik

Hello.

For the second time this month, I’ve gone back to revisit a game that I already covered a while ago, in an attempt to provide a slightly more insightful review.

I don’t think I’m going to make a habit of this. It was fun to go back and play the games again – but there are many more out there, and if I keep picking at the old content we probably won’t get much new stuff.

Anyway, today’s reheated write-up is of Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe.

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But oh, oh, those Hot Import Nights

April 11th, 2016

Written by: Rik

Good evening.

Today we have another one of those street-racing games for you, a sequel to one we covered a while ago (and quite liked). It’s Juiced 2: Hot Import Nights.

juicedhintitle

Yes! Of course I understand, Mr. Asparagus!

April 5th, 2016

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

For reasons of maintaining my own sanity and preventing the trickle of new content from me slowing to an occasional drip, I don’t tend to make a habit of re-visiting old reviews and tinkering with them. However, I’ve temporarily abandoned my it-is-what-it-is approach in an attempt to fix one or two of my oldest write-ups.

I’m not going to keep the originals on the site anywhere because, well, what would be the point of rewriting them in the first place. But in an attempt to avoid my own newspost paralysis, I’ll borrow Stoo’s original intro for this first one. Here’s a point-and-clicker from the latter days of the genre’s 90s heyday, starring everyone’s favourite ex-Klingon, Christopher Lloyd: it’s Toonstruck.

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You’re not hardcore, unless you live hardcore

April 1st, 2016

Written by: Rik

Those who remember previous iterations of FFG may recall that our list of reviews used to come with a brief introduction. I thought it was quite a good feature, but by God did it cause me some trouble. After tapping out a review with relative ease, the prospect of coming up with some kind of pithy summary caused significant dithering, until it seemed as if I’d spent as long thinking about that as I did writing the piece itself. So I’m also sort of glad it’s gone, although I still have the same problems with accompanying text for newsposts and social media – there isn’t much deviation from “Hello, today’s review is this.” These days, thank goodness, I can at least put in a screenshot of the title screen.

Perhaps we should return to the very early days of the site, pre-Wordpress, pre-CMS, when I had to send my reviews to Stoo to upload, and he’d come up with all of that on my behalf. I was reminded of this after I posted the last of the When I Played features, and he described it on Twitter as a piece about the therapeutic effects of writing about old games, which was both entirely correct and something I never would have come up with myself. It also got me thinking.

I find there’s something reassuring about the world of games, the fact that it all just exists: ticking away and churning out new titles faster than any one person could ever keep up with. These days, I still follow it all, without having much sense of what’s going on. But I’m still interested. One day, I might get around to some of the things everyone’s talking about now.

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Hotline Miami: Not as new as I thought.

You’re not hardcore, unless you live hardcore continued »

10 years of Oblivion

March 21st, 2016

Written by: Stoo

It’s strange how our feelings about the passing of time can be inconsistent. See, I’ve pretty much come to terms with Doom being released over twenty years ago. While I still greatly enjoy playing the game, it’s clearly the product of a bygone age, as much a part of the mid 90s as britpop and the X-men cartoon. It was released during a chapter of my life that has long since ended.

Oblivion’s 10th anniversary has now arrived, and those ten years are harder to accept than Doom’s twenty two. Oblivion is somehow still registered in my brain under the “modern games” category. Has it really been an entire decade since I first played Elder Scrolls number four? I think there’s some part of me that anchored itself in about 2011 and refused to accept any further progress into this decade. Is this a bad sign I’m still clinging to my 20s? Surely not, sir, I have a mortgage! I’m married! The mannerisms of young people on the internet frequently baffle me! I accept my age, I assure you!

Anyway since we humans place fairly arbitrary significance on round numbers, it’s a good time time to look back and reflect. Compared to its predecessor Morrowind and sequel Skyrim, Oblivion is sadly my least favourite of the trio.

I think partially because the world, and the core story to the game, were both bit bland. Morrowind had that slightly alien feel to it, with the mushroom towers, bizarre wildlife and the concrete minarets of Dwarvern ruins. It only became more fascinating as I uncovered up the history of the land, and learned more about quarelling demigods, disappeared civilisations, and the prophecies I was supposedly fulfilling. Oblivion was certainly was prettier, in fact looking at screenshots I’m reminded just how vibrant and lush its wildernesses were. The issue is, it’s all generic forests, castles and bears. Straight out of any high fantasy, or half the time, it could just be europe circa 1300AD. There’s nothing much that stands out from any other medieval fantasy. Then for a story they dropped something forgettable nonsense about the last emperor and demon invasions on top. The demon portals themselves are memorable, I guess, but I didn’t really care why they were happening.

Okay, that is really lovely.

Okay, that is really lovely.

Then there’s the scaling of enemies to match your own level. I get why they had to try something like this, a common complaint in Morrowind was how unchallenged you might feel at higher levels. Yet the implementation in Oblivion was far too heavy handed. Perhaps the most gregarious example was common bandits becoming mighty warriors kitted out in powerful weapons and armour that’s meant to be rare and priceless. It’s a bit like bank robbers carrying hellfire missiles. You’d think they’d just sell the stuff and retire. Or move onto higher stakes conquests than banditry, at least.

I’ve always thought that in an RPG, at high level, you should still sometimes run into foes that you can squash with contemptuous ease. That’s the whole point of leveling up to become a legendary hero. There should still be be dragons or massive demons to keep you on your toes even at the endgame, but you can also go back to that quest to clear out a cave full of goblins, and happily obliterate them. Yet in Oblivion, I’d retreat from a dungeon full of  skeletons that dominated me at level 3, come back many days later, and find some other undead supermonster that was just as difficult to kill. I was, in relative terms, no more powerful than I was when I started the game.

I’d also heard stories of people who leveled up by raising non-combat skills – then found to their dismay they’d hit the trigger for the world to start spawning new more powerful monsters that they weren’t equipped to handle. The relatively manageable wolves of before were replaced with giant bears. You could argue elder scrolls games don’t have enough moments of panic and fleeing, compared to old hardcore RPGs, but that moment really shouldn’t occur because you got good at alchemy and bartering.

I suppose Bethesda have a bit of a challenge in balancing an open-world game against the basic expectations of an RPG. We’re meant to be able to go roaming any direction, from the start, and that means opportunities for newbie characters must be all around,  not just in a designated little “starter zone”. There must be foes and quests to challenge us at high level too, but these shouldn’t be totally blocking the newbies from exploring, or making too many dungeons and quests impossible. Oblivion’s approach then was to have everything around you reconfigure according to your level, throughout the game.  In doing so took away most of your sense of progression.

Skyrim seemed to make the required compromises a little more successfully. There is still some scaling going on, however, a Giant is a Giant whatever level you are. Higher levels might mean higher grades of bandit, but there are plateaus on their power they’re not carrying ridiculous exotic weaponry. Also I understand it, dungeons have a designated level range, with the level fixed based on the first time you visit. So some dungeons are accessible for your level 5 wimp; others will be too dangerous, but you can come back for them later.

Skyrim still doesn’t find that perfect balance of progression and challenge; I didn’t find much of anything could threaten me at high levels. Still, There are other improvements on Oblivion. Even if it still wasn’t quite as weirdly unique as Morrowind, I found it more compelling a place to explore than Oblivion.  Norsemen vs Romans is a more interesting background than generic fantasy, and compensated for its own generic fantasy side. It also had some stand out features like the Dragon attacks that were utterly spectacular, unlike any “random monster encounter” I’d ever seen in an RPG.

Also you can shout at bandits to blast them off cliffs, and that will never stop being hilarious.

Before I sign off let’s bear in mind I am comparing it to games I’ve dearly loved. To Oblivion’s credit it got some things right, such as massively improving the combat mechanics from Morrowind. The Shivering Isles expansion seems to have been specifically made for those who missed Morrowind’s otherworldliness. It also keeps a full range of character attributes, for those of you who thought Skyrim simplified the RPG mechanics too much. I certainly sank dozens of hours into the game. I can’t deny though, that of anything Bethesda has done post 2000, this is the game I’m least tempted to replay.

You used to be that crazy guy, Jeremy

March 20th, 2016

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Following memories of DOS-based flight sims and dreadful old football games, we return to the modern era for some slow-motion shooting action in today’s review of Stranglehold.

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Tales of a Former Flight Sim Fan

March 19th, 2016

Written by: Stoo

A lot of my gaming time in the early 90s was spent on flight sims. It was an offshoot of my childhood interest in aviation. Fighter planes are awesome – they’re fast, they’re loud, they do crazy maneuvers, they fire machineguns and rockets and make stuff explode. I used to devour books on aircraft, built dozens of airfix model kits, and regularly visited museums (I can recommend one in Newark, near the junction of the A1 and A4 lots of early cold war jets). Of course I wanted a chance to sit in the cockpit and fly a warplane myself. Not just by playing a some arcade shoot-em-up, but rather a proper simulation.

These can be quite complex games. You have to learn the basics of controlling an aircraft, the three ways the control surfaces can make you turn in the air. There’s a bit of physics to consider; for example there are limits to how quickly you can climb, before your plain stalls and the nose drops. There’s also often a lot of information to take in, looking at little gauges, dials and maybe radar screens. Not to mention lots of buttons to push to make the flaps go down or change some setting on the heads up display.

It’s for reasons like this that flight sims often felt more grownup than other games. They were entertainment, but also at the same time, they were Serious Business. That let me feel a bit smug and superior over my gaming peers, and forget for a while that I kind of wished I had a SNES instead of being stuck with the beige family PC.

Most of the sims fell into one of two categories. A lot were based in the second world war, such as the Aces series from Dynamix. I relished the chance to be an old fashioned fighter pilot, flying a Mustang or a Spitfire. I was taking part in the Battle of Britain, fighting to keep the Nazis from gaining air supremacy over. Or I was attacking formations of American bombers bearing down on German factories, or chasing Zeros over Pacific Islands, seeking revenge for Pearl Harbour. It was immensely satisfying, after frantic wheeling and diving through the skies, to put myself on the tail of an enemy fighter, then riddle them with machinegun bullets.

I did also enjoy sims in modern settings. Or, rather, what was then modern t day, a couple of decades ago now. The stealth fighters and helicopter gunships that I flew were the military hardware I saw on the news going into action during Desert Storm, or that I read about in Tom Clancy novels. The cold war was still very recent memory for us then; in fact some of the sims I played were released the same year the USSR fell. So scenario like Russians deploying forces in Libya, or threatening Scandinavia, were regular features. (funnily enough, looking at the news we’re now getting worried about that sort of thing all over again).

What I wasn’t a fan of though, in any setting, was landing. It’s all about dealing with the ultimate threat to an aircraft, solid ground. I suppose it’s not exactly super difficult if you practice enough, it’s just a tedious way to end a mission, a chore that requires several minutes of concentration. Come in too fast and, whoops, all your past hour’s successes are thrown away in a fireball and a crater. Most sims offered an option to just fly back to friendly skies and hit an “end mission” command, and that’s what I usually used, and yet it always felt a bit unsatisfying, like I was cheating.

I suppose that’s one sign I was never a great pilot, for all my enthusiasm. I’d have to admit to often putting difficulty levels to mid or low settings. While I knew the basics of dogfighting, I tended to just charge at stuff than pull circles trying to get on someones tail; not exactly a lot of finesse.

My years of sim fandom – or at least, the years I was most aware of – ran from around 1990 to 95. After that, interest started to tail off. I think TFX did a lot to put me off. It looked amazing, especially with its “cinematic flyby” view mode with your Eurofighter blasting past the camera, but I didn’t have the first clue how to actually do anything apart from spin around the sky firing missiles randomly. Looking back, I see people describe it as “arcadey”, which is a bit depressing. Maybe I should have just paid more attention to the manual, but I never felt compelled to go back and try it again.

I continued to enjoy space-sims like Freespace for a while, but the will to play real-world flight sims diminished. There was a sense that the realism, that had once attracted me, was increasing to the point where it brought too much hard work with it. With advanced flight physics, detailed radar modelling, super-accurate recreations of an actual F-22 cockpit and so on, that’s more buttons to press, more to remember, more complexity to deal with. I like some attention to detail, I don’t particularly want direct control over the fuel pumps.

I’m told some sims offer a highly accurate depiction of an entire theatre of war – squadrons to manage, supply lines to protect, etc and that just has me thinking there’s far too much going on for my limited brain to handle. Like a hardcore strategy game and a sim going on at the same time.

At the same time, the flight sim was shrinking in status from its 90s glory days. Maybe the rise of military themed first person shooters sapped interest, perhaps gamers were losing interest in joysticks and keyboard overlays. Maybe in the age of cross-platform releases publishers didn’t see X-box fans wanting to join in? At any rate the sims that remained, such as iterations of the Venerable Falcon 4.0, seemed to be those ones that catered to the hardcore crowd. Flight sims were becoming a niche interest, and one I couldn’t really keep up. I suppose the more m

By the 2000s, I’d pretty much stopped playing. I did at one point, 7 or so years ago, try to rekindle my interest by grabbing Janes USAF from my local GAME (these being the days when it had a PC section worth speaking of). I then failed the very first training mission, by crashing into another plane while taxiing to the runway. I’m not sure that one even falls in the “super-realistic” category, I was just apparently laughably incompetent. Oh and I once tried a game called Aces High. Here’s me trying to get off the ground:

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I, uh… yeah. I can’t really explain that one.

I suppose I could go back to the genre. I could just put in some effort, do lots of training missions, and these days probably watch a bunch of youtube tutorials. Nowadays though I have less free time, and that puts me off games with steep learning curves. The prospect of doing hours of practise just to get the hang of a computer game feels like neither entertainment, nor doing anything useful with my time. I know this sounds kind of terrible, but games have to provide at least *some* immediate gratification.

As well as giving up on flight sims, I’ve never even written much here about those ones that I played back in my youth. I guess I never felt competent enough to give a properly informed overview. Furthermore, I have little knowledge of the modern state of the genre to give any sort of frame of reference for the oldies. Still, I thought I might free myself from the need to provide any sort of objective review, and share some of my experiences of playing them.

 

Lucasarts sims

This trilogy of World War 2 sims ran from 1988 to 1991, and quickly looked very dated. The planes were sprites, and the ground was totally flat, without even the tetrahedron hills of the day. I mean, southern england isn’t exactly known for its rugged terrain but it’s not literally as flat as a snooker table.

Still, Their Finest Hour: The Battle Of Britain was I think quite well regarded at the time. It was also my first real flight sim, in fact it was one of the first major commercially released games of any sort that I played, on our family 386. This was where I learned the fundamentals of flight, along with basic skills for combat such as deflection shooting to hit a moving target. I spent many hours patriotically shooting down Messercshmits and Heinkels over the English Channel. Stukas were the easiest target – despite their fearsome reputation as dive bombers, they were fairly defenseless against fighter planes.

Even though two decades on the 5.25″ disks within are useless to me, I’ve still got the packaging, as it was real big-box luxury. For a start you had the extensive manual, which was obligatory for a sim. Also though there was a newsletter from Lucasarts, and the box art was an actual painting! It makes the later days of DVD-style cases look a bit sad.

Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe meanwhile was based around the American bombing campaigns over europe, but was primarily known for featuring a bunch of advanced Nazi warplanes. In reality these fighters only flew in limited numbers or in some cases never got off the drawing board, but if more had been built they could have devastated the allied air forces. There was certainly a thrill in gunning down Flying Fortresses in the world’s first operational fighter jet. Then maybe a feeling of slight moral confusion as you remember you’d just struck a blow for fascism.

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I fired up the game briefly just to take this shot and was reminded just how much of your view is swallowed up by the cockpit instrumentation. Some other planes are even worse than the one shown here. Also I immediately recognised that heavy thump-thump-thump that means someone is firing heavy 20mm cannon.

As well as flying fighters, both of these games let you take control of medium and heavy bombers. That had a certain novelty, as you could take control of any of the defensive gun turrets – the B17 in Swotl had 6 of them. However, I never had a clue how to actually successfully bomb something. You’re at several kilometers up and this is well before the age of guided munitions. So you try and line up the target through some sort of primitive sighting device, open a hatch and then just let a few tons of munitions drop. Good luck with that!

 

Microprose Sims

In the late 80s and early 90s, Micrprose released a number of sims and looking back, I think they somehow struck an ideal balance between realism, and accessibility. They weren’t arcadey shoot-em-ups, and certainly felt authentic but also they weren’t ridiculously complicated or totally unforgiving. Or to put it another way, it was a good idea to read the 200 page manual, but you didn’t have to just take off. If there was more of a selection in that mid-range today, it might encourage me to return to sims.

I played a great deal of two of Microprose’s releases. In F117 Stealth Fighter 2.0, I was creeping around the night skies bombing Libyan shoe factories. Or, er, hopefully something more military in nature. Stealth certainly played a major part in your operations, with gauges to show how close enemy radar was to spotting you, so you had to either pick your way around missile sites, or risk fighting your way past them. What I wasn’t doing much of was landing. I think I only ever managed a couple.

Seek and destroy.

Also there was Gunship 2000, which was all about thundering around at 200 feet blowing up soviet tanks. It gave you wide range of American helicopters, although I never really saw the point in dinky little scouts and always took the heavily armed Apache Gunship. I also had to play with the controls set to easy mode, which basically means the “go forward or backwards” control doesn’t affect your altitude.

Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat

“It’s a great day for flying” said Chuck’s tinny digitised voice when you loaded this up. He would also chastise you for screwing up a mission. Nowadays Dosbox’s soundblaster emulation goes all screwy and badly distorts the speech clips, so instead he just mutters some kind of garbled demonic curse.

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This sim’s main selling point, aside from the celebrity endorsement, was that it spanned the three major conflicts during which Yeager served. Each of these saw a new generation of fighter aircraft. First up you have the second world war, which was all about propellers and machine-guns. Next is Korea, one of the first major conflicts where jet engines were commonplace. Basically the “secret weapons” of world war 2 were now standard issue. So everything is going about 200mph faster. Then you have Vietnam, where the planes are even speedier, but also now carrying radar and guided missiles.

The game had plenty of historically based missions, but also a custom mission builder that let you freely mix up all the available aircraft from the three eras. So of course I’d gleefully, and rather unsportingly, go chasing second world war bombers with technology two decades more advanced.