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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.

Get your motor running

January 24th, 2015

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Tonight we have the second – and probably final – instalment of our ‘games that might be a bit like 4D Sports: Driving but a lot newer’ review series [catchy! - a reader]. I’ve been meaning to cover Trackmania for a while on FFG, but when I finally came around to it, I couldn’t actually get my copy of the game to work.

So what we have instead is a review of the 2005 sequel, Trackmania Sunrise.

TMSunriseTitle

More Lucasarts on gog

January 21st, 2015

Written by: Stoo

A second wave of Lucasarts games has arrived on gog.com, this time all Star Wars related.

Amongst these are the two followers of the classic space-sims X-Wing and Tie Fighter that were released in the first wave. X-Wing vs Tie introduced multiplayer to the series, neglected any real single player content but had that flaw addressed with the Balance of Power add-on (which gog have included). Go have a read at Just Games Retro.

X-Wing alliance was mostly oriented towards fighting in rebel starfighters, just like the first game, but added in some missions with you flying in smuggler ships. Which sounds exciting, right? Some Han-Solo style action. Except I seem to recall those missions being a chore, with you stuck in a cargo ship that’s slow, lumbering and poorly armed. I guess the Millenium Falcon was an upgraded model. However, it’s been years since I played and I may not have given the game a fair chance.

Looking at the rest, Dark Forces was Star Wars Doom, because back then all first-person shooters were described in relation to Doom. When did the term FPS take over? Quake-era? Anyway, this was amongst the first of its kind to allow actions such as jumping and looking up and down. Unlike later games in the series, Kyle Katarn has yet to take up the ways of a Jedi so there are no lightsabers. This is purely about shooting stormtroopers in the face with assorted kinds of blaster. You rebel scum!

The other games I’ve not yet played because this image I project of being a retro gaming expert is in fact a total sham! But I really should try the KOTOR series sometime.

No adventures in this release, but a week or so earlier Gog did open pre-orders for the re-mastered Grim Fandango. I never played that either, sorry! It seems to be very well thought of, though. I also hear that Day of the Tentacle is getting a remaster and hopefully that will appear on gog also. That one, I can confirm, is brilliant, one of Lucasarts’ finest.

Guest item!

January 15th, 2015

Written by: Stoo

Hello everyone. This site is usually a two man effort – well, I say that, it’s more like 1.5 men given how inactive I’ve been lately. Still, we do sometimes have contributions from guests. So a big thanks today to RT, who has kindly written us a review of Serious Sam 2.

FFG in 2014

January 4th, 2015

Written by: Rik

Hello.

Just popping back in with our traditional look back at the past 12 months. (It may not be very useful to you, the reader, but it helps old fellas like us keep track of things, as the years increasingly blur into each other, weeks and months seemingly pass in the blink of an eye, and so many moments are lost in time, like…tears…in…rain.)

Ahem. Anyway, the year began with a discussion of Ys: The Oath in Felghana, which we both kind of liked, although I was a bit confused about what was actually happening.

Stoo’s FPS adventures continued with the very old Catacomb 3D and the somewhat-more-recent Quake IV. Meanwhile the RPG section received another boost with a write-up of Westwood’s Nox.

My own focus was again on a mixture of old racers and sports games. I was pleasantly surprised by Driver: Parallel Lines (and its use of Suffragette City sent me scrabbling to dig out my old Bowie CDs) and – to a lesser extent – Juiced (for which I still have a soft spot despite some really fundamental flaws).

2014 was a World Cup year, of course, which meant that I once again decided to rummage through the scrapheap of old football titles to try and provide some topical content. I can confirm that I still hate Actua Soccer; ISS 3 was a little more fun to revisit.

I also play adventure games, although in truth I am not very good at them, especially less-forgiving oldies like A Cruise for a Corpse. I later took a look at the fourth instalment of the Broken Sword series, The Angel of Death.

Somehow, we also found ourselves agreeing to discuss a Leisure Suit Larry game and we sat down to have a chat about his cruise ship adventures in Love for Sail! Well, I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time.

And, that was pretty much it, except for my late-year obsession with trivia games, which inevitably led to me revisiting 2001′s football quiz head-to-head, and an honourable mention for the 2004 version of Sid Meier’s Pirates!

As for 2015, well, that year seems significant for some reason. Oh yes, I remember, it’s the far-off date I used to give when making an empty promise to cover something. Well, I’m a man of my word, so I guess I’ll be reviewing another strategy game at some point. (But it will definitely not be Operation Flashpoint!)

We’ll also – finally – be fulfilling at least one, and maybe as many as three, old requests for reviews. So stay tuned!

Currently playing: Christmas edition

January 3rd, 2015

Written by: Rik

Currently playing: My Steam Backlog

Happy New Year! I hope you all had a good Christmas break.

Due to a combination of factors (for my own part, a miscalculation when choosing which games to cover) we weren’t able to bring you any new content over the past couple of weeks.

While work on that continues, I’ve also made use of the significant downtime to get some other gaming done, and start working on the considerable backlog of unplayed games in my Steam list. (Of course, the appeal of Valve’s seasonal reductions, allied to the Steam mobile app, as well as the odd drop of Christmas booze, has rendered overall progress negligible.)

Here’s what I’ve been spending my time with:

   Isaacpic

The Binding of Isaac

I’m really not up to date on indie games; I largely follow the hype via gaming websites and Twitter chat, and occasionally make the odd impulse purchase. I’d heard lots of good things about this, although even after some moderate internet research, I wasn’t really any clearer on what kind of game it was, or what on earth was going on.

In other words: it looked weird, and, having bought and played it, I can confirm that it is. Escaping into the basement, away from the murderous advances of his Christian fundamentalist mother, baby Isaac is plunged into a world of zombies, monsters, flies, poo and blood, and armed – initially at least – only with the water from his tears as a weapon.

Levels are procedurally generated, and there are no saves, which means you have to complete the game in one sitting. When you enter a room that contains monsters, you have to defeat all of them before you can continue. Each level also contains items that bestow extra powers or weapons upon Isaac, whose avatar is often disfigured in a slightly unsettling way as a result. Before you can exit each level, you have to defeat a boss character, which is always a genuinely hideous beast of some kind.

The rather twisted nature of the content, as well as the win-or-die structure, make for a tense and rather frenetic arcade challenge. At the moment, I haven’t really invested enough time to know for sure, but I rather suspect that completing it might be beyond me. Still, it’s the kind of thing you can find yourself sitting down to have a quick go of, and then find that you want another. In fact, I might go and have another go now.
 
BTTF

Back to the Future: The Game

I don’t tend to buy a lot of new games, but I was sufficiently excited by the pre-release propaganda to shell out for this a couple of years ago. For some reason, I stopped playing after completing the first episode, with a feeling of vague and generalised disappointment, although I can’t recall any specific criticisms.

I’m either misremembering, or was wrong, or Episode 2 (Get Tannen!) represents a significant improvement. While I have a few quibbles about graphical, camera and interface issues, Get Tannen! is a thoroughly enjoyable BTTF romp, which features pretty much all the elements you would want from a spin-off adventure.

The first episode ends with Doc and Marty thinking they’ve managed to fix the problems from their past, only to find that they’ve caused different ones by tinkering with the timeline. A frantic rush to save a relative from a Tannen (this time, it’s your Grandpa, Artie McFly, and Biff’s father, Irving “Kid” Tannen, in 1930s Hill Valley) seems to have done the trick, but then you return to a nightmarish 80s which indicates that – yep – some more complications have been caused by your meddling. So, back again you go (I have a feeling this could be a recurring theme).

The voice acting is of a variable standard – Christopher Lloyd as Doc sounds 30 years older than in the films (which, of course, he is) – but the guy they’ve drafted in to be Marty does a pretty decent impression of a young Michael J. Fox.

I suppose you might say the difficulty level is pitched pretty low, but I’ve come to realise that I’m pretty bad at adventure games so I actually don’t mind not wandering around for hours without a clue what to do next. I’d say there’s an enjoyable, low-level challenge here.

The setup for the third episode looks intriguing so I’m not going to repeat the mistakes of my own past and get straight on with it.
 

Race2006

RACE: The Official WTCC Game

Speaking of mistakes, a recurring one of mine on this site is to throw out a quick mention to a game I haven’t played, in order to demonstrate I’m not horribly out of touch with everything (which, obviously, I am). Back when they were the cool new thing for racing sim fans, and I was finally – belatedly – getting around to looking at the second TOCA game, I casually mentioned, with implied authority, SimBin’s GTR and RACE as the genre leaders.

In truth, this was based entirely upon some favourable reviews in PC Zone, and not at all upon my own experience. I probably should have made that clearer at the time. But, even though I’m never going to be an expert on the kind of racing sim that needs a steering wheel and analogue throttle, I figured I should probably get around to trying them for myself (especially after there was a Steam deal on a SimBin megapack a little while ago).

With the difficulty turned down and the driving aids up, RACE feels a little like TOCA used to be before it became GRID. There’s something about a combination of the in-car view and the unforgiving and precarious nature of the handling which makes getting round a lap without any mishaps all the more satisfying. Plus overtaking under such conditions is is actually rather exhilarating.

(Getting slightly carried away, I took a look at steering wheels on Amazon, but stopped myself before I did anything rash. It might be worth a few more hours on the joypad to see if my interest extends beyond vague curiosity first).

——

And finally, no marks for Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, the PC version of which (I found out after purchasing) apparently has some unresolvable glitches with some graphics cards – including mine. Even if they don’t exactly make the game unplayable, they do make it damn ugly to look at.