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Vault of Regret: The F.A. Premier League STARS

October 18th, 2018

Written by: Rik

We mentioned last time the consequences of reckless spending in the budget section of 90s gaming shops: namely, that you end up buying Zone Raiders. Like all bad habits, this one of mine has occasionally been subject to periods of abstinence and, of course, massive overcorrection: I’ll just buy one really good game, like normal people would.

Even though I’ve bought a lot of poor to middling football games over the years, they’ve never been much of a source of regret. In the 90s, the market leaders on PC – be they Sensi, Actua or FIFA – were never so far ahead of the rest that it was a simple matter of making the right choice. Usually, the critical consensus was split, and the also-rans often had enough original ideas to satisfy my curiosity. I genuinely enjoy – as any regular readers may have noticed – playing old football games regardless of their quality, and there was always the chance that an unheralded gem might be discovered (a small chance, as it turned out, although we wouldn’t have discovered Puma World Football ’98 otherwise).

Back in 1999, EA’s FIFA games were enjoying a good patch. World Cup ’98 and FIFA ’99 were both well received and, on PC at least, recognised as the best computer footy money could buy. With no international tournament to flog and keen to maintain what was at that point a six month release schedule of new football titles, EA announced a new series, based on a new licensing partnership with the English top division: The F.A. Premier League STARS.

The appeal of this game to a non-football fan would appear mysterious at best, and, more likely, reinforce the popular consensus that people who like football and their money are too easily parted. It was another footy game from EA, kind of like FIFA, with Premier League teams (also included in FIFA) but with better graphics and licenses. It doesn’t sound like much now, but in truth it was quite a big deal at the time, to go beyond authentic team and player names and correctly coloured kits to the full on licensed league experience, with accurate grounds and chants, kits with sponsors logos, the full Sky Sports commentary team (but remember, Puma had Martin Tyler first) and sundry other details that all make the difference. If people were willing to pay for a World Cup tie-in, then surely they’d do the same for a Premier League season? Ok, it’d still basically be FIFA, but would look a bit better: I was ok with that.

Unusually, I had been blessed at the time by the happy combination of a new fab-whizzo PC and a bit of spare money (the latter possibly a reward for a set of A-Level results that were frankly below what was expected). So I was for once in the position to break my usual habits and venture out to buy STARS upon release, without waiting for the reviews.

As it turns out, I probably should have waited for them, as the game was a hollow disappointment, a step back if anything from the most recent FIFA titles. Without the consolation of a low, low price, the guilt at having squandered 30 quid on this thing was quite considerable, and I veered between an overriding sense of panicked anger and calmly trying to tinker with various settings, give it some time, and somehow convince myself that it was OK actually. I mean, it was OK, but nothing more than that: the PC Zone verdict, when it arrived, confirmed as much (Steve Hill: “a curiously stunted affair…a mutant hybrid of FIFA and Actua”).

To its credit, STARS did really feel like a Premier League season, and those little touches of presentation like official sponsors on shirts, authentic grounds and chants, and even the distinctive Premier League font for the player numbers, do make a difference to the seasoned footy fan. Even playing it again now (which I did, a quest that began with a desire for a quick reminder and a few screenshots, and led to the realisation that I only had the 2001 update in my current collection and the frankly barmy idea that playing and using screens from this version would somehow be unacceptable, before ending rather predictably with an eBay purchase and the dusting off of my wheezing old XP machine), it does transport you back to watching Premier League football on Sky Sports in 1999, and if you manage to get over the slightly blurry visuals and grit your teeth through the clunkier parts of sub-FIFA action, there’s a modicum of entertainment to be had.

(As an aside: I did wonder if an emulated version of the PlayStation version of STARS would suffice, but I keep forgetting – and I don’t mean to be a PC snob – just how grainy and low res PSX graphics were. That’s perfectly ok of course, but in this case, it means that those extra presentation touches, on the visual side at least – the kits, the numbers etc – are almost completely lost, making the existence of this version of the game largely pointless).

At the time, though, the purchase really felt like an extravagance, and little things started to get to me: for example, the choice of bangin’ chart dance for the licensed menu music (ATB’s 9pm (Till I Come), a track I once considered a crime against decency and taste, now rendered slightly less offensive by a mellowing of attitudes and opinions as well as the warm glow of nostalgia) hammered home a wider frustration that guitar music was out, post-Britpop, and in the hearts and minds of football fans and the mainstream audience for the game, this kind of nonsense was now considered brand appropriate.

The STARS series lasted precisely one more year, with reviews focusing on the lack of progress since the previous iteration and generally questioning the point of it all, and EA’s contention that the lightweight levelling and transfer system (the STARS of the title: earn them by playing well, spend them on upgrading players or the transfer market) somehow also made it distinctive enough for an annual update, was looking more than a little thin. The good bits – basically making grounds and kits more accurate – were quietly folded into FIFAs 2001 and beyond.

As for me, the following year I bought a PlayStation purely to play ISS Pro Evolution, in many ways the polar opposite of STARS: crap graphics, amateurish commentary and presentation, but light years ahead of the likes of FIFA in almost every other respect. For a number of years after that, I abandoned my dabbling habits in favour of making sure I was there on release day for the new Pro Evo. And I was never disappointed.

Review: Blackwell Unbound

October 15th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hi everyone,

We’re continuing our look at the Blackwell series with tonight’s review, of Blackwell Unbound.

10 years of GOG.com

October 4th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

Our favourite digital distributor GOG.com is currently celebrating a major milestone. It’s now been a full decade since Good Old Games, as we used to know them, first opened their doors.

Back before 2008, looking for old PC games generally meant abandonware or hunting ebay. GOG.com made the process far more convenient. A selection of classics all from one site, that would install ready to run on your modern PC without zero fuss. No worrying about setting up dosbox for yourself, or windows 95 games complaining about compatibility.

What’s more, they adamantly opposed any sort of DRM, which is why we still favour them even though Steam has a fair amount of oldies these days. Once were downloaded the game we were trusted to copy and install it wherever we liked with no restrictions. Sure that game could be then stuck on bit-torrent for freeloaders. But most people who really want to play a late 90s shooter can probably find $10 to pay for it. Or at least enough can to make the drm-free model viable.

As a welcome little extra, they also often throw in details like soundtracks, artwork and even alternate versions of games. Perhaps not a big deal, but it adds to the appeal of buying from them, instead of finding an abandonware copy,

We at FFG signed up early, of course. The first game I bought from them was Giants, Citizen Kabuto. Their selection wasn’t enormous at first, but they steadily signed up more publishers over time. Perhaps the most eagerly awaited amongst the fans was Lucasarts, bringing a bunch of much loved adventures and star wars games. Meanwhile two of my personal favourites have been System Shock and Wizardry 7, games I had feared would be eternally abandonware.

Over the years they’ve added a of more modern games, particularly indie stuff (and in the process GOG.com became a name rather than an acronym). It makes sense to move some attention to a flourishing and highly relevant section of gaming scene rather than focusing entirely on the past. Still, their commitment to oldies has remained rock solid, in fact they recently added another great one from the 90s: Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine.

What GOG.com has also enabled me to do, personally, is purchase far more oldies than I have time to play. I have enough RPGs alone to keep me going for years (Betrayal at Krondor, Ultima 7, a whole load of Might and Magic). Then there’s all those old Tomb Raiders, Settlers 2, Shadow Warrior… My lack of self-control is hardly their fault, though.

So then we salute GOG.com and wish them another successful 10 years. They are of course having a sale to mark the occasion, so now’s the time to go see if any of your favourites are discounted. I’d particularly recommend the Timeless Classics Collection, which is exceptionally good value for $5.

Vault of Regret: Zone Raiders

September 23rd, 2018

Written by: Rik

If you were to ask me what the worst game I’ve ever played was, my instinctive reaction, without even thinking about it, would be to reply, “Zone Raiders”. Without repeating the contents of my years-old review in their entirety, for our purposes here, it’s worth re-stating the following:

It almost certainly isn’t the worst game I’ve ever played. It’s technically competent, there are no amusing crashes or glitches, or anything else to really criticise on that front. Attempting to rip into this for laughs would make for a really dull 20-minute YouTube video, even by the standards of really dull 20-minute YouTube videos.

Also, it was neither the subject of a significant investment of time nor money: it didn’t cost me a lot, and I didn’t spend hours trying to wring some entertainment out of it. So, all these years later, is it really worth harbouring any feelings at all for this old game that cost a few quid all those years ago? Regret should surely be reserved for worse decisions than this.

Indeed. Yet what I want to return to is what Zone Raiders represents: buying a dull, average game for no particular reason, while already having access to evidence that the game in question may, in fact, be dull and average. I don’t have the boxed CD of Zone Raiders any more, but I do have lots of games that may as well be Zone Raiders on my shelves and in my digital libraries. Faced with a choice between buying one game that most people agree is good and a handful of games of varying quality, the evidence over a significant number of years suggests that I will choose the latter every time.

Let’s compare the purchasing process for the Rik of 1995 and the Rik of 2018 (if you’re able to forgive the grave and borderline irredeemable offence of speaking about yourself in the third person, and I wouldn’t blame you if you aren’t). 2018 Rik has money of his own to buy any of the new games, although he’s out of touch with what’s going on in modern gaming, and there’s already a large backlog of previous purchases to suit any mood at his disposal. As a grown man, he should realise that ‘this might be good to take a look at one day on FFG’ has been invoked far too regularly in the past to justify titles that remain untouched, and he does remember this, most of the time. However, a Steam or GOG sale occasionally causes him to weaken, as long as the game (or selection of games) does not cost more than £10.

1995 Rik is not of working age and does not have much money. Instead of saving up for a few weeks to buy something high profile and good, he regularly browses the shelves of PC World, GAME or Future Zone to see what is on budget release or special offer. As a spotty teenager without an internet connection, there is no FFG and no chin-stroking justification for looking at a broad range of games. On the basis of looking at the writing and screenshots on the back of the box, he is able to convince himself that almost anything might be ‘quite good’ – even titles like flight sims and strategy games that he demonstrably has failed to persist with in the past – or ‘worth a go at that price’ and they will be purchased, as long as they cost less than £10.

Regrettably, for these two people are me, they are both idiots. The idiocy of 1995 is perhaps more understandable, and can be put down to the poor decisions of a child, but it is worse. Unquestionably, some good games could be had for cheap, even in those days, which makes the purchase of something not good even less forgiveable. And it’s not like I wasn’t buying, or at least reading, PC Zone regularly and didn’t have any idea whether games were good or not. (Did the notion of reviews being a ‘buyer’s guide’ ever actually work that way in practice? Or, ultimately, do people always think they know better?)

Note: nicked from Mobygames.

So, what made me buy Zone Raiders? I remember the box art strongly implying a kind of futuristic road racer with weapons, so I pictured something like a more free-form Wipeout. In reality, it was more like a crapper, emptier version of Descent or Quarantine. During my look back through old PC Zones, I spied an early version of the game on the ‘Off the Boards’ section which normally dealt with shareware and freeware. Clearly unfinished, it was praised for being a pretty decent foundation for something. When the main game arrived, it seems not much progress had been made in that respect – again, the engine was considered to be pretty good, but the game built around it was regarded as dull.

This makes sense when delving a little deeper into the work of developers Image Space Incorporated – they’ve since carved out a career in racing games, developing a number of F1 and NASCAR games in the 00s, while their technology is apparently used in a number of other more well-known games including Simbin’s GTR and RACE titles. So perhaps if Zone Raiders had been more of a futuristic racer, it could have been good.

As I said earlier, there are lots of other bad or bad-to-middling games in my past that I’ve probably long forgotten about, it’s just that Zone Raiders happened to be so memorably bland, with such an absence of excitement or things to actually do, other than focus on an incessant beeping noise, that it sort of came to encapsulate all poor bargain-bin decisions. Although now that I think about it, the memories do sort of keep coming: there was Track Attack, which in previews had sort of positioned itself as a successor to Stunts or Stunt Car Racer but at some point had morphed into an obnoxious futuristic racer (is there a theme here?) with a terrible frame rate. Again, I think I still bought it AFTER PC Zone gave it an unfavourable review. There was FX Fighter, supposedly the PC’s answer to Virtua Fighter; and Iron Assault, a mech game from the developers of Screamer with unimpressive visuals and even less impressive video cut-scenes. I could go on. But Zone Raiders was the only one to make me feel as if I’d literally bought nothing.

There probably isn’t as much difference between the 14 year-old boy who bought Zone Raiders and the 37 year-old man who goes rooting through charity shop bargain bins at every opportunity as I’d like, but hopefully there has been sufficient personal growth to ensure 2018’s version of Zone Raiders, whatever that might be, doesn’t find its way into my collection. Farewell then, Zone Raiders, may you and all that you represent remain locked in the Vault of Regret for the rest of eternity.

[Edit: There’s an unfortunate coda to this story – in the process of researching the game a bit more, I discovered to my horror that Zone Raiders has been exhumed from the abandonware grave and is now sold for real money again on a digital platform called Zoom (of which I was previously unaware). Having long ago stopped being angry about Zone Raiders, I now find my sense of inner peace on the topic disturbed: I simply cannot imagine that there is an audience for this game all these years later. And while officially of course I’m in favour of old games being resurrected, there is of course the fact that people are charging money for this absolute dreck: DO NOT BUY OR PLAY ZONE RAIDERS!]

Review: The Blackwell Legacy

September 22nd, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hi there everyone.

Hot on the heels of Stoo’s decision to revisit the Sierra adventures of old, today we’re looking at something rather more recent.

Wadjet Eye have led something of a revival of the point and click genre in recent years: here’s a look at the first instalment of their Blackwell series, The Blackwell Legacy.

A Random Quest

September 20th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

Over the past 17 years had a complicated relationship with Sierra adventures. We always seem to approach them with just a bit of ambivalence, making it clear along the way that we hold Lucasarts games to be superior. We find some to be a bit poor, others merely adequate, handing out a lot of fives and sixes.

For one thing, we never really got on with Sierra’s rather clunky and cliched sense of humour, compared to their competitor’s more whimsical and surreal approach. So the thought of playing through the comedy-oriented Space Quest or Leisure Suit Larry sounds like a bit of a slog. Meanwhile their approach to fantasy, as seen in King’s Quest, ancestor of the whole genre, did always seem like a rather twee collection of public-domain fairytales.

The one series we’ve committed to covering thoroughly was Police Quest, since we found ourselves warming to Sonny Bonds and his sensible haircut. Still, it was a bit po-faced and perhaps too focussed on proper procedure, and so didn’t actually get any high scores from us.

I did actually enjoy the first Quest for Glory, which crosses over into RPG territory with combat and character skills. I never went back to the sequels, though. The only Sierra game I’d genuinely call one of my favourites is Conquests of Camelot, with its mystical dark ages setting, and none of their other games ever captured my imagination to the same extent.

Here’s the thing, though: I feel a powerful force of nostalgia every time I see the Sierra logo, and hear the accompanying midi fanfare. “Prepare yourself to go on a quest, brave hero!”, it says. It’s a promise of adventure, a signal that we’re about to explore strange lands and meet exotic characters. Part of my brain instinctively winds up its rusty, worn-out puzzle-solving circuits in preparation. There’s an unshakeable sense that these games were one of the pillars of PC gaming in their day, an essential part of the adventure genre, and that I’ve failed to do them justice.

It’s a weird, conflicted feeling. Maybe I’d really enjoy more of these games if I sat down and properly immersed myself in them. Or perhaps they’re all a bit plodding, adequate but not truly inspiring. Perhaps I’m drawn more to the ideal of “Quest” games than the reality.

Still, perhaps the only way to resolve this is to review more of them. There are some quite wide gaps in our coverage, after all. I could name around twenty candidates, before we go to anything really obscure. Rather than dither over which one to play, I just made a list of all the adventures we’ve yet to write about.

That comprises most of the King’s quest, Quest for Glory, Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry families. I’m throwing in a few one-offs like Codename Iceman also. The focus here is the classic graphical adventure so I’m excuding really ancient static screen stuff, or action-oriented sequels and spinoffs (e.g SWAT).

Now, I pick one randomly. It’s a realtime article, everyone! Will I be making my first try at Space Quest? Or, will it be an early King’s Quest full of random death and pixel hunts?

*drumroll*

And… it is indeed a Space Quest. Never played any of these myself even briefly!

I’d love to say “coming soon to FFG” but given how unproductive I am these days, I had better not make any promises. However I will endeavour to play this when I find the time, and write an open-minded review.

Vault of Regret: Command and Conquer

September 13th, 2018

Written by: Rik

It is not the intention of this series to chronicle each and every game that we happen to be not very good at: there are a lot of them, for a start, and speaking personally there’s enough whining from me on the subject on this site (and possibly also in the comments sections of reviews at Just Games Retro) already. Some people understand, and are good at, strategy games. I am not one of them, and I’m ok with that.

Having said all that, there are a handful of titles with which I’ve dabbled sufficiently to harbour Specific Regret of the type we can file away securely in this vault. One example would be the venerable 4x classic Master of Orion 2, a long-time favourite of my friend and colleague Stoo. I have reasonably fond memories of the two of us taking on the galaxy in hot-seat multiplayer mode about 20 years ago: however, subsequent attempts to rekindle those feelings as a solo player indicate that in all likelihood my previous efforts relied on significant guidance from my fellow player, drawing upon his knowledge of the game to steer me through each turn while avoiding serious catastrophe.

As a youngster, strategy games struck me as being rather too much on the dull and dusty side to be of any interest. On the Atari ST, strategy seemed to mean serious military battle games like Austerlitz and Waterloo: even something like the original Civilization seemed too history-based, far less exciting to adolescent eyes than action-packed shooters, football or racing games. The only exception of note was a game called Millennium 2.2, which was kind of a precursor to the likes of Master of Orion, and appealed on the basis of its sci-fi setting and atmospheric music: again, though, I’m not sure if I played it properly or just messed around not knowing what I was doing until it was game over.

The era of real-time strategy certainly changed my perceptions of the genre. Playing Westwood’s Dune 2, I understood for the first time the basics of resource collection, building a base and directing attacks, because it was all so easily explained and accomplished: click here and watch it happen. Early missions were extremely gentle, acting effectively as a tutorial, with House Atreides mentat Cyril on hand to give you hints and tips. (And, yes, it would always be House Atreides: here began my pathological need to play as “the good guys” in these games and ignore entirely the other campaigns). The presentation was glossy and exciting, from the movie-like introduction to little in-game touches such as the repeated verbal acknowledgements of your commands that would become a hallmark of the genre.

Westwood followed Dune 2 with Command and Conquer, which to my mind was the first strategy game to be actively marketed as fun and exciting: ditching the slightly nerdy Dune licence in favour of a contemporary alternate reality based around a war between fictional terrorists and the self-appointed world police, utilising CD technology to add video cut scenes and ramp up the presentation in general. Real-time strategy is for everyone: anyone can build a base, collect Tiberium and amass an army to do their bidding, while some cool music plays in the background. Again, early missions were gentle, allowing you to focus on doing rather than thinking.

And there was the problem for me: when things did start to require some level of thought, it was too tough to take and I found myself defeated rather too easily. The pace of the action, part of that initial excitement and appeal, started to become overwhelming, and the clarity and speed of thought required to succeed more and more elusive. 1996’s Command and Conquer: Red Alert was probably the C&C game I played most, and it certainly left a mark on me in a way that the original didn’t, but I can’t readily recall just how far I got in the campaign: the missions in which you didn’t have a base as such and had to guide a handful of units around, Cannon Fodder style, did get on my nerves and possibly it was one of these that defeated me.

During this site’s earliest years, the critical consensus was that Command and Conquer was old hat, and relied on linear tactics and build and rush gameplay. Tiberian Sun was considered a disappointment, and 3D rivals such as Ground Control and Homeworld (another of Stoo’s favourites) were being pushed as superior RTS options. In the context of such comments, I cobbled together a review of Red Alert, albeit not a particularly detailed or insightful one, but I felt sufficiently moved to defend it, even if my low level of expertise meant I had little right to do so.

Tiberian Sun itself was also the subject of a write-up, and must have been played for a period deemed sufficient to meet 2007 FFG quality standards (whatever they were…I certainly didn’t get to the end). I can remember very little about it now, except a sense that it lacked a certain spark that the previous games had, and the fact that employing Hollywood stars to participate in the cut scenes undermined their cheesy charm somewhat.

It was Red Alert 2 that finally killed me off. Contemporary reviews had been kinder than they had been to Tiberian Sun, and so I was convinced to give it a go, only to find that I failed spectacularly on a very early mission. I think that’s when I realised I wasn’t actually ever any good at Command and Conquer: I’d played it, and thought I’d enjoyed it, but probably I hadn’t. Amid all the criticism of it being a build and rush title that wasn’t a “real” strategy game, I must have thought that if something so popular and accessible was beyond me, I really did need to hand over my gaming badge.

I realise now of course that it’s absolutely fine to be rubbish at games. But even in the course of writing this piece, consigning C&C to the Vault of Regret, I got sucked in again. Firing up the old Westwood RTS games for a bit of research, I began a Dune 2 campaign as House Atreides and coasted through the first two, extremely easy, levels. “Hmm…” I thought. “Perhaps Command and Conquer is too hectic for me, but I remember this, and it seems like it might be a simpler and more considered affair. I’ll keep going and perhaps I could write a review at some point.”

Come mission 3, also known as The First Mission In Which More Than One Thing Attacks You, things are on fire, I’ve built things in the wrong order, I’m out of credits and my base is being overrun by Harkkonen. And I’m realising that your units will do very little without you actively telling them, commands have to be issued one at a time, and everything moves incredibly slowly.

Compare that experience with my attempt to have a quick go at Master of Orion 2 to grab some screenshots. Yes, it has an exciting looking intro movie, with spaceships and explosions, and that, but once you get into the game proper, there are menus and numbers and charts: there’s no softening you up with an introductory bit where you build a couple of concrete slabs and feel like a champion. Hit with the stark realities from the start, at least it’s honest: no, Rik, this game isn’t for you – go and do something else.

Portable Retro Gaming Machine ™

August 28th, 2018

Written by: Rik

For the time-poor retro gamer, the temptation to convince yourself that a new, possibly portable, machine will allow you the opportunity to play all of those games that you always planned get around to, is significant. It’s the same mindset that makes those with already considerable backlogs buy more games: without the time to play, reading up on a product and making a purchase is one way to remain engaged with your hobby.

By my usually profligate standards, I’ve remained relatively restrained: I own a PSP but never dared to fiddle around with it to use it for emulation, although I have bought one or two retro collections that have remained largely untouched. As I was never a console gamer, what I always wanted was a device to let me play PC games (including those I could review here) without sitting in front of my main desktop machine. One misguided investment was an Android tablet which, even when combined with a paid DOSBox app and Bluetooth keyboard, fell short of expectations. (I did manage to use it for some adventure games, though, either via ScummVM or purchased from the Google Play store).

The solution for someone in that situation seems obvious: a Windows laptop. In truth I’ve historically been a bit anti-laptop: I always preferred a desktop setup, and reasoned that using a laptop for games would always be a compromised experience, plus when batteries and other things went wrong with them, they would be problems you wouldn’t be able to resolve yourself. And they seemed a little bit expensive: as someone whose upgrade budget and schedule normally stretches to around £500 on a new desktop PC every 5 years or so, a second machine seemed a bit extravagant, not to mention the fact I don’t like carrying too much valuable kit around with me (I once met a friend in a pub and he had some expensive Macbook with him: I just couldn’t carry around a grand’s worth of machine around with me – worrying about losing or damaging it, or it getting nicked).

Sexy tech pic nicked from laptopmag.com

Somehow, though, a few years ago I ended up with one: a combination of a Black Friday sale and the accidental overconsumption of beer while waiting for an extremely delayed Indian takeaway delivery meant that I awoke the following morning with a confirmation email from Argos telling me my new computer could be collected from our nearest branch (which, it turns out, wasn’t that near). I’d been in a similar position before, ordering a PSP Vita from Amazon Germany under similar circumstances for £100 (a bargain, in retrospect), but cancelling the following day. The same option was open to me this time, but I decided to go through with it. In the cold light of day, a Windows laptop for £125 was still a good deal.

As you might guess, for that price, you don’t get a particularly high quality laptop. It’s a Lenovo s21e which, as a budget model, suffers from slightly shoddy build quality and limited storage space, to name but a couple of drawbacks. The display is also pretty small and it’s not at all powerful. But, I realised that now that I’m a dusty old out-of-date gamer, anything that could run 64-bit Windows would probably be powerful enough for DOSBox, AGS point and click adventures and sundry other GOG purchases from the 90s and early mid-00s. Plus I could get some writing up done if needed too.

Knowing me, and the nature of such optimistic purchases, there was still a chance it would have laid untouched in my computer cave, but in fact it’s revitalised my FFG output over the past few years. I won’t pretend I’m not still intrigued when I hear about some new and exciting options for gaming on the move, and a laptop does have its limits (although I feel comfortable playing old adventures, I’m not sure I’m brave enough to break out the USB joypads on the 7:29 commuter train) but for now I think I’ve found my portable retro machine of choice.

Vault of Regret: Operation Flashpoint

August 22nd, 2018

Written by: Stoo

Hello everyone. Rik has recently launched our new series, the Vault of Regret. So if you missed it, go read his inaugural item about space sims.

A recurring sort of gaming regret for me comes from games that I want to enjoy, but find frustratingly difficult due to my impatience and incompetence. I struggle on with these until I’m too stressed out and annoyed to continue, causing a flurry of angst and self doubt. Should I keep trying, or should I know my limits? So today I’ll be talking about the tactical shooter Operation Flashpoint, which really should have been my kind of game.

Firstly, it takes place on huge maps full of farmland, forests and villages. I love that sort of freedom of movement in gaming. You can try and approach a problem from any direction. You might want to look for a stronger position from which to attack your enemy, or take a wide detour to avoid something you don’t want to fight. Sure, open-world games are a dime a dozen nowadays, but back in 2001 having such a huge space in which to operate was rather novel in a shooter.

It’s also packed full military vehicles, all of which can be operated by the player. You can go ahead and and jump behind the controls of everything from a basic truck, to an Abrams main battle tank, to an Apache Gunship. It sounded like a playground full of the cold war hardware I used to read about in books. Some missions specifically focus on vehicle combat, but even on infantry-based missions there are often opportunities to opportunistically appropriate something you stubmle across.

Basically when I first bought the game it looked like a perfect blend of free-form action and authenticity. Sadly though I only got about 4 missions in because I was utterly, irredeemably shit at it.

Pic from mobygames. If this was me playing, I’d probably be about to die.

Every engagement with enemy soldiers turned out the same way: a blind, chaotic panic. Every time. Invariably I would dive for cover, with bullets pinging around, and crouch behind a wall thinking: now what the fuck do I do?

If I strayed out in the open, a couple of hits would leave me dead. Okay, that much I was expecting, because this is meant to be a relatively realistic game. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the difficulty in fighting back. Even when the enemy presented a clear target, silhouetted against the sky, I could barely hit them. I don’t know if that’s the realistic weapon modelling, or me just being unable to aim properly under pressure.

If they were in cover, or a long distance away, the problem was even worse. Vague blurs of motion in between trees and houses. I could empty an entire clip in their direction without any effect. I would have no idea how advance or flush the enemy out. I suppose I should have done some proper army tactics like laying down cover fire whilst ordering some of my squad to advance.

My problem is I hate when anyone on my team dies. “oh no! 3 is down! 4 is down!” came the shout over the radio. So I’d probably just order them to take cover too. Then I would shift position a bit to try and get a better line of fire, and then get shot and die.

Then I’d start the mission again, and try attacking the enemy village from a new direction, maybe advancing along the edge of a forest for cover. Then I’d get shot and die.

Then try again moving more rapidly down the road, leaping into a farmhouse at the last minute. Then get shot and die.

War is hell, they say. I’m sure this is all very realistic. I remember emailing Rik to say that, despite it kicking my ass, I was greatly enjoying the game. This was a dreadful lie based on wishful thinking. In reality I was becoming progressively more demoralised.

Maybe I would have gotten on better with the tank, helicopter and jet missions. I don’t know, I never got that far. The game was too intense, too frustrating. A nagging voice tells me I should have pushed myself harder, that I could have found Flashpoint more rewarding if I’d put in more effort. Instead, I raqequit and ebayed the discs.

You’d think I would at least learn my lesson; that this sort of game is not for me. Sadly not. I still wanted to play solider simulators, to immerse myself in a contemporary conflict with realistically modeled weapons and a bunch of tanks to command. So a few years ago I bought Arma 2, a spiritual sequel to Flashpoint (same dev team, but they lost the rights to the name).

After the tutorial sections, all of the same problems immediately arose. I was back in exactly the same place. Pinned down behind a wall somewhere, seeing my buddies fall, while I’m unable to get a clear shot at the bad guys picking us off. Then getting frustrated, doing something rash, so I got shot and died.

To be fair I did get a lot further through the campaign this time. I think this is mostly due to the lack of restrictions on saving your game, compared to the original and its harsh once-per-level limit. The missions may also be a bit easier, at least early on. Still, but the end I was finding it a bit of a slog. Too intense, too stressful and draining. I’d find myself putting off playing it, and running to Warcraft instead. Each new mission felt daunting, and a bit of a chore, which is really the opposite of what gaming is meant to be.

Later missions introduce elements of commanding larger forces, even buying vehicles. These weren’t particularly well explained though – in fact I got the impression they were multiplayer or skirmish mode elements thrown into the campaign at the last minute. Honestly, having to co-ordinate more troops just felt like another responsibility to juggle in a game I was already finding rather taxing.

I think I made it as far as starting the very last mission, a sprawling affair of sprawling affair of capturing several villages currently held by the rebels. I couldn’t summon the effort; it was too unappealing a challenge. The game had exhausted me. I had recently installed Bioshock and that is something I know I can handle.

I shouldn’t imply that Arma2 was unbroken unhappiness. In fact there were many great moments. Thrilling shootouts amidst the streets of an abandoned town, or sweeping across the countryside in a Humvee. Or that one mission where I just said bollocks to it and started running rebels over in a BRDM (thank god they didn’t have rocket launchers). Yet I felt that reaching each victory involved an awful lot of arduous struggle, setbacks, and reloading.

Some gamers look to be challenged, to develop their skills. (Hence the apeal of the Dark Souls series). Perhaps I should be more like them. Perhaps I give up too easily. Maybe I should have practiced more. I could have sat down and read up on some actual military squad-level tactics. Or I could have watched a bunch of youtube videos (I did actually sit through a 5-minute tutorial just to try and understand how sniper rifle scopes work).

I’m inclined to think, though, that real life provides plenty of challenges, and there’s only so much that I’m looking for in gaming. I’m not saying every game should be easy mode, something you can casually roll through without making any effort. However I have to draw a line somewhere, to say this is not rewarding and not worth the effort I’m putting in.

So basically, I’m bad at soldier sims. I still get tempted with their shiny promises of Abrams tanks and Apache gunships, and ever more stunning and realistic scenery. Yet I know must resist, because it probably won’t go well for me.

Vault of Regret: Space Sims

August 19th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Regular readers, if they indeed exist, will recall our Cupboard of Shame – the area under the stairs where boxes of games purchased in a fit of enthusiasm and later abandoned due to lack of time, or competence, would be laid to rest. As we’ve got older, we haven’t necessarily become wiser, and with a growing collection of hasty and overly optimistic purchases, the CoS has been given a long overdue upgrade. Allow us to introduce our latest acquisition: the Vault of Regret, a huge space which can not only house a collection of dusty CDs and boxes, but also untouched digital libraries as well as the metaphysical concepts of remorse and embarrassment.

In other words, welcome to our new semi-regular feature, in which we plan to talk about our various gaming regrets. It could be a game we bought but didn’t play; a game we did play but wish we hadn’t; something we were frankly rubbish at; or letting an interest in or aptitude for a particular game or genre lapse. Or something else. Today I’ll kick off by talking about a genre that was once synonymous with the most high profile PC gaming releases: the space sim.

Lucasarts’ X-Wing certainly wasn’t the first of its type, but while you could play Wing Commander on the Amiga or the SNES, X-Wing was PC only, because it needed to be. I always thought of it as one of the first games to demand that people bought a PC to play it (yes, yes, I know there was that shooting game as well). Sadly, though, despite being thrilled by that iconic intro, I never made much progress in the game itself, foiled by an embarrassingly early mission (Tour 1, Mission 4: Protect Medical Frigate). When I got around to playing TIE Fighter, progress was much smoother, and I took my eventual completion of it as evidence I could return to X-Wing and have more success (which, it turned out, wasn’t to be the case).

In spite of contemporary reviews which suggested you were either in the X-Wing/TIE Fighter or the Wing Commander camp, I actually enjoyed both series, although I couldn’t really get to grips with the combat in early WC games. The big budget third and fourth Wing titles, however, were significant in my early gaming history (more on which here).

Periodically I think about revisiting games from this era: specific regrets would be never getting past that mission in X-Wing, or not really ever getting into some of the Wing Commander spin-off games like Privateer and The Darkening. My write-ups of my favourite WC titles, meanwhile, are short on detail, symptomatic of my earliest work on FFG, when it was a small fun project for a couple of young men of university age to stick down a few thoughts about their favourite older games (insert your own joke about whatever FFG is these days here). I do wish I could whizz through the WC III and IV campaigns again: perhaps I will one day. Sadly, my humble laptop, which I tend to use for DOSBox stuff, isn’t really set up for the control schemes of old-school space-sims, and recent attempts to return to these DOS-era titles have been short-lived and unsuccessful.

And there have been space sims since the mid 90s, although my experience of them is embarrassingly limited. Tachyon: The Fringe is the only post-2000 review from me on here (an odd choice, considering, although I did quite enjoy it at the time). Starlancer, Freelancer, X: Beyond The Frontier, Darkstar One: they’re all there in the Vault of Regret, tinkered with but not played or enjoyed to any great extent.

It’s possible of course that could change in the future. I’m not sure exactly what it was that caused me to stop playing: a sense that they were becoming complicated, or that they weren’t but my ability and inclination to get to grips with them had diminished. Or possibly the same intangible factors that caused the genre to fall out of fashion more generally.

They’ve come back a bit more recently: we finally got the long-mooted Elite 4 (released as Elite: Dangerous), and there’s the latest project from Wing Commander director Chris Roberts, Star Citizen (although the tale of the game, its budget and state of completion appears to be a rather long and complicated one). And there’s No Man’s Sky, too, of course. Each of these games, though, have managed to elicit no more than a passing interest.

Perhaps there’s a clue there: maybe I wasn’t actually ever such a big fan in the first place. I don’t think I ever played Elite, although we did have it on the Amstrad CPC, and Frontier also passed me by, while I also ignored later efforts highly rated by my friend and colleague such as Conflict: Freespace and I-War. Maybe it was the epic space story that attracted me to Wing Commander; the lure of Star Wars to X-Wing. Either way, my interest in the genre seems to be sort of locked to that particular part of the 90s.

You never say never, but it’s possible that the time for me and space sims has passed. Or maybe I will try and fire up X-Wing once again…