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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…

Moments in Gaming: Hollywood Holocaust

August 15th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

Duke Nukem 3D starts with our hero stepping onto the streets of LA, near a cinema and… That’s actually as much of the game as I need to describe today. Something as simple as a street was, in 1995, rather novel.

First Person shooters – or Doom Clones as we called them back then – usually went for some sort of scifi or fantasy setting. Their environments were also a bit abstract in nature. Collections of rooms and corridors with a general theme but not an immediately identifiable purpose. They could still be impressive or atmospheric. You just couldn’t tell why they existed or what was meant to happen there. So maps were, ultimately, just geometry and textures.

In Doom we ran around a Mars base comprised of sludge pits, and rooms of computer monitors, and big empty courtyards. Dark Forces gave us star destroyers, which was cool, but aside from a few key locations like the bridge or a hanger there would be a string of rather pointless rooms. In Heretic we invaded, I dunno, a wizard’s lair or something? You can pretty much draw anything you want in a 1994 game engine, put stone and wood textures on it and some angry skeletons in the entrance, then say a wizard lives here.

To its credit, Doom 2 did have a “downtown” level of city streets, but it wasn’t particularly successful. It didn’t have the sort of detail required. It was also hampered by the inability to do one floor directly above another, which pretty much stops it from creating an entire realistic building, exterior and interior. We could make allowances for the city being in a ruined, post-apocalyptic state. Still the buildings were basically just weird hollowed-out cubes sat on a stone floor.

Perhaps that illustrates the problem with trying for the real world, in an early shooter. The developers knew they weren’t yet capable of recreating it convincingly. So it was a safer bet to go for spaceships or wizard towers, the sort of place we’re not going to immediately compare to experiences from our everyday lives.

[edit: I suppose I should mention that Wolfenstein 3D was based on the second world war, but with its early, primitive engine it was basically just a bunch of mazes]

So this is something that made Duke so revolutionary from the start. Sure it still had a goofy scifi theme, but it was clearly taking place here, on earth. It featured locations like city streets, hotels and stadiums. The sort of place that many urban dwellers would find a short distance from their home. It’s one of the first shooters I know of that showed us the genre could work in (relatively) realistic setting, without needing to go to space.

Part of this was achieved by textures and level geometry (it could do “floors above floors”). Another factor was detailing, all kinds of little features that bring a place to life. Many of which were interactive.

You could walk into a bar, and it obviously was a bar. There was a counter with a cash register, and glass bottles (that you could smash). Magazines littered tables. You could walk up to a pool table and scatter the balls. A door would lead to the bathroom and you could burst in on the stall (rudely interrupting an alien lizard trooper). Then break the toilet.

Of course, there is the matter of that cinema I mentioned being, ahem, a porno cinema. Meanwhile the second level had a strip club (“shake it baby”). So, yeah, several of these “real world” locations were draped in seediness. Since I was a teenager when I first played, let’s not pretend the pixellated smut wasn’t also getting my attention.

Also I would never claim that all shooters should go down this path. Indeed all the war-themed games since Medal of Honor and Call of Duty have probably overdone urban grime. Conversely Unreal was memorable for its hazy, colourful alien world. There will always be plenty of room for imaginative settings that are fanciful or magical.

Still, back in 1995 it was a fascinating new experience just to have a shootout in a bar.

Review: Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy)

August 7th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Today’s review is of Quantic Dream’s 2005 adventure, Fahrenheit (released as Indigo Prophecy in the US).

Hope you like it.

Moments in Gaming: Start Me Up

July 20th, 2018

Written by: Rik

The brilliance and relative simplicity of modern DOSBox masks just what a pain in the arse actual MS-DOS could be when it came to gaming. Reacting to different titles’ demands for more conventional memory, EMS or XMS, or problems with graphics and sound cards, most PC gamers were forced to spend many a happy hour farting about with autoexec.bat and config.sys files.

Still, it was what you used for gaming, and through those many hours becoming better acquainted with its inner workings, you did begin to form something of an attachment to it: DOS seemed leaner, more nerdy and less gimmicky than Windows.

Every OS release has hiccups, to a greater or lesser extent, but I can’t personally recall anything quite as disruptive to PC gaming as the transition to Windows 95. My own recollection of the buildup was that it was long on hype and short on concrete information, and nefarious rumours abounded, as summarised neatly by PC Zone’s Charlie Brooker:

When it arrived, the promise of combining the best of both DOS and Windows worlds wasn’t exactly realised. Some DOS games worked, but others refused unless you were prepared to indulge in a bit of messing around: I recall our solution was a hard drive partition allowing the PC to boot into DOS or Windows at startup. (Which wasn’t too complicated I guess, although I did manage to screw up my friend Peter’s Win 95 machine by attempting to recreate this arrangement for him).

Even by mid-late 1997, new games designed for DOS were being released, with some kind of Win 95 installer included as an acknowledgement of the new OS. But for gamers with significant DOS back catalogues, it seemed like a giant “f**k you” from Microsoft.

Or at least that’s the way it felt to me at the time. Certainly the ludicrous fanfare that accompanied the launch (I don’t remember the Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston promo, but the TV spots featuring The Rolling Stones and a heavy emphasis on the magical “Start” button seemed to be everywhere) didn’t help, and the teenage me was sufficiently exercised to to create a weird mock-up of the OS in a presentation program called Illuminatus, in which everything you tried to do, except click on “Start”, didn’t work. Take that, Bill Gates!

Of course, such pain gave us modern Windows, which most people now grudgingly accept as part of PC ownership. Still, I’ve retained a level of suspicion towards new versions. Unless it’s needed for something I want, and I can be sure it won’t make anything else break, I hold out until the last possible moment. And it’s all Windows 95’s fault.
 

Moments in Gaming: the Salvage Corvette

July 19th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

For the first article in this series I wrote about Relic’s realtime strategy classic Homeworld, and I’m returning to it today.

As you might expect for this sort of game, Homeworld lets you build warships of varying size and potency. You start out with small, speedy fighters and corvettes. A few missions later you’re granted access to Frigates, which file the role of mid-sized gunboat. Further along, the real heavyweights become available, destroyers and cruisers bristling with enormous cannons and lasers.

One of the most useful ships in your fleet, however, is totally unarmed and has a far more devious use. The salvage corvette’s job is to capture enemy ships. When given a target, the salvagers will clamp onto it and try to forcibly drag it back to the mothership. The larger the vessel, the more salvagers you need to grab it. If they are destroyed, the target will break free. If however they successfully bring the ship home, it is added to your fleet.

First, however, you must take steps to ensure that the salvagers survive. They’re slow and fragile, and won’t last long if they come under attack. Usually the best tactic is to keep the enemy distracted. Before you try and capture some ships, send in disposable scout fighters to harass them first. The enemy AI can be rather single minded, focussing entirely on destroying the first ship that it sees. So your targets should, hopefully, keep firing on your scouts and ignore the incoming salvagers.

Trying to grab a frigate.

The immediate benefit of capturing ships instead of destroying them is obvious enough – not only does the enemy have one less ship, but you have one more. Even if a few salvagers are lost, their sacrifice is worthwhile it if you claimed a something valuable like a destroyer in the process. If you actually don’t even need the ship for whatever reason, it can be scrapped for resources to build something you prefer.

There are a few more perks – you can gain some types of vessel before your Mothership can build them, by stealing them from the enemy. You can even get a mighty heavy cruiser a mission or two early. It’s also the only way to obtain some ships that you can’t build at all, like the ridiculously over-gunned Kadeshi frigates.

The most important reason to use salvagers though, is simply to maximise the size of your fleet. Even if you’re overflowing with resources, there’s a hard cap on how many ships you can build. However, the game imposes no limits on the number of ships you can capture. Everything you see can in theory be added to your fleet, if the salvagers can survive their attempt to capture it.

If you at all appreciate the value of this humble, utilitarian little corvette, you will see chances to use it in every battle. You learn to quickly scan any presented enemy and think, what can I capture here, and what’s too going to be too much trouble?

So then fighters aren’t worth the effort, they’re too fast to capture and cheap to build anyway. Frigates are often a worthwhile target though. If a block of half a dozen come along, there’s no reason to not grab at least a couple. Your top priority is any heavy warship that is alone or only lightly escorted. Its heavy weapons will serve you well.

If you find yourself in pitched battle with a large fleet of multiple ship types, it’s not realistically possible to capture everything that you’re facing. So your objective should be, isolating the targets of greatest value. Divide the enemy, keep them distracted, destroy their less important ships. Then it should be safe to send in the salvagers.

Many players at least become opportunistic salvagers, grabbing a few spare ships in each engagement. Some will adjust tactics to maximise salvaging, seeking to take as many warships as possible in each battle. Since your fleet is persistent from one level to the next, it can steadily expand with ranks of captured ships. In time, it becomes a patchwork armada. Some ships you built yourself of course, but half or more are in the yellow and black of the Taidani, your primary enemy. Lurking around the edges are random oddities taken from third parties, thrown in for good measure.

This honestly suits the theme of the game quite well. You’re meant to be a commanding bunch of desperate exiles, who have been scrambling to assemble a fleet around the lone mothership, which is all that remains of their civilisation. They’re trying to challenge a far stronger empire to claim their Homeworld. It makes sense that they would capture enemy assets, wherever possible, to supplement their own limited forces.

The most memorable use of salvaging, and the time I really used this feature excess, was at the Bride of Sighs. This is one of the last campaign missions, where the objective is to destroy a fixed installation. It’s guarded by a huge spherical formation of about a hundred and fifty Ion frigates, capital-ship killers each armed with single powerful beam weapon.

A few dozen of them firing at once could have crippled even a mighty cruiser. I suppose you’re meant to feint, draw portions of the sphere away and bring overwhelming force to bear on a few of them at a time. Instead, a little sign popped up in my head: STEAL THEM ALL

ALL OF THEM

The setup was quite condusive to salvaging. The frigates were all widely spaced, that coming close to any one of them only put my ships within firing range of a couple others. I could easily dangle some distraction ships in front of a few, lure them out and send in the salvagers. Others tended to pursue, but, after a while would give up and return to formation in the big sphere.

Even though the mission seemed like salvage heaven, I proceeded slowly and cautiously. Each time I sent the salvagers out I grabbed just a couple of frigates. I didn’t want to have to micromanage too many operations at once, also I feared enraging the entire sphere. The whole process took many hours, spread across two or three evenings. A more skilful and bolder player could probably have worked faster by grabbing six or eight frigates at a time.

Steadily I added ion frigates to my fleet. More and more parked next to the Mothership. After about thirty ships you’d think I’d had enough but nope, I kept going. More ion beams for the fleet, more ships to join our quest to reclaim the Homeworld. Another few dozen piled up. They formed a huge grid in space, a massive formation of silent sentinels awaiting orders. More frigates. MOAR.

In the end I didn’t literally take them all. Once they grab a ship, salvage corvettes take a straight line home and cannot be redirected. Therefore anything on the far side of the sphere would have come too close to the central base, and triggered an angry response. Still I must have taken over a hundred.

Eventually I destroyed the base and completed the actual mission objective, which by now was almost an afterthought. I had so many frigates that I broke the “line up for hyperspace” script that concludes a mission. At this point your fleet is meant to form up in neat rows, but the line of frigates was actually too long to fit on the level map. They just milled around in confusion.

An example megafleet. Image credit Corew1n on reddit because I never have the screenshots I want for these articles, dammit.

The next two missions are the final ones in the campaign. Here at last it’s time to put the salvagers to rest, since these are epic, intense battles. Massed ranks of enemies immediately come bearing down on the precious mothership. You need to immediately deploy some heavy firepower and start wrecking those Taidani warships. Obviously these missions are meant to be extremely challenging, a fitting finale to your struggle for the Homeworld.

With my vast horde, though, I think I nailed both missions in a couple of tries. I believe the game scales enemy fleet size according to your own but even so, it wasn’t coded to account for over a hundred ion frigates.

I didn’t even really bother with manoeuvres or tactics. I just took the massive blob of frigates and either told it to guard the mothership, or just head out into the midst of the enemy formation. I must have lost dozens of frigates along the way. It didn’t particularly matter. They swamped the enemy, got in the way, fired ion beams in random directions, and soaked up cannon shells. Meanwhile my big guns were free to roam around and engage with the targets of my choosing.

That was it! Game completed. Prog rock plays. I had defeated the enemy through a lengthy and tense (and let’s be honest, monotonous) process of thieving, followed by trampling my way through the climax.

Looking back, salvaging was rather overpowered. I’m pretty sure Relic did not expect obsessive gamers like me to exploit it so heavily. In Homeworld 2 the feature was completely nerfed, by making the salvage ships die too quickly to be useful. I’m not surprised that this step was taken.

Still, for many of us, salvaging was a core mechanic of Homeworld, and that massive formation of captured frigates was a glorious sight to behold.