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Vault of Regret: Half-Life 2

December 29th, 2019

Written by: Rik

This is a strange one. Half-Life was – still is – one of my favourite games of all time: I remember completing it, in league with my long-time friend and colleague, over a glorious couple of weeks in the summer of 1999, with A-Levels completed and a new Pentium III-450 installed as the family PC.

(I’m not particularly proud to admit that I dodged a trendy boy’s 18th birthday party at a nightclub in favour of advancing the cause of Gordon Freeman – not that I was unable to pull myself away from the game: I would have happily done anything to get out of going, although it didn’t help my already low social standing when my then-girlfriend told all and sundry present that I was at home playing computer games.)

So why, then, have I not ever taken the time to get through the equally highly-regarded sequel? At the time of release, at least, I had an excuse: my PC fell short of the required spec and had an unreliable dial-up connection (although I think I was also morally outraged by the prospect of online activation – Steam? That’ll never catch on). When, eventually, I did upgrade my PC, The Orange Box was one of the first things to be purchased and installed. And I did play through most of Half-Life 2, and enjoyed it I think, but then I stopped for no particular reason and never picked it up again.

That moment itself is probably more than ten years ago now, so it seems wrong to speculate when the memories aren’t fresh and weren’t particularly strong in the first place. But I can’t help but think that if I was willing to put it down and leave it alone so easily, that, in itself, might mean something. So perhaps I don’t want to risk confirming to myself that it does; that I don’t think Half-Life 2 is all that good, actually; still less (despite the extremely low-stakes territory we occupy in our quiet corner of the internet) commit to those thoughts in a review.

The famous and still-ongoing delays to later entries in the series (the recently-announced, VR-only, Half-Life: Alyx will not, apparently, continue the story) were a contributory factor, too, with the proposed 2007 release of Half Life 2: Episode 3 coming and going, and being followed by an extended fallow period, with little more than rumour and speculation filling the silence. If the full tale hadn’t been told, and wasn’t likely to be, why even bother? It would be like starting a box set of a cancelled series that never even got the chance of a farewell episode.

Still, what this all means is that my knowledge, experience and, well, enjoyment of FPS games has been stunted somewhat, stuck in the mid-00s, around 3/4 of the way through Half-Life 2. Although there are no rules about such things, and we’ve been cavalier in our attitude to chronology elsewhere on the site, it nevertheless feels as if writing about later 00s FPS games shouldn’t happen without such an important game being given priority. (At the time of writing, we only have a handful of post-HL2 first person shooters, all of middling quality and significance, featured on the site).

The Vault of Regret is usually meant for games, memories and feelings that belong in the past and are unlikely to be revisited: I might play Command and Conquer, or X-Wing, again, but I probably won’t; I definitely won’t be going back to Zone Raiders. However, I do still retain a lingering hope that one day I will withdraw this one from the vault, dust it off, and produce a write-up for the site.

(And I should also point out that Stoo *has* played and completed Half-Life 2, lest I besmirch his good name by allowing you to think otherwise).

But, given that there has been no review so far, it must for the moment be consigned, if only temporarily, to the same dank dungeon as all of the mistaken purchases and barely-played titles of our gaming past.

Soundtracks: Homeworld

December 20th, 2019

Written by: Stoo

Rik has graciously allowed me to contribute to his new soundtracks series, so today we’re looking at Homeworld, the epic space-based RTS where fleets of starships clash in three-dimensional battles.

I’m possibly stretching the premise of these articles a little, as there’s only one licensed song in Homeworld, plus a new recording of a classical piece. They do both, however, bring some real emotional impact when they are played. A word of warning, spoilers are necessary to explain their contribution to key moments in the story.

Soundtracks: Homeworld continued »

Soundtracks: Need for Speed: Underground

December 12th, 2019

Written by: Rik

Soundtracks is a series where we take a look back at the use of licensed music in games. Go here if you want to know a little more.

Today’s game is Need for Speed: Underground, the point at which Electronic Arts’ long running racing series transitioned from middle-aged Top Gear territory into a street racing game aimed at the cool kids.

We were possibly a little too glib in our now rather ancient appraisal of its merits, but if the review is of interest you can read it via this link here.

For more about the music, however, read on below!

Soundtracks: Need for Speed: Underground continued »

Review: Test Drive Unlimited 2

December 7th, 2019

Written by: Rik

Hello! I hope you’re all well.

Somehow it’s December already – I know, right? Well, to take your mind off the cold and dark winter season, here’s a review of a game about hanging around in sunnier climes: it’s Test Drive Unlimited 2.

Reissues, remakes and belated sequels

November 16th, 2019

Written by: Rik

This has never been the place to come for gaming news [or anything else – FFG reader] but amongst the avalanche of announcements and new releases, I noticed a couple of things relevant to our interests here:

Firstly, the cel-shaded shooter XIII is back on GOG, having previously been de-listed for some reason or other, presumably tedious rights issues. It’s been some time since I played it, but I have reasonably fond memories: I enjoyed the setup, the visual style, and the fact that being ‘stealth’ meant creeping up behind people and hitting them over the head with a chair.

Presumably related to the original’s sudden reappearance, a remake has also been announced. It was initially supposed to have been released around about now, but has now been pushed into next year. Details are relatively thin on the ground, although a handful of screens have been released and it (obviously) looks a lot smarter, and I’m glad to see that the chair-to-head smashing feature apparently remains intact.

(Image from GOG.com)

It looks like this is just going to be a new game also called XIII rather than the original game touched up a little bit for modern gamers. I’m not sure the latter would really work: I increasingly feel that whatever the technical shortcomings of a particular title (in this case, checkpoint saves and quite small levels), they should be considered part of what makes the game what it is and places it at a certain point in time. (Patches that make them work on modern systems, or add a widescreen mode, are of course welcome!)

Under the heading of massively belated sequels, a follow-up to Beneath a Steel Sky has been announced. The original is beloved by many adventurers, and I often wonder whether I was a bit too harsh on it back in the day. As with Revolution’s main franchise, Broken Sword, I did remember it being tonally all over the place at times, mixing dark, dystopian sci-fi themes with broad sitcom humour, with characters cracking wise at inopportune moments (much like our tactless friend George Stobbart). It’s one that I’m tempted to revisit at some point.

Anyway, the sequel, Beyond a Steel Sky, looks to be far removed from its predecessor’s point-and-click origins, which is a bit of a surprise given Revolution’s mixed experiences with 3D in Broken Sword games 3 and 4, and ultimate decision to return to 2D for the fifth game. They also seem at this stage to be distancing it from the first game by claiming it isn’t a sequel and emphasising that you don’t need to have played the first game to enjoy this one. That’s perhaps less surprising, given that the characters in Broken Sword seem to begin each new game with few memories of what transpired previously.

It certainly looks nice enough, based on early footage, though, utilising a visual style not dissimilar to XIII. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out.

Soundtracks: FIFA 2000

November 3rd, 2019

Written by: Rik

Hello and welcome to the first in a new series of articles looking back at the use of licensed music in games. If you want a little more background, there’s a piece here explaining what it’s all about.

Today’s game is FIFA 2000, not a particularly standout entry in the series in terms of great computer footy, but notable for a few other things, not least the prominence of a major UK pop star, who not only provided some music but featured in the game’s intro and provided motion capture for goal celebrations. If you want to read more about the game, we reviewed it here.

Soundtracks: FIFA 2000 continued »

Implanted memories and a four year lifespan

November 1st, 2019

Written by: Rik

A bit late to this, as usual, but as it’s now November 2019, it seems like as good a time as any to mention that Blade Runner is now supported by ScummVM.

Until recently, the game was technically playable on 64-bit Windows, and I personally found the jiggery-pokery here sufficient to get things up and running on my own machine, although that doesn’t seem to have been the case for everyone, and some have claimed that playing on a modern PC messes up one or two timing-specific puzzles later on in the game.

I haven’t played Blade Runner all the way through for a long time, although it’s a game I think about often. It was the first review I submitted to FFG and, some years later, I wrote about how it was one of the first games that left a significant mark on me. That piece involved playing through some of the early stages again and I was sorely tempted to keep going.

I didn’t, though, so I can’t comment on any gameplay issues the workaround may or may not cause. I understand that playing through ScummVM is a safer bet in this regard, although again I can’t vouch for that myself. There’s also an option to experience an alternative version of the game featuring some restored content that the ScummVM team unearthed during the (long) quest to get it working, and I’ll be interested to try that out.

The main thing you need, of course, is a copy of the game, which isn’t that easy to get hold of legally unless, like me, you still have your original discs. An official re-release via GOG or some other platform is unlikely due to fairly complex rights issues, but I dare say you’d be able to find it on some abandonware site or other.

Even if it’s a flawed game, it’s also an interesting one, and I’m personally glad more people will be hopefully now be able to experience it. Thanks, brainy internet boffins!

[Edit: As befits someone with their finger on the pulse of modern and retro gaming news, I was of course completely wrong about the lack of a re-release, and shortly before Christmas, GOG.com added the game to their library. Huzzah!]

Review: UEFA Champions League: Season 2001/2002

October 26th, 2019

Written by: Rik

Hi everyone.

Great news for our legion of football game loving readers – it’s another old football game review! This time, we’re taking a look at UEFA Champions League: Season 2001/2002.

And, of course, this means a change to the standings in the FFG Football League.

Moments in Gaming: Thumbs Down

October 25th, 2019

Written by: Stoo

Warning: spoilers for Fallout New Vegas lie ahead…

The Fallout series is set in various locations around the former USA, a couple of centuries after civilisation ended in a nuclear apocalypse. For New Vegas (the fourth in the series), we focus on the Mojave desert. At its heart lies Vegas itself, miraculously largely untouched by the destruction that ravaged the rest of the country. Around the city are small towns populated by hardy, self-reliant folks. The Mojave is a dangerous place, afflicted by radioactive monsters and marauding tribes of raiders, but society is slowly rebuilding itself. The question is, what direction will this progress take? A return to the economy and governance of yesteryear, or something else?

Three major actions are pitted against each other, each working to a very different ideology As you work through the game’s main quest line, you can choose to support any one of the three, gaining their favour but potentially earning the enmity of the others. Alternatively there’s a fourth “screw you all” option. In the grand finale, you decide who will finally control New Vegas and the Mojave.

Moments in Gaming: Thumbs Down continued »

Soundtracks: Introduction

October 24th, 2019

Written by: Rik

Over the years we’ve branched out from being mainly reviews-focused to the occasional blog series or regular feature. There are various reasons for this, among them that we don’t have as much time to play the oldies as we used to, but it also adds a bit of variety to the content on the site. From our point of view, it makes things a bit more interesting and reflects the changes in gaming coverage that have taken place over the 15 plus years we’ve been going, and hopefully the same goes for you (although a recent survey of the site’s 7 readers was inconclusive: if you’ve not completed it yet, don’t forget that you’ll be entered into an exclusive prize draw if you meet the deadline).

In this series we’ll be looking at music featured in games – specifically, existing songs by real bands licensed by publishers for a soundtrack. A lot of coverage of gaming music focuses – correctly, perhaps – on original compositions or chiptune music and remixes, and this is undoubtedly a lot cooler than what we’re going to do here, which is basically talk about bands and their most commercially attractive material in the context of being plonked onto the menus of some publisher’s annual franchise instalment.

On the other hand, we’re in the business of looking back here, and while upon release it may be perfectly valid to cynically dismiss an expensively assembled collection of tracks as irrelevant in terms of the overall experience, digging through them after a few years gives us an opportunity to revisit those choices, those songs, and what they said about the time. Plus it’s an opportunity to have a bit of a giggle about some things that haven’t perhaps aged too well, and embarrass myself by revealing rather too much about my own preferences in the process.

Some ‘discs’ from the ‘days’ when you could ‘own’ your ‘music’.

My own qualifications in this regard can best be described thus: I had a healthy appreciation of most of what was popular once upon a time, during those formative years when such things seemed so important, and your choices and preferences were part of who you were, or so it seemed; and anything even slightly away from the mainstream made you extremely cool and original and definitely not just following a different set of pre-packaged tastes and trends.

However, since then, as with most things, I’ve gradually fallen more and more out of touch, and however I might try to listen to new stuff, my Spotify account is mainly used to access old albums that I’ve either lost or haven’t ripped audio from. But occasionally the corporate appropriation of music for gaming soundtracks has been successful and I have found myself getting into a band as a result of hearing them during a game.

So, basically I’m even less qualified to write about music than I am about games, although I do like reading about it: even those extremely sneery pieces that used to appear in the likes of NME and Melody Maker and still pop up in newspaper arts sections like The Guardian’s Saturday Guide, which seem able to extrapolate and express so much criticism of an artist or band from a particular single or album (which would, of course, drive the ‘objective games criticism!’ crowd wild as these pieces fail to note the ability of the singer to hit the right notes or the general competence of the guitar playing). I kind of like and admire their snootiness, while at the same time still considering them rather mean-spirited and not the kind of writing I could really pull off myself.

Hey, now, wouldn’t this be a good one to cover? We won’t be doing so, though.

My choices for this series will be predicated on the fact that I do think that’s there’s something interesting to say about at least some of the featured songs. Some other rules: we must have reviewed the game already, and the pieces will try to avoid repeating anything in the review (which will be linked to), while still talking about the music in the context of the game. But it’s likely we will also be going off on tangents at various points.

Also: this will be a discrete blog series, otherwise separate from the reviews themselves. While it would sort of make sense to bolt these pieces onto the relevant review as a side feature, those extras tend to be mainly for little additional tidbits and thoughts about the game, and more significant pieces tend to be rather hidden away there. Also, although we’ve done this in the past, the practice of adding new content to old reviews can be a bit jarring, especially if there’s several years between when the pieces were written.

So, there we go. We’ll get started on this shortly, so why not join us for a fun look back at some old music from the 90s and 00s?