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Gaming’s slower cars: a brief history, part 2

May 6th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hi there. We’re moving into part two of our look back at gaming’s less impressive automobiles. Here’s part one, in case you missed it.
 

Proton Wira – Network Q RAC Rally Championship (Europress, 1996)

Without stepping into review territory, it’s hard to credit that this game was once considered ‘da bomb’, if you forgive the expression [no, it’s unforgivable – FFG reader] in PC racing circles, and I remember PC Zone excitedly declaring it superior to Sega Rally, darling of arcades and consoles of the time.

In keeping with its boxy and slightly pedestrian interpretation of motorsport, there are some suitably unexciting motors to choose from. Those of a certain generation would naturally gravitate towards the Skoda, given it was the butt of many playground jokes in the 80s (“your Dad’s got a Skoda/Lada” etc) and in numerous motoring columns by Jeremy Clarkson as well, no doubt.

However by the mid–late 90s they actually weren’t bad cars. My Dad would now say, they’re basically a Golf, but cheaper. My wife would say, I don’t care, it’s still a Skoda, and if you think we should get one it’s further evidence that you’re turning into your Dad. So, in this case, we’ll plump for the equally crap–sounding Proton Wira.
 

Mundano – Grand Theft Auto (BMG Interative, 1997)

In 90s Britain, the vote of ‘Mundano man’ was widely considered to have been key in Tony Blair’s reimagining of the Labour party, and the subsequent landslide victory for New Labour in the 1997 general election.

Ahem. Grand Theft Auto isn’t technically a racer, but I’d credit it with being one of the better games to accurately recreate the feeling of driving a crap car quite fast. I mean, in real life, if you floored it in any car and drove like a maniac, it’d be scary, right? You wouldn’t be thinking, “ah, but this is just a Ford Fiesta, I’d really need to be driving a Porsche to feel anything approaching terror.”
 

Volvo S40 – TOCA Touring Car Championship, (Codemasters, 1997)

Along with rallying, the British Touring Car Championship is another great showcase for the unexciting hatchback or saloon. The selection in TOCA is a veritable middle–class 90s parents’ evening car park.

Helpfully, the game never gave you sufficient information about each vehicle to make an informed decision: I’m sure I remember reading in some magazine or other that the Audi A4 was the best because it was 4 wheel–drive, but I don’t know if that was true. In–game, the Renault Laguna always seemed to finish near the front when controlled by AI opponents, but in my experience was more prone to TOCA’s trademark unexplained sliding off the road when you selected it yourself.

It’s a tricky choice, but in any game that offers you the chance to drive a Volvo, it has to be the Volvo.
 

Mazda Demio – Gran Turismo (Sony, 1998)

This is meant to be a PC–only list (don’t write in) but the GT games have a proud history of crap cars, even if driving them (in my opinion) isn’t particularly exciting. Anyway, in the original Gran Turismo, you’re forced to do the first licence tests in this boxy embarrassment, which just adds extra humiliation to your failure to do something as simple as drive for a bit and stop in a box.

Some years later, during my one and only concerted attempt to get though Gran Turismo 3‘s career mode, I spent ages trying to win one of the early tournaments, and received some other tiny Japanese hatchback (moderate internet research suggests it was most likely either a Suzuki Alto or Daihatsu Cuore) which I assumed, despite modest appearances, to be some kind of upgrade from my current motor and I tried in vain to soup it up. It turns out you’re just supposed to sell it for the cash or something.
 

Jaguar XK8 – Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit (Electronic Arts, 1998)

As we go through this list, I can’t quite decide whether we’re meant to be looking at the best slow cars or the worst ones. If it was the former, then the Mercedes–Benz SL 600 would be the one to choose from NFS III, ahead of the Aston Martin DB7.

At the bottom of the pile, we have the Jaguar XK8. As well as being peak 90s soft–top naffness in appearance, it never seems as if it’s going very fast at all, regardless of what the speedometer says, and sounds as if it’s stuck in a middle gear at all times due to some kind of mechanical fault.

(Side note: I hadn’t played this for ages, but can report that, despite occasionally iffy handling and boxier graphics than I remember, NFS III still holds up pretty well).
 

Cadillac Eldorado – Midtown Madness (Microsoft, 1999)

The revamped VW Beetle would be an obvious candidate here, except it was quite a novelty at the time and well-suited to nipping about in urban environments. And, I know, you can drive a bus and a truck in Midtown Madness, but they don’t really count. (Warning: in later lists, trucks and buses may count).

Instead I’m going to plump for the Cadillac Eldorado, which may be a perfectly ok car, but shares a name with one of the worst ever BBC soap–operas, and seems to be the kind of dull 4–door saloon no–one would ever want to go racing in. But you can throw it about a bit and it goes quite fast.

(Note: this screenshot is from Midtown Madness 2 – DON’T WRITE IN!)

In Part 3: The early 00s! With rally games and street racers galore…

Moments in Gaming: How appropriate, you fight like a cow

May 4th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

Let’s consider a conundrum facing point and click adventure games about pirates.

We might expect it to feature some sort of combat. Pirates led a fairly violent life after all. I mean “boarding ships and taking stuff” was pretty much their job description. Even if you don’t go down that route, because your pirate hero is actually kind of useless, there are other situations where he or she will end up in a scuffle. I imagine when there was a dispute over who drank all the grog, or which idiot got the ship stuck on a sandbar, it wasn’t resolved with reasonable discussion and a firm handshake.

That said, combat scenes never fit all that well into those adventures. When sitting down to play one, I would get into the mindset of methodical exploration, investigation and puzzle-solving. I would expect to walk into a room, survey the scenery, items and characters. Then try picking things up, talking to people, seeing if any items I have right now enable a useful interaction with anything I’m seeing now. All a nice relaxed pace, over a cup of tea.

What I wouldn’t want was to find myself suddenly mashing the keyboard, swinging a sword around. That would be jarring, an unwelcome change of pace. It’s a particularly poor fit for Lucasarts adventures, which aimed for a welcoming, stress free style of game where you can’t make errors. Over in Sierra where you could randomly fall down a trap door or get murdered by an angry troll at any moment, I suppose the danger of combat fits a bit better.

Looking at some Lucasarts games, he fistfights were (IMO) the least appealing part of Fate of Atlantis. They were wise to make this part entirely optional. Meanwhile Full Throttle gave us biker fights based on a basic system of hard counters (each weapon is very good against one other type). It wasn’t terrible but it dragged on a bit.

So how should a developer implement swashbuckling swordplay in a pirate game? For The Secret of Monkey Island, Ron Gilbert and co hit on a neat solution: turn the fighting into dialogue-based puzzles.

I’m sure many of you remember how it works. Combatant A insults B. B tries a clever response. If the response matches the insult, B wins that round and then fires off an insult of their own. If their answer falls flat, A wins. Overall victory goes to the winner of three or four rounds.

Thank you, mobygames.

The Monkey Island protagonist Guybrush Threepwood is kind of a dorky loser, and is not known for cutting wit. So you start off with a pitiful range of both insults and responses. As you roam the moonlit pathways of Melee island, you invariably blunder into aggressive, swaggering pirates. You will lose a lot, at first, but every new line that that your enemies speak is added to your own library. Soon you can humiliate and bellittle your way past any cutthroat on the island.

The really clever bit is when you have to fight the swordmaster, as part of three trials to prove yourself a proper pirate.  [puzzle spoiler follows!] Her set of insults is entirely different to anything you’ve so far encountered. This is initially bewildering and you may be swiftly knocked on your ass. If you pay attention though, you realise that you are not as defenseless as it seems. For each of her insults, one of your responses makes sense, just not in the way originally intended.

Before when a pirate said “My handkerchief will wipe up your blood!”, you would say “So you got that job as janitor, after all.” Well, that also works if you’re told “My name is feared in every dirty corner of this island!”

It’s just one of the ways that Monkey Island was such a clever, creative game, one of the all time finest of its kind.

Review: L.A. Noire – Mistakes get made, but you deal with them

April 29th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

It’s been a while since we had what my friend and colleague might call ‘proper’ content. But here we have a review, of a relatively recent game, Rockstar’s L.A. Noire.

Gaming’s slower cars: a brief history, part 1

April 25th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Driving an unremarkable car is a dream that many of us are now living: if I want to drive an unmodified Honda Civic (unless you count a few dents as modifications) then I can go outside now and drive it wherever I like (but probably to either Waitrose or the tip).

Often in driving or racing games, the slow car is something to be endured until you play for long enough to unlock the faster ones. At other times, though, you’re given the full selection from the start, which begs the question: what’s the point of including them at all?

Whether it was the nerdy childhood appeal of pretending to race a car that you’d actually seen in real life, the potential for comedy value (intentional or otherwise), or simply the fact that they were more fun to drive, gaming’s underpowered cars have provided plenty of fun over the years.

So, why not join us as we take a look back through gaming history to evaluate the merits of the less exciting end of driving games’ vehicle selection screens?
 

Muscle Cars – Test Drive II: The Duel (Accolade, 1989)

As the title suggests, the core game of Test Drive II was about two cars – THE FASTEST CARS IN THE WORLD (in 1989) – namely, the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959.

You’d think that didn’t really leave Accolade anywhere to go, but, showing admirable devotion to the slower car (and making money), they released two vehicle add-on packs: The Supercars (a selection of modern sports cars, all slower than the big two, and a line-up that bears a suspicious resemblance to that of the first game) and The Muscle Cars (5 big gas guzzlers from the 60s).

On the one hand, TDII is a better game than its predecessor, which suffered from excessively sluggish handling and repetitive cliffside scenery, and provides a better basis for (ahem) test driving the cars. On the other, the slower vehicles, particularly the 60s Muscle Cars, seem rather bland when compared with those on offer in the main game; subtleties in handling are largely absent; and you’re much more likely to be caught by the police.

There’s a nice selection of dashboards, for those fetishists out there, but otherwise the original duel is where the action is.
 

Lancia Delta Integrale – 4D Sports: Driving/Stunts (Brøderbund, 1990)

Test Drive developers Distinctive Software went on to make Stunts, a cult favourite in these parts. The track construction kit and wide selection of cars provided endless opportunities for messing about, and setting custom challenges (“here is this absolutely mental track I created, now beat my time with…the Audi Quattro”) back in the day.

It wasn’t the slowest car in Stunts (that honour belonged to the Lamborghini LM002) but the aficionado’s slow car of choice was the Lancia Delta Integrale. While the real car was a nippy effort that achieved notable success in the World Rally Championship (and later earned an appearance in Sega Rally) there was something about its depiction in Stunts – it seemed too small, the dashboard was brown, and the default colour was a pale yellow –  that made it look like the kind of car your grandparents would drive, lending it significant comedy value. Here’s a clip of it attempting Rik’s patented ‘3 building jump challenge’…

 

Mythos Pininfarina – Test Drive III: The Passion (Accolade, 1990)

The Test Drive series limped on without Distinctive, and this third effort was certainly ambitious, pushing into full 3D, adding alternative routes and weather effects. Unfortunately, for our purposes, two of the three vehicles were wacky concept cars (the Ferrari Mythos Pininfarina and Chevrolet CERV III) and the third was the FASTEST CAR IN THE WORLD, the Lamborghini Diablo.

One of the game’s many flaws was that it was far too fast to actually see what was going on, and so some less ambitiously powered vehicles might have been welcome. Which made the Mythos, the slowest of the three originals, the most sensible option. The Road & Car pack later provided an Acura NSX and Dodge Stealth, and a slightly straighter section of road, to restore some balance.
 

1957 Ferrari Testarossa – Car and Driver (Electronic Arts, 1992)

Another example of a slow car being chosen out of expediency, the notoriously tricky Car and Driver gives you a couple of highway routes upon which to enjoy a leisurely drive, but then emphasises the dangers of the road in a brutal manner akin to an episode of Police, Camera, Action!

Developers Looking Glass went on to make serious flight sims including Flight Unlimited, and though this might look like a Test Drive or Need For Speed game, on anything but the easiest settings you’ll be spinning and rolling your chosen dream car towards certain doom. With that in mind, it’s worth considering the ’57 Testarossa, a far cry from the 80s dream machine of Outrun fame, even if it does mean you’re subjected to a crude potato head representation of your driver in the replays.
 

Any 1994 Ford – Ford Simulator 5 (The SoftAd Group, 1994)

A curious entry in gaming history, the Ford Simulator games were part glossy showroom brochure, part dreadful sub-Test Drive driving game. You’d think you’d be in slow car heaven here, but despite an enterprisingly dull selection of vehicles, not a huge amount of effort was expended in differentiating them out on the road. Dashboard fetishists, in particular, will be disappointed, as will European gamers expecting to see familiar Ford models – where’s the Fiesta? The Granada? The Orion?
 

Mazda RX7 – The Need for Speed (Electronic Arts, 1995)

We’ve already written about The Need for Speed‘s Lamborghini Diablo, but a high top speed, combined with the game’s sluggish braking and steering, makes the game’s faster cars less than enjoyable to drive.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Mazda RX7, the slowest car in TNFS. Later to become a high end dream machine during the NFS Underground import years, here the RX7 calls to mind a punier model like the MX5 (the kind of car your middle-aged neighbour might have). Even the yellowy green colour is kind of unimpressive. I don’t care if it does have a Wankel Twin Turbo (snigger).

It’s good fun to drive, though, even if it is harder to evade the police or prevent opponents’ superior top end speed besting you. But, on a twistier course like the final section of Alpine road, it should be possible to triumph over even the mighty Diablo, which may well speed past you at the start but is equally likely to plough guilelessly into traffic later on, allowing you to sail past wearing a smug expression.

In Part 2: the late 90s! With more Need for Speed, Midtown Madness and, er, others!

Mini consoles, and old debates

April 16th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

In the past couple of years Nintendo have successfully released miniaturised versions of both the NES and SNES. They’re little emulation boxes that come pre-loaded with games, shaped to resemble the original console. Aimed at the casual Nostalgic 30\40 something, you just plug them into your TV and start playing, with a minimum of fuss. Perfect for when you only have 30 minutes gaming time in your average evening.

The idea is catching on and a few other mini-machines have either been released or are on the way.

We recently saw a C64 mini, and at the risk of losing all my retro-gaming cred I wish I had more to say about it. I don’t think I’ve ever actually played on a real C64. From what I’ve heard the problems with this device are:

1: the keyboard doesn’t actually do anything
2: its missing some of the most popular games
3: the joystick sucks. Personally I think gamepads were more usable than those 80s joysticks anyway, but apparently this one is extra bad.

Also though, it was inevitable that Sega would want a piece of this market. So they have recently announced a miniature Megadrive\Genesis. Games onboard are unknown, but it’s due out this year.

Myself, I always saw Sega consoles as a step lesser than their competitors from Nintendo. The Megadrive wasn’t bad by any means, but it did have a more limited colour palette. Also, more subjectively, it didn’t have quite the same appeal. The SNES was colourful and earnest a bit dorky, yet utterly charming. The Megadrive was all black plastic and trying too hard to be cool.

I might feel that way because of Sonic the Hedgehog, which always struck me as a bit over-rated. The game presented raw speed as its key advantage over the competition, but that just meant half of each map shot past in a blur leaving me thinking “do I need to go back there?” Once you slowed down to walking pace, it was all a bit average.

Also I didn’t care for attempts to make a mascot with “attitude”. Nintendo’s unfashionable middle-aged plumber is sincerely likeable, while Sonic’s smirking face was too transparent an attempt to appeal to kids. As if he was meant to be one of us, charging off having fun and thumbing his nose at authority instead of doing his math homework.

That said I don’t actively dislike those games, they’re just not a match for Super Mario World. Meanwhile there are several Megadrive games that might tempt me to shell out. Shining Force, which I wrote about over on Just Games Retro, was a great tactical RPG. Castlevania: Bloodlines is my favourite instalment from the vampire-killing series’ 8 and 16 bit days, with some memorably atmospheric levels and a spear-wielding hero to complement the usual Whip Guy.

Then there’s Golden Axe, the classic scrolling beat ’em up. Rather than the usual setting of denim clad karate men fighting criminal gangs amongst urban neon and grime, this one went for Conan the Barbarian style fantasy. Top memories from Golden Axe include those huge hammer guys, and riding fire-breathing dragons. Also wasting your fully charged special magic attack on a single wimpy enemy, just before a boss fight starts.

One reason not to get the Megadrive mini will be, you can already get a bunch of the games on Steam (since they no longer make their own hardware, Sega are logically much more willing than Nintendo to release their retro games on other formats). That’s another easy and legal way to play, although with my setup not quite so conducive to playing from the living room sofa.

Anyway this isn’t as high personal priority for me as the Nintendo minis, but, I do in general applaud the push to make oldies more accessible to modern casual gamers. It will be interesting to see if the trend continues, and what else may be announced in the future. How about a tiny Atari ST? (cheers from back of room. Boos from Amiga owners).

Moments in Gaming: 200mph

April 1st, 2018

Written by: Rik

Last time, Stoo talked about how Doom is synonymous with the PC consolidating its position as a proper gaming machine. Today, we move a bit further forward into the mid-90s, and a point in time when console games on PC started to become a reality, and the phrase “anything console X can do, the PC can do better!” seemed less like empty my-format-is-best posturing.

The death of the 3DO led to some of its best games arriving on the PC, including Road Rash, FIFA and, best of all, The Need for Speed. TNFS was the racing game I’d always been waiting for, to the extent that I’d asked my parents to consider getting me a 3DO: a racer with real cars, real roads, civilian traffic, and police chases. It was the game Test Drive 2 and Car and Driver could have been if they hadn’t been held back by the technological limitations of their era.

PC gamers were soon furnished with a demo, which allowed you to take the Dodge Viper out on a drive along a single section of coastal road. Even on a 486, which could only handle the visuals in 320×200, it looked great, and repeated plays only served to heighten anticipation for the full game. Aside from trying to drive properly, there seemed to be significant scope for messing around: hitting traffic, pulling handbrake turns, and – best of all – getting up a significant amount of speed and crashing into a roadside barrier, prompting an unrealistic, but spectacular, crash sequence.

Those initial experiences with the demo could almost have been a gaming moment of their own, and the coastal roads did boast some lovely scenery (for the time) including one memorable section where hot air balloons appeared on the horizon, which could have been another contender (banishing memories of Test Drive 2’s windmill-based scenery packs).

However, fun as messing around with the Viper was, it was only natural that the fastest cars would be held back for the full game. The received wisdom of the school playground was that the Lambourghini Diablo had overtaken the Ferrari F40 (which featured in a number of games in the late 80s and early 90s, including Crazy Cars 2, Turbo Outrun and Test Drive 2) as the “fastest and best car ever” and someone had read in their Dad’s car magazine that it could do over 200mph.

The Need for Speed gave you the opportunity to drive a Diablo, and a stretch of road long enough to achieve that top speed. The first section of the city race was pretty much a long straight with little to stop your progress, other than a few pesky slow-moving civilians. While hitting the 200mph mark and beyond was pretty simple, there was also enough of a sense of speed and danger that meant it didn’t feel cheap, either.

In that moment, the promise of so many racing games – that you, a nerdy kid with a computer, could have the keys to any of the world’s top sports cars – had finally been delivered.

The Great Skate 8

March 30th, 2018

Written by: Rik

For reasons unknown, my mind recently warped back to the 16-bit era and a game called Skate Tribe. It was developed in STOS, a version of BASIC geared towards making games for the Atari ST. STOS was one of those packages that was both too complicated for the unrealistic and lazy end of the target market to fathom and also simple enough that any games produced with it were automatically considered inferior.

Other than Skate Tribe, I can’t recall any other notable STOS titles, and I never used it myself, although I’m sure I would have fallen into the unrealistic/lazy category – Klik and Play was more my level. (I’d better also point out that there was a version for the Amiga called AMOS and it was much better in every way, I’m sure).

I probably wouldn’t have heard of Skate Tribe either had it not been given away on a magazine cover disk, and one-time ST Format readers are more likely to recall it than most. Essentially an object dodging game, you guide your pony-tailed dude through 9 increasingly hazardous levels, starting with a fairly straightforward opening in which you slalom through various roadside objects. Later challenges can be slightly more nuanced, involving the fire button to effect a jump and avoid holes in the road, oncoming vehicles etc.

The context always seemed a little ambiguous, as aliens turn up at various points, and there’s a level in which you have to avoid a giant snake thing while balancing on the back of some kind of flying craft. Which is weird. (Although looking back now at the cover disk pages of ST Format #7, some more detail is given – apparently your character is called Apache Joe (…) and there is a reference to supplies to your home town of Wood Green (London N15?) being cut off).

I never managed to finish it, although it’s not a long game, and I’m not sure if it’s even all that good: the collision detection is particularly ropey, and once the game decides you’ve finished a level you often find your skater riding roughshod over oncoming obstacles with no ill effects.

Still, I must have spent enough time with it for it to leave an impression on me after all these years. Some of the credit must go to the soundtrack – there are some cracking tunes in there, particularly if you’re a fan of slightly melancholic and wistful loops (it kind of reminds me of the Outrun soundtrack and also the music from the CPC version of Robocop that got used in an advert for Ariston washing machines).

Here are a few short clips of my favourites:

Title music

Level 1

Level 4

(Thanks to stformat.com for the ST Format scan).

FFG Mobile

March 26th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Exciting news! We have a mobile version of the site, thanks to WPTouch.

Owing to a combination of the plugin’s limitations and our own, the mobile site doesn’t have the same functionality as the desktop one. Our intention is that it serves as a more accessible way to browse reviews and view the latest site updates on a phone.

The main thing that’s missing is the search function. There’s a technical reason for this, something to do with WPTouch conflicting with another plugin we use. However, you can browse the reviews using the menu as normal, and the latest blog updates will be on the main page, so hopefully you won’t miss out on too much.

We’re also aware that, as a free mobile plugin, quite a few sites also use WPTouch, including our friends over at Just Games Retro. We looked at a few options, but this one seemed to fit best considering our (limited) technical knowledge.

On the plus side, it was a relative doddle to sort out, and all the possible limitations that caused us to put this whole thing off for so long were actually pretty easily resolved (the main one did need some background tinkering from my friend and colleague).

Hopefully you’ll consider it an improvement: a generally streamlined and cut-down version of the sprawling and cheerfully eccentric main site (which is always available as an option, should you need it).

Believe it or not we did do some reasonably thorough checking on the test site, but there are bound to be things we missed. Any issues, feedback or other comments, do let us know!

Moments in Gaming: Phobos Anomaly

March 20th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

Doom is important to we PC fans, because it’s one of the greatest games from a time when the PC was finally asserting itself as a potent gaming machine. With increasing processor power, and developers settling on VGA and soundblaster as industry standards, we no longer needed to be so jealous of other formats. For years we had been stuck with bleeping beige boxes and their 16-colour graphics, the sort of thing Amiga fans pointed and laughed at. Some of our games were sub-par ports, others brave shareware efforts that didn’t seriously challenge Mario or Sonic, still others nerd stuff like flight sims (that I enjoyed but did not impress the average 12 year old).

By about 1993 though, we had bigger and better things. VGA graphics and soundblaster sound had become standard. We had Day of the Tentacle, X-wing, and Magic Carpet. Perhaps most significantly, we had the rise of the first person shooter. The Amiga, once so superior to the beige MS-BOXES, couldn’t keep up. The SNES was still better for platform games and beat-’em ups, but when they tried to port Doom to it, the result was markedly inferior. Monsters can’t fight each other (because they only have animations facing the player). Floors and ceilings aren’t texture mapped. Enemies don’t react to sound.

I try not to go all “PC Master Race” on our readers here. But it’s natural for kids to feel competitive about their gaming system be it one they chose, or one that circumstances give them. Also I like to look back on the start of what I consider a bit of a golden age in PC gaming.

My own introduction to Doom was on our family 386, which honestly was a little short of the recommended specs. The frame rate was adequate but not silky-smooth. It was good enough, just about, to get an appreciation for what a leap forward this game was. Simply being able to freely move around a textured 3D environment of indoor and outdoor spaces was novel. Filling those spaces with raging demons turned it into the most intense, exciting action game of its time. There was nothing quite like circle strafing a horde of imps, pumping shotgun shells into them as they hissed and spat fire.

My most prominent memory is of the last level of Knee Deep in the Dead, the free shareware chapter of Doom. The preceding maps have practical names like Nuclear Plant and Toxin Refinery, but this one is labelled “Phobos Anomaly”, which is a bit unsettling because it’s so vague. The scientists out here clearly didn’t know what it was (before the rampaging demons slaughtered them all). Lack of information means the imagination fills in the gaps. Given the whole plot (thin as it was) to Doom is about teleportation experiments causing demons to spill forth into our universe, clearly whatever’s going in here is not good news.

The music, titled “Sign of Evil” is a bit different too. Much of the Doom soundtrack is a midi tribute to slayer and Pantera but this is slow, eerie, and melancholy. It conjures thoughts of a bleak, inhospitable eternity. It laments our world, reduced to an empty ruin after being devastated by ancient and inhuman evil. Humanity is gone now, and only only endless sadness remains.

Or, that’s what will happen if your heroic space marine doesn’t triumph, anyway. The level is fairly short and linear, and you soon emerge on a large star-shaped chamber. Clearly you’re not in an abandoned space-military base anymore. It feels more like some sort of space for arcane rituals. Two tomb like stone structures stand within. You’re immediately assaulted by semi-invisible spectures, but they’re just a distraction. The tombs open and a Hell Knight emerges from each, with an elephantine roar.

Thank you, doom.wikia.com.

The Knights aren’t the game’s mightiest foes, but they are the largest and strongest you’ve yet encountered, far more fearsome than a regular imp. What’s more, you don’t have two of the full game’s most powerful weapons, the plasma gun and the mighty BFG. So a frantic battle begins, weaving between their green fire and firing off rockets in return.

When they finally keel over dead the chamber opens up into a larger open space, and an exit is revealed. Does it lead to safety, to sanctuary, to an escape from the legions of hell itself? When you jump in though, you find yourself in total darkness, under attack from enemies that surround you. After a few seconds panicked firing in random directions, text pops up to inform you that you can’t go home just yet. You’re now on Deimos (the other moon of Mars) and the battle goes on. Time to start the next chapter…

Moments in Gaming: The Barrens

March 7th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

I first signed up for World of Warcraft in the early months of 2006. The Burning Crusade expansion had just been released and I narrowly missed the pre-expansion days, what we now call Vanilla. However, back then the early levelling process was pretty much unchanged from Vanilla. So I think i’m well versed in what was like to be a new player “back in the old days”.

My character was a troll hunter, mostly down to trolls being my favourite unit in Warcraft 3. They’re the blue guys with big tusks and questionable Jamaican accents.

I spent my first days in Durotar, an arid land of canyons and big scorpions. I was doing usual mmo-newbie stuff. Running in circles a lot, doing very basic quests. Slaying harpies, getting a knackered old bow as a reward. Using my leatherworking crafting skill to make “basic sensible trousers”, which I found very exciting despite it being the most humble of gear. There was already a sense that I was barely scratching the surface of all the content this game had to offer.

With Durotar complete, the logical next zone was some place referred to as “the Barrens”. I dutifully set out down the path, on foot of course because I was a long way off having any sort of mount. I remember crossing the river and heading up a gentle slope of dry grass, between parched, rounded hills. Several minutes later I made it onto the plains that made up the heart of the region.

In the hazy distance I could see hints of greenery suggesting a water source. More hills lay in other directions. Roads stretched off into he distance. To west stood the town known as just the Crossroads, the local base of operations for the Horde. Packs of giraffe and zebra-like creatures roamed in search of grazing. I had to stop for a minute to take it all in. The Barrens seemed truly vast, a sprawling expanse of parched wilderness.

The music in this region carried bits of the core warcraft theme but in a languid, quiet way. It spoke of a land of heat and dust. It almost seemed to say, don’t go rushing anywhere here. Make yourself at home, you will be here a long time. There are many adventures ahead, and they will all come in due time. For now, report to the Crossroads for your first tasks.

As it happens, I was indeed here for a couple of week’s worth of gaming. There was a lot to do and many quests to follow. There were harpy-infested parts in the northwestern corner. The lush oases in the centre, around which hostile centaurs prowled. The famous quest to find Mankrik’s wife. More Quillboars in the south. A dwarvern expedition to deal with. Then a whole detour to the neutral goblin town of Ratchet. When I wasn’t questing I was probably hunting about a zillion animals for leather.

Incidentally I was also playing along an online friend who, many years later, would become my wife. Her elegant level 20 elven mage was, compared to my inept and gangly level 11 hunter, some kind of superhero. She could make monsters disappear with a quick flash of flame while I desperately plinked away with my bow. I would routinely end up with half a dozen velociraptors trying to murder me, and run to her flailing my arms wildly and yelling for help.

I don’t have a pic from my first days, but here’s me in the Barrens with a mishmash of Burning Crusade gear and, er, a pumpkin mask?

Over that time my ueless hero become slightly less useless. I upgraded my armour to “+1 moderate trousers of agility”. Traded the knackered bow for a sligthtly rusty musket. Got the hang of ordering my pet scorpion around. Died many, many times to centaurs. Had my first try at PVP, which of course meant being flattened into the dust outside the crossroads by some Alliance Paladin. All part of the process of levelling.

The barrens isn’t actually all that large by open-world gaming standards. Yet the whole game seemed bigger back then. A world of many different and exotic lands, each full of danger but also rewards for an intrepid hero. There were the shadowy forests of Ashenvale, the endless dunes of Tanaris, the icy hills of Winterspring. Each could take days to fully experience. The Jungles of U’Goro seemed impossibly remote, far from teh safety of civilization.

Then there was an entire other continent.. Getting on a zeppelin and crossing the ocean, to join my friend to quest in the Forsaken homelands, felt like an actual trip to the other side of the world. A whole new land of which I knew practically nothing, except that Dwarves and Humans hailed from its depths somewhere.

Sure there was a flying taxi service (riding wyverns because: magic fantasy taxi) but back then you had to find each destination on foot, before you could take a flight there. So you had to spend days questing and traveling the slow way, building up your personal network of flight paths. Also, there were only one or two destinations in each zone, so you still had to go on foot (or on your horse if higher level) to get to quests or other places of interest within a zone, facing any dangers that lay along your route.

Nowadays you can just hop on your dragon and zip around anywhere in minutes. Or jump in portal to reach another continent altogether. That’s more convenient. It’s probably more fitting to a modern warcraft, and to 30somethings with only half an hour to play tonight.

Yet something has been lost, I feel. Azeroth is shrunken and contained. You can’t feel truly immersed in a fantasy world when shooting through the skies above, untouched and unimpeded by the world beneath you. You need to walk through the towns on foot, to encounter the people who call it home, to see the ruins and the monsters for yourself. You need the inconvenience of getting waylaid by kobolds, or having to take a winding path, because that’s as much a part of the world as the things you actually want to do today on your quest list.

Some of my other fondest memories were simply of trekking through lands for the sake of exploring. There was a lengthy route horde players would take, just to join up flight paths between distant locations. You had to run through the jungles of Stranglethorn, hostile dwarvern territory in the Wetlands, and the ashy wastes of the burning steps.  Modern Warcraft would never hold with such a chore; all flight paths are available from the start. Yet the chore felt like a lengthy adventure, full of peril, and introduced me to several new areas.

I fear modern warcraft breaks its illusions. You see the boundaries of the world, you move so quickly you shoot over them. You see each zone broken down into its actual components – a small patch of land with some geographical theme, with vending services in the middle and monsters aimlessly milling around.

To be fair some of the modern conveniences only apply at max level; you don’t get them all starting from scratch. Still, the leveling process is a lot faste, and the world doesn’t feel as dangerous.  The game is more generous with gear drops to enhance your power. You get mounts earlier and more easily, to accelerate your pace. Low level monsters drop dead in seconds, making questing rather easy. So you’re not going to spend days taking in the experience of being an adventurer in the Barrens; you blast through it in an evening and are ready to go quest somewhere else.

Well, I’m getting a bit off track here. There are risks I’ll start rambling about the days you had to go spend an hour looking for trainer when you wanted to use a new kind of weapon. I’m not genuinely complaining here, since it’s not 2006 anymore and Warcraft had to change with the times. I am just being wistful. If blizzard do finally implement those “Warcraft Classic” servers, that will satisfy those of us who want to take an entire evening to do two quests and make some trousers.