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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.

Moments in Gaming: fus roh dah

February 19th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

I always feel bad about displacing proper content with blog stuff, but also once I have something drafted I want it out the door so as not to gnaw at my mind. So please, valued visitor, before reading this: scroll down and read Rik’s review of Wacky Wheels. Or click this link.

Man, it makes me miss playing Apogee games. I don’t realistically think they ever caused SNES owners to envy we PC gamers. But they made a great effort to compensate for our lack of quality arcade and action games.

Okay, for my piece we’re jumping forward about 17 years. Most of the time I’ll intend to stick to games a decade or more older, but more recent stuff will show up occasionally.

I dare not look up how many hours I sunk into Skyrim. It didn’t replace its ancestor Morrowind in my heart, but I’m not sure anything ever could. Certainly Skryim is one of my top few RPGs of all time. I played through the quests for every last faction, explored at least 90% of the dungeons, and thoroughly completed all the expansions too.

I could write about evenings spent roaming the forests and tundras roaming the forests looking for adventure. Or choosing sides in the imperial vs rebels conflict, which basically was a fantasy version of Romans vs Vikings. Then there were the dragon fights. Each one was more epic, more a feat of fantasy heroism, than I would ever expect for an unscripted random encounter.

Actually though I want to talk about something just ‘cos it made me laugh. One of the new mechanics Skyrim introduced was the shouts, where the hero unleashes magical forces by voicing words from some ancient Dragon language. You may be aware of the “Unrelenting Force” shout, consisting of the words “Fus Roh Dah!”. It showed up in the game’s trailer and worked its way into popular culture, webcomics and youtube videos.

All shouts actually come in stages – you get a weak version with the first syllable, then improve it as you learn the other two parts. Some of these you pick up from side-quests or just exploring, but Unrelenting Force shout is gained as you progress though the main quest, the core story of the game. I always tend to leave the main quest till last in these games, though. This meant for about 70% of my run through, I only had “fus roh”. This just staggers enemies a bit, maybe knocks them on their ass or makes them drop their sword. Thus stopping them from attacking for a few seconds. It’s useful, for sure, but hardly impressive. In fact I was left wondering what all the fuss was about.

Then when I finally got the full-power shout, I idly tried it on a bear. And promptly blasted it off the side of a mountain. In shock I ran to the edge, to see its rapidly diminishing form tumbling towards the water far below.

Not a great pic, I reacted as fast as I could.


In all my time gaming, setting aside multiplayer (which, with the addition of human interaction, is an entirely different situation), I have never laughed so hard in my life.

It’s always great when a game grants new some power and encourages you to have fun with it. For the next few days no monster or bandit atop a cliff was safe. Spriggans and Trolls were knocked around like leaves in the wind. When tackling one of the final thieves guilds quests, I noticed the Big Bad was stood atop a statue a good 20 metres tall. So I didn’t even bother drawing swords. I just stealthily crept around behind him then yelled him to his death. A cheap move, for sure. I always thought a good sandbox lets you do these shortcuts if you think of them; let players decide for themselves how much they care about fighting honourably.

I kind of feel bad for the bear, though.

You live too close to the edge!

February 18th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

We have DOS-based kart racing for you tonight, with Wacky Wheels from Apogee.

Moments in Gaming: WHIRRR

February 7th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

Today marks the start of an occasional series where I look back on particular gaming experiences that have made a strong impression on me, over the years.

Mostly I’ll write about positive memories, but they don’t have to be exclusively so. They could be moments of appreciating real excellence in game design, or frustration at terrible design. They may be triumphs against legions of foes, or rage quitting against super-tough bosses. I could write about taking a walk in Skyrim just to quietly enjoy the view. Or a time when everything went hilariously, disastrously wrong in a battle in UFO Enemy Unknown.

We’ll start with Homeworld. Relic’s seminal realtime strategy game was first brought to my attention when I came across a preview in PC Zone. I recall screenshots showed chunky, primary-coloured starships, all rendered in 3D. The article promised full three-dimensional control of entire fleets. I thought to myself, this was all rather impressive. A whole new level for the genre, a quantum leap from Starcraft and Red Alert.

My first taste of actually playing Homeworld occurred when I tried the demo, sometime around the summer of ’99. It consisted of the first few tutorial levels. So you’re shown the mothership, you’re told to build a few little fighter craft, you send them to blow up some drone targets and then some enemy fighters.

It made a good impression from the start; the movement of ships was fluid and convincing, the controls slick and intuitive. Then I was given control of a Frigate, a mid-sized gunship. I told it to go deal with those fighters still buzzing around. It slowly picked up speed and yawed to one side, and then with a WHIRRRR its four turrets all turned to track the enemies.

Somehow, that WHIRRR was the moment I was totally sold on that game. Just one modest frigate against a few buzzing interceptors, yet that minor battle is still etched into my memory all these years on. It was the attention to detail, the fact that not only was this game going to give me lots of warships to command, but the big ones had independent weapon systems. The feature gave the ship a sense of mass – the turrets existed because it was too ponderous to spin on the spot like a fighter. Also there was an mechanical urgency to the sound, a signifies that the ship was armed ready for battle, cannons prepare to spit shells into the void.

It was part of made Homeworld feel like commanding one side in a battle from one of my favourite space operas. The frigates and destroyers handled just like a Star Destroyer from Star Wars, or the warships in Babylon 5.

I purchased the game later that year. I learned that bigger ships provided even more WHIRRR, especially the monstrous heavy cruisers with oversized laser turrets that atomize a frigate in seconds. To this day it remains one of my all time favourite RTS, and I’ll most likely write about it here again.

And the bowlers have declared duck-hunting season

February 4th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hi there everyone.

Welcome to A Force for Good, where phrases like, “we’ll cover it one day” could mean a wait of several days, weeks, months or years for a planned review to materialise.

Anyway, tonight’s game is Cricket 96.

It only takes one match

January 27th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Football, football, football – when will it ever end? Well, in today’s review, we do have an ending, of sorts, as far as this particular series goes.

Here’s a look back at Pro Evolution Soccer 2010.

the preservation of Angry Birds

January 15th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

When interested in playing old games, you’re faced with a couple of practical questions: where do you find copies and, how are you going to run them?

For example you might be sticking to original hardware, trawling ebay for an old 16-bit console and some cartridges. Or you might be downloading files and running them on an emulator on a modern PC.

We’re now quite familiar with the issues in running classic games for consoles, for MS-DOS, and for old microcomputers. One whole other category of device though, that I’d never thought about before is smartphones and tablets. The first iphone games were released nearly a decade ago, that’s getting pretty old now. Give it a few years and they might even be retro.

Can we actually play them, though? It’s a concern that was brought to my attention by this tweet.

With their app store, Apple brought us one centralised source and installation system for all our software needs. I do believe it was one of the really big advantages over earlier forms of mobile device (like the old PocketPCs). Yet it has a downside, in that it becomes a whole lot harder to obtain and run a game (or any other app) once it disappears from the store. A fate now suffered, apparently, by 80% of the top games of 2010.

You’ll probably have to jailbreak your phone, something immediately offputting to those who are not technically inclined. Then you have to find a download from some other source. Assuming the even runs on modern iOS. Similar problems apply for android devices, although they can at least sideload software without jailbreaking.

Many mobile games are, of course, freemium nonsense. There have however been lots of clever and inventive indie games too. I’m gladdened to see that the rather excellent Spider: Legend of Bryce Manor, is still available. I hope that in a decade’s time people can still enjoy Monument Valley.

In any case we might argue all the oldies should be made available in some form, regardless of quality. Even the mindless tapping games, the ones with barely any interaction, where your progress throttled unless you fork out $$ for some in-game currency. It’s a matter of preserving gaming history. Like ’em or not they have come to represent a major segment of gaming.

I wonder if some sort of online enthusiasts community will form, centered around old mobile games. A new counterpart to the abandonware scene of old. I just hope they are actually able to play those games.

I guess this topic has me thinking along similar lines to the when I asked “what is retro”. As time passes, and gaming progresses, so does our definition of “old game”. One day there will be 40 year olds reminiscing about stuff they played on their phone in their childhood, just as much as we here talk about Doom and Monkey Island. We all have our own little niches, but retro-gaming in general is not frozen in time.

I’m Ian Botham, and you’re not

January 14th, 2018

Written by: Rik

A recent non-existent survey of this site’s 12 readers revealed general disquiet about the amount of coverage of old football games. Well, we heard you loud and clear, imaginary reader – obviously cricket is more your thing.

When we were a bit more organised, it used to be possible to plan reviews around real life events in an attempt to be vaguely topical. So, as the real life Ashes series rolled around in November, the thought of digging out some dreadful cricket game for coverage did occur to me. Maybe even an Ashes cricket game!

And so I did dust off my copy of Ashes Cricket 2009, last played in 2009 on one of those rare occasions that I set aside my bargain basement sensibilities for a reckless new sports game purchase, and ignored forever shortly afterwards. Here’s a picture of Ian Bell.

It doesn’t look too bad there, does it? 2009-era Bell-y, sporting some blonde highlights under the helmet and a patchy-ish record, recalled once again on the basis of being better than Ravi Bopara. An Adidas bat as well, that’s right. And also you can’t really see any on-pitch action or anyone doing any cricket type movements.

When I first bought it, Ashes Cricket 2009 set a new personal record for the shortest time between installing and playing a new game and giving it up as a bad job and a waste of time and money. And now it also holds the record for the shortest amount of time spent considering a game for coverage on FFG before abandoning the idea altogether. Based on those five minutes, my review is: don’t bother.

A few years ago, I invested a lot of time in a dreadful cricket game, EA’s Cricket 2005, out of a misguided sense of commitment and fairness, a process that coincided with a summer of unrelenting migraine attacks which I now suspect must have been related. That review of Cricket 2005 could easily, I suspect, be applied to a number of other old cricket games: many of them make the same mistakes, and are seemingly made by people who think cricket is boring anyway and are honour-bound to give fans the dull action they crave.

(As a side note, things do seem to be getting better in recent years, with Big Ant Studios giving us the creditable Don Bradman Cricket games and the official Ashes tie in from this series. Apparently it’s quite good!)

There is one old cricket game that might be of interest, but kind of got away: Ian Botham’s International Cricket 96. Essentially a PC version of Super International Cricket, it was released in other places as EA Cricket 96, with one of the main differences from the SNES original being some very cheap and embarrassing FMV clips and commentary punctuating the action.

The additional twist with the Botham version was more clips featuring Beefy, in which he pretended to be in the studio doing links to the two actors from the EA version, even pretending that one of them was a real ex-player and commentator, which always struck me as a bit weird.

Sadly, I got rid of my copy some time ago and for some reason it hasn’t had a digital re-release (or indeed been a priority for, er, non legitimate purveyors of oldies). Maybe we’ll come back to it one day, but for the time being, well, maybe we could look at an adventure game or something? Or, er, football, anyone?

He’s nothing but a show-boating loser

January 1st, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

We’re back with the Need for Speed series tonight, in our review of Need for Speed: Underground 2.