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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.

Review: Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit

July 8th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hello there.

As regular readers of this site – if, indeed, any exist – will know, my contributions to FFG these days are likely to either be of a sports game or a Need for Speed title.

And as England are doing so well in a major international tournament, I thought now would be a great time to choose not to work on a football game write-up. So instead here’s a review of 2010’s NFS instalment, Hot Pursuit.

Moments in Gaming: Cooldown

June 28th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Stir up trouble, then escape it: that’s the heart of Need for Speed: Most Wanted. It’s not enough merely to lose the cops as soon as possible – you have to get them to escalate the pursuit, calling in backup, then the feds, then big 4x4s that veer across the carriageway and try to smash you off the road.

If all goes well, it’ll soon feel as if the whole force is after you. The longer it goes on, the more wanted you become, and the more bounty you accumulate. Colliding with civilian cars, smashing into bus stops and generally causing damage will all add to your total. Hitting pursuit breakers, those bits of marked scenery designed to obstruct or destroy chasing cars, serve a dual purpose of earning bounty and relieving some pressure.

Eventually, though, when proscribed bounty targets have been reached, and/or it feels as if it’s the right time, you need to end the chase. Which is easier said than done. As you desperately veer across the greens of Rockport’s golf course, the rotor blades of the police helicopter kicking up dust all around you, you start to feel like Burt Reynolds at the end of Smokey and the Bandit when Sally Field observes the chasing hordes and asks, “Did you count on this? I mean… all of this?” (Burt: “No I didn’t, honey.”)

Need for Speed tends to be a quit-and-try-again type series, with even supposedly high-stakes one-off battles able to be repeated without consequence. Here, though, it’s not a viable option: moreover, there’s been an investment in the chase, where minutes have seemed like hours, the hands gripping the joypad are now aching, and beads of sweat are starting to form on your brow. The sense of panic is palpable.

Put enough distance between you and the cops, though, and you’ll eventually see the welcome sight of the Cooldown meter. Stay undetected for the next little while and the chase is over, leaving you free to slink off to your safe house for a new paint job and a cup of tea, ready to do it all again in due course.

World Cup Viva

June 16th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Viva Football was not a good game. Initially remembered in these parts as a clumsy but ambitious outsider in the 90s football race, our late 00s evaluation indicated that the intervening years had not been kind.

One imagines it’s even less enjoyable to play now, with the hideous sight of players’ bulky knees even more visually upsetting and only slightly offset by the mildly amusing sight of them high stepping during a goal celebration. Here’s a low quality video clip from our dusty archives:
 

 
However, I do still maintain that the central idea was a good one: play any World Cup ever, with accurate squads and kits and put right historic footballing wrongs. Witness Viva’s advertising campaign, which cheerfully employs the classic “we was robbed ‘coz of cheating foreigners” approach so favoured by our tabloid newspapers:
 

 
Of course, the tie-in with the World Cup might have gone better if the game had been finished and released in time for the tournament itself. By 1999 we’d been dumped from the tournament, effigies of David Beckham had been burned and extinguished, and manager Glenn Hoddle had been fired for suggesting that disabled people were paying for sins in a previous life.

Footy games of old did sometimes have classic modes, where you could play matches from the past, but always as a bit of a side feature. With official World Cup and tournament games no longer released as stand-alone products, only as DLC (PES had Euro 2016, FIFA has the 2018 World Cup) you’d think a World Cup History version of FIFA, with all the kits, stadia and licenses, would be a winner (although, I imagine, potentially complicated and expensive from a licensing point of view).

Moments In Gaming: Brazil vs Italy

June 9th, 2018

Written by: Rik

After the top down heyday of the 16-bit football games, fans waited to see what developments the glorious CD revolution would bring. Glimpses came from two different versions of FIFA International Soccer: the fab-whizzo all-new 3DO game, and the DOS port of the original, the CD version of which featured audio commentary from the late Tony Gubba.

Unfortunately, you could only play the former if you had a 3DO, and the latter was still basically the Megadrive FIFA and therefore fundamentally a fairly awful game of computer footy. (Plus, while Tony Gubba was definitely a recognisable voice off the telly, he was – with all due respect – more of a “third match on Match of the Day” kind of guy than someone who’d be handed the big World Cup games).

FIFA ’96 brought the 3D engine and match commentary together. And it wasn’t just any old commentary: it was provided by none other than Motty himself, the BBC’s John Motson. The recently retired Motson isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, with his excitable nature seemingly inspiring the whole next generation of commentators to go absolutely bananas at a late winner during an inconsequential mid-table encounter, and many at the time preferred the more measured stylings of Barry Davies (who provided duties on rival title Actua Soccer). However, for most fans of a certain age, Motty was the voice of football.

To fire up the demo and hear his voice booming out of your speakers for the first time was really something, regardless of the fact that EA made him utter the words “Virtual Stadium Soccer”. The demo featured the teams from the 1994 World Cup final: Brazil and Italy. And, this reference to Virtual Stadium aside, it looked, sounded and felt – at the time – like the real thing.

Even now, the simplicity of the FIFA ’96 commentary works in its favour, with subsequent games’ attempts to add detail only serving to make the presentation seem less authentic (a reasonably recent iteration which punctuated the action with incessant updates from AI matches sticks in the memory).

The game itself, though a massive step forward from the original FIFA, was a little on the clumsy side and contemporary critics (wrongly, in my view) compared it unfavourably with Actua Soccer, even to the extent that an advertising campaign for Actua specifically referenced the critical consensus. But FIFA ’96 was the template for the future of the series, and for the next generation of football games.