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Discussion: Gone Home (spoilers!)

April 18th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hello. Hope you’re all keeping safe.

Regular readers, if any exist, may recall that last year we exhumed our discussion format in order to take a look at a modern indie title, Her Story. (Caution: there are spoilers ahead in that link!)

Well, I’m back, along with FFG’s unofficial third correspondent, Jo, in a belated follow-up, as part of what may become a semi-regular feature [careful with all that hype – FFG reader].

This time we’re looking at Gone Home (an appropriately-named game, under the circumstances), the acclaimed 2013 adventure from Fullbright (formerly The Fullbright Company).

As with Her Story, it’s the kind of game that you probably should play without knowing anything in advance – exploration and discovery being all part of the overall experience – but, broadly, it’s the tale of a young woman returning home from a year away, finding her family’s new house abandoned, and uncovering what has transpired in her absence.

This discussion covers pretty much all of the game’s major story details, so if you haven’t played Gone Home already, we’d advise that you do so first. We liked it, and it’s not a long game, so we’ll just leave you with this trailer at this stage: if it looks like it might be of interest, do check it out.

Otherwise, be warned: unless you have no intention of playing this game, or for some reason prefer for two strangers to paraphrase what happens before heading into something yourself, Gone Home is about to be spoiled for you.

 

Discussion: Gone Home (spoilers!) continued »

Moments in Gaming: Caution, Square Left

April 14th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Moments in Gaming is where we look back on gaming experiences that have left a particularly strong impression on us over the years: mainly for good reasons, but sometimes for bad ones.

At one point in the early 00s, the number of rally games being released seemed greatly at odds with the level of public interest in the sport. Like many other forms of motor racing, its very existence in the minds of a certain generation (in the UK at least) owed something to the era of terrestrial television, when Top Gear was a fusty motoring programme with car reviews and regular coverage of the rally championship from muddy fields in Wales, and Sunday afternoons meant watching the British Touring Car Championship because nothing else was on.

My memory of early rally games were in line with this slightly staid and old-fashioned image, with the likes of Lombard RAC Rally on Atari ST or Network Q RAC Rally Championship on PC being pretty dry affairs. On consoles, from Sega Rally, to Colin McRae, to Gran Turismo, things were jazzed up a little bit, but the focus was on mastering the slippery-slidey technique required to succeed more than anything else.

Enter Rally Championship Xtreme, which according to internet sources was a later instalment of the same Rally Championship series as the above-mentioned effort, albeit a largely ignored and unloved one, possessing neither the grim mechanical realities of a sim nor the flashy whizzery of a fun arcade racer.

What it did have, though, was a sense that its courses were part of a wider world: big open sections of countryside through which a race had been plotted, rather than some narrow tree-lined tracks. Whether it was true to the real sport or really delivered an authentic rallying experience, I don’t know, but as a game that made you feel that it might be fun to drive a small hatchback through the muddy fields of Great Britain, it certainly delivered.

You can work your way up to the top class of rally vehicles eventually, but I had the most fun in the little cars that you’re forced to begin with: the Citroën Saxo, the Nissan Micra, or the Peugeot 106. The early rallies (Scotland, Manx, Wales) also have some of the most memorable scenery and they have remained with me over the years: gaming spaces that I often think about returning to.

In my extremely ancient review, I suggested that (ever one to lack the courage of my convictions) despite enjoying the game, it may well not stand the test of time. But returning to it now, those early stages still retain their magic.

That review also featured a clip from our mid-00s tinkering with video, which resulted in a few short, lumpy and silent clips complementing our review coverage. Remarkably, the one attached to this game captured me negotiating a memorably tricky early stage with some success, power-sliding left through a narrow gate before driving through a church yard:

I can’t remember now whether I tried repeatedly to capture that moment on video or whether it was just a fluke, but I do recall messing that bit up time and again while playing. It’s a moment that can get into your head after repeated failures and probably best approached with caution (as advised by your co-driver) especially as the risks, in terms of damage, associated with hitting the post are significant. But slowing down too soon seems very unsatisfactory, even cowardly, despite the fact that the success of a flashy slide through the gate provides little significant time-saving advantage.

Pull off that initial turn, and the adrenaline high potentially fuels careless mistakes while driving through the church yard and subsequent gates, with equally dire consequences. Many a time I would pull off the turn but then come unstuck by putting my foot down and losing concentration during the next few seconds.

Thinking about that moment made me want to do it all again. Could I get the game working? Was that bit early enough for me to attempt without ploughing through many other stages? Was it actually all that hard really? Could I somehow pull it off one more time with the added pressure of video? Did I even know how to capture video from a game anyway?

(Look, I know it’s not the full arrogant powerslide through the gates, but it was the best I could do. I was 25 then, I’m closer to 40 now…)

Vault of Regret: Jagged Alliance 2

April 4th, 2020

Written by: Rik

The Vault of Regret is a very large place, which houses dusty old game CDs and boxes, untouched digital libraries, and the metaphysical concepts of remorse and embarrassment. Here we write about all the games we should have played but haven’t, or that we have played but didn’t enjoy, among other things.

We live in strange and uncertain times. Consigned to our homes, the prevailing opinion seems to be that the current lockdown will lead to an abundance of free time that urgently needs to be filled with quarantine-friendly activities: hobbies, goals or #content. Each person’s feelings on the matter are likely to depend on their own circumstances, but personally, boredom is not one of the main emotions I am feeling at the moment.

Still, even the idea of having an extended period of free time to fill does make the mind turn to previously abandoned gaming projects, optimism undimmed by the hard realities of past experience (for example, my last review here marks the completion of a series of in-progress write-ups I thought might possibly be done by the end of 2019). And there’s plenty of unplayed stuff here already in the Vault of Regret (ah, here’s one now: *blows off dust* “Transfer from Cupboard of Shame – Box #1 of 20”). But at times like this, I do start to wonder: is it time to play Jagged Alliance 2 again? And finish it this time?

We could argue all day about whether you have to finish a game to review it (please, let’s not, though) but I do feel reasonably okay about what I wrote about the game here, and I was up front about where I got up to, and my own shortcomings. A lot of hours went into getting to where I got to, and I definitely enjoyed it up to that point, but ultimately I chickened out of the last 30% or so of the game.

It’s quite hard, you see. Although the game does a good job of helping the player negotiate a fairly detailed setup, even early battles can be tough encounters. As you make progress in liberating the island of Arulco from evil Queen Deidrianna’s forces, your enemy starts to fight back, attempting to retake previously conquered sectors and putting your mercenary-trained local militia to the test. Meanwhile, your offensive campaign gets much harder, and when it came to facing off against tanks, I started to feel like I wasn’t up to the challenge.

I suspect I should probably have made use of some of the more expensive and skilful mercenaries from the huge roster available, but I’d sort of developed an attachment to the motley bunch I’d started with. Even now, some of their individual utterances remain with me: just the other day, I found myself exclaiming “STUPID FOOLS PUSH ME TOO FAR!” (a favourite of Bobby ‘Steroid’ Gontarski) at an ire-inducing work e-mail.

And on that point, Jagged Alliance 2 has likely remained so popular with fans because it’s a game with personality. Although the merc sprites themselves have little to distinguish them, they do otherwise feel like individuals, and you have a sense that the game would be different with a completely new set of heroes. (And in that respect it reminds me of Midwinter, an older favourite of mine based around similar themes).

There’s definitely also a cheesy low-budget aspect to proceedings that even in 1999 was slightly at odds with the general direction of travel when it came to how video games were presenting themselves. The manual, for example, conveyed a rather ramshackle enthusiasm about the experience ahead that sort of convinced you that the game was going to be good, and included some fairly detailed tips for starting out, in lieu of any kind of tutorial or gentle introduction within the game itself.

This was also reflected in the early fan sites I remember, too: less-than-slick Web 1.0 Geocities affairs that were nevertheless chock-full of enthusiasm for the game and detailed information and tips, particularly about negotiating any bugs or glitches. (Although over the years that fandom has escalated somewhat to the kind of situation where hardcore forum-dwellers insist the game is best played with an unofficial mod that allows the player to customise their experience in potentially overwhelming detail).

Having had two previous stabs at the campaign: once when I bought it, then again when I reviewed it, I then spent some considerable time more recently with the generally-loathed 3D real-time remake Back in Action (which I thought was okay, actually), enjoying all the previous bits of the game I’d remembered and revisited, before again getting bogged down when things got tough.

I think, perhaps, it’s not meant to be. So until I finally feel ready to go through the early stages all over again, endlessly defend my towns and mines against counter-attacks, and shell out on the big hard-nut mercs that can wrestle a tank into submission, it’s time to consign this game, and my feelings towards it, to the dusty old vault.

Review: Alpha Protocol

March 21st, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Strange times, huh? Hope you’re all keeping safe.

Well anyway, we keep plugging away with new content, and in today’s review I return to Obsidian’s ‘Espionage RPG’ Alpha Protocol.

20(-ish) years of the PS2

March 8th, 2020

Written by: Rik

I’ve seen a few people mention that this week was the 20th anniversary of the PlayStation 2, which seemed a little early to me (this week was also the 20th anniversary of my wife and I getting together, and the two didn’t seem to quite add up) until I realised it was a reference to the original Japanese release.

In the UK, we didn’t get the machine until late 2000, and I vaguely recall ludicrous rumours about its power, as well as stock shortages upon initial release, which also added to its mystique. Despite all that, the launch games weren’t all that strong, and I still have the issue of Edge (#84) which delivered fairly sniffy write-ups (their favourite kind, of course) about the likes of Ridge Racer V and Tekken Tag Tournament.

Scan sourced from RetroCDN.

The PS2 is probably the console for which I have the fondest memories, although as with its predecessor, I bought a lot of the highly rated platform exclusives but failed to really get anywhere with them. My main priority was to be able to play Pro Evolution Soccer (although, as many retrospectives have acknowledged, the fact it worked as a DVD player too was a nice bonus), and so, with the exception of the Singstar and Guitar Hero games, most of my other favourites were titles that were also released on PC but were beyond the capabilities of my machine at the time.

As a result, I’ve actually written about their desktop equivalents here at some point, and although plenty of other 00s-era games we’ve covered were also released on PS2 (which we’ll also come to: this era saw differences between versions of multi-platform releases narrow somewhat) I’ll stick for now to the ones that I first played on console.

(I’m aware this is a very uncool list, but I can’t pretend to have used the console to play anything other than quite mainstream titles. Also all screens are – obviously – from the PC versions, although as most of them are from my old machine they are at least in 4:3 format).

20(-ish) years of the PS2 continued »

Soundtracks: Need for Speed: Carbon

March 7th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hello and welcome to the latest in the Soundtracks series, the title of which is fairly self-explanatory, but you can read more about its aims and intentions here.

Today’s game is Need for Speed: Carbon, a middling-to-good entry in the NFS canon, but one with some fairly interesting visual choices that create a vaguely sci-fi aesthetic. The combination of permanent blue darkness, motion blur and neon effects lend an otherworldly feeling to proceedings, with the car almost set aside from the road in the manner of 90s FMV racer MegaRace. Meanwhile, non-player characters that feature as part of the accompanying story-line dress like fighting game characters and are introduced as such. Such choices, along with the gentle difficulty curve, especially compared with immediate predecessor Most Wanted (a superior game, no doubt, but one that felt like a grinding battle at times) make it an interesting one to revisit.

Soundtracks: Need for Speed: Carbon continued »

Zug-Zug! – a quick Warcraft summary

February 26th, 2020

Written by: Stoo

I’d say that Warcraft is one of the most important series of games on PC, up there with Ultima, Civilization, Wing Commander and Leisure Suit Larry (just kidding). It’s particularly noteworthy since it’s been active, in one form or another, since 1994.

Warcraft started as an early realtime strategy, taking ideas from Dune 2 and swapping soldiers and tanks for orcs and knights. From here the games evolved and advanced over the course of two more strategy titles. Warcraft 2 was similar to the first but more refined. The third game brought in powerful hero units, lending a few RPG dynamics to the proceedings, also brought 3D graphics to the series.

Then Warcraft made the transition to MMORPG, and would become into one of the most famous and successful examples of its type. 15 (!) years on, WoW is not quite so dominant as in its glory days, but still going reasonably strong, having released its eighth expansion.

Along the way the setting grew from a simple tale of a single war, into a sprawling fantasy mythology. Within the world of Azeroth, many stories have now been told. There are numerous cultures, from doughty dwarves to vengeful blood elves, each of which the narrative has explored in detail. We have come to know countless characters, from noble heroes to the morally ambiguous, to bringers of ruin. We’ve seen both the continuing conflict between alliance and horde, and deadly new enemies emerge.

I will admit I never got on with the first game, but I recall gleefully sending in marauding trolls to smash up alliance cities in Warcraft 2. The later instalments tjem provided me with countless hours entertainment and many memories. Perhaps the personal highlight of Warcraft 3 was the idealistic young Thrall seeking a new home for his orcish people, after their years of slavery to the burning legion. Then in WoW – a game I freely admit consumed too much of my life, I’ll never forget discovering the ancient splendour of Ulduar, amidst the frigid mountains of Northrend. Or just goofing around Hillsbrad waiting for Alliance players to try attacking Tarren Mill.

The series deserves a proper, rather lengthier essay to discuss its significance, but I’m a Dad Gamer now. That means I grab what scraps of time I can to both play and write. So you’ll have to make do with this brief doffing of my cap for now. I was actually writing primarily just to remark that, with the addition of the first games to gog, the entire series is now available on digitial distribution. In fact a couple of installations have now benefitted from a bit of sprucing up. Here’s the rundown:

Warcraft: Orcs and Humans going for £4.59 on gog.com. As far as I can tell the game is untouched from its original state, so it’s a real trip back to the early days of RTS. The VGA graphics are fine by me, I was less keen on the clunky interface. Still, I plan on having another try in the near future.

Note that, like the title says, this really is just orcs and humans; the other races having not yet been created (I suppose we now have to retcon them into just sitting the war out. Goddamn lazy elves).

Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness – this is where the series starts to feel more recognisably like its current self. The two sides become coalitions of races, with the Human led alliance gaining elves and dwarves and the orcish horde joined by goblins and ogres. For an extra dimension to the combat it also adds naval units; oddly these didn’t make it to the next game.

On a practical note, it benefits from a more efficient interface, making it quicker to carry out basic operations like grouping up some soldiers and sending them into battle.

Also available on gog.com for £7.69, and for your money you get two versions of the game. You can play it with original 640×480 graphics, and if multiplayer is your thing (not mine at all) you can still connect to the battle.net servers. Which is kind of amazing when you think about it. Alternatively there’s a version with upscaled graphics more suited to your big modern monitor, however multiplayer here is limited to LAN.

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos – one of the greatest RTS games of its time. The hero units are the key feature; they gain experience, level up, and can be equipped with magical artefacts to boost their power. Each has unique abilities; some are straight up brawlers, others take a more supporting role. Using them effectively can turn the tide of battle even when outnumbered.

This isn’t really a game of battles between massive armies. Instead WC3 tends towards a tighter focus on smaller scale warfare. The heroes are at the focus, making it all a more personal business, leading a retinue of up to maybe a couple of dozen units.

Maps are dotted with extra details such as side-quests, and threats unrelated to the level’s main enemy. There might be a centaur encampment menacing a village, or a dragon lurking in a cave. Dealing with these secondary goals objectives brings extra rewards, and a chance to gain some experience for your hero.

The game features some excellent campaigns, that are both full of varied missions, and driven by the strong narrative. It also introduces some heroes who would later be main characters in World of Warcraft, like Thrall and Jaina Proudmore. In fact it basically puts the world in the state we saw it when WoW first launched.

Blizzard have recently released the “reforged” version of this game; you can get it from battle.net for £24.99. It features improved, highly detailed graphics and animation. Also, the custscenes have been reworked. I’ve seen a questions raised as to whether it’s worth the price tag if you already own WC3; I’ve not played it myself so will withold judgement for now. Otherwise I’d say WC3 is essential to own, in one form or another for any RTS fan. Or even if you’ve not played that sort of game but love WoW, give it a try. The first couple of campaigns aren’t too tough.

World of Warcraft Classic –  A return to what fans call “Vanilla” WoW. This is the game as it was originally, before 15 years of refinement, evolution and new content. I wasn’t around for this myself but I did play the first expansion, at a time when a lot of the original gameplay mechanics still were in place. Also the vanilla regions were still used for levelling up. So I reckon I have at least some idea of what the first days were like.

It was, perhaps a more frustrating time. I’m shuddering at the thought of spending an hour killing about a billion centaurs just to try and get 10 centaur hats to finish one damn quest. Or the endless grind of crafting skills, or the ridiculously convoluted system of hunter pet abilities.

 

Yet it was also a time with a much stronger sense of community. To run dungeons and raids (co-operative play that provides much shiny loot, but requires players to work together as a team) you were encouraged to get to know people, and ideally join guilds. Nowadays it’s all a bit anonymous with automated grouping functions and far more casual single-player content. We also felt a bit more of a sense of achievement back then when we got high-end gear; you had to work harder for it.

The world is bigger now, with more than double the zones to quest in. Yet it also somehow feels smaller when you zoom overhead at 200mph on your magic glowing dragon. Back then we went on foot, you had to immerse yourself in, and experience the world around you. That made it all a bit more real; living breathing places to explore instead of some scenery underneath you.

Those were also the days of barrens chat, of horde and alliance just randomly fighting at the crossroad for lolz. The days of leroy jenkins. Some sort of chaotic, free-wheeling fun has maybe been lost as the whole game becomes a bit more slick and refined.

It’s possible that all this nostalgia is bollocks, that we’re not all 25 anymore and don’t have five hours to gather herbs and try and organise people for a raid. Still, I wish I had time to give it a try.

I’m not sure if it would be ideal for someone who’s never actually played WoW before. Maybe, if you like your RPGs a bit more old-school. Anyway, access is included in a regular WoW subscription, so you can play whichever version takes your fancy. Or both at once if you somehow have time, which I think is basically unimaginable for anyone over 30.

Vault of Regret: Aliens vs Predator

February 19th, 2020

Written by: Rik

The Vault of Regret is a very large place, which houses dusty old game CDs and boxes, untouched digital libraries, and the metaphysical concepts of remorse and embarrassment. Here we write about all the games we should have played but haven’t, or that we have played but didn’t enjoy, among other things.

Over at Just Games Retro, The J Man recently wrote an excellent retrospective about the long-defunct 90s online shooter Aliens Online. As with all good retro writing, it provided great insight into a title of which I was not previously aware, while also inspiring me to dig into my own backlog for another tilt at something similar.

In other words, time to try again with Aliens vs Predator, a game which I first bought over 20 years ago (and again more recently, under the name Aliens vs Predator Classic 2000, so-called in order to distinguish it from developer Rebellion’s 2010 reboot).

In that time, I’ve made very little progress, but I periodically assume that the ravages of time have diminished the effectiveness of AvP’s ability to unsettle and scare, to the extent that I will be able to find my previous reticence laughable and make steady progress through the game while wondering why on earth I didn’t try it sooner.

Such thinking is clearly misguided, given that I’m an accredited gaming coward with a tendency to commit too readily to the atmosphere a game is trying to create, rendering me nervous and jumpy before anything significant has even happened. Back in the day, I lent my copy to a university friend and later wandered into his room to observe him playing the game with all the lights on and music blaring, half-heartedly blasting unsuccessfully at an Alien, which soon brought about his untimely demise. He was unmoved by these developments and turned to me, unimpressed: “I thought you said this game was meant to be scary?”

Plus, the logic that some chunkier polygons and blurrier textures would somehow make things easier ignores the fact that to this day I remain reluctant to revisit the 1986 version of Aliens on the Amstrad CPC, on account of it being extremely tense. Hell, even the side-scrolling Predator tie-in on the Atari ST had its moments, particularly when you found yourself in the sights of the eponymous hunter. In each case, the simple visuals did not mask the grim realities depicted: in Aliens, the static from the headcams of fallen colleagues always stayed with me; in Predator, it was the opening scenes that showed a crew of musclebound army men dashing into the jungle, their corpses littering the ground, or found hanging from trees, only moments later.

I enjoyed the films, but essentially, they show things going pretty badly (spoiler) for their human protagonists, often under fairly horrible circumstances, and given the choice, I would not really want to be put in their position, which is what the games give you the opportunity to do. Plus, you already know what’s going to happen. The opening marine level (about as far as I got on this latest attempt) has your commanding officer telling you to go through a lab containing Alien eggs. Oh, they’ve been sterilised, have they? Not to worry, eh? Well, you bloody well go in there. Even if they are fine, there’s going to be an Alien along eventually: they’re on the box, and in the title.

Yes, I know that the box and the title also tell you that the player doesn’t have to be a Colonial Marine – you can be the Alien! Or the Predator! And that connoisseurs of the series, and the genre, would rightly point out that this particular AvP game isn’t especially effective at building tension through a campaign of missions: the single-player mode is more like a series of individual maps loosely strung together. But I guess it’s time to admit that I want out: I don’t want to even pretend to be part of a world where these things exist.

I mean, if they ever made a movie based on Event Horizon (which may or may not still be as terrifying as it was when I first saw it, but I’ve not been especially keen to find out) I don’t think I’d want to play it. Except apparently the EA space horror title Dead Space is inspired by Event Horizon, and evidently at some point I did think that would be the kind of thing I might like. And so while the mood took me I thought I’d give that a go:

Ok, right, thanks but no thanks, see you later!

Review: Jazz Jackrabbit

January 28th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

We’re going back to 1994 for some DOS-based platforming action today in our review of Jazz Jackrabbit.

Soundtracks: FlatOut 2

January 26th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Soundtracks is where we take a look back at the use of licensed music in games. So far I’ve covered a couple of EA games – FIFA 2000 and Need for Speed: Underground, while Stoo added a touch of class to what was becoming a dangerously flippant series with a look at the music of Homeworld. There’s an overview and introduction to the series here if you want to know a little more.

This time we’re taking a look at FlatOut 2, an absolute beauty of an arcade racer that was perhaps a little overlooked at the time, with some reviewers placing undue emphasis on the slightly tasteless driver-through-the-windscreen mechanic and associated sub-games over the core racing, which was (and remains) thrilling stuff.

Soundtracks: FlatOut 2 continued »