About games and gaming thereof!

“Old” Games

Morrowind and the Modern Games Industry

You may recall that I’ve discussed a game called Morrowind in the past. I wrote a post about it in my trademark retro-review-with-a-fresh-perspective format (don’t steal that idea, it’s MINE!) and I also streamed some sessions of it with my superstar tag-team partner Jarenth. You want to know why I stopped doing those stream sessions? I didn’t want to play the game anymore.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I stopped initially because of a very serious thing that happened to me, but I continued to not do it because I no longer had any desire to play it.

I’ve already said some mean things about Morrowind in that original post, but to recap: The movement speed is painfully slow, the combat is the epitome of a dull slog, and the stealth does not work properly. In the hours I spent with the game since then I began to learn more about it: namely, that it likes to bog you down with MMO-style “Collect X of Y” and “Go to X and interact with NPC Y” quests, which beautifully complement the atrociously slow movement speed, that the in-game economy is very easily breakable by exploiting potion brewing mechanics, and that the leveling system is convoluted, counter-intuitive and overly punitive.

Whenever people preach about how “old games were so much longer than the crap we play now” I roll my eyes, and this game is a perfect example of why. Yes, it occupies a lot of time, because it flagrantly wastes your time with slow movement and tedious fetch quests. Are we judging quantity over quality here?

Look, I did some digging through Morrowind and I just do not see any appeal. The game is revoltingly ugly (and I’m not just talking about graphical fidelity) and the combat is some of the worst I have ever played. Getting past that, the leveling system and economy system are both broken, and the quests provide no sense of engagement or satisfaction.

Is this really what we should hold up as the height of game design? Completing a million repetitive, meaningless quests so you can one day become the King Of Mages in a world of buggy robots? Exploiting an easily breakable economy and potion brewing scheme to get all the money in a dull, monotonous, overly brown world?

Is it out-of-line for me to call Morrowind a bad game? No, I don’t think so. I won’t begrudge you for your enjoyment of it, but it just does not function like a good game should. People have praised it for its setting and lore, but how much does that really mean when the game you’re playing is a fundamentally broken mess?

You know, back when I wrote that first impressions review of Fallout 1 and my site’s popularity [relatively] skyrocketed, people said I was being “unfair” toward the game because I was judging it by today’s standards rather than the standards of the time.

My response would be this: Yeah, I suppose I am being “unfair.” But if you want a “fair,” “unbiased” review of the game, I suggest you go back and find a review of it from the year it was released, because that’s the only way you’ll be satisfied. And I’ll also add that if you’re willing to criticize me for being unfair, you’ve missed the whole point of my retro review scheme.

A few months ago a certain blog post spread around the gaming community called “Fuck Videogames.” It’s a gross over-exaggeration of some genuine issues in the industry, but one part in particular really bothered me:

“Fuck developers for slapping a new coat of paint on an old game and selling it at full price. Fuck them for doing this every year, like clockwork, for the better part of two decades. Fuck developers for not taking risks.”

I’m not yelling about how these old games suck because I like yelling. I’m doing it to show that that line is bullshit. Many aspects of games have been steadily improving over the years. When I point out how egregiously flawed many of these so-called classics are, you respond with “Well, we have different standards today than we did back then.” And my reply is, “Yes, we do have different standards, because developers now have decades of experience and technology to make better games, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Many gamers complain that new games suck so bad and old games were so much better and the industry is totally stagnant and hasn’t improved in any way for like a decade. These same people will then turn around and tell me I’m being “unfair” in my criticisms of decade-old games simply because they’re a decade old. They don’t seem to be aware of the contradiction.

I understand if you think the industry has gone in a direction you don’t like. That’s understandable. It’s a very different place now than it was a decade or two ago, and I’m not going to argue it’s better in every way. But if you’re going to argue that everything about games is worse, then you’re literally, provably wrong. That attitude of yours doesn’t contribute to discourse. It’s thoughtless, pointless, ignorant, indignant bile masquerading as wisdom, and I do not have the patience to listen to that shit anymore.


Deus Ex: Invisible War

Hmm…

I think…

Well I didn’t…

Hm.

Would it be weird if I said I sort of enjoyed this game?

I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as its predecessor, mind you. It doesn’t come anywhere close to standing up against that shining gem. I wouldn’t call it great. I don’t think I’d even call it good. But I had fun with it, sort of, sometimes.

Gameplay-wise, it’s alright, I guess. Stripping away the skill points and simplifying the augmentations basically just made it a somewhat clunky stealth shooter with some serious balance issues. I heard people complain that ammo is overly scarce, but I maxed out the melee augmentations and could tear everything apart with my mighty laser sword. The game threw in giant robots to make things harder, but there’s a certain augmentation that allows you to take control of machines by smacking them with whatever melee weapon you want, so they really only made the fights easier for me.

Still, though, it was kind of impressive to see what Ion Storm could do with the tiny map size limits that they had. Some of the levels actually feel kind of complex, about as much as some of the smaller areas of Deus Ex 1. And while the restrictions did mean that a lot of the exploration and combat was far less interesting than what we’d had before, the game still allowed me to roleplay a Jedi ninja hiding in shadows and stabbing guards with a lightsaber, so I have to at least give it credit for that.

However!

I already linked to the Errant Signal episode on Invisible War. Here, I’ll just put it down below.

I agree with a lot of his points, but there are two things he says at around the 13 minute mark I have to object to.

“One of the things the game manages to do …okay is the story.”

I disagree with that…

“Narrative was never one of Deus Ex’s strong suits, so the bar was never set that high.”

And I strenuously object to that.

MILD SPOILERS OF BOTH DEUS EX 1 AND INVISIBLE WAR AHEAD. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

There’s a sequence in Deus Ex 1 in which you accompany a young woman named Nicolette DuClare to search the abandoned mansion where she used to live. See, Nicolette is the daughter of Elizabeth DuClare, who was a leading member of the Illuminati. As a result, the mansion is absolutely filled with secret stashes, trap doors, and emergency levers and buttons. As you search the mansion Nicolette makes comments about her childhood, how she used to see strange men in suits all the time, how her mother was always on edge, etc.

It was basically a character study, a window view into the life of a child whose mother is involved in a global conspiracy. And it was fascinating. It really fleshed out both the character of Nicolette DuClare and the world she inhabited. And this is sort of indicative of the game as a whole; it’s huge and it has quite a large cast of major characters, and yet the world feels rich and all those major NPCs have depth and diversity.

In Deus Ex: Invisible War you meet Nicolette DuClare. She’s one of the leaders of the Illuminati now. She delivers some plot exposition and then sends you to your next quest objective.

That’s it.

There aren’t many characters in the game that actually feel fleshed out in any meaningful way. Once again, there’s quite a sizable list of them, but most of them seem like one-dimensional cardboard cutouts placed into the level to move the story forward. Some of them are written fairly well, but you never really get any time to know them. This, to me, was the most disappointing thing of all in Invisible War: It just doesn’t feel like a world filled with people in the same way its predecessor did.

I suppose you could blame this on the game itself being significantly smaller, but if you have a smaller game, give it less major NPCs so we can have the proper time to get to know them. That’s what Human Revolution did, and that game has some of the strongest, best developed characters I’ve seen in awhile.

Invisible War didn’t satisfy me, but like I said, the game did amuse me to a degree. Like a bag of chips. I really can’t bring myself to hate it, though I suspect that’s because I had such low expectations to begin with, but somehow it still ended up disappointing me.

I don’t know if I can ever look at Deus Ex again now that I have this stupid sequel in my memory. Can I really just pretend none of that stuff happened and that JC Helios instituted the Heliocracy and everything was lovely? Or is it not that simple?


Deus Ex: The Ending

I have a fairly simple distinction to judge whether a movie is great or merely good: A good movie is one that can entertain me, while a great movie is one that can force me to think critically. I watched Aliens awhile back due to the various recommendations I got from readers, and while I certainly will agree that it’s a damn good movie, I wouldn’t consider it great. It didn’t make me contemplate the nature of human relationships like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind did, and it didn’t help me come to terms with my own masculinity like Fight Club did. It was just an entertaining diversion.

If I were to apply this same distinction to video games (and I don’t, for innumerable reasons) Deus Ex would be one of the only truly great video games I have ever played. I’ve made it clear in the past that Deus Ex is my favorite game of all time, and I’m sure the ending played a large part in that. It made me realize something about myself that I hadn’t realized before. It made me ponder concepts like authority, the rights of individuals, the needs of the many, and the cost of independence.

WARNING: I’m about to spoil the ending of Deus Ex. If you haven’t beaten it and intend to do so one day, I highly recommend you don’t read on ahead. Seriously, man. I don’t want to spoil this for you.

Ahem. Anyway, I’ll try to recount the situation at the end of the game as best as I can. Sorry if my memory is fuzzy.

You’re in Area 51. Area 51, through a series of complicated events, has become the home to a global communications hub and an artificial intelligence that refers to itself as Helios. Bob Page, who serves as the game’s lead evil douchebag, wants to merge with Helios in order to take control of Area 51 and thus control all nanotechnology everywhere, essentially becoming a god.

Helios has contacted you and told you that it doesn’t want to merge with Bob Page; it wants to merge with you. Helios believes that if it merges with you, it can gain an understanding of humans and use that to take control and run the world in a benevolent dictatorship.

Morgan Everett, the leader of the Illuminati (the secret shadow government that runs everything behind the scenes), contacts you and tells you that if you kill Bob Page, you can join him and rule the world with an invisible grip hidden behind corporations, bureaucracy, etc.

Then Tracer Tong, an ally of yours throughout the game, contacts you and says you should destroy Area 51, thus disabling all nanotechnology and plunging the world into a second dark age so that nobody can use the machines to control one another.

This is the choice you have to make: Global anarchy, benevolent dictatorship, or corporate conspiracy?

I was able to rule out the Illuminati option right away. I have a fairly pessimistic view on politicians, and the rule of the Illuminati sounds like the absolute worst case scenario for the world to be in. When the fate of the world is in the hands of a select few, the few will inevitably get 99.9% of the wealth, privileges and power. People are corrupt. People are selfish.

The Helios option also sounded like a no-go, until I heard Helios’s argument for it. Here, just watch the first half of this video and listen for yourself.

Two lines in particular stand out for me:

“The checks and balances of democratic governments were invented because human beings themselves realized how unfit they were to govern themselves. They needed a system, yes, an industrial-age machine.”

“I should regulate human affairs precisely because I lack all ambition, whereas human beings are prey to it.”

We’ve seen about a million incarnations of the Evil Rogue AI trope, and I think we’ve become so accustomed to it that when we see an AI coming to its own independent conclusions we automatically assume it’s going to try to eradicate all human life. But here’s an AI that has logically concluded that it should rule and guide humans in order to bring society to peace and prosperity.

And I’ve got to say, it has a point.

I considered Tong’s plan, but the idea never appealed to me. The big issue Deus Ex addresses here is that people can use technology to seize positions of authority and power and control the freedoms and lives of others. As far as I’m concerned, eliminating all nanotechnology only postpones the issue, because eventually people will reach this point again. Maybe they won’t get there in the current generation, but they would eventually, because technology moves forward.

Helios, on the other hand, seems less like an immediate solution and more like the logical evolution and conclusion of government. We form governments and economic systems in order to organize ourselves efficiently and provide prosperity to as many as possible with our limited resources. The problem is that the humans who end up running these governments are susceptible to corruption and greed, and inevitably our systems end up becoming more damaging than they’re worth.

But if we can have an incorruptible machine, then maybe, just maybe, it could truly bring about a strong, peaceful, prosperous, and happy society.

In the end, I merged with Helios.

This ending felt perfect. It was ambiguous enough to let you come to your own conclusions, while also appropriately wrapping up the game’s themes. This was my ending to my Deus Ex, and it remains my favorite video game ending ever.

This isn’t to say that my ending is the correct ending. I’m sure you can think of many logical reasons for why giving all the power in the world to an artificial intelligence is a risky move. But that’s the point, really: there is no right answer, and the answer you choose shows something about yourself, something you may not have even realized.

I’ve seen Deus Ex: Invisible War on Steam sales a number of times. I’ve heard it’s nothing but a pale imitation of the original game, but I’ve learned not to accept others’ opinions on old video games as fact. (Exhibit A, B, C.) And even if I ended up hating the game, it could still make for an interesting blog post comparing and contrasting it with the original, since I only first played Deus Ex 1 less than two years ago.

But I’ve refrained this whole time because I know that they retconned my ending, as well as the other two endings, by attempting to cram them all into one story. (JC merges with Helios, then blows up Area 51, then Illuminati take control in the ensuing chaos.)

I’m baffled that they would do something like this. Deus Ex is not a game to make a direct sequel out of in the first place, since the ending you choose literally dictates the future of the entire fucking world, but what they did effectively ensured that nobody‘s ending was the canonical one, which is a sure-fire way to anger every single one of your fans.

Well, fuck you, Ion Storm! I thought. I’m not giving up my perfect Helios Ending just so you can cram another game down my throat!

But then I watched Campster’s video about it, and I must say that the burning hobo clip at the 35-second mark made me giggle like a schoolgirl. It made me realize, maybe I’m looking at this with the wrong mindset. Maybe I can just pretend it’s from an alternate universe, or a bad dream JC/Helios had after successfully instating the Heliocracy. Or maybe I’ll pretend it’s an entirely new story. One about burning hobos in narrow corridors!

So I got the game today, mostly because it’s available for $2.50 on Steam right now. Expect me to rant about it on Twitter in the near future, and maybe write a post about it here.

The way I see it, if the game even manages to feel like Deus Ex, even for a moment, this will have been a victory.


Duke Nukem 3D

Now that I’ve been introduced to the magic of source ports, I was able to get ye olde Duke Nukem 3D to a functional, playable state as well thanks to EDuke32. This has given me the chance to play it extensively, and let’s just say, this was an eye-opener.

The game certainly has more features than Doom (jumping, pipebombs, items, one-liners, etc.) but more isn’t always better. For instance, while Doom could get away with using 2D sprites for the enemies and objects since you couldn’t look up or down, in Duke 3D you can get above or under an enemy and look up or down at it, respectively, and doing so will reveal that monster as a flat paper cut-out. It makes the world seem extremely fake.

There’s also a pile of nitpicks, like how the chaingunners in this one are somehow even more annoying than the ones in Doom 2, or how the confusing level design often requires you to find subtle secret doors or pathways that Doom would have just stuck extra ammo behind, or how the Duke repeats his lines so often they get old really quickly.

But there’s something much more important, and much more horrible, that I need to talk about.

Duke Nukem Forever, which all of you must know about at this point, was heavily criticized for many reasons, but the biggest problem I heard about was it being exceedingly misogynistic. The most infamous scene was one in an alien hive where you see nude women literally being raped, impregnated and killed by alien tentacles.

I happen to agree with the majority that Duke Forever is an atrocity, but now that I’ve played Duke 3D, I’m confused because most people talked as if the original wasn’t as horrible.

I knew the game had strippers, but I didn’t know that you constantly encounter naked women wrapped in tentacles, and that if you try to talk to them they just utter, “Kill… me…” You can kill them all, and there’s no penalty for doing so or choosing not to. It’s obviously a blatant homage to Aliens, but it seems the aliens in this game only use attractive young women to procreate their species.

It’s an extreme example, but by no means the only one, of women being objectified in this game. Strippers, poster girls, dirty magazines. The game shoves scantily clad women into the game every chance it gets. I know the games industry in general has a problem with objectifying women, but Duke 3D goes above and beyond.

Wait, why is she here? WHO CARES IT'S A DANCING NAKED LADY

As is fitting with the copy-pasted imagery and themes, the game feels like Aliens as rewritten by a fourteen-year-old boy with some serious issues he needs to work through. To anybody who regards women as more than meat, it just comes off as juvenile, tasteless, and shameless. I suppose the game did gain its audience of primarily teenage males, and it’s a good thing those people were grown up enough last year to pan Duke Forever.

But this game should not be regarded as a classic, and I don’t say that lightly.

I questioned whether Fallout 1 should be regarded as a classic because I simply felt it was an unenjoyable experience. But with Duke 3D, there’s just a terrible feeling of wrongness to it. The fact that any significant number of adults still considers this game a classic is a  disgrace, to both the games industry and gamer culture. The gameplay is adequate, I suppose. But if we’re not able to acknowledge the moral repugnance underneath it, then we’re selling games short by refusing to think critically about them.


DOOM: Stop Shooting Me

I have been playing the hell out of Doom.

Note that when I say Doom, I’m really referring to Doom, Doom 2, Final Doom, and a few Doom mods I’ve scrounged up from various Internet websites. They’re all basically map packs for the same gory mass.

I know I talked about Doom forever ago, but after watching the newest Errant Signal episode I felt like giving it another look. This time I looked for that Ghoul’s Forest 3 mod that Chris mentioned, which lead me to find ZDoom, a source port that makes the game about a million times more fun.

I don’t actually know what a source port is, but ZDoom seems to run on a different engine than the Steam version of Doom that I’d been playing prior to this discovery. It runs a hell of a lot more smoothly and quickly. It also hosts a myriad of options that the original Doom didn’t include, like customizable controls, mouse aiming, autorun (thank Odin for that), an alternate HUD, the list goes on.

As a result, I’ve been playing the hell out of Doom, as previously stated. It’s a ton of fun. Fast movement, satisfying weapons, elaborate levels, powerful threats. The 2D sprites have aged fairly well, as opposed to the hideous 3D models in Quake, and this game has all the pieces of a good, solid shooter with a massive buffet of levels.

But while the game is good, I’d really hesitate to call it great, and here’s why.

These guys. Fuck these guys.

The standard mooks that get thrown at you in large numbers are soldiers who wield pistols and shotguns. Another common enemy is the heavy weapons guy, who has a minigun. These guys are infuriating. They constantly break game flow and ruin the fun.

They’re fairly flimsy; a few pistol shots will kill the regular soldiers, and even the chaingunners will always die from a super shotgun blast. The problem with them is that they use hitscan attacks.

For the uninitiated, the two types of ranged attacks in a shooter are “hitscan” and “projectile.” Hitscan refers to attacks that hit the target (or wall, if you miss) the instant they’re fired, while projectile attacks actually take time between launch and impact. Pistols and shotguns are generally hitscan, while rocket launchers and crossbows are projectile.

Hitscan enemies are fine in the shooters we have today, where you can take a few shots, hide behind cover until your health regenerates, and then pop back out again. But Doom doesn’t have regenerating health. Doom is designed around the idea of quickly moving around the battlefield as to avoid taking any damage whatsoever.

And that would be fine with projectile enemies, where there’s actually any possibility of avoiding a shot coming toward you. But with hitscan enemies, the only way to prevent taking damage is to not be within the enemy’s line of sight. This means taking cover, and when you’re having to do this constantly, it really screws up the running and gunning of Doom’s core design. And to make matters worse, many rooms with these soldiers don’t have cover to hide behind, so you have to run back into the previous room or take several shotgun blasts to the face.

To the game’s credit, their accuracy isn’t perfect, but the accuracy and damage go up on higher difficulties. On hard mode all it takes is one second for a chaingunner to chop your HP bar in half, and don’t get me started on nightmare mode.

Oh, and here’s a recurring setup: PLAYER steps into room and is immediately torn apart by chaingunners. PLAYER reloads, pokes head through room to find where chaingunners are, and dies again. PLAYER reloads again, steps into room and immediately shoots one chaingunner, steps out of room having taken 20 damage, steps back into room to shoot next chaingunner, etc.

A hard mode playthrough will swiftly derail into an adventure in save-scumming. I think I pressed the quicksave button more often than the fire button, and this would not have been nearly as much of a problem if they had just stuck to projectile attackers.

You’ll notice that Croteam learned from id Software’s mistake with the soldiers when they designed Serious Sam. In Serious Sam the only hitscan enemies are the Arachnoids, who don’t show up very often, are generally not put in SURPRISE! situations, and don’t have very good aim. Then Croteam unlearned this lesson when making Serious Sam 2 and 3, but that’s a story for another time.

Anyway, despite all that, I still quite like Doom. It’s flawed, but fun nonetheless. And that’s impressive given its age.

I proudly present Doom and its sequel with the Still Holds Up Award from NGD:

You’ve earned it, my friend.

Morrowind: First Impressions

Turns out my brother had a copy of the Morrowind Game of the Year edition in his closet. Since I’m kind of getting bored with Skyrim, I figured it might be fun to give it a look. I’ve heard it’s leagues better than Oblivion and read arguments that it’s as good as or even better than Skyrim. This is a pretty high expectation to live up to.

The game doesn’t say how long I’ve played it so far. I’m gonna guess that I’m maybe an hour or two in, although I did have to reroll my character. I’ve completed the first two quests in the Fighter’s Guild in Balmora, if that’s any indicator. Now I feel like I’m supposed to talk about it.

Where do I begin?

Hustle!

It takes forever to get anywhere. No, I’m not complaining about the lack of auto-fast-travel. I actually like that. I like the idea of having to travel myself or pay for transit from city to city. I’ve always felt that the instant fast travel system of Oblivion and Fallout 3, while convenient, sort of undermines the whole “big epic world of exploration” thing. And I like having travel and survival as core mechanics. It’s why I’ve spent far more time on Minecraft now that they’ve added hardcore mode.

No, I’m talking about movement speed. This sounds like a petty complaint, but it really screws with the flow of the game and it’s incredibly aggravating. Athletics is one of my primary skills, and yet even when I unequip all my armor my movement speed is still eye-twitchingly slow. Even getting from the armor shop to the magic shop takes far longer than it should.

Also, in Skyrim you can walk at a slow pace, run at a reasonable speed, or sprint at a fast pace, which drains stamina. In Morrowind you can run at a slow pace, or run at a reasonable speed, which drains stamina. Considering you could run into a fight within a moment’s notice and it takes forever to regain stamina, the game is sort of encouraging you to walk everywhere, which is horrendously boring. Jumping also drains stamina, so if you want to be ready for a fight, you can’t even spam jump to level up your acrobatics.

Yeah, okay, maybe that’s more “realistic” than being able to run from city to city without breaking a sweat. On that note, I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said, “He who sacrifices fun for an unfulfilled pretension toward ‘realism’ deserves neither.” Games thrive on an engaging moment-to-moment experience, and that falls flat on its face when you have to wait for five minutes while your character paces slowly back to town.

It’s also worth noting that the whole “big epic world of exploration” feel is really let down when the view distance doesn’t let you see more than 50 feet in front of you.

Wow, just look at that mountain! Erm…

The combat is a slog. This was back when devs hadn’t really figured out how to meld the genres of action and RPG properly, so you end up in a scenario where you see your character swing her sword directly into the rat, and yet the game tells you that you missed somehow. What? How? I saw that rat get hit in the face!

The system of missing and hitting according to the Dice Gods works in games like Fallout or Baldur’s Gate because those games don’t involve coordination or reflexes, and you’re not really in direct control of your character. If they didn’t have the dice rolling in place there would be no intrigue and no pass/fail chance in place (until you get to complicated Chess-like scenarios, but I digress). In an action RPG, especially one set in first person, you’re the one that’s determining whether you live or die, not your character. And when you miss because of something that was completely out of your control, that just feels like the game cheated you out of victory.

Beyond that, so much of the combat is spent spamming the attack button and hoping you don’t miss that it gets boring before you’ve even killed your first rat. Skyrim has a fairly elegant combat system in place for fighters, wherein you essentially play an ongoing rock-paper-scissors using attacking, blocking and bashing. Block counters light attack, heavy attack counters block, bash counters heavy attack. You have to constantly pay attention to your opponent’s attacks and counter appropriately, and it’s not exactly God of War, but it works. Morrowind, by contrast, is more sleep-inducing than Ambien.

Sneaking is horrendous. My first character was built to be a sneaky ninja, but once I realized how horribly unintuitive the stealth mechanics are, it was only a matter of time before I’d reroll as a warrior. In Skyrim you can see how close NPCs are to detecting you, as indicated by an opening and closing eye in the center of the screen. In Morrowind there’s no indicator of anything. You just crouch, steal the item and hope nobody spontaneously lashes out at you.

On top of that, in Morrowind crouching into “sneak mode” is not a toggle and can’t be set to a toggle. You have to hold it down constantly. Who thought that would be logical? How often would a ninja attempt to sneak past hostile enemies and then find that his pinky is sore from all the crouching?

Like I said before, I like survival and I like travel. I want to like Morrowind. I really do. But the game is just not making it easy for me. Oblivion was a complete mess, I know. I agree. But I’m really questioning the idea that Morrowind wasn’t also a complete mess.


AvP: The Facehugger

Before I go into the side-by-side comparisons of each campaign, I want to talk about one specific feature in the human and predator campaigns: the facehuggers.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Xenomorph lore, a facehugger is basically an alien larva that looks like a spider. It latches onto the face of its victim (typically a human or predator), wraps its tail around the victim’s neck to knock it unconscious, and then dumps a Xenomorph embryo into his or her chest.

That sounds like solid material for a horror movie, but here’s how it works in AvP1.

There’s this tiny creature that’s hard to spot if you’re not expecting it. It quickly scurries around on the ground, and if you’re close enough for it to pounce on you (it has a pretty long jump distance) then it instantly covers the screen and kills you. There is nothing you can do about it if you didn’t manage to spot and shoot the tiny little target beforehand. Just POOF! Dead.

That’s less fair than quick-time-events. That’s less fair than the creepers from Minecraft. That is the fucking epitome of unfair. The only saving grace is that its crawling sound is fairly loud, but that doesn’t help you if it’s waiting behind a wall or if you’re too busy being attacked by an army of aliens to notice (and you usually are).

And yet I could see people defending this design choice by saying that that’s how it works in the movies.

I’ve seen this tendency a lot among gamers; defending horrible gameplay by explaining the justification in the context of the story or setting. One acquaintance of mine tried to justify FEAR’s complete lack of genuine scariness by saying, “Well, it makes sense that you’re a super-powerful badass, since you’re Alma’s daughter.” When Yahtzee pointed out how much more fun Fallout 3 and New Vegas would be if they had a fast-travel system that didn’t break immersion and force you to skip content, such as a car or motorcycle, people objected against that idea because the Fallout world apparently doesn’t have working cars.

Probably the most notable example of this, from my perspective anyway, was something I said in that Fallout post I wrote forever ago (take a shot). I asked why Vault 15 needed to exist in the first place, and many people responded by explaining the setting to me. The thing is, I already knew that, and I felt that those people had sort of missed my point, though that may have been my fault for not specifying in my post.

Story perspective: The denizens of Vault 13 don’t know about Shady Sands because they don’t actually know that civilization exists outside of the vaults. For all they know, the entire world is now a howling wasteland devoid of human life. Therefore, the only advice they can give is that Vault 15 might have what you’re looking for.

Okay, I can buy that.

Gameplay perspective: Go to Vault 15. Oh, you didn’t stop at that one town along the way? Well, too bad! You need a rope to get in! Go backtrack. Oh, you got the rope? Good, because this vault has nothing of use for you! Ha-ha! You idiot! You went on a fetch quest and wasted some of your precious 150 days just to run into a dead end! We’re all laughing at you! Black Isle is smarter than you!

I take solace in the fact that Black Isle no longer exists.

See, this is the problem I have. I like it when the gameplay and story are in harmony, but in so many of these cases we get games where the story causes problems for the gameplay.

I’m not saying story doesn’t matter, but when the story is causing problems in the gameplay department, something needs to be done about the story. In the case of Fallout 1, here’s a few alterations to the story that would have made the gameplay less time-wasting and stupid.

Instead of having Shady Sands and Vault 15 be two different settlements, make Shady Sands into a village that was built around the ruins of Vault 15. Say that they decided to build the settlement there because of easy distance to the leftover supplies from the Vault. Or maybe you could remove Shady Sands and instead make Vault 15 a town itself. Say that the original Vault 15 denizens decided to open the gate and learn to farm just outside. Vault 15 goes from being an enclosed vault to being a peaceful little town. Like Shady Sands, but underground.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah! Aliens vs. Predator.

Thankfully AvP2 fixed the facehugger issue. If a facehugger grabs you when your health is low, then it’ll insta-kill you, but if your health is modestly high, it’ll deal a bit of damage and then you grab it and throw it off of your face. They’re still threatening this way, but the penalty for failing to spot and shoot the tiny target is far more reasonable.


Aliens vs. Predator

I’ve never really been exposed to the Aliens vs. Predator franchise before. Or rather, I’ve never really been exposed to the Aliens or Predator franchises before, because they are two separate franchises that happen to often hold crossovers. I’m not much of a film geek, and the original Alien & Predator movies came before my time. I remember watching part of the 2004 Alien vs. Predator movie, but I was pretty much bored the whole time. I didn’t really get into it.

But thanks to the wonders of Steam, I’ve recently dug myself into two games: Aliens versus Predator, and Aliens vs. Predator. Two games released almost exactly a decade apart by the same studio, and the second one is arguably a remake of the first. It doesn’t feel much like a remake, but I’m assuming it isn’t a sequel, since it has the exact same title. But to avoid confusing the titles apart, I’ve decided I’m going to refer to the 1999 Aliens versus Predator as AvP1 and the 2010 Aliens vs. Predator as AvP2. If nothing else, it sort of makes sense if you assume 1 is short for 1999 and 2 is short for 2010.

Anyway, this is basically my first time to explore the design and details of the Alien and Predator creatures, and I must say that both of them seem rather eerily familiar. The first Alien movie was released in 1979, and the first Predator movie came out in 1987, so I’ll be kind enough to assume that the two creatures invented or at least innovated their respective archetypes in their times, but we’ve seen both of them several more times by now.

The alien archetype can be described as a race of monstrous, mindless aliens that are controlled by a central hivemind and reproduce by feeding off of and/or taking control of other species, while the Predator archetype can be described as a hyper-advanced alien race that has tribal culture and cloaking technology, and yet insists on using melee weapons like swords or claws half the time. Standing in between them is an army of human space marines, firing their guns and spouting off one-liners while their friends get eaten alive or stabbed in the back.

The two game franchises that spring to mind are Starcraft (with the Zerg and Protoss) and Halo (with the Flood and Covenant). I asked Twitter what other alien races we’ve had that fit the Predator archetype and got several answers, including the Klingons from Star Trek, the Nox from Stargate Sg-1 (which I’ve never watched, so pardon me if I spelled something wrong there) and even the Nightkin from Fallout, if you’re willing to accept mutants instead of aliens.

I’ve never really been into Halo, but I find the Zerg and Protoss lore far more interesting than the Alien and Predator lore. The Predators seem far more simplistic than the Protoss; when you look at the history of the Protoss, they seem almost tragic, while the Predators are basically just a bunch of macho hunters who prove their manliness by committing genocide on other unsuspecting species. And the Zerg I find more interesting than the Aliens because of the way they were created, as well as the variety between all the different species of Zerg contained in the hive.

You could argue that it’s unfair to criticize them for being unoriginal even though they may have been back in the day. And that would be true, if I were criticizing the original movies. But the fact that they’re still trying to sell us these creatures that are now textbook clichés really smacks of unwillingness to evolve.

It reminds me of the people who criticize Gears of War and Halo for being about “dumb space marines” and then give that new Warhammer 40k game a free ride because 40k supposedly invented the trope (or at least brought the trope to gaming, since the trope had already been invented by 1959). That doesn’t make it any more interesting. You have to make it interesting. You have to bring something new to the table, or else it gets stale.

Whoops, got a little off-track. So, Aliens vs. Predator then. I know I haven’t yet discussed the gameplay or design of the AvP games, but I intend to in later posts. This is actually a great opportunity for me, considering what I tend to do on this blog. I usually play an old game, talk about it, and try to imagine what that game would have been like if it were released today. But I can’t actually see what the game would be like today, because different studios have different tendencies and games tend to vary quite a lot in terms of quality. I can make big blanket statements like “they generally don’t do [insert design choice here] anymore,” or “it probably would have had regenerating health,” but nothing is really set in stone.

However, in this case, I have a game from 1999, supposedly the “Golden Age of PC Gaming,” and another game from just last year. They’re from the same studio, and like I said before, you could argue that the second one is a remake of the first. So in this case I can compare today’s industry directly to yesterday’s industry. No nostalgia to fog my vision, no differing studios to serve as extraneous variables.

If all goes according to plan (by which I mean if I can actually stick to a plan for once), then I’ll write one post about each of the creatures’ campaigns and compare the two games side-by-side. I’ll compare the Predator campaign to the Predator campaign, and the Alien campaign to the Alien campaign. I might not do so for the marines, because the marine campaigns are just too damn boring. After that I might give a Final Thoughts post about both games taken as whole packages.

Needless to say I’ve pretty much already made my mind about which game I think is better, but I don’t want to spoil that for you. Not quite yet.


The Ultima IV Manual

As I basically stated in my previous post, I think I’m done with Fallout, for now at least. I really wasn’t expecting the game to be so unforgiving. I mean, people told me it was brutally hard, but I suspected people might have been exaggerating or influenced by nostalgia. As it turns out, no, Fallout really is a brutal game. So brutal that it just comes off as obnoxious.

What surprised me was the number of people who actually supported this decision to quit. I was expecting everyone to say, “No, dude, you’ve got to stick with it just a little bit longer! It’ll get better, I swear!” But instead the resounding opinion was, “Yeah, if the game is this frustrating, it might be best to quit.”

Thanks, guys. I really appreciate your understanding.

Anyway, I want to find another CRPG in the meantime. I have a lot of options available, but I figured I’d try out Ultima IV since it’s free now and it’s considered so hugely groundbreaking and all that.

So I started up the game, I went through lots and lots of text, I went through a pseudo-personality-test, and then I experienced what might be the most horribly unintuitive control scheme and interface I’ve ever seen in a game.

There appears to be no help screen, though if there is it’s not like the game tells you how to find it. All I can do is press buttons and try to figure out what they do. Here’s what I’ve got so far: A = attack, S = search, Q = save and quit.

Christ. Okay, I think I might actually have to read the manual this time around.

Now, I remember reading an Escapist news article about a year ago that talked about how kids are so stupid because they didn’t think it was necessary to read the manual for an old game. Actually, the article wasn’t that insulting toward the youngins, but the comments in the following thread certainly were.

As I’ve said before, I utterly resent the notion that “anybody who doesn’t want to read the manual is an idiot.”  That would be like saying people nowadays are lazy asses because they’d rather drive to work than walk there. Modern technology is better than the technology before it, and you can’t blame people for becoming accustomed to it. Personally, I’m really glad games are accessible enough nowadays that people other than neckbeards can play and enjoy them.

But I figured that if I want to enjoy Ultima IV, I’ll probably have to be a bit less stubborn. So I downloaded the manual off of GOG.com and skimmed through it.

As it turns out, the manual isn’t as long as I thought it would be. It’s only 21 pages long. Granted, each page is absolutely packed with text, but at least it isn’t as long as Fallout’s manual. (124 pages, FYI.) But here’s the punchline: The control scheme is not listed anywhere in the manual. In fact, the manual says nothing about how to play the game.

You see, the manual is titled The History Of Britannia, and it’s essentially a great big brick of flavor text about the history of the world. It’s not actually an instruction manual, despite its Adobe file clearly being named “Ultima_4_manual.pdf.” I suppose explaining the impenetrable control system to the player would have counted as breaking the fourth wall.

I am at a loss for words. This is truly baffling. I understand that technological limitations meant they couldn’t stick a tutorial or a help screen within the game itself. I get that. But what’s the manual’s excuse? Had instructions not been invented yet?

This game was released in 1985; in other words, before we had Gamefaqs. How did anybody learn to play it?


Live Fallout Streaming

So my initial plan was to make a series of posts about Fallout. I’ve already done some stuff in Junktown, which admittedly isn’t very far into the game. But Tobias made a suggestion to me, something I hadn’t thought of: he suggested that I record myself playing the game live.

Actually, I think I did consider this. I figured it would be impossible because Fallout isn’t recognized by Fraps, and the game doesn’t have a Windowed option. But after doing various google searches I found a program called D3DWindowed, which allows me to play the game in a convenient box.

I already tested it on Livestream, and it seems to work just fine. Now all I need is a set date and an audience. So, let’s say… Wednesday night (8/17/2011), at 8:00 PM CST North America (i.e. where I live). If you have any trouble figuring out what that means in your time zone, you can use this nifty little time zone converter. I live in Texas, so you can use that as reference.

Let me know if that date doesn’t work for you. I have a pretty flexible schedule, so if enough people have problems with it, I can change the time and/or date.

EDIT: Herp derp, Thursday night is Rutstream. No way I’m gonna try to compete with that. How’s tomorrow night sound?


Fallout 1: Character Creation

This is the first of what will likely be a full series on Fallout 1, which is undoubtedly the Sacred Cow of many of you reading this. There will probably be many complaints and nitpicks, and an overall tone of bitterness. So buckle up. If you have no interest in Fallout and need some alternative method to have more fun with these posts, I’d recommend taking a drink every time I mention that first impressions post I wrote awhile back.

Anyway, I didn’t elaborate on this very much in my original Fallout post, (drink!) but the character creation was really a sore spot for me. I’ll go ahead and repost the screenshot of the character page, just so you can see how complex it is and how they throw it all at you in one piece.

Once again: Kamikaze? Seriously?

I’d fill out the spreadsheet and create my character, and then almost instantly I’d become paranoid that my build isn’t good enough, that I screwed up somehow. I built a character who specializes in melee, but how good is melee? I tagged Outdoorsman as a skill, but how often is that going to be helpful? I used the Gifted trait, but is that really going to benefit me in the end?

There are so many unanswered questions, ambiguously described skills, and presumably unbalanced abilities that the only way you can figure out what works and what doesn’t is by:

  • Trial and error, which will take a pretty damn long time since each trial involves an entire playthrough of the game
  • Looking up a FAQ/walkthrough.

So if you don’t want to have to FAQ it up before starting you first playthrough, you’re going to just have to guess which skills are the best. And I hope you don’t pick Outdoorsman, because that skill is fucking useless.

IcePotato pointed me toward a very insightful article about introducing RPG elements to the player. The gist of it is that throwing too many decisions at the player before he’s had a strong taste of the gameplay is a bad idea, because you’re ultimately forcing the player to answer questions that haven’t been asked yet.

I especially love this line of his: “It’s very hardcore and old school. By which I mean that it’s mean-spirited and unnecessarily punitive.”

It always pisses me off when I know that my choice just wasn’t good enough. This was one part of System Shock 2 that bugged the hell out of me, and what probably ended up causing me to like Bioshock more. I specialized in energy weapons, because it made logical sense to me that a laser sword would be stronger than a wrench.

No such luck, as it turns out; energy weapons are only strong against robotic enemies, and pretty much every major threat toward the end of the game is organic. So if, like me, you specialized in energy weapons, then you get to eat shit. Like I did.

Whenever I try to think of a game that absolutely nailed RPG elements, Deus Ex springs to mind.

That dude looks fabulous.

The game didn’t give you many points to start off with, but the more you got to utilize your skills, the more skill points you would receive as rewards. This way you could specialize in doing the things you liked, rather than just blindly guessing. The game even let you save all the skill points you had at the start, in case you wanted to wait before leveling yourself up.

Every skill point in that game is useful in different situations (yes, even swimming) and while some skills are undeniably more useful than others, those skills cost more points. So it takes a hell of a lot more points to raise your Rifles skill than it takes to raise your Swimming skill. This leads to a system in which you can sink your points into anything you want and still beat the game, but the way you beat the game is drastically different depending on what skills you specialize in. Isn’t that the “zenith” we should all hope to achieve in our RPGs?

Deus Ex was also great because of how straightforward it was. It didn’t give you a bunch of skills and not explain what skills would benefit what situations. Do you want to sneak around people and steal their stuff? Add to Lockpicking and Electronics. Do you want to charge in like Rambo? Add to Rifles and Heavy Weapons. Do you want to be a badass ninja like me and get stealth kills with a silenced pistol and a combat knife? Add to Low-Tech and Pistols. You’re never left guessing about what skills are going to benefit what play style, and what skills aren’t going to be useful at all. (I’m looking at you, Outdoorsman.)

Incidentally, that reminds me… Was this supposed to be about Fallout or something?

Oh yeah! Yesterday I said that I was going to start Fallout again. I did start over. Once I reached Vault 15 I decided to start over again, but with a different character. And this process repeated itself once or twice more before I finally decided on a build I’m happy with, after consulting Twitter and my Steam buddy Jarenth.

I can’t show you my build, because as I said in my original Fallout post, (drink!) the screenshots come out entirely black. I tried using Fraps, but apparently Fraps doesn’t recognize Fallout as a game, which is weird, because it recognizes everything else as a game, including old games from GOG.com, Windows Minesweeper, and full-screen Youtube videos. What makes Fallout so special? I am at a loss for words over this.

But I suppose I can describe the final verdict of my build to you. Agility is my highest attribute, with the runner-ups being Intelligence and Perception. Endurance and Luck are the runt of the litter. I picked the Good-Natured trait and tagged Small Guns, Energy Weapons and Speech.

This may or may not bode well for me.


Retina Desgastada 2.0

Apparently someone mentioned me on their blog. I’m very flattered.

The most unfortunate thing here is that I can’t properly read what he said about me, or what his commentators are saying about me, because I can’t read Portuguese. I can use Google Translate, but that’s a very imperfect system, and whenever I use it I end up with jumbled, barely coherent sentences. But from what I can tell, I think he said something similar to what Shamus said way back when; that while my points go almost diametrically against what he believes, I argue my points well.

I have no idea how true that is, but I really appreciate the sentiment.

He mentioned my review of the intro to Fallout. It seems like this is what I’m destined to be most known for throughout the Internet, which is a bit disappointing for me. Not only is it the most likely post of mine to cause flame wars, but it’s far from my best work. As much as I hate to admit it, that article of mine was just not very well written. I’d like to think my writing has improved since then, and looking back on it now I can’t help but grimace a bit. It’s not that my points were invalid; I just didn’t present them very well.

None of the commentators on Retina Desgastada criticized me for that. But what some of them did say is that my post was weak and full of anachronisms. At least one of them said that tutorials are a bad thing and that Fallout can’t be criticized for not having one. (As I’ve said before, I utterly resent this notion and am glad to see that game designers are willing to educate gamers properly nowadays.) I think one of them implied that my opinion is invalid because I didn’t play all the way through Fallout, which I find a bit unfair because I never said that Fallout is a bad game (I only said that the beginning of Fallout is bad).

I want to respond to these people, but I can’t because as I already said, I can’t speak Portuguese. It seems that those commentators can read English though, so maybe they’ll end up reading this post.

I’ve been wanting to talk more about that whole Vault 15 rope business, because many people seem to think that was a silly or invalid criticism that I emphasized too much. Almost everything about Fallout irritated me, but that rope situation is easily what set me off the most, and what changed my opinion of it from “mildly unbearable” to “fuck this game, I’m playing some god damn TF2.”

One person commented on my Fallout post awhile back saying that the ability to use items in your environment for reasons other than murder is a great feature that RPGs don’t offer anymore. In fact, I’ll just quote him directly:

Having to actually use ropes to get down somewhere is a wonderful RPGy thing that’s been lost. It’s these kind of details that make a game too, for example, in Fallout you could use crowbars not just as weapons but also to pry open doors (if you pass a stat check). The game is full of these little things, and you don’t need a manual, they follow logically. If it were a modern game the crowbar would be a “quest item” and there would be a whole special quest so you can get it and use just on *that* single door that needs it. Its stupid. These things should flow naturally, not so artificially. So Fallout won’t throw that rope at you with a special marker and prohibit you from removing it from your inventory, acquiring said rope will follow naturally from your actions.

First off, that’s not an RPG thing. That’s a point-and-click-adventure thing. I don’t only play shooters, guys. I know my genres. And “use item on set dressing” is a very basic and fundamental staple of adventure games. I guess Fallout was part RPG and part adventure game. But don’t pretend that everything you liked about Fallout was “a wonderful RPGy thing that’s been lost.”

Second of all, I would think it’s great that the game lets you use miscellaneous items to solve problems in alternative ways. Much like using your high Speech skill to convince an NPC to give you an item rather than killing him and looting it off his corpse, it’s a nice way to give the player more options and make the experience feel more fleshed out. The reason I don’t approve of the Vault 15 rope situation is because it’s not an alternate solution; it’s the only solution. That’s what makes it needless and stupid. It doesn’t serve any purpose other than getting in your way and forcing you to backtrack.

I thought RPGs are supposed to be about player choice. I thought that’s what everyone said. I mean, wasn’t “railroading” one of the big reasons why everyone hated Fallout 3? If Fallout is going to force me to pick up a rope on a bookshelf in Shady Sands just to get into Vault 15, then I can’t acknowledge it as being any better in the railroading department. There should have been at least one other option.

As I said in my original Fallout post, it really gave me the impression that I’m not allowed to think for myself in this game; that I have to do things the way Black Isle wanted me to.

One of the comments that I deleted for being too inflammatory pointed out that if the rope situation was in Fallout 3 I would have just gone, gotten the rope, used it and moved on without throwing a fit. This is probably true. And yet in Fallout it left me brimming with Viking rage. Why? Well, because it was the last straw. Because Fallout has an unbearably slow pace, an atrocious interface, and some of the worst combat I have played in a long fucking time.

No, this isn’t just because I don’t like CRPGs. Baldur’s Gate 2 was much more fun than this. Neverwinter Nights was more fun than this. Why? Because those games offered some semblance of challenge.

As I’ve said before, there are three primary ways in which a game can challenge you (not counting stupid ways like patience and luck); Strategy (as in mental challenges, a la puzzle games, strategy games, etc.), skill, and reflexes. If a game is going to give me combat, I expect it to challenge me in at least one of these ways. Fallout, or at least the beginning of Fallout, offers you nothing.

A CRPG can generally be expected to offer challenge in the form of strategy, but there is no strategy in the Fallout combat (once again, just talking about the beginning here). You just whack the enemy with your knife or shoot it with your gun. There’s no thought, it’s just repetitive pointing and clicking. It just comes off as needless filler. And perhaps it would be a bit more bearable if it didn’t take so long to trudge through.

And don’t say that Fallout 3 was the same way. Fallout 3 is a shooter RPG, and shooters (by definition) demand a level of skill.

You can accuse me of being an instant gratification gamer who can’t have fun unless there’s an explosion happening every five seconds, but this argument only holds up for you if you’ve ignored all the times I’ve mentioned enjoying games like Final Fantasy, Civilization, and Dungeons & Dragons.

And finally, to the people who think that not playing through the game invalidates my opinion: You know what? I’ve been wanting closure for far too long, so we’ll have it your way. I’m picking Fallout back up, and I’m not stopping until I’ve officially beaten the game. Well, I will be stopping for restroom breaks, meals, sleep, college, my social life, etc. But the point is, I’m not just going to rage quit and put the game down for months at a time because of a rope. I’m going to finish this game even if it kills me.

Expect some rants in the near future.

To Retina Desgastada: I really appreciate the plug, and it’s nice to read your thoughts on the subject, even if I can’t read them exactly as they should be read.


Tribute to Final Fantasy VI

So I recently collected some game soundtracks, and one of them was the soundtrack to Final Fantasy 6. Listening to these songs brings back vivid memories of the game, and that’s undoubtedly at least partially due to Nobuo Uematsu’s ungodly ability to bring about emotions through musical notes. Whether it be the mysterious uncertainty of The Phantom Forest, the relaxing homeliness of Kids Run Through The City Corner, or the crushing despair of Dark World, this game’s soundtrack never ceases to bring about an emotional response from me. In any case, listening to these songs has really caused me to reminisce.

What a wonderful adventure, that game was.

I’m not normally one to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses. Most of the games I loved as a kid I can acknowledge now are not all that amazing. And besides, when I finally got around to playing through Final Fantasy 6 it was, what, only three or four years ago? So no, I don’t think this is nostalgia. Final Fantasy 6 is a great game.

It doesn’t particularly stand out in the gameplay department. The gameplay was solid, but it wasn’t really innovative or amazing in any specific way. I think the storytelling was what really drove it home for me. FF6 has one of my favorite video game stories ever. Part of that is because of its interesting setting, its distinct and memorable characters and its epic, almost operatic tone, but most of it is because of a big twist right around the middle of the game that changes everything.

No, this is not one of those M. Night Shyamalan style twists where the support character was evil all along, or you were an evil dictator before you got amnesia, or the whole game was a flashback up to this point or whatever. It’s not some revelation where you find out some bit of information you didn’t know before, which changes your perception of the story. No, this is simply a plot event that changes everything up, and it’s one you could not possibly have foreseen without having consulted a plot synopsis or FAQ beforehand.

And that twist was so brilliantly executed that it sweetened the entire story for me, and it’s probably why I still hold up FF6 as a better storyteller than most games out there, including the good ones.

CAUTION: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Final Fantasy 6 has a fairly standard plot for Japanese RPGs. A ragtag group of adventurers is trying to stop an evil warlord from using magical artifacts to destroy the world. You travel across the planet, acquiring more warriors to join your collective party and encountering various empires, factions, feuds, betrayals, deaths, etc. All cool stuff, but pretty straightforward.

The main bad guy, Kefka, is a pretty interesting villain. Not in that he has relatable motivations or an intriguing backstory, but in the sense that he’s just really “out there.” He’s a ruthless dictator who dresses like a clown, commits genocide, and seeks to tear the whole world apart. You find out toward the end that his motivations are rooted in nihilism; he wants to destroy the world because he doesn’t believe any of it matters in the end. And you get the impression that he hates people because they don’t think the same way he does.

The most effective way I’ve thought of to describe him is The Joker crossed with Hitler.

But at about the halfway point something big happens: Kefka actually succeeds. He rearranges various ancient magical runes, which throws off the balance of the entire world. The whole planet is ravaged, continents are rearranged, cities are toppled, and many people are killed. Your party falls apart, and the character you follow is put in a coma.

One year later you wake up in the post-apocalyptic world. I was expecting to find all the characters hanging out one town over so we can continue the fight against evil, but here the game shifts from linear, story-focused RPG to open-world sandbox RPG. You’re only required to find two of the other characters of your former party, and it’s up to you whether you want to find all the other player characters scattered throughout the world (14 total) and do any of the other side quests that tie up the loose ends and subplots, or whether you want to just go straight for the big finale.

Seeing the world in its newly devastated state is heart-wrenching since you just spent hours and hours getting to know it, and especially since you traverse it now to the tune of Dark World. The way the story is told in the second half, combined with the gameplay shift, just gives you the feeling that the world is broken beyond repair and all you can do is pick up the remains. The gear shift is so poignant that it still makes my heart drop thinking about it now.

I remember the episode of Spoiler Warning where each cast member said what their most memorable moment was as a gamer. I asked myself the same question and almost immediately knew the answer: it was that moment when the world was torn asunder.

The only other game that’s come close to affecting me as much is Chrono Trigger. That game dealt with similar themes (post-apocalypse, dystopia, trying to save the world, etc.) but had a very different, arguably more interesting premise. You know, I’m starting to wonder if I just like seeing the world blow up.


Half-Life 2: The Bridge Scene

So I replayed Half-Life 2 last weekend, due in no small part to Spoiler Warning‘s week-long coverage of it. (Now I can say I beat it on hard mode. Woo!)

Half-Life 2 is a very polarizing game. That’s inevitable for any game with so much critical acclaim. There will never be a game that everybody likes (with the possible exception of Plants vs. Zombies) and if somebody dislikes a game that everybody else appears to love, the instinctive reaction is to rage against it.

I’ve seen this happen with Portal, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Halo, Farmville, Team Fortress 2, the list goes on.

So when you play Half-Life 2, you’ll either love it or despise it. There is no middle ground. You’ll think it’s either a shining example of fantastic interactive storytelling or a cavalcade of mediocrity and boredom.

And if it isn’t already clear, I am of the former.

And I’m glad Spoiler Warning did this special block for Half-Life 2, because I always knew it was a really great game, but there were many little things they pointed out that I hadn’t even thought about when I played the game before. When they pointed out the flawless introduction to the Barnacle in their third episode, that blew my mind. If id Software designed this game, the camera would have been wrestled from the player to zoom in on the barnacle for several needless seconds just to make sure you know that HEY, THIS IS A MONSTER. SHOOT IT.

Valve really knows what they’re doing when it comes to visual design, storytelling and pacing, and it’s depressing to see that so few other studios have picked up on it.

So I figure I might as well jump on the bandwagon and spill out some praise for this game. And they didn’t get to show my favorite part of it, so I want to talk about that today. It’s a sequence that thrilled me and terrified me so much that it’s stood out for me as the most memorable scene in the whole game, one that I couldn’t wait to get to again in my new playthrough.

And no, it wasn’t in Ravenholm.

Don’t get me wrong — Ravenholm was a cool level. The atmosphere was solid, the traps were fun, and I loved how it let you utilize the gravity gun by grabbing and firing all the saws and barrels lying around. But other than that it just didn’t feel very special to me.

Anyway, I’m referring to the bridge scene in Highway 17. And if you haven’t played the game or can’t remember what I’m talking about, let me fill you in.

Now, part of what makes Valve so great is that they’re willing to try new things. They’re not afraid to change up their formulas and see what comes out of it. So with that in mind, I’m going to try something I’ve never done before: I’m going to describe the scene in second-person narrative form. This might technically classify as a text-based Let’s Play, but whatever.

Go easy on me, it’s my first time.

The gate to your next destination is blocked by a force field. To deactivate it, you must press a button located on the opposite side of a bridge.

A horribly mangled bridge.

You see no alternative to get across, so after taking a deep breath, you jump onto the piece of staircase. Once you can tell you’ve stuck the landing, you walk slowly across the few metal poles holding the whole bridge together.

You reach the first building, empty save for one headcrab. Once you start walking across the next few poles, the entire bridge begins to rattle and shake. All you can do is move forward, holding your breath and hoping that the bridge holds together.

Thankfully it does, and you reach the second platform. Here you find a crate full of rockets next to a rotting corpse.

You hear gunshots from the distance. It seems even broken bridges aren’t out of reach of the iron hand of the Combine.

Fortunately by this point you have a full arsenal of weapons, and two Combine troops is hardly a challenge.

A bit more walking and you reach the end of the bridge. Here you find an outpost full of troops, and after wiping them out you finally find the console that controls the gate.

You deactivate the bridge. Moments later you hear more gunshots. Outside the window you see a gunship firing at your position.

You have a rocket launcher, but you’ve only got three rockets in stock, and that’s not enough to destroy it. Then you remember the rocket crate on the bridge.

Seeing no other option available, you can do nothing but run to the crate.

The first time you crossed the bridge, you had the option to be careful. You were in peaceful solitude. This time you have to run. Caution is not an option.

You sprint across the bridge as quickly as you can. You feel a few inevitable shots strike your HEV suit, and wonder how many more shots you can withstand.

Finally you reach the crate, and use all the rockets you must to take down the ship.

Eventually the ship falls into the water. With no other immediate danger present, you walk back to solid ground.

So yeah, there’s a number of reasons why I love this scene. Every bit of it is designed cleverly to look cohesive and believable while also fitting together to form a tight jumping puzzle (or rather, a “walking” puzzle, I suppose). The first time you cross it feels tense walking across this broken, ruined bridge and hoping none of the pieces fall off when you step onto them. The second time you cross it feels tense because you’re being chased by a gunship.

Valve talked about this technique of theirs in their Lost Coast developer commentary. When they introduce you to a big set piece, they let you explore it first and get a feel for it. They’ll often include it with a puzzle so you have to really examine the area to figure out what to do next. Then, once you’re really familiar with the area, they throw the combat at you. That way you don’t end up overwhelmed.

It’s not a very long scene. It’s concise and it’s only as long as it needs to be. But those moments crossing the bridge for the first and second time gave me a sense of unease and excitement that few games can hope to match.

If anybody wants to say that first person platforming just doesn’t work and doesn’t add to an experience, I think this sequence would serve well as a counter-point.


Doom 3 ≈ Half-Life + Cutscenes

It feels weird comparing Doom 3 to Half-Life instead of, you know, Doom. The comparisons to Doom are much more obvious and blatant. But this game also had some striking similarities with Half-Life 1, so much so that I think it’s worth talking about how the two games are similar.

The basic story structure is extremely similar between the two games. You’re in an isolated facility of workers experimenting with strange concepts, when suddenly the entire facility is attacked by weird, foreign, alien-like creatures of varying sizes and shapes, some of which have the ability to teleport. Then you have to fight your way through the whole facility to defeat the leader and restore peace to the land, but once you beat the big bad you get left with a silly cliffhanger.

I already mentioned in that id Software post that the intro to Doom 3 feels very Half-Life-esque. You’re at a space station type place instead of a science facility, but it’s the same basic concept. It’s your first day as a marine and you’re walking around the station, getting to see people on the job. At first things seem pretty normal, but over time you hear more and more people saying that there’s some weird stuff going on. You keep getting a bit of a creepy vibe, until you finally see the aliens go loose and start turning everyone into zombies.

And then all restraint gets thrown out the window.

But seriously, the beginning is really cool. You get a sense of how these people live their lives, and there are a few toys for you to play with. You can even play a little arcade game:

META!

Also, the moment when the guard dude forces you to pick up your security armor and pistol seems to have been ripped straight out of Half-Life: Blue Shift.

About that beer I owed you…

Another section of the game that felt very Half-Lifeish was the segment where you enter Hell. It felt very much like the final level in Half-Life, wherein you enter the alien homeworld. Think about it. You’ve been fighting these crazy alien-type dudes out of your domain, and finally towards the end of the game you get to fight them on their turf. Sure, they might be demons instead of aliens, but tear off the paint job and it’s the exact same thing.

This part of the game does have pretty interesting scenery, and it’s a nice change of pace from the endless identical space station corridors you traverse throughout the rest of the game, but it does have its problems. The monsters are all the same ones you’ve been fighting, so the combat does get tedious to a degree. You lose your flashlight for this segment, so those dark areas just have to stay dark, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And like the alien homeworld in Half-Life, Hell apparently has a few jumping puzzles.

Don’t slip!

I’m actually not as bitter about this as you might think. I’m one of the four or five people on the planet who thinks that first person platforming doesn’t automatically suck. It just sucks if it’s done badly and used in an engine that doesn’t really allow for it. For example, I was pretty much alright with the platforming in Half-Life. And Doom 3 doesn’t ever demand as much agility as Half-Life does, so it’s not too much of a nuisance. It wasn’t for me, anyway.

Here’s some other similarities between Doom 3 and Half-Life, in no particular order:

  • A mixup of fights between alien monsters and gun-wielding marines
  • A silent protagonist who everyone orders around like he’s some kind of goddamn repairman
  • A legion of uninteresting NPCs who are easily killable by the player
Hah! That’s what I think of your boring dialogue.

But hey, you know what Doom 3 has that Half-Life doesn’t? Cutscenes. Cutscenes out the back end.

Different people have different opinions on custcenes and how they should be used in games. I think that, generally speaking, cutscenes are the antithesis to good storytelling in games. Resorting to cutscenes because you don’t know how to use interactive storytelling is like a film resorting to text walls every five minutes because it doesn’t know how to use visual storytelling. Games are interactive by definition, and taking that interactivity away just so you can make sure they don’t muck up your magnificent story just comes off to me as ham-fisted and self-indulgent.

However, I can begrudgingly accept a cutscene as long as

  1. It seems necessary to the plot,
  2. It is concise and well put together.

Doom 3 fails in both of these regards. Most of the cutscenes are entirely needless, the dialogue is badly written, and they typically screw with the atmosphere of the gameplay. Almost every time the game brings forth a new monster, it’s introduced in a cutscene first and in gameplay second. Especially since this is trying to be a horror game, all these cutscenes seem to do is completely remove any sense of suspense or fear we may have had.

Just as an example, in one of the early levels you enter a closed-off room to press a button which opens a door in another room. As soon as you do this, a cutscene begins which carries the camera off to the outside of the room, where this dude appears:

He’s like a demon cow. I know, spooky, right?

He jumps off of the railing and runs up to the locked, windowless door to your little chamber. It switches back to gameplay, where you can’t see the monster but can hear it smashing against the door a few times before he moves over and smashes through a window. Then he dies in two shotgun blasts. On hard mode.

I can’t help but feel like that sequence would have been much scarier if they just cut out that cutscene. That way I wouldn’t have known what was smashing against the door, but my imagination would have filled in the details. And your imagination will always be scarier than reality.

I bet if they just removed 95% of the cutscenes in this game, it would be far more compelling.


More on Quake

Quake is another game I may have been a bit unfair to. I’ve been playing it a bunch and it is fun and interesting. But it’s far, far from perfect.

First, let me say Odin bless Ranneko for telling me the console command for full mouse aiming. That makes the game much more playable. Before, when I couldn’t control the Y-axis with the mouse, I pretty much got stuck at the first point when I had to swim.

Having to use keyboard buttons to look up and down is a huge hassle when you’ve become accustomed to mouse aiming, and it isn’t as big of a deal in Duke Nukem 3D when they don’t force you to look up or down too much, but Quake seemed specifically designed to screw over anybody who didn’t have the console command.

But I digress…

I think the most interesting thing about Quake to me is its emphasis on rockets. Many shooters end up having some sort of “main” weapon, a weapon you end up using most of the time because you get tons of ammo for it, and because it’s one of the most powerful or versatile weapons, etc. In Doom 2 it’s the super shotgun, in Half-Life 2 it’s the SMG, and in Quake it seems to be the rocket launcher.

Sure, the super nailgun and the laser thingy do more damage, but those guns drain ammo at a very rapid pace, and the ammo for those weapons isn’t quite as ubiquitous as the rockets you practically trip over at every other step.

I don’t think I’ve ever played any other games where the rocket launcher is used this commonly, except maybe Serious Sam to a much lesser degree, and Team Fortress 2 as the Soldier. Usually the rocket launcher is the “BFG” of the game, the instakill weapon that you save for helicopters or big boss fights (see Resident Evil 4) but the rocket launcher in Quake is much less overpowered and rockets are common enough that you can use them almost all the time.

The reason this is so interesting is because the rocket launcher is much more tactical and requires much more skill to use effectively than most other guns in shooters. It fires slow projectiles, so you have to predict where the enemy is going to be rather than just point at the enemy and hold the fire button. It deals splash damage to everyone in close proximity, so you can use one precise rocket to kill multiple enemies at once, but must be mindful at all times not to stand too close to a target you’re firing rockets at.

On the whole, it just makes combat more tricky and fun.

I’m quite fond of the style of gameplay Quake delivers; extremely fast-paced shooting that emphasizes evasive maneuvers. Rather than crouching behind cover and waiting for the right moment to pop out and shoot the bad guy’s face, you’re dashing around the arena faster than Road Runner and dodging everyone’s attacks.

It all goes back to that Daredevil mindset I talked about before. It gives such a rush of adrenaline that I don’t experience very often in games these days.

It’s unfortunate, then, that extended periods of Quake end up making me feel sick. I wasn’t kidding when I said that in my other post, by the way. Part of it is the fast movement speed, but I’m pretty sure most of it is due to the sickening visuals. All brown, all the time. Everywhere.

You could argue that it’s not fair to complain about the visuals of a game that came out in 1996, but it’s worth noting that Crash Bandicoot was also released in 1996, and that game looks leagues better than Quake. Not because of any superior graphics technology, but simply because the world is colorful and vibrant.

(Although it might have better graphics technology than Quake. I wouldn’t know. I’m not exactly an expert on that subject.)

Quake is also much shorter than I expected. I haven’t reached the end credits quite yet, but I’ve beaten about three and a half of the four “episodes” in only a few hours, and I think it’s safe to assume that once I beat the last episode I’ll only have the final boss left.

So it’s a pretty insubstantial game, but interesting nonetheless. And rockets are always fun, right?

And I suppose the big question is, are there any developers out there who are still trying to give us that fast-paced runaroundy shooting fun that we used to have? What games do we have to look forward to in that subgenre?

Four words: Serious Sam 3, bitches.


id Software Hoedown

Thanks to the Steam Summer sale I now have all of the Doom and Quake games, excluding Quake 4. I’m not sure how interested people are in my whole new-retro shtick, but I figure I might as well talk about them since I’ve been playing them a lot lately. I don’t have enough to say to warrant a post for each individual game, but if I bundle my thoughts on all the games into one post I’m sure it can work.

DOOM

I’m aware that Doom is one of the first FPS games ever made, and I must say that I’m quite impressed. The combat works well and has a decent flow to it. The levels are big and sprawling, and praise be to Odin, there’s actually an intuitive map you can look at. The guns actually feel fairly different from one another, and the monsters have enough variety to prevent it from feeling too repetitive.

I played Duke Nukem 3D a few months back via Good Old Games, and I detested it. I assumed that was because I just couldn’t get into the whole “2.5D” thing, but that’s not the case, because I’ve been enjoying Doom 1 quite a lot. No, the real reason I didn’t like Duke was because the controls were very clunky.

The story for Doom appears to be pretty much nonexistent. “Baddies over there, go kill them” seems to be the gist of it. I’m cool with that. To me, the story in a game is basically like the lyrics in a song. It can add more entertainment value to the whole package if it’s done well, but it’s not really necessary.

On the whole, I like Doom. I like it a lot. And I think I’m gonna play it some more once I’m done writing this.

DOOM 2

Refer to above comments concerning Doom 1.

Seriously, it’s the same game. It’s an expansion pack, that’s what it is. More of the same gameplay in different environments with different monsters. Really not much to say about it.

DOOM 3

Now here’s where things change. Doom 3 was released long, long after Doom 1, and while the weapons and monsters are basically the same, the overall feel is very different. While Doom 1 is a game about intense, balls-to-the-wall action, Doom 3 tries to go for subtle, claustrophobic horror. And it kind of fails in that regard. It’s a bit scary at first, but it’s the same problem I had with FEAR 2, it’s just too repetitive.

And this game also has a serious problem with lighting. So many areas are covered in darkness, and you can’t use a flashlight with your gun; you have to pull out a flashlight just to see what’s going on, which breaks up the flow of combat. I get that they were trying to show off their whole dynamic lighting technology, but it just gets annoying after awhile.

Doom 3 has much bigger production values than Doom 1, and it certainly looks better, but on the whole I just don’t find it as engaging. I have to agree with the others who say that Serious Sam is the true successor to Doom 2.

Though it is worth mentioning that the very, very beginning of the game is really interesting. There are no monsters, and you walk through the space station and get to see the marines at work. It reminds me of the intro to Half-Life 1 in a good way.

Quake

Quake will always hold a special place in my heart, because when I close my eyes and try to remember the first shooter I ever played, Quake is always the one that comes to mind. Of course I can’t remember it very well because I was so young at the time that the only memories I have now are tiny little glimpses, but I think the fact that I remember it at all shows that Quake had an impact on me as a child.

This game is an interesting specimen, because it seems to be right in the middle of the transitionary phase of first person shooters from 2D to 3D. The environments are rendered in full 3D, but the enemies are still in that awkward 2.5D state, so the game as a whole feels a bit weird.*

Aside from that, the controls feel fairly awkward since you can’t look up or down using the mouse, and the game is just too brown. The lack of contrast almost makes me feel nauseous when playing it. Seriously. When people complain about games these days being too brown it makes me wonder if they ever played Quake, because it puts any game made in the past decade or so to shame in terms of lack of color variety.

It’s interesting to play in a sort of historical sense (sorry if I just made you feel really old by saying that) but it just isn’t that much fun.

Quake 2

Okay, you’ve watched at least one episode of my LP of Unreal, right? Well then I don’t need to say anything about Quake 2 because it’s the same fucking game.

Okay, so maybe Quake 2 is fairly more linear and brown than Unreal, but other than that it feels exactly the same. Same alien baddies, same guns, same early 3D FPS style gameplay. Really not much to say about it at this point.

Quake 3 Arena

Apparently Quake 3 is entirely multiplayer, which means I’m not gonna mess with it. I’m not much of a competitive shooter person, and whenever I do get that itch I have Team Fortress 2 to scratch it. Not to mention the fact that none of my friends have Quake 3, and I don’t know if I’d even be able to find anyone online to play with. The Steam summer sale has given me a virtual pile of games to play, so I’m gonna hold off on Quake 3 for now.

Fin

It’s nice to sample some more of gaming history, and it’s even nicer to have fun while doing so.

I guess all there’s left for me to play from id Software is Wolfenstein 3D. How about that, Steam? You still have one more day of summer sales left…

*UPDATE: That one paragraph about Quake was flat-out incorrect. Sorry about that.


Hitman: Blood Money

So hey, remember when I talked about how I want a game about a hired assassin? Well, a few of you recommended the Hitman games. Truth be told I already owned Hitman: Blood Money when I wrote that post, but I’d forgotten about it. I had never actually gotten past the tutorial level.

People complain that the tutorial was too linear, but I don’t have a problem with that. They did that so they could gradually introduce the player to each of the game mechanics, and like I said before, handholding is important in the beginning when your player hasn’t been taught how to play yet. So I think that aspect of it works. What put me off was the fact that things constantly went wrong. I would follow the game’s instructions and somehow the coin wouldn’t distract the guards, or Agent 47 wouldn’t use the guy as a human shield, or the secretary would freak out and run away instead of drinking the water. Whatever it was, I could never really tell if the game was bugging out or if I was just screwing up in miniscule little ways, but I got sick of it and stopped trying after awhile.

Well recently I decided to pick the game back up again, since a few people recommended it to me. And now that I’m past the tutorial level I have to say thanks to Nick Bell and Duncan for reminding me of it, because in terms of story and thematic elements this is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for.

(Before I go on, I want to clarify that I’ve only gotten to the fourth or fifth mission so far.)

The story and setting are about as dark as it gets. You’re an assassin who deals with gangsters, drug dealers, all sorts of criminals. Everybody in this game is a jerk or a snob, and if you ever see people with friendly faces it’s probably because they’re high on cocaine. The protagonist Agent 47 comes off as completely amoral and uncaring. He kills whoever he has to, and he doesn’t think twice about it. He never has pretensions to being righteous or heroic, and the game never tries to make you sympathize for him.  It works pretty much perfectly with the gameplay.

As for the gameplay itself, it sort of feels like a much more sophisticated Deus Ex, except without the RPG elements. You’re dropped in open-ended levels with open-ended mission objectives, and you figure out for yourself what to do and where to go. You can charge through the front gates and gun down everyone in your path, but the game tends to encourage smart and sneaky tactics, like disguising yourself, poisoning foods and beverages, disabling electrical devices, etc.

Many people call it a stealth game, but I’m not sure if that’s how I’d classify it. It isn’t really an action game if you’re playing it properly, and I definitely wouldn’t call it an “adventure” game, but it doesn’t really feel like any other stealth game I’ve played. Most stealth games involve staying out of the enemies’ sight, a la Thief or Metal Gear Solid, but this one is mostly about disguising yourself and hiding in plain sight. I suppose games like Assassin’s Creed and even Team Fortress 2 have similar stealth mechanics, though, so stealth is probably the best label for Hitman.

Whatever it is, it certainly feels unique. And interesting. I’m glad I got myself to the actual missions.

Here’s the problem, though. Either I just really suck at it, or it is way too hard to play the game properly, because I’ve tried the first few missions (excluding the tutorial) something like ten times each and every damn time I play them I somehow always get stuck in a gunfight. In worse cases I’ll end up having to gun down every guard in the area. Something always goes wrong, every time. It’s ridiculous.

I switched down to easy mode since easy mode has “accommodating AI,” and I never noticed any difference between that and the regular AI. I still end up having to kill a bunch of people in every mission. I suppose I could always just disregard the whole stealth thing and gun everyone down if that’s what I’m going to end up having to do anyway, but that just turns the game into a shooter, and a pretty mediocre one at that.

Also, the game’s saving system is absurd. You can save permanently between each mission, and the game does include a quicksave function during missions, but for some reason the number of times you can quicksave is limited based on what difficulty you’re on. On easy mode you can save as many times as you want; on normal mode you can save 7 times; on hard mode you can save 3 times; and on the hardest difficulty you can’t save at all. So apparently Io Interactive thinks that being able to save when you want just makes the game easier.

Here’s the thing. It doesn’t just make the game “easier,” it makes the game better. You might as well make the controls clunkier and less intuitive in higher difficulty levels if you really think that’s what we want. Sure, it makes the game harder, but for all the wrong reasons.

So yeah, I’m kind of ambivalent towards this game right now. Really cool concept, but it also seems screwy.


Thief: The Dark Project: Part 1: I Like Subtitles

About five or six years ago, my best friend came over to hang out and brought with him a few old PC games he’d picked up on the way over with his dad. These games included Red Alert 2, Rainbow Six: Ghost Spear, and Thief: The Dark Project. The only one we installed and played at my house while he was over was Thief. I played a bit of the first mission and couldn’t really get into it.

The main reason why was because I didn’t realize it was a stealth game (I guess the fact that it was called Thief didn’t quite clue me in on that) and so I decided to go Rambo on the guards and got torn apart. I wasn’t really drawn in, so I closed out and we went and played Sonic Adventure 2 or whatever stupid game we were obsessing over at the time.

He left the games at my house when it was time to go, due to some complicated scenario involving him going to his mom’s and not wanting his mom to know he bought violent video games or something like that, and he never remembered to pick the games back up. They ended up sitting on my CD rack for many years to come.

Fast-forward to 2010 when I first was introduced to what would soon become a massive fixation for me, Zero Punctuation. Once I had watched a few of Yahtzee’s videos and realized how hilarious he was, I decided to go through his entire backlog and watch all his reviews. And I was of course astonished after I watched his review of Thief. Wow! I thought. Who would have thought that the game my friend just happened to leave over was a game of such great acclaim, the game that practically invented the stealth genre? I mean, what are the odds?!

I knew I had to give the game another go, but sadly by that point the game was just too old for my computer. It installed just fine, but whenever I tried to run it it would freeze up within 30 seconds of starting. I sighed and shelved it again.

Fast-forward again to about two weeks ago. In my Fallout first impressions thing I asked people to recommend any old classics I should check out, and Shamus recommended a whole bunch, including Thief. I explained that Thief was constantly freezing up for me, and then another regular commentator of the site pointed me to a website that explained how to fix a lot of the problems with running the Thief games.

Turns out Thief doesn’t like it when you try to run it on multiple cores, so whenever I open the game I have to alt-tab out, ctrl-alt-delete the task manager up and uncheck three of my cores. Okay, that’s no big deal. Doesn’t take long. And once I do that the game seems to run just fine. Unfortunately the cutscenes don’t work so I have to watch them on YouTube, but again, that’s easy to do, so I don’t mind.

Finally, I can play the game properly.

I’ve played some stealth games before. Metal Gear Solid 1-3, Deus Ex, Velvet Assassin, and of course there are action games that have stealth sections. I hold the stealth genre to a very high esteem because it feels incredibly gratifying to defeat enemies much more powerful than you, not because you went and found the mystical MacGuffin or used some high-powered gun, but because you outsmarted them. Not to mention it makes me feel like a ninja (and if you haven’t figured this out already, I freaking love ninjas). But stealth is a hard thing to do right, and if you do it wrong the experience is likely to become tedious.

Having said that, Thief doesn’t really feel much like any of the other stealth games I’ve played. The game it reminds me most of in the stealth department is Deus Ex, I suppose. But Thief’s stealth seems a lot more advanced, which is weird, since Deus Ex came after Thief. In Deus Ex you were always silent whenever you crouched, and whenever you got caught you could generally go hide in a vent and wait about for about ten seconds so that the guards would forget that you ever existed.

Thief is a lot more sophisticated than that. You make different levels of noise depending on the flooring you step on (and it’s not like Velvet Assassin where you’re always silent except for those rare occasions when somebody inexplicably left a square of broken glass on the floor) and if the guard who saw you manages to reach another guard, he’ll go inform another guard, who will inform another, and soon enough everybody in the map knows you’re here and will be much more cautious and alert than they were before. So if you get caught by a guard and you don’t deal with the problem right away, that can ruin the entire rest of the level for you.

Thief isn’t just a game that encourages subtlety and caution. It’s a game that’s practically unplayable without subtlety and caution. And it’s a lot of fun once you get the hang of it.

Actually, that’s not always the case. In some levels the guards are very thinly spread and you can deal with each one individually. And taking on a guard in one-on-one combat is piss easy, what with the enemy AI being incredibly primitive by today’s standards. You can typically take on an enemy guard without getting hit once by simply circle-strafing him and smacking him with your sword until he falls over.

I’ve heard a lot of praise for this game’s level design, and I can see why now that I’ve played it. The levels are enormous, and very open-ended. Whenever I enter a new level for the first time I’m almost fascinated by all the different pathways and how they all lead to different places and intertwine with one another to form a big cohesive labyrinth.

There’s also a lot of creativity that goes into the levels. The one that really stood out for me was a mansion that seemed to have been designed by M.C. Escher. Here, let me just show you a few rooms in that building:

If I ever become rich, I’m so having the hallways of my building built like this.
Hmm… One of these doors is not like the other…
I half-expected Vortigaunts to appear when I entered this room.

Yeah, it’s pretty trippy.

Of course, the downside to these huge sprawling levels is that they’re very easy to get lost in. Without an intuitive map system, often times you’re stuck wandering around the same rooms over and over because you can’t find the one path that will lead you to where you need to be. Sometimes I really wish this game had a hint system, or a Bioshock-style objective pointer that you could toggle on and off, or something so that I wouldn’t be left yelling at my laptop “JUST TELL ME WHERE TO GO! FOR FUCK’S SAKE! I WANT TO GET TO THE NEXT LEVEL ALREADY!”

But while I still firmly refuse to accept any blame for Fallout 1’s shortcomings, I do have to admit that getting lost in Thief could at least partially be my fault. I mean, it could be due to the game’s unintuitive nature, or it could be due to the fact that I have the attention span and sense of direction equivocal to that of a blind rodent. I’ve known that about myself for many years.

Sometimes it feels like the game isn’t making the most of its enormous levels. Often times you’ll be stuck in massive levels with very few NPCs spread throughout, and so you’ll be wandering through empty pathways and rooms for something like ten minutes or so before finally you’ll walk into a room full of guards or monsters who will tear your ass apart, and let me tell you, this does not mix well with the lack of a decent autosave feature.

That might sound like a petty complaint, but it’s been driving me insane. Lots of gamers have their own personal pet peeves. Yahtzee has moral choice systems and cover-based shooting, Shamus has plot doors and quick time events. Well here’s one of mine: deliberately wasting my time by forcing me through the same content again and again. Or to put it more simply, badly done saving/checkpoint systems. This is something I’ve talked about before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again just because it’s so irritating.

And the odd thing is, Thief would normally get a pass from me in this department because it lets you save whenever you want. But the thing is, this game is incredibly immersive. One of the most immersive games I’ve ever played. That sounds like praise, and it most certainly is, but games like this need to have autosaving or checkpoints, because otherwise you’ll be so absorbed in the experience you’ll end up forgetting to save until it’s too late.

This isn’t a technological limitation. Half-Life 1 had autosaving and quicksaving, and that game came out before Thief. They definitely could have done it, they just didn’t. For some reason.

Anyway, I do think Thief is a good game overall. It’s very interesting and very different from the sorts of games we see nowadays. But it’s not without a lot of frustrations and annoyances.

I don’t know how long it will be before I actually beat the game (I don’t know how far I am, but I’m in some place called the Lost City trying to find keys to open a plot door if that helps any of you Thief fans in knowing how close I am to the ending at all). I’ve recently gotten my hands on a lot of games. Thanks to Ubisoft Week being on Steam last week, I just got three Splinter Cell games, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Far Cry. I also got Thief: Deadly Shadows. I still haven’t gotten the best equipment or beaten all the bosses in Terraria. And my friends have opened up a private Minecraft server and invited me to build stuff in it.

So I might have to put Thief on hold for awhile. Sorry, guys.


Unreal: Should We Play?

So I got Unreal on Good Old Games.

I played through the first level or two before I quit out. Got all the controls and settings down, and it seems cool so far. But I got an idea. Instead of just playing through the game and writing a review for it, what if I recorded a Let’s Play of it?

I’ve been wanting to do a Let’s Play for awhile, but I haven’t been sure of what game to do. Ideally I’d want my LP to be of my first playthrough of a game. From what I’ve seen so far it looks like Unreal would be a good game for it, but I don’t know how long it is, how varied it is, how entertaining it would be to watch, how much commentary I would be able to make about it, etc.

So I’ll go ahead and ask anyone who’s played Unreal: Would this game make for a good Let’s Play? And would you be interested in watching an LP from me?


Shelving Fallout

“… out of all the legitimate complaints about this game, “I had to actually pay attention and look around” just seems a bit out of place.”

-Deadpool, from the Twenty Sided comments

I think this excerpt pretty much exemplifies a lot of responses I received for my Fallout review.

Most of you viewing my blog at this point probably learned about it from Shamus Young. He made a post about my blog two days ago, and hoo boy, my views and comments skyrocketed.

I’m not surprised by how many people disagree with the points I made. Fallout is a very beloved old game, and I understand that. Some people responded to me with contempt, but that’s inevitable on the Internet.

What I’m surprised by is how many people actually agreed with me, both on my blog and on Shamus’s. Kind of reminds me of Shamus’s response to Halo, actually. I thought everyone loved this game, so I went in expecting it to be all sunshine and unicorns. Then I post my angry rant on it and realize that it has as many haters as it has lovers. Huh. Guess my opinion wasn’t as radically outrageous as I thought it was.

Anyway, I want to respond to what a lot of people are saying. Essentially they’re saying that by focusing my efforts on getting through Vault 15 and consulting GameFAQs instead of just exploring and wandering to figure out what to do next, I was playing the game wrong. And they’re saying that it’s my fault, not the fault of the game.

I still think it’s the game’s fault because the game gave me no sense of direction whatsoever. And considering how many people are agreeing with me on that (a lot of people) I think it most certainly is a valid complaint.

Some gamers are alright with exploring and figuring everything out on their own, but most gamers need at least some sense of direction from the game or else they won’t see any reason to continue. You can’t blame us for this, it’s just how most of us are.

You’ll notice that nobody develops games like this anymore, even the people who used to make games like Fallout. Take Obsidian, which if I recall correctly contains members of the original Fallout dev team. When they made Fallout: New Vegas they left us a tangible trail of bread crumbs (so to speak) wherein each piece of the trail pointed us to the next one. That way the player always has a sense of direction, and is never left thinking “Uh… Where do I go now?” It gave you a sense of freedom while still having structure. Fallout 1, on the other hand, had no structure and still didn’t give me a sense of freedom.

Some people call that “not handholding.” I call it “bad design.” Yeah, some people might like it, but most people don’t, and if most gamers don’t like your game, you’ve failed as a designer.

I get that Fallout was meant to appeal more to “explorers,” the kinds of people who want to uncover everything themselves. And those people are probably upset that games don’t give them that feeling anymore. And you know what? I can actually empathize with them on that, because most modern-day shooters follow certain trends that really make me miss the old days as well.

The one that frustrates me the most is the fact that you can typically only carry two or three guns. I can understand how that helps keep things balanced in a multiplayer setting, but in single player it adds more depth to the gameplay when you can carry all the weapons in your arsenal at once. It lets you approach each challenge in a multitude of ways and helps bring more strategy to the field. By only letting the player hold a few guns, you have to make sure that every challenge in the game can be defeated with any of the guns, and it ends up feeling like either the challenges, the guns, or both have been dumbed down.

But now I’m getting way off-topic. Anyway, I’m open to the idea that in some parallel universe where I had a different first experience with Fallout I may have ended up loving it. People have said that it gets better elsewhere, and while I’ve never really liked that excuse before I have to admit that I didn’t really love Deus Ex at first either, but the more I played through it the more I became enamored with it. But my first impressions for Fallout were really awful, and I think that if I continue to push through it I’ll probably be focusing on the bad instead of the good. I think it would be best for me to shelve it for now. Maybe I’ll come back to it eventually.

Evidently a lot of people liked my Deus Ex review, and I enjoy playing these old games, so I’m going to continue this. To anybody who cares, the next game I’m gonna be neo-retro-reviewing is Thief: The Dark Project. I’ve had the disk for awhile, but whenever I tried to run it on this computer it would freeze up every ten seconds. Thankfully some kind soul on Twenty Sided named Daemian Lucifer let me in on how to fix that problem, and it seems to be working alright now.

I just beat the second level. So far it’s been very entertaining, interesting, and frustrating. Reminds me a lot of System Shock 2.


Fallout 1: First Impressions

I hope you like retro reviews!

I’ve been retro-gaming a lot ever since I got my own laptop a year ago. Deus Ex, System Shock 2, Half-Life and both its expansions, Duke Nukem 3D, Counter-Strike, and probably more that I’m forgetting. Lots of games that I’ve heard a lot about but didn’t get a chance to play when they were big. Some I loved, and some I thought were “meh.”

Next up on the list is Fallout, since my brother has one of those fancy-dancy compliation CDs of Fallout 1, 2 and Tactics. I liked Fallout 3 and New Vegas a lot, but it’s come to my attention that a great big mass of people on the Internet very strongly believe that Fallout is apparently the holy grail of RPGs and that Fallout 3 was a disgrace to the franchise.

So I figure, what the hell? Might as well give it a shot.

Clarification: Whenever I try to take a screenshot in-game the picture comes out too dark to discern anything properly, so I have to use pictures from other sites.

First up is the character creation screen.

The first thing this dude reaches for is Kamikaze? Who is this, Leroy Jenkins?

You know, one thing I like about Oblivion and Fallout 3 is that they don’t demand you choose all your character’s traits and abilities and whatnot until after you’ve had a taste for the gameplay. This isn’t like Baldur’s Gate or Planescape, where all the character building is based directly off of D&D. Fallout’s system is entirely original. Meaning if this is your first time playing it, you’re going to have to either consult GameFAQs or just guess which abilities are best, because they aren’t exactly balanced.

Some people consider that standard for an RPG. I consider it bad design.

Onto the opening cinematic. Apparently I’m from Vault 13, and the overseer of said vault is telling me I need to get some chip that will make water for the people. I guess sending one person is a much more hopeful prospect than sending a whole team, but hey, it’s a video game, right?

As a MacGuffin to drive the plot, I guess it does alright. I didn’t find it very interesting, but whatever, let’s get on with the game.

Now, one thing I always hear old-school Fallout fans complain about in Fallout 3 is the color scheme; i.e. everything is brown, there’s not enough color and contrast in the world. So presumably Fallout 1 would have lots of lovely color variety, right?

Well here’s the first environment you’re set into:

Mmm, look at all those lovely shades of grayish blue.

I know this is the very first scene in the game and it’s probably too early for me to be making judgments about the game as a whole, but I still couldn’t help but laugh when I saw this environment. Are all these people hypocrites, or do they all just think gray is way cooler than brown?

So now onto the combat. You encounter a bunch of rats in the cave and you can either shoot them with a pistol or smack them with a knife. It feels very tedious and there isn’t really any strategy involved, but it’s only the beginning of the game, I’m sure all that strategy and intrigue will come later.

I get to the exit and it brings me to the world map. Sadly I couldn’t find an image for this, so I’ll just describe it. I’m sitting inside one brown square surrounded by black squares. On the right it has a list of two locations, one of which is where I’m at now and the other of which is where the overseer told me to go. I click on that one. Suddenly I start moving right, and slowly I travel through the squares until I get to my destination, Vault 15.

Here’s the entrance…

Black Isle dev: "Hey, sorry about all that lack of color in the first area. Here's some brown."

Okay, so I go inside and find myself in the vault.

"Yeah, I thought you'd like brown. Here's some more!"

So after killing a few more rats, I try to go into the elevator shaft and it tells me I need a rope. Okay, there’s probably a rope around here somewhere. Right?

I search the entire area, and no, there is not a rope anywhere. I try using all my skills in the “skilldex,” and none of them seem to give me the ability to travel down that damn elevator shaft.

After searching through the room several more times I got fed up and quit. Then later I decided to commit the cardinal sin of consulting GameFAQs. Apparently while I was traveling through all that empty wilderness on the world map I was supposed to stop at one patch of brown that had a green circle around it, because that was a town, and it’s the only place to get a rope so you can descend into the vault.

Okay, everything I’ve been saying up until now has pretty much been little nitpicks, but that really pissed me off. Isn’t this supposed to be an open world game? I figured since it didn’t have any tutorial or whatever, that meant I could go about things my own way. And my approach was to go right into the vault. But no, apparently Fallout wants you to do things its way, and you’d better step in line or get out.

And this is the game people say Fallout 3 is a disgrace to?

Anyway, so I go into the town of Shady Sands, where a bunch of NPCs are standing around. I chat with all of them. A lot of them have nothing to say, and some have the standard RPG Q&A routine: “So what’s your story?” “What can you tell me about this town?” “Do you like bean burritos?” Et cetera.

None of the characters seem interesting me to me in the slightest, but maybe I’m just too annoyed by the rest of the game to care at this point. I search every bookcase because apparently the rope was in one of them, and finally I find it and leave to continue my venture into the vault.

I use the rope on the shaft in your typical point-&-click-adventure style and proceed to the next level. More of the same, dull scenery and dull combat with dull rats. This floor has lockers, one of which has a rope. Gee, that would have been helpful a few minutes ago.

Oh wait, there’s another elevator shaft to lead me to another floor this time. Guess that’s what this rope is for. Rinse and repeat!

Now I’m on the third floor. Don’t see any elevator shafts this time. I go through all the rooms and kill all the monsters and… Nothing happens. I examine everything in the room and walk around several times to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and there’s nothing around.

Sigh. Guess it’s back to GameFAQs again. I’m definitely going to gaming Hell.

Okay, so apparently a text prompt appears when you enter one of the rooms, and it tells you that you found nothing and have to search elsewhere. This must have appeared while I was fighting the rats, and I missed it. Wow.

Okay, I know people complain about the tutorial prompts that interrupt game flow in Fallout: New Vegas, but there’s a reason they take up the entire screen and stop the game: It’s kind of important that you notice it on your first go. Since this text prompt was miniscule and quickly got drained in all the combat text telling me how much damage I did to Rat B, I completely missed it.

Anyway, so I’m supposed to go back to Shady Sands and find out more information there. What the hell was the point of Vault 15 then?! Wouldn’t it have made more sense from a design perspective for the overseer to just say “Hey, you should go to Shady Sands and ask around ’cause we don’t have any clues as to where to find blah blah blah”?! Then I could have gone there, gotten to know the NPCs, get any side quests, and all that business without dealing with the confusion about finding ropes and the like.

What makes this really confusing to me is that the reason old-school Fallout fans love the first one and hate the third one so much is because of the writing. Fallout 3 had very awful writing, but from the way people described the first game, I was expecting its writing to be spectacular. From what I’ve seen so far, it seems to be on par with most video games; i.e. bad. Not as bad as Fallout 3’s, probably, but certainly not good enough for me to feel emotionally invested.

I think it’s safe to say that Fallout has failed to endear itself to me. I had to consult GameFAQs twice to get myself unstuck and I’m only, what, like 30 minutes into the game?

I’m not about to say that Fallout 3 is better (though I certainly enjoyed it more) because whenever I try to compare the two this is what comes to mind:

Yeah, the games have a sort of similar visual style, and they have similar themes, and the leveling system is practically the same, but the two games feel completely different, and I think it boils down to personal taste more than anything else.

But hey, that doesn’t stop elitist oldbies from saying that Fallout 3 was a pile of garbage and that Fallout 1 was the digital manifestation of Christ, so you can say whatever the hell you’d like, I guess.

Incidentally: If you can think of other “must-play” retro games, feel free to let me know of them. It’s very fun to check these games out and see if they still hold up by today’s standards. Deus Ex ended up being my favorite game, and I had more fun with Half-Life than I’ve had with a lot of modern day shooters lately.


Deus Ex

So a few weeks ago I let Shamus know that I quoted him in my post, and he responded. And I gotta say, I think I actually hyperventilated a bit when I saw that Shamus Young took interest in my own blog post.

I’m quite a fan of Shamus’s blog. I don’t know if I’ve ever given him any praise for this, but he’s played a large part in influencing me and inspiring me to make my own blog. He’s been doing his thing for years now, and he has so many fans that all he had to do was add a donate button to his site to get enough money to pay his bills and fund a trip to PAX. My blog is only four months old, and I’m nowhere near what one might call famous, so I kind of feel like an amateur filmmaker who just got complimented by Christopher Nolan.

</fanboy>

Anyway, so then he said it would be interesting if I wrote a post relating my reactions and impressions to Deus Ex, since I said I just played it last year. I’ve actually been planning on writing a post about Deus Ex for a long time now, but I’ve been putting it off and every once in awhile making failed attempts to write it all this time because I have a lot of good things to say about it and it’s hard to put it all into words.

But I figure that at this point most of you have already heard a lot of great things about the game (and if you haven’t, you could probably just google “Deus Ex review” right now). So I could talk about how the setting and story are amazing, and how the blend of action and RPG is perfect, and how the ending will make you contemplate the nature of humanity, and how it’s so much fun to sneak around in shadows and lightsaber-backstab guards to death like a Jedi ninja, but that’s a lot of effort that would basically go to waste. Instead I’m going to talk about one aspect of Deus Ex that probably affected me more than anyone else, something I found so amazing that it sets Deus Ex apart from any other game I’ve ever played.

There’s something about story-focused games that always bothers the hell out of me, and since I’ve never heard this complaint from anyone else I’m assuming it’s more of a personal problem. In almost all games that have story, the story and the gameplay are always walled off in separate times, and practically in separate worlds. The gameplay is the filler, and the story is the framework. Gameplay is meat, story is bread.

I’ll use two examples to illustrate my point: Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto 4. Both are games that feature good stories, and both of them bothered the hell out of me for the same reason.

Whenever a cutscene starts in GTA 4, you get to learn more about protagonist Niko Bellic and the people he meets. It tells a compelling story and it tells the story well. The dialogue is very well written, and the cinematography and visuals are stylized. You can tell that the cutscene designers of GTA 4 understand the language of cinema. Niko Bellic is a very tragic character and he has some of the strongest character development you’ll ever find in a game.

Then the cutscene ends, and the game changes from “GTA 4: The Tragic Story of a Man Trying to Escape his Past” to “GTA 4: Whiz-Bang Wacky Murdering Fun Times.” It’s hard to empathize with Niko once he’s run over 50 pedestrians on his way to work, and suddenly his character seems a lot less gripping.

Mass Effect and its sequel are both games that bugged me the same way. Both of those games give you a myriad of choices that you can make, but all of those choices are made in dialogue. You’ll enter a cutscene where Shepherd is talking to an NPC, and then a few dialogue options pop up and you pick one or the other. Once you go back into the gameplay, you’re in a consequence-free environment. The enemies and the allies are set in stone and you kill the bad guys to get from point A to point B. Once again, it’s like you’re switching constantly between “Epic Space Adventure with Moral Quandries” and “Epic Shooting Rampage D-Luxe.”

This is a common problem with games; the story and the gameplay should go hand-in-hand, but instead they’re separated like east and west Berlin in the Cold War. It ends up feeling like the gameplay is filler for the story; like I’m watching a movie that has very long and frequent intermissions to let me run around and shoot stuff. Maybe some people like that, but I don’t. I’d like to have the gameplay intertwined with the story.

Which, of course, brings us back to Deus Ex.

I’m going to summarize an early mission in Deus Ex for you. Terrorists have taken several civilians hostage in a subway station. It’s your job to resolve the conflict and then enter the subway train to get to your next mission where your brother (who’s also a secret agent) will brief you on your next mission. There are several ways this can play out, and I’ll summarize the ones I know about:

  • You sneak in through ventilation ducts and kill each of the terrorists without killing the hostages. Then you enter the train and show up on the other side of the city, where your brother will congratulate you on a job well done.
  • You shoot an exploding barrel which causes a chain reaction of explosions that kills the terrorists and the hostages in the station (and you if you’re not standing back). You then enter the train and show up in the next area, where your brother will scold you for being reckless. Then your character counters his argument by saying that the UNATCO regulations clearly state that you can’t let anything stand in the way of your mission, including civilians. Regardless, he’ll tell you to be more careful next time.
  • You sneak past the terrorists and the hostages and get on the train, and arrive in the next area where your brother will ask you why the hell you ignored the situation back there. Your character then says that this mission is more important and that he has his priorities set, and your brother will reluctantly tell you your next mission.

This is just one of the many, many examples of how your actions in-game will affect the story. Yeah, what you do in that sequence won’t change the storyline in the grand scheme of things, but the important part is that it fleshes out your character and makes him more three-dimensional.

But most importantly, it means that the gameplay is no longer filler for the story. The gameplay is the story. The game features no cutscenes (besides the very beginning and the very end) and the only time you lose control of your character is during dialogue, which is pretty much necessary. All of the action occurs in-game, and virtually all of it is avoidable if you play the cards right. And people will treat you very differently depending on what you choose to do during the game. It forces you to think about the ramifications of your in-game actions, instead of just entering no-think mode once the cutscene ends.

This isn’t the only game that’s connected its gameplay and story in such a way. I know there was a point in Call of Duty: World at War in which you had the option to save either your captain or some other person in your team during a firefight, and that made the game feel a bit more fleshed out, I guess. I’m sure there are more examples I could think of if I pondered it more. But I’ve never played a game that’s done it to such a strong degree as Deus Ex.

If it weren’t for the whole gameplay-story integration, I probably would have just considered Deus Ex “good but not great.” Or even “great but not in my top 5.” But because of its innovative approach to storytelling I see it as miles better than any other game I’ve ever played.