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?