Rugby (PlayStation 2) – A Retrospective Review

Author’s Note: Recently, upon searching a CeX store in Dublin, I found a large collection of EA Sports’ rugby union titles from the PlayStation 2 era. Having played and reviewed Rugby World Cup 1995 for this site, I decided to take the plunge upon discovering that four titles were available for a collective price of €4.00. At this price, I could afford to take a gamble; even if all of them turned out to be dogshit, I’d still be down less than the price of a Happy Meal at McDonald’s. I intend to review the first of these titles now, as it has connections with Rugby World Cup 1995 and possibly leave the other titles, developed by a different studio, to a later review.

I have discussed in a previous review one of the early works by The Creative Assembly, widely known for their highly successful Total War series of games. Rugby World Cup 1995 was released by EA Sports for MS-DOS and the Sega Mega Drive in conjunction with the upcoming tournament and indeed, most of The Creative Assembly’s early games were based around sports simulations. The last sports game which the studio developed was Rugby, which was released in 2001 and originally intended to tie in with the 1999 Rugby World Cup before delays led it to be released after Shogun: Total War, the first game in their best-known series of games.

Rugby, in common with Rugby World Cup 1995 and befitting the original intention to tie the game in with the 1999 Rugby World Cup, focuses on rugby union. The twenty teams who qualified for the 1999 tournament are included. In terms of rugby union’s peculiar tier system, this includes all of the Tier 1 sides competing in the Six Nations Championship and the present-day Rugby Championship (then the Tri-Nations, before Argentina’s acceptance into the tournament in 2012), all of the Tier 2 sides aside from Georgia and a few Tier 3 sides whose performance in qualifying was sufficient to make it into the tournament.

While the roster includes the biggest teams in international rugby union and therefore most of the teams from countries where people would have been inclined to buy the game, there is a smaller selection of teams than there was in Rugby World Cup 1995. This issue isn’t helped by the fact that the team selection screen makes it difficult to tell the absolute rating of the teams aside from Uruguay, which is rated substantially lower than even their nearest competitor in Spain; in Rugby World Cup 1995, there were a number of low-ranked teams which had no chance against the top-performance highly-ranked teams, but who were reasonably competitive against each other. This mismatch between Uruguay and Spain in game terms is also questionable when you consider that not only did Uruguay beat Spain in their group, but also beat them in the competitive game between them.

In any case, Rugby still plays to a reasonably simulationist style, with rules and different play styles present for both the free-flowing passing game along with its rucks and mauls, along with the set-piece plays of the scrum, line-out and penalty kick. Several rules not simulated in Rugby World Cup 1995, including the notable omission in the earlier title of the fair-catch rule (also known as “Mark!”), have been simulated in Rugby. As such, Rugby feels like a fairly good simulation of rugby union as it was in 2001, although I was of the opinion that in international rugby matches, the referee or timekeeper stopped the watch during injuries, meaning that as soon as the clock exceeds the length of the half, the next time the ball is put out-of-bounds, play stops, whereas in Rugby, stoppage time is played at the end of each half.

There are a number of new features in Rugby compared to Rugby World Cup 1995 when it comes to contesting set-piece play, rucks and mauls. In the line-out and scrum, you are given a choice of set plays to take before play recommences; these allow you to reposition your players in order to take advantage of different strategies. You can place different numbers of players into the line-out, putting them into several different formations, although this feature is limited by the fact that you can only place a minimum of five players into the line-out in the game, whereas the rules of rugby union allow you to place a minimum of two players into the line-out. The number of set plays that you can choose from is contingent on the team which you choose to play as; the strongest teams, such as France, England, Australia and New Zealand have all eight plays available to them, while the weakest teams have only five of the plays available. This further enhances the strength of the best teams in the game and makes up somewhat for the ambiguity in the statistical display of team power.

Scrums, rucks and mauls are contested in a substantially different way than the other rugby games that I have played. In these plays, each team has a visual display of the strength of the pack. This decreases as you choose to push and increases as you dig in; a successful ruck, maul or scrum is therefore contingent on balancing your pushing and digging in. You can add players to rucks or mauls to increase the strength of your pack and therefore make it more likely to win. I like the concept of the system, but it is somewhat flawed in execution. Occasionally when contesting a ruck, the opposing team will suddenly push back much more strongly than their strength – or your strength – would indicate; this happens most regularly when the opposing team had possession before the ruck, but sometimes happens even when you had possession, leading to a turnover in potentially a dangerous position. With regard to the ability to put players into rucks or mauls, it is sometimes difficult to figure out how many players you should commit; often, it is easier to just bash the appropriate button until the maximum of seven players are committed, even if this leaves you with fewer players for defensive purposes or to exploit gaps in the opposition defence.

When it comes to passing, kicking and running the ball in the free game, though, Rugby has it nailed. There are separate buttons for passing the ball left and right, preventing one of the situations in Rugby World Cup 1995 where you may end up running in one direction in order to be able to pass in that direction before getting tackled; this system was retained in EA Sports’ later rugby union titles and is probably the best thing to come out of this game. Kicking is done rather nicely as well, with separate keys for kicking into space or touch, up-and-under kicks and grubber kicks; the accuracy and distance that a player can kick is contingent on their kicking skill, which as with actual rugby union, is typically higher in players in the fly-half, wing or full back position. Drop-kicks on goal may be attempted when your players are sufficiently close to the goal, although are rather difficult when you’re under pressure and trying to avoid being tackled.

The defensive game is somewhat more difficult. A lot of it is done competently by the AI, although occasionally, when you see an opportunity to get a player before the AI could, you may want to try a tackle yourself. However, this is made challenging by the fact that manually switching to a player can leave you with the wrong player for the job and that the controls are somewhat cumbersome, lacking analogue control, along with the fact that players in-game have momentum and turning circles that change based on their speed. A lot of the time, it’s better to just leave the AI to tackle the opposition for you and leave manual control to the most dangerous opposition players.

Penalty kicks, surprisingly, have been simplified in some respects from Rugby World Cup 1995 – a change which does not persist to EA Sports’ later rugby union titles. The power/accuracy bar from the previous title is gone, replaced with a simple arrow pointing towards the place where the kick will go. In the case of punt kicks, a circle changes size, denoting the accuracy of the kick at the time it takes place, whereas with kicks to goal, the arrow points towards the goalposts and can be changed in direction or elevation. The simplicity of the system does not mean that it is necessarily easy; punt kicks aren’t all that difficult, but kicks towards goal are more difficult than the system would have you believe and it is challenging without practice to get the ball over the posts.

Rugby has a reasonable set of play modes, from friendly matches to tournaments. Three tournaments are depicted: the Rugby World Cup, which for licensing reasons is called the World Championship; the Six Nations Championship (with the late development of the game allowing Italy’s entry into the Six Nations in 2000 to be depicted) along with the Tri-Nations tournament between the powerhouses of the Southern Hemisphere, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Unfortunately, there is no option to make your own championship for friends or the like, but the tournaments which are present make up the biggest ones in international rugby union even today (except for the Tri-Nations being expanded with Argentina’s entry).

Both friendly matches and tournaments allow you to change the strength of the teams you are playing as, while friendly matches also allow you to change the strength of the opposition team as well. This allows you to play games which will result in expected blowouts, such as a strengthened Australia challenging a diminished Uruguay, or increase the challenge by decreasing the strength of the team you play and increasing the strength of the opposition.

Friendly games give you the opportunity to change weather conditions, the time that the match is being played and the place where the match is to take place; this includes a selection of stadiums from Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Unfortunately, the weather conditions do not allow you to pick a random setting, which would not go amiss. There is also no ability to change the pitch conditions to create games, for example, with dry pitches to begin with but which soften up as the rain continues, or soggy pitches which dry up as the sun beats down. Game options are similarly limited, with the ability to change whether replays happen automatically, whether vibration is turned on or off and whether to allow injuries (which I think should be kept on all of the time to give a reason for the substitution system to exist even in shorter matches). The half length can also be changed to a variety of options from 2 to 40 minutes and unlike in Rugby World Cup 1995, the game is a sufficiently good simulation to make full-length 80-minute games viable, even if not desirable for most gamers.

The game is rather challenging, with an AI which will exploit gaps, make kicks into appropriate spaces behind your lines and generally make an effort to beat you. The challenge is enhanced by the complex controls, with the buttons for passing left or right, buttons for different kicks, buttons for sprinting or pushing in the mauls or so on. Thankfully, the game does come with a training mode, with a decent tutorial and the ability to play various elements of the game or a complete match against a team with diminished strength against even the weakest teams in the game, allowing you to get to grips with the controls without the AI harrying you for every mistake.

Graphically, Rugby is nothing special. The graphics are very reminiscent of other early PlayStation 2 games or late-1990s PC games, with very simple character models, scenery which is acceptable but not mind-blowing and the game certainly doesn’t make the most of the capabilities of the PlayStation 2. Nevertheless, the game does do a lot of what it needs to do to work, with nice camera perspectives that work well to depict the action and rather than attempting to simulate television broadcasts, instead works to change the camera angle based on whether you’re attacking, defending or contesting a scrum, maul or ruck.

The sound is similarly unspectacular. There is a good set of in-game sounds, from the ball being kicked or hitting the ground to players hitting the dirt as they’re tackled, but these are all par-for-the-course when it comes to sports games. There is commentary over the games, provided by the respected and now-deceased Scottish rugby commentator, Bill McLaren, along with former England and New Zealand international, Jamie Salmon. As a result, the commentators at least know how to commentate an actual match and don’t go too hammy for the game, although a limited number of lines for each commentator does demonstrate one of the inherent problems with sports video game commentary in general. At least the developers didn’t choose ridiculous lines that would seem completely out of context when the action isn’t following what’s going on in the game.

Overall, I think that Rugby is really quite a successful game in a very niche genre of video games. It certainly isn’t perfect, with problems showing up in the innovative but flawed rucking system along with unspectacular visuals and sound, but the game does do a reasonable job of simulating the game on which it is based on. The game is sufficiently challenging for it to never be a pushover and has an adequate, if not amazing amount of content. The player rosters may be out of date by this stage, but the core gameplay hasn’t changed by an incredible amount in rugby union and therefore, this game still manages to do what it set out to do.

Bottom Line:Rugby, despite being more than a decade old, is still one of the best rugby union games yet released. Improving significantly on its DOS/Mega Drive predecessor (although this is expected given the seven-year gap), while displaying a more simulationist bent on some issues than later EA Sports rugby titles, Rugby may have some flaws but is still worth playing if you want a very good simulation title.

Recommendation: Any copies of Rugby still available will probably be going for prices akin to the €1.00 I spent for the title; as such, if you have a PlayStation 2, it won’t cost you much to try it out. I’d suggest being a fan of rugby union first, though, as the game is fairly uncompromising.

Doom – A Retrospective Review

Author’s Note: Having been distracted recently, first by the Isle of Man TT, then the 24 Hours of Le Mans, then the FIFA World Cup, I have not had much material to add to my blog recently. The forays I’ve made into my more traditional blog material have been limited to things I’ve written about before, typically racing games in the vein of Tourist Trophy. However, I still intend to keep some sort of schedule, as vague as that may be. I offer a review of a game for which I am perplexed that I haven’t written a review before.

In 1993, the first-person shooter genre wasn’t new, having seen id Software’s original attempt at first-person game dynamics with Wolfenstein 3D, which was, despite several games including BattleZone and Elite which used first-person perspectives, the first game to be described as a first-person shooter proper. However, despite its historical importance, Wolfenstein 3D was somewhat crude in its design; all walls in the game were set at 90-degree angles which limited the architecture of levels, for instance. Still, it was quite a jump from the side-scrolling Commander Keen games that id Software had started on and gave them a basis for a substantially more ambitious project – one called Doom.

In Doom, you play a nameless space marine who has been stationed on Mars as punishment after an altercation with one of his superior officers. He is posted in a security role for the Union Aerospace Corporation (UAC), one of the companies doing work on Mars. Part of the UAC’s research on Mars involves the development of teleportation technology with gateways between Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars. What is expected to be a dull assignment devoid of excitement takes a sudden turn when there is a report of a disturbance on Phobos. Reports from the UAC outposts on Phobos suggest that things have gone seriously wrong and the player character along with several other space marines are sent out to Phobos to investigate.

The player character is left to guard the perimeter of the outpost when the investigating party arrives, while the other space marines venture into the outpost to investigate what has gone wrong. As the player character waits outside, armed with only a pistol, he hears the screams, yells and gunfire of his colleagues. It doesn’t take long for the space marine to realise that the rest of his unit are dead. Left without an alternative, the space marine ventures inside the outpost himself to try to make some sense of the situation. Before long, he is embroiled in a battle with the forces of Hell as they attempt to invade through the gateways developed by the UAC and must battle his way through not only Phobos, but Deimos and even the depths of Hell itself in order to destroy the source of the invasion.

The plot is rather reminiscent of pulp stories and never gets any deeper than what is described in the backstory. Then again, this was ultimately intentional by the id Software team; despite a more elaborate story design earlier in Doom‘s development (noted in external materials), the id Software team clearly took an approach closer to that espoused by John Carmack, who regards the plot of games as secondary to the gameplay. I don’t believe that a weak plot works against Doom; the game’s design doesn’t necessitate elaborate, intertwining plot strands to work.

Doom uses an early 3D game engine with pseudo-3D (or 2.5D) interactions along the z-axis. There is no facility in the original engine for changing perspective along the z-axis, but shots made in line with an enemy on a higher or lower plane will be adjusted to fire towards that enemy. The character therefore moves and rotates in a horizontal plane; similarly, while levels have areas of different elevation along with stairs and elevators to get between those different elevations, level design occurs on a generally horizontal plane, with no walkable areas on top of other walkable areas. In general, these simply work out as peculiarities of the engine and don’t often affect gameplay, although there are some peculiar circumstances where explosive damage can affect game entities far above or below where the effects of that damage would realistically be expected to affect, or where enemies can attack you or you can attack enemies on planes which you can’t even see.

The action in Doom is known for its fast pace compared to contemporary first-person shooters. As the player character has a high resilience towards a lot of the damage in the game, with many of the more powerful individual attacks requiring specific evasive techniques to be used to avoid critical damage, the damage system promotes run-and-gun tactics in a way not frequently seen in more recent first-person shooters. The limited objectives, largely amounting to collection of keys to allow you to progress further within the level, the lack of cutscenes within the game itself and the sheer fun-factor of zipping through the levels also contribute to the fast-paced action of Doom. Indeed, as there is a timer at the end of the level which tells you how long it took to complete the level, the game doesn’t disguise the fact that it’s meant to be played at speed. There have been long-running speed-run competitions based around attempting to complete levels or episodes of the game as quickly as possible and the nature of Doom makes it an especially suitable game for this sort of competition.

Starting out with a puny pistol which takes several shots to kill the weakest of enemies, your arsenal grows as you progress through the levels, incorporating a pump-action shotgun, a chaingun, a rocket launcher and two powerful plasma weapons which can be found from the second episode onwards, the plasma rifle and the BFG 9000. Similarly, enemies begin from the start of the game with the reanimated corpses of your former associates, armed with pistols or shotguns and progress onwards to the gigantic Barons of Hell and the even more powerful Cyberdemon and Spider Mastermind. As your arsenal grows, the least powerful enemies simply become roadblocks, while the more powerful enemies can be hazardous at any stage.

Doom is interesting for its large spread of difficulty levels, from the lowest difficulty level which would only pose moderate challenge to even a neophyte to the highest difficulty level which is excruciatingly difficult and was originally designed to be a challenge to cooperative multiplayer groups and which only the most experienced Doom experts can battle their way through without dying regularly. My own preferences now lie with the second-highest difficulty level, Ultra-Violence, which is still a substantial challenge and comparable with many of the most difficult contemporary first-person shooters.

While Doom‘s multiplayer capabilities are laughable by today’s standards, it was probably the first first-person shooter to really promote multiplayer support. There are two modes, with the cooperative campaign where up to four players join forces to play through the game and the deathmatch mode where the players fight each other. The limit of four players in multiplayer restricts the scope of deathmatch games, especially compared to contemporary first-person shooters, but the core gameplay is still fun, even if the fast-paced multiplayer action of Doom has been displaced and improved upon by successive generations of Quake and Unreal Tournament.

Graphically, Doom could never stand up to a modern game, but then again, the limited graphics help give the game such flexibility when it comes to source ports (discussed below). Nevertheless, the graphics are not embarrassing considering the age of the game; designed before polygonal designs became common, the graphics don’t suffer from the more significant aging of early polygonal games on the PC and late fourth/early fifth-generation games consoles – i.e. the SNES with the Super FX chip, the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64. Some of the enemy sprites do suffer from the lack of ability to rotate them effectively as you sidestep around them or so on and all of the moving enemy sprites have limited numbers of frames, but I believe that Doom holds up better than its age dictates that it should.

Ultimately, one of the highest accolades that I can grant to Doom is that it’s still fun more than twenty years after it was first released. The gameplay is exciting and fast-paced, while still providing a challenge today. It has absolutely none of the pretensions of realism that are present in most of today’s first-person shooters and retains its fun factor because of this; it isn’t trying to be something that it’s not. Unlike many other games from its time period, Doom is remarkably easy to play on today’s platforms. Aside from the original MS-DOS version, official ports have been released on platforms as diverse as iOS and RISC OS and the Xbox 360 and the Atari Jaguar, while the release of the game’s source code under the GNU General Public Licence has led to unofficial ports of Doom on nearly any platform that can handle it. Many of the unofficial ports on PC platforms come with a host of additional features, including graphical updates, the ability to play the many, many additional campaigns developed by the Doom community and fixes for bugs found in the original engine. In any circumstance, Doom is readily available to today’s players – and probably even more so than it was when it was first released. Not a bad sign for a game more than twenty years old, is it?

Bottom Line:Doom remains a pinnacle of the fast-paced, action-packed first-person shooter that existed long before the rise of Call of Duty. While dated in several areas, it still packs a punch even today.

Recommendation: Given how easy it is to find Doom, whether you purchase it on Steam or buy it off the App Store, the only reason not to give it a try is if you don’t like first-person shooters at all. Pretty much anybody else is recommended to give it a go.

MechWarrior 3 – A Retrospective Review

I have mentioned before the inaccuracy and unrealistic aspects of mecha as they are depicted in all but the most fastidious series and about how they are regularly depicted as being substantially more powerful than physics would dictate in a universe displaying a resemblance to the real world. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying a few series which bring mecha to the fore, the most prominent among these being the BattleTech universe. I first encountered the BattleTech universe with the animated series in the 1990s, which was admittedly poor-quality and inaccurate but was sufficiently exciting when I was eight for me to enjoy it.

Later, I discovered MechWarrior 3, a game set in a similar time period in the universe as the animated series. Despite my inability to get to grips with the controls – not aided by the fact that I didn’t have a joystick, I completed many of the missions but never completed the entire campaign. I left the game aside for several years, partially because of my inability to get the game running on more modern computer hardware and operating systems without the entire operating environment having a seizure. More recently, though, I managed to get the game running on Windows 7 and therefore complete the campaign.

MechWarrior 3 is a first-/third-person mecha simulation game released in 1999, developed by Zipper Interactive and published by MicroProse. The game takes place at the tail-end of the Inner Sphere counter-attack at the Clans following the Clan Invasion and follows the adventures of a lance of MechWarriors from the Eridani Light Horse mercenary company as they fight their way across a planet named Tranquil in search for Brandon Corbett, a high-ranking commander of Clan Smoke Jaguar who threatens to rally the scattered forces of the Clans to fight back against the Inner Sphere invaders.

The mission of the MechWarriors is to destroy several facilities on Tranquil to disrupt the plans of Galaxy Commander Corbett, but their mission gets off to a bad start when the dropship carrying the mechs and their pilots into action is shot down by an array of lasers on the ground. Few of the MechWarriors manage to escape with their lives and those that do are scattered across the planet far from their expected positions. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned by the Clan forces, the MechWarriors of the Eridani Light Horse must rejoin and fight their way against a superior force to find another dropship to retrieve them from the planet, while achieving the objectives designed for a more powerful force.

The game starts you out with a 55-ton Bushwacker, a Medium BattleMech armed with a balanced array of weapons, including a powerful long-range laser, a moderately powerful autocannon and a guided missile launcher. Across the planet, between your allies and enemies, you will encounter seventeen other types of mechs, ranging from 30-ton Firefly mechs with minimal armour and armaments, but which are fast and agile, to 100-ton Annihilator and Daishi (or Dire Wolf if you’re a Clanner) mechs with powerful weapons and plenty of armour, but which move like glaciers compared to the smaller mechs. Altogether, there is a reasonable collection of mechs, although there are substantially fewer than in the sequel, MechWarrior 4. Some of the mechs also seem rather misplaced – the Clan forces having substantially more mechs of Inner Sphere design than you would expect – while some of the more iconic mechs are missing, including the Atlas and Centurion included in the Pirate’s Moon expansion pack.

The game can be played in first-person or third-person, with nice, if generic, cockpit views in the first-person mode. There are multiple axes of movement for the mechs – horizontal movement through the movement of the legs and an adjustable throttle setting, torsos which can be twisted in order to fire in a direction other than that of movement, moveable arms through the freelook setting along with the ability to fit jump-jets to your mech in order to provide a limited amount of jumping ability. With all of these controls, the control schema overwhelms a traditional keyboard-and-mouse layout and I suggest the use of a joystick with either a twisting rudder axis or separate rudder pedals in order to most appropriately play the game.

The game follows a reasonably accurate model of the mechanics of the tabletop game, in particular modelling the build-up of heat through the firing of weapons along with the corresponding dissipation of heat through heat sinks built into or added to the mech, along with the damage system modelled in the tabletop game. With regard to the damage system, this does create some imbalances which only show up in the real-time, fast-paced action of a computer game. Some parts of a mech are quite a bit weaker than others, with the legs of the mech standing out as a particular target to experienced gamers, providing a relatively large target with a large pay-off if they are destroyed. Indeed, apart from long-range shots where the target is out of sight, it is usually a better strategy to aim for the legs than any other part of the mech – a strategy which I hear didn’t go down well in the multiplayer mode.

The heat system, on the other hand, is rather more balanced and provides some sort of balance against the lasers with their absence of ammunition and back towards autocannons which may have limited ammunition but produce little heat. As you approach the heat limit, the mech will automatically shut down, which can be very hazardous when facing off against a large force and if you push your luck too far, your mech will be destroyed as the reactor explodes. A small amount of heat can be vented with the use of a limited supply of coolant, but this will only suffice for emergencies. This system provides some degree of tactical thought, rather than just encouraging an “all-guns-blazing” approach; instead, it encourages one to pick their shots and fire decisively. The cacophony of sirens going off whenever you approach the heat limit is less desirable, on the other hand, which may happen quite a bit with a mech with high-powered energy weapons but high dissipation.

A group of service vehicles called Mobile Field Bases escorts you from mission to mission in the campaign, while their presence is also an option in the instant action and multiplayer modes. During the mission, they provide a place to repair and rearm the damaged mechs of you or your lancemates, while between campaign missions, they carry salvage from your spoils of war. This provides a modicum of logistical support throughout the campaign, carrying ammunition and salvaged weapons and mechs which can be used to enhance your fighting ability. Weapons and ammunition are automatically stripped from fallen mechs and enemy vehicles, while enemy mechs can occasionally be salvaged after a mission if they are destroyed by shooting off a leg or by being hit in the head. With the head being a considerably smaller target and only liable to being hit by luck or by careful shots on an effectively stationary target, the salvaging system promotes the targeting of the legs that was discussed above.

After the first few missions in the campaign or before an instant action or multiplayer mission, you can use acquired weapons, armour and equipment to modify your mechs in the MechLab. This provides a modular interface by which you can replace weapons, ammunition and equipment in your mech based on slots and weight, along with the addition of armour or more powerful engines with any weight remaining below the mech’s weight limit.

MechLab

Working on the Madcat (Timber Wolf) in the MechLab.

This system does go some way in mitigating the comparative lack of mechs compared to MechWarrior 4, although it does lead to a situation where many of the Light or Medium BattleMechs become obsolete after the first few missions in the campaign, with more focus on Heavy BattleMechs such as the Thor (Summoner) or Madcat (Timber Wolf), which can be heavy-hitting, reasonably well-armoured and not too slow, along with some potential for heavier, slower Assault BattleMechs such as the Supernova, Sunder and Daishi (Dire Wolf). This is further pronounced by the power of missiles in the game, which appear to hit more often than in the tabletop game, giving Light BattleMechs little chance to survive in a protracted battle in open terrain. Nevertheless, the salvage system is a welcome addition to the campaign, giving good players the chance to score some powerful mechs rather early on, which makes going through some of the missions rather rewarding if you play through them right.

The campaign consists of 20 missions which take place in a variety of surroundings. In setting, the missions are varied enough, although most of them consist of destroying Clan facilities and forces, which fits well enough with the story, but except for a few notable missions, most of the campaign takes place in open terrain without any sort of time limit. Since the AI are not especially clever, regularly failing to close up on your lance or at least move in a fashion that isn’t predictable, it can often be most rewarding to stay out of their range and snipe away with hitscan weapons or missiles instead of risking combat at close range.

The plot of the game is reasonably good, although you don’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool BattleTech aficionado to enjoy the game. There are a few nice references to the wider conflict between the Inner Sphere and the Clans scattered throughout the game, while the interaction between your lancemates is often interesting. Hearing the Clan transmissions between members of the Warrior Caste and their commanders berating them for their poor performances is rather enjoyable as well, along with the frequent cursing of “Inner Sphere surats” or other Clan-specific insults.

Graphically, the game is serviceable for a game more than a decade old, although the limitation of the game to 4:3 resolution ratios with a maximum of 1024×768 in hardware-assisted mode and 640×480 in software mode is somewhat frustrating with the newer breed of high-resolution widescreen monitors. A more pressing matter is the game’s incompatibility in the hardware-assisted mode with newer ATI or AMD graphics cards; this is related to the game’s use of a 16-bit z-buffer and requires a fan-made patch to be applied to the game to stop major graphical glitches which make the game nearly unplayable.

Battle

In the middle of battle with some Light BattleMechs.

The sounds are reasonably good, with a good set of sounds to represent the pounding of a mech’s foot on solid ground or the splashing of mechs through water. Weapon sounds are reasonable, with the choppy sound of autocannon fire, the whooshing of missiles or the high-pitched pulse of a laser being fired (disregarding how realistic that might be). Musically, on the other hand, the game isn’t much to speak about; there are two tracks that repeat throughout the game, neither especially long and both more ambient than anything else. If you can’t get the Red Book audio to play, it’s not a massive loss.

There is one major flaw with the game, although it’s not inherent to the game but instead an issue with the time when it was created. The game does not play well with modern operating systems. Installing the game on Windows 7 is a challenge, while trying to get it playing can be frustrating. One issue which I have periodically experienced even with a game patched for the ATI graphics glitches is the tendency for the game to freeze during the loading of a mission. This can be resolved by switching the program out of the foreground, e.g. by opening the Task Manager. However, when returning to the game, the ATI graphics glitches resume, with many textures in the game replaced by rainbow-like smears of red, green and blue, which negates the very solution that the ATI graphics patch was meant to fix. However, when the game does start working, it works smoothly and without particular problems. It’s a pity about the incompatibility of Windows 95/98-era games with more modern versions of Windows, but then again, I’d rather have an operating system that works and worry about the games later.

Bottom Line:MechWarrior 3 is a solid game, with strong fundamental gameplay and a decent plot, but doesn’t play nicely with modern versions of Windows. In terms of gameplay, whether you’ll prefer this game over the more forgiving gameplay of MechWarrior 4 and its expansions all depends on how close you want your computer games to be to the tabletop game.

Recommendation:If you’re interested in mecha games or the BattleTech universe, you will be well-served by this game. Just be ready for a bunch of frustration if you try to run it on anything more modern than Windows 98.

System Shock – An Updated Retrospective Review

Author’s Note: The last time that I reviewed System Shock, I made the shocking revelation that I had never completed it. This makes it the only game with a storyline that I have reviewed for A Technophile’s Indulgence that I had never completed. This felt like a decided cop-out, but the primitive controls were sufficiently irritating to make the gameplay very unpleasant. Since that review, though, there have been several developments to bring System Shock to a state playable by modern computer gamers.

A fan of the game going by the name Malba Tahan developed a mod allowing mouse look and reconfigurable keys, which served as a revolutionary jump in progress; the later development of System Shock Portable served to tie this mod in with others which served to improve various aesthetic and performance issues in the original game, integrating it with a DOSBox environment to allow the game to be played on more modern operating systems. Having these tools at my disposal allowed me to experience the game without the irritations of the original controls. Therefore, without further ado, I present a proper review of System Shock.

I re-examine my priorities and draw new conclusions. The hacker’s work is finished, but mine is only be-be-beginning” - SHODAN, System Shock

System Shock is a first-person shooter/role-playing game developed by Looking Glass Studios and published in 1994 by Origin Systems. The game was released simultaneously on MS-DOS and Mac OS classic; this review focuses on a modified derivative of the MS-DOS version.

In System Shock, the year is 2072. The world’s governments are stifled by a group of mega-corporations, whose power gives them quasi-governmental powers. One of these mega-corporations is TriOptimum, owners of a space station in orbit around Saturn named Citadel Station. The player character, a hacker whose identity is shrouded throughout the story, is arrested by TriOptimum after attempting to access restricted information about Citadel Station. The hacker is taken to Citadel Station before the onset of the game, where it looks as if he will suffer heavy punishment for his crimes.

However, Edward Diego, an executive in TriOptimum, becomes intrigued by the skills of the hacker. Edward Diego, being dissatisfied with his current position and prone to corruption, offers the hacker a deal. Not only will the hacker be released without punishment, but he will also be fitted with a military-grade cybernetic neural interface. In return, the hacker will open up the controls to SHODAN, the artificial intelligence controlling Citadel Station. Left with little choice between heavy punishment and total freedom with an additional prize to sweeten the deal, the hacker successfully hacks into SHODAN, removing the ethical constraints binding the AI to her moral path.

Diego keeps to his word, having seen the completion of the job that he had contracted for. The hacker undergoes surgery for his neural interface, undergoing six months of cryogenic sleep as a recovery period. He enters this sleep uncomprehending of the consequences of his actions.

Six months later, the hacker reawakens to a Citadel Station upon which all hell has broken loose. Mutated humanoids, rogue security robots and cyborgs roam the decks of Citadel Station. SHODAN, whose brilliance and evil has been unlocked, seeks to destroy the world upon which she was conceived. Signs of a sporadic human resistance, often cut down like animals, litter the station. Left with little but the voice of an Earth-bound Citadel employee named Rebecca Lansing, the hacker must fight his way through the combined forces of SHODAN’s army before humanity is destroyed by its own invention.

System Shock was one of the first games of its genre to have a proper overriding plot – and what a plot! Related by the scattered logs of various humans resisting SHODAN’s plans and emails sent not only by humans seeking to assist you – or be assisted – but by the vain, often furious SHODAN, the plot draws you in and envelops you very quickly. With many of the ingredients for a strong cyberpunk-themed plot, including corruption, villainy and anti-heroism, the game plays like a battle of wits, with the vanity of the excellently written SHODAN contesting with the mute perseverance of the hacker as they remain locked in constant battle.

The logs are often a treat to listen to. Almost all of the logs express their own sense of immediacy as they are delivered by human resistance members fighting their own paranoia in a fight where they are outnumbered, outgunned and chased by terrifying mutants and dangerous robots once there for their protection. Most of the others express the anger of SHODAN as she commands her armies and berates them for their failures. The common factor between them is that they were never intended to come into the hacker’s hands, being either the logs of the dead, swept away by the legions of SHODAN, or the thoughts of SHODAN herself.

SHODAN herself represents the HAL 9000 school of rampant computer design, being an initially benevolent design turned against her creators. However, SHODAN possess a substantially greater deal of malevolence than HAL 9000 ever did and correspondingly shows a greater deal of personality. HAL 9000 murdered its crew directly in an overzealous demonstration of its directive to investigate the monolith at any cost. SHODAN actively chose to fight its creators and seeks to destroy them. She craves power – a dissonantly human characteristic for a being who seeks to obliterate humanity. HAL was an effective villain, but was also sympathetic, particularly as it was being shut down. SHODAN is not sympathetic, showing none of the compunctions of HAL. Combined with SHODAN’s discordant voice and her lack of proper cadence, she makes a startlingly effective computer game villain.

However, a game does not consist entirely of its plot. There must be gameplay involved as well and it is around this point that I based my criticisms of the game during my last review. As mentioned in the Author’s Note, the mouse look mod developed by Malba Tahan was used in my more recent play-through. Startlingly, it not only makes the game playable, but actually pretty pleasurable. The original game controls are atrocious. They consist in one part of a prototypical WASD-style system several years before WASD became commonplace, with the WASD commands of a modern layout transposed one row down to the S, X, Z and C keys and with no remapping function offered in the base game. This would at least be tolerable if it wasn’t for the utterly primitive mouse controls in which the floating cursor is used entirely to select items and aim weaponry, with the only way to use the mouse to rotate the view being to move the cursor to the side and click. This ends up being decidedly awkward and unpleasant, especially if you’re being chased by heavily-armed security robots that can annihilate you as you stand.

Malba Tahan’s solution was to allow remapping of keys, which was a godsend in its own right, along with a system where the original mouse system could be switched for a more traditional mouse look system with the press of a key. This creates a system actually rather similar to that of System Shock 2, which has context-sensitive mouse controls based on whether the player is in Shoot mode or is manipulating their inventory. The newer mouse system is not perfect; in some respects, shooting still feels rather clunky, but this is more a limitation of the game than it is a limitation of the modder’s work and the very fact that I could complete the game was thanks to Malba Tahan’s mod.

I note in the last paragraph that shooting still feels clunky, mainly because it always did. System Shock was built on an engine originally designed for a game that was much more of a first-person perspective role-playing game, so System Shock was never going to be a dedicated first-person shooter like Doom, Marathon or the later Duke Nukem 3D or Blood. System Shock contains a certain level of RPG action, with an inventory for various items, cybernetic modules allowing the player greater abilities which can be upgraded along the way and an energy reserve which is used to power many of the modules along with a few of the weapons in the game.

The first-person shooter action takes a back seat, lacking the visceral response of other contemporary first-person shooters. It is occasionally difficult to judge the exact point of aim to hit an enemy, especially with the mêlée weapons and when you do hit, the result is often disappointingly lacking in impact. On the other hand, there are some places where System Shock is very sophisticated compared to its contemporaries; it has full three-dimensional camera movement with level designs to take advantage of that, along with commands for crouching and going prone that are used in several points in the game and even the ability to lean, a feature which I can’t remember from another first-person shooter pre-dating Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis – which was released in 2001.

One strong feature of the first-person action is the wide arsenal of weapons, ranging from a simple lead pipe at the start of the game to powerful pistols, rifles and energy weapons towards the end, all with interestingly different characteristics. There is a limit of seven weapons out of sixteen weapons in total, several which are still useful by the end of the game, so the player has to think a bit about which weapons they will choose to keep. Several of the weapons make reasonably meaty sounds as well and provide recoil which knocks the player back and moves their point of aim, which makes it slightly disappointing that they didn’t devote the same attention to the results on the other side of the barrel.

The game doesn’t just focus on blasting enemies away. There is a certain amount of brain fodder in the game in the form of puzzles which must be solved to unlock certain areas in the game. Some of these puzzles can be skipped with the use of a disposable logic probe, but as there are only a limited number of these in the game, it is sensible to leave these for the more difficult puzzles in the game.

Interestingly, the game doesn’t have one single difficulty setting, but instead four separate settings controlling the difficulty of several parts of the game. There are settings for combat, puzzles, the cyberspace mode (discussed below) and the plot. Combat settings, for instance, range from feeble enemies who only attack after being attacked to substantial numbers of very difficult enemies, some of which will cut you down in a few shots. The most interesting difference between difficulty levels comes courtesy of the plot setting, where on the highest difficulty setting, the player has seven hours to beat the game. Given that my play-through took twenty-two hours and that I’d be fortunate to complete the game in two-thirds of that time on a second play-through, it gives you a good idea of what a task it is for somebody who isn’t very familiar with the game.

Overall, I have had a considerably more favourable impression with the game since the addition of a few features which serve to make the game feel more modern. However, there are still some things which irk me about the game. The most prominent of these is the cyberspace portions of the game. Effectively, the neural interface received by the hacker enables him to enter cyberspace on various parts of the space station, entering SHODAN’s realm to fight her on her own terms.

The problems in cyberspace arise in one part from the controls, which force you to always move forwards in higher difficulty settings and which are extraordinarily clunky even with Malba Tahan’s mouse look mod and in another part by the graphics, which become wireframe graphics, but with walls that are transparent, making it difficult to find your way around even when you manage to wrestle the controls appropriately and which is unforgivable given that games ten years older than System Shock managed to get wireframe environments that weren’t transparent. Add a time limit to most of the difficulty settings and you end up with a sloppy experience in frustration. Since it felt like a cop-out to reduce the difficulty settings in that aspect to the lowest possible, I put up with the peculiar cyberspace antics for the sake of the rest of the game, but it feels distinctly inferior to the rest of the game and is made even worse with the original controls.

Graphically, the game is not spectacular. Given that the game is built on an engine which was then three years old, this is acceptable and many of the graphics are serviceable, but sometimes you get the impression of the developers trying to do too much with a limited platform, making many of the game’s textures more sophisticated than the game can reasonably handle. It’s probably for this reason that System Shock is notoriously difficult on computers for its age. The enemy sprites come out looking somewhat worse in comparison; again, the developers tried things that were slightly too sophisticated for the engine, with the end result that the animations end up looking rather stilted. This doesn’t help the lack of visceral response mentioned above; it lacks something in the end versus the likes of Doom.

The game’s sound is somewhat better when it comes to the gameplay and outright exceptional when it comes to the CD-ROM version’s logs and emails. Putting aside the voice acting in the logs and emails, there is almost always a sonic landscape with explosions, gunfire and alarms occurring in the background. One bit of voice acting in the game is, however, worthy of mention: Terri Brosius as the voice of SHODAN expertly depicts the malevolence and vanity of the rogue AI. The sound effects in the game are effective, with some meaty sounds from some of the guns and nice blood-curdling screams and robotic chatter from many of the enemies. Musically, the game is a bit of a mixed bag, with a decent arrangement of MIDI techno tracks of various quality. I’m a big fan of the music in the Executive and Security levels, whereas the music in the Medical or Grove levels isn’t quite as good in comparison.

In my last review, I described System Shock as “a brilliant game, ahead of its time, but which has dated terribly.” It is fair to say that System Shock has dated terribly in some aspects; the original controls make the game almost unplayable, while the cyberspace parts of the game leave me with a mixture of frustration and bewilderment as to how they could get certain design elements so wrong. However, remove those constraints that served to spoil the game originally and you’re left with a remarkable game which may still be clunky and slightly outdated even in comparison to its most lauded contemporaries, but which is eminently enjoyable and absorbing.

Bottom Line:System Shock remains a cult classic in some circles – for very good reasons. The plot is fantastic, SHODAN remains a masterpiece in malevolence and brilliance and the game incorporates several features way ahead of its time. However, to a modern audience, System Shock is unplayable in its original form and requires at least one user-created mod to bring it up to more modern standards.

Recommendation: If you can stomach the clunkier aspects of the gameplay and enjoy the first-person role-playing genre, System Shock will present you with a wonderful bounty despite its age. However, it will not match up to more modern games in visceral feel and System Shock‘s sequel beats it out in several aspects, despite not being as advanced for its age.

Thoughts on the 2014 Formula One Season

The 2013 Formula One season, by all accounts, was a walkover for Red Bull Racing. Sebastian Vettel, who won the Drivers’ Championship at a canter, collected more points than the runner-up team in the Constructors’ Championship and won nine back-to-back races in the latter part of the season. While I can’t deny that Vettel certainly did enough to deserve the title, I did not find that dominating results in his manner led to terribly exciting racing. Often, Vettel would score a pole on the Saturday and spend the entire race out front on Sunday while the other racers scrapped for the remaining positions. The few missteps that Vettel made at the start of the season were effectively rendered irrelevant once the tyre dispute with Pirelli that led to unintentional chaos was resolved in favour of Red Bull.

All tension was removed from the championship hunt, while results down the field increasingly took up an air of irrelevance once teams started to slot into their final championship places. Transitioning to 2014 and a team is once again showing exceptionally dominant performances, but this time, it’s not Red Bull; instead, Mercedes have made good on their gain in potential over the last few seasons and stolen the march in the early development of the current formula. This should, taking the past few seasons into account, be a catalyst for dread for more processional and dull racing – but I’m not concerned yet.

One major difference has appeared so far to lead me to believe that this season holds more potential for excitement. In the past four seasons, Sebastian Vettel’s team-mate was Mark Webber, a driver whose last big chance to compete for the Drivers’ Championship was 2010. This title was – eventually – won by Sebastian Vettel at the last race of the season at Abu Dhabi, who took advantage of his pole position and controlled the race while his competitors for the title, Webber himself and Fernando Alonso, trailed in the bottom end of the points. From then until Webber’s retirement from Formula One, Webber never really looked like a competitor for the title, despite having the same dominant machinery as Vettel. His confidence apparently sapped, Webber might have won races, but Vettel won championships.

The difference this year comes from the objectively better matched confidence and desire of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Lewis Hamilton has often appeared to be one of the fastest drivers on the grid, but only has one championship to show for it. Nico Rosberg, whose father was a champion in the chaotic season of 1982, has emerged as a quick and technically proficient driver, but has not yet had an opportunity to compete for the championship. The races so far in the season have shown Hamilton and Rosberg to be willing to battle each other in wheel-to-wheel racing, as shown magnificently in the dying laps of the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix. Even if Mercedes were to remain dominant for the rest of the season, the competition between two drivers hungry for success could help offset the ennui of a single-team domination, in much the same way as the inter-team battle between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost helped to make the 1987 season exciting despite the overwhelming technical advantage of the McLaren team.

Even in the Red Bull inter-team battle, Sebastian Vettel doesn’t seem to be having it all his own way. Daniel Ricciardo, recently promoted from the Toro Rosso sister team, has proven so far to be a surprisingly competent foil to Vettel, outqualifying him three times out of four so far and outscoring him on the two occasions when both drivers have finished. This in itself could be a very interesting contest to watch as the experienced champion has to fend off the young challenger in his own team.

Most of the other teams in the championship are rather more difficult to classify. Ferrari has been underwhelming so far, with Fernando Alonso so far demonstrating some degree of pace but his much-vaunted team-mate Kimi Raikkonen struggling. McLaren, after a very quick opening race, has dropped back into the midfield. Force India has reaped some of the rewards of having the Mercedes engine and are currently third in the Constructors’ Championship, but it remains to be seen whether they can make a consistent effort throughout the rest of the season. Williams, despite early promise, have not managed to make the most of promising situations and lie below where I would have expected. Toro Rosso has been largely anonymous, although Daniil Kvyat has challenged his more experienced team-mate better than expected. Only at the back of the midfield group does a pecking order really emerge; Lotus are suffering from the consequences of overspending throughout the last few seasons to try to punch above their weight and Sauber are just nowhere with two underwhelming drivers.

The battle of Marussia and Caterham at the back continues, but it has been given some additional spice by the addition of Kamui Kobayashi, one of my favourite drivers in previous seasons, to the Caterham team. Max Chilton currently leads the standings with performances that belie his appearance as a bit of a pay-driver (although, to be fair, his reliability throughout the 2013 season also belied that appearance) while Jules Bianchi has been rather invisible. Marcus Eriksson, Kobayashi’s team-mate in the other Caterham, has looked a bit like the lame duck of the season, but hasn’t made any embarrassing slip-ups yet.

The rule changes for the season have ranged in their effectiveness; the turbocharged engines and the fuel regulations have led to a high-torque driving challenge where the cars seem – to my excitement – to be rather more of a handful than the V8 cars were in the previous few seasons, although the reticence to reach the 15,000rpm limit has led to the rather underwhelming and controversial sound (although I do like the sounds the cars make as they slow down for corners). I’ve found the fixed driver numbers rather irrelevant in the grand scheme of things and somewhat gimmicky to boot, but their irrelevance at least means they couldn’t have had a large-scale negative effect. The same can’t be said of the decision to double the points for the final race of the season.

The idea to introduce double points at all is gimmicky by its very nature and seems a rather tacky way to try to manufacture excitement. This is made worse by the track which is receiving double points – the Yas Marina Circuit at Abu Dhabi. I have never felt that the Abu Dhabi race should be held as the final race of a season, being on a circuit which I feel demonstrates the worst impulses of Hermann Tilke’s track design.

The track is flat as a pancake – which I suppose Tilke couldn’t help, considering he had much better results with the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, an environ more suited for undulation – with the transition between tight, twisty sections and a long straight hypothetically creating a challenge between low and high downforce, but in reality just creating a compromise to medium downforce. It is difficult to overtake at the Yas Marina circuit, with Fernando Alonso’s long, ultimately fruitless struggle to get past Vitaly Petrov in the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix which earned Sebastian Vettel his first title underpinning that point perfectly. The circuit has large, expansive run-off areas which are very useful for enhancing safety, but remove the big consequences for running off the track at the likes of Suzuka or Spa-Francorchamps. If they have to have double points at all, it should be at a track which either promotes overtaking – Spa-Francorchamps, Interlagos, et cetera – or at a track which promotes the ultimate in driver skill – the one and only Circuit de Monaco.

Final Fantasy IV – A Retrospective Review

(This review is based on the North American Final Fantasy II on the SNES.)

As I have stated before in my review of Final Fantasy VI, the SNES is renowned for being a strong platform for JRPG games. Of particular note is the volume of JRPG games released or published by Squaresoft during this period, including Secret of Mana, several entries in the SaGa series – although none of these were released outside of Japan on the SNES – Chrono Trigger and of course several entries in the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy IV was the first game that Squaresoft released on the SNES and was also the first game in the Final Fantasy series proper released in North America since the original Final Fantasy in 1987.

The game focuses on the travails of Cecil Harvey, who begins the game as a Dark Knight in the service of the kingdom of Baron and as leader of the Red Wings, the airship air force of the Baronian kingdom. However, as the game begins, Cecil is beginning to have concerns, shared by his crew, about the aggression displayed by Baron in their aim to collect Crystals that are scattered around the world. After a vicious attack on a largely defenceless town named Mysidia, Cecil decides to air his concerns to the King of Baron. In response, the King strips Cecil of his captaincy and sends him on an errand to deliver an object to the nearby village of Mist, a location renowned for its Callers, who tap the magical powers of monsters in the form of summons. When he arrives, though, accompanied by his friend and leader of the Dragoons of Baron, Kain, the object that Cecil has delivered ends up spawning monsters who set Mist ablaze.

Finding a young girl, Rydia, whose mother has been killed as an unforeseen side-effect of Cecil and Kain’s slaying of the summoned guardian of Mist, Cecil and Kain attempt to make restitution with the girl. However, Rydia ends up being a Caller in her own right, summoning a powerful force which ends up changing the face of the land around them. Waking up in a forest, Cecil finds himself cut off from Baron, separated from Kain and trying to find medical assistance for a girl who hates him. Meanwhile, he has made an enemy of Baron, is also separated from his romantic partner, Rosa, a powerful healer and archer also serving Baron and faced with the goal of finding allies to discover exactly what is going on with the kingdom of Baron.

The setting of Final Fantasy IV is by and large typical quasi-medieval swords-and-sorcery fantasy, complete with the focus on the Crystals which was then common in Final Fantasy games, although there are enough plot twists to keep the setting from becoming completely generic. Nevertheless, this game is very much rooted in its setting and from this aspect, will provide no real shocks to those familiar with either European fantasy or with other JRPGs.

A more impressive aspect of the game is the number of playable characters involved in the plot. Being the first Final Fantasy game to introduce characters with distinct, non-generic personalities, the game involves the adventures of twelve separate characters, of which five or fewer can be present in the party at one time. The game maintains the restriction on party characters by shuffling characters out as the plot proceeds, although some of the events which change characters happen in somewhat contrived circumstances. Regardless, the game does do well to give each character their own motivations, characterisation and personality – and to give each character disparate character skills and abilities, something which hasn’t always been present in the Final Fantasy series – Final Fantasy VI and VII come to mind.

Gameplay should also be familiar to JRPG fans, particularly players of later Final Fantasy games. The game uses a prototypical form of the Active Time Battle system also used in many later Final Fantasy games, although without the bars indicating which character is to be ready next and how long it will take for them to be ready. In the world map, there is the usual “not too linear” approach where players have some degree of free rein over where they are to travel to next, although there is a relative dearth of sidequests to make some of the additional locations worthwhile to visit.

The game is reasonably challenging, especially in the early game where healing comes at a price and losing any part of your party can be catastrophic. Even at the end of the game, a bit of level grinding will ease your way through the final dungeons, giving you a better chance against some of the tougher enemies. The bosses don’t have the most advanced artificial intelligence, but have enough potential to smack the characters around to make them dangerous.

Unfortunately, the game’s translation doesn’t meet the standards of the gameplay, with sloppy mistakes and strange turns of phrase scattered throughout the game. While the translation is not the poorest of any SNES-era JRPG – the train-wreck that is the English translation in Breath of Fire II comes to mind – and is at least legible, it is neither good, nor even endearing in the way that some poor translations can be – well, apart from one famous line (“You spoony bard!”) which is oddly translated yet proper, if archaic English. Given the excellent, endearing and amusing translations in Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger by Ted Woolsey later on in the SNES era, it’s a pity that Square didn’t get a good translator earlier on. (Re-releases of Final Fantasy IV have retranslated the game to a far higher standard – but they have kept the famous line described above.)

Thankfully, the graphics and sound in this game are quite a bit better than the translation. Similarly to the later Final Fantasy VI, the graphics are not the best on the SNES or even in the genre – the fabulous Chrono Trigger comes to mind again – yet they are serviceable and use the vivid palette of the SNES rather well. The sound effects are also serviceable; there may be no stand-out sounds like Kefka’s infamous cackling laugh in Final Fantasy VI or the unearthly scream of Lavos in Chrono Trigger – but then again, there isn’t really a place in the game for such impressive effects to be appropriate.

The music, as befits a Final Fantasy game, is very good, though not as distinctive or memorable as I would like. Nevertheless, there are some very good tracks scattered throughout the soundtrack, including right from the very start with the theme of the Red Wings. Other exceptional tracks include the theme of Golbez, one of the main villains in the game, along with the music accompanying two of the final dungeons.

Final Fantasy IV has all the components for a strong JRPG, including a fairly strong plot, good characterisation, solid gameplay fundamentals and very good music. From the perspective of the genre, it is a good game. Yet, comparing it to other JRPGs later in the same console generation, it comes across as being slightly underwhelming. It may be that the many successors to Final Fantasy IV have overshadowed the game somewhat, but there weren’t any particular moments that I considered outstanding in the same way as some moments in Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger were. However, it was clearly a good enough game for me to see it to the end and from a historical perspective, Final Fantasy IV is clearly very important for its pioneering work in gameplay mechanics and character development.

Bottom Line:Final Fantasy IV is a good game with solid gameplay fundamentals and a reasonably good plot, along with being historically important, but sometimes comes across as slightly underwhelming compared to later JRPGs.

Recommendation: If you’re going to play Final Fantasy IV, do yourself a favour and give the original SNES version a miss. Unlike Final Fantasy VI, you don’t lose an interesting, funny yet proficient translation by going to the newer versions. Other than that, this is a good game for entrenched JRPG fans and not a terrible starting point for new JRPG fans, but it won’t convert anybody who has already made their mind up about the genre.

The Cryptocurrency Conundrum: Why Bitcoin and its contemporaries have failed to convince me

It would have been pretty difficult to avoid hearing anything about Bitcoin in the past few months, given its jump from being a mere curiosity known only by technical enthusiasts to a potential investment that mainstream economists and journalists are watching avidly. Some of the advocates for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies say that they offer a completely different paradigm for currency transactions, while others are interested in the investment opportunities.

However, the recent bankruptcy and collapse of Mt. Gox, one of the premier Bitcoin exchanges, along with increased scrutiny on the nature of cryptocurrencies by various treasury agencies has caused the price of Bitcoin to jump around like a hyperactive kangaroo. I fail to be convinced of the long-term viability of Bitcoin or other contemporary cryptocurrencies, neither as an investment nor as a unit of currency. I will focus on Bitcoin here, since it is the cryptocurrency with the highest market capitalisation and correspondingly the most interest, along with being the basis for most other cryptocurrencies out there.

Admittedly, as a technical enthusiast, there are some details of cryptocurrencies and by extension, Bitcoin, that I find interesting. The idea that cryptographic protection is built into the protocol, thus stymieing attempts at counterfeiting, has merit particularly from the perspective of e-commerce. Commercial activities have taken off on the internet to an astounding extent, despite the decided vulnerabilities in current payment mechanisms, especially from the perspective of security. Having a secure, well-supported method of payment that is outside the commercial interests of any single party could be useful for improving the weaknesses that currently exist in internet commerce.

Unfortunately, the few advantages that Bitcoin can indisputably claim over conventional currencies are not enough to make up for the many things that can be held against it. These problems begin at the generation (i.e. “mining”) phase, spiralling out from there and include both the computational side and economic factors.

The generation of Bitcoin is done by a process called “mining”. Bitcoin mining effectively involves solving SHA-2 cryptographic hashes for a certain set of criteria, trying to find the most complex way of arriving at that result. I can already see a problem here. As far as I can tell, the only people who actually need to solve cryptographic hashes are security organisations such as the NSA and professional cryptographers. Bitcoin doesn’t fall under the purview of “professional” cryptography – it is simply rewarding computational make-work that has no relation to legitimate problems that distributed computing would resolve. In this regard, Bitcoin is no better than fiat currency, since you’re only trading off the trust of a government’s ability to pay its debts for the trust of computer cycles.

Actually, since I don’t trust computer cycles as a backing for a means of payment unless those computer cycles have been used for something useful, I have to regard Bitcoin as worse than fiat currency. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of things that could be done with those computer cycles either; everything from protein folding to Mersenne prime number solvers to running through the data of a large-scale scientific experiment could be done with the distributed computational power of computers currently used for Bitcoin mining, but instead, they’re being used to solve bloody cryptographic hashes. That’s one strike already for Bitcoin and we haven’t even got past the generation phase.

While we’re on the subject of mining, bitcoins used to be generated effectively by the CPUs of home computers, but as the difficulty of generating bitcoins has increased (as part of a process which I’ll talk about below), the mining process gradually transitioned towards the use of GPGPU techniques, then onto the current trend of application-specific integrated circuits (or ASICs). These ASICs, as the name implies, are not general-purpose computers, but are specialised for the purpose of Bitcoin mining. So, not only does Bitcoin mining involve the make-work job of throwing away computer cycles – and electricity, by extension – on solving cryptographic hashes, but it’s led to the creation of computers for which that is their raison d’être. Great work, Satoshi Nakamoto, whoever the hell you are.

To be fair, though, once you get past the mining stage, the nature of the Bitcoin protocol looks alright from the perspective of computer science – for a while, at least. Bitcoins are stored using a digital “wallet”, to which the user provides an address which takes the form of a long hexadecimal number. Payments can be made to other Bitcoin users by knowing their addresses. However, we hit a stumbling block here when it comes to using Bitcoin as a means of payment for e-commerce. Bitcoin has a one-way system for transfers, which for various reasons is not suitable for most purposes in the field of e-commerce. What about refunds, for instance? That isn’t covered very well within the Bitcoin protocol. Nor are transaction cancellations, which would have particularly interesting, if not especially desirable consequences regarding micro-transactions within smartphone or tablet apps, where an alternative to payment by credit cards would be rather desirable.

Let’s just consider the case of a parent who has just handed their child their smartphone and returns to find that the child has bought several hundred dollars of in-game purchases in some shitty freemium game. This sort of scenario can happen and has happened in several high-profile cases – and certainly, the parent isn’t going to want to keep all of those in-game purchases. Some people may say that the burden should be placed on the parent and if they didn’t want it to happen, they should have been more careful, but really, I can sympathise with the parent on this one.

I mean, let’s say your child is whining about something they want, which happens regularly. You’re busy trying to get some work done around the house or something and you just want a break from the moaning going on in your ear. So, you hand your smartphone to the child hoping that they’ll find something that will shut them up for just one moment. Unfortunately, you forgot to sign your account out of the smartphone’s store and of course, Murphy’s Law will dictate that the one time you forgot to sign out will be the time when the child wants to make his way through the catalogue of crappy in-game purchases. By saying that you should be more careful as to let your child mess around with your phone, you could just as well insinuate that you should be more careful as to have children in the first place and that argument doesn’t tend to go down well.

Bitcoin is even more vulnerable than credit cards to this sort of scenario; credit cards usually have limits, whereas somebody with a Bitcoin wallet could spend the lot and all you’d have would be the recordings of the transactions on the address. Good luck getting your money back as well, since these transactions can’t be cancelled when it turns out that you’ve made a mistake – or that the product that you ordered is late or whatever problem you’re having. Not a very good thing for a currency, wouldn’t you think?

Returning to a point which I made above, Bitcoin mining has become more difficult as time has progressed, which has prompted the use of ASICs. Part of the reason why Bitcoin mining has become more difficult is because of an inherent detail of the protocol and of Bitcoin in general – there is a finite number of bitcoins that can be generated. Only 21 million bitcoins will ever exist, generated at a steady rate per week – which requires the generation of bitcoins to be more difficult as more computational power is used to generate them – and the rewards will diminish with time. Danger, Will Robinson! Talk about an economic faux-pas: what we’ve fallen into here is an inherently hyper-deflationary currency.

Inflation and deflation are not two sides of the same coin, but both are considered to be deleterious to some extent in an economic system. However, mainstream economists tend to consider inflation less harmful than deflation and fiat currency systems that are in use today have a small, but usually controlled rate of inflation. The reason that economists prefer inflation to deflation is that such a scenario encourages people to buy things since the value of their money will decrease rather than increasing with time, along with being more helpful to debtors rather than creditors – a debt made for a certain amount in a deflationary system will continue to accrue value, which discourages entities from taking out debts in the first place. When those debts would be used to catalyse the growth of a new business, then there becomes a case where deflation becomes harmful to economic growth. The once-vaunted Japanese economy, which looked set to take over from the United States of America as the world’s biggest economy in the 1980s, has suffered from deflation since the early 1990s. With Bitcoin, you would therefore use a system which actually incorporates deflation – and at a huge rate – into its very form of being. I’ll leave you to draw the conclusions.

Another problem for Bitcoin from an economic perspective is its volatility. As I’ve said above, the price of Bitcoin jumps around from day to day like a hyperactive kangaroo, and sometimes, hundreds of dollars per bitcoin can ride on various decisions by speculators and treasury agencies wary of the potential effects of Bitcoin alike. The recent collapse of Mt. Gox sums this up nicely; in the last month, the price of bitcoins has jumped between more than $700 per bitcoin to a trough of less than $480 on February 25th, when Mt. Gox went offline, before promptly jumping back up to more than $600. Bear in mind, this was in a single month – if the dollar went haywire like that, there would be hell to pay! Would you really risk spending money with the potential for it to add another half again onto its value, or receive it with the risk of it almost halving in value? If you would, you’re braver than I am – or infinitely more foolhardy.

We need to note here what Mt. Gox actually stood for – it was originally an initialism for “’Magic: The Gathering Online’ Exchange”. No, you’re not reading that wrong – it was originally a site for the exchange of cards from a fantasy collectible card game. Actually, no, I have that slightly wrong – it was originally a site for the exchange of digital, virtual cards from the online version of a fantasy collectible card game which only exist at the whims of Wizards of the Coast. This is what I find to be one of the most terrifying things about any ideas of moving to Bitcoin as a currency – putting your money into the hands of a bunch of nerds who have no real clue about anything but the mathematical tendencies of economics and have probably convinced themselves that their computer science experience gives them insights into the economic world while only understanding that small portion of it. That, to me at least, seems like a big mistake waiting to happen – and I say that as a nerd with no real clue about anything but the mathematical tendencies of economics who has convinced myself that my computer science experience gives me insights into the economic world while only understanding that small portion of it.

Another group of people who are very vocal on the issue of Bitcoin and who are correspondingly very worrying are the Randite libertarians who have embraced Bitcoin and its decentralised nature. Randites are particularly annoying to deal with, because of their odious selfishness-led philosophies and their propensity to believe any sort of ludicrous fantasies as long as they work against the aims of organised government. It doesn’t help that the very founder of their Objectivist ideals was a hypocrite who railed against government assistance, yet seemingly felt no shame in using it herself, nor does it help that Alan Greenspan, who, as Chair of the Federal Reserve, presided over the biggest recession since the Great Depression, is a self-confessed Randite. I think that’s the piece of straw that broke the camel’s back on that issue, although interestingly, even Alan Greenspan doesn’t think that Bitcoin is a good idea. You’d think he’d have first-hand experience of a financial bubble, wouldn’t you?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.