Pinball Challenge Deluxe – A Retrospective Review

Several years before DICE started to make their wildly popular Battlefield series, they made pinball games. Starting out as an offshoot of a Swedish Amiga demoscene group, The Silents, the company then known as Digital Illusions released three of the stable of pinball games published by the British company, 21st Century Entertainment Ltd. First released for the Amiga and then ported to several other platforms, including MS-DOS, the SNES and the Atari Jaguar, Pinball Dreams, Pinball Fantasies and Pinball Illusions were well regarded by the contemporary video game press.

In 2002, the same year as DICE released the first of the games in the Battlefield series, DICE’s pinball games found their way onto the Game Boy Advance. Developed by another British company, Binary9 Studios and published by Ubisoft, Pinball Challenge Deluxe incorporates all of the elements of the first two games in the series, Pinball Dreams and Pinball Fantasies. With eight tables available covering a range of themes from horror to space travel, Pinball Challenge Deluxe has plenty to offer for a pinball fan.

DICE’s pinball games tended towards the simulationist bent, with realistic ball physics and tables that looked and felt like they could easily make the transition to the physical domain. Binary9 did an expert job of replicating that on the Game Boy Advance, with the physics and table layouts fully intact. The developers did have to compensate for the lower resolution and smaller screen size of the Game Boy Advance compared to the Amiga, with the game requiring considerably more in the way of scrolling on the playfield, but aside from requiring more in the way of prediction to figure out where the ball is going to fall onto the flippers, their efforts do not diminish from the fun of the game. On the other hand, Binary9 have included some extra details on some of the tables that were not present in the original Amiga versions for the Original Chip Set and the game retains its colourful and stylistic presentation, which does a good job of capturing the essence of each table.

The music has been ported over properly as well. Originally composed by Olof Gustafsson and representing some of the best tracker music on the Amiga, the music is one of the highlights not only of the original DICE versions but of the Game Boy Advance port. The music does retain the Amiga version’s tendency to cut out and restart from a certain point after certain sound effects, probably a consequence of the Amiga’s limited number of sound channels, but this is authentic and doesn’t detract from the quality of the music in the first place.

I find the controls to be a mixed bag. While successfully putting all of the controls from the Amiga version onto the handheld platform, including flippers, spring control and a button to tilt the table vertically – and a tilt sensor to regulate use of that feature – the flipper controls are mapped to the shoulder buttons. Most pinball games I have played on Nintendo’s handheld systems have instead or also allowed the use of the left arrow key and the A button and while the use of the shoulder buttons works out acceptably on the original model of Game Boy Advance and the Game Boy Micro, it is a bit uncomfortable on the Game Boy Advance SP models or the Nintendo DS in either of its GBA-compatible forms. Nevertheless, the controls are responsive and the mapping isn’t a deal-breaker.

Pinball Challenge Deluxe doesn’t add many elements that weren’t already present in the original games. The load times are substantially better than they were on the Amiga original by virtue of the cartridge storage medium and the options menu does give you the option to decrease the volume of the sound effects and music, while also giving the option of how many balls you get per playthrough, from the original three up to five. However, I’m not particularly fond of the latter option, as I think it plays havoc with the authenticity of the original gameplay. On the other hand, the Pinball Fantasies tables retain the original feature whereby one can randomly receive an extra ball after losing their last one based on the first digit of their score and the game also saves three high scores per table.

Generally though, despite the lack of extra features over the original games, Pinball Challenge Deluxe is a good conversion of the original games. Retaining the same challenging, yet rewarding simulation of real-world pinball, the colourful and stylish graphics and the outstanding music, it’s a solid package and while the diminished resolution and extra scrolling of the Game Boy Advance versions mean that the Amiga versions are still what I would consider to be the definitive versions, the portability and quicker loading times make this a port worthy of praise.

Bottom Line: Pinball Challenge Deluxe does a good job of replicating what made the original Amiga games so much fun and maintains the strong simulation of pinball on a portable game system.

Recommendation: If you’re a pinball fan looking for fun on the go, take a look at it. It’s also a decent title for dipping your toes into the world of pinball, but don’t pay too much for it.

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Track & Field (NES) – A Retrospective Review

Author’s Note: Having spent most of the month following the Olympics, I thought the following review would be somewhat relevant.

First released by Konami in 1983 for the arcades and subsequently ported to a myriad of different platforms, Track & Field, as the name suggests, is a sports game revolving around track & field athletics events. One of the most notable ports of the game was the NES version, released in 1987 in America and re-released in Europe in 1992 under the title Track & Field in Barcelona, which included five of the six events from the arcade game and three events from the arcade sequel, Hyper Sports.

The gameplay of Track & Field is generally very simple, being played with three buttons: The A and B buttons usually representing one leg each and a third button representing the “action” button on the original arcade machine. Using these buttons, the player is tasked with at least matching a qualifying time or score in order to proceed to the next event, for instance by repeatedly pushing the run buttons in sequence in the running events, using the action button to jump over hurdles, or by using the run buttons to build up speed for the jumping and throwing events and using the action button to set the angle for the jump or throw.

As mentioned above, there were eight events included in the game: 100 metre dash and 110 metre hurdles for running events, long jump, triple jump and high jump for jumping events, javelin throw, skeet shooting and archery. Of the events originally in the arcade version, only hammer throw is missing, although personally, I would have preferred this over the awkward skeet shooting and archery events which are not only dissimilar in several respects to the other events in the game, but also not actually track and field events. There is also nothing in the way of longer-distance running events, which makes sense given the game’s arcade roots, but which would, with something like a stamina bar, have represented an interesting complement to the sprinting events. The other events are done very well, though, even with the running events representing button-bashing affairs which will wear out your fingers – and controllers.

The game can be played by one player versus the computer or two players, with two difficulty settings differing in the thresholds that players must reach in order to proceed. The game also gives you a choice of which event you want to start at. In the two-player mode, the players play head-to-head in the races and one after the other in the other events; if one player does not make the qualifying threshold, that player will be eliminated from the game and the other player will continue against the computer.

Graphically, the game is not the most impressive on the NES, but makes a good show of replicating the arcade game. The game also lacks the synthesised voices of the arcade version, but this shouldn’t be surprising given the sound hardware of the NES and the bleeps that the game does include are adequate for the purposes of the game.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the arcade version of Track & Field is that it set in stone the way in which following titles in the same category of games were played, with its simple button-bashing controls. As a consequence, the game is still very playable and represents rather simple fun as long as you can get your fingers or thumbs to cooperate with the speed at which you need to press the controls in order to succeed in most of the events. Strangely enough, I find it is the events that don’t require quick fingers that are the most troublesome; the skeet shooting and archery events feel out of place even if the game series soon expanded after its first title to cover other Olympic sports outside of the track and field events and can be particularly difficult to pass if you can’t get your timing just right. Given that there were events in both Track & Field and Hyper Sports in the arcade that would have fit better, I can’t see why they decided that those two events made a good fit into the structure of the game.

Aside from the criticisms I have regarding those events, the one downfall of the title is that the same simplicity that makes the game very easy to pick up and good fun also lends it very little depth. There’s always going to be the challenge of getting a higher score – and even setting world records if you’re good enough, but once you have the formula down, there’s not much else to learn about the game. There are a few Easter eggs scattered around the game in various places, but ultimately, the game sticks to its formula throughout. This is both a blessing and a curse and as a consequence, the game is more suited to two-player gameplay where you have another person to beat.

Bottom Line: Aside from a few stumbling blocks, Track & Field is simple, very easy to grasp and good fun – if your fingers are up to the button-bashing gameplay. However, it is also very formulaic and lacks depth, making it better in two-player mode.

Recommendation: This isn’t a title that is worth going out and spending a huge amount on a cartridge for, despite its fun factor, but if you can find it in a bargain bin somewhere or are willing to go down the emulation route, it’s a fun title which would be particularly good for short bursts of multiplayer gameplay.

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Battlezone – A Retrospective Game Review

“Let them have their ticker tape parades, their ‘space races’ and their commemorative packets of dehydrated ice cream. While Von Braun takes credit for his Redstone bottle rockets, I am finalising plans for an inter-planetary fleet that could plant an American flag on every rock and pebble in this solar system by the end of the decade. I will be watching the sunrise from Olympus Mons long before NASA takes their first steps on the moon.” – Dr. Wilhelm Arkin, Battlezone

Battlezone is a 1998 PC-format first-person vehicle shooter/real-time strategy, developed and produced by Activision. Despite the innovative “field commander” concept, the ambitious and impressive gameplay, and the interesting and various range of settings, it remains an obscure title to this day.

The story of the game starts in 1952, when an investigation into a meteor shower near the Bering Strait leads to the discovery of a strange extra-terrestrial material, soon dubbed “bio-metal”. Further investigations of this material lead to the discovery that weapons can easily be fashioned from it, weapons which appear to be derived from some sort of “memory” of the material to reshape into its previous form. These weapons systems, shaped into vehicles resembling the tanks of Earth, have very promising properties, like the ability to counter-act gravity, to redistribute damage over their entire bodies, rather than taking damage at any specific point, and a single ammunition source for every sort of weapon.

As both the Americans and the Soviets have both acquired samples of this bio-metal, it is clear that both of them will have discovered the material and investigated its properties, and with its properties being so promising, it is also clear that both sides will compete for the bio-metal which is believed to exist in the solar system. With the bio-metal at their disposal, either side could drive through their opponents’ cities with impunity, ending the Cold War with a single stroke.

In order to collect this bio-metal, Dwight Eisenhower establishes a secret space organisation under the control of the National Security Agency, named the National Space Defence Force, or the NSDF. Recruiting under the auspices of NASA, the NSDF, with the overpowering weapons constructed from the bio-metal at their disposal, set forth to set up a lunar outpost, and thus begin gathering as much of this strange alien material as possible.

However, the NSDF are not alone in space. The Russians have earned a substantial lead with their technical advantage in developing space technologies, and their Cosmo Colonist Army, or CCA, outnumber the NSDF contingent, with superior weapons systems. With the Soviets overpowering the NSDF, the commanders of the American forces must quickly make up for their slow start.

But many questions remain about this bio-metal. Where did it come from? What relation do they have to seemingly alien structures located around the celestial bodies the NSDF and CCA pursue each other over? With all of these questions and more, the future of humankind rests on the secrets of bio-metal.

The plot of Battlezone is not necessarily the strongest I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely in the upper echelon, told exceptionally well through the game and the manual – which comes from the days when games came with a substantial manual in the box. I’m especially enamoured by the connections with the space missions undertaken by the Americans and the Soviets during that point in time, and I’m glad to finally see a space conspiracy which doesn’t suggest that man never landed on the moon. The angle of having a secret space war raging while the American and Soviet populaces remain occupied with the political concerns of the era is also interesting, and overall, it gives the game a nice political and military angle.

During the game itself, the plot is never made too elaborate, with little snippets of details coming from the player character’s reminiscences during the loading screens, and the general feed of information coming through the game. The plot never interferes with having a good time in the game, which is an imperative of action game design.

Speaking of game design, the gameplay is a great strength of this game. The first-person shooter and the real-time strategy are not necessarily genres that you would expect to work very well together, but Battlezone manages to meld the two genres together very well, through the process of making the player a field commander instead of a rear-echelon general. As such, the amounts of forces that are available are limited, and the clever commander will have to use those forces in the most appropriate fashion.

BZ1
All of the commands can be accessed using a small selection of keys.

Battlezone is first and foremost a first-person shooter, with the player taking control of a number of the bio-metal constructed vehicles, bringing them into combat versus the enemy forces. These vehicles, due to their anti-gravity, have a large amount of momentum, presenting them as moving targets at all times, and makes first-person strategies such as strafe-running still viable in this game.

Due to the concept of “one ammunition source for all weapons”, there will never be any logistical problems where you lack ammunition for any weapon in particular, and logistical requirements are quickly resolved by the production buildings in the game. This sort of unrealism is acceptable in a game which never claims to be anything less than fantastical. Another feature of unrealism is the concept of equally distributed damage, or EDD, armour, which renders the real life tactic of flanking obsolete, and generally simplifies the game.

The gameplay isn’t limited to vehicles either. It is possible to hop out of vehicles and transfer to others, or to bail out when your vehicle is destroyed, progressing on foot, although infantry are far weaker than vehicles. To balance the game when the player is on foot, it is possible using a high-power sniper rifle to take out the pilots of other vehicles and commandeer their weapons against them. This generally improves the survivability of the player, although there is a mission during the campaign where it is necessary to use this technique of commandeering enemy vehicles. Unfortunately, this mission doesn’t use this game device particularly well, and I prefer using it as a matter of expediency rather than a necessity to progress through the campaign.

The other section of the game, the real-time strategy, takes a back-seat to the action, but is necessary to proceed, because the odds will definitely be against the lone-wolf. The central unit in this part of the game is the Recycler, the fundamental construction unit from which all other units are derived. It is imperative to the game, and if it is destroyed, the game is lost. The Recycler creates the most basic units in the game, including the Scavenger, used as a resource collector in the game, and also produces the Factory, responsible for building advanced units, the Armoury, which produces weapons systems and provides long-range logistics, and the Constructor, which builds bases, and is also used as a resource stop-off point.

The other creator units all come into their own roles nicely, with the Factory making everything from tanks to rocket tanks up to the Walker, a huge and extremely slow but very powerful attacking unit which can steamroll over the enemy if used correctly. The Armoury delivers replacement weapons systems, allowing players to customise their vehicles appropriate to different situations, and also delivers repair and ammunition units to any spot on the battlefield, but the further from the Armoury, the longer the delivery takes. The Constructor takes care of the process of base building, providing power plants, fixed emplacements, and supply and repair facilities.

The resource unit in the game is the unit of bio-metal scrap, gathered by the Scavenger. The game goes to long lengths to make sure that the player will never get bogged down in the standard real-time strategy process of “peasant watching”, by making the Scavenger units relatively autonomous and able to find scrap supplies easily by itself.

Another way in which the game makes sure that you don’t get bogged down in the more monotonous aspects of many real-time strategies is by restricting the numbers of any various type of unit to ten for each type. This means that not only is your population not dominated unnecessarily by resource collectors, but the “Zerg Rush” idea that plagues most real-time strategy games is removed, replaced by a concept of tactics which transcends throwing everything you have at the opponent and hoping for more kills on your side than theirs.

The game further allows for the survival of the units under your control by allowing them to use the same repair and ammunition resupply facilities that you, yourself, can use, and allows a commander to re-organise their army by recycling units for their scrap value, thus ensuring that you should never be left with units that are no longer of any use.

BZ2
The Recycle option makes up for that restrictive population limit.

I found this gameplay to be refreshing, and still do, especially after being crushed by the likes of an army of Zealots and Dragoons in the original StarCraft, but you can’t really appreciate the full complexity of the game in single-player. Unfortunately, due to lack of internet at the time of playing the game, I never played the multiplayer, but I did investigate it, and it seems like an ideal multiplayer experience for those looking for more tactics than evidenced in most first-person shooter, while not moving over to the hardcore difficulty of looking after every unit as evidenced in many RTS games.

For those looking for a quicker thrill than the strategy-based main game, there is a more traditional deathmatch style multiplayer mode, but the real meat of the game is definitely in the strategy game, and most of the multiplayer maps are set up with that in mind.

Unfortunately, this game isn’t perfect, and there are quite a few flaws lying around the place. It is a particularly buggy game, and is somewhat incompatible with modern operating systems. The most obvious bug that I found was an inability to get the hardware 3D renderer operating properly – no matter what system I tried it on, the game crashed. Windows 98, Windows Me – well, of course it was going to crash there! – Windows 2000, Windows XP – all afflicted with this 3D renderer bug, meaning that I had to run the game in the decidedly inferior software rendering mode. I tried this on a multitude of graphics cards as well, and every one of them decided to choke up when the hardware rendering was on.

This doesn’t render the game unplayable, and I was rather glad for the software rendering in an era when I only had a 1MB 2D graphics card and I was running Windows 95, but it is a disappointment, because the software renderer creates quite a few jaggy and grainy images, particularly noticeable on the pylons in the training area and on some of the vehicles.

This isn’t assisted by the low maximum resolution. 640×480 was acceptable when I was running Windows 3.1 on my first computer, but it’s not exactly what I want to play games at in this day and age. System Shock played at 640×480 four years before this, and Half-Life went 1024×768 and above that very year. I don’t normally complain about graphics, but it does seem a bit ridiculous considering that other first-person perspective games that year could go to the sort of resolutions that I typically use. Again, I wasn’t complaining when it was a matter of expediency with my ancient S3 graphics card – which, incidentally, I still own – but with the gift of hindsight, I can see that they left little room for posterity.

To be honest, though, it doesn’t matter that much. Battlezone is fun, it’s original, it’s clever. Gifted with a great plot, fantastic and intelligent gameplay and bringing new ideas to the world of first-person shooters, Battlezone deserves far more attention than it received.

Elite: Dangerous – A Gaming Review

Author’s Note: Hey there, first post in a few months – I was busy with my final-year college project and didn’t have the time to write up anything else. Now that I’m free again, I’m planning initially to move back to a monthly update schedule at first and investigate the possibility of a fortnightly schedule in the future.

Until recently, the space combat simulator genre of video games seemed to be moribund. Following the genre’s golden age of the 1990s, where such games as the Frontier series, the Wing Commander and Privateer titles, the Descent: FreeSpace series and the variety of Star Wars space sim titles enjoyed commercial success, the genre had descended into a niche where a few games kept the genre on life support, most notably CCP Games’ space MMO, EVE Online and Egosoft’s X series. Over the last few years, though, it appears that there has been a renaissance of the genre, with several very high-profile games currently in development. This includes the return of two of the masters of the genre during its golden age: David Braben of Elite and Frontier fame and Chris Roberts, known for Wing Commander, Privateer and Freelancer. Braben’s company, Frontier Developments, has returned to the space sim market after almost twenty years with Elite: Dangerous, while Chris Roberts has established Cloud Imperium Games with the purpose of making Star Citizen.

Star Citizen, known for its phenomenally successful crowdfunding campaign, is still in alpha, with a full release scheduled for this year. On the other hand, David Braben’s Elite: Dangerous was released commercially in December 2014 and has recently received its first expansion pack, Horizons. (As I own, but have not yet played Horizons, this review will focus on the base game.)

Elite: Dangerous follows from the previous game in the Elite series, Frontier: First Encounters, set in the year 3300, in a Milky Way where three major factions, the Galactic Federation, the Empire of Achenar and the Alliance of Independent Systems, vie for control of the galaxy. In the midst of this, the player takes the role of a spaceship commander, who was recently, out of the blue, provided with a Sidewinder spaceship and 1,000 Galactic Credits with which to make one’s fortune by whatever means they desire.

The gameplay of Elite: Dangerous, as with its predecessors, revolves around three main aspects: Trading, combat and exploration. With trading and combat, it is possible to make money through both legal and illegal methods, with smuggling and piracy providing opportunities for those so inclined. One of the objectives of the game is to appropriately use your spaceship to make as much money as necessary to buy new spaceships or upgrade existing ones as to best deal with the challenges of the game and achieve success at trading, combat or exploration. The measure of one’s success is calculated by a number of ratings. The combat rating system, where a player starts off as Harmless and attempts to reach the exalted rank of Elite by defeating other spaceships in battle, returns from the previous games, while similar ranks for trading and exploration have been included in Elite: Dangerous.

Notably, the game focuses more heavily on exploration than its predecessors. In Frontier: Elite II and Frontier: First Encounters, the extent to which you could explore was limited by the possibility of critical components failing on one’s spacecraft, while the lack of incentive to exploration other than personal satisfaction meant that it was not explored as much as possible. In Elite: Dangerous, there has been a concerted effort, which appears as if it will continue into the future, to expand and give more purpose to exploration by providing financial incentives and a rank system based on the earnings from exploration, with a colossal game universe that expands on that presented by its predecessors.

Elite: Dangerous continues to use the same sort of first-person, cockpit-oriented perspective as with its predecessors, but updates it for the modern era. The game includes a wonderfully responsive diegetic interface, where holographic screens pop up around the cockpit as the player turns their head and a variety of options can quickly and relatively unintrusively be selected during the middle of travel and combat. Unlike the Frontier games, but like its earliest predecessor, Elite, the game steps away from Newtonian physics and uses a model more like a flight simulator, with a maximum velocity that can be achieved in normal flight and combat, but a Frame Shift Drive which allows for considerably higher velocities when travelling between different astronomical objects in the same system or between different star systems.

The game does, however, retain the model of thrust vectoring that existed in the Frontier games, allowing you to fire thrusters to the left or right for horizontal movement along with thrusters on the top or bottom for vertical movement. This provides a bit of unpredictability in combat, with an experienced pilot able to take advantage of these features to attack from unexpected angles, while also being necessary in order to successfully dock at the game’s space stations.

Combat in Elite: Dangerous is also unlike its immediate predecessors in that the spaceships are a lot more resilient to damage than in the Frontier games, resulting in generally more tactical battles which take longer to resolve. Combined with the flight sim-esque flight model (although this can be deactivated to some extent by choice), combat feels more like a traditional dogfight rather than the jousts that often occurred in Frontier: Elite II or Frontier: First Encounters, along with being more friendly towards newer players as they aren’t sitting ducks until they significantly upgrade their spaceship. As well as this, losing a combat is not punished as harshly as in the previous games, as there is an insurance policy implemented that allows one to buy back a spacecraft of the same specifications as the one they had for a fee of a few percent of the total cost of the spacecraft, or to buy a basic Sidewinder with the same specifications as they started the game with.

Elite: Dangerous takes the first steps in the series towards multiplayer, with an MMO structure and a persistent universe populated by a mixture of AI NPCs and human player characters. It is possible to play the game in a single-player mode or a private multiplayer group, but as various elements of the game will still be dictated by the actions of other players, the game requires an internet connection along with a persistent connection to the game’s servers. That said, because of the size of the game universe, along with the low player count compared to most MMORPGs, it is usually not that detrimental to jump into the multiplayer aspect of the game.

There’s also a mode of the game for those who prefer to get up close and personal in combat rather than exploring the universe. The CQC Championship mode is structured more like a traditional first-person shooter in terms of multiplayer, with a maximum of eight players engaging in Team Deathmatch, Deathmatch or Capture the Flag with a variety of spaceships and equipment that gets unlocked as you gain experience and ranks. The ranking system in this game mode is separate to the combat ranking in the main game, which means those who prefer not to engage in that sort of game mode are not unnecessarily disadvantaged.

As with its predecessors, Elite: Dangerous has a lot to do, between the multitude of activities and the massive universe. Most of those activities are also quite well-polished, with things working quite well together. However, a common criticism of Elite: Dangerous is that these activities are not especially deep and that the game is “wide as an ocean, but shallow as a puddle”. Indeed, in some respects, the game has less depth than the Frontier games, with planetary landing only available (and quite limited at present) in the Horizons expansion pack and a lack of gritty military missions like the photography missions of the Frontier games. There are plans to expand the game much further with expansion packs over the next few years – and perhaps up to ten years – but at an additional cost compared to the base game and with no guarantee that interest in the game will last that long. If Frontier Developments manage to achieve their expansive goals – bearing in mind that Frontier: Elite II took five and a half years to complete in the 1990s and the goals of the developers seem to be set out well – it will lead to an incredible game. At present, though, the game has a lot more potential for development than features currently implemented.

Speaking about polish, something that Elite: Dangerous does get very right is its aesthetic elements. I’ve already mentioned the diegetic cockpit interface, with its context-sensitive menu screens. This is beautifully laid out, but also functional and easy to navigate. The graphical polish here extends to the rest of the game, with beautifully glowing stars, elaborate space stations that look fit for purpose and a range of spacecraft designs which pay tribute to the previous Elite games by being somewhat blocky, but each achieving their own distinctive aesthetic based on their purpose. The game also manages to achieve fairly good performance despite the outstanding graphics; on my AMD R9 290, I manage to achieve 100 or more frames per second during nearly all aspects of the game at 1080p and maximum settings, although there is an issue on AMD cards which can drop performance drastically during supercruise between different planets in the same system.

Another place in which the game excels is its sound design, enough so that I think it’s one of the few places where sound in space is justified despite its lack of realism. The Frontier developers claim that the sound heard by the player is based on what is being picked up by sensors and scanners around the ship and include various pulsing sounds from the ship’s engines, whooshing sounds as the ship prepares for supercruise or hyperdrive, or when scooping fuel from a star and even muffled radio chatter when close to a space station. The sounds that are in the game are exquisite and are backed by a great, yet subtle soundtrack that plays in the background based on various events, including supercruise travel and combat events.

As it is, then, Elite: Dangerous is a solid and beautifully presented title that achieves the goals of being a space simulator in the vein of its predecessors. However, the game has a huge amount of untapped potential, especially with a universe as large as it has. It remains to be seen whether the game can live up to that potential with future development – and whether, with Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky, for instance, in development, interest can last for long enough for Elite: Dangerous to be given a chance to live up to what it can achieve.

Bottom Line: Elite: Dangerous is a solid and enormously broad space simulator which brings the Elite formula into the 21st century, but lacks depth and has a huge amount of untapped potential with expansion packs necessary to fill the gaps.

Recommendation: Despite previously giving my unreserved recommendation for Frontier: Elite II, a game that is more than 20 years older, I would recommend waiting for a sale if you’re interested in Elite: Dangerous, as you will require a $60/€54/£40 expansion to get the full potential of the game at present.

Tropico – A Retrospective Review

Developed by PopTop Software and released in 2001, Tropico is the first of the eponymous series of construction and management simulation games in which the player takes the role of leader of a Caribbean island, building its economy up from humble beginnings, all while trying to keep the population happy – or at least happy enough not to revolt. Set in the Cold War, Tropico combines its construction and management game mechanics with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and perspective on banana republics, where the United States and Russia act as mostly unseen forces who will invade if they are suitably dissatisfied and where a certain level of corruption is not only tolerated but expected – including funnelling money to your own secret Swiss bank account as a nest-egg for your retirement, whether that’s by choice or by forcibly being made to retire.

There are two different types of game in Tropico: pre-determined scenarios whereby you have particular constraints on your activities, along with a random map generator where you can set various characteristics of the island and the conditions in the game, like how strong the economy is, the political stability of the island and so on, with a corresponding bonus multiplier to your end-of-game score based on the difficulty. With the expansion pack, Tropico: Paradise Island, there are about forty different scenarios, with conditions ranging from an island of ex-convicts with little immigration and a poor reputation, to an island at the whim of a massive fruit conglomerate and to an island where you play the “third cousin, once removed” of Fidel Castro and have the objective of attaining as much cash as possible. There’s plenty of diversity in the missions, but the random map generator has plenty of mileage in it as well.

While scenarios will typically start you off with a pre-constructed island, the random map game type starts you off with just about enough infrastructure to start making money, with a few farms, a dock, a teamster’s office and a construction office, along with your palace and a population living in shacks. The farms begin by growing corn, which is good for feeding your hungry population, but is not particularly lucrative, but can be set to grow other products, including pineapples, tobacco, sugar and bananas. Some of this produce takes a long time to grow, but is particularly lucrative once it is being sold, while other crops have particularly harsh conditions on their ability to grow. Once the crops have been grown and harvested by your farmers, they’ll be picked up by your teamsters and brought to the dock, whereby your dockworkers will load the produce onto incoming freighters which bring out the fruits of your population’s labour and bring in immigrants to expand your workforce. Other basic resource gathering activities include mining and logging.

Once your activities start making a profit, you can start to diversify your economy by building factories which will take the produce from your farms, mines and logging camps and reprocess it further into a more valuable commodity, or start building hotels and tourist attractions to make your island into a tourist paradise. However, factories require more educated workers and can take quite a long time to become profitable, while Tropico‘s tourists prefer locations away from your farmers’ and labourers’ activities.

While you’re busy building up the economy of your island, you also have to keep the population satisfied by providing them with various facilities and satisfying their needs. Different members of the population have different needs, but in general, your citizens desire better housing, to be sufficiently entertained, to have a nice environment to live in, their religious and healthcare needs met and so on. Meanwhile, there are various factions on the island who favour different approaches to how the island is run; for instance, militarists favour many soldiers employed on the island, while environmentalists favour an environmentally friendly approach to economic activities and the religious prefer to have plenty of churches and fewer pubs, cabarets or casinos as part of the entertainment facilities on the island. You also have various characteristics for your character which can increase or decrease your favour with some of these factions as well as setting the democratic expectations for your character as part of the way you were installed into power. In a scenario, these are already pre-selected for you, while in a random map game, you have a choice, with several pre-prepared templates representing real-world dictators and revolutionaries – as well as, bizarrely, the mambo singer Lou Bega, who was then particularly popular for his version of “Mambo No. 5”.

Unfortunately, while the concept is very good at creating a challenge for the player in balancing the needs of the citizens with the desire to make money, most of the frustrations in the game come from dealing with the population. There is very little in the way of micromanagement in the game, with your interactions mostly coming from choosing which buildings to place and where, along with the pay for the workers or price of services at various buildings, which I quite like, but this can sometimes lead to boneheaded decisions with the AI which add fake difficulty to the game. Construction of new buildings can be mildly annoying, as the pathfinding AI of your workers is poor and this can keep them from constructing a necessary building as quickly as you might need it. Furthermore, before a building is constructed, the ground on which it will stand needs to be flattened and cleared of obstacles, which becomes more difficult as you move away from the relatively flat coasts and move inland. The frustration comes from the fact that it is often difficult to determine the gradient of a certain building plot since it isn’t very obvious from the graphical style of the game.

Considerably more frustrating is the requirements for keeping a good standard of healthcare and religion on your island. While the other needs might be expensive and time-consuming to upkeep, they are at least sensible once you get the buildings constructed. On the other hand, both religion and health care require a lot of buildings for the population, require educated workers who are at a premium at the start of the game and don’t get much more common later on and provide no economic benefit once they are fulfilled.

What’s more, even when you have got appropriately educated workers, there’s no guarantee that they’ll work in the religious or healthcare facilities, even when the pay for the roles is generous. In one game, I spent more than $30,000 – or in other words, enough to buy four or five apartment complexes which will satisfy housing needs for up to 60 citizens – trying to entice workers with college education to become doctors in my clinics, only to find that when they arrived, they immediately decided not to become doctors after all, but instead go into farming or construction despite the fact that my healthcare needs were sorely lacking due to the lack of staff and that the doctor jobs were set to pay more than three times as much as the jobs they were taking.

Nevertheless, putting aside these concerns, the rest of the game works very well and there is certainly a satisfaction to be derived from seeing profits rolling in from your farms as your teamsters draw the crops out to the docks to be loaded onto the freighters, or from seeing tourists flooding into your hotels as your tourism market expands.

At the same time as dealing with your own population, you must deal with the concerns of the United States and the Soviet Union, both of which take an interest in your activities from afar. The US favours a capitalistic economy, with free elections, while the Soviet Union prefers communism, with little income disparity. Much of your early-game income will come as foreign aid from these superpowers, with the amount increasing as the countries’ favour increases. However, if you have a particularly bad relationship with one country, they may send a military force to depose you – and as their favour is tied to some extent to the happiness of the capitalist or communist factions on Tropico, you can’t afford to ignore either of these factions. You can also slowly improve your reputation with either or both countries by building a diplomatic ministry.

As you play, you will also have the option to pass various edicts which will influence policy on the island and with the superpowers looking over your shoulder. As you build more buildings, you have options like enticing tourism with a Mardi Gras festival, funnelling a bit of the building cost of all buildings to your Swiss bank account or holding a book burning at the behest of your religious faction. On a more personal level, if you identify somebody who may be particularly troublesome, you can bribe or imprison them, or, to the horror of your population, even have them eliminated by your own soldiers. This provides the potential for a bit of extra control to the game without sacrificing the aforementioned lack of micromanagement in the game.

Graphically, Tropico was never that impressive, with isometric sprite-based graphics which weren’t a tour de force, even at the time. Nevertheless, aside from the previously mentioned issues with determining gradient, the graphics are good enough for the job, although the age of the game does rule out any options for widescreen resolutions. On the other hand, the music is a particular highlight of the game, with catchy Latin-style tunes which suit the game very well.

The Tropico series is now up to five entries, with most of the entries building on the setting and gameplay of the original. As a consequence, it’s tempting to skip the first game and just go on to play one of the sequels, but at the same time, the first Tropico did build a very good foundation for the games to come. Despite the occasional frustrations with construction, religion and healthcare, the game is built around a very strong concept and executes it very well. At present, Tropico is available on both Steam and GOG.com along with its pirate-themed sequel, Tropico 2: Pirate Cove, for less than Tropico 3 costs on its own and since the games in the series are frequently on sale through both platforms, if you’re looking for an inexpensive entry-point to the series, the original isn’t a bad place to start.

Bottom Line: Tropico combines strong construction and management fundamentals with a subtle, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and a very catchy soundtrack, but does have some frustrating elements in managing the population in-game.

Recommendation: Given that the series is frequently on sale at several online distributors, I’d wait for a sale and then snatch it up in the Tropico Reloaded package which includes the sequel.

SimTower – A Retrospective Gaming Review

Back when I started playing video games on my first PCs, my interests leant more towards simulation and strategy games than any other genre. One of the first titles that I really got involved with was SimCity 2000 and many of my earliest games came from broadly similar genres, like Sid Meier’s Civilization II and Command & Conquer. Another game I remember playing at a relatively young age was another title published by Maxis, SimTower. SimTower was not, in fact, designed or developed by the core team at Maxis, but instead by a Japanese developer called Yoot Saito, director of OPenBook Co. Ltd (now known as Vivarium). Nevertheless, SimTower encompassed the same constructive rather than destructive gameplay, where the player would build up from simple roots to create something potentially majestic in scale.

The core gameplay of SimTower is very simple – starting with a plot of land, the player builds up from a ground-floor lobby to build a tower block composed of offices, condominiums, restaurants, hotel rooms and other tenant facilities, ensuring that there are sufficient elevators for everybody to move around the tower. There are a few caveats to consider, though – an elevator can only span a maximum of 30 storeys out of a maximum tower size of 100 above-ground and 10 underground storeys, they can only accommodate a certain amount of traffic and certain types of tenant will require the use of elevators more regularly than others. Much of the game, therefore, becomes an exercise in planning the layout of the building and of the elevators in order to optimise traffic flow. This sounds tedious to begin with, but can actually be rather rewarding.

The player starts out by only being able to build a small range of different facilities, including basic elevators, stairs, offices, condominiums and fast food restaurants, but as the tower expands and the player meets more expansion goals, the range of facilities grows to include hotel rooms, restaurants, cinemas and more sophisticated elevators, among others. There are a number of star ratings contingent on the tower’s permanent population; there are five star ratings to achieve altogether, the later ones also requiring certain features to be added to the tower to satisfy tenant demands. The ultimate goal is to build a tower with 100 above-ground storeys and the requisite population and then place a cathedral on the top where visitors can get married.

A few limitations are present on tower design, including the ability to place lobbies (which serve as hubs for elevator travel) every 15 floors and the practical limitations of placing busy fast food restaurants or shops directly beside condos, offices or hotel rooms. None of these limitations are too challenging to work around, though and most of a player’s concern will revolve around keeping the tenants and residents of their tower satisfied.

Satisfaction levels rise and fall based on the conditions in the tower; mostly, satisfaction will be contingent on how well the transportation system is laid out. As mentioned above, standard elevators can only span a maximum of 30 storeys and it is not always sensible to even go this far with them; express elevators can carry many more people than standard elevators and have no height restrictions, but only stop at lobbies and underground floors, thus necessitating standard elevators to get to their destination floor. Satisfaction levels for shops and restaurants are contingent on how many customers visit them per day; fast food restaurants thrive during the day, especially with a large number of office workers, while more sophisticated restaurants depend on condominium residents and outside visitors. Shops also depend on outside visitors, but more of these can be attracted with the presence of cinemas.

Another factor that plays into the construction of the tower is the player’s ability to maintain a steady cash flow. Tenant buildings bring income, while various other elements, such as elevators, stairs and a variety of necessities later on in the development of your tower, like security offices, cost money to maintain. Different tenant facilities have various trade-offs against one another; offices pay a rent once a week – a week in-game consisting of two weekdays and a weekend – and hold a large population proportionate to their size, but make heavy use of elevators and are difficult to keep satisfied, while the tenants of condominiums are easy to keep satisfied, but only pay a one-time payment to purchase the condo as opposed to the weekly rent of offices and the condo itself holds a considerably smaller population for its size than offices. Hotel rooms do not keep a permanent population at all, but offer the potential for payment every day, which can be useful to ensure that maintenance costs don’t run you into the red. Restaurants and shops have their own criteria determining their profitability and are largely contingent on other tenant facilities. Therefore, to ensure the smooth running of a tower, it is important to plan ahead.

A few special events happen during the game as well to keep the player a little bit more on their toes. Occasionally, when your tower is big enough, you will receive messages saying that a bomb has been planted in your tower by a terrorist group; you then receive a choice to pay a considerable amount of money as a ransom or to try to find the bomb before it explodes. To be able to find the bomb, you require an adequate number of security personnel who will then travel through the building via the emergency stairs on either side of your tower. A security office can hold six personnel who can cover a floor each and with a sufficiently narrow tower, a single security office can reasonably cover fifteen floors, but an office every six floors may be sensible in a wider tower. Similarly, fires can break out in your tower that can only be put out by security personnel.

Graphically, SimTower was never especially impressive, but its simplicity suits the gameplay. The player views the tower from a side-on two-dimensional view with simple sprites making up the various elements of the tower, including the facilities, the elevators, the stairs and so on. Tenants and residents are represented by sprites taking the form of silhouettes. These silhouettes are most regularly seen waiting for elevators and change colour from black to pink and then to red based on how long they have been waiting and how stressed out they are. The graphics are simple, but effective enough and while they were designed for the likes of 640×480 displays on computers running Windows 3.1 or 95 or Macintosh System 7, they are at least not ugly on bigger displays.

The sound is very simple as well, with no music, but instead a constant sequence of background noises, like the movement of elevators, office chatter and so on. I think your mileage may vary as to whether you find these effective in a minimalistic way or just annoying; I tend towards the former. There isn’t really any time where these sounds become critical to playing the game, so if they do annoy you, it’s not a big deal to turn them off, but they do enough of a job of giving you some feedback as to the state of your tower that they aren’t obstructive to gameplay.

Thinking about the game as a whole, I don’t think there’s anything that I’d say really stands out in SimTower as a game. The tower management aspect is novel, but similar titles such as the SimCity series offer similar management aspects using a different presentation. The aesthetic elements of the game are not and never were spectacular, but they do the job. However, there isn’t anything bad about SimTower that stands out either. The game is well designed and does what it sets out to do appropriately. The difficulty of progressing past the third star on towards a complete tower may make the game unsuitable as an entry point into construction and management simulations, but the game has a novel perspective to offer people who already enjoy simulators.

Bottom Line: SimTower is an unspectacular but decent simulation game that offers a novel perspective to construction and management simulation.

Recommendation: SimTower will offer the most fun to already experienced simulation gamers. To others, the genre is not action-packed and rewards planning; if that sounds like your thing, SimTower may offer you a fair bit of fun.

Half-Life 2 – A Retrospective Review

“Rise and shine, Mister Freeman, rise and… shine. Not that I wish… to imply that you have been sleeping on… the job. No one is more deserving of a rest, and all the effort in the world would have gone to waste until… well… let’s just say your hour has come again. The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world. So wake up, Mister Freeman…wake up and… smell the ashes.” – The G-Man, during the introduction to Half-Life 2.

When Valve Software released Half-Life in 1998, they came straight out of the gate with a game that is now regarded as one of the best and most important computer games ever released. Half-Life not only brought a stronger sense of storytelling and atmosphere into the mainstream of first-person shooters, but also served as the launch point for a huge variety of mods, including Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Team Fortress Classic. With this pedigree, Half-Life 2 became one of the most hyped titles of the early 2000s – and managed to live up to the hype. Half-Life 2 revolutionised computer game physics, represented the best in a generation of increasingly realistic graphics and used some of the most intelligent AI code seen to that point.

Half-Life 2 continues the adventures of Gordon Freeman, the protagonist of the original Half-Life. At the time of the original game, Gordon Freeman was a theoretical physicist, recently awarded his doctorate and working at the Black Mesa Research Facility, a military installation controlled by the United States government. Against the odds, Gordon Freeman managed to survive the alien invasion of the facility after an experimental disaster and was employed by the enigmatic G-Man, being kept in suspended animation until his services were required again.

Twenty years later, at the beginning of Half-Life 2, Gordon Freeman is brought out of his suspended animation, ending up on a train entering City 17, a mega-city located tentatively in Eastern Europe. The game wastes no time in presenting the consequences of the invasion at Black Mesa, as Gordon Freeman returns to a world where the people of Earth have been enslaved, under the administration of Doctor Breen, former administrator of Black Mesa and Quisling to the invading forces of the interstellar empire of the Combine. Floating camera drones buzz around, constantly observing and photographing the citizens of Earth; armed, uniformed and masked guards of Civil Protection stand as sentinels around the city, with no hesitation at beating and humiliating citizens for any hint of defiance.

The Vortigaunts who had proved so hostile against Gordon Freeman in the original game have been reduced to an even lower status than the humans, abjectly left to janitorial roles under the supervision of the brutish Civil Protection, while huge war machines resembling the tripods from The War of the Worlds march through the streets of City 17. Unarmed and given little indication of where to go, Gordon soon meets with Barney Calhoun, a security guard from Black Mesa and friend of Gordon who has been working undercover as a Civil Protection guard.

Directed towards the hidden lab of Dr. Isaac Kleiner, another old friend of Gordon who had worked with him at the time of the Black Mesa incident, Gordon goes towards the laboratory and before long is being chased through the streets of City 17 by Civil Protection guards and APCs. With the assistance of Alyx Vance, the daughter of another former scientist at Black Mesa, Gordon reaches Dr. Kleiner’s lab, where the revelation is made that the surviving scientists from Black Mesa have covertly been doing their own research into teleportation.

With the return of Gordon Freeman, who through his improbable survival of the events of Black Mesa, stopping the initial alien invasion, has inadvertently become a prophetic figure and a standard to rally behind, the seeds are sown for rebellion and insurrection. However, the teleportation technology of the resistance is untested. A failure of one of the components during an initial teleportation run ends up alerting the Combine to Gordon’s presence and leaves Gordon in a situation where he must run and fight for his life – and eventually for the lives of humanity.

The game presents this narrative to the player through a strong and distinctive cinematic technique where the camera perspective never leaves the sight of Gordon Freeman. Half-Life 2 uses the visual medium superbly, with a distinctive architectural arrangement which evokes the crumbling concrete apartment blocks of the Soviet era in Eastern Europe. This contrasts with the futuristic, industrial, metallic aesthetic of the buildings of the Combine, especially the colossal Citadel at the centre of the city, reaching far into the clouds and dominating the skyline. Gigantic screens dot the city, presenting propaganda broadcasts from Doctor Breen and the Combine. The citizens of Earth have been outfitted with the same overall-style clothing, which both invokes a sense of the citizens being unskilled workers and prisoners on their own planet.

Importantly, the game doesn’t become overbearing with these details, presenting just enough of them at a time to create a realistic impression of the world after the Black Mesa incident and the Combine invasion. Indeed, Valve’s attention to detail seems to be extremely professional, with a polish which shows the artistry that went into the game.

The gameplay demonstrates similar polish. At its core, it continues the same sort of linear first-person shooter action of its predecessor, but brings a set of important improvements which help update the game and make it feel more immersive and visceral. Chief among these was the introduction of realistic physics through the use of the Havok middleware package. The use of realistic physics not only helps immersion through relatively realistic interactions of objects, such as the scattering of objects with explosions or the ragdoll physics of dead enemies, but also plays a big part in the game itself.

One of the biggest and most touted features in Half-Life 2 was the Zero Point Energy Manipulator (also known as the Gravity Gun), a device allowing the player to pick up, move and violently hurl objects around them. This comes in handy at several points in the game, where it can be used to move obstacles out of one’s path, use other objects to shield one’s self or build impromptu stacks of objects to climb to out-of-the-way places or use the objects as weapons by hurling them into enemies. It does seem appropriate that a game named after a physics concept, with a physicist as a main character, was one of the first to use realistic physics in such a way.

However, there are a few instances where the game turns into a showcase for the physics engine and the Gravity Gun. There are a few instances where you must manipulate certain objects in a certain way to proceed and the game seems to go almost as far as to shout out, “This is a physics puzzle!”, which doesn’t help with immersion. Luckily, such occasions are few and far between. By and large, the physics manipulations are integrated very well into the game and really help with making the game feel more of an authentic experience.

Another place in which Half-Life 2 feels distinctive is in the vehicular sections. At certain parts of the game, you are required to use various vehicles in order to progress – an airboat used for getting through the canals of City 17 and a stripped-out scout buggy for roaming the countryside outside of the city itself. While vehicular sections in first-person shooters weren’t new by that stage, most contemporary games rendered their vehicle sections in either third-person, in imitation of Halo, or in a modified first-person perspective, such as through gun sights. Half-Life 2, on the other hand, steadfastly sticks to its “eyes of Gordon Freeman” first-person perspective throughout.

The vehicular sections in Half-Life 2 are a bit of a love-or-hate beast, since they are quite a divergence from the core gameplay, but I personally love them. They present a sense of speed and exhilaration as you make your way through obstacles, enemies and the scenery around you. There are plenty of stunning set-pieces, such as being chased through the canals and tunnels by an attack helicopter, culminating in a duel to the death near a large dam. There are opportunities to experience the potential of the vehicles as weapons in their own right as you use them to plough through the infantry forces of the Combine. Between that and the use of realistic physics with the vehicle handling, I think that these sections represent some of the best vehicular action in any first-person shooter.

Speaking of set-piece battles, there are some spectacular ones outside of the vehicle sections as well. Alien gunships periodically attack, forcing the player to shoot them down with rockets, steering the rockets past the defences of the gunship as it seeks to shoot down the player’s rockets in mid-flight. Even the standard infantry of the Combine can offer some impressive battles, with AI that was at that point very impressive, even if you don’t get to see their full potential in the tight corridors of the city.

Half-Life 2 was a graphical masterpiece when it was released, even managing to look distinctly better than its best contemporaries. Surprisingly, the game still looks good ten years after its first release, especially with the addition of HDR lighting in conjunction with the release of Half-Life 2: Episode One. While later games have improved on texturing, especially at close ranges, Half-Life 2 certainly does not look embarrassing, especially given that its architectural aesthetic was so distinctive.

The sound design of the game is similarly impressive. There are realistic sounds for all interactions with the environment, including the meaty sounds of the guns in the game. The sounds of the enemies are all distinctive and impressive, from the muffled radio reports of the Combine soldiers to the screeches of the headcrabs and the groaning of the zombies. The game’s music is a peculiar mix of various genres, from rock to techno to ambient, but it is set up very well to create atmosphere and is a credit to Kelly Bailey, long-time composer for the series.

Given the polish of Half-Life 2 and the way it shines out in gameplay and presentation, there are few flaws which I can point at in the game. Some of the physics puzzles are a bit blatant, while there is a short period after you are forced to abandon the scout buggy where I feel the game slows down a lot in a jarring change from fast-paced action and set-piece battles. The section of the game takes place on the coast line outside of City 17, where alien creatures known as antlions burrow out of the ground whenever you touch the sand on the beach. Cue frustration as you try to either fend off enemies as they persistently attack you or try desperately to stack objects in front of you in what feels like an extended game of “keep off the lava”. The addition of an achievement for getting through this section without touching the sand adds to the frustration; I have the achievement, more out of sheer bloody-minded completionism more than anything else, but I won’t be going for it again any time soon.

Despite those occasional flaws, Half-Life 2 is a triumph of first-person shooter design. The polished professionalism shines out as an example of how to do a cinematic game without bogging down the action with overly long cutscenes. The gameplay is tight and intuitive, while the game physics and the strong AI work well to improve immersion. Half-Life 2 is a masterpiece of modern game design and should stand as an example for any developers hoping to develop in the genre.

Bottom Line: Half-Life 2 is a masterpiece, combining excellently polished gameplay and design with graphics and sound that are still impressive. The cinematic presentation works exceptionally well and creates immersion in a way that should be an example to other developers even now.