World War II Grabbag: Hearts of Iron III & Il-2 Sturmovik

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been indulging in a few of my recent purchases from the Steam and GOG.com Summer Sales. Among these have been two games set in World War II, namely Hearts of Iron III and Il-2 Sturmovik. While I haven’t played either game enough to fulfil my criteria when it comes to reviewing them (both games have a campaign mode, which I haven’t completed in either case), I’ll give you my first impressions of the games. While the two games are in very different genres – Hearts of Iron III is a “real-time-with-pause” grand strategy game, while Il-2 Sturmovik is a combat flight simulator, the games share at least one element aside from their historical setting: They are both very involving and extremely complex.

To start off, Hearts of Iron III, developed by Paradox Interactive and part of their collection of grand strategy games, including the Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis series, places you in the role of leader of a country between 1936 and 1948, encompassing the years between Nazi Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland and the start of the Cold War. World War II is an inevitability, but it doesn’t need to turn out as it did in reality and the game allows you to explore possibilities like France never falling to Germany, an expansionist United States joining the Axis – or, if you want to go really bizarre, the Comintern – and using their industrial might to take Central America, or Germany forming its Greater German Reich and holding Europe firmly in its grasp.

The game is based around three factions, the Allies, Axis and Comintern, who fight for victory points, which are based around the world map and correspond to important cities and regions. The Allies naturally attract democratic nations, the Axis naturally attract nations under authoritarian governments such as fascism and national socialism, while the Comintern attract socialist and communist nations. Through a combination of military might and diplomatic influence, the three factions attempt to attract new nations to their cause or to subsume them into their own structure, bolstering their claim upon the world. However, a conquered nation may choose to resist, forming a government-in-exile, awaiting assistance from their allies.

The world map encompasses most of the world’s surface, with the exception of Antarctica and the Arctic Circle, both of which are militarily useless at that point of time. The map is subdivided into regions, some of which are more important than others due to their population, resources, industrial capacity and so on. The most important regions are denoted by the aforementioned victory points, which, when conquered, adds those victory points to the total of the faction of which that nation is a member (if any) and also bring the nation whose region has been captured closer to surrender.

However, you can’t just declare war on whoever you like, as your ability to wage war is limited by the wills of your population, which is represented in three ways: your national unity, which represents how closely the people of the nation identify with the nation as a cause; your neutrality, which represents how willing your population is to go to war and the threat posed by various other nations. If your neutrality is too low compared to the threat posed by another nation or the threat posed by you to the other nation, you will be unable to declare war, while if your national unity is too low, you will be unable to follow political policies aimed towards military mobilisation. However, if your country is already at war, some of these policies can be put into place despite low national unity or high neutrality – and typically, when two factions go to war, all of the constituent nations of those factions will wage war against each other.

To progress in the game, you have to balance multiple different facets of your country’s policies, including the deployment and movement of your country’s military forces, looking after the industrial elements of your country, including balancing military production, reinforcement, production of war supplies and consumer goods, diplomatic engagement with other countries and espionage and counter-espionage. As mentioned above, the game is very involving with all of its various facets to be managed. This is harder for nations who have to fight on more than one front at a time, in particular the United Kingdom, whose territories overseas are at just as much risk of invasion as their domestic territories and the Soviet Union, whose expansive territories are thinly reinforced to begin with and who will have to pick their battles intelligently. I recommend starting off with either a nation who will play a small, but important role as part of a faction, such as Canada or South Africa, or a small, neutral nation who can join a faction at their will, such as Ireland or one of the Central American nations.

While the game is rather abstract in various ways, with entire military divisions being represented by a NATO-style symbol on the map, there is plenty of complexity even at that level of abstraction. Industrial capability is represented by a figure called Industrial Capacity, which affects how many military units can be produced, upgraded or reinforced at any one time, along with how many supplies can be produced to feed and arm your troops. Some of that industrial capacity has to be used to produce consumer goods to keep your citizens happy and productive. Industrial capacity can only be maintained with sufficient levels of various resources, like Energy (representing fuels like coal and peat), Metal (steel, aluminium, etc.) and Rare Materials (such as gold, rubber, phospates, etc.). Often, your country will not produce enough of these resources by itself, necessitating trading with other nations. Trading requires the Money resource, a certain amount of which is produced in the country itself, but which can be attained more quickly by trading your surplus resources to other countries.

On the battlefield, troops require supplies and fuel to be provided to them in order for them to be able to fight in enemy territory as well as to fight at their optimal capacity. This requires sufficient infrastructure to be built along the supply train so that the supplies can be delivered in a timely fashion, while enemy encirclement can cut you off from supplies apart from those that can be foraged from the region in which your units reside. However, supplies can be airlifted in using transport planes, but transport planes are vulnerable to enemy interception. Battles are waged on land, in the sea and in the air between different units, which are strong in various areas (and in the case of land units, in different terrains), but weak in others. All of this is before the construction of fortifications, radar stations, additional factories, et cetera, or the development of hierarchical military structures from divisions to corps to armies and army groups. Needless to say after the above summation, there are a lot of things to be taken care of, requiring a lot of attention and care.

While you can choose to have various elements of the gameplay controlled by the game’s AI, which does help with the complexity when you’re starting off, the AI can be inclined to make decisions that are at the least slightly boneheaded. This very style of game appeals most to the sorts of people who will find that anathematic in any case and it is that sort of person – the person who would be known as a “grognard” in tabletop wargaming spheres – that this game will appeal to the most.

Il-2 Sturmovik, while in a very different genre, also displays a level of complexity and detail which can be breathtaking in both the positive and negative connotations of the word. Designed by 1C:Maddox, a Russian developer which was a constituent part of 1C Company, one of Russia’s largest independent game developers and publishers, Il-2 Sturmovik focused originally on the Eastern Front of World War II around the eponymous Soviet ground attack aircraft, but over the course of time has amassed several expansion packs which have taken its scope way beyond its original premise, to the Finnish Continuation War of 1941 to 1944, the war in the Pacific Ocean and even to the Western Front in the speculative 1946 expansion pack, which simulates various late-war experimental aircraft that never made it to production.

While, as with Hearts of Iron III, Il-2 Sturmovik can be made easier by adjusting the options to your liking, the ultimate aim of the game is to be an uncompromisingly hardcore combat flight simulator, feeling as close to the real deal as possible with the technology available and it feels a little like cheating to deny the game that chance by turning off the simulation elements. The game is set at a time where, unlike today’s modern combat planes, whose computerised fly-by-wire systems make them relatively easy to fly and the challenge is in figuring out the avionics, even the best planes had vices and few aircraft approximated the legendary performance of a Spitfire or an Fw 190. In this game, a lot of the challenge is in getting the aeroplane to behave itself even in normal flight, let alone when you’re in a tight dogfight with an enemy plane on your tail.

The flight model in Il-2 Sturmovik is very impressive, capturing the little details which make various planes different, including the tendency for early-model Spitfires to cut out under negative G, the poor low-altitude performance of high-flyers like the P-51 Mustang and MiG-3 and the poor manoeuvrability of several of the heavier aircraft. You also have to manage the state of your plane during flight, with engines that can overheat when they’re kept on full power for too long and excessive stresses on the frame leading to handling difficulties. The planes are all modelled accurately inside as well, with cockpit visibility sometimes becoming a concern with some fighters including the Bf 109 and Hurricane variants.

While the general flight model is a treat to behold, it is in combat where the game really excels. The game really depicts the challenge of taking down even the slowest aircraft, like early-war bombers and transport planes, especially when you have a stream of tracer rounds coming at you from multiple angles. Different parts of the plane react differently when hit, with aileron, elevator and rudder controls that can be damaged, fuel tanks that can be set on fire or even made to explode and engines which can end up splattering oil over your windscreen or with their cooling systems damaged. An engine that’s been hit doesn’t just always catastrophically fail either; you can often feel the gradual loss of power and hear the whining of a failing engine as it slowly succumbs to its damage, necessitating a good deal of care if you want to get back to base in one piece. The pilot can also take damage, with injured legs and arms affecting flight performance and the possibility of bleeding to death.

While I’ve been very impressed from what I’ve seen in the game, I do have one particular complaint about Il-2 Sturmovik, in that the number of expansion packs and the dated UI make it difficult to figure out where to begin. There are numerous missions and campaigns available in multiple air forces along with a quick mission creator and a comprehensive mission editor, but the game doesn’t really direct you to any one of them at this point of time – well, aside, maybe with the title and original premise of the game.

Another minor niggle is that while everything else in the game is depicted with astounding accuracy, starting up your plane involves nothing more than a single button press, which to anybody who knows planes, doesn’t hold true for even the simplest general aviation planes, let alone World War II warbirds. I’m a little more inclined to let that slide than the UI problems, though, since given the number of different planes and the differences in starting all of these up, most people would just get exasperated trying the complex procedures to get various planes going. Il-2 Sturmovik isn’t a study sim, after all.

I’ve got about 60 hours played in Hearts of Iron III and just over 10 hours in Il-2 Sturmovik, but I predict that I’ll get plenty more hours out of both games. The complexity in both games means that I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot of potential left to exploit.

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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.

Why I hope that SteamOS will be successful

I’m a Linux user. Linux has, for several years, been my primary operating system on nearly every computer that I own – I have run openSUSE on my desktops since before it was called openSUSE, I run various versions of Ubuntu on my laptops, Raspbian on my two Raspberry Pis and I even have Debian derivatives running on my Wii and PlayStation 2.

I am also a PC gamer, something which really shouldn’t come as a surprise given my history of video game reviews. I have been playing PC games since the mid-1990s, starting with various MS-DOS games such as SimEarth and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, proceeding to Windows 95 with Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn, Sid Meier’s Civilization II and SimCity 2000 and continuing to the present day with my most recent acquisitions including The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the entire Tropico series and most recently, Arma 3.

Unfortunately for me, these two facts do not reconcile very well. While gaming of some variety has been possible on Linux since before I started, many of the games available have been open-source projects, ranging from casual puzzle or card games up to the likes of NetHack and Battle for Wesnoth. Most commercial video games on Linux have been from indie developers whose audiences are committed enough to their titles to deal with any hiccups they might experience when dealing with Linux, while a few older FPS titles come courtesy either of id Software’s policy of releasing their engines under open-source licences a few years after their release or by extensive reverse-engineering of the game engines to allow the games to run under Linux.

A lot of the games in question are very impressive in terms of gameplay and are to be lauded for that, but being a Linux user has often meant some sort of compromise in gaming terms. In order to experience the same games as the mainstream audience, one either has to run Windows as a secondary operating system, with the commensurate use of disc space on a separate partition, faff around with Windows emulation, which falls short on the most recent games and on several older titles or simply buy a console at significant expense. I have traditionally opted for the former but consider it to be somewhat irritating in the face of disadvantages of Windows that led me towards using Linux primarily in the first place.

Until recently, the highest-profile company whose games were available under Linux were id Software, largely because of John Carmack’s insistence on the open-source availability of their engines. That has changed of the last year or so, when Valve Software announced the release of SteamOS, a custom distribution of Linux designed for playing games. Valve Software have been one of the poster children for PC gaming for several years. After coming straight off the starting blocks with Half-Life in 1998, they have barely put a foot wrong since then. The highlight of this streak of strong titles has been the groundbreaking Half-Life 2 in 2004, a game which proved that Valve’s original title wasn’t just a flash in the pan.

What’s important to note here, though, is that Valve have also been a strong force for promoting independent game design. Steam, released in late 2003, has been the most notable example of a content delivery system done right. Among Steam’s features are the automated installation of patches, several community features allowing coordination of gameplay with friends and publication of screenshots and videos and a cloud storage system allowing save files and achievement progress to be distributed quickly to several different systems.

Valve are also known for their strong commercial and distribution advantages. The Steam store frequently has sales on various game titles, occasionally offering extensive discounts on games – my purchase of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for €3.74 in June this year has been a particular highlight for me. They also promote independent game studios and offer a strong alternative to traditional publishers. Recent additions to Steam include the Steam Workshop and Greenlight, the former a way of quickly distributing user-created content, thus promoting one of the biggest advantages of PC gaming and the latter being a way for independent game developers to promote titles they may want to be made available on Steam. A number of “Early Access” titles in alpha or beta form are available through the Steam store as some forms of PC game development proceed towards a more audience-oriented method of bug-testing.

Valve have already done a great deal of work in promoting Linux as a gaming platform, having ported all of their own titles to Linux and selling or distributing hundreds more through the Steam store. Valve may well be the vanguard for making Linux gaming a viable alternative to Windows and offer the strong selection of their own titles along with the notable advantages of Steam as a game distribution platform. The proof in the pudding, however, will be when more mainstream developers see fit to release Linux titles as a consequence of Valve’s own orientation towards the platform.

As for the statement posited in the title, I prefer Linux as an operating system environment. I prefer the way that, even with a hefty desktop environment like KDE, my computer will feel quicker and less prone to hiccups in utility software when running Linux versus Windows. I prefer the flexibility to change parts of Linux as one sees fit, running different desktop environments or window managers as desired. I prefer the free and open-source nature of Linux and while Steam won’t offer much in the way of software that is “free as in freedom”, most of my utility software will remain free for me to modify as necessary – or even as desired. I’ve also grown used to the idiosyncracies of a Unix-like environment, from the file system to the command line – I can use Windows perfectly fine, along with a host of other graphical user interfaces, but my growing experience with Unix-like systems gives me a sense of familiarity that I find more pleasing.

PC gaming has, by and large, required me to use Windows. I find Windows works perfectly fine when I run games on it – they run smoothly right up to the point where the graphics card or processor cries uncle. I don’t find that sort of smoothness with utility software. Mozilla Firefox hiccups and splutters, frequently lacking response. Windows Explorer isn’t much better and in any case lacks some neat features from Konqueror on KDE or even Thunar for XFCE, including tabbed browsing. These sorts of hiccups may be down to the fact that my installation of Windows 7 really needs reinstallation, but there are too many idiosyncratic solutions I’ve had to make to get modded games running for me to do that. Then there’s the fact that I have to pretty much install a Unix-like environment through Cygwin if I want to have a programming environment like I’m used to. None of this software has regular updates through a package manager like I’ve become accustomed to on Linux either.

As a consequence, having to switch between the two operating systems between playing games and running utility and programming software is awkward and in any case, running Windows feels like a chore. I’ve said in the past elsewhere and I’ll say it again: Find me a way to get my game library running on Linux without much more effort than it takes to run the games on Windows and it will be difficult to find a reason for me to use anything else.

To close this article, I’ve recently reinstalled Steam on Linux with the aim of experimenting on how well games actually work. Installing Steam wasn’t too difficult – I just had to find a separate package for openSUSE as the package on the Steam website is designed for Ubuntu, Debian and other Debian derivatives with an APT package manager. I tested the original Half-Life, which ran pretty much perfectly – not a surprise, as I already knew that Quake III worked properly. I then installed Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, the smallest Source engine game in my collection.

After a bit of searching on Google to find the workaround to a problem involving a certain proprietary bit of software known as S3TC – one of those patent-related exploits which is unpatentable under the superior European patent system – I was able to get the game running. While I shouldn’t have been surprised, given the age of the Source engine, I had almost top settings straight off the bat with reasonably smooth performance using open-source ATI drivers. This was a pleasant surprise as I had expected stuttering, even given that my Radeon HD 4890 is easily capable of running Half-Life 2. Valve have clearly put effort into making sure that their Linux ports work, which is good to see. If Valve can succeed with Linux and convince other mainstream game companies to follow in their wake, we could see a viable alternative to Windows in yet another way.

Grand Theft Auto III – A Retrospective Review

(This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version; I have played, but not completed the PC version and my experiences are sufficiently out-of-date to be irrelevant to this review.)

By the time that the Sony PlayStation 2 replaced the original PlayStation, Sony had made what was then the best-selling console of all time. The PlayStation 2 would sell even more units, a large part of its success being attributable to the Grand Theft Auto series, several of which are still among the best-selling games ever made. Before the release of Grand Theft Auto III, the Grand Theft Auto series had comprised a set of top-down action-adventure games set in a sandbox; Grand Theft Auto III shifted the game to a 3D perspective and gave the game a proper, focused story to go with the sandbox action.

Grand Theft Auto III is a third-person sandbox action-adventure game, first released in 2001 and developed by DMA Design Limited, a Scottish developer now named Rockstar North. At the start of the game, the protagonist – unnamed in the game itself, but later named Claude in the series spinoff, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – is involved in a bank robbery in the vicinity of Liberty City, which is based on New York City, with his girlfriend and another associate. As the protagonist is escaping, he turns a corner to see his girlfriend, Catalina, pointing a pair of pistols at him. Catalina shoots the protagonist and leaves him for dead while escaping with the proceeds of the robbery; the protagonist survives, but is sentenced to ten years in prison for his part in the robbery.

While the protagonist is being transported across Liberty City, a gang of members of the Colombian Cartel ambushes the police convoy. While the Cartel is taking another prisoner hostage, an Oriental gentleman unrelated to the robbery, the protagonist takes the opportunity to free himself and flee from custody along with another prisoner, an explosives specialist called 8-Ball. Having found a hideout in Liberty City’s Red Light District, the protagonist starts taking jobs for associates of the city’s Mafia, eventually branching out to other employers and other parts of the city as the game goes on. This ultimately culminates in a plot to get revenge against Catalina, who has involved herself in a scheme to spread a new drug around Liberty City.

The main story of the game involves the conflict between Catalina and the protagonist, along with the Colombian Cartel’s attempts to spread the drug, SPANK, around Liberty City and is told through a chain of missions for various employers throughout the city. The early game limits you to a single island of the city, with the other two islands being unlocked as the story progresses. Along with the story employers, there are a number of other employers who will hire you for other missions, including leaders of some of the various gangs in the city.

The game, as the title suggests, revolves a lot around cars and other motor vehicles. The player character can also explore the city on foot as well as collect a set of weapons ranging from pistols and sub-machine guns to rocket launchers and sniper rifles. However, since the game focuses to a large extent on the automotive action, there aren’t as many places where you need to use those weapons as their availability would imply; some of the story missions require you to use certain weapons, but outside of that, a lot of the weapons are superseded by the ease of using cars for the same tasks, since you experience no physical damage while you’re inside an intact car.

While you start with a reasonably good car, the car handling in the game is not especially accurate, making it easy to hit other objects and damage the car to the point where it will catch on fire and explode – and immolate the player character if he hasn’t managed to get out in time. With cars also exploding if they are turned on their roof or if they come in contact with gunfire, explosions or a sufficient level of fire from incendiary weapons, many players will have consequence to change cars regularly.

The main way to acquire cars is to hijack them, either from the side of the road or from passing road users. You can also store cars in garage spaces allocated to you, with one space allocated at the start of the game and more space unlocked as you progress through the game. However, if you’re caught hijacking cars by the roaming police officers, you will attract police attention. The level of police attention is indicated by a set of stars in the top right-hand corner of the screen, ranging from a single star where the police will only use non-lethal force against you and ranging up from there towards roadblocks, SWAT teams and even FBI and army attention.

When you are caught or injured sufficiently, you are returned to the nearest police station or hospital with a small financial cost – covering hospital bills or police bribes – as well as the loss of all of your acquired weapons. This is somewhat perplexing, though, given the protagonist’s crimes and subsequent sentence in the introduction of the game; surely, somebody with a ten-year sentence for armed robbery wouldn’t be able to get out of police custody with a small bribe. Nevertheless, a small consequence arises from being taking too much damage or being arrested, more because of the loss of your weapons rather than the financial cost, since money is largely worthless in Grand Theft Auto III.

A variety of additional missions and challenges exist, from the collection of a series of hidden packages and challenges involving jumping over obstacles in cars to side missions involving acting as a taxi driver, a vigilante or an ambulance driver. These range from the fun – the vigilante and unique jumps being particular highlights, to the tedious – the necessity to get 100 taxi fares to unlock a hidden vehicle is repetitive while the hidden packages promote exploration but also cause a lot of backtracking without a map, to the frustrating – the ambulance missions require you not only to use a slow, wishy-washy and top-heavy vehicle, but to drive precisely against a time limit.

Many of these side missions and challenges come with financial rewards, but these end up being rather worthless even by the middle of the game. You can use the money to respray and repair your vehicles and to buy weapons, while a couple of story missions require you to hand over large sums of money, but money comes in thick and fast from employers, let alone side missions and, in a hold-over from previous Grand Theft Auto games, even causing damage to other cars. The biggest rewards come from completing a sufficient number of vigilante or fire extinguishing missions along with the collection of the hidden packages; these missions give you additional weapons or police bribes at your hideouts, which are very useful for completing some of the challenges in the game.

Graphically, Grand Theft Auto III is adequate for an early PlayStation 2 game, with decent polygonal models for the environments and vehicles, although the characters’ faces look a bit off compared to the rest of the models. The environments don’t have as much personality as those of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and they end up looking a bit generic compared to the distinctive styles of the later titles in the PlayStation 2 generation. Similarly, the sounds are adequate as well and work well with the rest of the setting, with a decent selection of sounds for vehicles, bystanders and police.

One of the most persistent features in the Grand Theft Auto series has been the ability to select radio stations in vehicles while driving. Unfortunately, Grand Theft Auto III‘s radio stations are not as strong as those in later PlayStation 2 era Grand Theft Auto titles, with a substantially smaller selection of songs on each station compared to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and for my money, worse options than on the latter titles.

However, the wry and zany nature of the Grand Theft Auto games does show up well with the radio commercials, from the Petsovernight.com parody of the ridiculous sites of the dot-com bubble to the advertisements for the gargantuan Maibatsu Monstrosity making fun of the SUV craze which was as evident in 2001 as it is now. The Chatterbox 109 station, featuring the omnipresent Lazlow Jones, who has featured as a consultant and a radio personality in every home-console/personal computer Grand Theft Auto game since this one, also has a nice selection of crazy phone-in callers with various crackpot views and peculiarities.

When you take Grand Theft Auto III in context with its contemporary titles, it’s not difficult to see why it has been so influential in game design since then. It was one of the first games to offer not only a big sandbox to have fun in but also a well-plotted storyline in a genre that wasn’t a Western RPG. However, while it hasn’t aged badly, it has been displaced by its lineal successors in a lot of aspects. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City offered a more stylised environment with more personality in the game, while Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas offers a much bigger environment and arguably a much more intense story.

Probably Grand Theft Auto III‘s biggest downfall versus its successors is the comparative lack of things to do outside of the formal mission structure. It is still fun to cause mayhem with a shoot-out against police, but once you do this enough to acquire a tank – or acquire a tank at the end of the game, there isn’t anything the police can do to threaten you any more. With money being mostly useless, it just becomes a token to collect at will. There are the rampages, unique jumps and off-road missions to complete, which do make 100% completion a challenging prospect, but there isn’t as much of a sense of achievement from them as there could have been. Nevertheless, Grand Theft Auto III is still fun and deserves to be remembered as a turning point in video game design.

Bottom Line: Grand Theft Auto III was a revolutionary game and is still fun, but has been displaced by its successors, particularly in its own series.

Recommendation: For casual sandbox gamers, if you can pick up Grand Theft Auto III as a cheap second-hand title, it would be well worth a bite, but Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a better introduction into this era of Grand Theft Auto games. I’d expect many sandbox enthusiasts to have already played and completed the game, but if you haven’t, snatch it up – it’s still worth playing.

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.