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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

Doom – A Retrospective Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MechWarrior 3 – A Retrospective Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MechLab

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

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

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

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

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

Battle

In the middle of battle with some Light BattleMechs.

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

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

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

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

System Shock – An Updated Retrospective Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Fantasy IV – A Retrospective Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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