I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

- 07/04/17 Games,Reviews

Released in 1995, just as the adventure game genre was falling off a cliff, I Have No Mouth Et Cetera captures the industry in its final burn-it-to-the-ground moments, where everyone was flailing around and trying to find something that would attract their audience back from Myst. A lot of risky experiments date to this period, including this one, an adaptation of a Harlan Ellison short story.

The story is much the same. Fuelled by Cold War hysteria, the human race has engineered its own coffin. A godlike supercomputer called AM controls the earth, and for its amusement it keeps alive the last five humans for more than a century, torturing them in all sorts of physical and psychological ways. But at last it has grown bored, and will engage its captives in a final game: they must survive a scenario constructed from their own minds, and their own repressed traumas.

Gorrister, a suicidal loner who resents women. Ellen, who relives a violent rape whenever she sees the color yellow. Benny, a hapless pawn who has been altered to look like a gorilla. Ted, a paranoid lunatic who is “so twitchy he could make poison ivy nervous.” Nimdok, a Nazi scientist who assisted Dr Mengele in the Holocaust.

Using a point and click interface you explore each of these characters’ minds. Whether you can “win” is unclear, even at the end. AM has complete control over all of these characters, and there’s no reason for what it tells them about their backstories to be completely accurate.

At its best, IHNMAIMS is a fascinating and memorable experience, and it’s often at its best. It takes away most of the comical aspects of Ellison’s story (like the “AM gave us canned food but no can opener” gag), and adds a ton of psychological depth. The story was about five interchangable nobodies surviving a maniac computer. The game centers its focus on the characters, and explores their pain. Rather than a telescope looking outwards, it’s an MRI looking inwards.

Unfortunately, there’s a reason the adventure game genre died, and IHNMAIMS doesn’t break the trend too much.

It’s full of pixel hunts, full of “puzzles” that amount to blind guesses, and the lack of direction means that you cannot solve the game in any logical way. The game conjurs a dreamlike atmosphere, which helps the narrative but poisons the gameplay. A large part of IHNMAIMS consists of wandering around in a daze, clicking on stuff.

One particular point grates: you have to cross a bridge, but it requires a passcode that only Nimdok knows (meaning that there’s an 80% chance you’ll select a character that has no way of getting through that particular point). There’s no way to figure out the passcode, and no way to get past that point. You’ve either made the correct choice previously in the game, or you haven’t. Thanks, guys. Throw a shovelfull of rotting haddock on my desk while you’re at it, to really make my day.

The interface is unintuitive. There’s ample opportunities to “strand” yourself, with no way forward and no way back (and you won’t know this in advance, so your save is now probably useless), and the puzzles are usually completely unclear as to whether you’ve solved them or not. That’s my criticism of IHNMAIMS writ small: there’s never any goddamn feedback when you do something. Are you going the right way? The wrong way? Oh, questions, questions!

Grognards spit upon “The 7th Guest” as not being a true adventure game, but in a way, it got something right. The puzzles were self contained, and had rules that you could follow. You’d beat one, and move on to the next one. Sometimes those puzzles were hard, but you could always understand them. You weren’t wandering around trying to guess what the developers wanted you to do!

So you have a fascinating layer of content, but it’s stuck inside a frequently clunky and frustrating adventure game. Unfortunately, stories improve games far more than games improve stories, and IHNMAIMS is exhibit A in the prosecution’s case.


Super Noah’s Ark 3D

- 03/04/17 Games,Reviews

Notorious rip of Wolfenstein 3D with a family-friendly Christian theme. Instead of shooting Nazis, you’re feeding animals. Hitler is a monkey.

If the creators had been more self aware, they would have made it exactly five minutes long, because that’s the point where everyone stops playing. You fire up the game, laugh at its kitschness, and then get bored and play the actual Wolfenstein 3D. It has episodes? And boss fights? What were they thinking? Who the hell cares? It’s like rubbernecking a crash. Fun for a few seconds, but these guys assume you want to spent your whole damned day gawking at a t-boned car.

The game actually plays okay. It has the same mechanics Wolfenstein 3D, and it’s about as enjoyable as Blake Stone or any other clone games that were rushed to market. You’re not chewing your face off while playing it.

But it exposes the problem at the heart of 99% of “ironic” clone games – it’s a setting brutally forced upon a gameplay concept that it has nothing to do with. The Wolfenstein 3D engine was designed for violent first person shooters. You can’t turn it into a religious family friendly game by giving the main character a food pellet gun instead of a pistol. The mismatch between concept and game is stark, and ultimately impossible to ignore. It’s like one of Richard Cheese’s “death metal lounge music” songs, except it was made in deadly seriousness.

The graphics are okay for 1992, not so much for 1994. In a touching nod to the rising grunge genre, the music blows. The slingshot makes an irritating *BOING* sound that drove me to killing my audio altogether. I don’t understand why all the animals have hitscan attacks. I keep dying from across the room for no apparent reason. Goat spit is apparently fatal. Wolfenstein 3D tended to have an overdose of mazes, and so does this one.

There’s little scrolls you pick up that force you to answer Bible trivia questions, the game’s only nod to the dismal “edutainment” genre. Remember the days when you could play the most mindless games possible, but so long as you had to answer a question every now and then your parents thought you were learning?

But despite some endearing qualities, the game’s nonsensical premise deep-sixes it. It’s the same logic that gave us “well, Miley Cyrus is cooler than a bird, so if we make a Flappy Bird clone with Miley Cyrus, it will make the game cooler!” Except Miley Cyrus has zero natural context in the world of Flappy Bird, so congratulations, you’ve made a contradictory clusterfuck. Games and their concepts must actually match.

I call this a “joke game” even though the creators were apparently deadly serious. All the world’s a stage and all the world’s a joke, just some people are just one level deeper than the others. A marriage of form and concept might be possible. I’m thinking of a game where Noah massacres helpless animals with high-powered automatic weapons. Or maybe where BJ Blazkowicz gives snacks to Nazis. Modders of the world, get on this!


Warcraft II – Tides of Darkness

- 26/03/17 Games,Reviews

warcraft-ii-tides-of-darkness-image981116I strongly unhate this game. I played it for roughly 2 or 3 childhoods, and it’s still a blast today, whether you have the original CD, the Battle.net edition, or a cracked release (I have all three). Blizzard really got their shit together with this one. Warcraft I belongs in a display case, this one belongs on a hard drive. My excessive bitching is a testament to my obsessive playing, as all the game’s weaknesses (which it has in abundance) have had a long time to chafe.

The core of the game is the same as the first one. You harvest resources, build a city, train soldiers, and make the rivers run red with blood. The game is essentially a choice between an early rush, and arms race to acquire the later, more powerful units. The mechanics basically worked then, and they basically work now. There’s something visceral and satisfying about the way Warcraft II battles go down, bloody and chaotic, with every single unit being important. I can’t think of any other game that captures its dynamic.

They eliminated some of Warcraft’s more enraging features (such as how buildings must be connected to a road) and added new features, such as water and aerial combat, walls, and games with up to eight players. Even simple touches like the “fog of war” (you can see explored terrain, but can’t actually see the enemies there unless you have a unit nearby) were revolutionary for the time.

In a genre that can feel mechanical and sterile (hey, did you realise level 3 Murderdeathbots get a .15% attack multiplier against Stabfuckdroids?), Warcraft 2 is overflowing with human touches. Landscapes are bright and colorful. The way your units argue with you when you click on them is endearing. The story in the manual was fantastic, and I was disappointed that the actual game didn’t do it justice. Glen Stafford’s music is great. The thing Blizzard really did right was put together a game full of lavish, attractive content.

As Warcraft 2’s terrible AI makes the single player experience fairly lackluster, I recommend learning a few builds, and then playing multiplayer as soon and as frequently as you can. This is where the game sparkles. You’ll learn that a lot of the the maps shipped with the game are broken or unbalanced. You’ll learn that the orc bloodlust spell makes the human race noncompetitive. You’ll learn that half the players are walking abortions who insist on terrible custom maps like Chop Chop and Laser Tag. You’ll learn that water combat is poorly implemented and micro intensive. But you’ll also have the time of your life. Again, Warcraft II has a quality that no other game has.

An expansion came out to this in 1996: Beyond the Dark Portal. More crappy single player maps, and a new tileset that’s nearly indistinguishable from one that was already in the game. I can’t imagine playing Age of Empires I or II without their respective expansions installed, but Warcraft II’s I can take or leave. The fact remains that version 1.0 of the game is still probably the apex of the Warcraft series, and my own favourite Blizzard game. They really did a superb job with this one.


Quake II

- 01/03/17 Games,Reviews

q2e1433652If you sacrifice a baby, everyone will call you a satanist, regardless of what god you actually did it for.

Remember the Columbine school shootings? They were blamed on the 1993 videogame Doom. It was theorised that Eric “RebDoomer” Harris had played the game for so long that his CRT monitor had become reality (or reality had become his CRT monitor) and that he was as shocked as anyone that his victims in Jefferson County didn’t bleed red pixels.

But in reality, Eric Harris no longer played Doom – he had moved on to Quake. But nobody accused him of being inspired by Quake, because Quake was far less of a cultural sensation than Doom and fewer people had heard of it. Just as every random smart-sounding quote gets attributed to Einstein, truth was sacrificed here for maximal memetic transmission. The Quake-Columbine connection was never made, simply because fewer people had heard of Quake. There’s no outrage to be generated from a game nobody in Middle America has heard of.

Quake 2 was even less of a cultural phenomenon than Quake. Nobody has ever attributed any act of violence to it at all. I wonder if John Carmack feels any regret that this is the case, and if I ever plan a spree shooting, I intend to give Quake 2 a shout-out in my shaky-cam Youtube manifesto. You’re welcome, John. Please pay it forward.

Truthfully, Quake 2 deserves a bit more fame, because it’s actually a better game than Quake. It’s not a brilliant shooter. It just takes the strong points of Quake, sticks bandaids over the weak points of Quake, and hopes you don’t notice. Often, you don’t.

The story’s a paragraph in the manual, as usual. Aliens have invaded, ARE YOU A BAD ENOUGH DUDE TO RESCUE THE PRESIDENT, et cetera. But effort has been made to make the gameworld feel like a real place. Spaceships swoop overhead like steel-winged birds. You explore areas with a recognisable purpose (a factory, a mine, a waste processing facility). Environments are somewhat responsive to your actions (you can blow holes in walls and smash panes of glass). Little touches like how enemies duck your shots and switch weapons on the fly are nice. 3D graphics are useless if you still feel like a rat in a maze, and Quake 2 goes a long way towards immersing the player in a believable world.

The weapons and enemies are fun (although there’s nothing as visually striking as the Shambler or the Cyberdemon), and the graphics aren’t that far behind Unreal’s. The game flows well, eschewing obvious “level breaks” for a more unified feel (instead of finishing a level, you walk to a door, experience a brief load screen, and then pick up where you left off.) The soundtrack is excellent. Apparently Sonic Mayhem had no idea how to write metal while he was recording it, and this strangely works. He avoids most of metal’s cliches, just because he’s not aware of them.

The only bad thing you can say about Quake 2 is that it’s a koala bear.

Evolution proceeds stage by stage. If you want C, you first must have B, and if you want B, you first must have A. This approach means there’s not much scope for a wildly novel trait to emerge. You cannot go from A all the way to Z in a single step. If a mutant koala was born with wings, it would be maladapted. Its body shape is not designed for flying. It’s not energetic enough for the rigors of powered flight. Maybe in a few million years a nearly unrecognisable descendant of the koala bear would have wings, but nearly every single one of the animal’s traits would have to change before wings, as a design, makes sense. Which gets bad, considering that the world doesn’t always give you a few million years. Right now, we’re razing the bush. The koala bear’s habitat is disappearing. It’s in a place where it needs an A-Z change, it needs wings, and it needs to modify very quickly or else it will die. But it won’t, because it can’t. Such is the way of evolution. Every strata level of the fossil record is littered with the calcified bones of the ones who died.

Games don’t exactly “evolve” in the way animals do. It is, in principle, possible for a new game with wildly novel traits to emerge. But the majority of games made are basically designed along the principle of “something that sold last season – with a few small tweaks.” Quake 2 fits this description. No drastic steps or changes, just gentle refinement of ideas presented in Quake. And just like real life, sometimes this takes you to an evolutionary dead end. The videogame industry (famously) crashed in 1983, as gamers wearied of generic, low-quality, nearly identical games. They were getting wise to the fact that Ms Pacman was just Pacman with a ribbon and lipstick. Incremental changes don’t work if the entire phenotype can no longer survive.

Quake 2 did not crash the industry. But it’s now very dated, and represents a style of FPS gaming that is no longer in fashion. The commercially viable FPS games are big, cinematic experiences, with Hans Zimmer scores and 3 hours of cutscenes. Quake has a tiny amount of that, but it baby-steps where Half-Life and Deus Ex pole vault.

I’ve played Quake 2’s single player mode a few times, along with some custom levels (the game never inspired the same level of interest in the modding community that the original did, either). It has yielded up most of its secrets. It’s a good game. It’s also a time capsule, and a look into a fossilized past.


Quake

- 02/01/17 Games,Reviews

quakeIn 1996, an amazing first person shooter came out and changed gaming forever. Regrettably, this is not a review of Duke Nukem 3D.

Quake isn’t a game. That’s the big misconception people have about it. It was an advanced 3D demo, intended to show off John Carmack’s latest tricks so he could sell his engine to licensees. It’s a product for modders and hackers and people who knew what “IPX tunneling” and “strafe jumping” meant. If you picked it up expecting to install it and have a good time, then the joke’s on you.

Gotta hand it to Carmack, this is one hell of an engine demo. For the first time, we were three fucking D. What does that mean? Better perception of height and depth. Variable camera angles. Light and shadow maps. More elaborate architecture (remember, in Doom you couldn’t even have a room on top of another room). Network architecture also got a shot in the arm, Quake ditches Doom’s clumsy ad hoc netplay for a contemporary server/client model, meaning you got to enjoy nice low latency while a 13 year old calls you a faggot.

But there’s no game, and that can’t be emphasised enough. The storyline could be written on a postcard (using a paintgun as a pen). The weapons are mostly copies of Doom’s. There is exactly one good monster in the game. The bosses are of the “push a button and watch it fall over dead” variety. There was more environmental interaction in Commander Keen.

Quake gets called a horror game, for some reason. Other than a Lovecraftian tilt to some of the artwork, most of the game’s ambience stems from technical limitations. Quake out of the box uses a range of 256 colors (well, 226, to be exact), meaning lightmaps utterly hog the palette (every single tone needs like 16 lighter/darker versions of itself). The verdict? You’re running around gray castles…but they’re very realistically lit gray castles! In movies, they say that it takes a lot money to make something look shitty. Quake was a game people bought 200Mhz Pentiums to play, but visually it looks like something you’d scrape off your shoes.

The single player mode is six hours of running around brown/grey castles, collecting keys. Multiplayer consists of trying to play the maps that came with the game, realising they suck, and downloading better ones from the internet.

Ditto for everything about Quake. It just feels unfinished. The weapons, the monsters…everything’s a placeholder reading [INSERT MORE COMPELLING CONTENT HERE]. This game begs you to mod it, and reskin it, and make it into something worth playing. You are the variable in Quake’s quality, not the developers. The power is in your hands!

Quake is the stone soup of PC gaming – a vaporous non-product that only becomes valuable when you put additional effort into it. It’s impressive as an engine demo, but those degrade at exactly the speed of Moore’s Law. The best FPS games lengthen their replay value with content, but that wasn’t the priority here. By the time you realised Quake was a lemon, you’d already bought it.

I still play Duke Nukem 3D and Blood. Though I don’t hate it, I cannot fathom a universe where I ever replay Quake. It’s a museum piece now, and you know what happens to those. They put them behind glass, and you’re not supposed to touch it.


Hocus Pocus

- 06/11/16 Games,Reviews

hocus_pocusAs the 90s gained integers, you started to hear about “shareware” games. Instead of buying a $60.00 box of air and praying the game was as good as it looked in Nintendo Power, you actually got to play the fucker before you bought it. Imagine that! Next thing, you were up all night, watching a 2mb file called DOOM1_1.zip dribble down your dad’s 2400 baud modem.

My favourite part of gaming’s tidal changes (whether it’s the rise of the internet or the advent of CD drives) is playing all the weird crap that hit the market before the industry got its shit together. Apogee released a lot of oddball titles – you got the sense that they were seeing what would stick with the new shareware business model – and Hocus Pocus fits into that category.

Like many of their games, it was a new IP, made by an outsider with little history in the game business. It’s a side-scrolling platform game about a wizard who must collect crystal balls. You flip switches, ride elevators, fight enemies, and dodge identity theft lawsuits from Mario. The graphics are colorful, glossy and shiny, like someone sprayed the whole game with WD-40. The monsters and environments are visually creative.

Animation is a mixed bag. Some enemies run and move in a lifelike fashion, but your main character is a department store mannequin. Ditto for the audio in general. The music is half good, half unlistenable shit. The omnipresent PEW PEW PEW of Hocus firing his magic spell drove me to muting my audio.

I played the shareware version of this obsessively when I was 5 or so, becoming the intolerable local kid who would watch others play and fly into a rage at their incompetence. I played the nine levels so many times that I could draw a map of them from memory. When I revisit Hocus Pocus, I like it less and less. It’s playable and inoffensive, mostly because it’s hard to screw up platform games, but there’s not much too it.

Various things grate at me. The game has basically three enemies with different graphics. The gameplay never varies. There’s the sense that you’re playing the same level over and over with different graphics. Switch combination puzzles suck. The “jokes” sprinkled throughout probably sounded funnier on the drawing board. Super Mario Bros makes it look as shallow as a kid’s wading pool, and that’s bad. SMB should be the standard that platform games build on, not an insurmountable mile-high yardstick.

I never bothered with the full version. Shareware had a dark side – usually the paid version was just the free version + some more levels + maybe a new weapon or something. Very few Apogee titles were worth getting in full (Raptor being a notable exception). In some ways, Apogee made arcade games for the PC. Remember how Mortal Kombat would always leave you wanting more at the arcades but as soon as you got it for a home console you’d be sick of it, like, yesterday? Same story here. Some games are best confined to small doses.

As far as I know it works on Dosbox if you play without audio (no great loss). As was their policy, Apogee magnanimously allowed developers to retain the copyright on their worthless IPs, and so the developers theoretically could have started a Hocus Pocus burger chain or something. They didn’t.


Blood

- 06/09/16 Games,Reviews

Blood_logoFilms such as The Cabin in the Woods are often described as “a love letter to horror.” Monolith’s 1997 first person shooter Blood is more like a rambling, 50 page Unabomber manifesto stuffed into horror’s mailbox at 2:00am, complete with the final line “ps: nice view thru yr bedroom window ;)”. Conceptually it’s one of most ridiculous and nebbish games ever made: the dialogue consists of groan-worthy riffs on famous horror movies, the levels are themed off places like the Overlook Hotel and Crystal Lake, the game shoves references to Lovecraft and George Romero under your face with such obsessive frequency that you almost want to pat it on the shoulder and say  “Relax, I get it. Stop trying so hard.”.

But it’s also one of the most fun shooters ever made. There’s just no cohesive direction to any of it, and strangely, that completely works.

You have 1) a brainless “shoot everything that moves” gameplay, 2) paired with a complicated set of RPG -style damage modifiers (as a simple example, stone gargoyles repel fire attacks). You have 1) a nonsensical throwaway plot about an old west gunfighter (with anachronisms galore), and 2) a very detailed mythos, right down to the fact that the enemy cultists speak a constructed language (there was a dictionary on the now-defunct Blood site, revealing said language to be the product of hurling Sanskrit and Latin at each other in a Participle Accelerator.) You have 1) shitty graphics (the Build engine was dated in 1996, and even more so in 1997), and 2) fairly groundbreaking use of 3D voxel imaging (for tombstones and such). Blood’s an anomaly.

The game’s a mess, in the best way possible. It’s like it was made by two different teams living on two different continents who could only communicate by carrier pidgeon.  “Throw a bunch of interesting ideas together” seldom works, but here’s the exception.

I’ve played through it several times, at various difficulty levels, and I still find it capricious, challenging, and occasionally brilliant. The Build Engine isn’t the prettiest whore on the waterfront, but it allows for destructible/deformable environments and the game takes those features and runs like they’re a pair of scissors. E1M3, “The Phantom Express”, takes place on board a moving train – it’s stunning as a visual effect, and the level design perfectly complements it: you have to fight tense gunbattles in narrow train corridors, etc. The only bad thing is that none of the later levels quite match it in creativity.

The weapons are savage and visceral (though I never figured out exactly how the voodoo doll work), and the level design fun, flowing, and filled with endearing human touches. Duke Nukem 3D was the anti-Quake. This is the antier-Quake. This is the final and complete triumph of content over technology, and nobody in gaming realised it, either then or now.

Not even Monolith did – Blood II was an inexplicable attempt at remaking this game with zero character or charm. And of course, the game still has a modding community.

Blood isn’t perfect. The final boss is the easiest one in the game. The weapons aren’t balanced all that well (generally, the cooler a weapon seems, the less useful it is in the game) and some of the enemies are truly ridiculous bullet sponges. It’s bimodal nature means it has daring creativity paired with cloddish FPS cliches – there’s the old “shoot a crack in the wall to reveal a secret area” wheeze…again…and again…

But it’s classic, and the rarest type of game: one that is impervious to time. To preserve a human body, you generally extract all eight litres of blood – and I guess this is where it all ends up. Duke Nukem 3D came out a year before and laid the ground for this type of game (gory violence + campy irreverent humor), but between the two of them, THIS is the one to play first, and perhaps last.


Wolfenstein 3D

- 04/05/16 Games,Reviews

Clipboard02This is the Biblical Urheimat of 3D shooting games. Is it still fun today? Is the Hammurabi Codex good writing? It transcends the need to prove itself in those terms.

Back in 1992, this changed everything. It made people nauseous. It made people upset. There were violent games up to that point, but at least a third person perspective gives you plausible deniability. “You” didn’t rip out other people’s spines in Mortal Kombat, a sprite on the screen did. But from a first person perspective, with a phallic gun-barrel jutting outwards into your field of view, a paradigm shift occurs. No more murder by proxies. You were the one pulling the trigger.

…In reality, that’s overdramatic. Nobody who’s played Wolfenstein 3D could be offended by it. The Nazi element is played for kitsch and camp, this is Springtime for Hitler: The Game. And the illusion of realism is shallow and soon breaks. The corners are all 90 degree angles. The ceilings and floors lack textures. The repetitive environments make you feel like a rat in a maze. And the massive body count has a nugatory effect: late in the game, shooting someone feels about as shocking as the 300th “fuck” on a rap album.

Gameplay kicks off with a screen saying “GET PSYCHED!” and that captures the game’s flavour: a crazy sugar rush that has you charging around turning Wehrmächte into Swiss cheese. You’re not exactly thinking “only the dead have seen the end of war”. This is an arcade game that happens to have Nazis.

The more you play WOLF3D (as the DOS executable was called), the more it seems like a escapee from an arcade machine. You have “lives”. You have a “high score”. All that’s missing is B.J. Blazkowicz telling you to insert a quarter. Modern 3D shooters aspire to be on the cutting edge. There’s the feeling that a game with revolutionary graphics needs to be revolutionary along other axes, too. Wolfenstein 3D remains cheerfully stuck in the past.

There’s lots of fun goodies herein. A hidden “Call Apogee say ‘AARDWOLF'” message, remnants of an aborted contest that was immediately made pointless by fan-made data viewing programs. A Pacman level. Another level made entirely out of swastikas. The statement “This game is rated PC-13, for ‘Profound Carnage'”. A naff and entertaining battle against Adolf Hitler. A episodes 4-6 are called Nocturnal Missions. Barring Rise of the Triad, this is perhaps the most overtly comedic FPS until the release of Duke Nukem 3D (Ken’s Labyrinth was too autistic to be funny).

Little map design is possible with such a limited engine. You wander mazes and shoot groups of enemies. While Doom would give the player new and varied things in its later levels, WOLF3D has nowhere to go except harder mazes and larger groups of enemies. At a certain point, your brain becomes bored, and starts craving more stimulation. You could argue that the game reinforces the social message that mass murder is boring.

Even the game’s technological wizardry smacks of Uri Geller. Just fire up Ultima Underworld, which came out six months earlier, and had angled walls, textured ceilings, slopes, look up/down, swimmable water, etc. Not a fair comparison, since that game was developed over years next to this one’s months. And Wolfenstein 3D’s engine is faster and leaner. Too bad that equals a fast and lean journey through Legoland.

Wolfenstein 3D is a dated experience with immense historical. I can’t imagine myself ever replaying Wolfenstein 3D the same way I play Doom. But though I don’t play it, I can’t ignore it.


Warcraft: Orcs and Humans

- 09/02/16 Games,Reviews

warcraft-orcs-humans_8Way back in strategy gaming’s past, you find this. Way back in the planet’s past, you find dinosaur shit. It’s not much to look at, but just as a fossilised brontosaurus dropping theoretically upholds the Epcot center, so too did the glorious RTS genre have humble beginnings.

It wasn’t the first, but who cares. Dune II was crummy and nearly unplayable. This actually resembles a game. You choose a race (orc or human), build a town, make an army, harvest gold, win the game, bribe your correctional officer so that he lets you use good shower in Cellblock D (it has warm water and fewer rapists), and rest in the knowledge that tomorrow it will all happen again. What a time to be alive.

The graphics are a 320×240 assault of pixels, strangely nostalgic and charming. The audio’s pretty good. The only plot this game has is a funeral plot for the unemployed and starving-to-death storywriter. It’s simplistic, but a lot of fun. It’s early 90s PC gaming. I enjoyed Warcraft back in the day, and even enjoyed it a little bit in 2015.

Incidentally, the orcs and humans aren’t identical mirrors of each other. You’ll see many reviews claiming that they are, and it’s a dead giveaway that the reviewer hasn’t played the game. The human archer shoots further than the orc spearman. The orc necrolyte has more range than the human priest. The differences are subtle, but you soon get a second sense for them. Unless you haven’t played the game, I guess.

The game has two huge and annoying flaws, both of which were easily fixable.

Gripe the first: you can only move four units at a time. I hate this. Commanding large armies is aneurysm inducing. You can roughly simulate your experience playing Warcraft by filling a swimming pool using a 1 litre kiddie bucket.

I think Blizzard’s defense back in the day was that they didn’t want people to just spam a bunch of units and flood them at the enemy. That’s one way of solving the problem, I guess. Another way would be to break into my house and unplug my keyboard. If you’re intentionally crippling my ability to play, why not just go all the fucking way?

Gripe the second: the game’s pretty unbalanced.

No-fail recipe for victory: choose orcs, spam archers, get warlocks, then spam demons. The only way to counter this strategy is to do it yourself, except better. There’s just no stopping demons in this game. They cost nothing, and beat everything. Yeah, they eventually run out of magic and die. Fighting them merely makes you run out of everything and die. If the game’s cover accurately reflected the balance level, the human would be bent over, taking it in the pooper.

It’s old. It’s crappy in places. Play this to see where the Warcraft series began. Unlike many supposedly classic games, it’s fairly good for what it is, not just for what it inspired. I hold considerable nostalgia for it, which is why I’ve waited this long before childishly pointing out that Warcraft anagrams into “Warcfart”.


Age of Empires II

- 24/01/16 Games,Reviews

Age_of_Empires_II_-_The_Age_of_Kings_CoverartIn 1999, Ensemble Studios made a game that changed the world.

Trivially, every game changes the world. Even a game programmed and left unreleased in a military bunker changes the world, insofar as there is now less free energy to make more games. But Age of Empires II did more than accelerate the universe’s incoming heat death. It gave us cause to regret it.

You don’t hear much about real-time strategy any more. I experienced the history of the genre in reverse, starting from AoE2 and working backwards through all the classics. It was like being a gaming Benjamin Button. Everything just getting crappier and crappier. Starcraft only lets you select 12 units at a time. Total Annihilation has craptastic pathfinding. Age of Empires I has a 50 unit limit and no production queuing. Warcraft II only lets you select 9 units at a time. Command and Conquer has clunky controls and rat-fecal AI. Warcraft I only lets you select 4 units at a time. Dune II only lets you select ONE unit at a time. It felt like the joke where a Jewish kid asks for five dollars, and his dad goes “Four dollars? What the hell do you want three dollars for?”

Curiously, I don’t experience the reverse experience when I play games made after Age of Empires II. There’s no sense of “wow, this is much better”. I suspect Age of Empires II was about as good as the genre ever got.

The game’s tons of fun. It takes the first Age of Empires’ “Warcraft but now you can pretend to mum and dad you’re learning about history” hook and takes it into the middle ages. Can Frankish paladins overcome Persian war elephants? Are Mongolian cavalry archers a match for Turkish artillery? Will your prepubescent opponent question your sexual orientation and your mother’s virtue? Learn these answers and more.

As a new player, your first instinct will be to haul ass to the single-player mode. General surgeon’s warning: AoE2’s singleplayer is slow, boring, repetitive, and teaches you bad habits. Spent as little time there as possible.

Play multiplayer instead. This game’s multiplayer is great, and at a certain skill level, transcends great and becomes godlike. There’s so much artistry, so much finesse, the axle of a 1vs1 turning on such pivots as a forward tower losing 10hp to an attacking villager, or someone having a position that’s slightly downhill. The game’s surprisingly almost balanced between civilisations and unit types, and various fan mods and patches scratch the word “almost” away from that description. 1vs1s are like a fencing match, full of lightning-fast action and counteraction. 4vs4s change the dynamic to something huge and Game of Thrones-esque. It almost feels like a totally different game.

But let’s be honest, these games are dark triad simulators.

Age of Empires II puts you in control of many putative human lives, but not in a way where they emotionally effect you. They’re so far away on the screen that your brain just registers them as “game pieces”. There’s no “grieving widow” meter in this game. Everyone’s just kind of cannon fodder. How careful you are in sacrificing men depends entirely on how much food, gold, and wood you have to make new ones.

In Grand Theft Auto, human beings behave like human beings. Even a primitive game like Doom puts you up close and personal to the monsters, so you can see them react in pain. But real time strategy games seem like how a sociopath views the world. I know I lasted about a week on my first Age of Empires II forum before I stopped calling my soldiers “men” and started calling them “units” like everyone else.

Potentially disturbing insights into your psych aside, Age of Empires II is an aesthetically nice game. Starcraft and Total Annihilation are set in dismal hellscapes. Age of Empires II takes place in landscapes as pretty as a travel brochure. Everything has a nice heft and sense of scale – castles tower above the landscape, galleons seem appropriately big. The game is visceral enough to break through the sociopath filter every now and then, although not always intentionally. You can control sheep, and send them on long journeys across the map. Demonic possession? And slain bodies swiftly decay into skeletons – often while other soldiers are still fighting around them. Disturbing, as if everyone is caught in a time-lapse vortex.

These days I see a bored programmer going “who gives a fuck, nobody will care about that” and punching out for the day. But back then, these little flaws in the reality of the game were kind of creepy. They seemed like they must have been planned. That’s one of the things about being a kid. Everything seems planned.

I first played this game as a child, and although I commanded a kingdom, mentally I was probably more like those villagers, who trustingly obey orders even when you make them walk in circles, or into enemy fire. These guys don’t realise that sometimes the ship’s captain is an idiot, or that sometimes the ship has a broken rudder.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that this game is pretty good.


Older Posts »