Tuesday, September 30, 2014

DOTA 2 Review

Ensuring your "creeps" die before the enemy kills them is a core concept called "denial"

  • Developer: Valve
  • Publisher: Valve
  • Release Date: 9 July 2013
  • Time played: 7 hours

So I was hearing mixed reports about DOTA 2 before I finally gave it a shot. My initial reaction to the news of DOTA 2 was excitement: I remember playing the original Warcraft III mod back in the days when LAN parties were all the rage. The concept that you were a hero or special unit amongst an AI army battling another AI army appealed to me because I was terrible at micromanaging the heroes and units in Warcraft III proper. Seemed like a good way of playing a team game and back in those days, I kind of liked the prospect of playing what is now known as a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game or MOBA. Fast forward almost a decade and MOBAs are all the rage. You've got games like League of Legends and of course, DOTA 2 being the big names but there's a lot of competition too. Even EA wants to get in on the action but will their offering (Dawngate) be a case of too little, too late?

Okay, so I really enjoyed DOTA 2's predecessor and the game (including its genre) is really popular - so why was I apprehensive about playing this? It basically boils down to the same reason I never really got into Starcraft II's multiplayer - I heard that the game is ultra-competitive. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing to me this translates to players with fast reflexes, established builds/strategies and players with super-inflated egos/e-peen.

So is DOTA 2 any good then? Does the game happen to have a good community that is supportive of newcomers or is it just your typical dog-eat-dog competitive arena?

Gameplay (3/5)
DOTA 2 is very similar to the original DOTA and stays true to the core concept (as mentioned before) of two AI armies being pitted against each other where humans control a hero for one of the warring sides. Like any good RPG, your hero gains experience points and gold when enemies die and you'll level up and acquire new items as a result, making your hero more powerful as the game progresses. The aim of the game is to assist your army of AI "creeps" (the term given to the soldiers controlled by the AI) and your allied heroes to destroy the "Ancient" (a large structure) located in the enemy base. Your base also has an "Ancient" that you have to prevent the enemy from destroying. You have over 100 heroes to choose from when you play DOTA 2 all with varying abilities: some are good later in the game and are called "Carries" while others are good at killing other heroes ("Nukers"), just to name a couple of roles. On the surface, this sounds like a pretty interesting game and when you couple that with multiplayer, it should be the best game ever, right? Right? Well, yes and no.

You've probably seen the Metacritic rating for this game: a whopping 90%. There doesn't seem to be any publications that are critical of the game. Well, I don't know why, but I just don't like this game. I find myself in the unfashionable minority when it comes to this view but I gather no enjoyment playing it. Let's try and dissect the game and see why I dislike it.

Firstly, as with many RPGs (especially MMORPGs) there feels like a lot of grind in this game. Obviously not as bad as some of the worst MMORPGs out there (e.g. Please go kill 100 rats for your xp) but there's no doubt that DOTA 2 encourages a game of cat-and-mouse while you level up your character before you're powerful enough to take the fight to the enemy proper. This means you'll be spending most of your time avoiding the enemy instead of attacking them (at least the enemy heroes) since if you die you'll be aiding the other side greatly. Consequently it can be a good hour before you're in any real position to start finishing the game and most of that time, while suspenseful, doesn't feel very constructive, especially if you turn out losing. It's similar to turtling in RTSs. If you're one of those that appreciates a good rush tactic, you're not going to be able to in DOTA 2 - not unless both sides are grossly mismatched in terms of actual experience.

This brings me on to another point: the game's steep learning curve. The game does some things that are counter-intuitive but they're actually considered features of the game. For example, killing your own units denies the enemy experience - who in their right mind would kill their own soldiers? It seems even more ridiculous when you're playing on the Radiant side (or the self-proclaimed good guys). However, this is considered rudimentary behaviour that if not done will put your team at a disadvantage. Also, the game is analogous to chess to some degree. The good thing about chess is that both sides are pretty evenly balanced and provided the players are of equal skill level, the game can be heaps of fun. However, if one of the players has researched starting moves, tactics, strategies and has spent hours upon hours practising, then obviously the game is not going to be as evenly matched and predictably boring. That's fine for people prepared to put that effort in and have the time available to do so - usually because they're intending to only focus on playing one game, i.e. DOTA 2. Those that don't have a lot of time to spare for the game will never get better at it. Matchmaking is meant to help to a degree in having players of comparable skill level play each other, but that's obviously dependent on what times you're playing and where you're from. Also, it might seem like I'm stating the obvious here (i.e. you'll only get better at a game if you invest the time into it) but unlike FPSs like Battlefield 4 for example, it's almost impossible for a newbie in DOTA 2 to ever defeat a veteran hero, whereas in Battlefield 4, it's within the realms of possibility. Is that a good or bad thing? It depends on your point of view but I like games that have a balance between accessibility and complexity. A moderate learning curve if you will.

Back to the chess analogy, another problem is that eventually only certain moves or strategies will be considered credible and/or effective and as such the best players in chess are nothing more than human supercomputers or mentats (to borrow a term from Frank Herbert's Dune) - not that there's anything wrong with that, they're obviously super intelligent - but it also means there's no room for creativity or in the case of DOTA 2: builds out of leftfield. I kind of like the concept of playing around with a build that you're comfortable with or enjoy using - however good luck trying to use one when you're playing a competitive game. People will either dictate their build requirements up front before a game starts or make disparaging comments about your mother if they ever figure out what you're up to. DOTA 2 wouldn't be the first game to have this sort of behaviour or the last but it's something I loathe.

Finally, it's near impossible to find people who want to just play the game for "fun" or for a "compstomp". Most people are here to play competitively and frankly, I don't blame them, since competitive play is where the game's at. The problem, is I'm not a fan of competitive play, and I think that's pretty much what it all boils down to. If you're a competitive gamer and you want to compete in one of the largest virtual arenas out there, DOTA 2 is a good start. Otherwise, this game doesn't really have much to offer.

If players are stuck for ideas on builds, there are plenty of popular ones to choose from

Sound (5/5)
Voice acting for the DOTA 2 characters and the announcer is spot on so no complaints there. You can even get announcer packs with the best by far being GLaDOS from the Portal series.

Music (4/5)
The music is great although it isn't particularly memorable for me. Having said that though, the music must be memorable to Tommy Tallarico as his Video Games Live Round 3 album happens to have an orchestral cover of its theme!

Graphics (3/5)
Graphics are bright and colourful with low polygon counts. Similar to what Blizzard did with Starcraft II, Valve has done the same with DOTA 2 in that they haven't really done much with the graphics. There are probably many reasons for doing this but two that come to mind is to (a) not alienate the veterans and (b) allow the game to run on low-spec systems, increasing your potential market - after all, why wouldn't you if you've already made the game Free-to-Play?

Replay (1/5)
I've only played the game about 5 times and most of these times I only did so at the request of friends. I didn't really enjoy the games (even though we usually won) since I could tell I was the weakest link in the team, and I didn't have the copious number of hours free in order to research builds. If I managed to find a group that just wanted to play compstomps ad infinitum without the pressure of prescribing to a particular build, maybe I'd be keen to get back into it, but until that time, I'll pass.

Polish (5/5)
I haven't encountered any bugs while playing DOTA 2 and the controls seem good enough - after all, this is a PC game through and through.

Score – 7/10

For the competitive player that is looking for a game to focus all their time and energy into, DOTA 2 is one of the best there is. Unfortunately for players like me who aren't that keen on the competitive gaming scene, there isn't much incentive to play. Unless you want to hear the GLaDOS announcer pack, that's comedy gold right there.

DOTA 2 is available from these retailers:

If you like this game, you might like...

[ LINK: Official DOTA 2 website ]

Monday, September 29, 2014

Choicest VGM - VGM #150 - The Ur-Quan Masters - Zoq-Fot-Pik - Frungy Party



Composed by: Dan Nicholson
Remixed by: András Barják

This is a remix of the music which plays when you meet the interesting race (which actually consists of 3 races) known as the Zoq-Fot-Pik. Apparently the three races evolved on the same world and united to eliminate the carnivorous "Zebranky". The track's name is a reference to the Zoq-Fot-Pik's favourite sport or past-time known as "Frungy".

The original track by Dan Nicholson is more or less left intact in this remix but there are several layers built upon it by András Barják that makes the music sound more melodic and less discordant. I like it.

Special thanks to The Precursors for remixing the classic Star Control II tracks and making them available for download.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded Review

This is probably one of the best rejections in the game - and yes, it contains puns

  • Developer: nFusion Interactive
  • Publisher: Replay Games
  • Release Date: 27 June 2013
  • Time played: 6 hours

Ah, good old Sierra and their graphic adventure games. Many gamers nowadays are probably too young to remember the golden age of adventure games back in the 80s and early 90s. During this time there were two giants when it came to graphic adventures: Sierra On-Line and Lucasarts - both don't exist as companies anymore... well technically Sierra has been resurrected but only as an indie publishing arm of Activision, not a developer.

Anyway, one of their most infamous games was Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards released way back in 1987. The game would receive a VGA remake in 1991 and just last year, another remake was released thanks to a successful Kickstarter project in 2012 that managed to raise $655,182 in funding. The game was infamous because of its adult subject matter which involved the protagonist, an almost 40 year-old virgin (who didn't look anything like Steve Carell) seeking love in the city of Las Ve- I mean Lost Wages.

Leisure Suit Larry was never my favourite Sierra adventure game series, Quest for Glory would definitely take that spot, however it was the first project on Kickstarter to feature a Sierra alumni, which was of course Al Lowe, the original developer of Leisure Suit Larry. That was a boon in itself considering it was a long time since Al Lowe was actually involved in making a Leisure Suit Larry game - the last being developed over a decade ago in the late 90s. So I along with many others would vote with our wallets in showing that not only is there demand for point 'n' click adventure games (as proven by the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter that preceded it) but that we wanted to see Sierra alumni-created point 'n' click adventures. The plan seemed to work with Jane Jensen, the Coles, the Two Guys from Andromeda (Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy) and even Jim Walls giving Kickstarter a go (still no Ken and Roberta Williams though).

So how does the first "Kickstarted" game to be released by Sierra alumni fare (Moebius: Empire Rising was released earlier this year)? Is it worth playing even if you're not a Leisure Suit Larry fan?

Plot (3/5)
As already mentioned, the game has you playing the role of an almost 40-year-old virgin named Larry Laffer, aka Leisure Suit Larry (thanks to his favourite piece of attire). Your task is not only to lose your virginity though, as you find out shortly into the game after having unsatisfactory sex with a hooker, but to find your "true love", whoever that may be. Anyway, the game has Larry fumbling his way around the gambling mecca of Lost Wages, trying in vain to woo the many women he meets with usually humourous consequences. Yes, the game has the trademark Sierra humour which involves a lot of puns but sometimes you can't help but laugh despite yourself. There are also a lot of in-jokes for Sierra fans here, with lots of references to previous staff and games (e.g. Police Quest). There's even a Steam achievement called "Frontier Pharmacist".

In the end, it's the game's humour and the quality of the scriptwriting that helps carry this game since let's face it, without the humour the game would be a predictable and trashy romance story. At least with the humour it's a funny, predictable and trashy romance story.

A word of warning though: playing a game where you are a sleazy, middle-aged man salivating over women with DD cup breasts isn't going to make you too popular with your wife/girlfriend/mum. "Hey, I only played this game because I had to review it - I swear!" doesn't work as an excuse either.

The Age Verification Quiz makes a return - but with new questions!

Gameplay (3/5)
If you're a point 'n' click adventure veteran, you know the drill. You basically solve puzzles through a combination of using inventory items or creating new items by merging existing ones. You then interact with the environment directly or by using inventory items in order to progress through the story. I found the game to be just right in terms of difficulty: the only time I got stuck was when I didn't realise there was actually another room off to the left of the screen. Rookie error for an adventure gamer!

One aspect I don't like, although I suspect it is a throwback to the original game, is that in order to do certain things in the game you needed money and the only way to earn money in Lost Wages is to obviously gamble. However, you're only able to use poker machines in order to earn cash, and the only way to ensure you collect enough cash is to use the power of the "Save Game". i.e. save when you win money, reload when you lose money. It seems game-breaking but it's totally essential unless you happen to be really lucky and happen to win many times consecutively. I'm not a big fan of grind in computer games nowadays so I found it as a definite downside to the gameplay.

Sound (5/5)
Replay Games managed to get the original voice actor for Leisure Suit Larry, Jan Rabson along with a guy named Brad Venable to do voice acting for the narrator. Both do a fantastic job with the voice acting, even though Larry Laffer does have a very annoying voice and even though the narrator sounds like a game show host. Although at times, that only helps amplify the humour.

Music (5/5)
I've already typed up my review of the game's soundtrack and as I've mentioned, Austin Wintory has done a sensational job with the Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded soundtrack which goes to prove he's not a one trick pony (i.e. a composer of only deep, meaningful, epic soundtracks). Austin has created a very jazzy and fun soundtrack to listen to that isn't afraid to use the Leisure Suit Larry theme leitmotif as much as possible - and why wouldn't you? It's damn catchy. Al Lowe and the MOJO Band perform the Leisure Suit Larry Theme at the end of the game too and it's not to be missed.

Austin Wintory has done a sensational job with the Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded soundtrack which goes to prove he's not a one trick pony

Graphics (3/5)
I don't have any complaints with the backdrops, the close-ups of the women in the game or even most of the animations; most of these are done really well and are a definite improvement over the previous Larry games (a higher resolution is always a good start). There are however some parts in the game where corners seem to have been cut, such as whenever Larry uses the taxi. When the taxi arrives to pick Larry up the wheels of the car don't even rotate making it look like a cardboard cut-out. Also the screen that shows the taxi driving around Lost Wages looks incredibly amateurish and not as good as the rest of the scenes in the game. They might've actually been better off not having the scene at all and just doing it the old way where you didn't have a separate cutscene while you travelled.

Replay (2/5)
No this section isn't about the company Replay Games but about replay value. I quite enjoyed playing Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded (even if it did result in some hostile glances from my wife) and the game is of a decent length for an adventure game at about 6-7 hours. Would I play it again? Probably not, although trying to unlock all the Steam achievements is tempting.

Polish (5/5)
I remember having some slight issues with the game when I first associated it with my account on Steam and I still have the very long title of "Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards: Reloaded" in my Steam library, but I can't recall any serious bugs while playing the game. Also, kudos to Replay for having a tutorial on how to play the game although I'm not sure if this was a sincere effort at teaching younger gamers how to play an older style point 'n' click adventure game or a tongue-in-cheek joke.

Score – 7/10

Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded is yet another remake of Sierra's infamous 1987 classic, Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards and it does a good job of bringing the audio and music to the 21st century, thanks to top quality voice acting and a fitting soundtrack by master composer, Austin Wintory. It's just a pity that some of the animations could've been better not to mention gameplay is a bit of a mixed bag: the game does contain some fresh new puzzles (to keep the fans on their toes) but it also has some old-fashioned grind you'll have to overcome too. If you're a fan of Leisure Suit Larry, you probably already have this game and nothing more needs to be said. If you're an adventure game fan that never really played the 1987 or 1991 versions of Leisure Suit Larry, but curious as to what they're about, I'd recommend you give this one a shot. Otherwise, you may want to reconsider checking it out as there's some worthy competition in the adventure gaming sphere nowadays. If only Al Lowe could work on a new story altogether...

Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded is available from these retailers:

If you like this game, you might like...

[ LINK: Official Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded website ]

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Wargame: Airland Battle Review

Well-protected supply lines are crucial in Wargame: Airland Battle

  • Developer: Eugen Systems
  • Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
  • Release Date: 29 May 2013
  • Time played: 8 hours

Due to the recommendation of my mate and fellow contributor, Luke, I decided to grab a copy of Wargame: Airland Battle on the last Steam sale. It was only $11.00 USD for both Airland Battle and its predecessor, Wargame: European Escalation, so I thought that was an offer too good to refuse. I've been in the market for a good RTS to play co-op with my friends, and I've seen screenshots and videos of Wargame: Airland Battle which made my jaw drop. Over the past few months, I eventually managed to get a few "compstomp" games out of the way with the mates and this review is based off those few games I played (as well as a little bit of tinkering with the single player campaign).

Gameplay (4/5)
The game does contain a single-player campaign but multiplayer is really where it's at for Wargame: Airland Battle, especially when you consider the game can handle up to 20 players simultaneously (that's a lot of RTS players in one battle)! So how is this game different to other RTSs? Well for starters you don't build a base: this game is all about controlling zones with the units you have at hand. In a standard game of Airland Battle, you start off with a Forward Operating Base (FOB) and a command vehicle. You require command vehicles in order to capture sectors and there are several of these scattered across the map. You also start off with a certain number of reinforcement points which you can use to purchase units from your "deck" (the name given to the selection of units you're able to choose from before going into battle). Usually you'll want to get a good mix of units when you play this and boy are there a lot of unit types: you can bring in reconnaissance helicopters, helicopter gunships, fighter jets, attack jets, infantry, tanks, APCs, anti-air platforms, artillery, etc., etc. You name it, and the game has probably got it. Considering there are 12 nations you can play and 750 types of units divided amongst them, that's a hell of a lot of units to pick from! If you're not satisfied with the 12 default decks for each nation, you can always create your own giving you some flexibility in how to play (I managed to create an Australian deck based on Australian weapons and vehicles used in the 1980s).

Then it comes time to play the game and not only is it completely different to the usual RTS, it can be very difficult, especially against an AI that is obviously good at micromanaging. In Airland Battle, supply lines and reconnaissance are crucial. Okay, these things are always crucial in RTSs but in this game I really mean it. Your vehicles for example only have limited amounts of fuel and ammunition. Once they're depleted your tanks will get stranded and won't be able to do anything until resupplied by a truck or helicopter. This is also where the FOB comes in as it is where your trucks and helicopters gather the supplies. If you cannot get supplies safely to your troops they will be sitting ducks. While some might find this mechanic really fiddly I'm actually quite a fan - it makes the game more realistic and emphasises the importance of logistics in conducting warfare. Also, all your units are pretty much blind especially when the enemy hides troops in a forest. If you don't have a reconnaissance unit actually spotting these enemies you can very well end up with an entire tank column being ambushed and destroyed. Again, pretty harsh and fiddly but once again I'm a fan of this because just as it is with the logistics mechanic, this emphasises the importance of good reconnaissance - something actual armed forces have to take into account.

Determining which side is victorious in Airland Battle is a points game where usually the first side to a certain number of points wins the game. Points are awarded by destroying enemy vehicles which means that the game isn't about wiping the enemy army off the face of the Earth, although that would obviously award you with a decisive victory if you did.

As you can see, I can't really find much to fault with the gameplay in Airland Battle, the only criticism I have is that it's quite difficult to beat the A.I. Even playing the first single player campaign mission (which is considered "easy") was a humbling experience for me as my Soviet T-72 tanks slowly retreated back towards my FOB with only Su-24 attack jets being effective at slowing the advance of the encroaching Swedes. Thankfully, I still managed to pull of a Minor Victory despite the dire circumstances, so the points system for calculating victories must've saved me in the end.

While the zoomed-in tactical view is pretty, you'll probably spend most of your time in this view

Sound (5/5)
The guys at D.I.C.E. should take a leaf out of Eugen Systems's book when it comes to audio (or just look at their older titles to be honest) since every faction in the game is voiced in their native tongue. That's right, this game has English, French, German, Russian and voices from many other languages recorded for their respective nations. None of this Chinglish or badly spoken Russian accents that you get in games like Battlefield 4.

Music (4/5)
I don't think this game has much in the way of music - maybe only a handful of themes - and I only just discovered that they've recycled the themes from Wargame: European Escalation (its predecessor). The music also apparently crops up in a couple of other places, like the 1999 fantasy RTS Seven Kingdoms II and even a Machu Picchu infographic on Discovery Channel Brazil! With a little bit of digging I discovered that perhaps Bjorn Lynne, legendary composer for the Worms games, is indirectly responsible as he actually licenses stock music out from his website.

My point is, the music doesn't sound like it's specifically composed for the game, but it seems to suit it well.

Graphics (4/5)
While the graphics aren't exactly the most beautiful when you zoom in close up (at least on default settings for a moderate rig) there's no denying how much detail you can actually see. With maximum zoom you can see blades of grass, trees, signposts and debris from recent battles. At minimum zoom, you can see the entire battlefield as you'd probably picture a general would at headquarters, with the map split up into different sectors and various boxes moving across the map representing different units. The fact the game does the transition between the strategic and tactical view so smoothly, so seamlessly is truly amazing.

Replay (1/5)
Seems a harsh score but if I want to be completely honest, I've only played the game a handful of times since purchasing it: that's 9 months and I've only played the game 4-5 times. This is because the single player campaign isn't as attractive to me as other more story-based RTSs (like the offerings from Westwood Studios or Blizzard) and I don't really like playing multiplayer with strangers - I prefer playing with friends. While I've managed to get a few games in it's probably less than I would've liked. So if there's one good thing to be said, at least the multiplayer is fun enough for me to want to play more, but I only really enjoy playing RTSs in a "compstomp" fashion. Playing alone against the AI is brutal so I'm consequently always waiting for when friends are free (and in the mood) to play - not to mention my time is at a premium nowadays too...

Polish (5/5)
I didn't encounter any serious bugs while playing the game, but mind you I only really started playing the game several months after it was officially released on Steam.

Score – 8/10

Wargame: Airland Battle isn't like your typical RTS and I think that's why I like it. Logistics and reconnaissance are given the attention and respect they deserve since battles aren't just about blowing shit up and capturing territory, even if that's the ultimate goal. The only problem is finding like-minded individuals to give the game a crack due to it potentially being seen as too fiddly when compared to its mainstream competitors. Armchair generals should feel straight at home when playing this though and I can't wait to see the next Eugen Systems release after 2014's Wargame: Red Dragon.

Wargame: Airland Battle is available from these retailers:

If you like this game, you might like...

[ LINK: Official Wargame Airland Battle website ]

Friday, September 26, 2014

Dragon's Lair Review

At least in the 2013 version you get visual cues of which key to press

  • Developer: Digital Leisure
  • Publisher: Digital Leisure
  • Release Date: 17 May 2013
  • Time played: 1 hour

The original Dragon's Lair came out a long time ago (well along time ago to me) in the year 1983. A developer named Advanced Microcomputer Systems was working on a graphical adventure game in the early 80s but were unable to market it successfully. It wasn't until the company president, Rick Dyer, happened to watch The Secret of NIMH that he realised he needed better quality animation for the game and an exciting script. So who better to animate the game than the animator of The Secret of NIMH, veteran animator Don Bluth himself. While I've never played the original Dragon's Lair, I've heard a lot about it and the scenes from the game were iconic. It was one of the first successful examples of an "interactive movie" and was so successful (grossing $32 million for its publisher Cinematronics) that some credit it as being responsible for helping turn around an apparent video game industry financial slump the year it was released.

So, the guys at Digital Leisure thought it would be a good idea to re-release the game to a new generation of gamers, 30 years later and see if anyone would be curious enough to give it a shot. I guess I am one of them!

Plot (2/5)
You play the role of a knight named Dirk the Daring and your goal is to navigate the many hazards and monsters within a castle so that you can eventually reach the eponymous Dragon's Lair, where a dragon named Singe is keeping the princess Daphne hostage. Yes, doesn't sound very original does it? Well you'd be right. Worse than that, Daphne seems to be a bit of an airhead - probably totally fine in the 80s but play it today and the ditzy, blonde damsel-in-distress just seems so outdated. Not to mention it felt really strange that as soon as you get to the Dragon's Lair, Daphne suddenly stops panicking and then motions seductively towards a magic sword to slay the dragon, wearing an outfit that only a porn star would wear - oh and that's actually no coincidence: apparently the artists couldn't afford real models so they decided to instead model Daphne off Playboy magazine photos - I kid you not!

Gameplay (2/5)
Being an early example of an interactive movie, gameplay is terribly primitive and basically consists of Quick-Time Events. As Dirk travels through the castle, you'll come across obstacles along the way where you'll have to either use the arrow keys in order for Dirk to jump/dodge or the space bar for Dirk to swing his sword. Timing is key and on hard difficulty, pressing the wrong key at the wrong time will instantly result in your death. Since you only have split seconds to decide what to do and since the only gameplay mechanic are the Quick-Time Events, you're probably going to die at least a few times (if not several like I ended up doing). Fortunately, unlike the original Dragon's Lair, the game has the decency to flash (but only for a second) which key you're supposed to press on the default mode. For the hardcore veterans in the audience though, there is an option to disable the hints.

You'll likely come across this guy a lot

Sound (3/5)
The quality of the audio seems low sometimes although at others it seems to be at a higher fidelity. Also, there's no denying that Daphne's voice when she screams out "Save me!" is very annoying - but that probably goes without saying for all of those that played the original 1983 game.

Music (4/5)
The game has actually very little music - all I can remember is the title screen music (and I'm not even sure if that was in the original game). What's there though is good stuff.

Graphics (4/5)
The animation seems a bit grainy but that's because animations in the 80s were. Besides the grainy scenes though, the game's graphics are fantastic thanks to Don Bluth's legendary animation style. This is the same guy that animated films like The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time, Anastasia and Titan A.E. - so he knew what he was doing in the art department (well, most of the time).

Replay (2/5)
The game is very short. It only took me 40 minutes to complete and I wasn't particularly good either - not to mention if you played the original, you could probably finish it quicker. There is however some temptation to replay the game thanks to the addition of Steam achievements which encourage you to try the game again on a higher difficulty or attempt to complete the game without losing a life! No mean feat.

Polish (4/5)
There aren't any serious bugs but I did notice that there were some mistakes in animating some of the scenes; for example, in one scene while Dirk is entering a room, the door in front of him is closed, however once he's ambushed the door magically disappears... no I meant the figure of speech, not actual magic! Geeze!

Score – 6/10

If you're one that enjoys experiencing video gaming history, a fan of the original 1983 game or a fan of Don Bluth animations, then you can't go past securing yourself a copy of Dragon's Lair. Revolutionary for its day, it demonstrates an early kind of interactive movie back when Laserdiscs were all the rage. As an actual game based on its own merits and compared to what is available nowadays however, there's not much to vouch for in a game reliant on Quick-Time Events for just about everything.

Dragon's Lair is available from these retailers:

If you like this game, you might like...

[ LINK: Digital Leisure's website ]

Thursday, September 25, 2014

DLC Quest Review


Indeed.

  • Developer: Going Loud Studios
  • Publisher: Going Loud Studios
  • Release Date: 18 March 2013
  • Time played: 2.4 hours

I vaguely remember DLC Quest when it was listed on Steam's Greenlight page. Steam uses Greenlight to determine which games to sell next based on user votes. The more popular the game is, the more likely it will be released onto Steam. DLC Quest was one of those games I just had to see on Steam and consequently I made sure my vote counted - and count it did as you're now able to buy the game on Steam for as little as $2.99 USD (and when I say "now", I mean since March last year - damn that backlog). I like humourous games; ever since playing old Lucasarts adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island I've always had a soft spot for games where its premise was just to be funny since as we all know, laughter is the best medicine. DLC Quest promised to be one of those games but is it really that funny? Also, how does the gameplay hold up?

Plot (5/5)
This game is a satire so its plot is the same plot you get in many video games. DLC Quest is even nice enough to point it out to you in the very short intro sequence. In the first game/episode, you play the role of a guy who is aptly named "Player" and witnesses as his girlfriend is abducted by a villain. This, as the game points out, results in Player's "motivation" to go on his epic quest to save his girlfriend. The second game/episode called Live Freemium or Die! isn't that much better and involves you saving a village from an unknown menace. So the plot itself isn't anything that's terribly good but where the game truly shines is with respect to its humour.

DLC Quest is a satire of the video games industry, especially its love affair in recent years with Downloadable Content (DLC). Many of the game's jokes revolves around the obscene amount of DLC you have to acquire in order to progress through a game - some of the DLC is even based off real life ones (albeit sometimes in an exaggerated form). The fact that you're limited in the game by what you can do without the need of DLC is part of the joke, but it seems even funnier when you're actually experiencing the limitations which is what DLC Quest achieves. The game also has a lot of in-jokes, memes and references to other popular franchises such as The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Diablo, Battlefield and even Plants vs Zombies. Consequently, I picture someone who has an eclectic taste in games will probably get the most out of playing this game, since many of the jokes will go over your head if you're the sort to just play Minesweeper and nothing else (but then you'd probably not be reading this blog either :)).

Gameplay (2/5)
Gameplay is very primitive in this game - it's a basic platformer. Player is able to jump onto platforms whilst avoiding obstacles such as spike pits and later on gets the ability to jump off walls. He can also attack things with a sword/pickaxe or use them to clear foliage in order to access new areas. Many obstacles in the game can be overcome by purchasing the right DLC from an in-game vendor, but don't worry, you don't need to pay real money - you instead use the coins you collect in the game that are dotted around the level, Mario style.

Consequently, there's not much I can recommend here in terms of the gameplay, except the game is very clever (and humourous) when it comes to the timing of new DLC notifications. Whenever you come across a new obstacle there always seems to be a new DLC pack you can get access to in the near future. Sometimes finding the obstacle triggers the DLC pack to unlock; other times you have to actually search for it. Consequently, the bulk of the game isn't really challenging (which is probably part of the satire) the only real challenge to be had is if you're attempting to unlock all achievements such as collecting all the coins in the game.

Gotta love Day 1 DLC

Sound (5/5)
The game contains basic 8-bit era sound effects but you'd expect that from a retro-styled platformer. There's also no voice acting which is again to be expected from a retro indie game (and it doesn't really suffer from not having any).

Music (3/5)
Music is your typical 8-bit NES era fare that you'd expect from a retro indie platformer. Nothing memorable about it but it suits the game.

Graphics (2/5)
The game adopts a simple, retro style to the graphics similar to platformers of the 80s (but at least it has more colours).

Replay (2/5)
Most achievements in the game are easily attainable but there are a few that would probably benefit from replaying the game. While I enjoyed the game, it's unlikely I'll return to playing it for awhile. Also, even though the game actually consists of two games or episodes (DLC Quest and Live Freemium or Die) it will only take you a bit over two hours to complete both of them.

Polish (5/5)
I didn't encounter any serious bugs while playing this game, well except the parodies of notorious ones from other games...

Score – 6/10

As an actual game, the game is probably deserving of the score shown: the game is a very basic platformer where you use coins to ultimately open up new sections of the game. When you put it this way, it sounds rather dull and uninspired. Where this game really shines though is in the delivery of its humour; by limiting basic game functionality it provides a scathing yet light-hearted commentary on the direction the game industry is heading. Add some in-jokes and references to popular game franchises, and you've got a game that makes it impossible not to laugh. It's also only 3 bucks so if you're an avid gamer that keeps up with what's going on in the industry, it's worth it for the LOLs.

DLC Quest is available from these retailers:

If you like this game, you might like...

[ LINK: Official DLC Quest website ]

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Where are they now? - Satoshi Uesaka

Screenshot of Fire Hawk: Thexder - The Second Contact (1989)

Today's "Where are they now?" is for someone who unfortunately seems to have very little information about himself on the Internet - at least in English. Satoshi Uesaka like Takeshi Miyaji was an employee at Japanese developer Game Arts, famous for games such as Silpheed and another game that will forever linger in my memory, Thexder - in particular its sequel, Fire Hawk: Thexder - The Second Contact (but I always called it Thexder 2).

According to MobyGames, the first games to have Satoshi in the credits were two MSX games released in 1983 called Mole and Pairs; Satoshi programmed the former and did the graphics for the latter. It wasn't until 1985 did we receive a game he designed (and apparently did the graphics for) which is of course Thexder. Transformable planes must've been all the rage in early 80s Japan; I mean there was Macross in 1982, Transformers in 1984 and of course, Robotech in 1985 which this game reminds me of the most, probably because I was a fan as a kid (I know, Robotech is technically not Japanese but it's where a lot of Westerners first learned about Macross, the source material). Apparently Thexder would go on to sell over a million copies which was unheard of for a game in the mid-80s.

A year later, Silpheed was released (Satoshi did the programming and graphics for this game) and in 1989, my favourite game of Satoshi's was released, Fire Hawk: Thexder - The Second Contact. Now saying it's my favourite game is unfortunately not saying much since like Silpheed, Thexder 2 was one of those games I just couldn't get very far with, never really getting past the second level. The idea of being able to transform between a robot and a jet was pretty neat though.

Satoshi continued to work on some games I've never heard of after Thexder 2 but judging by their titles, they were games targeted for the Japanese market. Who knows how popular they were over there. The last game to be released where he is credited is a PS3/PSP game called Thexder Neo in 2009 which just looks like a revamped Thexder; he served as Game Designer and Art Director during its development. It's interesting to note though that the game seemed to have nothing to do with Game Arts as it was published by Square Enix and developed by a studio called Zereo. Maybe Satoshi is working there now although I couldn't glean anything off their corporate website.

So the status of Satoshi Uesaka? Unknown, but I assume he is still working on games in Japan. Where you are Mr Uesaka, thanks for the fond memories of Thexder 2!

LINKS:
[ Wikipedia: Thexder ]
[ MobyGames: Satoshi Uesaka ]

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Choicest Games now a Steam Curator

Choicest Games now a Steam Curator

For those that are regular Steam users, you've probably noticed that there's been a major revamp to the Steam Store Page. While it's debatable on whether some of these new features actually makes things easier or simply add more clutter to the front page, one feature I do like is the idea of the "Steam Curator". Basically it allows anyone with an existing Steam group (e.g. my official steam group for the blog) to be able to recommend games on Steam. So how is this different to the existing system where individuals could recommend/review games? There isn't much difference except it now allows groups of people to recommend games under one banner or review sites (such as Choicest Games) to add their own two cents.

Consequently, I've joined the hundreds of other Steam Curators (although this will undoubtedly increase exponentially) by adding Choicest Games to the mix. There's currently 36 recommendations based on games that have received a score of 8/10 or higher on this blog, from 2008 to the present.

If you happen to be a Steam user, please consider following the official Choicest Games Steam Curator page - or join the official group for some discussion :).

Monday, September 22, 2014

Choicest VGM - VGM #149 - The Ur-Quan Masters - Spathi - Safe Haven



Composed by: Eric Berge
Remixed by: Jouni Airaksinen

This is a remix of the music which plays when you meet the cowardly race known as the Spathi - and when I say they're cowardly, that's not meant as an insult, it's actually one of their racial traits! Their fear and paranoia actually worked to their advantage though, causing them to advance from the Bronze Age to the Space Age within only 100 years, due to their fear of teddy-bear like creatures known as "the Evil Ones". Since being a coward is so deeply ingrained in Spathi culture, even their ships, aptly named "Eluders", are best at speeding away from enemies and firing torpedoes whilst they retreat.

The original track by Eric Berge sounds quite comical, probably because the Spathi were one of the "comic relief" races in the game (although most of the races are to some degree). Jouni Airaksinen's remix is, I daresay, even better at channelling what goes through the minds of all Spathi: living in a state of utter panic fearing each day will be their last!

Special thanks to The Precursors for remixing the classic Star Control II tracks and making them available for download.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pinball FX2 Review


The Sorcerer's Lair Table is available to play for free

  • Developer: Zen Studios
  • Publisher: Microsoft
  • Release Date: 10 May 2013
  • Time played: 4 hours

I remember playing the occasional pinball game in my youth - they were always a bit of an oddity though, being placed right next to the best the games industry had to offer at the video arcades. Back then, they didn't really offer much competition to flashier games with seemingly superior gameplay such as Outrun, Street Fighter 2 or Sega Rally. Today, you'd be hard pressed to find a pinball machine at the video arcades but I suppose their rarity and the fact they're artifacts of a bygone era makes me appreciate them more in my old age. It's a bit like us telling young whippersnappers that "back in my day, we didn't have optical media, we used cassette tapes!" It's basically nostalgia but unlike the nostalgia I have when foolishly buying games off GOG, this is nostalgia for something I never really got into.

So how on Earth did I get into it? A Steam friend of mine (thanks Corto) got me into the game when it first came out and he's known as a bit of a Pinball Wizard on the Whirlpool Forums. As he's such a choice bloke I thought I'd give it a shot just to see what all the fuss is about and whether the latest in digital pinball games were actually any fun.

Gameplay (3/5)
It's pinball. There's not really much else to be said since if you don't like pinball, you're probably going to hate this game too. If you're a big fan, from what I can tell this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the real thing, but digital pinball games have been around for a long time so there's been plenty of time to get it right. There is quite a bit of variety with the tables on offer with respect to their layouts and there's currently over 40 tables to acquire (provided you have the funds) including ones based on popular franchises such as Star Wars, Marvel and The Walking Dead. If you're not interested in any of that though, you're able to play one table called "Sorcerer's Lair" for free.

Sound (3/5)
Sound effects are great but the voice acting can be quite hammy at times and sounds abysmal for certain Marvel characters. Obviously it's probably too expensive to get the actual film actors to do any of the voice acting but it would've been nice if there was more effort in mimicking their accents.

"NOOOOO!" just isn't the same without James Earl Jones

Music (3/5)
The music is fine and whenever possible, they'll use licensed music (e.g. the Imperial March for Star Wars). My favourite track has to be the one that plays for the El Dorado table. Can't get enough of that Peruvian flute music!

Graphics (5/5)
All the tables I've played so far look pretty realistic except for the fact that some tables have characters walking across the table or flying around it - but hey it's a digital pinball table right? Why should we let little things like that get in the way of a bit of fun?

Replay (3/5)
I've played the game for approximately 4 hours now but that's actually quite a few playthroughs considering it only takes 5-10 minutes to play one game (well at least I only take that long since admittedly, I'm not very good)! That means I've probably played about 30 games so far.

I'll probably continue to play Pinball FX2 for a good time yet though mainly because of the fact it only takes a few minutes to play a game. It's one of those games that are ideal when you don't have the time to commit to a longer game or want something to just fill in some time (like a lot of casual games). There are also several pinball tables to choose from based on popular franchises and there are new ones being added all the time meaning you're likely to be spoilt for choice.

The game also compares your high scores with any other Steam friends that have played the same tables with you further increasing the game's replay value.

Polish (5/5)
No noticeable bugs in this game and the controls scheme with respect to the keyboard seems satisfactory.

Score – 7/10

If you're a fan of pinball or want a game that you can play for 5-10 minutes at a time, Pinball FX2 is highly recommended, especially considering they're based on such popular franchises such as Star Wars and Marvel Superheroes. The only thing I could really fault is that some of the tables have pretty terrible voice acting that would've benefited from the film voice actors or good impersonators. Besides this minor flaw though I suspect I'll be enjoying Pinball FX2 for a long time to come, especially considering gaming time has become such a precious resource at my stage in life. Also, did I mention that you're able to get the first table, Sorcerer's Lair for free?

Pinball FX2 is available from these retailers:

If you like this game, you might like...

[ LINK: Official Pinball FX website ]

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The 39 Steps Review

London's apparently pretty boring after a life in Rhodesia

  • Developer: The Story Mechanics
  • Publisher: KISS Ltd/GSP
  • Release Date: 25 April 2013
  • Time played: 4 hours

The 39 Steps is advertised as a "digital adaptation" of a classic adventure novel of the same name by John Buchan, and apparently it was an inspiration for Ian Fleming's James Bond. This definitely attracted my attention since ashamedly I've never heard of The 39 Steps before seeing the game advertised on Steam. Some investigation shows that John Buchan's novel was pretty popular, so much so that there have been several adaptations of the original 1915 novel such as radio plays, four films (including one by Alfred Hitchcock), a theatre play and now a video game. Considering its popularity, I thought it was a safe bet that I'd probably like the story despite gameplay being a mystery, so I decided to take the plunge and give it a go.

Does The 39 Steps have a sufficiently entertaining story or is it just trash? How does it work as a game? Can it even be considered a game?

Plot (5/5)
The 39 Steps has you playing the role of a wealthy Scottish man called Richard Hannay who has just returned to Britain from Rhodesia. After only a few days in London, Richard is already bored with his humdrum existence and almost decides to return to Africa when he meets a mysterious man who is eventually murdered in his very own apartment. Trying to escape the authorities who will surely blame him for the murder, Richard sets off on a journey across Britain not only trying to escape the authorities but also the real villains behind the murder.

As mentioned, the plot is based off John Buchan's 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps which was apparently an inspiration for Ian Fleming's James Bond. In fact, it's apparently one of the earliest literary examples of a "man-on-the-run" thriller which is now often used as a plot device in Hollywood movies. So the plot might seem rather cliché in today's day and age, but the plot is still a lot better than many game plots out there today. I really enjoyed the story and was keen to find out what happened next after completing each chapter.

Gameplay (1/5)
The game unfortunately has no real gameplay whatsoever besides occasionally completing some gestures and looking for clues in a room. At least in Telltale adventure games you picked what to say during conversations and there were some Quick-Time Events during action sequences. So if you're expecting riveting gameplay, do not buy this game. However, as a "digital adaptation" where the story is enhanced by the sounds of Britain in the early 20th century, professional voice acting and the ability to investigate memorabilia of the day, it achieves its goal.

Sound (5/5)
Voice acting is performed by professional Scottish actors and there's great use of sound effects to bring the story to life. The game feels a lot like an interactive audiobook during the conversation segments of the game.

Music (4/5)
The game has suitably dramatic music courtesy of British DJ, Si Begg but it's not the most memorable save for the tense main theme you hear snippets of whenever you start a new chapter.

Graphics (4/5)
I love the painted backdrops in this game and there's a lot of detail put into the various objects you come across, such as newspapers of the day. It's a pity then that the characters in the story are just represented by silhouettes but maybe that was intentional; just like reading a real book, you've got to use your imagination when thinking about how the characters look.

Replay (2/5)
It took me about 4 hours to complete the game and that involved unlocking 100% of the Steam achievements. So when the game advertises itself as having a playtime of "5-8 hours" this seems to be a bit generous to me, unless you're a slower reader than myself of course - much slower.

Come on guys, this isn't a mobile game... oh wait, maybe it is

Polish (4/5)
I didn't notice any serious bugs although it's obvious this game is a port from a mobile game. At some points of the game instead of you simply opening doors you have to instead do a series of tedious gestures with the mouse which I assume mimic touchscreen gestures (e.g. holding the mouse button down and spinning it in a clockwise direction). While I don't mind adding some more interaction to the game I probably would've preferred Telltale's Quick-Time Events over the method The Story Mechanics employed since there are times where you'll have to repeat the gestures for trivial reasons such as not picking the right radius to draw a circle for example.

Score – 7/10

The Story Mechanics have done a splendid job of making you feel like you're back in 1914 Britain which enhances the experience you'll have reading their adaptation of the novel. If you're wanting to play a game, you'll be disappointed but if you're looking for an adventure novel to read with that extra level of immersion, and you've never read or seen the The 39 Steps before, it might be worth a look.

The 39 Steps is available from these retailers:

If you like this game, you might like...

[ LINK: Official The 39 Steps website ]

Friday, September 19, 2014

Where to buy Wasteland 2 in Australia


They ain't no Brotherhood of Steel but damn they look badass

Wasteland 2 was released yesterday on Steam but it's apparently still going to be another week before Australians are able to buy the game off the shelves at your usual "bricks and mortar" stores like EB Games and JB Hi-Fi. So those of you wanting to have a go at Brian Fargo's highly anticipated post-apocalyptic RPG sequel, lets see where the good deals are at shall we?

Wasteland 2 - Classic/Standard Edition
Available on:
  • JB Hi-Fi ($39.00)
  • EB Games ($39.95)
  • Steam ($39.99USD)

Wasteland 2 Ranger Edition
Available on:
  • ozgameshop ($52.99)
Includes:
  • Collectors Box
  • Official Soundtrack
  • Field Manual
  • 5 Collector Cards
  • Double sided poster
  • Wasteland 1

Wasteland 2 Digital Deluxe Edition
Available on:
  • Steam ($59.99USD)
  • GOG ($68.99 + $3.70 Store Credit)
Includes:
  • Digital Manual
  • Official Soundtrack (MP3)
  • 3 Wallpapers (GOG only)
  • 3 Digital Wasteland Novellas
  • Chris Avellone Wasteland Novel (GOG only)
  • Map (GOG only)
  • Reference Card (GOG only)
  • Official Soundtrack (FLAC)
  • Concept Artbook
  • Wasteland 1
  • The Bard's Tale

Verdict:
If you're wanting to get the base game as cheap as possible it looks like JB Hi-Fi is the cheapest, even slightly cheaper than Steam - although realistically the price difference is negligible between JB, EB and Steam. So it really boils down to whether you want a physical copy or a digital only one.

If you're interested in getting the soundtrack, ozgameshop's Ranger Edition provides a good middle ground price since it's slightly cheaper than the Digital Deluxe Edition although for only a few dollars more you're able to get more stuff such as the game The Bard's Tale and some novellas (not to mention the Digital Deluxe version is obviously digital, whereas the Ranger Edition is physical).

As I already have the games Wasteland 1 and The Bard's Tale I'm not really attracted at getting anything more than a standard edition, well except for maybe the soundtrack - but to me it's basically paying $13 or more for the privilege of a soundtrack which seems a bit steep to me. I'll probably end up buying the Steam Classic version whenever it goes on sale :).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

First Impressions - Always Sometimes Monsters

Yes, you read it right.

Always Sometimes Monsters has been on my radar as soon as it was released. The game is clearly an RPG Maker game yet it happens to look different simply because it's not your typical fantasy role-playing game and is instead set during modern times. While I was intrigued by the game I decided to wait until it was discounted at 50% or more. Fast forward to now and the game, along with RPG Maker and several other RPG Maker-developed titles, are on sale. Consequently, I thought that $5 USD wasn't a bad price so I promptly purchased the game.

The game advertises itself as one where you "have to endure the hardship of making story-defining choices that affect your life and the lives of those around you". So the game changes depending on the choices you make and I've always liked those sort of games, ones where your choices mattered. It goes one step further though and the game will also change depending on your sex, race and sexual orientation; there's very few games that I've experienced where that is the case so I'm pleasantly surprised to see it at least advertised for this game (I've yet to experience it in a second playthrough though).

So is this just another RPG Maker game to deride (not that I normally deride RPG Maker games, but you know the sort of people I'm talking about) or is this game as good as some of the so-called professional critics make it out to be?

What I like

  • Music: As soon as the game boots up you're treated to some pretty funky 80s-style music and most of the soundtrack is synthpop (I wonder what's the deal with Devolver Digital and games with 80s soundtracks? Hotline Miami anyone?). I liked the soundtrack so much I made sure to purchase it since it was on special too. Be warned though that the soundtrack available off Steam is only a partial soundtrack. There's actually another two compilations available off Laser Destroyer Team's Bandcamp site.
  • Awesome character selection sequence: This is the best character selection sequence I've experienced in a long time, maybe ever. Basically, you tailor part of the story right from the start by deciding which character you are and that of your partner, and this all fits in seamlessly with the story as well, forming the game's prologue. Now that's how you start off a game!
  • Plot: The game is all about ethical and moral dilemmas and while the game seems to be dark, gritty, mature and cynical, its underlying story still has some melancholic sweetness to it, similar to another RPG Maker game, To The Moon. You really get attached to your character and the other characters in the game, wanting to find out what has happened to all of them one year since the party in the game's prologue. It's kind of like wanting to be a stickybeak at a high school reunion.

What I don't like

  • Interface: I do realise that RPG Maker has its limitations and while Vagabond Dog have done their best to work around it there's some gameplay elements where the use of menus becomes frustrating, especially during some of the mini-games. The use of hotkeys would've been a better solution although I'm not sure if this is even possible to implement in RPG Maker or not.
  • Pacing: While on the topic of mini-games, there are a couple of times in the game where you'll have to save up enough money by doing repetitive, mind-numbing tasks. Okay, that's not entirely true since as this is a game about choice, the amount of work you have to do will depend on your morals. The more morals you have, the harder the game becomes and the more actual work you'll have to do. While I can appreciate that the game is teaching us a lesson (i.e. taking the high road isn't easy) it would've been nice if it didn't take almost an hour or two of real time in order to grind the cash required to progress to the next chapter of the story.

Verdict

Always Sometimes Monsters does have its minor faults with respect to gameplay and it's fiddly RPG Maker interface, but the excellent music, memorable characters and mature, almost philosophical plot elevates this game into To the Moon territory - i.e. another example of how good a game can be despite it being developed using game creation software (such as RPG Maker). I can't wait to finish the game and maybe even try it a couple of more times to see how different the experience can be.

[ LINK: Official Always Sometimes Monsters website ]


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Where are they now? - Damon Slye

Damon Syle - Creator of flight sim Red Baron

For today's "Where are they now?" we have a man who was instrumental in developing well loved flight sims for the games industry as well as founding a major development house in the 80s. The man I'm talking about is Damon Slye and before we take a look at where he is now, let's take a look at how he got involved in the gaming industry.

Damon Slye first started creating computer games back in 1977 but it wouldn't be until 1981 that he would start on what he calls his "first game project" called Stellar 7. Stellar 7 was a 3D tank game that looks very primitive by today's standards with its four colours and wireframe 3D models, but it was quite revolutionary for its day when it was released on the Apple II in 1983 (not to mention he programmed the game in assembler!).

It was in 1983 when Damon would co-found game development studio Dynamix with Jeff Tunnell. The company started small but grew to 150 employees at its peak. It was also sold to Sierra On-Line in 1989 before it was officially disbanded in 2001.

After Stellar 7, Damon led the development of another tank game for release on the Amiga and it would be Electronic Arts's first original game for that platform. The game was called Arcticfox and was released in 1986.

[Red Baron was] probably Damon's most famous game and 4th best computer game of all time according to Computer Gaming World.

Damon and his colleagues at Dynamix would go on to develop several more simulation-style games such as Abrams Battle Tank (1988), A-10 Tank Killer (1989) (the only of his games I've actually played but important as it introduced me to the world of modern warfare), the remake of Stellar 7 (1990), Red Baron (1990) (probably Damon's most famous game and 4th best computer game of all time according to Computer Gaming World), Aces of the Pacific (1992) and Aces over Europe (1993).

Damon left Dynamix in 1994 and after a 12 year hiatus eventually got back into game development after co-founding a new development studio in 2007 with ex-Dynamix employees. The new studio was called Mad Otter Games and Damon led the development of Ace of Aces (2008) and a free-to-play MMORPG called Villagers and Heroes (2011).

Damon and Mad Otter Games attempted to raise $250,000 through Kickstarter in late 2013 for a new Red Baron game but it failed abysmally (which is actually a big surprise to me considering how popular it was).

In terms of recent projects it seems that Damon and Mad Otter Games are still updating the game Villagers and Heroes with it being released on Steam only a few months ago. While this is a far cry from the kind of games Damon used to work on there are some neat features in Villagers and Heroes, the most enticing being the ability to grow your own town with friends but I suspect games like Minecraft and its clones might provide quite a bit of competition in that regard though.

I wish Damon all the best with any future projects - it's good to know that developers of his calibre are still in the business.

LINKS:
[ Wikipedia: Damon Slye ]
[ MobyGames: Damon Slye ]
[ Mad Otter Games: About Damon Slye ]
[ Kickstarter: Red Baron ]

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

First Impressions - The Sims 4

The Sims 4 no longer has the Toddler life stage. Newborns grow straight into young children then teenagers

The Sims 4 is probably one of the most anticipated games of this year. The series is one of the best-selling game franchises of all time and consequently has a large following - a following that is no doubt aided by the fact it targets the broadest demographic possible i.e. everyone. This isn't a game that only white, heterosexual males can play (in fact, they're probably not as likely to play this) but it caters for both male and female, young and old.

This means trying to satisfy all of these fans is no simple task. If you're releasing a sequel you've got to keep things fresh yet at the same time don't deviate too much from the original formula that you alienate your existing fans - at least that's the ideal situation. The reality is you're never really going to reach this equilibrium. You either pick the minor update to the game with most work being done in the graphics department (e.g. Starcraft 2 or Counter-Strike: Source) or you take a big leap of faith, a bit like what Maxis did last year with the reboot of SimCity. To be honest, I respect Maxis for giving it a shot, trying to make things fresh. Unfortunately, the execution was severely flawed which meant not only did you already lose your existing fan base, you weren't exactly going to win any new fans either.

So what about The Sims 4? Where does it lie on this spectrum between incremental changes to paradigm shift? Before I answer that question I am aware that many features were cut from The Sims 4 when you compare it to its predecessor, The Sims 3 but to be honest, I found most of the omissions trivial and could be easily countered with fresh, new gameplay concepts. So that's what I was really looking for when playing The Sims 4: does it tread enough new ground so that the sacrifices it made were not in vain?

What I like

  • Create a Sim: The new Create a Sim tool is probably the best I've seen in the series and is definitely the game's strongest point. In fact I think I spent at least a couple of hours creating a new family just using this tool (and that's not a testament to how difficult it is to use, but how many options you get this time around). You're now actually given the ability to sculpt the body in different parts, instead of using a purely slider-based approach: now you just select, hold the mouse button down, and drag.
  • Goal-based gameplay: This isn't really anything new but it seems to be brought along from The Sims 3. The game has several goals you can achieve that will help grant you rewards and even unlock certain furniture for your house - yes that's right, you don't get all the furniture unlocked from the beginning. This is of course a double-edged sword since some, like myself, likes the challenge of being able to unlock these (a bit like Steam achievements) - others might find this really frustrating since it goes against the whole notion of The Sims games being sandbox games.

What I don't like

  • No family tree: At first this was a deal-breaker for me. Why wouldn't you include the ability to see how everyone in your Sim family is related? It really makes no sense if you have generations involved. I reconsidered and eventually bought the game when I was told that it still retains familial relationships but it just doesn't do so via a family tree infographic. I'm still reserving judgement on this once I go past two generations, so at the moment, it's only a minor inconvenience.
  • No "normal" professions: In the The Sims 4 you have career paths like astronaut, or secret agent or movie star - which are obviously attainable careers but how many people in real life would be actually doing these jobs? A small percentage. The Business career track has disappeared completely and so has Medicine, Military and Science. Yes it's nice to aim for jobs that you only fantasise about but it'd be nice if the kids playing this game could also focus on getting jobs in more realistic pursuits (yes, I went there: "BUT THINK ABOUT THE CHILDREN!")
  • Lack of services or "why the hell do things break so much": Yes I'm aware that certain items have reliability ratings and yes after time you're able to upgrade showers, taps, etc. to break down less often. But why do you even need to do this if you have the money? I suppose the option to "replace" items is the equivalent of a repairman but it would've been nice to have that old ability to call him in. Taking the manual approach of repairing everything can take a couple of days and by then, other things would've started to break down again, meaning you're spending your entire life working, eating, sleeping and repairing the house (instead of spending time with family, socialising with friends or focusing on your career - unless you want to be a plumber that is, oh wait they got rid of "normal" professions)
  • The SimCity Council must've zoned the plots: There's only a handful of plots of land that you can build on in the game and only two towns you can build in: a New Orleans-themed town and a desert one. Obviously the councils of the 2013 SimCity were responsible for the zoning...
  • There's nothing really that new: This is the major issue I have with the game. I think Maxis and/or EA were truly burned by the SimCity fiasco since it seems like The Sims 4 is missing a lot of potential new features and they've taken the safe route of just redoing The Sims 2 with the inventory system and personality system of The Sims 3 with little true innovation in gameplay. Yes, the Sims have emotions now, but from what I can see so far, the emotions mechanic doesn't change things much, and while Create a Sim is definitely better this time round, you're not going to be spending all your time in there.

Verdict

If I never played a Sims game before, or I was at least aware of the games but never touched a product, The Sims 4 is a good game and at its core is still what a Sims game is all about: it is the ultimate virtual doll house simulator. My only issue is that for the legions of fans out there, The Sims 4 currently doesn't feel like it's got the longevity of its predecessors. Yes, every base game of The Sims had cut down features but at least every base game had something truly innovative to brag about - I can't find that in The Sims 4, at least not yet.

[ LINK: Official The Sims 4 website ]




Monday, September 15, 2014

Choicest VGM - VGM #148 - The Ur-Quan Masters - Slylandro Home - Floating Gas Bags



Composed by: Eric Berge
Remixed by: Espen Gätzschmann and Tore Aune Fjellstad

This is a remix of the music which plays when you finally make it to the Slylandro homeworld. Very early on in the game you'll encounter several of their probes that claim to "come in peace" only to be attacked by them as soon as the conversation ends. This is because the Slylandro reprogrammed the probes to ensure that replication was of the utmost importance to the probes, even moreso than peaceful contact. Consequently, every time they encounter asteroids or indeed other ships, they attempt to break them down into component materials for use in creating more probes.

The name of the track, "Floating Gas Bags", is a reference to how other races would perceive the Slylandro. Their homeworld is a gas giant so being "floating gas bags" seems logical. Interestingly, the Slylandro seem to be very similar to the Hanar in the Mass Effect series, even adopting a similar naming convention to them. Perhaps BioWare drew some inspiration from the Slylandro when developing the Hanar? Then again, Mass Effect probably was inspired by Star Control 2 in general.

The Slylandro Home theme music sounds like it belongs at a carnival and has a child-like innocence to it - which to me is a perfect fit for the Slylandro as a race; just like children, they are curious about the universe around them and while they have good intentions, their naivety sometimes gets the better of them, namely the launching of thousands of hostile probes into outer space.

Special thanks to The Precursors for remixing the classic Star Control II tracks and making them available for download.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

First Impressions - Shadowgate (2014)

You're going to be seeing this guy a lot if you're new to this sort of game

I never played any of the older versions of Shadowgate. I never played the original 1987 PC version or the popular 1989 NES version, nor did I play any of the sequels. So why on Earth am I playing this 2014 remake of a classic adventure game?

I actually only stumbled across Shadowgate thanks to Lori and Corey Cole, the developers of the classic Sierra adventure game series, Quest for Glory. During one of their updates for their Kickstarter project, Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, the Coles gave a shout-out to the project and when I learned that ICOM were behind Shadowgate, it piqued my interest (ICOM were the guys behind another oldschool game I enjoyed called Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective.

The original game was perhaps a bit before my time, as my most active gaming years were during the early 90s, but the screenshots I looked at reminded me of some of the Legend Entertainment adventure games I used to play such as Frederik Pohl's Gateway or Companions of Xanth. So I took the plunge and backed the project and I'm now playing the result of Zojoi's labours. Shadowgate happens to be the third completed game I backed via a Kickstarter, after Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded and Moebius: Empire Rising (Broken Age doesn't count since it's technically half-finished ;)).

So I've played the game for a few hours now and many of you are probably wondering, how is it?

What I like

  • Graphics: I really like the painted backgrounds and characters in the game. True the game has very simple animations but I'm a big sucker for good artwork.
  • Music: Rich Douglas has done a great job bringing the classic NES Shadowgate soundtrack into the 21st century. "But you never played the NES Shadowgate!" you're probably exclaiming. That is true, but I've done my research and have checked out a few videos of the original NES game. Rich Douglas uses the main Shadowgate theme as a leitmotif in many of the tracks, which is a technique that many great movie composers (e.g. John Williams) employs, and something that I can't get enough of.
  • Retro mode: The retro mode for Shadowgate isn't quite as involved as what Lucasarts did with The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, for example, but they have added some nice touches with respect to scene transitions, 8-bit music and the typewriter-like dialogue.

What I don't like

  • Plot: The plot seems to be your typical fantasy fare, at least so far. It probably wasn't such an issue back in the 80s but it's definitely starting to get long in the tooth in the 2010s.
  • Difficulty: This is probably my biggest issue with the game and before you say it, yes, I know this game is meant to be hard. Not only is it based off an old computer game (which are notorious for their difficulty) it was apparently a difficult game for its time too. To Zojoi's credit they've given you the ability to choose different difficulty levels and there's even a talking skull that can provide you hints every so often. Yet, even though I've selected the easiest difficulty and I'm taking as many hints from the skull as I can, I'm still managing to get stuck at certain parts. It doesn't help that you essentially have a time limit to figuring out puzzles too as you only have a limited number of torches and when it's lights out, it's Game Over. This is also coming from someone who used to play games in the 80s and 90s so I can't imagine what it'd be like for a younger gamer.

Verdict

I like the game's aesthetic and I respect the fact that Zojoi have tried to make the game more accessible to gamers who never played the original games (I guess you'd have to if you wanted to capture more of the market). However, the game's oldschool interface and oldschool difficulty may be a bit too much to bear for those not familiar with these style of games and there have been many times where I've been tempted to throw in the towel.

[ LINK: Official Shadowgate website ]