Thursday, November 29, 2007

Serious Sam: The First Encounter

Just look at that box art. That's a manly game right there. If that wasn't enough to make you want the game, I'll go on.

Let me explain where I am stuck right now in this game. I have a gigantic green dragon-like thing that shoots green fireballs at me. They home in on me and if I dodge them they'll circle around and try again. I can shoot the fireballs to destroy them, but they're fired at you pretty rapidly. In the meantime, I havea giant bull that runs at me trying to gore me. I also have crazy suicide bombers that run at me screaming to try to kill me. I need to shoot the bull in the face to kill it. I need to shoot the bombers before they get within range of me. I need to shoot the green fireballs. And I need to shoot the green dragon-like thing so that he'll STOP shooting green fireballs at me and I can continue the level (this isn't an end boss or anything). If I get caught by any single one of these objects, I die. If you're afraid of challenge, or in other words a wuss, stay away from this one. If you're a real man, though, get ready for an awesome FPS.

The underlying game is basically Doom. Walk around, shoot everything you see, keep going until the end of the level. There's also no annoying key cards to collect like in Doom. If there's a story, I don't care because I skip the cutscenes to get to the action. And oh boy is there action! The game is great about throwing a ton of stuff at you, all the time. This is a game where you need to dodge stuff to survive. The action is fast and furious and it hardly ever lets up. You'll be bunnyhopping, dodging left and right while shooting frantically at anything you see, and constantly looking over your shoulder to check other threats. The dodging also feels like it's ripped right out of a shmup. You can see the bullets the other guys shoot at you and you'll be dodging them, and believe me there's some fun stuff to dodge. There's also powerups, armor, and ammo lying around everywhere. This is a hardcore action-packed FPS for people with quick reflexes. If you have the reflexes of a spayed kitten, you are going to die. It's the fun kind of death though. The kind you wish you would have in real life. I don't know about you, but I'd love to be killed by a missile launched from a giant red scorpion as I try to gun down it and all its friends with a shotgun. What a eulogy that would be! "We'll miss him, but wow, that must be one of the most awesome deaths I have ever heard of in my life. He'll be happy to know that giant red scorpion with the missile launcher died from loss of blood just minutes after we finished picking up Kevin's pieces from the floor. Who's up for some cheesecake?"

I like cheesecake.

Battlestations: Midway

This is one of the much more recent games on GameTap, from circa Januray 2007, and I had only vaguely heard of it. Well, lo and behold, it's a World War II game. I haven't played nearly enough of those in the past few years. But wait! This one is different! You never even play as a footsoldier or infantry. The entire game consists of commanding battleships, submarines, and planes, fighting the japanese in the pacific. As far as I know, you don't even fight any germans. Certainly dogfighting sims are nothing new, and there have been a few weak stabs at battleship and submarine command, but I have to say, this is the first game I've seen to put each one together into a cohesive whole. It essentially pulls it off well, except a few minor issues. It even manages to stick in some RTS gameplay which feels pretty good if simple. While the concept seems pretty original, the gameplay for the most part isn't. It might feel unique, however, if you've never played a little game I like to call "the best Star Trek game ever." You might know it as Star Trek: Bridge Commander. More on that in a second.

I'll start with the plane combat because it's definitely my favorite. I'll admit I'm not a veteren of the flight combat genre, but I've played a few in my time. As a stand-alone game, the flight combat would have been pretty good if a little simple for some flight sim enthusiasts. The enemy planes have a circle in front of their line of movement to show you where to shoot if you want to hit them. You have machine guns and sometimes a few types of bombs (just one per plane though). No missiles; it was WWII after all. The reason this part of the game is my favorite is that it's the most actual action you're going to see in this game. The ships and subs move at a pretty slow pace, which makes sense considering how big they are and the fact that it's supposed to be more tactical. The dogfights get pretty fun and intense though. I would have liked an interior cockpit view, as the first-person view it does offer only shows you a crosshair and nothing of your plane itself. One possible complaint is that you die pretty quickly if anything shoots at you accurately, but the reason for that is because there are dozens of planes in the sky and you can just switch to another one when you die.

In fact, you're never really dead because you can switch between anything on or over the oceans. Battleships, subs, even aircraft carriers are under your control. Let me talk first about the submarines. I love the concept. Hunt for Red October is a great movie. The idea of tactical submarine command with sub-to-ship combat and sub-to-sub combat is an awesome idea and I wish a game really came along to do it right. The sub gameplay in Midway is interesting. It feels almost like a stealth game where you have to sneak around sniping at ships with your torpedoes (which are really hard to hit with by the way). Unfortunately, at any depth except pretty much the lowest one - where your hull starts to implode from the pressure - any enemy ship can spot you with sonar and hit you with depth charges. You also have to surface for air a lot. And you don't move very fast. If you get into the middle of an enemy fleet, you're gunna have to go too low to shoot them if you want to survive, and you'll probably end up surfacing right in the middle of them for oxygen and getting killed. The sub combat is HARD. There is a certain skill to it, though, which I do not yet possess, and if I get good it might be a bit more fun, but it just feels too awkward for me to really get into. You sneak around deep underwater trying not to get detected, with very little chance to attack or fight at all. It can be exciting, sure, to keep watching the ships above you and hope they don't send a depth charge your way, but I just don't get that satisfaction of blowing stuff up.

Here's where the battleships come in. Here, also, is where Bridge Commander comes in, because if you're familar with that game, you'll be familiar with the ship combat in Midway. Except the ships in Midway are a lot simpler to control and with fewer options for attacking or movement. You slowly lumber around shooting artillery and torpedoes at other battleships, turning broadside so you can get better shots, and commonly going to the repair screen to position repair crews when you get hit. Honestly, this type of combat was better in Bridge Commander with 3-dimensional movement and different firing arcs for your phasers which had to recharge. And shield zones. And you could actually command your tactical officer to make different maneauvers and firing patterns, and auto-target. In Midway, you can tell them to attack a target, or guard a target, or follow a target. That's about it. It's not bad, just not nearly as good as BC. In fact, I'm getting all nastalgic for that game now.

How do these elements all come together? In an RTS style map view. You can select your ships, planes and subs, and give orders to attack, move, guard, or whatever. Actually, that's basically it. And once they destroy their target, they'll just sit there waiting for a new order. At any time of course you can go in and control a unit directly, which is what makes this game different from a normal battlefield-style game or any RTS. You command the fleet, and you're also every gunner and pilot in that fleet. It's a fun experience, and I hear the multiplayer is crazy good. Too bad it goes through that idiocy called Gamespy. The bad thing about this game? Not nearly enough action unless you treat it as an RTS/arcade-dogfighting game. If you treat it as an RTS, it isn't nearly deep enough or fast enough. If you treat it as a dogfighting game, it's fun but not very complicated nor accurate. This really is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, though, and I do like this game. It's too bad the cutscenes (which are SKIPPABLE! Look, see that, Operation Flashpoint? You can SKIP THROUGH CUTSCENES!) are so corny. Yeah, the Japanese pilot looked at a picture of his family before bombing Pearl Harbor. I'm supposed to feel sympathy even though he's viewed as the bad guy. Look, we're all human beings really. What a touching and insightful message.

No, really, if I want an insightful philosophical message, I'll go read a book (preferable Dune).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Operation Flashpoint: Game of the Year Edition

One of the unfortunately small number of FPSes on GameTap that I'd actually heard of, Operation Flashpoint: GOTY Edition has, apparently, been nominated game of the year at some point; I'm guessing 2000 or 2001, based on the release date of the game itself. Why it has been named game of the year by anyone, I really can't guess. This has to be the most boring first-person shooters I think I have ever played. I am not exaggerating when I say that the first level involves waiting 10 minutes for the bus, riding for 10 minutes on the bus, and (get this!), walking from the bus stop to your office. It's an hour into the game and I haven't shot anybody yet! I haven't even held a gun! The most action I've seen is from the (unskippable) cutscenes, which still isn't saying much.

I'm not sure what the developers were thinking with this game, but I'd have to say that my major gripe has to be the unskippable cutscenes. What if I want to skip right to the gameplay because I really don't care whatsoever about the story? What if I've played the game once already and don't want to watch the cutscenes again? That last one is a bit of a stretch, I'll admit, because I don't know who in their right minds would sit through this bus-riding simulator in its entirety and then actually want to do it all again. At least when you're waiting for the bus, you can move around and interact a little with stuff. I say "a little" because the most you can do, and again I am not exaggerating, is to salute people (who show no reaction at all to your existance anyway so I don't know what the point of saluting them even is), sit down, and look at your watch to see what time it is.

Now, if that sounds boring - and it is - then you may find it hard to believe that the cutscenes are worse. Luckily I got to skip a few in the beginning but as soon as you're waiting for that bus, it becomes unskippable. And you WILL want to skip it, because they are the type of cutscenes that make CNN look like an action-thrillride. While sitting on the bus, I get the incredible joy of listening to a news reporter on the radio talk about mundane political things that I have no interest in at all. The next cutscene comes when you're in your office, in the form of a news report about some country invading some other country. They show a few clips of tanks driving around wide open fields. Then at one point they stop talking and just show the tanks, driving along in a mostly straight line over some green hills. Then they show the tanks from a different angle. All without any talking or action whatsoever. For about 5 minutes. When the cutscene finally had the decency to end its miserable life, I'm plunked back into this office building with the objective "escape the city" because apparently the tanks have started attacking. You can't actually see any tanks or anything happening because you're in the middle of a city and they're out at the edge shooting at the ground somewhere near city limits, so there's really no sense of urgency or fun at all. I would have kept playing just to try to give the game a chance, if it weren't for the fact that (A) I was bored to tears as it was, and (B) the controls.

This is an original PC game back when PC FPSes were at their prime. This is 2000 or 2001. Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena are out and about. We KNOW how FPSes are supposed to be controlled: WASD, space for jump, mouse aim, and maybe a few other keys for different functions (some people would add ctrl for crouching but I've always preferred the c button. Maybe it's the years of playing Star Wars: Jedi Outcast, which used c as the crouch button, but I'm too used to it now to use anything else. But I digress...) I am again not exaggerating when I say this game controls like an N64 game. The crosshair moves around inside a bounding box, within which your view itself remains motionless. Can anybody please tell me why they thought this was a GOOD idea for a PC FPS?! I'm really at a loss. Oh, and the spacebar apparently is for switching weapons or something. I don't think you can even jump. The 'use' key, which I would think should be near WASD, maybe E or F if E is taken as a lean function, is instead the enter key. Wow, great design, idiots. Might as well make the firing button the page-up key.

As I mentioned earlier, I didn't get that much into the game before I quit out of boredom and frustration. However, this may be a bit of a misnomer, because the game itself was running for about an hour. I, however, only got to "play" about 10 minutes of it, and almost all of that was waiting for the bus. Maybe this game gets amazing when you actually get to do something fun. Maybe the multiplayer is awesome (no chance to try that). Maybe the modding scene was really good, which I am led to believe based on all the videos of mods I found when searching youtube for "operation flashpoint" in order to actually find some gameplay footage that wasn't more boring than watching a rock grow. Regardless, if a game can be playing for an hour and not even begin the action yet, and that game ISN'T an RPG or adventure game where a story is actually sort of important (and even in those cases, I want to skip the cutscenes if I feel like it!), then I really can't give it much more of a chance. I play an FPS for the action. It's not a movie. I have no problem with a lull in the action for some storyline. Just look at Half-Life 2, which is the model by which all FPSes should follow for how to deliver story. But when the entire first hour of a game is essentially a big cutscene with pointless gameplay thrown in, I just don't care to keep playing.

Deus Ex

Ah, Deus Ex, the game many consider the best FPS ever made. I tried this a month or two ago and stopped quickly because I wasn't very impressed at all and had other games to play. I'm trying it again now thanks to GameTap and I have to say, after playing all the way through the first mission this time, it's growing on me. I wouldn't call it great, I wouldn't even call it good. I'm prepared to say it's an OK game, for a couple of reasons.

First, the control feels really bad. The aim seems to slide a little when you move the mouse in a way that feels inaccurate. Deus Ex used the Unreal engine so there's really no excuse for that. Second, the guns are weak-feeling and inaccurate. I once was sneaking up on a guard and literally had the crosshair right on his head. He wasn't moving at all. I fired, and the bullet landed on the wall next to him. He panicked and set off the alarm. Now maybe one of the skills or augmentations your character receives will make your aim a little better, but it shouldn't be THAT bad, when you're completely stationary, shooting at a guard who isn't that far away. Speaking of weapons, your character takes way too little damage before dying. I'm all for realism, but at least make it fair. I have rarely heard this game called a stealth shooter specifically, but if you basically die if you attempt to fight a guard - because all your shots miss because of the horrible aim and control while all their shots are apparently dead on - then it's a stealth shooter. I'm not very fond of stealth shooters. Stealth is ok in moderation, but give me a fighting chance if I choose to run-and-gun, please! Finally, the guns in this game feel horrible. The pistol does this muted little "pop" when you shoot, and a tiny little impact mark shows where it hits. No, I'm not using a silencer either. There's hardly any muzzle flash and very little appearance of impact at all. As I will frequently say, I don't care about graphics at all which is why I will not talk about it at all in any review. However, gun effects are quite easy to implement that are completely independent of graphics and go a long way toward making the game more visceral-feeling and intense.

The story of this game is touted as some amazing piece of literary genius. I don't know about that, but it seems pretty good as far as games go so far. I personally don't usually play an action game like an FPS for the story, but since this game is obviously more heavy on the RPG and stealth elements than the "Shooter" element, I'm treating it as such and going along with it. With that attitude, it's definitely not a bad game, and I'll continue to play it to see if it gets better.

Press Start

Despite the title, I won't be talking much about Zork. Although I enjoy not being eaten by Grues, this blog is more concerned with slightly more modern games of varying genres. Let me give you a quick background on me as a gamer, so you'll know where I'm coming from and where I'll be going:

I started out as a PC gamer growing up in '90s. I'm talking about amazing games like Unreal Tournament, Quake III Arena, Descent II, Starcraft, Sam and Max, and so on. Now, I don't claim to be very good at any particular game (except Star Wars: Jedi Outcast), nor did I even play many games online at all. So I started out as a single-player PC gamer. I also must admit to not having played a lot of big-name games back then, such as Half-Life or Deus Ex or even Monkey Island. I'm trying to rectify that now, and I'll be posting reviews of any that I get to play. Besides PC games, I also had a Super Nintendo as my first console. I had hardly any games on there, besides Mario All-Stars and MarioKart, but my family loved to play those games together. I still hold that Super Mario Kart is better than Mario Kart 64 because of how much more responsive the turns are. Following the SNES, I got a Playstation because all my friends at school had one. I had some great fun with that thing but I wish I had an N64 as well because I missed out on some great games. Following the PS, I got a Playstation 2, which I was very satisfied with. It turned out to be the best console last generation, even though the gamecube had some great games which I'm now enjoying on the Wii. If you haven't spotted the trend yet, I only get a single console each generation. This gen it's the Wii. I'll go into more detail in future posts.

My favorite genres have always been first-person shooters, real-time strategy, fighters, adventures, and shoot-em-ups. I'm not particularly good at any of them, but I enjoy them and that's what matters. Nowadays, I'm playing a lot of FPSes and RTSes like Half-Life 2, Counterstrike:Source, Team Fortress 2, Call of Duty 4, and Supreme Commander. I'm also playing lots of shmups, such as Ikaruga and Dodonpachi. Just last week a friend of mine kindly let me have a free GameTap account, because apparently GameTap isn't interested in making money and would rather give out a dozen free accounts to anyone who pays money for one. I'm not going to complain because it's a great service which I would seriously consider paying for. I'll be posting a lot of reviews of some classic games on GameTap that I'll be trying out for the first time, like Operation Flashpoint, Delta Force, or Deus Ex. We'll see how these games stand to the test of time!

Aside from reviews, I plan to write a number of rants on subjects ranging from why some games are most definitely art, why Ocarina of Time is nowhere near the best Zelda game ever, and certainly not the best game ever (a spot reserved for Half-Life 2), why shmups deserve a lot more recognition among the mainstream press, and why gaming is headed into a general decline from the glorious days of old. Look for those on an ongoing basis.