Wednesday, 31 July 2013

C64: Encounter

I look at Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3, Serious Sam BFE and I think back. I look at Doom 3, Half Life 2 (and its MANY incarnations) and I think back. I look at Quake 3, Unreal Tournament and I think back. I look at Quake 1 and 2, Unreal, Chasm, Half Life, Sin, Outcast and I think back. I look at Duke Nukem, Shadow Warrior, Blood, Tekwar, Exhumed and I think back. I look at Doom 1 and 2, Heretic, Strife, Hexen and I think back. I look at Rise Of The Triad, Wolfenstein 3D, Blake Stone and I think back to earlier days.

Encounter is another game from my youth, it is without a doubt the first ever FPS I have ever played and when I was at my youngest, a simple affair of a joystick controlling a rudimentary craft in an eternally looping plane of existence. Just myself, a selection of enemy space ships/saucers and infinite ammo that could bounce against the pillars dotting the landscape. It was simple, like a lot of the C64 arcade themed games, but it was quick and it was in first person.

This in itself was not unique in my library of games, there was after all driving games like Pole Position but then were where you had control of a car and observed from behind it, this had you in the seat of the vehicle and looking out into the world where it’s just you and your opponent. In essence a clone of BattleZone which pre-dates Encounter by 4 years or so.

It has your vehicle moving like a tank with a fixed forward-facing turret so there’s no side-stepping or strafing here. Forwards, backwards and turning are all you have while the saucers you’re up against seem to have mastered the ability to go anywhere they want in any direction and always seem to be aiming right at you. But with the large obelisks around the landscape, you can hide from the large gunfire aimed your way.

Each level has you pitted against a random number of opponents with various saucers having different behaviours and more “encountered” in later levels with further abilities, such as 3way fire, self-destruction waves, rapid-fire, constant moving and shooting or the rather ominous homing missile. Much like the original BattleZone game, your opponent could be a large cyan missile that homes in towards you while a noise in the background gets steadily louder and higher in pitch as it approaches. To stand a chance you’ll have to run backwards while shooting at it and hope not to slam to a stop at an obelisk and then get blasted by the missile before you can shoot it. These can lead to some rather intense moments if the missile is skipping back and forth while steadily getting closer all while you’re back-footing it and hoping to not hit an obstructions.

While the landscape does loop forever your HUD shows a radar and the enemies location relative to you, kill enough for the enemies in the area and the fun really begins when a portal opens up acting as a gateway chance (not guaranteed) to get to the next level. Once inside you warp forwards, steering around various orbs to hopefully make it to the end where you can exit into the new level, a different colour scheme of the last one but with different saucer types. This warp zone is as intense, if not more, than the missiles.

The pace and action of the game is fluid, having changed wireframe graphics of BattleZone for sprites/flatcolours but the game performs well and only really slows down when one of the saucers self-destructs and floods the arena with shots in every direction and even then, it’s very minor. Given the scope and ambitions of the game, it’s clear this was coded with speed in mind and it retains just how fast the game can be (with a hidden method for finding a REALLY fast warp zone that I’ve yet to beat) and then play it on expert mode where it’s really quick.

But as with all games based around the arcade ethos, it gets repetitive. However it does have enough variety in the chase and hunt for the saucers and mix this up with the occasional missile attack, you’ll find yourself making quicker progress through the levels. Oh and as with a lot of C64 arcade style games, it repeats the cycles of colour schemes after 9 levels or so.

My few gripes with this game are that if you fail to make a warp journey, you repeat the WHOLE last level, including a new wave of enemies. So killing 14 or so saucers and missiles, only to slam into a deadly entity while in the warp, will have you killing another 14 or so saucers AGAIN. While being killed by a saucer shooting you or hit by a missile, will only have you lose a life and fight that enemy round again. Early levels are fairly dull with simple move then shoot saucers and it’s not until level 3 that the more interesting saucers appear with triple shot and self-destruction.

It’s quick, simple, and given the age could surprise you as to what you can get out of something that old if made well enough. Not unlike your mother at the weekend which I won’t defend at all, however I will defend Encounter to say that it’s a fast ride that given a good day, can be more exciting than a lot of the bullshit games out today. No plot, no cut scenes, no loss of control while something is shown. Just you, your enemy and a joystick.

Now I’m off to try and double warp again, I’ll likely fail but wow that’s fast.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Gripe: Achievements, Trophies and other such "carrots" of gaming.

In an age of gaming where the current generation consoles are lining up to be online, where games are expected to have some form of online mode (or a good excuse why not, in some cases it doesn’t NEED the online mode but many of the whining public won’t accept that) It has become a standard to have a means of saying “Hey look, I managed to do this in a game, am I not awesome?” 

No, no you’re not.  But more about that later.

Unless corrected, this all began back in 2005 with Microsoft and its Gamerscore implementation. But over the years it has seeped into Windows games, Playstation with its Trophies, Flash games with their own achievements (satirised fantastically by the flash game Achievement Unlocked), to various mediums in the digital age including smart phones and apps.  A lot of these achievements are utterly pointless or diverge from the key focus of a person playing a game.

Some may argue, some may disagree, to state that Achievements and such Tasks are a good way of increasing a games’ longevity and reward the players with recognition for their skill and ability in the game. For some achievements I can agree with that, such as for perhaps “Beating the game” and awarding the player a suitable moniker for such. However when it comes to “Beating the game” then “Beating the game on Hard” and “Beating the game on Hard while using one hand and punching yourself in the face repeatedly” we’ve struck upon an issue of mindless repetition just to get players to keep playing.

The premise is a good one, get people to play the game, reward them with a big fat ego boost for playing it in specific ways, once they’re keen to boost that score and their ego, the games can put in whatever ill-conceived achievements they want to keep poor saps going and claim to make their game last longer. No, it doesn’t last longer, it becomes a painful chore after a while and once the player has gotten all they can or even all the achievements, they will never touch the game again. Good achievements can boost a game, bad achievements will bury it in a bargain bucket.

But it’s all very well me just stating that, but let’s take a look at such aspects.

“Find all the collectables”

In some games you’ll be rewarded for finding and collecting all of a set number of items. Again, this can be positive and negative for a game. If the number of an item to collect is small, it should be something that might take a few “secret routes” or a few paths off the main track to find them, but not something that requires the player to be awake at 3am, their character to be dressed in a macaroni outfit while the feet and toes are indirectly dyed a rainbow spectrum helix that crosses over with their gloves and fingers, just to find a single item. Ideally the items to find should be part of side-quests or provide the player with a means of starting on a trail to locate them.

Alternatively, if the number of an item is huge, then there should be a map available IN GAME for the player to locate all the items, or a scanner, or search function of some sort. Hiding them away in something like a sandbox game, with no means to locate them or even to track how many they have, is a cheap and poor way of getting the player to cover every square inch of what the map-designers have made, this will usually be the last achievement gained from the player before the game is buried IF they bother to go that far.

“Fake longevity”

Games with an achievement for beating those games are perfectly fine (assuming you have a game that allows for that). An achievement that recognises a person has played the game, played it enough to warrant seeing the final boss, beating the last team to win the championship, figured out the last puzzle, are a positive side of achievements and EVERY GAME should have an achievement for beating it.

Where this has gone horribly wrong, is when achievements are provided for beating the game under specific conditions... Easy mode, Normal mode, Hard mode, Impossible mode, Even the Programmers Can’t Beat This mode... the list can go on forever (Playing badminton on the moon while engaging in a 72way porn film mode... actually I want to see that). It’s a fake longevity as you’re forcing the player to play through the game in a way they’re less likely to enjoy. Some games allow for beating the hardest mode to unlock all the easier achievements as well, but not everyone is going to be able to beat the hardest mode or have the time and patience for it. Have the game with Easy, Medium, Hard etc, but regardless of the difficulty the achievement should just remain for beating the game.

“Online achievements”

This is a trickier one to tackle. If a game has an offline and online mode, then any achievement that can be gained online, MUST be able to be gained offline as well. Achievements ruin a game when it’s demanded that not only must a player be able to meet the criteria but OTHER PEOPLE AS WELL must also meet the criteria, then you’re not awarding an achievement for playing but being in the right place at the right time.

If a game is fully online ONLY, then have online achievements that reflect the players own abilities (And not bullshit like become #1 in the world, or #1 rank in a game) but if it’s based on experience points gained, such achievements will be attained eventually by everyone, the better players getting them sooner rather than later. Games that have achievements for doing something once or a hundred times, as these are things a lot of people can still achieve (and NOT coming first a hundred times... dick move...), should be commended for encouraging people to play for the sake of playing and enjoyment, not overly brash and forced competitiveness. (It might also get some of those screaming kids off the mic)

“Lost Achievements”

Another tough one, this refers to any achievement that cannot be achieved for whatever reason. In some cases it could be because a player died during their game (not so bad on a short game but with some games lasting 25hours+ that’s a real headache to have play it ALL again just to get that achievement), not picking up an item right at the start of a game that was behind where you began, having to make a choice that takes the game in two different direction and each direction is laden with its own achievements (this can be done well if the diversity is LARGE, with many achievements on each respective path, but forcing players to play a game twice just to say either “yes” or “no” at one key point is another example of fake longevity).

Granted however, that players usually do not see everything on their first play through unless the game is VERY linear and forces them to do absolutely everything they must do, achievements can and will be missed by players not taking the correct route or such. This is easily rectified if the player has an option (usually at the end of the game) to go back and play key parts again, or pick specific puzzles, or some function of a game that permits them to return to an earlier point to try something again or try something new they didn’t or couldn’t try at the time.  It should be noted that such achievements should not require the player to have to play through 3-5 hours of a game just to get that alternative route/choice etc, because once again that’s the fake longevity. 

All in all, achievements can really add to a game and make it more fun if they’re thought out carefully and implemented with the right level of care and attention to the focus of making the game fun and enjoyable. Otherwise they could all just be removed. 

I still go back and play older console/computer games and they didn’t have achievements in them because, guess what, they’re still fun to play!

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Xbox 360: Fable 3

Thanks to the recent "It's free, so play it and stop whining" promotion by Microsoft (no, not using the $, that's over done and nobody cares anyway), I managed to experience the game series for the first time. It's hard to judge just what exactly the game is trying to be and how it is going about it when it jumps and changes so frequently. 

Cohesion seems to be absent, at least initially, as from one moment I'm running around a castle having woken up with a dog in my bed (literally), to deciding the fate of several people on an enforced execution session. It does raise a few eyebrows initially when you consider whether to execute a few nobodies you've apparently never seen before or you have to execute your "childhood sweetheart", which you apparently have known all your life but in game, you just met and spoke to for a few seconds before determining whether to have him killed. This might have worked had there been more time to develop the history (supposed or otherwise) of the inter-character relationship and led to a harder hitting impact on the choice. And making no choice kills everyone, so the truly evil people are the ones who walked off for a cup of coffee during the unskippable scene. I relish my evil coffee thank you.

The next thing I know, I'm running through a crypt with John Cleese cowering audibly behind me while I'm immolating bats. A short while after, I'm negotiating future peace promises with people while learning to cut down creatures and shotgun people in the face. Which brings me onto the combat.

Fighting in Fable 3 is a mishmash of using magic, a gun or a melee weapon, each set to their own button, holding down the buttons allows for stronger charges and hits from those weapons. Movement and dodging is fairly fluid but combat tends to descend into running away from enemies until you've enough health to continue flailing combos and long ranging magic and guns before the enemies get close up again for more health draining. It's basic and it's just too simplified and could have been a lot better with perhaps a combo system with melee filtering into switching up combat moves would have made for a more interesting series of fights instead of playing keep-away while the health-regen is playing doctor.

Thankfully combat for the most part can be ignored and in some cases, run past, to get to the waypoints and skip the large fights altogether. Given that most of the levelling system is purchased unless you're trying to get the legendary weapons upgraded, combat seems to be almost entirely forced and unnecessary. Given some of the later developments in the game, it makes one wonder why it's there at all when you become ruler and have to start actually making decisions on ruling a kingdom. 

The game is entirely in 2 halves, the first half is running around, exploring brightly coloured and picturesque locals, appreciating subtle humour and playing "name that voice" with a large myriad of voice actors and celebrities from Stephen Fry to Michael Fassbender and Simon Pegg (rate them yourselves, I like them all, except that one... yeah... him...). Developing a large ownership (or not, your choice, but I DO recommend you do this) of buildings and stores to gain cash, doing quests to gain favour or partnering up in online mode, getting married, having kids (which you can ignore, another bonus) getting married again, divorce, adopting kids and handing them back. 

Then suddenly the game takes a dark turn and introduces the eldritch abomination threat from out of nowhere. The game then quickly becomes a game of "rule the kingdom" with the aim being to fend off the threat within a year. This is done my making sure you've got cash in the treasury while you'll be offered choices in the kingdom that ultimately boils down to being a shitbag and breaking promises (more cash for you) or being a kind and considerate individual that makes the "right" choices and leads to you having no cash for the final boss fight. (Or take the hidden option of donating shitloads of cash of your own money to make sure you have more than enough before the fight, straight after day 121... I don't get the time skip myself... and lets you do what you want, kill whom you want and just cough up on the final day). 

In essence, there's two games here and it's as if two developers came up with their plan for Fable 3 and instead of picking one, they chose both at the same time while someone occasionally sprinkles humour around the game. There's a variety of depth behind the two layered surface if you're willing to hunt for it but the effort doesn't balance the rewards that the game provides. You can spend days playing this game just for an occasional punchline and in some cases, have it go straight over your head. If the game had chosen to be one thing rather than everything at once, it could have been a much more enriching experience with a fuller and longer lasting impact, particularly for the choices and decisions that are made within the game, depending upon whether you're playing as a dick or trying to do the best (dick route is amusing at times and turfing out orphans to make a brothel is entertaining).

Eventually the game becomes a contest of how big an e-dick you can be when you're shown leader boards of how many groupies you've fucked at the same time to how many STDs you've caught by jumping the bones of the local crabs breeding ground, to how many locals you brutally slaughtered while trying to get the "I can kill people for cash" achievement. (More on such achievements in a later entry).

Overall it depends what you're looking for if you're going to enjoy this game, if you're looking for subtle references and a shallow morality series of issues, you can find them happily here. If you'd rather look for something deeper with more of a focus on what it's trying to be, you would do well to avoid this interesting experiment.

Don't kiss the dog, it looks weird.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Arcade: Splatterhouse

I remember back in the day when I was a little short(er), and wandering around the seedier sites of St Osyth's arcades by the sea front. A handful of 10 pence pieces all ready to be slipped into an arcade cabinet of my choice and played, that dangerous risk of finding a machine with fully functioning controls and an attract mode that appealed and didn't have an overload of ash in the cigarette trays. Yes it was those good old, dark, dingy, paedophile in the corner, carcinogenic inhaling days of arcades.

Then I found Splatterhouse. I recalled seeing someone playing it before I did and watched them slaughter their way through monsters, creatures, bloodworms, bosses and other such ghoulies and ghastlies from the graphical pits of pixelated hell. When I grabbed the controls to find it out for myself, I was enthralled with the violence that was displayed before me.

Which is the sticking point. This game is very violent and very gory. Heads chopped off, bodies smashed into background, torsos blown apart, chainsaws biting into flesh, hanging foetuses.. foeti, puking acids and bile before being disintegrated viciously. If you've not got a weapon, you're either punching, kicking or (if you work out how) sliding your way to blood fest central, courteous of your protagonists mask-fuelled rage of anger.

The story is simple enough, you and your wafer thing girlfriend enter a spooky house during a storm, the kind that screams “Stay The Fuck Away” even if you were dying of rapid explosive blood loss most people would take one look and walk off to their safer death. Once inside you get knocked out or killed and your girlfriend Jennifer is abducted. Thanks to a magic mask of horror, you get back up and start punching your testosterone fuelled revenge through 6 levels of gore and violence against monsters, worms, paintings, demons, wombs with hearts and pizza-melted faces.

Monsters and casual opponents take one to two hits of your feet or fists while weapons are often a one hit kill except for bosses. The bosses themselves will tank your damage necessitating the use of strategy (or exploiting flaws, I'm looking at you Biggyman and those shotguns in your level), while the levels leading up to those bosses will try to chip your health down to get your time with the bosses to be as short as possible and avoid you learning their patterns.

And that is the biggest flaw here. The game is one BIG pattern. When it got to the point I could do the first level blindfolded, flawlessly, shows that the entire game is scripted, every placement and enemy is dependant entirely upon where you are on the level. If you hold right from the start, you can time every single enemy, jump, punch and kick to get through the fight. The last few bosses will break pattern but that doesn't change how things are in the levels, when you KNOW when something will happen and not just accurately guess, the suspense of the game is gone.

It doesn't help that your main character, Rick, is rather large as far as sprites go and you'll pretty much have to fight everything on your way to the bosses, you might be able to dodge the occasional projectile but you'll play safer stopping the enemies from attacking. Eventually though, the death animations get repetitive and the challenge of fighting enemies becomes too formulaic, the bosses themselves become a case of If Boss is doing X, then do Y and it becomes flawless save for the few that change their strategy towards the end of the supposed ass-kicking.

While the game is visceral, the mechanics behind the game are laid bare fairly quickly to be a plain brawl ‘em up with few platforming elements. Occasional quirks such as a route optional level are an added touch but it's unlikely anyone will see them besides focused and well-versed gamers. Yep, when you die it's refight the level or the boss, back at full health and so are they, so unlike other games, you can't just pay your way through with enough 10 pence pieces.
All depending upon whether you're fascinated by violence or not, will determine whether you want to play this game all the way through or not. It does however take some serious gore fans to want to get past what is a tough but solvable game. This game is Hellraiser's Puzzle box, solve it and the violence is there for your reward, but you'll likely succumb to pinhead before you get the game beaten.

A fun butcher fest of excessive violence and gore, but it'll be unlikely you'll want to play through to the final fights knowing they're tougher and tougher and with little pay off for it. But then, masochists might enjoy it, it's likely made for them.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

C64: Chuckie Egg

It might seem strange to use my first review as a retro review, but then again some of the best games of all time are in the past and not on current generation consoles and systems. This is not one of those games. What it is, however, is a game that is very close to my heart and that's why I have chosen to review it first rather than ripping into some modern polygonal assault on my senses with highly risible plot and controls, for all the wrongs reasons.

This game, is simple, which is its best feature, forming quite a shield to hide behind from criticism.

The game is nothing more than a one-screen, one-level, platforming affair. Black background, repeated sprites and repetitive algorithms for opponent AI, until you at least get to level 9 where upon the game starts to repeat, with incremental difficulties. Each level contains a number of eggs and corn, and it's your task as the fat pink dress wearing, alliteratively named, Hen House Harry (whose parents must have been some new age naming pricks but at least it's better than some of the shit being used today) to travel each level, collecting all the eggs to progress while avoiding pitfalls, chickens and the curiously named, Mother Duck, upon reaching level 9 and beyond. There's 8 different levels featuring lifts, platforms, bonus "corn" (or just pink triangles) pickups, ladders and a countdown timer. Once reaching level 9, the levels go back to the first but each cycle of levels gets harder, with Mother Duck getting faster, more chickens turning up and things becoming more hectic as the windows of opportunity for success get smaller... and your patience too.

Curiously, for the game, you can select which gaming speed you'd like to play. With 1 – Stroke victim reflexes in a swimming pool of jelly, to 6 – hyperactive cocaine freak that just hard-lined 14 energy drinks straight into his eyeballs, which also comes with its own warning referencing what little humour the game has. Up to 4 people can play but there are problems with this issue too. Lives in later levels are earned far too quickly and only upon death does the next player gets to play. Leading to the possibility of one person playing for 20minutes with nobody else getting a go, then suddenly dying in game for the next person to play, who messes up within seconds and waits another 20 minutes before they can play again. But then we are looking at an age of teething problems that had yet to be solved by today’s standards.

Controls are simple enough, up down left right to move and the button to jump, nothing more and it doesn't really need more. Jumping has to be done either upwards or to the side, there's no "in air guidance" so once you've left the floor you're committed to that path until you land, bounce off a wall or hit a chicken and lose the life. Walking off a platform will condemn you to fall straight down to the next platform or the black pit of life loss, usually with an amusing digitised squeal cycle of sound to accompany the amusing mistake that's made. Collision detection within the game is rather lenient on the side of the player and their fat-git character though jumping over chickens is not possible unless leaping from a higher starting point than the chicken.

For a game with little variety it should be duly noted that the game does everything it sets out to do, simple controls, simple layouts, simple systems in a simple construct that plays neatly and crisply either using a joystick or the keyboard itself (I prefer the keyboard). It certainly lives up to the arcade ethos of gaming to be quick, usually intuitive and for the most part, fun.


After a while the game begins to grate and the reward of seeing the next level is killed when you see the first level layout for the 4th or 5th time and eventually you're just running the game for points that nobody else cares about because your friends will have gotten up and sodded off half a game ago and ignored their goes in favour of actually doing something useful, like drinking bleach (my preferred lemonade to give to kids). Soon the new challenges of more chickens will wear thing and the draw of the game will end some 20-30 minutes into the game being played. It certainly feels less complex than multiple screened games from the same era. Perhaps with more features and functions beyond the lifts, platforms and pitfalls, the game could have had a better lasting appeal, especially when compared to other games on the same machine such as Monty on the Run and Dizzy, which had a much longer lasting appeal.

So this is where the personal preference comes into things, this is the earliest game I can remember playing and even now thanks to emulators until I find a working C64 and tape/cartridge, still find myself playing it rather than booting up the current gen consoles, until the urge to see something beyond 8bit takes control. Worth playing while you make a cup of tea but I wouldn't expect it to hold people longer than the time it takes to drink it.

Remember, the faster you drink, the quicker you can stop playing, so let's see those burned throats.