Jun 29, 2011

Retro Review: Uplink

This review is written for Uplink running on a mid-line Windows 7 laptop.

I didn’t really “get” the internet until the early 2000s. Sure, I had my good old Compuserve dialup around ’95, but even after the upgrade to DSL it took me a good couple of years to truly understand what the internet was and how it worked. Because of this, I seem to have missed what sounds like one of the coolest parts of computing. Things like manually dialing in phone numbers to play Doom online or running programs in a command prompt off of a foot wide floppy seem so foreign, but still  movies like Wargames make me wish that I had been born just a few years earlier to mess around with all this retarded technology that used to be so commonplace. It is because of this that I was so drawn to Uplink: Hacker Elite, a game that, very deliberately aims to capture this moment in time of the early internet, despite being released in 2001.

Sometimes you hack to help others
Describing the structure of Uplink is next to impossible, because on paper it simultaneously sounds so complex and monotonous that it should be hard to classify it a “game” at all. At the base level, you’re a hacker that joins Uplink, a semi-shady organization that is effectively the hub of hacker activity in this fictionalized version of the internet. You start the game with a basic Gateway given to you by Uplink. The Gateway is basically a hacker’s PC, and it runs an Uplink OS specifically designed for its task. This is where the logic already starts to get wonky, seeing as how you’re running a game on your Windows PC that is emulating a fictional desktop running on an imaginary PC, but just hang with me for a bit. It is from an Uplink server that you can purchase software such as password crackers or trace detectors that are essential to surviving the Wild West that is the internet as well as hardware upgrades that can increase your processing speed or memory capacity (which is measured in Gigaquads, the best named unit of measurement of all time). These in turn are needed to complete missions that are posted on a virtual bounty board, where you can determine the risks and negotiate pay before accepting. These missions grant you money used to upgrade your gear and advance your rank, which in turn allow you to accept more complex and better paying missions. 

I subscribe to the "Always Be Bouncing" philosophy
Which leaves me to try and explain what the gameplay of Uplink is. As a hacker, your first priority is to keep your identity and location hidden. You achieve this by bouncing your connection to any given server through a few (or a few dozen) other servers, in order to keep your IP hidden. However, the government and corporations can still run a trace, which is displayed to varying specificity based on what version of trace tracker you have. Even if you manage to complete your objective and get out of a server before being traced, it’s still important to locate one or more of the servers you bounced through, hack into it, and delete all logs of your activity in order to not leave a direct path from the target system all the way back to your Gateway. Once security is tight enough, you get to focus on the actual hacking-for-profit of the game, the act of which makes you feel like an e-badass. One of the early mission types requires you to steal a data file from of opposing computer system. This requires you to bounce your signal into the target system, run a password cracker on it to log in as an administrator, navigate into the file directory, run a copying program to put the designated file into your Gateway’s memory, then back out, delete all logs of your presence and email the file to the mission provider. That’s the simplest mission type. Later in the game you’ll hack into the Global Criminal Database, bypassing proxies and firewalls and deciphering the passkey just to get in, then searching the database for a specific individual, planting a fake crime on his record and authorizing his arrest. Or you might sneak your way into a corporation’s central data store, open up a fully functional in-game command prompt, and delete the entire “user” and “system” directories in order to destroy both the data on the server as well as the server itself. Or maybe you’ll hit a bank, cracking a rich individual’s account number and transferring funds to your account, then hacking into the banks central server (using a voice sample taken from the administrator’s home phone) to delete the records of the transfer from the target’s end, then quickly deleting those same records from your bank’s end before they trace it back and freeze your account. Keep in mind that, depending on the number of bounces you performed, you may have sixty seconds or less to complete an entire hack and get out before getting your home door kicked in (unless you have a security system in place in which case you can self-destruct your Gateway, costing time and money but keeping you away from the all too common Game Over screen). On top of that, there are considerations like processing priority for programs, literally navigating your way through nodes in local networks, functioning IRC channels, manually looking up found IPs to trace other hackers, your reputation that affects who will do business with you and a dozen other factors you need to take into consideration to play Uplink successfully. If this sounds completely over whelming, it is, but the game has a short tutorial that takes your through an extremely basic hack just to show you how the interface works and the core tenets of the gameplay. Apart from that, it’s largely trial and error, and while you’ll probably be busted a few times before you start to be really successful, the early game goes really quick once you’ve done it a few times. If you made it through this wall of text, just hang on; we’re in the home stretch.

When in doubt, delete system32
I feel obliged to mention the story, even though it’s a completely minor part of the game. Taking place in the far-flung future of 2010, you start as just a lowly hacker getting his bearing in Uplink. After a month or two of game time you receive an automated email from a fellow (now-dead) hacker that includes a scant few details about what he was researching when he was killed. From there, you can independently track down the conflict between two rival companies and are given the option of who you side with. The cool thing about the story is that it’s completely optional; if you want you can simply delete the initial email and forget it ever happened. Word to the wise, though: the events of the story occur whether you become involved in them or not, so if you’d prefer that the entire internet was not destroyed down the road, it may be worthwhile to do some investigating once you get your sea-legs.

I realize that the insane contents of this review are probably a turnoff to a large majority of game players, but if the concept of hacking even remotely interests you, it’s worth checking out. The simple fact is that you really need to play it to “get” why it’s fun at all, because words just make it sound more like work than play. However, there’s an unexpected rush that comes once you successfully transfer a half a million dollars into your account after hours of preparation and manage to get off completely scot-free. The nice thing about Uplink is that, despite being an older game, it runs totally fine on modern systems. There’s some resolution weirdness and some issues with alt-tabbing, but apart from that it works great. It’s $10 on Steam or $15 directly from the Introversion website, which puts it marginally above the price that most of these old games go for today, but if you get into it you’ll have no trouble getting your money’s worth. Uplink is completely unlike anything else that has even been conceived by other developers, and I can’t recommend it enough.  

Images captured by author

Jun 25, 2011

Review: Trenched

This review is written for the Xbox 360 version of Trenched.

            You know what are awesome? Mechs. You know what else can be pretty cool? Tower defense. Anything else? Add in a loot-based upgrade path. What this should add up to is an exciting and addicting game with an extremely long lifespan. Double Fine’s Trenched, however, doesn’t quite hit as hard as its component parts indicate it should.

The story is told only through voiceover and static images
            The story of Trenched is a relatively minor part of the game, but is bizarre enough to semi-rationally set up the universe that it exists within. In a post-WWI time, a veteran and scientist intercept an alien message referred to only as “the Broadcast”, which gave them both super-human intellects. The veteran, crippled during the war, used his knowledge to create the mobile Trench, which is literally just a bunch of sandbags strapped to heavy weaponry and legs. The scientist of course used his power to create the evil Monovisions, TV monsters intent on spreading their message to the world in the most violent way possible. As a result, you are tasked with travelling around the globe to destroy the different Monovision headquarters and prevent Evil Scientist Man from messing up everyone’s day. As far as Double Fine games go, this one is much more subdued in the comedy, but there are still enough clever jokes hidden in there to give it some good personality.

Certain waves can go real sour if you aren't careful
            The gameplay is, as far as arcade-style mech games go, fairly standard. You have two weapon banks, mapped to the triggers, each of which can contain up to three different weapons depending on the chassis of your Trench and the weapon’s size. These weapons range from machine guns and shotguns to huge artillery and flamethrower-like “broadcasters” that can take out dozens of enemies at short range. Additionally, you can customize your Trench’s legs which confers abilities such as sprinting or a lockdown mode that sacrifices movement for increased durability and lessened reload time. The final piece of the puzzle is the idea of emplacements, a fancy term for the defense towers. As you play through a mission you earn scrap from downed enemies that can be used to launch in a capsule that will automatically deploy into a tower, which range from more powerful versions of your mech weapons to emplacements that slow down enemies or repair your vehicle. These can be essential to survive wave after wave of different Monovision enemies that continually storm you assigned objective.

Your weapon choice can drastically alter the gameplay
            The structure of the game puts you on a walking aircraft carrier between missions (because everything should have legs, right?) where you can pick your destination, interact with other players, or customize your Trench. The customization really is the core purpose of the game and can make it play completely differently depending on how you spec yourself out. The main factor is the type of chassis you have, with the Assault being a typical run and gun variant with lots of weapon slots, down to the Engineering Trench, which sacrifices weapons from a larger selection of discounted emplacements. The way you unlock new chassis, weapons, emplacements and more is both through in-game challenges such as “earn 100 kills with weapon ‘X’” or “complete 50 missions”, as well as through loot boxes dropped by boss enemies and particularly difficult waves. While the loot is technically randomized, I found that in multiplayer I tended to get the same or similar loot at the same time as other players, which ruins a bit of the fun of having a completely unique and beastly Trench. Even with that concession, the customization is still fun and the ability to completely swap out your parts makes the game fun to keep playing for a little after finishing it just to compare the effectiveness of different loadouts.

            On the topic of multiplayer, if you intend to only play games by yourself, don’t get Trenched. I’m typically the guy that will play through games like this alone, then move into multi after I’m already spec’ed out. However, Trenched gets both real boring and real hard early on if playing alone, and having more people both makes it more fun socially and by giving you a bit more wiggle room to try out different weapons and strategies. The neat part of the multiplayer is that it is fully integrated into the game; all you need to do is walk over to a room on the top of the carrier and hit ‘A’ to search for and match up with other players. This puts them straight onto your ship with their Trench, allowing you to inspect exactly what they are going into battle with. On top of that, there is a ridiculous character customization aspect as well, where your in-game avatar can get new clothes and hats that alter his salute, an ability that is always active on the right trigger. It’s stupid and a diversion from the actual game, but it’s hilarious that it made it in at all.

            My issue with Trenched is that once you have an awesome mech and have completed the 15 missions that make up the campaign, there isn’t much to do. Sure, you can go back to the later missions to try out new layouts and hope for better loot, but all-in-all it’s sort of a one-trick pony. I played through it in about six hours, and that’s including multiple replays of certain missions and a healthy bit of on-carrier action between. It just feels like a missed opportunity, because the game’s ideas are cool in a way that I haven’t seen in a while. On top of that I had a few issues with low framerates and serious lag, but these were spread thin enough that I’ll just chalk it up to chance encounters with someone running on a 56k modem or the like. Overall, if you like this sort of game, it’s worth the $15 on XBLA to check out, but it’s certainly not something you need to be falling head-over-heels for to get it right now.

Images courtesy of Giantbomb.com

Jun 24, 2011

Retro Review: Fallout

This review is written for Fallout running on a mid-line Windows 7 laptop.

            Speaking of 90’s sci-fi isometric turn-based games that feature a high degree of player choice, I recently decided to buckle down and play through the original Fallout. I came to the series with Fallout 3, which is obviously a completely different style of game, but I liked the universe enough that I desperately wanted to consume as much Fallout content as I possibly could. That said, I started and stopped playing the original multiple times due to both technical and design issues. However, once I truly declared that I was going to beat the 1997 classic, I was able to push through the old-school-ness of it and recognize what a great game it actually is.

In motion, the game still looks great
            I don’t want to just compare Fallout to X-COM, because on the whole they have little more than genre conventions in common. Nevertheless, the combat that takes up probably half of the game is similar enough to point out. As I said above, the game is presented in an isometric fashion, and aspects like line-of-sight and distance to target are integral to outgunning your opponents. You are given a certain number of “action points” per turn that allow movement or attacks with various weapons. Also like X-COM is the ability to choose how to attack, with options like a normal attack, a targeted attack that can cripple various limbs of your enemies, or burst attacks that are inaccurate but very damaging. Where the similarities between the two games begin is in the deep RPG nature of Fallout. Without going into the history of the development, a business deal gone sour forced those making the game to create their own skill system instead of adapting the norm at the time. The result is the SPECIAL system, which grants seven core disciplines including Strength, which determines melee damage and carry weight, Intelligence, which boosts certain skills and allows more conversation options, and Luck, which determines critical chance, gambling skill and more. On top of these disciplines are the skills, which are 18 different specific abilities ranging from multiple different gun stats to lockpicking, medical training and more. These can be improved when leveling up, at which point you can also sometimes pick a Perk, a permanent addition that can have drastic effects, such as dramatically improved critical chance, more APs or the ability to recruit more companions to your party. All of these different stats can increase in different ways during the game, and I have to give the developers props for making every minor improvement to the stats feel significant to your character’s abilities both in combat and out.

Captain Awesome lived up to his name
            While the combat is surprisingly fun to this day, even for a kid raised on FPSs and the like, the real draw to Fallout is the atmosphere and story. If you played Fallout 3 or New Vegas, you should have a basic grasp of the alternate-history, 50’s-esque aesthetic of which the Fallout universe is comprised. The original game is clearly where this began, but even more memorable is how goofy it can get, in a good way. Don’t get me wrong, the game has some serious gore and dark aspects, both in story and character design, but little touches here and there keep Fallout from being a horrible post-apocalyptic nightmare like most other media in the genre. One bit that stuck out is when conversing with a character over the laws of a town, you are given typical options like “Sounds fair” or “We’ll see”, alongside the bottommost choice which is, in all caps, “SHUT UP, I DO WHAT I WANT”, which immediately turns the entire town hostile and forces you to fight or die. It’s a minor touch that is largely inconsequential in the grand scheme, but still it allows Fallout to tell an interesting story without becoming overly serious about the side aspects. 

This guy is sort of a jerk
            The story itself in Fallout is fairly boilerplate, but is interesting in how it is presented. Your characters begins as a Vault Dweller, born is a sealed Vault that has been protected from the nuclear apocalypse for the last hundred-odd years. When the water filtration system breaks down, you are tasked with leaving the Vault to find a new one. This typical fish-out-of-water scenario isn’t anything new, but the fact that you are sent out with little to no instruction, just a pistol, knife and jumpsuit and a vague idea of where a new water chip might be is pretty cool. The game gives you dozens of ways to locate the objective, so whether you’re good or evil you are rarely ever truly out of luck. On top of that is the fact that, if you already know where you’re going, you can totally skip ahead and go anywhere you want at any time. It’s an interesting game design that you don’t really see nowadays, and it’s impressive just how many ways you can succeed, and how organically the narrative and backstory of this world is explained through both environments and conversations that are completely optional.

            It’s important to note that Fallout not for the faint of heart. That statement certainly applies to the game itself, but even more so just to get it running. If you’re on Windows 7, make sure that you either get the game from GOG or Steam, as these versions are pre-patched in a way that cannot be done on a 64-bit machine. On top of that, there can be numerous display issues, including a major problem getting colors to work. I was able to fix that with this utility, although your results may vary. Finally, there are a huge number of mods for the game, many of which can dramatically improve the experience; it’s worth it to shop around and apply some of the most popular ones. I’ll specifically shout out the High-Resolution Patch, which can essential for large, modern displays, but wouldn’t recommend the Restoration Project, which, while good in concept, reinstates a time limit in game that was patched out. It’s more faithful to the original release that way, but the game is just more fun without it in my experience. If you can get through these hurdles, I highly recommend Fallout. It’s largely unlike any other game, including the modern Fallout games, and if you like turn based strategy or great atmosphere, you should check it out.

Images captured by author

Jun 21, 2011

Retro Review: X-COM: UFO Defense

This review is written for X-COM running under DOSBox on a mid-line Windows 7 laptop.

            When it comes to old games, there seems to be diminishing returns as to whether or not it’s worth it to go back and play it. Even when you can get it to run on modern hardware, the gameplay is usually so outdated when compared to modern iterations that all it serves to do is destroy any nostalgia you have had. However, with all of the recent hubbub about the new XCOM game and the associated revilement from the dedicated fanbase, I decided to go back to 1994 and see what was so great about the original. I’m happy to say that not only is X-COM: UFO Defense a fantastic game, but it still holds up and feels unique even after nearly two decades.

            In short, X-COM puts you in charge of an international group of G-men that are asked with defending the world from an ever increasing alien threat. And when I say “in charge”, I mean in charge of everything. From your base layout to manufacturing to budget management to directly commanding troops, you call all the shots. If this sounds daunting, it’s because it is, and the game gives you very little instruction of what you’re doing. That said, a few hours of trying and failing is more than enough to get a grasp of the basics, and on the easiest difficulty that’s all you need to survive long enough to learn the rest.

The Geoscape is where you manage large-scale operations
            The best way to describe X-COM is to divide it into its component parts. The first of these is the Geoscape, a world map where you locate and hunt down UFOs around the globe. From here you can see all of your bases, and can deploy aircraft to attack enemies within radar range. There is a fair bit of strategy in how you deploy your craft; early on, all you need to do is send a fighter to shoot down a hostile, but as time wears on you’ll be tasked with multiple UFOs at once, including some that can make mincemeat of your basic interceptors. This forces you to determine which UFOs are high priority and make a guess as to which is heading where in order to deploy and shoot down as many as possible. It is also beneficial to simply follow certain enemies in order to either recover them whole or tail them to their base, which you can assault to slow down the alien advance. 

As your troopers level up, they can get pretty badass
            Speaking of assault, the ground level turn-based Battlescape is where the majority of your time will be spent. What you bring to battle is entirely of your own choosing; from which troops to what gear, X-COM never makes any decisions for you. The Battlescape is governed by Time Units that determine how far any one trooper can move, whether they can change stance or how they can fire. As the named individuals survive multiple deployments, they can level up, increasing TUs alongside health, accuracy and other statistics. The levels in the Battlescape range from tiny forested areas to larger urban environments, depending entirely on where a UFO is shot down or tailed to. This can drastically alter the combat, which relies on distance, line of sight and verticality. The vertical aspect of combat is one of the truly dated bits that I ran into; the fact that units (friendly or hostile) on a higher plane cannot be easily selected without manually moving the camera up and clicking them takes far longer than it should and can be infuriating later in the game when your troops have flying suits and may be on up to five different planes. That said, the combat still feels good, with the different weapons feeling powerful and shots often being one- or two-hit kills on either side of the battle.

Your various bases can get very complex
            The final aspect of X-COM is base management, and while this may sound like the boring part, it actually does well to split up the combat and can have a huge influence on the flow of a specific game. Here you use money earned for defending the countries of the world (or selling captured alien goods) to build structures like hangars, laboratories or factories, as well as living quarters to house the required soldiers, scientists and engineers. The labs are able to research dozens of different things, such as new weapons, UFO parts or the aliens themselves. As research is completed, the workers can construct these alien technologies for you own use, including improved radars and UFO-esque interceptors. The interface for all of this is dense, and there’s a constant struggle to ensure you have ample budget, parts and on-duty soldiers to be constantly producing and protecting from potential alien retaliation. On top of that, you can have up to eight bases, which can be quite a handful. Once again, however, enough trial and error can show what you should and shouldn’t focus on and the best way to keep yourself in the black, financially.

            As far as story goes, there isn’t much to go on. Each game you play starts you out with a single base of your choosing, and from there you decide how to proceed to turn your small agency into a worldwide alien ass-kicking powerhouse. The information that you do get comes from research, where apart from discovering new technologies you can look into alien anatomy and origins, as well as interrogating live prisoners to learn more about what is going on with the increasing alien attacks. Once you have developed certain technologies and have discovered the necessary info about the aliens, you are given the option to engage in a final mission to finish them off once and for all, which is how you can actually finish the game. It comes down to a Civilization style of gameplay, which is by no means a slight against it except that it gives any one game of X-COM only as much personal involvement as you are willing to give it.

            It’s not a walk in the park to get running, with DOSBox being a requirement to even install. That said, you can get the original off of Steam for $5, and it has all of that external software included and configured. It’s easy to write off as crazy those people who hate new sequels simply because they’re too different from the original. While I certainly think that the new XCOM looks interesting, my experience with the 1994 version has been so positive that I absolutely see where those superfans are coming from. If you have any interest in older games and have a bit of patience, you should definitely check out X-COM.

Images captured by author

Jun 19, 2011

Review: Dead Space 2

This review is written for the installed Xbox 360 version of Dead Space 2.

Dead Space 2 is my favorite game of all time. No, that’s not hyberbole, and no, contrary to the name of this blog it is not just some quick, gut reaction. I’ve played dozens of games since, including some of my previous favorites, and DS2 still holds its position in my mind as the best of the best. I know that the immediate response to saying any new game is the best ever is immediately met with a million and one screams of anger, but let me clarify. I’m not saying the gameplay is necessarily the best (although it’s great), nor am I saying it is the best looking (but it looks incredible). I’m not saying that it is the most revolutionary game of all time, or that the face of media will be forever changed by its existence. Despite all that, one thing sticks out in my mind: Dead Space 2 is without a doubt the most fun, atmospheric and mind-blowingly awesome thing that I have ever played.

The shooting is not only intact, but improved
I don’t want to spend too much time on the gameplay, just because if you played Dead Space 1 you know what to expect here. The third-person shooting still retains that Resident Evil 4 core that has been omnipresent in the genre since 2004, but it is so refined that it’s impossible to level any complaints of it feeling derivative. Raising and lowering your weapon, melee attacking, stomping, running and any other essential activity are all mapped intuitively and they all occur quickly, to the point where I never once felt like I was fumbling against the controls or waiting for an animation to play out. The “strategic dismemberment” of DS1 is at play here as well, with the primary way of slaying Necromorphs still being to sever two or three of their limbs and take them out of the action. The weapons all facilitate this, with the originals Plasma Cutter, Line Gun and others showing up alongside newbies like a sniper-type weapon and the immensely satisfying Javelin Gun. On top of this the Stasis and Kinesis modules return but are much improved, with the Kinesis being used to impale Necros with environmental objects (or their own amputated claws) and the Stasis automatically regenerating, making it actually viable in regular combat. Finally, the shop and workbench system from the first game returns, where you collect credits to buy new guns and armor along with power nodes that are used to upgrade them. Even this is improved over the original due to the special bonuses that certain armor permutations grant and unique upgrades for certain weapons, such as incendiary bullets or the ability to electrify fired javelins to eliminate groups of enemies.

This looks ten times better in motion
Vacuum and zero-G sequences also return in Dead Space 2, the latter of which is drastically improved. Your suit(s) now have small thrusters on board, which make a huge difference for how these portions of the game play out. You are given full 360-degree movement around the weightless segments, and the controls are simple enough to let you navigate the huge outdoor environments with ease. The thrusters come into play in a few of the jaw-dropping scripted sequences as well. The game throws these chunks of gameplay out at a pretty regular pace, such as when you need to take out a monster’s weak point while being violently dragged across the floor, or when you are flung into space while grappling with another enemy and need to detonate some nearby barrels before you are ripped in half. The most memorable of these are portions where you need to move very, very rapidly from place to another, and need to pilot your suit to avoid flying rubble and the like. Most games would relegate this to a series of button presses, and while DS2 has its share of button mashing, the fact that most of these sequences are directly controlled by the player is awesome. One in particular involves Isaac being literally catapulted from one district of Titan Station to another, and the combination of the fantastic large-scale graphics and story-motivation to get there fast make this sequence incredible to play.

This is literally the first event of the game
Wait a minute. What are all these proper nouns doing here? Well, as it turns out, Dead Space 2’s stories holds up the crazy bombast and polish that the gameplay supplies. You play as Isaac Clarke, clinically insane zombie-killing machine that barely survived the events of the first game. You show up on a mining colony embedded into one of Saturn’s moons with little to no idea of how you got here from three years before. However, whereas most games would give a nice, long period of learning exactly what the circumstances are, the game instead has one of the strongest openings I’ve ever seen, with Isaac immediately thrust into a second Necromorph outbreak. Is the Marker involved? Probably. Is Isaac’s evil, hallucinated girlfriend back? You betcha. But the willingness of Dead Space 2 to let you pick up these facts across the game and make the connections yourself without explicitly spelling everything out from the word “Go” is refreshing and makes you actually care about the struggle Isaac is going through on his quest to literally stomp as many deformed creatures into little tiny pieces as possible. I also want to call out the ending that is, without spoilers, one of the greatest emotional rollercoasters of all time. The game wears you down with a good hour of insanely difficult combat where running is often the best option, then throws you into one a completely mind-bending boss battle, and then manages to hit both the depressing and triumphant notes. It is masterfully done, and it left me sitting there after the fact, completely brain dead in the best possible way.

I feel like I should point out that I beat the game in one sitting, but that is in no way a slight against the length of the game. It took me roughly eight hours to finish, and that’s coming from the perspective of someone who was extremely familiar with the first game going into it. It’s more a testament to just how compelling the gameplay, atmosphere and narrative all are that I neglected food, sleep and schoolwork to pound out chapter after chapter of the DS2’s campaign. I don’t want to disparage the shooting, which is great, but the real drive comes from the things in between, be it one of the high-action scripted sequences or a particular chapter that is completely combat-free. This one portion, while technically a back-tracking sequence, is so dark, eerie and fascinating that I recall it as one of the best things in the game. On top of the incredible focus that Dead Space 2 granted me (a focus that led to the consumption of more than two liters of water despite being completely sedentary), there is an immense amount of replay value here, between carrying over upgrades to higher difficulties, to completing the insane save-limiting hardcore mode to getting every achievement, a task that is actually reasonable due to the lack of multiplayer-centric ones. My grand total as of today is a good eight and a half playthroughs, and while I am indeed a crazy person, there is more than enough game here to keep you busy for a long, long time.

So there you have it. Dead Space 2 is an amazing game, regardless of whether or not you agree with my assessment as the best game. Yes, the gameplay is derivative, and the story may have a few inconsistencies. But the caveats are so miniscule and the praise I can lay on it so great that you really need to own this game.

Images courtesy of Google.com

Jun 18, 2011

Retro Review: C&C Renegade

This review is written for Renegade running on a high-powered Windows 7 PC.
            To say that games have had a profound influence on me would be a gross understatement. My experiences with interactive media have informed the vast majority of my tastes in the non-gaming world, and no one game has had a greater impact on me than Command and Conquer Renegade. Don’t take that to mean that Renegade is somehow an incredible, life-altering game; in reality it is a relatively middle-of-the-road shooter. However, in one way or another Renegade has influenced my stance on online gaming, my knowledge of computers, my opinion of writing as a hobby, my early teenage taste in music and much more. For the most part its effect was due to the period in my life that I played it, but regardless of any nostalgia I feel, the things that Renegade does are still impressive to this day.

            As I’ve already said, the core gameplay in Renegade is fairly rudimentary. It can be played as either a first- or third-person shooter and offers a huge assortment of weapons and vehicles to choose from. The on-foot shooting, while satisfying enough on the easier difficulties of the single player, is nothing to write home about, and enemies often tend to simply be bullet sponges for you to dump lead into in your quest from one objective to another. The vehicles, on the other hand, are much more fun, and there is enough variety between them that commandeering a new one is always a fun proposition. The split between the two forms of gameplay is roughly fifty-fifty, so whenever one style starts to get stale, it’s usually not long before the game with switch it up on you.

The conversion from 2D to 3D is done extremely well
            The story of the game is practically non-existent. You play as Nick “Havoc” Parker, a GDI commando who is tasked with taking down a Nod special forces unit in order to rescue a group of captured scientists. The plot has a couple of “twists”, but it’s all so thin that it can largely be written off. That said, the cutscenes can be pretty funny simply in that Havoc is such a gung-ho, macho dude that he feels like a mature Duke Nukem, and it makes the attitude of the game relatively lighthearted. 

The interesting thing about the single player is the fact that this is, in fact, a Command and Conquer game. The games plot, units and structures are all based on the original 1995 game, and while I personally entered the series with Tiberian Sun, the reverence to the source material is still pretty cool. The transition of the tiny thumbnail-sizes sprites from the RTS are fully realized in Renegade, and if you have any fondness for the C&C franchise it is extremely fun to see everything in gigantic 3D models. This is particularity true for the structures, as one of the most interesting aspects of the game is to explore the bowels of the monoliths to uncover hidden items and weak points in them. While it may be easy to write off Renegade as a cash-grab towards those with C&C nostalgia, the game is treated with enough reverence that those involved in its development clearly knew the source material.

Teamwork is both present and essential to winning online
This is normally where I would tell you whether or not the game was worth buying, but the simple fact is that the single player is the weakness of Renegade. I don’t typically like emphasizing the multiplayer in most games, but here it is the bread and butter of the game. The only mode in the game is C&C mode, in which both teams (GDI and Nod) are given an assigned base to defend while trying to eliminate the opponents. The layout changes from map to map, but you typically get structures like the Refinery that earns your team credits, the Barracks that grants purchase of over a dozen different character classes, and the War Factory where vehicles can be purchased. The genius of Renegade is just how many different options there are for how to play online. You could be a basic soldier skirmishing with those on your opponents team. There are engineers that can repair buildings and vehicles that earn the player credits. Snipers and anti-vehicle troopers are in play as well. Even the vehicles range from long range artillery to heavy tanks, troop carriers and even the occasional aircraft. On top of all this, while GDI and Nod have many overlapping or similar units, both sides have many unique troops, such as Nod’s stealth units versus GDI’s aptly named Mammoth tank. While many games offer both asynchronous and class-based gameplay, the way Renegade meshes it all together while also throwing a few completely exclusive features into the mix. 

The Red Alert TC is at least as fun as the core game
You may be wondering why I’m harping on the multiplayer of a nine-year-old game, but that’s because it is still incredibly well supported. While only a few hundred people are ever online at a time, there are always that many people, which is more than enough to max out the top servers that run 24/7. And while there may not be a huge, widespread appeal to Renegade, those who like it really, really like it. The main login servers for the game, which allow the multiplayer to even exist, are run by the community. In addition, two fan-made “core patches” have been released that address remaining balance issues as well as adding new animations and features to the multiplayer. Also, an updated scripts file has been released that improves the graphics along with adding features that the engine previously could not support, and as of the time of writing and new set of scripts is actively in development. On top of that, EA put out official modding tools for the game, which were taking to the extreme. I’ve heard enough to know that Unreal has always been the gold standard for the open game engine with crazy community-made content, but having never been in that scene, Renegade has be covered. Not only have hundreds upon hundreds of excellent maps been made, but a number of total conversion mods have been created. These include a largely complete and playable Red Alert mod, and partially complete Tiberian Sun mod and an early in development Red Alert 2 mod, and that’s only within the C&C framework. As with most community-heavy games, the vast majority of these TC mods never really come to fruition, but a number of truly high quality entries are playable and many, many more are still being slowly plugged away at after nearly a decade.

I unabashedly consider Command and Conquer Renegade to be one of the greatest games of all time, even considering the reasonably major fact that the gameplay isn’t really all that great. The fact is that Renegade shows not only what online gaming is, but it explores just how incredible a devoted fanbase can be and it makes a compelling case for why PC games still have a reason to exist in a console-run world. The game itself is practically free at under $5, or you could get it as part of the excellent First Decade bundle for less than $20. Plus, it’s old enough that even with the graphical enhancements it will run perfectly on just about any system. Even if you don’t find the shooting especially compelling or you don’t play a lot of multiplayer games, you owe it to yourself to give Renegade a shot, if only to see what kind of unique, inventive and outright fun games can be completely overlooked by the general public.
Images captured by author