Monday, 29 September 2014

Mondead

I finished up Ultima 1 at the weekend. It's a pretty simple game at heart, but an odd one. The first three Ultima games are very much Richard Garriott finding his feet before settling into the Avatar groove we know and love with Ultima 4. As such. Ultima 1 has some pretty wacky happenings - the most well known of which is the sudden trip to space midway through the adventure, but more on that later. To win the game, you have to travel around the world visiting kings and doing quests for them. Certain quests bag you one of four gems, and once you have all four gems you have to jump in a time machine and go destroy the wizard Mondain and grab the power gem he was...ummm..doing something with (the story's pretty flimsy, and I've forgotten the details already). So yeah, there's a time machine, but actually all it does in game is teleport you to the wizard's lair at the end, so it may have well just been a magic portal. You also notice after a while that although you begin by buying horses for travel and swords and shields for equipment, before too long you're buying land speeders and blaster rifles. This is a game that has no desire to stay within the traditional bounds of Tolkienesque fantasy. Anyway, the manual tells you that these kings you need to visit are basically pretty mercenary people and not at all nice to each other (a bit like real medieval kings, I guess) and every castle has a prison cell with a captive princess locked inside. These princesses provide the best source of XP in the game, so if you want to level up (which you need to in order to trigger the final quest, then you need to rescue them. In fact, you need to rescue one princess in order for her to reveal the location of the time machine. So far, so typical fantasy. So, you want to rescue the princess; how are you going to unlock the door? By using the thief's unlock skill? No. By using the mage's unlock spell? No. You need to have the key, and who's got the key? The annoying jester. Can you pick-pocket him? No. Can you talk to him? No. You have to kill the jester to get the key. This random act of violence has the palace guards chasing you - quite rightly - so you have to slaughter them, too. The jester has one key, and there are two prison doors, only one with the princess in. This means that 50% of the time you'll have the key to the wrong door and will have to leave and re-enter the castle to make the jester respawn so you can kill him again to try for the key. It's ridiculous, and this needs to be done to proceed with the game. The soon-to-be-avatar, if he is the same person, has to commit mass murder on a huge scale for absolutely no reason but because. That's not all, though. To further proceed with the game, one of the kings tasks you with stealing exactly nine items from his stores. There's absolutely no reason for this, he just orders you to do it. I was a mage, and not the best thief, so I was caught stealing quite a lot by the palace guards. If you're caught, the only escape is to slaughter all the guards and flee the palace, then re-enter and try and steal again. I can see now why parents did think that these games were having a detrimental effect on their children if this was how heroes were supposed to behave! And oh yeah, the space bit. The final vehicle that you can buy in the game is the space shuttle. One of the princesses that you rescue tasks you with becoming a space ace before she'll reveal the location of the time machine. So, you jump into the space shuttle and zip off into space where the game completely changes and you have to jump around the galaxy, stopping to refuel every now and then, and shooting down 20 alien invaders. It's weird, very weird, and feels like it's only there because Garriott had written a nice starfield generation program and wanted to use it. Other than that, the rest of the game is an obvious mechanical evolution from Akalabeth. The wireframe dungeons are basically the same, with an overworld segment built on top of it. It was actually quite good, simple fun in a crazy way, and it didn't outstay its welcome. Also, I liked the way that at the end of the game it tells you to press Ctrl-Alt-Delete to restart!

Next up on the series list is Ultima 2, which most people consider the weakest game in the series. It's also a step back in the graphics. The first game was remade in EGA, but Ultima 2 never got that treatment and remains in its CGA glory. First, though, I'm going to have a look at ATAC and see what that's about. Oh, and I just noticed that Ultima 1 finished takes me to my magical 10% completed target, yay!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Hare-brained

I bust through Bugs Bunny's Hare-brained Adventure at the weekend. For an old CGA game, it was actually still quite fun. It's a very simple premise, you have to run around a castle (at least, I presume it's a castle, maybe it's not?) trying to find 4 keys that will open the door and allow you to escape. There are 150-ish linked rooms, each room being a single screen and having exits to other rooms or a chute to another floor. Each room has an assortment of holes in them (you can't fall down them, they're just barriers) and a number of weird creatures that keep appearing the longer you stay in the room and inexorably home in on you wherever you are. The creatures follow the same rules as you and can't cross the holes in the floor, so you spend your time weaving around the holes trying to get the creatures stuck in the scenery so you can escape to the next room. They're slower than you, so it's not too hard. If a monster hits you, you lose a life. You also have a couple of tricks up your sleeve in the form of potions and bombs. There are two potions, one that makes you invisible so the monsters no longer track you (though they can still kill you if you run into them) and one that allows you to levitate over the gaps in the floor, which is incredibly useful for evading monsters. Both potions work on a timer, so you only have limited time with them. You also have a variety of bombs that you can pick up around the castle and throw at the monsters. These have various effects - slowing the monsters down, shrinking them, blowing them up - but generally they all have the effect of pausing the monsters pursuit of you rather than actually getting rid of the monsters. In the end, I found the only one of these accessories I actually used was the levitation potion, the others weren't really that useful. The other obstacle is the mad scientist who's trapped you in his castle (maybe it's a laboratory?). He only appears if you hang around in a room too long, and he takes a direct path to you, ignoring all obstructions. If he hits you, then it's game over no matter how many lives you had. He moves pretty slowly, though, and doesn't show up that often if you keep moving, so he's normally not a problem. His only real danger (which goes for the normal monsters, too) is that he always enters the screen through a doorway, so you'll sometimes have a very cheap death when he spawns in the doorway you're just about to walk through. The castle has a regular layout, so once you understand it (I actually mapped it with pen and paper...I'm an idiot) it's pretty easy to find your way around. basically, the central keep that you start in is completely pointless - 60-odd rooms that you don't need to go in at all. You just need to take a couple of chutes down to the ground floor, then just run up the four corner towers, each of which has a key at the top, then back down to the ground floor and out of the front door. Once you have the route down pat, it doesn't take long to complete the game at all. Annoyingly, the ending screen shows up for all of half a second, so I missed getting a screenshot of it. Still, it was a surprisingly fun game - borne out by the fact I've written so much for a simple CGA maze game from the '80s!

Next up on the randometer is...ATAC: The Secret War Against Drugs! Looks like some kind of crazy early hybrid of strategy and flight sim. I'll be hitting Ultima 1 next, though.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Unrealabeth

I finished Unreal 2, and I really liked it. Weirdly, this game garners a lot of dislike on the net. I think it's because it was quite different to the first game and didn't continue the story. Personally, I didn't think much of the story in the first game, so it wasn't really much of a worry. Also, there was a feeling that this was all about the engine and the game was just light cloth draped on top. I don't know about that - the game does look beautiful, so much so that at times I was surprised my aging rig could play it, and there was plenty of imagination in the scenery; the planet-sized organism was particularly great. A lot of vitriol was spewed at the fact it's quite a slow game for a shooter, and I don't deny that, but it suited me down to the ground - I always play shooters slowly and methodically, and I hate the ones that are so fast you can't tell what's going on. (N.B. I never said I was good at FPS games :) Obviously I'm in a minority here, because This was the last real storied Unreal game, it was all Unreal Tournament from here out, and that's an incredibly fast jump-all-over-the-place experience that I can't get on with at all but the community absolutely loved. I know I slightly dissed the story of this one, but it actually had its good points. The crew were fairly well defined (though I wish they'd chosen some slightly more appropriate clothing for the female lead), and their (spoilers...but this is a pretty old game) death at the end was a shock. I kept thinking they were going to perform the old videogame trope of somehow coming back to life or jettisoning off the ship at the last minute, but nope, full points to the game for doing that.I wish the my revenge on the bad guy hadn't been a cutscene, though. In fact, the end game did come quite quickly - I was expecting a couple more levels once I'd found all the artifacts and they'd been linked together, but it all came to a head very quickly. As far as I'm concerned, that's no bad thing. All in all, very positive from me. The Unreal series wasn't what I expected and I'm glad I played both games. As I said, there are plenty more games in the Unreal series, but they're all Tournament games, and I don't own any of them, or have the desire to.

Next up on the series list is one of the reasons why I started this blog, Ultima. I've always wanted to play through the Ultima games in order, but have never got around to it. There are 9 core games in all (plus a few on the side) and I've played three of them, 4, 6, and 8. I'm looking forward to playing the others, especially 7, which was widely lauded as being one of the greatest RPGs ever. I'm going to play them all on PC, though looking at the graphics, I'm slightly regretting that. I played Ultima 4 on the Master System (we spent ages playing this game at school), and that version has waaaaaay better graphics than the PC version...and sound, and controls. I'm really tempted to play the console version here, the only thing stopping me is that on the PC you can carry your character across through 4, 5, and 6, which I really want to try. We'll see. (Update, I've chosen to apply some fan patches to the games that update the tilesets - basically using graphics from the later games in some of the earlier ones. I know it's not a 'pure' experience, but I really want to enjoy my time with these games!)

In fact, it's been a while since I started to write this post and in that time I've completed Akalabeth (retro-fitted as Ultima 0), or at least I've become a knight and seen as much of the game as I want to. Apparently there is a 'final' ending if you complete the tasks on difficulty 10, so I might try that if I'm feeling crazy. It's a really basic dungeon crawler with no story to speak of. Great for the time, of course, but I'm really here to see the main Ultima storyline!

In other news (this is turning into a long post), I've decided to put Pharaoh on hold. Not because I'm not enjoying playing it, just because each level is taking hours and I don't really have that kind of time to invest at the moment. I might generally skip over those kinds of open-ended deep strategy games, as I want to move with the list. So, next up on the randometer is...Vikings! It's an edutainment adventure game, might actually be a fun one for Max to try if it's any good. ... And that didn't last long. It's an old Windows game, so it won't run in Dosbox and it won't run under my version of Windows. The graphics are just missing. I can click around and sometimes hit a button which makes the odd thing appear, but that'll take me through to another blank screen, and so on. Oh well, next up on the randometer is...The Bugs Bunny Hare-Brained Adventure! Never heard of it, but I can imagine how it's going to play already. Should be a quick one!

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Reality Bites

It's been a while since the last post. In that time, I have completed Unreal and its mission pack, Return to Na'Pali (or Napoli as I prefer to call it), and also finished off a little indie game/story called Actual Sunlight.

Unreal carried on in pretty much exactly the same vein for the rest of the game. It was an enjoyably solid shooter, but I did find it dragging on a bit toward the end. Those story elements that I enjoyed at the beginning of the game soon devolved into basically just saying "you need the red key to open the next door". Don't get me wrong, it was still way better than the nothing that you get from Quake, but it didn't go anywhere near as far as I wanted it to. The mission pack was a little better in that regard in that alongside the little bits of in-game text, there were also spoken journal entries between each level that added quite a bit of flavour. The other issue that I had with the game was how dark it was; this seemed to be especially bad in the mission pack. I ended up having to use a cheat to spawn new torches whenever mine ran out because I was so fed up with squinting into the screen trying to see things. I don't mind a bit of tension with things leaping at you from the dark, but when I've killed all the baddies in the area and I'm just trying to find the exit it all get a bit frustrating. All in all, if I had to pick a side in the age-old debate, I think I'm still in the Quake camp. Unreal has a bit more colour and a bit more story, but Quake's gameplay just feels a bit purer, and that visceral hit is ultimately what I look for in an FPS like this. Up next is Unreal 2. I did have a quick look at it, and at first glance the engine looks way better than Unreal's. There were beautiful, colourful vistas with long draw distances...I just hope the game lets me explore them and doesn't immediately throw me down a dark corridor.

On to Actual Sunlight. This is a really short well, Story I guess, I don't know if you could call it a game. I got it in a bundle a while back and thought I'd give it a quick blast because I'd heard it didn't take long. Graphically, it looks like a SNES-era RPG, but really the graphics are just a framework to hang the text on, and there's a lot of text. It's basically a snapshot of the life of a depressed nobody and how the events in his life drive him, ultimately, to suicide. Yep, it's not a light-hearted tale. The text - did I mention there's a lot of text? There's a lot of text - is largely made up of bleak vignettes and interior monologue from the main character. He also imagines himself in various situations - a gameshow, speaking with a shrink, etc. - and we hear those tales and how he reacts to questioning. At the start, you're not really sure whether to laugh at some of these situations, but it soon becomes clear that it's all deadly serious. With all that, though, I couldn't really feel myself identifying with the character much, or rooting for him in any way. I think that's partly due to the fact that you are largely an observer in this drama. Your actions don't really have any effects on the story. That's fine if all you are doing is reading a story, but because the experience is presented as a game, I kept on wanting to have more input and to somehow make the character my own. Because it can't be judged as a game, I think you have to judge it as a piece of writing, and unfortunately I don't think it's an amazing piece of writing. It feels like a very personal project, but as anyone who's done any writing will tell you, personal pieces are the hardest to do. It sometimes feels mawkish, and that it's trying too hard, and there were times where I felt it wanted to push the target audience's buttons too much. There's a reason why most games aren't about overweight, lonely, depressed gamers... So, yeah, it was very interesting to play through, but I wouldn't do so again, and I don't think I'd particularly recommend it either - not as a game anyway.