Thursday, 30 October 2014

Not Their Finest Hour

Just a quick update to say that I couldn't get Their Finest Hour to install, so it doesn't look like I'm going to be able to play it. I did get the EXE to run to the title screen, but after that it asks for disk 2...which I don't have. Ah well, it's not worth crying over spilt flight sims. Next up on the randometer is...Chaser! It's a little-known FPS from 10 years ago starring a man called, wait for it, John Chaser. I can't wait.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

UltiMag

Three posts in one day, I know! And to celebrate the fact, this post will have two posts rather than the usual one. Ultima 3 is done and dusted, and Exodus, in a Wizard of Oz moment, turned out to be not an evil demon but a computer. Yep, there may not have been any space travel this time, but this is the Ultima series' last hurrah in terms of sci-fi. From here on out (as far as I know) it's high fantasy all the way. You can definitely see the incremental steps leading the series forward, but this still felt like a very early game, and I can't wait to move forward. I have a rose-tinted view of Ultima 4 because I played the Master System version, which I know is much improved graphically and musically, so I'm slightly worried the DOS version is going to be a bit of a disappointment. Still, at least in that game I know most of what I need to do. U4 marks the start of the second trilogy, and it's where we meet (or rather, we become) the avatar proper. This is where the Ultima series took fantasy role playing in a more mature direction, with the quest being to become an embodiment of virtue rather than to kill some big foozle. Anyway, I'm supposed to be writing about 3, not 4! The beginnings of the quest mechanics are there in 3, but the overarching story moves on in great leaps and bounds in 4, and the quests become connected.

I also had a go at MAG. It's a pretty straight Rogue clone so I'm not going to attempt a perfect run to complete it, but it was surprisingly good fun. The graphics are the standard ASCII characters, and they do a good job of illustrating the environs and monsters, and leaving your imagination to fill in the gaps. There was no character creation this time, you just jump straight into the dungeon, but everything else feels familiar - randomized scrolls and potions that you need to identify, lack of food, cursed weapons, wands to zap, and so on. The only thing I didn't find was a shopkeeper; I collected loads of gold, but never found anything to spend it on. That's probably just me being rubbish at the game, though. Like all good rogue-likes, it was really compelling to play and I'd happily spend my time going back to it...if time was something I had. Not in this lifetime!

Next up on the randometer is...Their Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain! An old WW2 flight sim. Can't say I'm looking forward to it that much, but I'll give it a go.

Furious Without Wings

Okay, a bit of a cop-out, I admit, but I couldn't even take off from the aircraft carrier. I couldn't find the manual, so I was flying blind. I managed to start the engine and fly off the end of the ship, but then couldn't work out how to lift the nose and actually take to the sky. That meant the result of every one of my sorties was the screenshot you see before you, a rapidly sinking P-51.

Oh well. Next up on the randometer is... MAG! Apperently it's an ASCII rogue-like from the 80s, but I've not heard of it before. Sounds like it might be time to go back and give Ultima 3 a bit more of a spin. I've made a bit of headway in my information gathering, but it's pretty slow going.

Unlucky for Some

I actually managed to complete something on this year's magical game day! XIII was a game that was obviously meant to succeed. It's a beautifully polished thing with some top-notch talent attached to it (including voices by David Duchovny, Eve, and Adam West...though I didn't recognise any of them until I saw the credits), and it ends on a 'to be continued in the middle of a big conspiracy. Unfortunately, sales obviously weren't what they wanted and a sequel was never made. I think it's a combination of the cel shaded graphical style not gelling with the masses and the slower pace at a time where FPSs were all about speed and gritty realism. Of course, those 'real' games look pretty terrible now, while XIIIs cartoon graphics still look beautiful. I loved my time with it - I much prefer a slower pace to my shooting games, always hanging back and sniping rather in-your-face blasting, so XIII really suited me down to the ground. There was a good selection of weapons (including many mundane items you could use for knocking people out) and a few fun gadgets to play with. The story was pretty fun and pacey, though a lot of the characters did feel a bit paper thin - I guess because you need to read the comics to fill in the blanks (something I'd love to do). There were a couple of nit-picks - a few too many 'escort' missions and instant death situations, and a checkpoint-based save system that sometimes got a bit frustrating - but otherwise it was a great fun game, and one that I wish they had released a sequel for, I'm itching to know how the story ends.

I also had a quick playthrough of Vector TD on the PS3. It's a mini, and a Tower Defense game (as you can probably guess from the TD of the title). The other part of the title you can probably guess is that the graphics are glowing vectors, giving it quite a clean style. It's a short, fun game, but it gives up all its content in the first few minutes, meaning there isn't much to go back for. There are some nice bonuses that you get every few waves for defeating a special enemy, but otherwise it's a fairly standard selection of towers.

Next up on the randometer is...Hmmm...Counter Strike - I've played it before and it's multiplayer only, so I think I'm going to mark it as complete here and move on. So, really next up on the randometer is...Wings of Fury! I've not heard of it before, looks like a side-on arcade flying game. I might have a quick look now and if it looks like it's going to take a while I'll switch back to Ultima 3.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Grandad Turismo

It turns out Gran Turismo HD Concept was even more of a demo than I thought. There's only one track and a handful of cars, all of which had already been unlocked years ago by my brother who played it for about 10 minutes when he visited once (he likes driving games). So, I had a couple of races and then called it quits. It's the first time I've played a current-gen (okay, you can probably call it last-gen) driving game in years, and the last time I played this I hadn't yet learned to drive myself. Coming to it now after driving a real car for a few years, I'm amazed how absolutely unlike the real driving experience it is. Sure, I'm only playing on a standard pad, so it's never going to feel like a wheel, but it all just feels so floaty and light. You don't really have any kind of connection with the vehicle or the road at all. I guess that's a real problem with driving games - most people don't spend their time slaying dragons, lasering aliens or flying spacecraft so it's a lot easier to suspend ones disbelief. On the flipside, most people do spend a lot of time driving, and we're used to all of those tactile sensations and being fully aware of our surroundings. You could probably recreate a lot of that with a few hundred pounds of specialist equipment, but meh.

Another one down. Next up on the PS3 list is Fable (on the Surface). I had a quick go on this and got hugely annoyed by the odd save system - you can't save at all during the hugely long tutorial - but now I'm in the world proper it's starting to open up. Away last week, so no gaming, and it feels like this week's going to be busy, but I have some free time next week, so hopefully I'll be able to make a bit of headway in Ultima 3 and XIII.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Stick Men Rescued

Another one down! Stick Man Rescue was one of the old PlayStation Minis series, and it definitely lived up to the mini part of its name. Still, I'm not  complaining - 30 levels with each one only taking a couple of minutes is exactly the kind of thing I need more of. As I mentioned before, the basic premise reminded me of Volcano on the beeb - you control a helicopter and have to fly through hazards to pick up your stranded fellows and bring them back through said obstacles to your base. In Stick Man Rescue you have to fly through different levels of a battlefield/fortress with various evil stickmen trying to kill your own brave rescuees. This includes things like dropping bombs on them, running them over, firing missiles at them, and so on. Your helicopter can only carry four men at a time, so you have to prioritise which men you pick up first. You also have a few weapons of your own - a machinegun that you can use for shooting enemy stickmen and a variety of powerups such as missiles and flamethrowers that you can either use to destroy enemies or their weapons, or sometimes to remove barriers, such as the flamethrower removing an ice barrier. It's a very simple, very quick game and a nice one to tick off the list. Next up on the PS list is Gran Turismo HD Concept. This was basically a free demo of the next Gran Turismo game that they gave away on PSN years ago - it was actually the second thing that I downloaded on the PS3...7 years ago! Blimey. I don't know how much content there is, but I think it's just a couple of tracks and a few cars. I've already made my feelings on racing games known, and this is only a demo, so it probably won't last long.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Tanked

I gave it a try, I really did, but M1 Tank Platoon is just not the game for me. Part of the problem is that I didn't have the keyboard overlay - I probably could have found one and printed it...but I wasn't that dedicated. This made it really hard to even get through the tutorial. The manual speaks in very generic terms to cover all control systems so, for example, the first thing it asks you to do is locate the pause key so you can stop the mission and read the next instructions...it took me a long time to find the pause key (Alt-P, fact fans), and that one at least uses an obvious letter. The rest of the keys have been a massive process of trial and error, and often you can only see the effect of a key while you're looking through that particular view (there are 4 different views/roles you can take in the game). The manual is a 200-page thing of beauty full of history and tank facts that would have kept grognards happy for many an hour perusing the side turret armour thickness of a T-80m84...but it doesn't do much for me. I can see why it's such a well-regarded game, it's full of detail and authenticity and is an amazingly powerful engine for its age, but I just can't get on with it. Apologies for the poor show, but it's time to move on.

Next up on the randometer is...XIII! Ooh, quite looking forward to that. It's a cel-shaded FPS based on a French comic series. My bro used to have it on the PS2 and I remember giving it a quick go, but never really got far into it. Should be fun. I'll head into Ultima 3 next, though.

One for joy, Two for sorrow

Ugh, Ultima 2. That is a game I never want to revisit. I knew it had a bad reputation, but I thought that meant it would be a bad Ultima game, and not just a bad game. I was wrong, it's a terrible game. The first Ultima actually wasn't too bad - it had some bonkers ideas and not much in the way of story, but it was still an enjoyable game and didn't outstay its welcome. Ultima 2 is just...ugh. The worst bits of the previous game are still here - space travel, weird levelling system, confusing quest progression - but they've added loads more rubbish on top. The monsters are crazy hard starting out, and will swarm you, you run out of food incredibly easily, dungeons are present and pointless, moongates are introduced, but they travel through time instead of across the world map...and so on. It's a really hard game to get into, and feels like a backwards step. There are also some weird technical limitations, for example, the game saves your character to a specific file, and also saves the positions of monsters. I presume in the old days you'd save all of this stuff to a separate player disk and then wipe the contents of that disk when the player died. On a hard drive, it means opening up the player file in a text editor and deleting the contents. I only managed to do this with the player file, though, not the monster one. That meant that whenever I died and restarted (which was frequently), all of the monsters would still be in the same position. So, if a group of evil monsters killed me last time, then said group of baddies would still be in exactly the same place when I restarted ready to kill me again. Not fun. I usually play mage characters, and mages in Ultima 2 don't start with any spells - no biggie, you might think, just have to grind for a bit to earn the money to purchase some and become a magic-missile-tossing death machine. Unfortunately, of course, mages are pretty awful fighters, so when starting out you'll be slaughtered with alarming frequency, and once you died once, when you respawned the chances were that you'd be immediately killed by exactly the same monster again. I found myself exploring a bit of Sosaria as the mage that I wanted to play, dying, restarting as a fighter a few times to clear out the monsters around me, then restarting as a mage again to explore a bit more. Not ideal, and not fun. I guess I should have just stayed as a fighter (and did in the end), as it turns out that mages are rubbish in Ultima 2 anyway. It turns out that the ability to actually cast spells on the overland map (a pretty fundamental ability for a mage) was removed in this game, so you can only cast spells in a dungeon...which you never need to go in. Anyway, I finally managed to grind around and proceed with the main quest, and ultimately travel to the time of legends and defeat Minax, Mondain's evil apprentice. Even that final battle was a horrible chore, with Minax teleporting between two corners of her castle whenever she got badly injured, meaning I had to run from place to place fighting hordes of demons in order to hit her again. After a few tries, I realised the only way I could do this was by spamming "negate-time" coins, which stop monsters in their tracks for a short while, and then running around them to get to Minax. That of course meant an awful lot of grinding for said coins. Yay. Anyway, it's done and I'm never going back to it. Next up in the series is Ultima 3. This is widely considered a return to form and sets things on the right track that leads to Ultima 4 and subsequent glories. My enthusiasm has been slightly dampened after Ultima 2, but I'm still looking forward to it. I had a quick go at M1 Tank Platoon, and it's a fairly hardcore sim/wargame, so not really my cup of tea. I'll have a good read of the manual and see if it gets more fun (I know it's regarded as a classic in its genre), but I can't see myself sticking with it too long.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Ms. Mass Pac-Pix

A bit of a round-up post today. First up, Mass Effect. I finally finished Mass Effect 3 and thus the whole of the Mass Effect saga (so far). What can I say, I loved it. It's a uniquely epic space opera where you pull your team of heroes from humble beginnings through to the end of life as we know it. Things changed throughout each game, but all in all the combat and exploration were fantastic, with a hugely satisfying collection of quests and diversions. Even after, Lord knows how many, hours of playing the three games, my first thought on finishing it was - "I wonder what would happened if played it this way with that character and those sidekicks...". If it wasn't for the immense backlog towering over me, I probably would have started it over, and I don't feel that way about many games. So it's good; no, it's great, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to nitpick for a while. First up, the mechanics of the game are sometimes a bit too bare. Obviously it's a game so it's going to have mechanics, but it wants to be a story, and it succeeds in some respects as a story, but some of the mechanics get in the way and destroy part of the magic and nuance. The most obvious example of this is the conversation system - it works well, but it never really gives you any choice. You can either be good or evil, there is no grey area, and the good and evil choices are always in the same place on the conversation wheel. So basically, take the top-right option for every conversation and you'll be a paragon, take the bottom-right option and you'll be a renegade. It basically removes all conversation choice after the first time that you decide whether you're going to play as good or bad. After that, it's just joypad muscle memory to select the conversation options for the entirety of the three games. As I say, it works as a game mechanic (and the writing and voice work are generally top notch), but it's in no way a conversation. In some ways, you don't really need the two good and evil pathways, just having a system of actions and consequences would have felt much more natural and alive. If you need to keep the mechanism for game tracking reasons, then keep it hidden, don't score me on a good and evil tally of points, let me be who I want to be. The other mechanical nitpick I wanted to mention was the combat system. In some ways, I can't really comment on this because I played the game on normal and I didn't try to enjoy the combat, but essentially I just pressed one button throughout the whole game. There were no strategies or tactics - at best I ducked behind a wall for cover, but the majority of the time I didn't even bother doing that. I just used my auto-targeting biotic fireball to zoom over and fry every enemy. Some enemies had shields or armour, and there are weapons and powers in the game to target those specifically, but those things didn't negate my fireball, they just slowed it down. Essentially, instead of taking one shot to kill a baddie, it might take two or three...that's not really a hardship. There's also a system in place where weapons have weight, and heavier weapons slow down your biotic recharge time. That could have been an interesting system, but essentially it just made me focus even more on my over-powered fireball and completely ignore weapons. It meant that for the whole game I only carried one, light pea-shooter with me and left the other weapon slots empty so I could maximise my recharge time. There were what, 80-90 weapons in the game maybe, and I used one of them. Of course, you can say that was my choice and blame it on my play-style (and you'd be right), but the game never gave me a single reason to alter that play-style - I never faced a single encounter I couldn't deal with by pressing my one button. Of course, I could have played it on Insane difficulty and maybe that would have forced me to use different tactics (although I'm curious to know now if it actually would...), but it would have been nice if the game had pushed me to try different things a bit more...maybe a few enemies immune to biotics, or just immune to fire, or put me in a situation where my biotics have been neutralised, or have a consequence to excessive biotic use...there are tons of ways it could have been done. On the plus side, it meant that I never had to wander round looking for ammo! One final quick nitpick springs to mind before I get started on the main one (yes...it's coming), the sidekicks. Yes, there are some great characters there, and again, they have some great writing and voice work...my criticism is that they're kind of pointless. You can only take two of them with you on a mission, and most of the time you'll take your favourite two along on every mission. Again, maybe on Insane difficulty there is a more strategic choice in who you take...maybe a bruiser for mission X, maybe a biotic for mission Y...but really, I doubt it makes much difference at all. I think there are a couple of things that could have been done to improve this. Firstly, they could have gone the Baldur's Gate et al route and not have every companion traipse along in my party. Have them available to me so I can go back and pick them up if I want to, but why make me drag them through space with me for not other reason than to make me feel guilty for not using them? I had the only Prothean alive in the galaxy with me, and all he did for the entire game was stare into a pool of water. Why not have him stationed on the Citadel teaching the lessons of his civilization or learning the lessons of ours - I could still grab him if I needed him, but otherwise he would be doing something useful with his time. My other suggestion would be to have more missions where your choice of companions was dictated to you - this happened to some extent with a few missions, but it could have easily been done in a lot more. Oh, and the mechanic for scanning planets for information was an utterly pointless hang-over from the previous game, there was no reason at all to have it here.

Right, that's the minor points out of the way...the elephant in the room is, of course, the ending. To be honest, I would have had no problem at all with the ending if it hadn't been for all the internet furore. It would have been a bit of a "meh" ending, but so many endings are, and it wouldn't have bothered me in the least. But because of all the uproar I did study the ending more than I would have, and I do agree it could have been handled much better. There is so much history and lore both in the wider Mass Effect universe and in my player-created story that they had a million options they could have taken. The most obvious of which would have been to have had me and the allies I'd spent hundreds of hours building up actually make a difference at the end...that would have been one route, but I'd have accepted others that had something to do with the history the game had set up and accumulated. What I do find a bit odd is that instead they chose to introduce an all-powerful macguffin in the last minute of the game and have everything I'd done up to that point be completely irrelevant. The star-child route they did go down doesn't even make any sense...why would this omnipotent being who's controlled the fate of the galaxy for countless millennia suddenly decide to instead ask a lone human her opinion on how the future of the galaxy should play out? As I say, it doesn't really bother me in any way, it's just a game, and game endings rarely make much sense, but even so, as game endings go it was a pretty rubbish one. I do want to re-state, though, that the game series is absolutely fantastic - I criticise things for a job, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy them.

Okay, that took a lot longer than I thought! A couple of quick ones now. First up, PixelJunk Racers. I didn't really get on with it the first time around, and things weren't any different for the second lap. I don't really enjoy racing games that much as a rule, and even this top-down arcade slot racer didn't really do it for me. Even the controls messed me up. They're incredibly simple - the track is made up of a number of "slots" and you move between these slots by pressing left and right - that's how you move around the track and avoid other cars. Easy. The problem is that while pressing left might move your car up when you're travelling in one direction, it'll move you down when you're moving in the other direction. It's relative to the movement of the car and makes perfect sense, but for some reason, when the car's zipping round a tortuously twisty track, my brain just can't cope. I found myself constantly hitting the wrong direction and having my car plough into the back of another driver. It just wasn't fun and I wasn't improving. Next up on the PS3 list is Stick Man Rescue! It's an old PlayStation Mini that was on Plus years ago. It looks a lot like Volcano that I used to play on the Beeb (I even made a Flash version of it!). I'd guess it's based on an arcade game, as may of the titles of that age were, but I can't see anything obvious. Essentially, you control a helicopter and have to fly through obstacles to rescue people and get them back to base. Looks like good clean fun.

Finally for this post, there's Ms. Pac-PC. Well...not much to say, it's Pac-Man. I played it for a while, and it seems pretty authentic, but I'm not going to dwell on it. Onwards!

Next up on the randometer is...M1 Tank Platoon! It's a well-respected war game, but I don't know much more about it. I'll hit Ultima 2 first.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

ATAC to St. Cyril's

10 bonus points for getting the film reference in the title. It's what I think of every time I hear the word ATAC. Anyway, I think I'm done with ATAC. I'm afraid I didn't win the war on drugs, but I did blow up a few drug convoys, which has to count for something, right? ATAC is a peculiar beast; it's a mix of two genres thrown together, a flight sim and a strategy game. The flight sim part didn't work brilliantly for me (that may be as much to do with my general rubbishness at flight sims as anything else), so I chose to focus on the strategy aspect. The game is quite happy for you to leave the flying to the computer, and the manual suggests this as an option...but I didn't have that much success. According to the manual, the AI pilots improve as they complete missions - just like a real person playing would - the problem is that there really isn't much room for error in this game. You only have 8 pilots in the whole game, and once they're gone, they're gone. Even from your very first sortie in the game, the drug barons seem hideously over-equipped. You have a maximum of 4 planes or helicopters that you can send out at any one time, and the enemy thinks nothing of retaliating with 6 or so planes of its own along with ground-based anti-aircraft fire. My guess is that dogfighting is a lot easier if you fly the plane yourself, because my AI pilots just got murdered out there. Even one-on-one the enemy would win more often than not. And that's just against planes - against ground targets you have no chance in the strategy view. Your jets have a tendency to just disappear mid-way to the next nav point, and you can only assume that it was hit by a SAM en route. You can gain more intel about the area by dropping helicopter supplies, but to do that you have to fly an unarmed helicopter (you can't carry supplies and weapons) into enemy territory. I did this a couple of times, but it didn't make a discernible difference to my intel. And then, even if your jet does make it through to the target, there's no guarantee that it will hit it. My pilots seemed to be quite adept at missing with a full payload of bombs and air-to-ground missiles. Again, maybe the AI pilots are supposed to improve over time, but they just don't get the chance. I neglected to mention that even if your guys do make it through to the convoy itself they're not safe, there appear to be Columbians armed with surface-to-air missiles sitting on top of each wagon, and your jets will be shot down with alarming regularity. As I said, maybe this is all much easier if you fly the plane manually, but that didn't gel with me, and the manual did say I could play strategy-only. The thing is, I can see that this could have been a really cool game, and maybe it was at the time. If I could get through the first few sorties with any pilots alive, then I could have really got into the strategy side. It's good fun gathering intel and deciding what armaments you're going to need and which planes you're going to send where. You have fine control of the route they take using waypoints (though reacting to events strategically during a mission could have done with a bit of work), and it's great fun to set things up just-so and then hit the launch button to set your hawks aloft. The problem is that they don't come back. The manual states that the drug barons grow in strength as they earn more money and can afford better weapons and this sounds great in theory - there are 4 drug cartels working in the area and it could have been fun to balance that strategy so no cartel grew too strong while slowly trying to destroy them. The problem is, they should have started the cartels off at a lower level from the outset, and then have them grow as the campaign progresses. I get it that it's supposed to be a difficult mission, and the whole point that your military team has been sent in is because the cartel's have grown way too powerful and are getting out of control, but I do think that's losing sight of the fact that this is a game. If I can't even make it through the first mission without at least 2 of my 8 pilots dying, then I don't feel encouraged to continue. It's a shame, because the game definitely has potential, but it's just too unforgiving for me at this point in my life.

Next up on the randometer is...Ms. Pac-PC! Looks like an unofficial remake of Ms. Pac-Man from the early '90s. Should be a quick one. I might blitz through that before Ultima 2.

In other news, I finally finished Mass Effect 3 yesterday. I've written enough here for one day, so I'll try and put up a post about it tomorrow. Next on the PS3 list is going back to PixelJunk Racers 2nd Lap. I didn't really get on with it last time, but I'll give it another shot and see - don't think I'll stay with it long, though.