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Ola Sverre Bauge @osb


Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (Windows)

One of a kind; deeply innovative; scary as hell.

The Good
I'm scrambling along the wall of a warehouse while the yokels inside are blasting away blindly, shooting out the windows above my head and showering me with glass. Diving into cover and applying bandages to stop the bleeding from grazing shotgun pellets. Miraculously, none of my bones were broken after jumping off the loading ramp and out the window.

I am Jack Walters, and I really feel like all of Innsmouth wants me dead.

Of course, I know it's all in vain, ultimately: I've seen Jack die, hanging himself in an insane asylum some time from now. But yet I want to find out how it came to be, to see it through to the end. And that pretty much sums up how Dark Corners of the Earth does a better job than practically any other Lovecraft-themed derivatives at being Lovecraftian — there really is a feeling of being powerless, naked and afraid in the face of unspeakable horrors, and yet crawling along as best you can.

The thing that emphasizes this nakedness the most is the HUD: there isn't one. In fact, this game makes the very notion of a heads-up display seem downright ridiculous, like a remnant of 80's arcade machines. Instead of cute little icons telling you that You Have Activated Sneak Mode, the visual field broadens to give the impression of heightened wariness: when you're near death from blood loss, color drains from the world.

The game consistently never mentions 'hit points', only blood loss. If you caught the early marketing hype, you may have been given the impression that the simulationism went one step too far, with your character being able to catch pneumonia. That didn't make the final cut, probably for the better. Instead, the game implements localized damage to the head, torso, arms and legs. Locations can suffer heavy or light bleeding, poisoning, or broken limbs; different wounds require different medical treatments. This has tactical implications, as for example heavy bleeding requires the short-in-supply sutures, deterring you from getting too close to shotgun wielders. (To make sure the game is still playable, Jack has the metabolism of a hummingbird; he'll heal within a minute if all wounds have been treated, however untreated poisoning will kill him within four.)

It's also true to the Call of Cthulhu tabletop roleplaying system in that fighting is fast and deadly. Don't expect your "circle-strafing" skills to be much use, you need to concentrate on shooting abominations in the head before they can reload. That is, if you have a gun. don't have a gun. You were, after all, just going to a quiet backwater fishing village to investigate a missing grocery store clerk. And no, there aren't guns just lying around for you to pick up. Those things are dangerous. What do you think this is, some sort of game? Nor are you in possession of Garrett's ability to magically fade into the shadows; you're just a private dick caught unaware.

See, calling this game "survival horror" gives people the entirely wrong impression: it's come to denote a very particular style of gameplay, to the point where a game like Disaster Report, which is not a horror game, gets called "survival horror." That's not Dark Corners of the Earth; it's inventive to the point of practically being a genre of one. There really is little today that resembles it — the easiest comparison would probably be to Alone in the Dark of 14 years past, and that is again largely because of the general feeling of style and genuine frights.

This style is evident from the very beginning of the game: when the first cutscene ends, you may not realize it, the transition is so subtle. Walking along, you can sense Jack's footsteps. No, not "head bob," his footsteps. Go into the house and in the door on your left. Peer into the darkness. "It's too dark to see anything, but from the rotting smell, it's probably a food store," Jack tells you. Outstanding. There should be (darkened) demo booths of that intro sequence, it'd probably make it up in shifted units.

All of this inventiveness goes towards lending the game gravity, making you forget that you're playing a game. You know, immersion. That thing games are supposed to be all about. This holds true to such a degree that at one point, going back to try and make it through a section with more medical supplies felt like I was violating the story. It happened that I had been scoping out an area and just happened to look up, and— well, that would be spoiling it. Suffice to say, things that would just be "look, scary thing" in a less inspired game are lovingly crafted in Dark Corners to sneak up on you when you least expect it.

Oh, and the music: you don't notice it. You only notice what it does to you. It's brilliant.

The Bad
This game is meant to be played in the dark, and they mean it. Fiddling with the brightness will give you a genuine feeling, when appropriate, of stumbling about in a darkness where things are vaguely sensed rather than seen. This also means that you simply can't play during the day.

Looking at the minimum specs, you might think this game was outdated long ago; that's more of an artifact of the game's long development history, but yes, the graphics are a bit two-years-ago. However, it puts newer graphics cards to work on dynamic lightning, subtle visual enhancement and the effects that give the impression of being groggy when you've just woken up, queasy when in a room with a corpse, scared out of your wits or high on morphine.

There's little point in running the game at higher resolutions than 800x600; you're better advised to spend the horsepower on antialiasing instead. The thing is, and I realize this is a cliché, it moves beautifully. I could spend all day, or rather all night, looking at that old geezer in the poorhouse as he gazes out the window. Half-Life 2 might have super-detailomatic ReActor(tm) technology or whatever; in Dark Corners of the Earth you're talking to people—really talking with them—who are brought to life within the story.

Okay. In all honesty, there is one thing that detracts from the game later on: dead bodies simply fade into the air. If there was one thing about the game I could change, that would be first on the list.

The Bottom Line
Look a couple of paragraphs above. "Queasy when in a room with a corpse." Have you seen that in any other game? Is there anywhere else you've played a character with enough humanity to actually be a bit dizzy in the face of death?

You need to play Dark Corners to see that a game can do things previously unthought of. And you need to play Dark Corners to be Jack Walters, scurrying along the streets and rooftops of Innsmouth, trying desperately to stay alive.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on April 1, 2006

Evil Dead: Regeneration (Windows)

By Ola Sverre Bauge on January 7, 2006

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (Windows)

Hmm. Where did the fun go?

The Good
Once again, mutant weirdo communists are planning to fob off the free world and give everyone a hard time, and of course the Incredibly Secret Agency dispatches black ops ninja Sam Fisher to cash in^W^Wsort things out. Splinter Cell has me torn; while I love sneaky bits, I'm honestly worried about computer games being used to promote the convenient fiction that "covert ops" are efficient means to an end.

Then again, that's hardly a concern this time around, since the story is so bland, it slips the mind almost the moment it enters. A little trivia game for those of you who have completed it. Try to discern the real story from the permutations of: charismatic guerrilla leader / Polynesian dictator / CIA agent gone bad ... steals French brains / severs diplomatic relations with the US / threatens biological warfare weird everyone out and give them a bad time / take revenge / extort a meeellion dollars / all of the above. You get the idea.

So how's the gameplay? Well, it's, erm, more of the same. Which should be good enough for when you're bored.

The Bad
But for some reason, it's not. It's strange really: this game has more variety and color to it than the first, it pulls several gameplay twists from the very beginning... and yet, it bored me. There seems to be something ineffable missing. I suppose we'd better find out what it is, for the sake of science.

The music is improved, for one thing; it's not particularly memorable, but it fills in the background pleasantly enough - though the upbeat techno for when you're discovered is a bit out of place, well, you're not supposed to be discovered in the first place. The cutscenes, though, are freaky, with everything and everyone gleaming radiantly like they've been substituting uranium for sugar in their coffee.

I suppose what it comes down to is, it feels like the developers are just going down a list of bullet points: puzzle involving infrared, check. Section with searchlights, check. Exploit some gadget, check. Advance plot the requisite amount, check. There's no zing to it. The whole game is like an actor who says his lines too fast, giving the impression he wants nothing more than to have said his lines and get off the stage.

The final nail in the coffin is the outdoor mission at sunset, which looks impressive but is a nightmare to play because the shadows give little indication of how well hidden you are. Blech.

The Bottom Line
A pale shadow of a shadow. All in all, I'd say it's not worth getting, even at budget price.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on August 9, 2005

Universal Combat (Windows)

By Ola Sverre Bauge on May 21, 2005

Secret Weapons Over Normandy (Windows)

Almost entertains, but is thrown off by lack of focus.

The Good
What we have here is a WWII-themed arcade dogfighter; about the only nods to realism is stalling and the bit about bombs being more accurate when you dive. In fact, you wouldn't be far wrong in thinking this Wing Commander 2 with added ground.

Which is fine by me, since my biggest problem with space dogfighting is disorientation and samey-looking environments. Of course, having the ground there means there's a risk of crashing into it, which happens to me two times out of three, but I guess you can't have everything.

What I do mind is that the cutscenes look worse than WC2. They've taken a bunch of WWII stock photographs and made ridiculous animations out of them, treating them the exact worst way - if they were any more amateurish, they would have some camp entertainment value, but as it is, they're just embarrassing. I mean, honestly people, war photographs with voiceover isn't that hard to do right, you need look no further than Fallout.

Anyway, the WWII theme is mostly for the instant brand name recognition of Spitfires, Stukas and Junkers. Also some fun plays on the technological advances of the day: "The English have developed a new technology. They call it 'Radar'." And of course you're shooting Nazis, so the censors can't complain.

Cutting through the external hogwash, I found that the dogfighting was actually fun - there's something very satisfying about a plane that shoots hot lead, as opposed to the pudding-launchers you get in most space dogfighters. Force feedback is used for something sensible at last; it gives you a tactile indication of when you're stalling or brushing against other planes.

You usually get a well placed checkpoint or three per mission, there are bonus goals on the way which add to the fun, you get to collapse bridges, sending tanks into the riverstream...

But then there's a mission where you have to bomb a whole bunch of boats, and bombing isn't really fun as anything other than a side attraction. At that point, I didn't entertain any hopes of it getting better soon. So I quit.

The Bad
The graphic style is odd; there seems to be a bit too much black in the mix, giving everything the appearance of painted darkwood models: the planes, towns, cars, trees...

The sound is competent, but the plane's engine and gun lack meat; especially the engine sound can get annoyingly fickle when you're flying a long uneventful stretch. I could almost wager it's a recording of a moped.

The Bottom Line
Could have been fun. But no.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on November 5, 2004

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (Windows)

The fall of Max Payne, indeed.

The Good
The first thing they do is ridicule the first game, as if to say that the game is real serious now, honest, we're going to keep the humor tightly packed into these TV sets. Which is true, unfortunately. The "constipated grin stuck to my face," as the TV calls it, is gone from Max; he's undergone plastic surgery to resemble Harrison Ford. As if anything was ever improved by involving Harrison Ford with it.

Payne 2 wants to be a "film noir love story," yet not enough attention is given to developing the story, in or out of the action. At least the unashamedly two-dimensional story of the first game did the job; here, the feeling that the shooting is just more of the same is amplified by the bumbling attempt to craft a real story like wot they have in the movies, man.

More things are now told with longer in-game cutscenes, which lack the attitude and style of the comic book panels; relegated to playing second violin, the graphic novel stumbles and feels more bolted-on than a feature of the game.

The Trainspotting-style establishing characters with a freeze-frame, zoom and name tag doesn't work either, probably because most of the time they introduce a character who will then promptly get shot before a minute has passed, or say hello goodbye. Or first the one and then the other. Though not the other and then the first- um, you get the picture.

The Bad
The fatal flaw is the modification to bullet time: Now it only gives you a slight slowdown, not enough to be useful for much. Killing a lot of people quickly will make the hourglass turn yellow and give you the slow-motion you're used to, as well as faster reloading, but this is fun only when you get to take on a large crowd of thugs with a sawed-off shotgun; it makes everything else dreary.

Diving through a door with Ingrams used to be great, but now it'll get you shot three times out of four, as Max doesn't automatically stand up; you have to release the fire button for a second. I mean, what's this, I have to release the trigger and think for a second in a shoot'em-up, now? Where's the fun in that?

Adding insult to injury, the manual talks about how bullet-time 2.0 urges you to press forward, but the level design doesn't really take it into consideration, rarely giving you more than three enemies at a time and a lot of empty space between groups. Meaning you find yourself running around with an hourglass all yellow and no one to kill far too often. Maybe it could have worked if more slowdown was awarded for shooting someone at close range, or something: As it is, it's a feature that obviously wasn't given enough consideration or playtesting, giving the game a rushed feel. Damn this technology that goes out of fashion after half a year.

The rarity of really slow motion also means you seldom get to see the bullets flying; gone is the fun of diving forward and seeing the shotgun pellets graze Max's head. It's most noticeable when you're looking through the scope of the MP5, and there it looks plain ridiculous, as the back of a bullet is the graphically least interesting part of it.

Max himself is far less interesting in his version 2.0; while you could hardly argue that he at any time had a full set of dimensions, here he seems reduced from a cardboard cut-out to a non-person. You get to see his home and the police station he works at, but he doesn't really seem to be there, somehow.

The more interesting person in the game is his femme fatale Mona Sax, who sleeps in a heap of ammunition round the back of a derelict fun fair. Now that's my kinda girl. You get to play her a couple of times, yet this seems intrusive and less fun, even though she has Max's full set of moves and the same damage resistance. And you get to do a lot of sharpshooting with her, which is usually my favorite thing in these games.

Perhaps it's that she's supposed to be a professional assassin, and when you fail to snipe people effectively several times before you get the hang of it, it compromises her believability. Or maybe I just have trouble perceiving a woman's voice as coming from inside my head - it's not for nothing that voiceovers tend to be so deep as if to emanate from inside your skull.

There are on the whole fewer gritty street environments; especially the half-constructed office building is just too samey. Maybe it could have worked if fighting left more blood stains and such, making it graphically interesting, but "ragdoll" is only too descriptive of the game's handling of bodies. In the first game, the bloodlessness and stereotyped way thugs went flying away from an explosion - it felt like a homage to Hong Kong action, something that Payne 2's ragdoll system takes away with its pretensions of realism.

The Bottom Line
I suppose it does the job, barely, of satisfying Max Payne cravings. Just don't expect the full flavor.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on November 4, 2004

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell (Windows)

Not bad.

The Good
I'm naturally suspicious of anything called Tom Clancy's Insert Pretentious Title Here. But on the other hand, there was the tantalizing prospect of feeding my Thief addiction.

The biggest downside of the Tom Clancy label is, as you'd expect, the patently ridiculous story taking itself far too seriously: Georgia suddenly decides, for no apparent reason, to wage "information warfare" on the US; cue cutscene of TV news detailing the dangers of a computer virus spreading into the water supply. Which is perhaps all too representative of how real newscasters treat computer threats - now, it might be "technically impossible" as you say, but imagine the chaos that would ensue if people came down with general protection faults in the middle of traffic!

--in fact, you're probably best advised to skip the faux broadcast collages altogether and concentrate on the meat of the game.

The game itself is basically right in the middle of the intersection between Thief and Deus Ex, with bits of Project IGI thrown in. You do carry a gun, but it's rare that you fire more than a hundred bullets on any level. A new twist is that, in addition to knocking people out, you can grab them by the neck and put a gun to their head - and then knock them out with your elbow when they've told you what you need. Amazingly, everyone in the game are smart enough not to cry out in surprise at having the barrel of a gun against their temple.

Our hero isn't quite as suave as Garrett; he's called Sam and is some middle-aged guy with stubble - though he does look good wearing night-vision goggles, something the packaging revels in. Since this is based on some Tom Clancy nonsense, he works for the NSA, but at times, he has an almost gentleman-thief air about him. A gentleman thief with black fatigues and military hardware, that is.

Being a specialist in infiltration, Sam has a wide range of special moves like sliding on steel wires, rappelling, climbing pipes and hugging walls. Which is all very nice, but it does give that flight simulator feeling of hunting around for rarely used keys at times. This is especially true for the "split jump", the athletic feat of bracing your legs against two opposing walls: while it looks very cool in screenshots, it's hardly ever used, and by the time you need it, you'll have forgotten it among all the others.

The best of Sam's moves is easily peeking around a corner and drawing his pistol. From this position you're minimally exposed, and can take on three times the numbers you'd normally be able to. This isn't just a cool move culled from the movies; it also helps you feel more part of the environment, less like a heavily armed upright soapbox on wheels. It's also a word in favor of realism, as the first thing you look for in a firefight is good cover.

In what might be a first, you control walking speed with the mouse wheel. There are four speeds; you'll probably spend most of the game crouched on the second-slowest speed, but there's a time and place for all the combinations of crouching, sneaking and running, which gives a nice feeling of nuanced control.

Your goggles provide two additional modes of sight, night vision and infrared. Both look pretty cool; the 3D engine observes the way bright light "bends around" edges - I think "bloom" is what the industry calls it - anyway, it means a 40-watt lightbulb shines like the sun through night-vision, while a well-lit room is blinding bright. The infrared is primarily useful for seeing people through bookcases and such, though it does look very nice and has received adequate attention; notably, you can use it to see which guards are unconscious and which are room-temperature - pop a bullet in someone and you'll see the body heat fade away. All this makes the game feel bigger than it actually is, since each level can be seen three ways.

Splinter Cell has the most play on shadow and light I've seen yet, almost to the point of a ridiculous number of scenes with the sun shining through blinds, lamps through grilles, etc. Sometimes, things in a bright light exhibit that plastic toy look, but most of the game is spent in the lovely gritty light-amplified mode, or the graphically impressive infrared. The night vision is in black-and-LCD-cream, which is quite attractive; and the added video noise works well, surprisingly. The fact that I spent a lot of time looking at the game in monochrome, hardly even noticing, should tell you just how well it works.

The Bad
The title movie. When I saw the sheer amount of people who had worked on it, I wanted their job. I mean, I could do it better. Most ten-year-olds could do it better. And that music! Agh!

The ingame music is, unfortunately, not much better. You'll be wishing for cheesy Deus Ex tunes before soon.

The blend of sneaking and shooting while not giving the same degree of freedom as in Deus Ex means the game winds up being a bit off; by far the most enjoyable level is the one where you're not allowed to kill a single soul, yielding the tightest, most intense gameplay. On most of the other levels, the easiest route is often to just shoot people from a distance whenever you have the opportunity and then stroll right past their dead eyes, picking goodies out of their kit.

Murder is usually justified, e.g., after seeing a gang of mercenaries gun down an office full of helpless programmers, you're handed a bunch of grenades and a license to kill, but towards the end of the game, you just don't care anymore; I eventually found myself shooting security guards out of laziness and annoyance.

The sound effects are competent, but they're not as delicious as either Thief 1 or 2's; Splinter Cell is more visually oriented, for better and worse.

Oh, and there are a couple of jumping puzzles which call for the annoying-to-perform move of kicking off walls.

The Bottom Line
Adequate snack for sating Thief abstinencies, with some fresh gains of its own. Certainly worth it at reduced price.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on November 4, 2004

Private Eye (Windows)

Now this is really something.

The Good
Glancing at Private Eye, you might mistake it for yet another half-hearted postcard murder-mystery. But give it fifteen minutes, and you'll find that in this case appearances do deceive - Private Eye might have elements of the postcard game, including glaring branching points, but it miraculously transcends its genre and becomes a one-of-a-kind.

It's unusual in being an almost 1:1 adaption of a book, and unique in managing to pull it off. The book in question is Raymond Chandler's Little Sister, which means that, yes, you play Philip Marlowe. It also means the game places itself in a fairly small, high place with long drops on all sides.

Looking at the graphics, you could be forgiven for thinking it never stood a chance: Low-budget 1997-vintage pre-rendering mixed with slightly odd cel animation was never a lovable style. It's saved by not forcing you to watch any painfully slow transition sequences, instead moving swiftly from e.g. closed to open drawer. If only more 90's game designers understood that no one is interested in looking at a door opening... but I digress.

This game hinges on the dialogue; and since that's from a bona fide Marlowe novel, graphical blemishes are easily forgotten. The voice actor for Marlowe doesn't do an all-out Bogart impression, merely settles into the same general category of world-weary, dry sarcasm coming out of a throat ravaged by bourbon and cigarettes. Personally, I don't at all mind spending four straight hours in its company, especially not when it's accompanied by cool jazz.

The other characters are brought to life competently; while the cel animation doesn't allow the full subtlety of film noir, it does the job of making the characters memorable, supported by the well-cast voices.

What works really well is the connections between characters. I found myself truly thinking like a detective, considering motives and hidden links, more than in any other game. Here, you really feel that people are your business, not item collection and combination. Of course, this unmaterialistic attitude can backfire in a lack of concrete reference points, which is why the game comes with built-in hints in the form of a whiskey bottle in Marlowe's desk: drinking makes him go into full-on hardboiled internal-dialogue mode.

The period jazz is skillfully applied as background music; turning on the radio to listen in on the boys in blue will also give you authentic radio spots and hit singles from the time.

The Bad
Five hours is about as long as it'll take you to finish the game. For replay value, or if you've read the book, you can choose an alternate story that has some of the characters' motives and guilt shuffled about. But just these initial four hours absolutely makes it worth picking out of a bargain bin, because this is the closest I've seen to a good interactive movie - this is basically what Under a Killing Moon tried, and failed, to be.

The emptiness often felt towards the end of adventure games is alleviated by a number of places you access by breaking and entering, giving you a sharp time limit before the police come knocking. This maintains the illusion that there are always more stones to turn, but can be a bit annoying for not giving you time to think.

Private Eye works at reducing the inventory fetishism in adventure games: This spells trouble for cleptomanic adventurers who instinctively clean out a murder scene, only to find that the police scowl at them for keeping a murder weapon in their cupboard. Ehem.

The Bottom Line
This is the closest we've got to an interactive movie that actually works. Interestingly, it has a marked radio drama flavor to it, is based closely on a book, and looks none the worse for it - in fact, I'd say Private Eye is a convincing argument for the commercial adventure game to turn into the interactive radio play.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on November 4, 2004

Startopia (Windows)

Highly addictive, if not as original as some claim.

The Good
Dungeon Keeper 2 in space doesn't necessarily sound like a good idea. But Mucky Foot apply their golden touch (or is it golden tread), throw Populous, Sim Farm and Theme Park into the mix and create a very tasty stew. Maybe it's just me; I never liked real-time strategy before DK2, and when I did get hooked on it, it seemed too short, leaving an itch for Startopia to scratch.

Anyway, substitute airlocks for dimensional portals, droids for imps, energy for gold, aliens for monsters and a power plant for your dungeon heart, and you've got the general idea. DK2's naughty feeling is echoed in that you get to build "love nests" manned by the winged Sirens, while the Theme Park flavor is increased by catering to a similar set of visitor needs, such as building food stands and toilets - or Dine-o-mats and Lavatrons, as the sci-fi equivalents are called.

It's not entirely derivative of DK2, but it does stand quite unashamedly on its shoulders. Inventions of its own include the fact that your environment isn't excavated; you're reclaiming toroidal space stations and expand your territory by opening bulkhead doors, at a cost. You also get to do some interior decoration, right down to placing lava lamps in your love nest or sick bay, and eventually terraforming on the upper biosphere deck, which is thankfully free apart from the cost of hiring farmers.

The gestalt of being in space is excellent; I found myself accepting it without blinking, this vision of a seedy metal-canister mall where disease and litter are among the biggest problems and people sleep in automated tin cans.

The music is funky without being tiresome even when played hours on end, which is quite a feat and a real boon for any strategy game. And be warned, this can really suck you in; it's the only game that has had me glued to the screen for twenty hours straight.

The Bad
Some interface niggles hamper this from really flying, such as when you stash a crate with a droid in it somewhere and forget about it only to have it rot, or the extremely fiddly way of rotating buildings. Or the somewhat inconsistent use of the right mouse button, or the fact that the game happily lets you rotate the view uselessly straight up into the ceiling - several times, I've been literally crying out for a "reset view" button or a "rotate building" key.

I do miss the extremely satisfying creature pick-up and slap-clicking from DK2; here, you beam droids and crates into your inventory stack. While this lets you shift large quantities more effectively, it just doesn't feel half as cool. And though the game is quite humorous, there are fewer laugh-out-loud moments like when you first build the torture chamber in DK2.

Fairly stable even on Win98, never taking less than five hours before dumping to the desktop. Still, no hangs, the triple-slot autosave works really well, and the fact that I'm annoyed at a pause every five hours speaks volumes of Startopia's addictive quality.

The Bottom Line
You should try Startopia even if you don't like strategy or god games; if you do like them, you need this one. And if you thought Dungeon Keeper was a bit too sadistic, this should be exactly your cup of tea.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on November 4, 2004

Evil Dead: A Fistful of Boomstick (PlayStation 2)

Mediocre, but not unplayable.

The Good
This is the second Evil Dead game I know of; the previous, also by THQ, was awful in every way. So awful, in fact, that I only bought this because someone said it was better.

And they were right, though that doesn't exactly say much.

Basic combat is actually quite satisfying, given that your basic weapons are the most macho things imaginable, a sawed-off shotgun and a chainsaw mounted on the stump of your arm. Especially cool is Ash's move of shooting over his own shoulder, spaghetti-western style. And you'll soon find it useful: deadites come at you in large swaths, making for frantic action.

But when you've chopped them all into tiny bits, and shot all the bits that keep wriggling around, you'll notice that the scenery looks a bit, well... it looks a lot like Playmobil. It's like it's 1996 all over again and Duke Nukem is at the cutting edge of urban looks. They are in fact a twisty maze of streets, all alike - I kept getting lost and doubling back on myself because I couldn't tell anything apart.

The Bad
Bruce Campbell doesn't come through very well in this - I really enjoyed his lines in Tachyon: The Fringe, but here, he seems to be dragged down by uninspired writing and tired old references. His in-game model doesn't come off very well, either: See that odd Ash action figure on the cover? The in-game one is about the same, only cornier.

Also, the game is infected by that terrible plague called the "save game token", the power-up which will allow you to... save your game. Incredible. At least the damn thing lets you save anywhere you like, but it's still horribly misguided, especially since this game is most fun in half-hour doses.

Apart from the trusty shotgun and chainsaw, the other weapons are suitably macho: sticks of dynamite, shovels and a Gatling gun. In addition to the weapons, you collect spells which are cast by keypress sequences; this cute little touch actually kind of works, and is none the worse for reffing that Necronomicon scene when you press a wrong button.

The Bottom Line
Unlike its predecessor, Fistful of Boomstick manages to not be annoying. That said, it's not particularly good, either.

If you want Campbell flavor, get Tachyon before you get this, unless you detest anything that remotely smacks of space dogfighting. If you don't want Campbell flavor, stay far away from this game, it's the only thing it's got going for it.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on November 4, 2004

Thief: Gold (Windows)

A revolution-in-a-box yet to be matched.

The Good
My favorite bit of Wolfenstein 3D wasn't gunning down hordes of people, nor running around like a lab rat on speed.

It was the suspense.

In finding my way around, the only warning signs I had were doors opening and closing - once I heard someone shouting, I knew I was busted. Since my sound card was mono and all the doors sounded alike, there wasn't much more I could do than count how many doors I had opened and count down when they closed.

Of course, I'd eventually lose count, or a door would catch me off guard, and I'd become more and more frantic, up to the point where I'd finally lose it and run around firing wildly at the furniture. Not to mention those zombie soldiers that didn't shout at all. Turned me into a nervous wreck.

Doom had it too, to some degree, although the feeling was more fighting an uphill battle than sneaking around. By the time Quake hit, the magic was gone for me, and I shied away from first-person shooters for some time. I'm supposed to be reviewing a game? Oh, yeah. That.

Thief put the suspense back where it belongs, quietly revolutionizing first-person 3D games. Naturally, everyone was too busy having LAN parties at the time to notice.

There were of course the external trappings, the ingenious industrial-mediaeval age with a modest sprinkling of magic, which got you gas/electricity-arc streetlights, magic crystal arrows which turn into water on impact, heavy-duty mining machinery operated by people in chain mail armor right alongside well houses, drawbridges and archers... Not to mention Garrett, the coolest videogame hero of the late nineties simply because he was the only one of them who dared to be established exclusively by his voice and a few elusive hand-drawn images when he wasn't under the player's control.

There was the sound, the lovely, luscious sound of footsteps on all sorts of materials as you strained your ears to the limit for clues on the opposition; this was the first game to do surround sound and environmental reverbs right. In fact, still one of the few games to really do anything at all with it. (The current trend towards releasing on six consoles and then maybe the PC isn't exactly helping things either, as most of the effort goes into making the soundtrack loud enough to be distinguishable coming out of the crummy stereo speakers on the TV set of Joe Average. Muttergrumble.)

And the difficulty levels, the absolute stunning genius of demanding that you kill fewer things as the difficulty goes up, and then actually making it not suck! The likes of this we may never see again.

The first level is an excellent introduction; there are way more guards than you can overcome, and you start off on the street, which will teach you not to draw your weapons until you need them. Going unnoticed is not simply beneficial, it's an absolute necessity. You quickly learn where it's at: Sneaking in the back, knocking people over the head, peering around corners, hiding unconscious guards...

(Interestingly, Thief delivers what was promised in an electronic Apogee advertisement for Wolf3D, the ability to drag bodies out of the way. Makes you wonder if it was ever in the design, or if it was just a misunderstanding.)

The way you have to concentrate on nuances of light and sound means that this game winds up seriously warping your reality - you may find yourself moving into shadows instinctively, or listening to the sound of your own footsteps like you never have before.

The third level is a strange detour, though; after training five years of Doom conditioning out of players they suddenly throw them into an entire level of killing things and running around subterranean mazes. It's like they were feeling insecure.

The Bad
For a game where shadows are extremely important, it's very bright, and doesn't play half as much with silhouettes and shading as I'd like. The reason for this is probably the Quake 1-style blocky edges on diagonal shadows, which would have ruined a lot of them. Not that there aren't areas that shine in this respect, but there could have been so many more.

To enforce stealth, you're always out of luck when spotted; this makes for rather a lot of saving and loading, and can possibly land you in unwinnable states, forcing you to go waay back in the level. Which can be painful, considering the slow pace of the game. Me, I didn't mind so much, but I grew up back in The Day(tm), when we didn't have them fancy things like F12 keys. Of course, I played with an onion taped to my monitor, as was the style at the time...

Oh yeah, and the way you purchase equipment before missions is a bit flawed; it would have been better to just dictate you a base pack of gear as a sort of "par for the course" and letting you top it off, or at least make a few recommendations. The way you sometimes have to half-complete a mission, then restart and buy gear from what you've learned is the only real flaw in this gem.

The Bottom Line
Going on six years and still worth playing. Still worth getting quadrophonic speakers for, in fact.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on November 4, 2004

Harlan Ellison: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (DOS)

Bold move, long fall.

The Good
This is one of a rare species, an adaption from book into game form significantly involving the original author.

Now, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is your classic story of supercomputer starts global thermonuclear war, exterminates human race save five, keeps said people around for amusement through torture. Harlan Ellison himself appears as the voice of the sentient ultracomputer "AM", which is rather an interesting statement.

As the game begins, AM informs its captives that it has "prepared a little game" for them. Actually five games, each tailored to the flaws of the person. You can play these subgames in any order. While in a subgame, you can give up and try another character's subgame, though that discards all progress in the current one.

This alone should tell you that this game is a radical variation on the original story; in it, the characters struggled together. In the game, there is more introspection with the characters on their own.

The subgames explore the background and personality of the characters by casting them among people and scenes from their past and/or situations that hinge on their character. I could see an excellent opportunity for moral complexity here. The game, however, throws ambiguity to the wind and indicates how much Good and Bad you've done by displaying a green tint behind the character's portrait on the status bar. It's basically a karma meter; do something Bad, such as torturing animals, and you lose karma.

The really interesting thing here, then, is that you're playing characters that have pasts and personal problems, unlike the naïve, well-meaning vanilla heroes with no history to speak of you get in most adventure games. From the karma meter description above, you may have guessed that you're supposed to make each character a better person through doing The Right Thing(tm). You can tell when you've done good, because your character portrait will flash a moronic grin. No, I'm not kidding. The first time I saw it I nearly choked.

Still, you may think, figuring out which action agrees with the character's moral standards might be interesting. However...

The Bad
One subgame is plain ridiculous. Another has a gratuitous time progression that forces you to play each day twice just to get your bearings, while a third basically shouts the character's background at you. In fact, the subgame that works the best is the one where the story is revealed behind solutions to barely tangential puzzles, which is a sure sign that the designers weren't up to this difficult task.

There was one subgame which I thought realized the character competently, but it contained some of the worst puzzles I've ever seen. And the ending... well, I can't really talk about it without spoiling, so I won't.

The interface feels unfinished, unresponsive and clunky. The character animation often looks downright comical, like poorly directed marionettes. There are serious bugs. There are puzzles that give no feedback on your actions. There are several opportunities for stranding yourself, one of which may leave you to play most of the game over again. And finally, if you're going to have a story-driven adventure, you'd better not have any pixel-hunting puzzles. I Have No Mouth does have a pixel-hunting puzzle and I did scream. Loudly.

The Bottom Line
All this is irrelevant, however: It's still required playing, because it's one of the few game adaptations to significantly involve the original author, and the only graphic adventure I can think of that works towards really complex characters. And for anyone remotely interested in Harlan Ellison and adventure games, there's simply no question. Shame, really; a more polished I Have No Mouth might have hooked some people on adventure games, possibly even raised the standards of what an adventure game should be.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on October 17, 2004

Escape from Monkey Island (Windows)

Somewhat fun, but too uncertain of itself.

The Good
I wasn't going to buy this game; I hated Monkey 3, and the fact that this was 3D made me surer in shying away. After all, I thought, Grim Fandango only worked because they elegantly sidestepped the problem: Everyone looking stylized and acting sort of stiff and lifeless was an integral part of the setting. But when I saw a used copy, I knew I couldn't resist seeing just how close it came to the mark.

The 3D characters actually work out better than I had expected - they're full-body caricatures in varying degrees of exaggeration, which mostly works allright. The best example of this is one of the first characters you meet, a man whose spine is absurdly curved from carrying heavy rocks. As usual with 3D characters, the sticking point is the way they move; it's either too stiff, or too fluid and liquid-like, but the suspension of disbelief required is not too great. Monkey 4 follows Grim Fandango in using practically the same quality of rendering for cutscenes as for in-game action, which means the transition goes almost unnoticed.

The pre-rendered backdrops go some way towards avoiding that cliché look, but don't quite get there; there's a suspicious absence of dirt and grime, and wherever there's a large flat space, the texture tiling becomes obvious. Combined with an overt fondness for round corners and happy pastel colors, the game often looks too much like an amusement park made entirely out of candy.

Also like Grim Fandango, Monkey 4 uses an Alone in the Dark-style control system, which can be annoying when you've come to know an area and just want to get around quickly. The controls are exceptionally awkward on the map scenes, where you're aching to just point to where you want to go, but instead have to direct Guybrush with the arrow keys, carefully navigating the turns and twists of the paths.

The inventory is a bit more abstract this time around. Pressing "I" brings up a carousel of the items currently stuffed down your pants, pressing "U" while looking at an item will make it drop out of the carousel; you can then select another item to combine it with. (Thank Shub. Wouldn't be Monkey Island if you couldn't try to make a longbow with a plunger and a fishing pole.)

It appears that the team have spent quite a bit of manpower on the conversation, which is one of the better things about this game; at several points in play I found myself unable to choose between conversation lines because I couldn't make up my mind which one would make the funnier joke, and there are many trains of conversation which are pure whimsy.

The references to previous games are actually not that imposing this time around, the recycling of known characters being kept to a reasonable level. The problem, though, is still the same; most of the new characters aren't very memorable. Now repeat after me, kids: "Milk & Cheese" is funny. "I. Cheese" is not. I'd commend the reference to the Monkey 2 puzzle that comes around twice, except that it's one of the worst puzzles in this game.

A nice touch is the variety of roaming characters: In a couple of towns there are random wandering people, you get to see Elaine campaigning around Mêlée Town, and characters can follow you. This goes some way towards helping the emptiness often felt in 3D games.

The Bad
It doesn't begin with "deep in the Caribbean..."

But seriously, the things that really spoil this game are the anachronisms and out-of-place refs to US consumer/pop culture. In the first two Monkey Islands, there were plenty of anachronisms, but they were scattered and adapted to not spoil the pirate-era feeling too much; in Monkey 4, practically half the game is a blatant anachronism - especially jarring are the references to Starbucks and microbreweries. It doesn't become it, it feels like the designers really wanted to make a modern-era game.

The excuse for pulling these anachronisms is that the villain of the day plans to turn the Caribbean into a harmless, family-friendly tourist trap. It's ironic that the game seeks to lampoon this, while at the same time turning out to be the most harmless and uncontroversial of the series. Think about it: in Monkey 1 we have burglary, a decapitated talking head and a lunatic castaway cracking jokes over the corpse of his shipmate, in Monkey 2 voodoo dolls, necromancy and crossdressing, in Monkey 3 piracy and skin grafting without a license... Monkey 4 is an unceasing barrage of pastel shades and Guybrush being fickle and well-meaning, at most resorting to petty theft, serving alcohol to animals and reviving the occasional childhood trauma. I mean, they don't even dare use the word "hell." What the heck is that?

All this could be forgiven if the jokes were hilarious enough. And although there are laughs, they seem to have turned the 'wacky' screw one turn too far in. Now, the first Monkey Island refs Monty Python, whose comedy secret was not only absurdity, but deadpan; people performing absurd tasks with utterly solemn faces. And Monkey 1 & 2 were partially the result of understanding this. Monkey 4, however, goes for camp rather than subtlety, dangling things like steam-driven brass monkeys in front of you and shouting "Look, monkeys! Monkey funny! Laugh, damn you!"

True, they got it right that Guybrush bumbles about and gets insulted a lot, and Elaine seems more in character than in #3, but it's still not quite there.

The puzzles are a bipolar blend of well-hinted, fine-crafted, funny problems and awkward, out of place, poorly hinted ones. I'd say only about one-third of the puzzles are of the good kind: In particular, I disliked most of the puzzles on Lucre Island - even though the ideas behind them are very original, the execution fails badly. Not to mention the whole 'free prosthetic' puzzle, which made no sense at all. But, when the puzzles work, they work beautifully; finding the bronze hat, illuminating the seabed and stopping the demolition man are all memorable moments.

There are a few arcade-flavor sequences, which can get annoying, though they're mostly exercises in taking notes rather than split second timing. And there's one annoying time limit: At one point, the time you have in a location is barely enough to discover all the objects within it.

The music is okay, though it seems to aim to please a bit too much; I only found it noticeable when it recalled themes from the first two Monkey Islands. The modern incarnation of the iMuse sound system doesn't seem to make much of itself; nowhere did I notice any of the smooth transitions that were so brilliant in Monkey 2. On the other hand, the voices are pretty good; even though Guybrush's voice annoyed me in Monkey 3, I thought it worked nicely here. It's a shame though, they seem to be using some voice compression tech that mangles the high tones.

And finally, the last two chapters form a steep downhill slope, ending somewhat over-the-top, strained and hurried (though it's not nearly as pathetic as Monkey 3).

The Bottom Line
The end result is a mixed pleasure, fun in parts, but... I just wish the effort could have been spent on something where they didn't have to lean on past greatness, microwaving a dead monkey and jiggling it to make it look alive: Monkey Island without Ron Gilbert just isn't right.

Bonus point for allowing latin-1 characters in savegames.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on October 7, 2004

Beyond Good & Evil (Windows)


The Good
As a rule, I hate "family" games, films, anything, I hate cute anthropomorphic animals, I really hate games that only let you save at checkpoints. And I usually dislike pastel colors.

Despite all this, I absolutely loved Beyond Good & Evil.

Maybe it's the way the anthropomorphic animals look more relaxed than all-out cutesy. Maybe it's the subversiveness of the way this game, rated nine years and up, shows a militaristic leader distracting people from the truth with propaganda rhetoric. Maybe it's that I got a bit of Thief-like sneaky action again. And that Spanish hip-pop works amazingly well.

Let me elaborate. Our heroine is Jade, freelance reporter who runs an orphanage in her spare time. No, wait, it's not cutesy. ...okay, so maybe it is cutesy, but it works, really. Just trust me on this. Anyway, the object of the game is to take photos to uncover the truth. No, wait, it's cool, it really is. You get to ride this hovercraft around between islands, and as a side income, you take photos of rare animals... Wait, where are you going? I said it works, don't you trust me? Can't stand this non-violent nonsense, you say? Well, when she's attacked, she's got this stick to beat monsters with, see, and it has this super-attack which makes it glow--

...very well, I'll just sit here talking to myself, then.

Jade gets around both on foot and in hovercraft, and, eventually, a spaceship. Searching for rare animals and taking their picture is actually where the big money is in this game: A lot of effort went into designing the teeming animal life of the planet, something like eighty species. This is simply the most brilliant secret-object-hunting excuse ever; and it adds to the tension of fights, as you'll want to get out the camera and take a snapshot of the monsters you're about to beat into a pulp.

Unusually, you spend most of the playing time with a companion to help you in fights, use special skills and operate equipment; think Lost Vikings with less frustration and some fresh gains on the format. The sneaky bits are generally excellent, and very suspenseful despite the cartoon esthetics.

With the roaming around the islands and the money-earning, you get the feeling of GTA3-style freedom, while in fact the design is quite tight. This allows for a lot of special-case scenarios: Every place in the game feels truly unique, never a cookie-cutter repetition; practically every problem has to be faced with a new twist, right up to the end. There are several sub-games such as racing and board games, and replaying the game to find all the hidden areas reveals an impressive variety - this also means you have several paths to finish the game. Combinations of paths, even.

The Bad
Of course, this level of quality can't be kept up indefinitely, and because of this, the game feels short but sweet - moreso because you'll be constantly glued to the screen. You'll wish for two more sequels to appear within the year.

The Bottom Line
So buy it already. Pump up their sales figures so they'll make another, because I need Beyond G&E 2. Badly.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on October 5, 2004

Chronomaster (DOS)

A bundle of excellent ideas hidden under an avalanche of flaws.

The Good
1996 would appear to have been a good year for adventures by notable sci-fi authors. This too is one of those rare species, and unusually, it openly admits to being a collaboration between a fairly large crowd of people.

The title on the box says "ROGER ZELAZNY and Jane Lindskold's CHRONOMASTER." From the preface in the manual, it sounds like Lindskold expanded an originally non-interactive story by Zelazny while working closely with him, and, here's the interesting bit:

"Scot Noel of Dreamforge was in touch at least once a week, running ideas by us, telling us what would work - and what wouldn't. Sometimes he sprung truly delightful surprises on us."

The preface also says that neither Lindskold nor Zelazny knew much about computers. I wonder, though, how many adventures Lindskold had played before writing this game; if she had played only a few, or none, then Chronomaster works astoundingly well for it. In fact, considering the unusual layout of this design team, the flaws of the game seem to be in all the wrong places than what you would expect.

But let's take a look at the story first:

It's the year lots and lots, and people have become so filthy rich they can have their own sealed-off solar systems, complete with disparate laws of physics. Our hero, Rene Korda, is a retired designer of such pocket universes. He's lured back to work by an intriguing problem; someone is shutting down pocket universes, stopping time within them.

To be able to move within these frozen universes, you carry "bottled time", which is a briefcase of green globules. Strap one to your back, and you can move around unfrozen; use a globule on something, and it will move as well. While this may sound somewhat cheesy, it works wonderfully in play. To start time up again within each universe, you have to locate the "world key" by setting sail for magnetic north, placing a tripod-gadget on the exact spot, then running around with a tracer gadget to hunt down the key.

You may think that navigating through a frozen world should be like stealing candy from a baby; however, Korda needs to have a time bubble around him, which means anything he touches suddenly springs to life again. And of course he never, ever, has a clear path to magnetic north.

You visit several pocket universes, and as mentioned, each can and often do have their own variation on physics. The themes of the planets are all over the shop, and the fact that these are artificial worlds actually justifies all sorts of random characters and constructed problems. Not to mention that the frozen-time element is the best excuse ever for having the world revolve around the player character.

Sounds fun, right?

The Bad
Now, in the early 90's, graphic adventure interfaces were torn between the robust interaction provided by the LucasArts-style collection of verbs at the bottom of the screen, versus the more graphical Sierra-style of pop-up icons. So the designers of Chronomaster decided to blend the two, yielding the absolutely worst-of-both-worlds solution:

Initially, the command bar is a single line on the top of the screen, which, in the middle, displays the name of the object your cursor is hovering over and, on the left, three action icons, which were apparently chosen by throwing darts at a dictionary - I mean, look/talk/push? To see all the commands, you have to click the line of text in the middle. This pulls down a veritable forest of icons, arranged in no particular order. And yes, to choose the 'walk' icon, you must pull down the full command bar, and no, there are no keyboard shortcuts. It's the future, see. People don't use keyboards in the future.

The worst product of this philosophy of forcing you to wait for the interface to finish arsing around is the U-Tool. The Universal Tool is Korda's futuristic Swiss army knife, containing a screwdriver, a hammer, and a magic wand. To use any of these, you click the U-Tool icon on the command bar, which pops up a window in the middle of the screen listing the three functions. You then have choose the function you want. This, of course, gets very tedious very fast, which means you wind up forgetting about it, which spells disaster when you do need one of its functions. The command bar is already overflowing with icons, so how could it have hurt to add three more buttons?

This kind of thing permeates the entire game, trying to impress the player with irrelevant eye candy. For instance, accessing your spaceship's database or navigation system forces you to wait fifteen seconds just so you can thrill at the animation of Korda's chair spinning around. It's three-dee, baby, you just have to be impressed.

The final nail in the interface coffin is that Korda is an object; to make him wear or drink an item, you use it on his body. In combination with the way the 'walk' icon is obscured, this becomes annoying when you want to try a bunch of items on something in the environment and Korda stands in the way. So you try one item, hunt up to the command bar for the 'walk' icon, move Korda out of the way, then you try another item, then move him away again... Before long, you'll want to throw heavy things at your monitor.

And then there are the graphics. Unfortunately, the developers jumped on the 3D pre-rendering bandwagon while the technology was still in diapers, and so, like several mid-90's games, it ends up not only looking horribly dated by today's standards, it also looks bad next to a lot of early-90's games. Even if you manage to set your brain into cheap-3D-appreciation-mode, close-up animations of Korda are simply too pathetic for words: his sluggish motion and plastic-sheen skin makes him look like an action figure with a serious motoric disorder.

When reporting on your actions, speech is sometimes used and sometimes not. Speech quality varies wildly, and sometimes, a high-pitched whine is mixed up with the spoken line.

But, once I adjusted to all these flaws I did become hooked on the game - there was just enough good stuff to get by on, even through the second most annoying maze I've ever been subjected to. And the universe where nothing has to make sense, because it's magic. And- well, remember those 'world keys'? One of them is a sliding-block puzzle.

There are pointless deaths. There are dead ends. There are several remember-the-sequence puzzles. There are conversation puzzles where you have to blindly guess the right line or die. There are many, many red herrings choking up your inventory, which further cramps the interface.

Despite these unforgivable showstoppers, I kept playing, because the story is original, the settings are varied and there are even some good puzzles, though they're very much a mixed pleasure when experienced through the horrid interface.

At a guess, I'd say this is a rare example of a game failing not, as it usually goes, because of a writer who doesn't understand interactivity, but because the techies came up short. It really doesn't look like there were any inspired people on the technical side with a thorough understanding of interface and the more craft-like aspects of adventure design. Or a grumpy bastard threatening to lynch the first person to propose a maze. Or a crack team of playtesters.

And that's a crying shame, because underneath this pile of dross you can clearly see the contours of greatness.

The Bottom Line
This may be an important game in the field of sci-fi adventure, but unless you're a complete masochist, you'll want to pack a walkthrough, and something for a headache.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on October 5, 2004

In Cold Blood (Windows)

Distinctive, fast and fun.

The Good
In Cold Blood is a spy action/adventure game. Haven't seen too many of those, have we? Despite the late-nineties bias towards action games, I'd guess the few "spy" games were basically licensed tin foil wrapped around Yet More Doom Clones.

In Cold Blood really does play like a spy game. The missions are all about nonchalantly sneaking into military installations, using guile, stealth and force to achieve your objectives, then getting out in one piece, all without spilling your martini.

You play the part of John Cord, an agent for the MI6 sent to investigate another agent gone missing while undercover in a uranium mine in the state of Volgia, on the coast between Russia and China. Interestingly, the game takes place in his memory as he recalls the events that led to his capture. (compare with Spider & Web)

Although I begrudge the high concentration of action at times, there is a solid adventure side to this game. There is the usual puzzle-solving; you can talk to all the non-combatants you meet, and you're not going to get anywhere unless you talk to and prod everyone and everything you meet and find. I'd say all the missions have that adventure-like feeling of being unique places, not generic levels that could be knocked out by the dozens.

In fact, the most generic things are the people; most of the characters you'll meet are either guards, who almost always shoot first and ask questions later, or they're technicians, who stroll around in identical coveralls looking technical. But in fact, this only stands out in hindsight; after all, these places are military installations, so it makes sense that everyone's wearing uniforms. Handily, Cord refuses to harm unarmed people, so there's no danger of shooting someone you'll need later.

The game is viewed from the third person, in fixed camera views, which are pre-rendered; that is, Alone in the Dark-style. Viewpoints are sometimes used to brilliant cinematic effect: I dare say there are no odd angles just to show off how 3D things are, and the point where the view suddenly changes to a security camera is nothing less than genius.

The combat model is simple and swift - you can throw punches and fire your pistol, and that's it. Cord does a lot of aiming for you, so you just wave your gun in the general direction you want perforated and pump the attack button. Cord is not a tank, however; it will take about two shots at close range to kill him, so the element of surprise is essential, and you can forget attacking more than about three people by yourself.

If you've played Thief, you may be expecting the same sort of sneaking here; staying in the shadows, tiptoeing up on people and knocking them over the head, then hiding the bodies. There's actually little resemblance between the two games. When you do have the option of sneaking up on people, you can usually just casually stroll up behind them and deliver a blow to the neck. The game doesn't distinguish between dead and unconscious bodies and you can't drag them into hiding places. Darkness doesn't seem to figure into how visible you are, only your distance to the observer and whether you're behind cover. The only thing you can do to help, really, is to crouch behind crates and such.

The Bad
There's a very power-up feeling to supplies you find on people; all ammunition will fit your gun, and using a medikit pushes your health bar up a certain amount within one second. Once you're past the first mission, you rarely talk your way past guards: There are several stretches that have an almost Doom-like feel as you walk into a room, shoot till everyone's dead, grab all their powerups, then move onto the next room.

Now, I'm not complaining that there's action, this being a spy game and all. But when you spend too much time mowing down guards, things become boring, because of the very simple combat system. When they made that design choice, they should have carved in stone that shootouts were to be used for dramatic effect, never for their own sake. Because when shootouts are used for drama, they're brilliant. Some of my favorite parts are when you walk unwittingly straight into a couple of guards and reach frantically for the fire button.

It's not all about plowing through guards and sneaking about - a couple of missions have you infiltrating places in disguise. I thought it jarring, however, that at one point in these missions you all of a sudden have to use force, without any cue that it's appropriate in that location. Also unlike Thief, people almost never warn each other; if you shoot a bunch of guards in front of a technician, he'll cower for a minute, then go back to work among the corpses, without a care in the world.

Cord wears a high-tech wristwatch computer/communicator which is used for everything relating to computers and electronics. This is good in that it provides a unified interface to it all, but it feels a bit ridiculous when it offers to repair shorted-out circuits for you. It contains a scanner which displays a map of the area, complete with people. This does make for more of a strategic feeling most of the time, but it also takes some of the edge out of it, especially in the parts that have a lot of straightforward shootouts.

Things move along pretty quickly, enhancing the action-movie feel. Of course, this means the game doesn't take very long. Took me three or four days. And since the environment is often streamlined for speed, not depth, being stuck can get boring pretty fast. Mind you, I was only really stuck once.

At several points there are time limits. I found them reasonable, but some of the control quirks become very annoying when you're under pressure - it's hard to make Cord run in stairs and you have to aim very carefully to climb ladders. But, truth be told, I don't think it would have felt as spy-movie-like without a couple of countdowns. I just wish it could have been two countdowns instead of five. In the last couple of missions, countdowns combined with somewhat sloppy testing makes for some frustration, but I was too engrossed to be massively annoyed.

The plot is, well, competent, as spy action goes. There is inventiveness both in plot and setting, and the more ridiculous plot devices are ironed out by the fast pacing.

As a final touch of class, at the end of the game you can view artwork, cutscenes and character profiles, and you can replay any mission.

The Bottom Line
Obviously, this game is not for you if you hate either adventure or action games. For the rest of us, it can be an interesting lesson in applying the aesthetics of a movie genre to a game, without sacrificing the game. I don't think I'd bother to play it twice, though.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on June 17, 2002

Carmageddon 2: Carpocalypse Now (Windows)

Even sicker, even more fun.

The Good
Carmageddon II is essentially more of the same. This is a good thing. There's an updated 3D engine (now sprite-free and Direct3D accelerated), little things have been added and taken away, and there's a new structure to the races. The physics and car control-and-feel are even more brilliant, allowing you to bounce, spin, skid, do wheelies... it really does feel like a real car, even when you're driving outlandish monster trucks.

The environment has improved a lot since the original, with windows and fences that break, loads of objects that can be pushed around, objects that push you around, and the ability to get just about everywhere with a bit of creative driving. It really feels like these are real places you're trashing.

When paired with the circuit idea from the original, this makes it shine all the brighter; it still feels like there's half a race going on, so the action tends to if not follow, at least loosely hang around the checkpoints and the paths in between. In this way, the full subtlety of the settings comes out as you discover new things when you return to the same setting with a different track layout later on. It's almost enough to make you feel more like driving around checking out the scenery than driving into, over and through the motorists and pedestrians on the way. But only almost.

The fact that everything is 3D, including the pedestrians, does shift the focus of play some; for one, there's less of a splatter factor when ramming at high speed. On the other hand, dismemberment is now possible, and there are additional bonuses for sadistic games such as playing with your victims and sending them flying, not to mention some extremely fun power-up combinations; need I say more than "suicidal turbo pedestrians?"

Damage to cars is a lot more detailed; fun in particular when you get your opponents to the point where only two of their wheels touch the ground, confining them to running helplessly in circles.

The Bad
Towards the end, however, it wears thin. Because of the grouped-track layout, you can get stuck on a particular set of tracks when there's a difficult mission, and there's nothing to stop you from building up for as long as you like before you progress. Since your opponents don't improve the way you do, this makes for some rather easy races.

In the beginning, it's way too easy to get yourself split in half by driving into the side of a building, and for the last third of the game, most of the vehicles are truck-types(trailers, buses, even a plane), which sort of takes the fun out of it. The trucks are really just slow and unwieldy once the power rush fades, and then you're stuck driving them since the only thing likely to take out a truck is another truck.

Carm2's realistic car control might be the biggest argument against it; after all, if it feels so much like a real car, couldn't you wind up ramming pedestrians or taking out motorists in real life?

I played both this and the original within one year, and I can't say it changed my driving habits any. It did, however, make me a more nervous pedestrian; after all, a line of cars waiting at the red light by a pedestrian crossing look very similar to the pack of cars waiting for the start signal while pedestrians walk by, blissfully oblivious.

No way would I play this game with a driving wheel and gas/brake pedal controller, however. You really don't want this closer to the mood of being behind a real driving wheel.

The Bottom Line
Lots more fun for homicidal lunatics everywhere.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on April 29, 2000

Starship Titanic (Windows)

Mostly Hot Air

The Good
This game was hyped to no end prior to its release. For one, it had Douglas Adams' name on it; since he has actually pulled off a game or two way back when, expectations were that it would be an actual game, and not just the sort of linear abominations you get when movie directors with bloated egos decide to make Interactive Movies.

Initial screenshots were extremely pretty, and it promised something genuinely new: A conversation system to push the state of the art of NPCs, which, let's face it, has been standing still for quite some time. This conversation system would revolve around a natural language parser which would - gasp - actually work, and provide you with hours of stimulating interactive conversation! (How exactly the publishers managed to pull this off without mentioning that it would involve touching a keyboard is beyond me.)

It's pretty, I'll give it that. The interior of the ship is designed in a 20's-inspired architecture, with shiny glass, gold, speckled stone and extinct tropical wood aplenty. This fits beautifully with that particular kind of shine you usually see in pre-rendered 3D.

The Bad
Everything else.

The FMV flythroughs get extremely annoying after about the second time, so getting around becomes a right pain in the expansion ports. This isn't improved by the fact that all means of transportations have long, pointless animations of getting there, which there's no way to skip.

The bots were hyped up to true natural conversationalist status, when in reality they're just slightly rewired Elizas whom you have to prod in the right spot just to get them to tell you what their function is - in particular, the maitre'd and the puzzle associated with him is laughably pathetic. The poor state of the natural language parser is excused by the starship and its bots going haywire, although the achieved effect isn't that of malfunction, but annoyance. Ironically, this makes the only believable character the only organic one: The parrot, whose obnoxiousness matches the parser.

Then there are the puzzles. Apparently, whoever designed them was smoking rolled-up marketing hype about the bots' natural language capabilities, crippling the game completely as you plod away trying to find out exactly what phrasing you have to use to get a bot to perform a particular action.

The story? Don't make me laugh. There are a few shards of it at the beginning and you might be able to wring some more of it out of the bots if you're lucky, and at the end you get some dodgy footage of Douglas Adams pretending to be the ship's constructor, but really, it's all an excuse to dump you in an empty shell of a setting with arbitrary puzzles. Honestly, didn't we leave this kind of thing behind, like, fifteen years ago?

And poof, that's just about everything that makes it a game in ruins. What's left is an arguably pretty-looking shell to wander about, but that fades quickly after, oh, the first couple of hours.

The Bottom Line
Avoid, unless you're looking for a schoolbook example of puzzles, FMV and NPCs done in all the wrong ways.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on April 27, 2000

Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet (DOS)

By Ola Sverre Bauge on April 26, 2000

Discworld II: Mortality Bytes! (Windows)

Quite good, but missing just that little extra.

The Good
In the sequel to Discworld, Rincewind finds himself assigned with the task of locating Death, who's gone missing; the undead stinking up the streets is becoming a problem in the not-so-fair city of Ankh-Morpork. Naturally, no one is going to actually help him any. On the way, he passes through most of Discworld's regions, and a couple outside of it.

Rincewind is accompanied by his semi-animate sidekick, the Luggage: A travel chest of sapient pearwood, sporting more legs than the average caterpillar and an unrestricted storage capacity, an excellent excuse for limitless inventory.

The graphics are now 640x480, and well-drawn too; the clean animation on hand-painted backgrounds really make the best of the 256-color palette. The music is a particularly pleasing kind of ambient symphonic; the fact that it's low-key makes it all the less jarring when it changes with the scenes, and it sets the mood nicely. The only catch is that the sound is 8-bit, but this is only really noticeable in a few spots (and sad noiseheads like myself kinda like quantization noise anyway).

The Bad
If you've read a fair amount of Pratchett the jokes may be old already. This may be the biggest problem for the already-converted. The puzzles are almost exclusively of the shopping-list variety , to the point where Rincewind himself makes resigned jokes off it; depending on your preferences, this may ruin the game completely. I didn't really mind, however.

The NPCs are sometimes thin; there's a bit too much recycling of voice talent going on. I don't think I noticed this very much the first time around since I was laughing harder and spending more time in each part, but this became glaringly obvious when I replayed it. The conversation itself is usually pretty good though.

The last couple of acts are pretty small; as you run out of areas to solve puzzles in, Rincewind says outright that there's no need to bother going back (which is at least honest). It's by no means as bad as the original in this respect though, and again unlike the original, I didn't butt my head against any bugs in the endgame.

Eric Idle's Life of Brian-esque song number is fairly gratuitous, and has potential for lodging in your brain like the worst of pop. Thankfully, it tends to get exorcised by the excellent title theme and ingame music.

And finally, there's a certain lack of overall spirit to the game; it's pretty obvious that the plot was adapted by people who aren't Pratchett, and this creates a feeling of people trying to sound like someone they're not.

The Bottom Line
Definitely try before you buy. If you aren't laughing after 15 minutes, don't bother, since it all hinges on getting the humor. If you get it, then the little things will probably seem perfectly excusable, and if you don't, they'll probably seem glaring. And if you don't like long conversations, definitely give it a miss; DW2's characters ramble on to no end.

Do try it if you like this sort of thing. There's some good craftmanship in there.

By Ola Sverre Bauge on April 26, 2000