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Half-Life (Windows)

Gaming's Potempkin Village

The Good
Half-Life represents another chain in the link that started in 1993, when Doom shipped without any sort of "High Scores" table.

Basically, the trend of shooter games towards realism, away from gimmickiness and "arcadeness", and into the a future where games get compared to movies as works of art and you don't wait for the punchline.

Immersion is the altar this game worships at. Not just great graphics or great sound or lots of polygons - immersion. Every aspect of Half-Life is engineered to create a world you can get lost in, from the level design, to the audio, to the overall concept of the game. It's still a shooter with the same fundamental rules as Doom - the way out of these elaborately crafted environments is still generally "shoot the crap out of everything" - but with various subtle touches that seem like nothing yet add up to everything.

It's hard to overstate how successful Half-Life is at what it does. Black Mesa is never anything less than a real place, filled with vending machines, garbage cans, querulous scientists, etc. Within the first few minutes, you get to see a locker room. Open the locker marked GORDON FREEMAN, and you see some of the main character's personal effects - including some books he's reading. The main character in this game reads books! A tiny detail, yet a complete paradigm shift.

You don't find weapons and ammo lying in the middle of the hallway in Half-Life, you find it in a place that makes sense (like a gun locker or a weapons cabinet). You don't open doors with brightly colored keys, you actually have to find a scientist or soldier and ask them to grant you access (which sometimes entails an argument). In one incident a guard started helping me in a gunfight, and yelled "got another one!" as he plugged a headcrab. Despite Half-Life's datedness, scripted moments like this still have an eerie power. For just a second, he's the player and you're an NPC in his game.

Half-Life is masterful in keeping the ugly, clunky machinery of videogaming off-screen. The game seamlessly transitions from level to level. No load screens. No cutscenes. The game just doesn't cut away. It keeps you locked inside the experience, like a movie. Again, the effect is subtle, but you definitely feel it. It's like an orchestra that effortlessly segues from section to section, versus one that has to stop and re-tune their instruments at the end of each movement.

The game has barely any story, but it gives you the ineluctable sense that there probably is a story, you just aren't around to witness it unfold. Not so much "this is a plotless game" as "gee, I wonder what I'm missing out on, wandering around empty hallways with my crowbar." The widely parodied, widely mocked decision to not have Gordon Freeman speak works really well, as you imagine your own voice and your own words flowing into silences in conversation.

The Bad
Half-Life is so overpowering as an experience that it took a while to sink in that I wasn't having that much fun.

A goofy, arcadey FPS like Quake kills Half-Life in enjoyment factor - and Quake's hardly an FPS benchmark par excellence.

Half-Life is just too clever for itself. It's filled with inventive ideas that just plain don't work in an FPS game. Too many times when you have to perform Lara Croft-esque jumps without seeing your feet. Too many places where you have to navigate instant-death tripwires with only a hazy idea of your proximal surroundings. Too many places where you're trying to push boxes around and they go unhelpfully skidding off in the wrong direction. It's like the game gets bored with being a groundbreaking FPS, and also wants to be a shitty version of Rayman.

And what's with the several million miles of air ducts you have to crawl through? Why? What's meant to be fun or enjoyable about that? I swear that half the game is spent hobbling through air ducts. Go fuck yourself for that one, guys.

Looking at Half Life in hindsight, You can see a real "cool stuff overload" coupled with a neglect to the basic principles that make gaming fun. Hit detection is seriously wonky. You're reaction when shooting isn't so much "eat death, hellscum!" as "man, I hope that last shot did damage". Overall, this game's action just isn't satisfying. The entire dynamic of the gameplay and weapons feels "off", like you're just slightly out of control of everything. And the game depends such ridiculous levels of mid-air finesse - I lost count of how many times I had to jump while crouching to fit into a tiny air duct - that it feels like you're playing a third person game hastily reprogrammed for first.

Gradually the illusion wears away, like a woman's makeup tearing. You'll see how facile and shallow much of the game is - how the bosses can be beaten by a chess-playing computer, how the enemy AI is full of holes, how the game has a tiny number of character models and keeps reusing them. It's like Being John Malkovich: The Game.

Half-Life pushed the FPS genre in directions it probably wasn't ready to go. It's an impressive exercise if you value games as artistry, or as visual experiences.

But if you value games as games? I'm not so sure.

The Bottom Line
It's an old, perhaps apocryphal story. Grigory Potempkin, lover of the Russian queen, was given the task of rebuilding the devastated towns along the river Dneiper. Rather than do this, he built a series of beautiful fake towns, with his own men playing the part of happy, well-fed peasants. They would smile and wave as the Empress passed by, and then rush on to populate the next fake town.

Half-Life is amazing to look at, even now. But don't look too hard, or too long. You'll notice the parts held together with duct tape and silly string.

By Maw on April 23rd, 2015

Nemesis (Game Boy)

By Maw on June 5th, 2014

Syndicate (SNES)

By Maw on February 22nd, 2014

Syndicate (Genesis)

By Maw on February 22nd, 2014

Syobon Action (Windows)

Very hard Mario clone, though not without some charm

The Good
Heavy on the gimmicks and light on the content, Syobon Action (or Cat Mario) is a monstrously hard parody of Super Mario Bros. If you've played Super Mario Frustration, Asshole Mario, or more ambitious games like I Wanna Be the Guy you'll know what's in store here. Just a game that relentlessly kills you at every step.

The only reason these games exist is so people can brag on internet forums that they defeated them. It's like the Olympics for keyboard warriors. "I only died 342 times!" "Pussy! I only died 341 times!" With the exception of I Wanna Be the Guy (which is a very good game), none of these games are actually fun on their own. In fact, most of them suck. Hardcore. Syobon Action sucks just as hard as the rest, but I will say in its defense that it sucks in a way that's fairly pleasurable. (Just like your mom! WAKA WAKA WAKA!)

Here is a sample five minutes of Syobon Action:

"Okay, so this looks exactly like Mario, except the hero's a cat. I'm moving right, I'm jumping to hit a...WHAT?! That brick moved away from me! Okay, I just managed to hit a brick, and it spawned a mushroom, I'll get it to roid up my cat, and...huh? The mushroom killed me! Restarting. I'm moving right, ignoring the mushroom, jumping over a pipe and...crap, something just flew out of the pipe and killed me again. Restarting, moving right, ignoring the mushroom, jumping over the pipe to avoid the flying thing, and...a brick fell on me. Great. Restarting. Move right. Ignore the pipe, dodge the flying thing, dodge the falling brick, and...the ground fell out from underneath me. Fuck that noise, does anyone have a college application?"

It's pretty unrelenting. But the game does follow its own internal logic. Basically, every time you would do something in Mario, don't do it here unless there is no other way to proceed. You know how you could ride a pipe down to a secret treasure room in Mario? Do that here and you'll end up in a deathtrap. Even the final boss isn't defeated in a typical way. Use some lateral thinking and you'll go quite a way towards making the game easier for yourself.

There's one feature I REALLY appreciated. You can press the space bar to speed up the game by 2X. You'll restart a lot of times here and it's nice to be able to blitz through the easy parts at double speed.

The Bad
You finish the game and get a weird nothing of an ending. The creator was probably paying tribute to those slap-in-the-face ending screens so many old-school games have, but it doesn't work. I've busted my balls here, and I want a reward.

As I said before, the only reason to play this game is so you can claim you've played it. It's not very fun, except in an "ouch" masochistic sense, and it's haphazardly designed in places, with lots of puzzles that you can just stumble through.

And, when you get to the core of things, it's not even very hard. Sure, I racked up a three digit death count on my first try, but all the challenges are based on memorizing the locations of boobie traps. Once you've played the game once and know the layout of the levels you'll have no more problems with it.

The Bottom Line
Treat this game like a drug. The correct procedure is to do it, and then forget about it. Sure, it's kind of cute. But it's not so much a game as a spiritual exercise in patience and perseverance. Definitely could have been better.

By Maw on June 18th, 2010

Gatorman (Windows)

The man who made this game is the coolest dude ever

The Good
I cannot stress enough how HILARIOUS this game is. You kick cute little dogs over fences, jump across toxic Porta Potties that damage your health, and smack obnoxious rednecks in the face and watch them spill beer all over their shirts. As the crowning moment, you deliver beatdowns to no less than THREE lame college football mascots.

In this adorable football-themed platform game, you play as the mascot for the Florida Gators, Al. You have been separated from your team and must get back to them ASAP, because the Gators can't possibly win without your mojo. Let's get it out of the way that I don't know anything about football.

I won't call this game a Mario clone because then you'll think of a cute plumber collecting gold coins. Instead, you're journeying through a trailer part full of rednecks, college jocks, white trash, and other people who might conceivably sport a Republican sticker on their car. And yes, you are both allowed and encouraged to kick ass. Al's main method of attack is his powerful tail, although he can deflect projectiles such as footballs and pom-poms back at his enemies. In the final level, you get to play as the creator of the game, in a blatant self-insertion that somehow isn't annoying in the slightest.

The levels are pretty similar, a mixture of fighting and navigating puzzles. Sometimes you'll need to flick a switch with your tail to open a roadgate, or climb along the roof of a Winnebago to get past an obstacle. At the end of each level you fight a boss, modelled after the mascot of the team you're playing against. And these boss battles are tough, almost like a traditional fighting game.

The game's graphics have a scruffy charm to them. They were obviously made at home, but they work. Music consists of football anthems. All of this stuff is "open content", meaning can theoretically edit the .bmp files contained in the game folder and have your changes appear in game.

The fake newspaper articles that appear between levels are a laugh-fest, and I just love the entire concept of Gatorman. For what it is, it's perfect. A short blast of fun, and just as it's starting to get boring the game ends.

The Bad
There's a bug on level three that sometimes causes a vital item not to appear. I don't think the creator ever got around to fixing it.

The Bottom Line
Gatorman screams. "THIS WAS MADE IN MY BASEMENT AND I'M PROUD OF IT!" You'd need to be a truly dedicated fan to pull off something like this, nevermind distribute it for free on the web. Gatorman is one of indie gaming's triumphs. It could never have been made by a major studio.

By Maw on May 22nd, 2010

Mitsume ga Tōru (NES)

Megaman without the cheapness

The Good
One could spend a lifetime wading through the murky toilet water of videogame adaptations, but sometimes (ie, here), you find a good game! Mitsume ga Tooru is a side-scrolling platform game, based off a manga I'm not familiar with.

One of my favorite gaming memories is taking turns playing this game with my childhood friend Terrence. I'm bitching that his turn is taking too long, and he turns to me and says (in the snooty voice of the action figure collector from Toy Story 2) "YOU...CAN'T...RUSH...ART!" That just made us laugh and laugh.

The deal is this. Even if you've got a NES, an SNES, a Genesis, and stacks of all the best games for those consoles, you still might find yourself coming back to this game. It's just a rock solid game. It is the anti-Mega Man. The gameplay is simple, accessible, and not frustrating in the slightest. The controls are well-designed and well implemented. Perhaps most importantly, the game was created with small details in mind.

Mitsume ga Tooru is loaded with cute little quirks and individualistic touches. You earn coins from dead enemies that you can spend at a shop (and you can juggle these coins in mid-air with your bullets to increase their value) on a variety of items, tools, and powerups. I liked it how you could buy a giant bird that rescues you when you fall off a cliff.

The enemies and bosses are quite diverse and interesting, and they all require unique strategies to beat. One enemy in particular throws a returning boomerang and is only vulnerable for the few seconds when the boomerang is not in his hands. (I'm sure this is all stuff from the manga, I won't pretend to understand it.) The boss fights are also really damn cool, my favorite being the tentacle boss.

The graphics pretty much get the job done. They have the quasi-anime style that works so well on vintage consoles, and there are some nice effects like rain and lightning. The music rocks ass.

The Bad
When I was 11 I remember thinking it was hard, but when I recently got it on VirtuaNES I beat it in two days. The levels are pretty straightforward and the bosses are quite easy, except for the final one who is more cheap than hard (you must fight him about four times, using an really vague strategy that took me ages to figure out. That part of the game definitely did take cues from the Megaman playbook).

Collecting weapons is a drag sometimes. You buy them at a shop, and you can only enter the shop when you see a girl with a blue flag. This leads to annoying situations where you have tons of money but can't buy anything. Why? THERE ISN'T A GIRL NEARBY.

Wait, that last sentence pretty much describes my real life.

The Bottom Line
A rock solid game that understands that not everything needs to be art, not everything needs to redefine its genre, etc. Get this game, there are good odds that you will like it.

By Maw on May 21st, 2010

Forbes Corporate Warrior (Windows)

What a weird, pointless, dumb game

The Good
I don't know what to do with this. Content-wise it's rushed, half-assed, and seems like an alpha proof of concept that was mistakenly released as a game somehow. But the lavish background art suggests that it was actually made with a bit of money.

The best thing about this game is the concept it has, or rather the concept it CLAIMS it has (this is lame FPS city, so don't get excited by whatever's on the box). In the future, corporations will abandon Wall Street, and instead fight each other in a Matrix-esque computer simulation. As a start-up entrepreneur, you must jack in to the simulation, and fight your way to the top according to the laws (laid out in 1843 by Santa Claus, revised in 1964 by Coca Cola) of laissez-faire capitalism. Only now, it's like playing a computer game!

Basically, the game is a finance-themed first-person shooter. The "enemies" are rival corporations seeking to steal your profits, the "weapons" are things like the Ad Blaster and the Takeover Torpedo, there are "power-ups" that give you additional market share. It's gimmicky but cute.

The game mostly abandons this premise half-finished and becomes Doom clone #324235897, but there's still some hints of what it could have been. The shooting sequences aren't really action-based, instead you lock on to rival corporations and steal their customers until they are forced to declare bankruptcy. You do this using weapons appropriate to either "High Quality Goods" or "Bargain-Cheap Prices", depending on what your opponent's customers want (all this data is displayed in the game's HUD). So if your opponent is selling boutique products but his customers want cheap goods, you can cut the legs from under him with some Price Slicer missiles. The more corporations you defeat, the stronger you become (as their customers join you).

In this game, money represents health. Every time you move, it costs money, and fighting also drains your bank account (although you can expect to earn big bucks if you successfully liquidate a rival). You also have to watch out for things like your quarterly stock prices, which will cause you to lose the game if they get too low.

There are some pretty graphics here and there. I liked the loading screen that displays your office in between levels. When you start out you're working in a dingy shoe box apartment, and as you get richer you're lazing around on the beach ...I suggest you enjoy it BECAUSE THIS IS THE ONLY ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF PROGRESS YOU GET.

Man, I totally have to stop bashing games in the "good" section.

The Bad
You'll be bored of Forbes: Corporate Warrior in five minutes. Seriously. Buy an egg timer or something.

There's just no game here. You move up to an enemy, attack them, adjust the price/quality sliders to whatever will grant you victory, rinse, and repeat. All enemies behave the same, there's no variety to any of the game's battles. Strategy is nonexistent. You're either strong enough to liquidate an enemy or you're not.

The game basically fails to live up to its promise, which is to be a hybrid financial simulator/FPS. Hell, it fails to be an adequate game of any genre, but that's not the point. Any pretense at being a financial simulator is blown out of the water by the blatantly simple and childish gameplay. This is REALLY crappy Doom, just with all the weapons and enemies renamed to random financial/business buzzwords.

Although the concept art between levels is beautiful, the actual in-game graphics have all the appeal of a 3D wire frame demo circa 1986. This game looks awful. There's no way around it. The whole game appears to take place on a poorly-textured chessboard, with hideous backgrounds and crappy animation. The enemies are weird looking geometric shapes.

And on a minor note, the HUD is a bit too informative, in that it seemingly covers a good 60% of the screen with buttons, menus, and numbers. Obtrusive HUDs are the scourge of old-school FPS games, and especially this one. I WANT TO PLAY THE GAME, YOU JERKS, not have to look past some huge cumbersome user interface.

The Bottom Line
Don't play, seek out, or even think about this game. Forbes: Corporate Warrior richly deserves every sale it didn't get.

By Maw on May 21st, 2010

Hotel Mario (CD-i)

Not all that bad! Really!

The Good
Hotel Mario is one of the abortions that came out of Nintendo's ill-fated experiment with the CD-i platform. I expected this game to be a huge parking lot full of dinosaur shit, and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be quite decent and playable.

According to the cutscenes, Mario and Luigi have been invited to a dick-lick by Princess Peach. Okay, maybe it was "picnic." The game's voice acting is questionable at best. Anyhow, Mario and Gay Luigi (or maybe it was "Hey, Luigi!" Sheesh...again with the voice acting) discover that Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser, and hidden in one of his seven Koopa hotels. Yes, at some point in the Mario timeline, Bowser has become a hotel manager.

It's a weird premise for a game, but Hotel Mario compensates by being really simple to play. You journey to each of the seven hotels, which contain 10 stages. To clear each stage, you have to shut all the doors. You can use elevators to ride from one floor to the next, and also to avoid enemies. All of Mario's old foes (Goombas, Koopas, etc) are out in force, and they can be fought either by jumping on them or by killing them with fireballs. Even though the game uses familiar tropes from the SMB platform games, it's fairly different in design. Don't expect your skills playing those games to be of much use here.

The art is a definite high point. The backgrounds (designed by Trici Venola) are colorful and fun, and drive home the visual theme for each hotel. The animation works well for this sort of game, and there's enough of it to make the levels seem "alive" instead of just a collection of tile graphics (a common fault in puzzle games)..

The final boss fight is pretty cool. If they'd kept up that level of intensity throughout the entire game, we might have had something ("something" here being defined as Claw, Gruntz, or Jazz Jackrabbit).

The Bad
The cutscenes are bad. Really, really bad. I won't describe them. I'm trying to repress the memories. Just search Youtube for "Hotel Mario Cutscenes", sit back, relax, and wonder why you aren't doing something more productive with your time like doing drugs or slashing car tyres or something.

This isn't a game that aims for the stars. All you do is shut doors. Seriously, that's the whole game. When the height of your gaming experience consists of "Wow! In this level I shut doors WITH SKULLS ON THEM!" it might be time to assess how much fun you are really having.

The music sucks, the levels are repetitive, the controls are difficult, and no, I don't know how shutting doors helps you save the Princess.

The Bottom Line
This isn't a game that's worth tracking down, but let's give it a decent legacy. It's not the worst game ever made for any platform. It hovers around "average". The only really bad parts are the cutscenes, and once you're past those it only gets better.

As a point of interest, it is rumoured that their experiences with the CD-i scared Nintendo away from CD-based mediums. THIS GAME MIGHT BE THE REASON YOUR N64 ONLY ACCEPTS CARTRIDGES.

Then again, that's probably too awesome to be true.

By Maw on May 21st, 2010

Quake II (Windows)

Very solid classic-style FPS

The Good
The problem with technical showcases like Quake is that people ditch them as soon as the next hot thing comes along. Id Software no doubt realised this and set to work on a game with a half-decent single-player mode. It's quite telling that even though the game was rushed like hell and shipped with lots of bugs/missing features, it still feels like more of a game then the first Quake was. It's hard to say why, they are both shooters with similar gameplay. Quake II just feels richer and more detailed. The first game made the graphics 3D. The second game made the gameplay 3D.

The game's conceit is that you're stranded on a hostile alien planet and you have to complete tasks assigned to you from earth. This alone is a small but compelling step forward, as instead of an arcady "get to the end of the level GO GO GO!!!" through-line we have a much more mature game where you have to complete objectives like a real soldier would.

Instead of progressing from level to level in a linear fashion, you visit a series of areas (such as mines, suburbs, etc) that have sub-areas divided by short load times. You can go back and forth between these areas and the result is a game that is, while certainly not entirely non-linear, gives the player more freedom, as well as the feeling that he's deciding the outcome of the game rather than riding a one-way train track to the final boss.

The game's masterstroke is in the details. No more empty rooms with monsters just standing around, now you visit realistically designed areas such as nuclear plants, weapon facilities, and underground mines. There are various props like computer terminals to enhance the realism. The weapons are just plain awesome, with my favorites being the chaingun and the BFG 2134124 or whatever it is. The weapon balance is also much better (the rocket launcher isn't as strong as in Quake, so expect to use other weapons occasionally), and everything is spiffed up to become more realistic (example: you can now see your marine's hands reloading the grenade launcher.)

...Now, don't get the impression that Quake 2 is a masterpiece of game design. It's a simple shooter. But it's far ahead of Quake and that's all I wanted.

I also give props for the monsters (there are no goofy three-headed whatevers in this game, they all look like real alien soldiers) and the soundtrack (which features a theme song by Rob Zombie). The graphics were top of the line for the day, and with 3D acceleration they hold up well with most 1999-2000 games.

The Bad
The game's quality is heavily front-loaded. The first few levels are brilliant, but as the game progresses things get increasingly lazy and rushed until eventually you're wandering through empty mazes, shooting randomly-placed enemies...awesome, it's Quake I again.

The game is also really easy. On hard difficulty I breezed through the game with about 10-20 reloads (mostly from unexpected traps). The monsters are really stupid and the pathfinding is even worse than Quake's (larger monsters tend to get stuck walking around corners), and along with the frequent health packs and overpowered weapons means you're not in any great risk of dying. Most of the challenge comes from finding your way around mazes, and that's not what I call fun.

And despite all of the nods to realistic Half-Life gameplay, they couldn't resist adding a bunch of stupid videogame shit like bonus levels, powerups, et cetera. It feels a bit out of place given the otherwise realistic setting.

The Bottom Line
A good single player mode complements this technologically forward-looking game. It's not a must own, but it is nevertheless a good game.

By Maw on May 21st, 2010

SimCity (DOS)

Awesome game

The Good
SimCity has one obvious advantage over other simulations of the time, it is actually possible to play it. Other simulations and wargames of the time had a learning cliff rather than a learning curve (I suspect because the average gamer was a computer professional himself, and game designers weren't exactly shooting for the soccer mom demographic), but SimCity introduced the idea of simple design and easy accessibility. The result is a game with phenomenal mass appeal.

The story behind the game's creation is that designer Will Wright had created a 2D action game with an edit mode, and soon found this edit mode to be more fun than the game itself. He decided to create a whole game dedicated to the concept. It did not see the light of day for years, but when SimCity was finally released it was a great success and launched a whole franchise of other Sim titles.

As the name implies, SimCity is about building and maintaining a city. You have control over all buildings and all public functions, but can only indirectly influence your citizens. The meat of the game is the Create-A-City Mode, where you start from scratch and must build a city up to glory. As is the rule with simulations, there are no specific goals to achieve in SimCity. There is something satisfying about a well-run city humming along that is better than a high-score in Super Mario Brothers. There is also a scenario mode where you start out with a pre-set city and must fix a certain problem like a nuclear meltdown. Of course, if you're a sadist you can start out with a built-up city and wreck everything, turning your citizens' lives into hell with unfair taxes, poor civic functions, and even natural disasters like floods and fires and the ever-popular Godzilla attack.

The graphics were good for its day, and the game has a very nice user interface that surpasses that of Windows 3.1. The sound is minimalistic but effective, and there's even a freeform edit mode.

The Bad
It's annoying how you can't "zone" areas like in the later games (in other words if you have a 2x4 lot you can't build a 3x3 building there), but that's nitpicking.

The Bottom Line
Of course, there's no reason you'd bother trying to emulate it these days, since the formula has been copied verbatim by many prettier games, but SimCity is a great classic with that elusive, sought-after quality: crossover appeal. I'm sure there were lots of parents who refused to let their kids play Doom or Mario but let them play SimCity, content in the knowledge that their children were learning all about how to run a city. (They probably weren't, but the game is still fun.)

By Maw on December 31st, 2007

Quake (DOS)

3D engine for sale! 3D engine for sale! (oh yeah, there's a game here too)

The Good
The Quake Id Software intended to make was quite different to the Quake that actually got released. 1995-era gaming magazines were awash with hype about a fully 3D, fantasy-themed FPS with detailed lighting effects and morphable terrain and an RPG-style class system and everything but the kitchen sink.

Somewhere along the line id's development team must have realised that the hardware required for this sort of game did not exist yet. They ended up releasing a stripped-down tech demo that was only a shadow of what they had originally promised. It is completely 3D, but just about everything else was sacrificed to make it 3D.

Everywhere in Quake you see the signs of a game laboring under technological constraints. The levels are absolutely tiny, and mostly made up of cramped rooms and corridors (large outdoor areas like in Doom? Forget it.) The textures are bland and of low detail. The tradeoff for realistic lighting was that everything in the game is rendered in dull browns and grays. It's rare that you'll have three enemies on the screen at once. Five enemies is a gratuitous bloodbath.

Thematically the game is a continuation of Doom. The settings and plots are pretty much the same: you are a marine who is the last man standing on the site of an alien invasion. But rather than the Aliens setting of Doom, Quake is far more Gothic. Castles and dungeons are the rule here rather than space stations and moon bases. In fact, you could easily believe that this game was originally intended to be set in the Middle Ages.

The action is fast and lean. The monsters are weak but deal out massive damage, and since you don't have much ammo the game becomes a frenetic and tense reflex match. The game's realistic lighting works in its favor by giving monsters the ability to hide in shadows where you can't see them. The game's scariest moments come when you're walking down a well-lit corridor and suddenly the lights go out...and you can hear growls and snarls.

Quake's monsters are pretty cool and one of the best things that came with the game. There are zombies, werewolves, and flesh-eating fish, and lethal killing machines such as the Hell Knights and Vores. But pride of place is reserved for the Shambler, a hulking behemoth who can shoot lighting and absorb massive amounts of damage before dying; and can be regularly found on "Best Ever Monster" lists around the net.

The game's 3Dness makes it aesthetically incomparable to the 2.5D games of the day. Perspective is rendered correctly. There can be rooms on top of rooms. Your viewpoint can lean and rotate at any angle. You can look straight up at the sky. You even have the ability to swim underwater! These things gave the game the needed wow factor to become a hit, and just as well because that's all Quake has going for it.

The Bad
Like I mentioned before, the content side of the game was severely hamstrung so they could get it in 3D. Basically, everything about the game unrelated to technology sucks.

There is no story, and zero originality. Even though the FPS genre was only a few years Quake effectively stagnated it with boring levels, hardly any features, repetitive and derivative design, etc. This is the first game I can think of that was literally designed around its engine and graphical capabilities. Take away the 3D-ness, and Quake is worthless bargain bin material.

The levels themselves are so factory-produced and generic they might as well have been generated by a macro. The game over-uses the "monsters hiding in shadow" trick until it's not funny anymore (and the game has an annoying habit of spawning monsters behind you, the precursor of Doom 3). You'd think that with fully 3D terrain the door would be open for all sorts of cool levels, but for the most part Quake's levels are the same as Doom's levels: lots of hallways and staircases and the occasional elevator.

Weapon balance is way off, the hatchet is a worthless piece of crap and once you get the rocket launcher you're set for the whole game. And the game has a "weak, medium, strong" approach to weaponry, so that if you get a super shotgun your regular shotgun becomes useless and if you get a super nailgun your old nailgun becomes useless. The result? There are eight weapons in the game but you only ever use two or three of them. What's the point?

There's no originality, no attempt at a story, and nothing that advances the FPS genre at all. Any last chance of Quake being a good single-player game is drop-kicked in the nuts by a moronic final boss fight. I'm not one for hyperbole, but Quake has the lamest, most anti-climactic boss fight of any Id Software game (and that includes Commander Keen!). Shub Nigguruth is a giant blob that does not even move but just sits there doing nothing while you run around and kill a few monsters (like you've been doing all game) looking for a hidden switch that kills the boss and ends the game. And as a final insult, there isn't even an ending cutscene.

Although much can be said of the game's technology, Quake is not a pretty game. As mentioned before, the color palette is extremely limited and the whole game is brown and gray. The polygons are blocky and the monster animation is very choppy. Probably the best thing one can say about Quake's graphics is the distortion effects underwater, and the lighting. And although some would call Quake a masterpiece of Gothic horror, praising Quake for being dark and suspenseful is like praising a 1920s-era film for being sepia-toned and artsy. It only looks like that because of technological restrictions, and attempting to translate that into artistic genius on the part of the creators is nothing more than Emperor's New Clothes syndrome.

But wait! What about multiplayer? The game was a huge multiplayer hit over the internet, partly because it was so easy to set up and find opponents. But the game's rushed design can be seen here as well, as almost all the maps that come with the game are crap and full of bugs and imbalances (example: in one of the levels there is a 100% health powerup, a super nailgun and a quad damage right next to each other). Not to mention that Quake only started to become really popular after user mods had ironed out all the nuisances and issues, basically a continuation of Id's policy of "let the community fix our games for us". Hardly anyone plays Vanilla Quake.

The Bottom Line
There's a problem with engine games: they are only as good as the engine that powers them. As soon as the technology starts to become old, the game itself becomes obsolete. On the other hand, great gameplay never dies: look at how many people are playing Duke Nukem 3D after all these years. But Quake is dead armadillo. It was boring in its day and is even more so now.

By Maw on December 31st, 2007

Blood II: The Chosen (Windows)

So boring and retarded it's not even worth bashing

The Good
I've been a fan of the Blood series since I played the shareware in 2003. Countless fun hours were spent setting people on fire with the flaregun, blowing them up with dynamite, and stabbing them with the voodoo doll. The Plasma Pak and Cryptic Passage expansions continued the carnage. Sure, it was nothing revolutionary, but the Blood games were simple addictive shooters. And when the chips are down, that's all you need.

Things started going crapwards for Monolith in 1998 with the abysmal Get Medieval, followed by the mediocre Shogo: Mobile Armor Division. I was skeptical but hopeful about Blood 2. 3D adaptations of 2D games don't have the most inspiring track record ever, but this is Blood we were talking about! What is there to get wrong? Just give me a 3D rendition of Blood's simplistic action and I'd be happy. Surely they couldn't screw that up? Sadly, they have. The murky toilet waters of Suck are once again lapping at Monolith's feet, and it seems the last man didn't flush.

The story is set about 100 years after the original Blood. Once again you play as the undead cowboy Caleb who has wandered the earth alone for the last century, and who once again finds his immortal soul threatened. You see, the evil cult he battled in the original Blood still exists and is now a big pimpin' organisation with billions of dollars, hundreds of assassins, and intents upon world domination. And their leader, Gideon, wants Caleb dead at all costs.

At a conceptual level the Blood 2 is the same as its prequel. You fight both human cultists and monsters (only this time, the monsters exist through genetic engineering rather than the supernatural). The game adopts the mission-based structure of Quake 2, but this usually works out to "exterminate all opposition and find the exit". Of course, there's lots of gore and gibbitude, and insofar as weapons are concerned all the old favorites are back (the flare gun, the voodoo doll), coupled with high-tech offerings like M11 assault rifles and Uzis. All weapons have secondary fire modes with allows for some variation in your attacks.

The action, although hardly thrilling, is fast-paced and the game dispenses with the annoying puzzles that sometimes plagued Blood. The new weapons and enemies are okay and the game is certainly as gory as its predecessor (in fact: probably more so because it's not being played for laughs. Blood 2 is far more serious than Blood).

The Bad
Blood 2 has lots of problems that can all be summed up as "the developers didn't give a crap".

Blood 2 was released side by side with Shogo: Mobile Armor Division. Comparing both games, it's pretty obvious which horse Monolith was backing. Shogo has squad combat, giant robots, an advanced lighting and physics engine, and an interactive story. Blood 2 has, uh, fancy blood splatters. When a studio is developing two games simultaneously it usually puts its money and effort behind one, while treating the other game as a backup if the first one fails. In this situation, Blood 2 was the backup, and contains all the associated cheapness and corner-cutting.

I suspect this game was made either to fulfill a contract or extract a few more dollars out of a license. Blood 2 is bad, but not in a spectacular car-crash kind of way. It's bad in a boring, instantly forgettable way. Blood 2 is so punishingly generic and rote there's not much to write about it. It's depressing because Monolith is a studio capable of much better. You can tell they weren't even trying when they made this.

It's like the game was made in a perverse spirit of "let's take away all of Blood's cool stuff". Blood had endless corny one-liners and pop culture references, Blood 2 has almost no humor at all. Blood had lots of environmental interaction, Blood 2 strips it back to Doom levels. Blood let you play in levels as diverse as a mausoleum and a circus, Blood 2 restricts you to factories, laboratories, and empty apartments. Blood had a cool wild west theme, Blood 2 is a generic futuristic shooter.

The one selling point Blood 2 has feels like it was shoved into the game so there would be something, anything, to write about in the game's promo material. You get to play as multiple characters with different stats. Caleb has resurrected three of his co-lieutenants and at different times you get to play as them, although this ends up feeling pretty redundant. They have different stats, but at the end of the day Ishmael, Ophelia and Gabriella are simply clones of your default character, and there's no quantifiable difference between any of them. Not to mention this knight/cleric/wizard/barbarian thing has been done to death in thousands of RPGs and a good number of FPSs (Hexen is a good place to start). This is hardly an exciting, must-buy feature.

Unlike Blood, Blood 2 uses a true 3D engine. While this may sound like a radical step forward, the game is so simple to begin with that the extra dimension adds nothing to the game. Having fancy lighting and explosions and z-axis aiming is nice, but the level design is so simplistic it might as well still be using the Build engine. The game's 3Dness is nothing more than a gimmick. I'm reminded of carpenter friend who for years used an ordinary hand-router, only to finally pay $300 for an electric router he didn't actually need because he felt he needed to keep with the times.

The game uses the LithTech engine, which to put it bluntly is a piece of crap. Blood 2 looks much worse than Quake 2 and Unreal, and is far less stable than either of those games. Expect access violations, messed up palettes, clipping errors, and other things. I lost count of the number of times I saw an enemy waving his arms through a wall. Visually the game is acceptable, but there's far too much gray (you could call Blood 2 a spiritual prequel to F.E.A.R.) and the models are extremely blocky. As far as audio goes, the game doesn't boast a dynamic sound track a'la Shogo but rather pre-recorded sound. The voice acting is crap, with Gabriel's in particular being downright awful.

The content and design is given woefully short shrift. And about the levels...well, I hope you like mazes. Blood 2 is lousy with them. The game has so many key hunts that the developers make humorous reference to it during the levels (one of your objectives is "shoot some stuff and find the key" or something). It's true that Blood also had a lot of key hunts, but that game was interesting. It had good level design. Blood 2 is pure dullsville, and having to undergo lots of repetitive key-hunting in a boring game is the gaming equivalent of Chinese water torture.

The difficulty is just as bad as Shogo's on-foot levels. On the easiest level your enemies are mentally retarded lobotomy patients who quite often kill themselves, and as the difficulty goes up the enemies don't become any smarter but rather gain superhuman reflexes and accuracy, which isn't a whole bag of fun. On high difficulty it becomes literally impossible to play the game with low health since the enemies will take you out the instant you walk around a corner.

The game shipped with a reasonably complete multiplayer mode, and no doubt Monolith hoped it would join the list of games that lacked single player appeal but become multiplayer hits (Quake comes to mind here). Unfortunately multiplayer games proved laggy and unstable, and the server set up for the game was soon taken down through lack of activity.

They couldn't even get the gibbing right! When you stab someone with a knife or blow them up with a missile, the result is exactly the same: their limbs go flying off at weird angles and their torso disintegrates. And you can kick severed heads around like before, but not even this is as fun as in the original.

The Bottom Line
Blood 2 is totally worthless as a sequel and a game. It was junk when it came out and today you need to play it like you need an axewound to your skull. This isn't a game you should avoid. This is a game you should simply ignore.

By Maw on November 28th, 2007

Age of Empires II: The Conquerors (Windows)

The product of perfectionism

The Good
My first reaction upon hearing of The Conquerors was "an Age of Kings expansion pack? That game was practically perfect! What could they possibly add?" There were no glaring bugs or horrible gameplay features that needed fixing, and even on the content side Age of Kings felt far more complete than most historical strategy games on the market.

The sad thing is, many expansion packs are nothing more than glorified patches, released to fix bugs that shouldn't exist in the first place at additional expense to the user. With The Conquerors, Ensemble Studios delivers a true expansion loaded with millions of small improvements and additions. None of which the game couldn't have survived without, but that's a testament to Ensemble Studios insane drive to improve upon perfection.

There are three new story-driven campaigns with seven missions each, and another one containing 10 miscellaneous missions. You can play as the Aztecs, and change history by defeating the Spanish (this is an Ensemble Studios quirk, allow the player to be the underdog), join Attila the Hun on his rampage across the Roman Empire, or fight the Moors as El Cid Campeador. All of them are quite good and improvements upon Age of Empire II's campaigns. The population limit (annoyingly low in the original) has been raised and there's more variety in the missions than simply building up from scratch and destroying the enemy.

The most striking addition to the game is you can now play as Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztecs and Mayans. There is a whole new art set for these cultures, as well as new terrain (you can play in South-American jungles, with jaguars instead of wolves and turkeys instead of sheep). The Mesoamerican civilizations can not build horse units but have very robust economies to compensate.

The other new civilizations are Spanish (who have the powerful Conquistador unit), Huns (who do not need to build houses and have a great speed advantage because of this), and Koreans (who are a very good defensive civ with bombard towers, cannons, and greater stone mining abilities). All of these civilizations slot in perfectly with the existing civilizations, and are neither hopelessly weak nor unfairly overpowered. For advanced users, The Conquerors allows you to extend the lifespan of the game by creating your own random maps (the data is now stored in text files that can be edited in Notepad), meaning you can change how many trees, sheep, deer etc there are, change how hilly the terrain is and whether it's snowing or not, and even mess around with the player's starting positions so that all players in the game spawn right next to each other. I recall there always were a few gamers who thought the vanilla Age of Kings random maps were a trifle unfair, but the game's new functionality should allow users to iron out even the smallest of imbalances.

Other changes include smarter villagers (as soon as they finish building a resource dropsite like a lumber camp or gold mine, they immediately go to work), the ability to queue up farm production (basically, when a farm is exhausted you can make villagers automatically replant it rather than doing this yourself) and smarter siege weapons (catapults no longer auto-fire if they could hurt your own troops).

All of these things basically continue the original design goal of Age of Kings: create a game as user-friendly and micro-free as possible. The thing I liked most about Age of Kings was you were free to plan large-scale strategy and economic development rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of running a town, and The Conquerors makes this easier than ever.

The Bad
Nothing. The game was rock-solid to begin with and The Conquerors only improves it.

The Bottom Line
One of the few expansion packs worth full-game price. There's a huge amount of value in The Conquerors. It's incredible that they could (and would) take a near perfect game and make it better.

By Maw on November 25th, 2007

Jazz Jackrabbit (DOS)

Great brain candy

The Good
This Mario and Sonic-inspired platform game was created by a demoscener and a few artists not long out of college, and despite its humble origins became a minor classic on the PC. You're a hyperactive rabbit who must save the love of his life, Eva Earlong, from the evil tortoise Devan Shell. The floppy version of the game contains six episodes with three level each, and the CD-ROM release contains a further three Christmas themed episodes.

The game is like Jill of the Jungle, except with far better graphics. This is probably the game's most notable aspect; the colorful and zany world Jazz inhabits leaves most other DOS platformers of the time for dead and is comparable to console games. From the green forests to the psychedelic neon bases, Jazz Jackrabbit is a riot of color and animation.

The gameplay is similar to most other platformers of the time. You run around avoiding enemies and other dangers, collecting jewels for some unknown reason. You can jump on springs to propel yourself up into the air, or fly around on a hoverboard in some levels. Like in Sonic, you can collect powerups that allow you to rocket around the level at a million miles per hour if you want to. Despite the speed, there are few to no "instant-death" puzzles, making the game quite laid-back and relaxing.

Probably the coolest parts of Jazz Jackrabbit are the bonus stages, where you play in a pseudo-3D landscape similar to Mario Kart and must collect as many blue gems as possible before the timer runs out. A really cool spin on the tired "bonus stage" idea.

The gameplay is fast and addictive, the controls are tight, and the graphics are fun and colorful. The game doesn't break new ground anywhere, but it's a lot of fun and succeeds in bringing the console experience to the PC.

The Bad is a Sonic the Hedgehog rip-off. I don't just mean the gameplay is the same, but the whole concept is ripped off. Replace the blue hedgehog with a green rabbit and Dr Robotnik with Devan Shell and there you have it. Unfortunately, Jazz doesn't have any of Sonic's moves. It would have been cool if you could barrel roll or butt-stomp enemies like in Jazz Jackrabbit 2, but no luck.

The low resolution and large character sprites make the game feel kind of cramped and confined. What's the point of being able to run really fast if you can't see what's in front of you?

The Bottom Line
Console-style graphics + speedy gameplay = fun. Jazz Jackrabbit is a cool time-waster. And so what if it's a kids game?

By Maw on October 5th, 2007

Amok (Windows)

By Maw on October 4th, 2007

Amok (SEGA Saturn)

By Maw on October 4th, 2007

Amok (DOS)

By Maw on October 4th, 2007

Flicky (Genesis)

By Maw on October 4th, 2007

The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius - Attack of the Twonkies (PlayStation 2)

By Maw on October 4th, 2007

Soko-Ban (Commodore 64)

By Maw on October 4th, 2007

Soldier of Fortune (Windows)

By Maw on October 4th, 2007

Action Reflex (ZX Spectrum)

By Maw on October 4th, 2007

Plok (SNES)

By Maw on October 4th, 2007

MoleZ (DOS)

By Maw on October 4th, 2007

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