Monday, 17 November 2014

Sniping a Stealthy Path to Berlin

I’d made it this far. Amid the ruins and rubble of WW2 Germany. There is some other soldier with me - some random stranger - but he’s already my close comrade; my best buddy. This is because we know what’s coming. We’re waiting for the first wave of Nazis to come pouring in gradually through a ruined entrance. We’ve already positioned mines and collected ammo. Now we just need to knuckle down and keep the cross-hairs scanning the area. I’m breathing carefully but when the trigger is pulled and the first man falls I know the camera will follow the bullet right to its unlucky victim, before restoring my viewpoint back... to a scene of action where every shot counts.

This bullet-cam is called something like X-ray Kill-Cam, because you get to see a gruesome, bone-splintering X-ray where your bullet strikes. In fact, it doesn't get too tired and certainly adds to the gratification of surviving through this game: Sniper Elite V2

Ever seen a World War 2 sniper movie? Enemy at the Gates? Saving Private Ryan with that sniper who camps out towards the end up a church? If you play this game, a 2012 tactical shooter, it’s basically a similar experience. Graphics and gameplay are geared solely towards being in WW2 and fighting Nazis. It’s like Call of Duty mixed with Thief but for snipers.
The single-player campaign is pacey and well-designed with historic war scenarios and levels where you have to stop and think a bit more. Find a good location to score the hit or a more defensive position to survive an attack. It’s about moving carefully. About using weapons and mines to sudden effect after slipping through guards undetected. It generates some excellent moments that leave you feeling great about yourself. For this simple experience - and it can only last so long (unlike the up and coming open-world games of the day) - it delivers perfectly.

On the last mission, you get to take out a top Nazi general, and - in an add-on pack - Hitler himself in a special mission. There is also a zombie add-on (of course) although I never played that one.

But it’s in its multiplayer Co-operative modes - Kill Tally - where I had so much fun. (Less so on the Competitive ones because once the unseen shot comes it was all over too fast. Also you never knew who you were playing against... ie. probably a band of special friends who played every night just to pick off newcomers. I made a couple of videos, long before PS4 capture capability:

looks like a good spot m8

In Co-operative however, waves of Nazis would arrive on the scene and, with your comrade you had to work together or be doomed. You had to set mines and shift locations, use grenades wisely or be overrun. I remember completing the waves on all the scenarios. There were moments of great glory and this is why this game was so notable.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Isolation on the Sevastapol

I feel so... trapped. My crew mates; they burned out on the space walk from our vessel Torrens and now I’m half-mad trying to get back to it (if it’s even still there!) But I know what awaits... I have to stumble through this space vessel to send any communication back.

I... simply... must... get... away. God knows what my mother - Ellen Ripley - makes of all this? I'm wimping out already. If only I’d watched all the movies back to back over the period of a week... before... all this. I’m just not sleeping. I can hear the air release from air-lock doors in my nightmares. And even worse... I’m back in the 1980's. 

A cool, spooky thing about all this - I suppose - is that the world-makers have resisted any attempt to update the artistic details to some far future. They've kept everything authentic to the movie. How many more movies could they do this with? I'm thinking The Millennium Falcon...

For now though… I’m trapped in a 1980's horror/vision of a far space future.. and it’s cold. Lonely.

I can’t think too much. I just can't! The thing may start breathing around every corner and I must keep trying to make contact and to search for missing crew, from both vessels.

I live every moment... sneaking around, like a little girl. Just like ‘Newt’ must have done in that decent sequel.

What else to report? It’s not unlikely that I’m bound for a sticky end. Multiple ones. This must be one of the most realistic experiences of feeling hunted out there. Real survival simulation. If spiders and humanity were reversed. Or Jurassic Park. Or Quake 3(?)... where, if memory serves, you stroll boldly through level one, before all hell literally breaks out and you must flee back out again through a ruined and broken version of the same level.

Each level here is an area of the space station, elaborate and once-functioning. I move through the desolate rooms knowing it’s very possible I’ll have to return, only under more deadly conditions. A big concern though: will this sort of game-play keep me playing? What is my threshold of fear? And when will I encounter a level so difficult I will simply not come back. That is the nightmare balance for the game designers with such a game. It is also where their sticky web still pulls us players in… What will we learn about? Out here, in the depth of space, in these claustrophobic retro-rooms... Our resourcefulness? Our love of finding out what has happened...

What would be my ideal Alien game? I think ultimately I want the best of both worlds, one where the Alien is forcing us into corners, and one where there are hordes and we must blast our way out, losing our comrades as we go. This Isolation game will not be the last. But it does the former very well, and pulls off a huge homage to the original film. As Ridley Scott the director says: the universe is just as important as a character of the film. The tools such as the Motion Tracker work to enhance the tension.

Somehow I can see a time where in-depth single-player experiences like this are just one part of a larger package. For the aficionados.
The other? It could be some Co-operative or Multi-player option, where we are thrown into the space station with others and we can work together, or play out roles. Or an MMORG where complete freedom of game-play and exploration presents an incredibly vivid sci-fi experience. These will be masterpieces of excitement.  

Final update:

It all became too much. I blame it on time and old age but also one of the levels - seriously - would not let me into the next, even though I'd outwitted the Alien and returned to some cowardly doctor with the goods. And I'm just not that hard on myself to re-play that section in the hope it doesn't trap me there again. So... therein can be the problem with such intense game-play. However, I will not forget the sight of being decisively run through inside some elevator just as I was about to make a more dignified exit. If I could have sworn without waking the household it would have sounded like some hissing Alien humanoid hybrid. I better just say for the record that I've never felt such involvement in a game before. The potent device of the Alien presence serves to escalate the involvement of the player with the world presented and the need to use that world to progress, to fight and to escape...


I moved onto the bonus mission where you can re-play the scene from the Nostromo (original Alien movie) and play as one of the characters. I made it through that - an impressive, gruelling experience - and the thought of being back in that film world thrilled and rewarded me, and that has since been enough! Sevastopol out. Taxi Torrens for one please! Next stop... cryo-sleep... into the sequel!?  #alienisolation

ZEN PINBALL: Take on the challenge, available on most platforms... [Youtube trailer]

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Palm Trees in the Pacific

Of course I heard again the call of duty and found myself shipped off to the Pacific. It was no accident. The excitement of 're-living' this part of World War 2 came from watching and knowing the history and the documentaries. Also a film called The Thin Red Line, an atmospheric, philosophical version of the Americans versus the uncompromising Japanese.The result: Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault.

The palm trees. I won’t forget their resonance. Even in reality - on holiday on a Grecian island - I could remember them. You see, on the PC, I had battled my way through the island sections, where all I could see was the sway of undergrowth and the glimpse of Japanese soldier helmets. Then... forced to swoon to the ground with the sudden shell-shock and was cast onto my back, praying to the sky. It's here you get to see these palms swaying and the last few seconds of action from your allies. Or - if no allies were nearby to revive you, or the damage was too severe - your shadowy enemy sticking you with a bayonet.

In these Call of Duty/Medal of Honor experiences you keep moving. That’s the pull of them. Their pace. You run with a crowd and if you stay too long or fall back too far… it’s over. Eventually the waves and waves of Japanese come and each section becomes harder to break through. But it’s never really too hard. It just takes time. And a lot of shooting. Sometimes it’s broken up with a go on a big gun or a trip on a plane (with guns). No matter. You know you have to do some shooting. But this is arcade gaming; addictive, but wrapped up in a serious, world war setting that is some sort of homage to our heroes. Or homage to the second section of Saving Private Ryan that spawned a mass of historic shooting tributes. A sheer love of being in the action.

What else was great about this title? Call of Duty had matured by this time and the Medal of Honor series made attempts at making it even more interesting. Like sending commands to your comrades to co-ordinate fighting and work more as a team. Multiplayer online was improving. And we had a full Pearl Harbor level, where we are driven on a tour of the base just as the attack commences. History re-imagined but for fun.

It can't be long before more titles based on this period of WW2 will return. But we have seen the palms at midnight...

Read more on Wikipedia

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Xenon 2 - Megablast

Xenon 2 Megablast

A late 80s eye-opener on the bright future ahead for home gaming? Basically and very effectively: a vibrant nautical Space Invaders.

In this upgraded arcade blaster, aptly named, the landscape around your tiny vessel is immediately scrolling downwards, forcing you through a landscape strange yet familiar. With this greater freedom of movement came also vulnerability from above and below, requiring cannons at the front and behind. 

Clusters of tiny molluscs and other deep sea-inspired forms and fauna had to be negotiated or dealt with quickly. Rolling and spinning fish-like creatures - a vibrant array - threatened you at every moment, or passed by oblivious. They would also react differently under fire, meaning shooting them was not always the best decision (although for cash purposes rewarding later). Such enemies - bursting from the scenery, coral or organic decor - had to be surveyed before blasting. 

But somehow we did blast our way almost out of there on this incredible and over-challenging 2D voyage. Maybe it was by picking up important ‘mods’ drifting occasionally across the cosmos. And by making every hit count towards the chance of souping up - or selling off - these vital enhancements if we reached the next oasis; a sudden arrival in a funky weapons shop. Here, as pilots - breathing a sigh of relief - we were served by some squid-like alien in order to pimp-up our hardy ship or gain credits.

It got harder. The key to the game lay in those relaxing pit-stops, or the drifting mods, that if wrongly selected, or missed, would leave you dangerously under-powered for the next stage. 

And every level burned brighter with more imaginative sea fauna and continually attacking creatures of the spacey nautical deep. 

Then at the end lay waiting a Big Boss like the one-eyed Crustacean, at the end of level 1. But also more elaborate mods or interesting weapons beyond.

Music was specially created by Bomb the Bass (although with a Sound Blaster sound card, which also enhanced explosions beyond the range of the tinny PC speakers)! You could say this was the birth of the lucrative game-music tie-in.

Concentration has never been so focused. By the last levels your ship resembles a titanic war machine laser-beaming everything in its wake, but still being frequently overwhelmed.

How many more games have re-created organic life in such a vivid, immediate and exciting shooter? And there must be so many ocean creatures just waiting to be brought into a game setting again and brought to life. Thank-you Bitmap Brothers.

I am still the Wing Commander

Spaceship cockpits. They’re addictive things. I’ve known my share of them. In fact, I’m still out there in The Vega Sector. And I’m on board the mothership The Tiger’s Claw in a war effort against those insulting feline humanoids, the Kilrathi. The alert will sound at any time for the next briefing. 

It is the pride of the fleet. With some of my co-pilot buddies now dead defending it, it’s up to me to swing the course of the war with my ace space-flying skills and weapons. I will be the hero yet. I will live to see the last star-fighter destroyed in one last dizzying space-raid. We shall win against them or see the end of humanity.

My Scimitar spaceship is boosted out of the launch tunnel and I'm out in space. Shards of debris appear and spin past the cockpit where I check my displays and Nav points. This mission must be achieved. And I alone am responsible for my wingman so must make decisions that will add to the war effort, where every successful mission counts. If that means going straight for the transport ship, or avoiding a taunting ace, or even abandoning my wingman to fight for his life... well, maybe it won't be in vain. Whatever the case, I'm in space and I'm in charge. And no-one needs a dead hero.

What a dynamic to bring to life! Every kid in the 80s had seen the original series of Battlestar Galactica. It was the next Star Wars for sci-fi hungry fans keen to be pilots surrounded by characters in a unique universe. This game from Chris Roberts offered deeper immersion into it all: the action, the spacecraft, the missions and the characters. We too could belong in a brilliant rip-off of those alluring film elements, which is what the best games are most often (See Call of Duty and Saving Private Ryan). 

What came in the box? A booklet Claw Marks with inside info on the characters and space-pilots you would meet, good and bad, from Paladin the Scotsman, Maniac and Spirit to Khajja the Fang and Dakhath. There were details of everyday life on board, news of the enemy and blueprints for the spacecraft you’d be flying and even a Sector Map. It was an elaborate invitation that just drew you in. You would play your own part in the WW2 space effort. 

Greatest of all? The fact that every outcome of a mission (returning in one piece) would influence this war effort. If your mission wasn’t achieved, your next could be tougher; the war would take a different course. This dimension made it seem like you mattered to the game. If you didn’t succeed, or you ejected mid-mission, friends could be lost. Humanity would be forced to withdraw.

The cockpits and graphics style were bright and involving, like the awesome 80s spacecraft we all had on our shelves. There were different types of spacecraft to encounter with different challenges, weaponry and abilities. The spinning discs of the Dralthi and the cannons of the Jalthi still haunt the mind. There were Kilrathi aces we would dogfight head-on and upgraded spacecraft to be earnt in the later stages. 

The explosions of starfighters were proper explosions and we even had communication options to our fellow craft. This meant that we could co-ordinate our wingman in the game, sending him home safely or calling on him for help. We had to navigate or fight inside asteroid belts. We had cut-scenes to illustrate successes and failures. In all, we were masters of our own spaceships and warriors in a war. And we got to chin-wag about it afterwards in the space-bar where we could learn about events and gossip and the general struggle to protect humanity. 

The downside: this game would never run properly for anyone who hadn’t paid a fortune for their early PC. In fact, I played the game recently and it still doesn't run properly. Is there anything more frustrating than promising a world and yet not being able to enter it fully or on somedays… at all? But this game would spawn a whole series including Wing Commander: Privateer, more of a Han Solo approach. It would also force PC builders to build better PCs. 

Such fond memories of that game 'magazine' Claw Marks. It was like receiving a welcome manual all about university life and the characters to meet on-campus before leaving home. Much later there would come a rich open-world game called Bully by Rockstar. But back in these early days before the web you fired up Wing Commander wondering what it might teach you, even if it was just to space dogfight for hours. You can still find a wealth of this material on the Wing Commander Encylopedia

Where are the games these days that make you feel you matter to some war campaign? Where you don’t need to win the mission but you must win the war? Would it be possible to make this original Origin title again, but update it to now? The cartoon look does still exist in games, but I don’t think an update these days would retain any of the original SVGA style!

There could be the single-player campaign, but you could also make a whole universe backdrop of multiplayer, but set in the same conflict. Each stage completed on the single-player mode, could lead you into a multiplayer section where other people were doing missions at this stage of the war. Then the space-bar would be a multi-lingual canteena for sci-fi buffs, playing characters in an all-out multi-galactic space conflict. Star Wars Galaxies springs to mind. Just thought I’d sign off by pinballing the idea. The truth is, such early, innocent games are maturing to a point where they seem very real, where time spent in these worlds can be influential, social and educational to young/old minds.The eternal function of fantasy to reality. You could learn a lot on board some future Tiger's Claw. Maybe skip university altogether!