A quick recommendation for a simple but addictive and extremely playable highscore game. Antibody is an arena shooter where the player controls some kind of bug in the middle of circular area which has to shoot up a whole bunch of other bugs which appear out of nowhere in waves. Control is ludicrously simple: the mouse rotates the player and left button fires whilst right button makes the player’s bug briefly shoot forward to get out of the way of projectiles or marauding beasties (although this needs to reset itself so can’t be used indefinitely). The enemies come in a range of sizes and with a range of attack styles and the action never lets up. There’s also a nice touch when your bug gets hit where, instead of just blowing up, it goes red and remains controllable just before asploding allowing you to direct it into the enemies that done you wrong.
It won’t come as any surprise to readers here that I tend to play most games at a distance of several years from everyone else. Having an out of date PC until last year “helped” in that regard and replacing it has opened me up to the joys (and problems) of modern gaming. So, keeping to a theme, this article is going to be about Half Life 2, originally released in 2004.
I have my issues with the Half Life series. The original game, whilst undoubtably great fun, is largely the reason FPS titles moved away from the exploration and level-based gameplay that Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake had used and towards a more linear, continuous and (*sigh*) narrative-based structure. In short, Half Life is responsible for the modern phenomenon of the game as interactive movie, where the player’s role becomes travelling along what is basically a well-disguised rail in order to see more and more of a usually poorly-written B-Movie class narrative.
At first, Half Life 2 depressingly conforms to this structure. We open in an atmospheric, apparently open environment where it quickly becomes clear there is little game to play, for now at least, nor real exploring to be done in the matter of open-world games. There is a lot of tiresome moving around and setting-up of the narrative. What is striking, though, is how good everything looks. For a game that’s nearly ten years old, HL2 still looks absolutely stunning, helped no doubt by a variable set of graphic settings that were clearly supposed to help its longevity by taking advantage of pretty-much everything that graphics cards could do back then.
Eventually the game starts and our mute hero, Gordon Freeman, gets his famous crowbar and we can actually start playing rather than merely interacting.
And things get better pretty quickly. Yes, it’s linear, and sometimes comically so with planks and ramps showing the route the player is supposed to take in a manner that undermines the realist atmosphere the game clearly wants to create. And yet it still manages to have secret areas, hidden weapons caches and even, later on, whole buildings which can be optionally explored to grab more ammo, health or charge for Gordon’s suit.
It also manages to mix genres nicely. A shooting gallery for much of the time, HL2 also occasionally presents the player with simple puzzles, often physics-based to take advantage of the then-new Havoc engine the game runs in. What really stuck me about these is the fact the game doesn’t offer hints as to what the player needs to do in most instances, preferring to let the player work things out for themselves. For this reason, although none of the puzzles I’ve encountered are especially brain-twisting, there’s a sense of achievement felt when they’re solved which many newer games, with their hand-holding approach to pacify a market of spoiled gamers who don’t want to try against their games, completely lack.
Credit also ought to go to the game’s art. The visuals, as I’ve said, are stunning on a technical level but the atmosphere created is exceptional. HL2 invokes a world in decay, specifically the feel of the moribund Leninist regimes in Eastern Europe circa 1989. Everywhere buildings are crumbling, paint is peeling, cars are rusting or burnt-out; the only signs of efficiency and proper maintenance are the tools of the ruling Combine dictatorship with its gunship helicopters, sleek black armoured cars and masked combat troops; it’s Stalker combined with THX 1138. Music is used particularly well, being occasional and therefore effective and memorable rather than pure background. A perfect example of the atmosphere the game is capable of creating is the infamous stage ‘We Don’t Go To Ravenholm’ which is still, for many gamers, a benchmark in terms of the sense of fear a videogame can create. The story, as far as I’ve seen anyway, is pretty basic: human resistance fights alien overlords guff. But the art that accompanies Half Life 2 is not about the story so much as the environment and the feel.
There’s also a real sense of danger in HL2. Although this game was published three years after Halo gave the world the recharging energy bar, it sticks to the old school system of health that stays down until you replenish it (although there are some nasty headcrabs which poison Gordon meaning his health drops to 1 and then grows slowly back up to its pre-attack level as the suit administers antidote). Although health packs are a regular find in HL2, it’s still possible for the player to find themselves in a dangerous environment with a small amount of health remaining and no idea where the next health pack will be. This is something videogames have abandoned in favour of the “hide and recharge” mechanic, an obvious sop again to spoiled gamers who don’t want to have to try too hard.
Throw in varied levels, different vehicles, lots of different enemies requiring different tactics and the fucking brilliant gravity gun and it won’t be a surprise to learn that I really like Half Life 2. It has its faults – the linearity of much of the game, the semi-regular interruptions of the gameplay so that characters can chatter the game’s B-movie plot at you. This might be a game that shows how the industry was moving towards interactive movies where plot and atmosphere takes presendence over gameplay and moaning kids don’t have to worry about having to work to beat a stage or think to beat a puzzle but at the end of the day it is still, at heart, a videogame. For that we should be thankful.
Presumably thinking we were all taking it far too easy this weekend, Dave Hughes of Endless Forms Most Beautiful fame decided to set us all a highscore challenge on the World of Spectrum forums. The bastarding bastard game he chose is a 1984 release for the squishy keyed wonder with the disarmingly boring name of Rally Driver. Published by Micro Mart (who were also responsible for, erm, World Flags) The player takes control of a rally car (unusually placed at the top of the screen with the environment scrolling up) and has to stick to the road, hitting the sides meaning game over.
What makes it such a bastarding bastard game is that the sensitivity of the car’s handling is ludicrous meaning that a quick tap of the left or right key makes the car hurtle across the screen. It doesn’t help that the “rally track” was apparently designed by a drunk sadist and features ludicrous twists and turns. It’s horribly difficult and yet you will play it again and again to beat your high score (or those obtained by the – presumably – cybernetically-enhanced players on WoS). Try it.
I usually roll my eyes when yet another internet critic decides to give us his “top 10″ or “top 50″ videogames for this or that platform (or “of all time” which inevitably actually means it will be limited to titles known in Japan and the United States and therefore isn’t fit for purpose). But here’s one that’s a little different. Titled “The Top 50 Underappreciated ZX Spectrum Games” this is Den of Geek’s look at a list of games for Sir Clive’s rubbery thing which tend to get left out of the “top” lists but are interesting nonetheless. In fact the “underappreciated” thing is slightly misleading as the writer admits that some of them (eg Trantor: The Last Stormtrooper) aren’t actually all that good but are interesting and worth playing for other reasons. People with an unhealthy interest in the Spectrum and its software history will probably have heard of everything on this list, but those with a passing interest in the machine who are fed up of hearing people go on about Manic Miner, The Hobbit and Head over Heels will find plenty of interest. Dig out your emulators, folks.
I’m sure most of you have seen this already, but if you haven’t take a look at this hack of Donkey Kong with the gender roles reversed.
Now we just need a hack of the Temple of Doom arcade machine where a small child with a whip rescues dozens of captured American archaeologists in fedoras.
Discovering that games you’ve known for ages and been a bit dismissive of before are actually quite good, an occasional series.
This last couple of days I’ve really been enjoying playing Dragon Ninja (known in that America as Bad Dudes vs Dragonninja). I’ve been playing it for years and never really cared all that much for it thinking of it as a piece of nostalgic fluff but the other day something clicked and I got right into it.
I think the main secret of enjoying Dragon Ninja is really simple: play it using only the one coin and don’t use continues. When you aren’t able to just stick another credit in and play on it stops being so straightforward and actually becomes both challenging and highly enjoyable. For an ’80s coin-op game it’s also really fair on you, giving you plenty of opportunities to avoid the bad guys and get a swift kick in there before they do the same to you.
It’s also charmingly of it’s time, with its cheesy Reagan-referencing storyline and the “bad dudes” late-80s get-up (white jeans!). I also love the motorway-set second level (something very similar also appears in the Gameboy colour take on Shinobi) and the way that it’s basically similar bad guys all the way through. It really feels like you’re taking on a massive hoard of ninjas.
Still can’t get past the multiplying ninja-bloke at the end of stage 3, though.
Legendary ex-Ocean programmer and general 8-bit person of fame, Jim Bagley, has released a hi-res racing game for baldy inventor Sir Clive Sinclair’s ancient ZX81 home computer, a platform notable for its lack of hi-res graphics as standard. It goes by the excellently-literal title of Jim Bagley’s ZX81 Racing and I’ve not played it yet, partly because I haven’t installed a ZX81-capable emulator on the new PC yet, so I’ve no idea if it’s great or shite but I provide a linky here to the announcement thread so you can all download it, try it yourselves, and make “neeeeeeoooowwwww!” noises and stick your finger in the air like Sebastian Vettel if you’re good at it.
Well, this is an interesting development. It looks like someone has decided to remake the classic ’90s arcade adventure Flashback for modern platforms. And when I say “remake” I mean “remake”, not “re-imagining”. It’ll have posh new graphics but the gameplay and levels are, apparently, going to be the same.
It’s been such a long time since I played Flashback for anything more than about ten minutes that I can’t remember whether it stands up well or now feels very dated but its reputation and my memories suggest that this might well transfer quite well to modern HD graphics and I’m always happy to see something that might attract people to the joys of 2D gaming.
There really is precious little to go on at the moment so why not gawp at the picture off in the top-right there? Pretty.
Happy New Year! I hope you all had a good Crimbo and spent too much of it playing videogames to the annoyance of your nearest and dearest who wanted you to play Trivial Pursuit instead.
Over said period, I done discovered the following games so I’ll give you my early(ish) thoughts on them:
Just Cause 2
I was really excited about this as it looked like GTA: Made-Up Dictatorship and GTA: San Andreas is one of my favouritist favourite games ever. And… well, it’s mostly good but some bad. The player takes control of a hispanic man working for the US government with a couple of James Bond-ish spy devices (some kind of backpack with an endless supply of parachutes and a funky grappling claw) and as many guns and explosives as he can get his hands on who, after the usual slightly-annoying opening mission, is given a whole country (albeit a small island in the Pacific region) to explore and subvert (although his official mission is finding a rogue US agent or something) by shooting up soldiers and blowing things up. Fighting the dictator and his extensive army is great fun, there are loads of vehicles (cars, aircraft, boats) to steal and comandeer, and the grappling hook (which launches, attaches to something and yanks the player towards it at speed) takes much of the tedium out of, say, climbing mountains. The only problem is that whilst in many ways this feels like the GTA titles it’s all a bit samey. The GTA games are like real worlds in that each location feels unique whereas here all the bases, towns and cities feel generic and the rest is mountains, fields, forests and desert. Still fun, but could have been better.
Left 4 Dead 2
A mate bought me this for Crimbo because he wanted someone to play with online. Unusually, this is pretty-much designed for online multiplayer with no real single-player campaign (you can play it this way but the computer has to stand-in for the other players). This is enjoyably old-fashioned at its heart having precious little story, no in-game cutscenes, and gameplay that feels like Gauntlet with the stylings of a modern FPS. The only thing is it’s quite intense and you feel the need to unwind after playing it; play it for hours at a time and you might start seeing RUNNING ZOMBIES out of the corner of your eye.
Crusader Kings II
Years and years ago I used to play a DOS game called Medieval Lords: Soldier Kings of Europe. It had very primitive graphics, if there was sound then it was beeper-based, but it was fascinating and absorbing if you’re a massive history nerd like me. It took place in Europe in the Middle Ages and the player would take control of a ruler, anything from the Emperor at Constantinople to the head of a small Barony. After that they would be able to raise armies, build castles, declare war and try to both expand their territory whilst defending what they already controlled from rival rulers and rebellions. Along with this the religious politics of the era played a substantial role with crusades etc. Crusader Kings II has similar gameplay but with far more detail and beautiful, atmoshperic graphics and sound and, interestingly, the dynasty you control (you play the heirs of your character if he dies) can lose control of, say, the Kingdom of Denmark and be left with a small-ish fiefdom from which you can plot to return to the throne using your own small court of henchmen. I’ve barely scratched the surface and I love it, and the alternative history it allows you to spin, already.
The first test of any videogame is whether it’s fun. Not if the graphics are good, not if it has an “incredible storyline” that makes idiots try and compare videogames with cinema (whoever said “I had a great time last night playing Lawrence of Arabia and beat my train-destroying record?” Exactly), not even if it’s original. No, what makes a great videogame, primarily, is the player having lots of fun.
And for that reason, based on my first two hours of play, I’m declaring Retro City Rampage a great game.
What makes it even better is that it has everything the snotty games-are-art crowd turn their noses up at: the graphics are knowingly 8-bit and cheesy as is the music, the plot is preposterous nonsense more in love with referencing ’80s and ’90s culture than anything “serious” and the hero is a deliberately empty vessel called “Player”; he doesn’t even have features in-game.
And yet this game scores where it matters: it’s superb fun. I spent yesterday playing in-game stages that referenced – in gameplay and looks – everything from Frogger to the NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Commando, chuckling at the sort of daft shop names and in-jokes that used to make the GTA series such fun (and hopefully still will in the future) and engaging in some of the most entertaining videogame police chases I’ve had since I first picked up GTA Chinatown Wars, more than three years ago. I’m sure there’s more disappointing stuff in it later on, there usually is with these things, but right now it’s been good stuff all the way: engaging, good, silly, fun.
If you’ve ever used phrases like “games are a mature medium comparable with cinema now” or “the best thing about Zombiefest IV is the conflicted central character” then Retro City Rampage probably isn’t for you. If however you still think jumping over mutant telephones in Manic Miner is fun and don’t think Pac-Man has anything to do with Citizen Kane then you should probably give this a try. The only downer for me, so far, is the price which I think is a little steep at $14.99 (£9.29 in real money). It’s currently going at a reduced price on GOG.com though and you might be able to get it cheaper elsewhere.