Birth of the Federation

August 10, 2008

Let’s say that you manage to get Birth of the Federation up and running. Now imagine that you’re playing as the United Federation of Planets. A Ferengi scout ship ventures into your space, hails one of your command cruisers and, with the uniquely charming tone of voice that all Ferengi share, says “Greetings from the Ferengi Alliance! We are very pleased to meet your people, and look forward to a long and profitable future of trade and commerce with you.” What do you do?

You might instinctively decide to wage war on the big-eared scourge, and I wouldn’t normally advise against that decision; but the Federation have certain limitations (as do the remaining three playable galactic powers – The Klingon Empire, The Romulan Star Empire and The Cardassian Union), one of which is a populace who generally disapprove of their military being used as a tool for conquest.

Instead, you might consider diplomacy: the Federation’s forte. Navigate your way to the diplomatic screen (by way of a delightful radial menu) and you’ll find a list of all the races you’ve encountered – both minor and major – with an approval indicator corresponding to each one. Most peacemaking consists of sustained gift giving and establishing trade relations, until there are enough bars in the approval indicator to propose a new deal. Simplistic fare; but no more so than the diplomacy in Civilization IV.

botfdiplomacy

System management is also all about allocating points into bars. In this case, the point pool represents population, and you place points into the four production bars: food (for growth), industry (for building stuff), research (for upgrading ships and buildings and learning how to build new ones) and intelligence (for spying and the like). The closest approximation to Civ’s trusty worker is the colony ship, which can either terraform planets (providing room for population growth) or colonize systems.

Espionage (the province of the Romulans and the Cardassians) is controlled from the intelligence screen. You’re allocated one hundred points to spread over internal security (counter-intelligence), espionage (gathering information) and sabotage (bang). If you power up more intelligence centres in your systems, your points will carry more weight, and you’ll start to receive pleasing reports of successful operations carried out by your agents, such as bombings and hijackings, or staged diplomatic embarassments.

There are six avenues of research to pursue – biotech, energy, computer, propulsion, production and weapons – that you divide research points over, thereby accelerating or decelerating technological progress in particular areas. Each avenue contains ten tech levels; and every building or ship that you can construct has a number of prerequisite levels. There’s not as much room for research strategy in BOTF as there is with Civ IV’s more organic system (where all techs are lumped together and inter-related), but it’s sufficiently stimulating.

botfresearch

All of those features aside, it’s a scientific fact that a Star Trek game without massive spaceships exchanging phaser fire, blitzing each other with disruptor volleys and letting loose with full spreads of photon torpedos, is doomed to failure.

Thankfully, BOTF handles war well for a turn based strategy game. There’s a good variety of ships for each side. They can gain experience through battle with the enemy or training at a starbase. And there’s the battle screen – a fairly satisfying tactical mode with a rock/paper/scissors structure – that you can switch to whenever fleets clash, as in the Total War series.

botfbattle

BOTF holds its ground with valiant tenacity against its younger, fresher competitors. Granted, Civ IV is a substantial leap forward in a lot of ways. It’s consistently polished, more user friendly and almost entirely free of bugs. BOTF is hostile to first time players (lacking an equivalent to the Civilopedia) and a tech support fiasco on modern PCs.

But it has a subtle allure about it for a Star Trek fan like myself. The playable powers, though nowhere near as numerous as the civilizations in Civ IV, are far more detailed and distinctive. And minor races – that can either be persuaded to become your vassals or simply conquered – breathe life into the galaxy map and bring new strategic meaning to securing territory.

BOTF 2 is currently in the hands of third party modders, with a number of projects, some shaping up better than others, in varying stages of development. If and when one of these projects reaches completion, I’ll be sure to write about it. But for now, BOTF remains highly recommendable if you’re a Star Trek devotee who wants a change from Civ. Just be prepared for a little troubleshooting and problem solving to get it to work.

✓ It’s Star Trek
✓ Minor races are a great idea
✓ Generally very solid gameplay
✓ Good for a war
✗ Bugged to hell
✗ User unfriendly

82%

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Call of Duty 4

August 10, 2008

It has always been the case that I favour a particular campaign in each installment of the Call of Duty series. In Call of Duty 1, it was the Russian campaign. I have vivid memories of the seemingly suicidal crossing of the Volga, the mad dash up the hill toward the German fortifications, and then the glorious charge through Stalingrad’s Red Square, all the while haunted by the ‘not one step back’ mentality enforced by the uncaring commissars, who lurked behind you with their automatics.

In Call of Duty 2, the Russian campaign failed to woo me to the extent that the American one did. More so than in COD 1, I was reminded of the titanic Band of Brothers, and of course its progenitor, Saving Private Ryan. There was something more real about the American soldiers in COD 2. The commanding officer, Sgt. Randall, was a bastion of clear thinking in amongst the chaos of mortar attacks, tank advances and flanking maneuvers. And the campaign started with one of the grandest and most stirring battles in the history of war games, the assault on Pointe du Hoc.

Because of all the console nonsense that’s happened since COD 2, the series has returned to the PC not as number three, but as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This time, there are just two campaigns instead of three: one for the USMC, and the other for the SAS (my favourite).

In keeping with tradition, the game starts with a big bastard of a bang. Following a brief training exercise, in which you get to try (over and over again, in my case) to match or even beat the set record for a timed assault on a mock-up cargo ship, you’re sitting opposite the bushily bearded Captain Price in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, on final approach to a cargo ship that is, in comparison, very real.

priceuh60

What follows is a superb first level, and an introduction worthy of standing alongside the opening sequence from your favourite Hollywood action blockbuster. I’m thinking that Goldeneye or Tomorrow Never Dies are very similar; the one salient difference being that James Bond is replaced by a much cooler elite squad of SAS troopers, and you’re one of them.

You play ‘Soap’ McTavish, a newcomer to the 22nd regiment, in the SAS missions, and Sergeant Paul Jackson of 1st Force Recon in the USMC missions. Depending on who you’re playing as, your experience will differ substantially. Soap and the SAS are all about secret night attacks and stealthy infiltrations: catching the enemy (this time around, either Russian ultra nationalists or Arab rebels) with their pants down, or in one particular case, in the middle of a game of chess. Jackson’s missions lean more toward Apocalypse Now style invasions, followed by street fighting reminiscent of Black Hawk Down.

blackhawks

Despite their differences, all the missions share the visceral, gritty atmosphere that COD games have as their trademark. Whenever combat is joined, a hail of bullets fills the air, shards of concrete are blown off of walls by ricochets, your comrades shout warnings and commands and grenades are lobbed in all directions. If you’re at all like me, you’ll enter into each confrontation pretending to be Jack Bauer, and very quickly be dealt a series of hard slaps to the face.

Of course, how many slaps and how hard those slaps are depends largely upon your choice of difficulty setting. My first time through I chose to play on ‘hardened’ – against the recommendation of the game itself, I might add – and there were places where I was so totally beaten over and over again that I would have no recourse but to alternate between states of despair and rage, occasionally slamming my fist on the desk or mashing my keyboard. Don’t even get me started on my current run through on ‘veteran’. I’m thinking I might need to stop before I break one or more of my peripherals.

You don’t have to be a masochistic fool like me though; you can always turn down the difficulty for a more enjoyable, though less challenging, experience. And what enjoyment there is to be had! The combat is unfailingly thrilling, but at the same time it has a strong sense of authenticity about it; a sense of authenticity created in no small part by the state of the art character animations.

The soldiers in COD 4 – both friend and foe – move more like real human beings than in any action game in history (perhaps with the sole exception of Crysis). The way they vault over low walls, take cover, clear rooms, return fire and throw grenades back at the enemy without a second thought: all of these actions and others are portrayed convincingly.

Granted, the AI, like all contemporary AI, has its limitations: often you’ll see your comrades striding out into the middle of a killing zone, or standing tall in the midst of a storm of machine gun fire. But for the most part, I got the very clear impression that I was fighting with trained killers, the best of the best, and that they knew what they were doing.

macmillandoor

However, the enemy are trained killers as well, and I wouldn’t have hoped for anything less. After all, in previous installments in the series, I’d been facing the devastating German war machine. For the enemy in COD 4 to jump (or rather, fall) from the Wehrmacht to a swarm of cannon fodder would’ve been far from satisfactory.

Both the ultra nationalists and the rebels are adept users of flashbangs (a new and most welcome addition to the COD arsenal), so you can’t expect to just dish them out and not expect any coming back your way. They use smoke screens occasionally, and they also love frag grenades and the RPG-7. Throw into the mix a convoy’s worth of AK47 assault rifles, along with an assortment of nasties including the Uzi, the G3 and the awesome Dragunov sniper rifle, and you have yourself a recipe for hell on Earth.

enemycod4

There have always been vehicle sections in COD games, and COD 4 is no exception. The first is when you’re arming the Mark 19 grenade launcher bolted on to a Chinook. The Mark 19 is precise, but at the same time powerful enough to take out an APC. Like the various vehicle sections in Quake 4, the Mark 19 spree is a pleasant interlude between long periods of close quarters combat. As is a similar stage later on, when you take the place of a gunner on board an AC-130 Spectre gunship.

In a stroke of artistic brilliance from Infinity Ward, you get to see the near indescribable destructive potential of the cannons on board the Spectre from the ground, through the eyes of Soap, before you’re firing them. When you’re high in the sky, scanning the countryside in thermal vision, the fiery death you’re unleashing seems insignificant; but from the perspective of a footsoldier, bolts of fire descend from the clouds, smashing buildings and tanks to bits and decimating infantry in an inferno. Search for “spectre gunship” on YouTube and you’ll find real life footage that bears a striking resemblance.

ac130

Unfortunately, the single player in COD 4, like its predecessors, has some systemic faults. Occasionally there are moments, like the aforementioned AI stupidities, when the mechanics of the game become visible, warts and all. Enemy soldiers tend to focus almost all their fire on you, neglecting their flanks, and your fellow marines and SAS troopers rarely take the initiative and actually advance, instead leaving it to you to push forward. Battles seems to stop and start depending on your actions; not the actions of those around you.

The single player is also quite short. It’s nowhere near as short as Portal, but short enough that the game’s price can only be justified by some damned fine multiplayer.

Fortunately, apart from a few shortcomings, the multiplayer is indeed damned fine. There are six games modes: free for all, domination, search and destroy, sabotage, team deathmatch and headquarters. For me, unless you’re playing with a select few friends, free for all is a waste of time, because COD 4 is all about one side fighting another side; not a bunch of paranoid loan wolves aimlessly moving around a map, constantly looking behind their backs.

My favourite mode at the moment is domination, a capture and hold mode similar to Battlefield 2. Team deathmatch can be fun, but the objective based modes (domination, search and destroy, sabotage and headquarters) are more involving.

multiplayercod4

As with any first person shooter on the market, the multiplayer is far more challenging than the single player. Playing COD 4 single player on veteran difficulty is insanely hard, but playing against human beings brings entirely new and different challenges and threats. In multiplayer, you’ve always got be prepared for flanking maneuvers, it’s not as clear where the enemy is and there are passages and back-alleys for sneak attacks. You’ve also got to keep an eye out for airstrikes and attacks helicopters, both of which can be called in by players who have managed a long enough kill streak.

As a reward for struggling through this bedlam, you’ll gradually accumulate experience points (another derivative from BF2), get promoted and gain access to previously hidden weapons and attachments. As in BF2, these rewards don’t create a rift between new players and those who have ranked up; rather, they enrich the multiplayer experience for those who have put in the time.

I can’t help thinking that more could’ve been made of the multiplayer though. There are no vehicles to hop into and no tall buildings for snipers to set up shop in. The maps are all fairly small in comparison to the levels in single player. There’s no wider scale assault mode with objectives that have context, like “disable the enemy radar” and “detonate C4 charges in the bunkers”. And there are no teamwork options built into the game, like the squad options in BF2.

Also, there’s no cooperative mode, which I think is a great shame, and an especially noticeable shame now that Gears of War (with its coop mode) has been released for PC. Certainly, I can understand that the campaign revolves around the two playable characters, but surely it wouldn’t take too much fiddling with code to change the dialogue that refers to Soap or Jackson so that it refers to “someone” instead? COD 4 is one of those games that would be amazing to play with a friend.

But now I realise that my once razor sharp knife of criticism has been blunted. I have been chipping away at the bumps and dents on an otherwise perfectly sculpted masterpiece.

The fact of the matter is that I rank COD 4 highest in the series. I had my concerns about the new fictional setting. I thought that Infinity Ward might lose the plot; but the reality is very much to the contrary. The same qualities that made COD 1 and COD 2 gameplay so gripping have been maintained and in some ways built upon. And it looks fantastic. It’s not a Crysis beater in the graphics department, but nothing is at the moment.

The game is more driven by its story and characters than ever before, particularly in the SAS missions. Chaps like Captain Price and Gaz create an even greater sense of camaraderie than I felt in COD 2 – and that’s saying something, believe me. Before the credits rolled, I was overcome with a sense of belonging. I was ‘one of the boys’, and I hated Imran Zakhaev (one of the two villains) with a passion. Any game that makes you experience those emotions has to be considered for game of the year awards.

If you’re a fan of the previous games, buy COD 4 without hesitation, if you haven’t already; if you’re scouring the land for an FPS that plays like an action movie in single player and like a slimmed down and refined BF2 in multiplayer, do the same.

✓ Gutsy combat
✓ Fast paced narrative
✓ Excellent characters
✓ Thrilling and moving
✗ Poorly hidden gameplay mechanics
✗ Limited multiplayer

94%


Team Fortress 2

August 10, 2008

More so than in any other genre of computer gaming, team multiplayer is only as good as the players make it. Take a look at case number one: Counter-Strike. I’ve been in CS matches that made me feel like a god. Even a steady 2:1 kill to death ratio is enough for a decent session; anything upwards of 3:1 can be euphoric. But, if you happen to be on bad form, or if you’re playing on a server infested with certified members of the l33t club, you can end up spending half of your evening in a state of clinical depression.

If you die early on in a round of CS, you’ve got to wait for all the other players to finish up. In reality, the wait is only ever minutes long; but when you’re spending those minutes thinking of the myriad ways that they could have been used up had you not perished – getting lovely precision headshots on terrorists with your M4 assault rifle for instance – it seems like hours have passed.

Case number two, Battlefield 2, doesn’t have this enforced period of anguish; rounds are much longer and you’re allowed to respawn. However, you’re sorely mistaken if you think that a mere respawn system is sufficient for eternal bliss. Oh no, “we have ways of making your game time suck” boasts an Electronic Arts representative, cowering over you, while a Digital Illusions designer prepares an interrogation droid in the background.

In any one round of BF2, you’ll be shot and instantly killed and have no idea who did the deed, be intensely frustrated by how easy it is for the enemy to down your attack helicopter, repeatedly have your plane blown to bits before you even manage to take off, or have some complete and total arse burger sneak out from behind a rock and plant a couple of sticks of C4 on the rear end of your tank. The list of things that can happen in BF2 that will make you miserable is really quite long.

Now, I’m not saying that Team Fortress 2 will never let you down, and that every moment you spend playing it will be equivalent to drinking from a goblet full of ambrosia; but the fact remains that, in the month or so that I’ve been playing it, I’ve very rarely felt like quitting because I was pissed off. Perhaps the overriding reason why this is the case is because TF2 doesn’t take itself at all seriously. In fact, it really is rather silly.

There are nine classes: Scout, Soldier, Pyro, Demoman, Heavy, Engineer, Medic, Sniper and Spy. They’re all caricatures of roles you might find in other games. The Spy is a perfect example: he has a .357 magnum, a flick-knife for backstabbing, an ‘electro sapper’ for disabling turrets, dispensers and teleporters, and a disguise kit that allows him to look like any class he wants on either team. He can also cloak for short periods.

That all sounds just about normal, but the way that it’s been implemented is delightfully absurd. If a friendly spy passes by, disguised as a member of the opposite team, he’ll appear to be wearing a piece of cardboard over his face sporting an image of the class he’s impersonating. What’s hilarious is that, to the enemy, he looks exactly like one of their own.

spy

The classes are more than just a bunch of weapons thrown together though; they’re characters in themselves. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a fast paced multiplayer game; there’s no time for a heavy to abruptly halt his march half way up a hill and deliver a rousing, soul bearing Shakespearean monologue. What you get in the course of a game are hints of personalities – a few of which have been expanded upon in the ‘Meet the …’ series of trailers that Valve released prior to the game’s release.

No monologue from the Heavy; rather, he’ll exclaim “I love this doctor!” if a Medic starts to heal him, shout “Engineer is credit to team!” if he uses a portal (built by the Engineer) and let loose a manic, bestial roar if he gets a killing spree with his gatling gun. Every class has these wonderful outbursts, not to mention their own set of animated taunts – one for each weapon they carry. These are small things really, but taken together, they’re a valuable contribution to the game’s tangibly up-beat atmosphere.

heavy

TF2 has been engineered to foster relationships between players. Rivalries are made official by the Dominated/Revenge system. If you manage to accumulate several kills against a particular opponent, a triumphant horn arpeggio will sound, and he will be labelled as ‘Dominated’ on the score board. But there’s a chance for a comeback; if he manages to kill you in return, his mark of shame is removed and triumph is his. These rivalries are further reinforced by the death-cam, which zooms to your murderer the moment you fall.

revenge

deathcam

The more important relationships though, are those between team members. Fortunately, team play is where the game shines most brightly. Each and every class has a vital role that it can play. The Medic and the Engineer, being support classes, have clearly defined tasks to carry out from the get-go. But in the course of an evening there are going to be plenty of opportunities for the other classes to show their team spirit too.

The Soldier, or the Demoman, depending on the situation in question, are often the only classes capable of breaking an entrenched fortification of fully upgraded turrets. The Soldier can saturate the area with rockets from afar; the Demoman can, if he has the skill, land a bundle of grenades next to the Engineer who’s keeping the turrets repaired. The Spy can be excellent at this as well, disguising himself as an Engineer so that he can get close and perform some sabotage, before or after plunging his knife into the backs of any Engineers present.

The Demoman can secure capture points by covering them in sticky bombs (which he can detonate remotely), a tactic that can also be used to deny the enemy access through entrances and passages. The Pyro can do this (if he manages to obtain the element of surprise) with his flamethrower, bathing a room in fire and driving the enemy out. He can also expose disguised spies by immolating everyone he sees – as long as friendly fire isn’t on, of course.

Almost every action will impart some benefit, however big or small, to the success of the team. Some of these actions are purely selfless; some will also benefit the player. Being a good Medic is all about finding someone suitable (i.e. big, nasty and capable of taking some damage) on your team and pairing up with him, keeping him healed and unleashing your uber-charge on him (making him invulnerable for a short time) at just the right moment. The Medic/buddy partnership is important to the team because it can turn the buddy – previously an ordinary footsoldier – into a juggernaut, forcing the enemy to disperse in fear of his unending stamina.

heavymedic

As a reward for his loyalty, the Medic shares the points from his buddy’s kills. But other team members will look to the Medic for healing as well. If he turns to heal them, he’ll effectively be doubling their staying power; but he runs the risk of sacrificing points, since he doesn’t get any from healing for its own sake. Will he devote himself to his buddy, forsaking all others? Or will he be prepared to leave his buddy and dabble in triage when necessary? It’s a matter for the Medic to decide what kind of a team player he’s going to be.

TF2 is very much an objective oriented game. Except for the sudden death period that follows on from a stalemate, there’s no deathmatch. Instead, there’s a descendent of the classic capture the flag – in which flags are replaced with intelligence briefcases (alleviating that nagging thought in the back of my mind that flags really aren’t of massive strategic importance) – and a control point mode that comes in two or more (I’ve been racking my brain to think of how many, and I failed) variants.

Along with this there are six maps. 2Fort – a remake (so I’m told) of a map of the same name from the original Team Fortress – is the only CTF map. The remaining five maps are structured around control points. On some, control points can be taken by one team and then later retaken by the other, back and forth; on others, the team designated as the attackers must secure a number of territories (preventing the defenders from recapturing them) before unlocking the final one.

2fort

The supreme quality of the maps means that it’s barely a criticism to point out how few there are. Compare TF2 with Quake 4 in this respect: Q4 had something close to twenty maps, of which only about three or four passed muster. Which would you rather have? A shed-load of badly conceived arenas, and a select few quality ones that you actually play? Or six well refined beauties that you can really sink your teeth into? And don’t let me forget that many of TF2’s maps can be rotated, so that one set of control points is closed off (essentially a map in itself), and another is opened up. Then we’re really talking about ten maps or more, not six.

There is one major problem with the game that I can think of: the Scout. The basic concept of the Scout is that he’s fast as hell, stings like a bee with his double-barrelled shotgun, can double-jump and capture points faster than any other class. The way things have turned out, he’s still fast as hell, but his sting is more like a bashing from a battering ram, and he can capture points faster than you can say “Oh, bugger! He’s capturing the point bloody quickly!”.

scout

The speed of their captures varies from map to map, but it can be stupefying. One time, I was playing on ‘Well’ (a ‘back and forth’ control point map). I had just respawned and I was exiting the resupply room (the central port of call for health and ammo replenishment) when two Scouts leapt up the steps to the final control point. Their capture speed bonuses stack, so, after they had both reached the point, they won the game in no more than two seconds. I was a Pyro, and even at close range there wasn’t enough time for me to defend against them.

This could be more of an issue with Well than with the class itself, but its an issue nonetheless, and the fact remains that the double-barrelled shotgun does far too much damage. Imbalances can always be repaired with patches though, as can minor glitches on maps such as ‘Dustbowl’ that allow fire to be exchanged before the match has even started.

I posted a while back with my impressions of my first time playing TF2. It was in beta then, and I was stunned by how consistently enjoyable it was. My opinion of it has hardly changed since. If you’re in the mood for a multiplayer experience that stinks of realism and breaks you (rather than eases you) in, check out CS, BF2 or even Call of Duty 4, which has been released in the time that I’ve been writing this review. If you’re just ‘up for a laugh’, then you’re much better off buying The Orange Box and diving into a TF2 match straight away.

✓ Jolly silly
✓ Real teamwork
✓ Well conceived classes
✓ Great maps and game modes
✗ Imbalanced Scout class

90%


Portal

August 10, 2008

You’ll recall that I was imagining how The Orange Box would be stacked, and that Half-Life 2: Episode 2 was on top. I’ve now realised that imagining boxes is the sort of activity that a lunatic engages in, and so I’m going to stop it immediately.

If Episode 2 is a continuation of a grand, sweeping tale (and it is), Portal is a highly original and unique puzzle game. You’re placed in the shoes of a test subject in a laboratory owned by ‘Aperture Science’, a research organization dealing in experimental physics. You awake, from an indeterminately long sleep, into what looks to be a very expensive solitary confinement cell. You have your basic amenities: a bed (which looks more like an escape pod), a toilet and a radio on top of a bedside table. For a while you’re left alone in your cell, with naught but a cheerful tune coming from the radio to keep you company.

portal_cell

Shortly, your solitude is disrupted by the strangely melodic voice of GLaDOS, the resident AI, who instructs you through sequential test chambers. She’s kind enough to have established a perfectly smooth learning curve with her tests. You’re first introduced to the fundamentals of portal technology: there must be two portals, one is red, one is blue, if you enter one, you instantly materialise through the other. No doubt, these are concepts that an ape could master, and quite quickly. The difficult part – the part that certain apes might struggle with – is figuring out how those fundamentals can be used to traverse otherwise impassable obstacles, direct balls of energy to switch on a moving platform, or harness the power of momentum to leap great distances.

portal_introtesta

There are nineteen tests in all, followed by an endgame chapter that takes place outside of the lab. The lab is beautifully clean and clinical, reminiscent of the stripped-bare aesthetic of the virtual reality in Tron. The walls are made up of tiles with different textures, each texture signifying whether a particular tile can or cannot be used as a surface for a portal. Crucial objects and devices are scattered like rocks in a Zen garden, surrounded by a sea of monotonous colour.

portal_introtestb

In stark contrast, the moment you emerge from the end of the nineteenth test, you’re immersed in the cluttered, industrial guts of the enrichment centre. It’s about as far from a Zen garden as you can get: there are ladders and stairways that fall apart when you try to climb them, pneumatic compressors that threaten to crush your bones, and massive fans of the kind that make you imagine some poor, foolish soul who falls backwards into them and has his flesh instantaneously puréed. The environments clash, but the portal mechanics remain the same. The challenge is to adjust to the noisy atmosphere, apply your training to more complicated situations, and learn once again which surfaces will support your portals, and which won’t.

portal_outside

Portal is an intellectual game (it made me feel the same mental tingling that I feel whenever I play Chess), but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. Like the classic lightsaber, the portal gun is a fantastic toy. It’s fascinating to experiment with portals. You can create an infinite loop, where you place the portals at points facing each other. If you open one on the ceiling and the other on the floor directly below, you can fall forever. Or you can put one adjacent to the other in a corner, so that you can see three or four images of yourself, as in a hall of mirrors.

portal_inffall

Solving the later, more complicated puzzles is hugely satisfying. The eighteenth test had me quite firmly stumped for a while. I found myself dividing it into several, smaller tests. First, I knew that I had to get rid of the many turrets in the chamber. Second, I’d need to power up the platform. And third, somehow get the cube on the far side back over to the entrance, so that I could drop it on the pressure button in the previous room, and make my way to the exit.

portal_test18

All of the puzzles require you to establish your objectives, analyse the environment, and devise solutions. But don’t let me make them sound like simplistic affairs; it would be a mistake to think that you’ll breeze through every one in a matter of seconds.

Furthermore, don’t let me make Portal sound like it’s deadly serious and only accessible to the ultra hardcore, conundrum solving, Myst playing populace. It’s enthused with fine wit and hilarity, most of which comes from GlaDOS’ ongoing commentary. For instance, she’s quite casual about notifying you of the many dangers involved in the tests, such as the aforementioned flying balls of volatile energy (as seen in Half-Life 2 and its episodes), pools of highly corrosive acid and turrets.

The turrets can speak, by the way – I suspect because the Aperture engineers that crafted them theorised that programming them to plead with intruders in a cute, pitiful voice might catch a few of them off-guard, and persuade them to stroll up to the turrets in a doomed attempt to give them a cuddle. I can imagine the scene now: “Put me down!” the turret begged.
“Oh, so sorry!” replied the intruder, carefully setting the turret down, “are you alright?”
“There you are!” exclaimed the turret, registering movement in its sensor range and opening fire, consigning the intruder to her bullet-ridden fate.

portal_turrets

Something that Portal lacks – and this works in its favour – is an emphasis on twitch gameplay. I submit that, from the perspective of a newcomer to computer games, traditional first person shooters are the hardest of all games to play. To play a FPS you’re required to be able to navigate in a 3D space – which means becoming accustomed to using the WASD and mouse combo – and also learn to fire accurately at enemies.

Portal does away with the second prerequisite altogether, which makes it far more accessible than the other two games in The Orange Box. It also lacks an emphasis on violence, present in the other two games, which certainly widens its appeal. So, if you want to ease your girlfriend or your mum into computer gaming, don’t, for the love of all that is good and decent, present them with The Sims; give them Portal.

Finally, much has been made of how short Portal is. You’ll get no argument to the contrary from me. It is too short, in the sense that when I reached the end, I wanted more. Its being short is definitely not a reason to penalise it though. First, the price of the game doesn’t demand anything much longer. Second, its brevity is simply a byproduct of its intense quality. The story is a simple one, but it’s condensed into a rich concentrate. Every puzzle and every room is supremely designed; every object and every line of dialogue is perfect in its time and place. It doesn’t have the emotional depth of Episode 2, but it is a masterpiece in its category.

Besides, it has massive potential for expansion by Valve and by modders. Since the building blocks of puzzles in Portal are so simple, it should be correspondingly simple to design new levels. The hard part of the design process will not be arranging objects and textures to make levels that have the right look and feel; rather, it will be doing the necessary thinking for creating a problem with a clever solution. At least, I hope that’s the case. I’m certainly no expert in the field, so I don’t really have any idea what the hell I’m saying. We will have to wait and see what modderkind is inspired to create. Perhaps, some cake?

✓ Sublimely clever
✓ Original
✓ Joyous
✓ Accessible to non-gaming types
✗ It smells? No, not really.

90%


Half-Life 2: Episode 2

August 10, 2008

I haven’t always been a fan of boxes. I’ve been a PC gamer long enough to recall the days of cardboard packaging, five times the size it needed to be. My copy of Homeworld stood to the height of a small tome, with the jewel case and the manual rattling around inside. Those were dark times, and I look back on them now with not a single hint of nostalgia. You’ll not find me in a flight of whimsy, longing for Hellgate: London to be delivered in a gargantuan sleeve, just so that I might make another contribution to the recycling heap.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point in years past there was a ’switch’, and games began to be sold in economical DVD-size cases. For these compact treasures, I have a much greater fondness. They’re not so small that they’re insignificant; and they’re not so large that they’re obese. They’re perfectly formed for the human hand without being chunky and childish. I like the way my collection looks, neatly arranged in my shelves as it is. I liked the way that I was slowly but surely running out of space, so that soon I was going to have to seek additional storage solutions.

Now, the age of boxed games is drawing to a close. A revolution has come. The one known as ‘Steam’ has risen to prominence. What was once an insignificant application for keeping your Valve products organised has been transformed into a computer gaming hub. There’s an online store selling titles from such giants as Activision, Eidos, 2K and id. Patches are released regularly. Community functions have been added to encourage teamplay. Most important of all, the service is reliable, which means that the one lingering concern I had with downloading games – that there was a chance that I would lose access to my purchases – is no more.

Just as the introduction of gunpowder to the battlefields of of the west brought with it a gradual evolution in the ways of war, so now does faster Internet access begin a new era in computer games sales. I’ve already started the transition myself: I’ve downloaded Peggle Deluxe, Defcon and Uplink over Steam. But those three were scarcely available in stores. A while ago, when I decided that I had to have Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, I stayed true to the old ways and got a hard copy. Now, something has happened that has converted me completely. That something is The Orange Box.

I know what you’re thinking! You’re thinking: “A box? You just said you were done with boxes, you flouncymouth!”. Indeed, but this box is of a different species to the boxes of yore. It is, in fact, not actually a box at all. It’s just called a box. Well, it is a box if you get it in a store, which you can do, but I’ve got it off Steam, so in my case the box is metaphorical in nature. The contents of the box, however, are far from metaphorical. They are very real, and also spectacularly good.

Half-Life 2: Episode 2

When I imagine The Orange Box as an actual box, with the games within it in boxes as well, I imagine them stacked in a particular order. The topmost on the stack being Half Life 2: Episode 2.

Episode 2 kicks off only a few seconds from the final moments of Episode 1. But, before you (Gordon Freeman) spawn inside a precariously balanced train carriage, you’re treated to a helpful ‘previously on…’ sequence, in which you see your faithful sidekick, Alyx Vance, fighting, hacking and talking her way through the levels of the previous episode. You’re reminded of your mission, which is to escort a vital data packet (in Alyx’s possession) into rebel hands.

You’re also reminded of the reason why your train crashed: that the reactor inside City 17’s Citadel had gone critical, and a truly epic explosion had issued forth, obliterating the city and untold acres of surrounding countryside. Besides the initial desolation, the aftermath is marked by portal storms – shockwaves of shimmering bluish energy, heralded by thunderous booms. Portal storms shake the earth and everything standing upon it, and sturdy metal bridges – built to provide safe rail transit for tactically versed MIT graduates and their beautiful female companions – are no exception.

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The destruction of the bridge is a magnificent set piece, and it serves well as a showcase for the new physics functionality that Valve have coded into the Source engine. The physics of the Half-Life 2 series was already some of the best in the business, but with Episode 2 Valve have outdone themselves. One can no longer rely upon the integrity of the once unchanging landscape. Large structures can be entirely levelled into a rubble of planks and bricks, and the ground you’re standing on can suddenly and dangerously shift. This isn’t simple tech either; when a lumber mill is shattered by a Strider’s main cannon, it really is shattered, into its constituent parts. Most importantly, these destructions are glorious sights to behold.

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There are a multitude of graphical enhancements to the engine as well. Most noticeably, dynamic lighting means that Gordon’s flashlight casts realistic shadows on every object in the game, including characters and enemies. So now, when you shine it in Alyx’s eyes and she raises her hand in irritation, it looks much, much better. There’s greater detail across the board: Alyx looks more defined, and the vortiguants have been given a masterful makeover. In fact, I had the distinct impression that everything was visually richer, I expect in part because Valve have learned from their work in Episode 1, and also because advancements in lighting are bound to impact positively on general graphical quality.

There are some treats in the gameplay department too. Early on you have to traverse the many caves and tunnels of an Ant Lion hive, and you’re forced to confront the worker caste of the colony. The workers are just as agile as their warrior kin (which you’ll be familiar with from previous outings), if not more so. But instead of moving to engage you in melee with razor sharp talons, they content themselves with spitting volleys of highly corrosive acid at you from long range. You can tell they’re charming little blighters.

The combine aren’t sticking with their old deployment either. The deadly Hunters have been unleashed: savage, calculating predatory tripods that make for efficient enough killers on their own, and will often come at you in packs. They’re incredibly tough, and apparently quite happy to work in concert with Striders or Combine soldiers, drawing your fire and dishing out charged flechettes that stick to surfaces and explode soon after.

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The Hunters will tend to pounce when you’re on foot, when you’re far more vulnerable to their lightning fast attacks. Fortunately, for much of the game you won’t be on foot. Instead, you’ll be speeding through miles of valleys, mountain trails and hilltop villages in a nitro-charged turbo ultra mega super…car. It’s a far cry from the shoddy buggy of Half-Life 2, that was essentially nothing more than an engine strapped to a climbing frame. This time you’re gifted with a ferociously fast beast with extraordinary handling, an engine that looks and sounds like one that you’d find in the bonnet of a Bigfoot monster truck, and a boost function that recharges in about 5 seconds.

ep2review_hotrod

Not only does the ‘Hotrod’ (as it’s being called) multiply the fun factor of the outdoor areas by 10 times, it’s also a lethal weapon for hit-and-runs. Even Hunters – who are quite capable of absorbing the damage from 10 direct hits from the shotgun, or several well-landed grenades (at least, on hard difficulty) – are turned to lifeless ragdolls if you charge into them at high speed.

It’s not the new additions that secure Episode 2’s place on the top of my imaginary stack though; nor is it the garden gnome hidden in the communications outhouse at the beginning. The reason why it’s firmly in first place is simply because it’s another storytelling masterpiece in the Half-Life saga, and because it’s another demonstration of Valve’s commitment to create and develop characters that shine with emotion and personality.

Prior to the game’s release, I had feared that I was to be parted from Alyx, and that I’d either have to proceed on my own or in the company of a fresh comrade. This is mercifully not the case, although there are chapters where you’re required to leave Alyx in order to achieve certain objectives. For the most part, she remains at your side, and it looks to be Valve’s intention to carry on the partnership into Episode 3. For that, I am eternally grateful.

I’m further grateful in declaring that the Alyx of Episode 2 is more delightful than ever before. I fell in love with her almost at first sight in Half-Life 2, but the emotional rapids of this latest episode have left me utterly besotted. I got an even stronger sense of the implicit bond between her and Gordon, which comes across subtly, in and out of combat, through small gestures and remarks. I think that bond remains also because of what she doesn’t say. She never wildly gesticulates toward you in blind adoration, and she never tries to seduce you. Like any more reserved person, she has her inhibitions, her small measure of pride, and her potential embarrassments, and she’s all the more convincing as a character because of it.

Valve have also seen fit to expand on the role of the Vortiguants in Gordon’s adventures. In those sections of the game when you’re separated from Alyx, an unnamed Vortiguant ally takes her place. He’s extremely valuable to have around. Like Alyx, he’s indispensable as a means of opening gates that block your path; but unlike Alyx, he fights like a demigod, wrestling Ant Lions and zombies to the ground and quickly zapping them to death. And at White Forest (the rebel headquarters) there’s one who goes by the name of ‘Uriah’, who has donned a white lab coat and works tirelessly as a colleague (or perhaps more accurately, servitor) of a new and most welcome introduction to the saga, Dr. Magnusson.

Like Isaac Kleiner and Eli Vance (once again superbly acted by Harry S. Robins and Robert Guillaume), Magnusson is a ‘fleshing out’ of some of the scientists from the original Half-Life. He’s easily irritated by the activities of those around him, or indeed anything that happens to interrupt his work, but not in a way that made me resent him. He’s proud, pompous and arrogant, but enough of a genius that he doesn’t end up looking like a fool.

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There’s some hilarious interplay at White Forest between him and Kleiner, who, according to Eli, were rivals long before the Combine invasion. Kleiner remains overtly compassionate but easily panicked; Magnusson has no time for sentiment and, in moments of crisis, adopts the role of the overseer frustrated with his underlings. When they’re together in the lab it’s like watching a rabbit who’s been thrown into a cage with a python, without the inevitable constriction, swallowing and slow digestion of the rabbit.

As always in the Half-Life series, the game underlying the story is also first class. There’s tremendous excitement to be had from the episode’s action sequences. I’ve heard other gamers speak of their distaste for the opening sequences in the Ant Lion hive, but I think that those sequences are home to some of the most thrilling scenes in the game. At one point you delve deep into the hive with your Vortiguant companion on a mission to obtain a sample of a substance much revered by him and his brothers, ‘the extract’. Of course, it’s not a simple task of finding and retrieving; the inner sanctum is patrolled by an especially tenacious Ant Lion Guardian.

Immediately upon entering the sanctum, the Guardian charges at you in a fit of pure rage. You’re undoubtedly familiar with fighting Guardians from Half-Life 2 and Episode 1; this time, you can’t risk killing it, because if you do, the extract is immediately spoiled. You must outrun the Guardian in its own habitat, pushing the HEV suit, and your wits, to their limits. The key is to sprint from cover to cover, from alcove to alcove, before the Guardian can catch you in the open. It’s a heart-pounding encounter.

Prior to the ‘Guardian Gauntlet’, as I’ve come to call it, there’s a drawn out stand-off against waves of Ant Lions. Anyone who’s seen Aliens will recognise the set up: a small band of isolated soldiers, a couple of automated turrets to help stave off overwhelming hordes, and a frantic last stand once those turrets have failed.

You’re not on your own though. To begin with, two colourfully charactered resistance members demonstrate their ingenious early warning system – essentially a set of traffic lights plugged into motion sensors – and then bravely stand with you against the first few waves. At the finale, you’re joined by a wayfaring group of Vortiguants, and a swarm of Ant Lions – I’d say twice the number of all of the previous waves combined – desperately flood into the chamber. A glorious slaughter ensues, in which the Vortiguants are deployed in full battle mode, forks of lightning piercing chitinous hide, met by the applause and astonishment of the resistance members. The only thing missing was for someone to shout “they’re coming out of the fucking walls!”.

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As with all three titles in The Orange Box, it’s an uphill struggle to find anything wrong with Episode 2. The only criticisms I have are niggles; instances where Valve have apparently not brought the full weight of their genius to bear upon a problem. There are two such instances, as far as I can discern. The first, a face-off with one of the mine-dropping Combine helicopters; the second, a physics puzzle on a sundered bridge.

For the face-off, you’re encouraged to grab the mines that the helicopter tries to bomb you with, and propel them back at it. Thus, the chopper is rapidly torn to shreds, and your rebel friends jeer in jubilation “return to sender!”. On paper it sounds like a decent enough challenge for the Freeman; in actuality, it felt cheap and fake. Who was the prodigy in Combine R&D that arrived at the conclusion that, instead of standard bombs, it was best to equip their choppers with spherical mines that roll around aimlessly and take almost 10 seconds to explode? This isn’t Dambusters! Ultimately, the mounted machine gun is far more menacing.

The physics puzzle takes place just before you get on the road with Alyx. I’d made it to the Hotrod, which had been dumped on the road, but the bridge ahead was – just like the train bridge at the start of the game – torn asunder by a portal storm. The objective, as I eventually discovered, is to shunt a bunch of abandoned cars off of the bridge so that it pivots in your favour, forming a ramp and a means of reaching the other side.

The problem is that this solution was far from readily apparent. At first, I thought I had to somehow drive the car back through where I had come from, and so I tipped it off the edge of the bridge, only to be confronted with the classic ‘you have failed to secure vital resources’ message. I began to wander aimlessly, and then to bully the cars around with the gravity gun. Shortly, the bridge shifted and all became clear as day, but it was random experimentation, not considered action, that had made it clear, and there’s something off-putting about that.

These are both exceptions to the rule though. The fact is that 99% of the battles and puzzles in Episode 2 are as close to perfection as you can get right now. I’ve been pondering the question of whether Valve have successfully surpassed Episode 1. It’s not like there’s a great deal between the two. Episode 1 introduced new enemies (the zombine and the stalker), let us explore new areas (the citadel and the hospital), spiced up the gameplay (cooperative play with Alyx) and advanced the story.

All those boxes can be checked for Episode 2. What gives it the edge is that it goes a few yards further on the road toward the promised land, where the player can’t resist being enamoured with the characters, caring for them, sharing in their triumphs and mourning their losses. When you experience the episode’s heart wrenching ending, you’ll understand.

✓ Looks gorgeous
✓ Hardcore action scenes
✓ Outdoor vehicle sections
✓ Emotionally involving
✗ A couple of disappointing bits

98%


Bioshock

August 10, 2008

I wanted to prolong my experience of Bioshock. It had been touted as the great spiritual successor to System Shock 2. Playing it was said to be like reading a brilliantly written novel. I didn’t want to rush it; I wanted it to last. I silently swore an oath to myself not to play it unless I was on my own, undisturbed, because that’s what I thought it would warrant. That was enough to slow the pace of my progression through the game, because I was rarely given such moments of solitude, what with the constant requests for me to play Team Fortress 2. Nonetheless, close to a month later, I am done with Bioshock, and now I can tell you what I think of it.

It begins with one of the most brilliant introductions in any game ever. You (Jack) start off on board a plane, which swiftly crashes into the sea. You swim to the surface, debris sinking around you, and once you take your first breath, you’re in control. I was immediately overwhelmed. All around me there was the most beautiful in-game water I’ve ever seen, and as if that wasn’t enough, a ring of fire surrounded me, the reddish glow from the flames reflected in the water droplets on my screen. Nearby, the main body of the plane was gradually sinking, the water frothing realistically at the base. Finally, rising up above the carnage, there stood a tall lighthouse, with steps leading up to its entrance.

Of course, I knew instinctively that the way forward was through that entrance, but I was compelled to stay outside for a while. The plane was still sinking – I wanted to see it finally disappear – and I couldn’t help but look out with awe upon the vista of fiery wreckage one more time. Once the plane had vanished, I turned around and stepped into the darkness of the lighthouse. At first, I could see only by means of a shaft of moonlight, but after a few more steps, the door suddenly slammed shut behind me, and for a brief second, I was alone in the dark.

Then, I heard the characteristic flicker of halogens, a dim ambient light fell upon the room, then more flickering, more light. I was in a lobby. A grand statue of a man leered over me. Across it there was a banner bearing the slogan “No Gods or Kings. Only Man”. Below it there was a plaque, upon it the words: “In what country is there a place for people like me?” – Andrew Ryan. At that point, I knew I was playing something special.

The core of Bioshock is its plot and its characters. The premise of the story is that, sometime in the 1930s, the above mentioned Ryan – a radical genius, and seemingly a staunch advocate of the more controversial tenets of Nietzschean philosophy – has succeeded in constructing a fully-fledged city at the bottom of the sea, Rapture. Unfortunately, the combination of an isolated ecosystem and a policy of espousing amorality has resulted in an apocalypse of sorts. The streets of Rapture are roamed by all manner of ne’er-do-wells, and a society initially unified by a common purpose is now fractured into opposed factions.

You’ll come to know this much by the time you reach the end of the first level (The Medical Pavilion) by means of listening to audio recordings left behind by certain of Rapture’s citizens. And you might find yourself thinking that it’s enough for a game to go by: a city in ruins, a tyrant in control of the chaos, you, the hero with the power to bring him down. For the first half of the game, I naïvely thought that was all there was going to be. I was glad to be wrong.

For the first half of the game (the first act, if you will) your primary objective is to depose Ryan, thereby (hopefully) liberating the people of Rapture. A likeable Irish chappy by the name of Atlas guides you over a two-way radio, kindly explaining the situation for you along the way. That all gets flipped on its head at the start of the second act, when you experience a truly earth-shattering plot twist. Of course I won’t go into the grizzly details here, suffice to say that I was totally surprised.

All of this narrative twisting and turning takes place in perhaps the best designed sprawling complex I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring. For the opening chapter of the game you’re confined to the Medical Pavilion, which is, by itself, impressively large. After that, you move on Neptune’s Bounty, which I’d say is as large, if not larger. Once you’re done mapping out every nook and cranny of one level, you’re sent off to the next one, with its own unique atmosphere, new enemies for you to face, new weapons, new upgrades, new powers. Enough to keep you occupied for at least a further few hours.

There are about 12 levels, some of which are big hubs like the Medical Pavilion; others are smaller. The level that stood out most for me was Fort Frolic, where I met Rapture’s premier artist, Sander Cohen. Cohen is eccentric to say the least, and in his psychosis he has his heart set on creating a truly morbid masterpiece. The moment you step foot inside the level proper, Cohen seals you inside and cuts off your radio contact with Atlas. You have no choice but to follow his instructions and contribute to his work.

Your contribution consists of exacting revenge on certain citizens – all of whom have wronged Cohen in some way – and afterwards taking snaps of their bullet-ridden, or even charred corpses. After that, you post the photos on frames that Cohen has set up on a stage in the promenade.

Now that I think about it, Fort Frolic is Cohen, in so many ways. Undoubtedly, like the rest of Rapture, it used to serve its function. It used to be a lively pleasure centre with the casinos flowing with cash, concerts and functions being held, bars buzzing with activity, artists like Cohen churning out work in their studios. And, like the rest of Rapture, its undergone a tragic transformation.

Now Cohen rules it from up-high, with total control over the security system and an apparent dominion over the local splicers (citizens turned scavengers). His more recent and more manic works abound: a family set in stone around a dinner table, the father with his upturned hands bleeding, the mother with her arms restrained behind her back, the baby girl with her head bowed. As in all good horror, you’re never told straight-up whether the statues are real people encased in plaster, the victims of one of Cohen’s mood swings, or just sculptures. The mind fills in the gaps.

Sections of Fort Frolic are truly eerie, and there are some rare ‘moments’. I’m talking about special moments, of the kind that spirit you away from what is ‘just a game’, and take your experience to a higher level. When I came across the family, I remember feeling very deeply a sense of Cohen’s perversion, and later, when Cohen sent his goons at me in waves, and Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers burst forth in accompaniment to my slaying them with anti-personnel pistol rounds, pure joy. There’s an abundant supply of these moments in Fort Frolic alone, not to mention every other level in the game, and then there’s the revelatory scene at the end of the first act, which is simply magnificent.

With all this talk of plot and characters and moments, I don’t want to give the impression that the gameplay lying underneath it all isn’t up to scratch. Quite the contrary. Bioshock’s gameplay is diverse in the same way that Deus Ex’s was. There are standard FPS elements given a stylistic treatment, and character development (RPG) options as well.

There are seven weapons in total, all of which can be upgraded at rare weapon upgrade stations. Upgrades take the form of add-ons, all of which are clearly visible on the weapon itself, which I thought was great. Technology in Bioshock is very ‘retro’, so the add-ons are bulky and crude: like an array of pipes on the side of the shotgun, or a combination of gear-like wheels strapped to the pistol to allow for automatic loading of clips.

There are two upgrades for each weapon: one of which increases the base damage, the other one is unique to that weapon. So, for the pistol you can increase clip size, for the shotgun you can increase rate of fire, for the crossbow you can decrease the likelihood that a bolt will shatter upon impact, and so on. The exception to the rule is the chemical thrower, which doesn’t have a damage increase upgrade, instead you can decrease the rate at which it consumes fuel and increase its range.

All the weapons are tremendous fun, even if I found shooting with some of them to be quite disorienting in the beginning, particularly the shotgun. But conventional weapons only represent one way to take on the challenges of Rapture. You get to use plasmids. Plasmids are superhuman powers, developed from a substance – called ‘ADAM’ – derived from a previously undiscovered species of sea slugs. They work like force powers in Jedi Academy, in that you inherit more and more powerful versions of them as you progress through the game.

The first plasmid you get is ‘Electro-Bolt’, a timid version of force lightning, which you have to fire at a control panel to open the way into the Medical Pavilion. Electro-bolt is probably the most multi-purpose plasmid in the game. You can use it like a tazer, stunning an enemy for a short time, or you can electrify a body of water that they happen to be standing in, thereby doing major damage, or you can open doors, as I’ve said, or you can temporarily disable turrets and security cameras.

‘Telekinesis’ can be used to retrieve objects like weapons and ammo that are out of reach, or you can catch grenades that are thrown at you and lob them back (as with the gravity gun in Half-Life 2). ‘Incinerate’ is adequately nasty in its standard deployment – just setting someone on fire – but you can also use it to make an enemy run into nearby water, and then whip-out electro-bolt to finish them off, cackling like a Sith Lord.

In keeping with the retro theme, plasmids are bought from vendors called ‘Gatherer’s Gardens’, which, like the other vendors (for weapons, ammo and other items), look like some cross between a jukebox and a slot-machine, decorated with tacky slogans and caricatures. Whenever you find a Gatherer’s Garden, you have an opportunity to spend your collected ADAM points on whatever plasmids are available, or you can spend them on tonics (passive abilities), additional slots for plasmids or tonics, or upgrades to your health and ‘EVE’ (the substance required to fuel plasmids) capacity. The fact that you have to purchase all this with a limited amount of ADAM means that you’re inevitably making character development choices, all the way through to the end of the game, that have a substantial impact on your gameplay experience.

The choices are tough, but they can be made a lot easier if you decide that you’re an evil bastard. The big selling point of Bioshock was that it had a moral dimension. Rapture is patrolled by ‘Little Sisters’ – toddlers possessed by the slugs implanted into their bodies – and their ‘Big Daddy’ guardians. The Little Sisters travel around Rapture, jabbing their needles into the corpses of Splicers and sucking out the ADAM.

It’s abundantly clear that these girls aren’t enjoying their childhood to the fullest. So, if and when you manage to best a Big Daddy in combat (easier said than done, at least in the first half of the game) you are confronted with a vulnerable Little Sister, and a very obvious choice (obvious in that it pops up in the middle of your screen when you draw near to her). You can either harvest – which means that you rip the slug out of her, and get more ADAM, unfortunately killing her in the process – or rescue – severing the mental hold that the slug has over her but receiving a smaller portion.

I thought that the Little Sister choice was interesting, and I certainly wouldn’t want it out of the game. However, it only serves to create a simplistic Jesus/Hannibal Lecter dichotomy, where there could have been more complexity, with, say, a number of factions desperately trying to get you to fall in line with their individual philosophies. There could have been an option to save the Big Daddies as well. As it is, I felt like I was putting-down a sick dog every time I had to kill one.

It’s also a shame that the choice doesn’t have a stronger impact on your ADAM supply. I stand by my assessment that there are meaningful character development choices to be made, but I realise that, ultimately, if you dedicate yourself to harvesting, you don’t end up with a great deal more ADAM than a rescuer.

You see, if you consistently rescue, you earn the gratitude of the Little Sisters and their ‘mother’, an ex-Nazi doctor by the name of Tenenbaum. Tenenbaum will occasionally thank you by sending a Little Sister out to the Gatherer’s Garden with a present. What’s the present you ask? A healthy dose of ADAM and sometimes a plasmid or tonic that, wait for it, cannot be found anywhere else. So much for the good path being the harder one.

Furthermore, the Little Sister choice is the only one you ever get to make, unlike in Deus Ex, where there were many distinct and important choices to make on each level, in addition to the multiple divergent endings. Again I feel like there’s a parallel to be drawn with Jedi Academy: there’s one central choice that dictates the final outcome of the game.

I feel bad admitting it – because the two games are leagues apart – but I think that Jedi Academy actually does it better. In Jedi Academy, if you chose the Dark Side path, you were forced to contend with both the Sith and your former Jedi colleagues, and at the end you had to face two harder bosses instead of one. If you choose the evil path in Bioshock, your end-game experience is barely changed at all, except for a different cutscene.

Choice, or the lack thereof, is the one major issue I have with Bioshock. There are a number of minor negatives as well. First, the hacking. Hacking in Bioshock consists of a highly derivative mini-game involving swapping tiles around so that liquid can flow from an intake point to an outake point. If you manage that, you can unlock safes, turn turrets and security cameras into friendlies, and bypass keypads.

At first, I didn’t have any problems with it, because I was grateful that some form of hacking was in the game. It soon became a serious irritation, though, because I would often fail to uncover enough tiles to work with before the fluid reached a dead-end, and my health was dealt a grievous blow. It didn’t feel like an exciting challenge; it felt like an annoyance, one that I had to return to again and again.

Second, alcohol. There are a variety of alcoholic drinks scattered all over Rapture for your consumption. They drain health and increase EVE, so they’re designed as a kind of trade-off. But, whereas in reality a bottle of vodka will turn even a veteran drinker into a heap of useless puke-spewing flesh, in Bioshock one can gather up three of four such bottles, a dose of whisky that would render a bull unconscious, and a small cellar’s worth of wine, and not suffer any ill affects beyond a short period of light dizziness. I know that applying medikits to bullet wounds is essentially the same, and we’re all used to medikits, but something about the alcohol didn’t sit well with me.

Third, the AI. At no point was I impressed by the way an enemy attacked me. As in Quake 4, the default tactic was to strafe toward me spraying bullets. Some breeds of Splicer had some interesting plasmids and other genetic abilities that they would make use of, but they never fired from cover, or tried to outmaneuver me. This is explained, to an extent, by their quite blatant mental instability, but it always sucks when you don’t feel like you’re fighting an intelligent enemy. The AI has some pathfinding problems as well. On one occasion in Neptune’s Bounty, a Big Daddy got stuck behind a wall, and a glitch occurred that made him seize back and forth indefinitely. This kind of thing stands right out and momentarily ruins any sense of immersion that the rest of the game had created.

In the final analysis, none of these problems create much of a dent in Bioshock’s crown. Even my main concern – the fact that there’s only one, very limited choice that has a fairly trivial impact on the narrative and the gameplay – isn’t sufficient to spoil one of the greatest stories ever told in a computer game. Yes, Irrational have failed to catch and run with some important balls (character development, morality, mini-games etc.), but the balls they’ve scored with are, I think, more important ones. I mean, these balls are made of solid, 24-carat gold: characters, plot, atmosphere, level design, and it’s harder to slam-dunk a ball if it’s made of gold, so I think they deserve a lot of credit.

✓ Magnificent story
✓ Believable and intriguing characters
✓ Rapture
✓ Philosophical undertones
✓ Plasmids
✗ Disappointing moral dimension
✗ Artificial unintelligence
✗ Rubbish hacking

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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

August 10, 2008

My experience of Oblivion began in a prison cell. The cell was uncharacteristically cozy for a medieval dungeon, with a table and stool, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight filtering in through a small barred window above me. However, my prison mate, housed in the cell across from me, was being rather icy, which was ruining my otherwise pleasant dungeon experience. Thankfully, my tête-a-tête was soon interrupted by footsteps and hushed voices from the dungeon entrance. Emperor Uriel Septim was coming, accompanied by a few loyal guards.

Of course, I had no real concept of why I was in the cell, and also no concept of what on earth the Emperor was referring to when he informed me that I was ‘the one from his dreams’. Nevertheless, lacking any sense of direction outside of what he was telling me, I followed him down, through a secret door in my cell, into the sewers.

My time in the sewers was essentially a tutorial and an introduction. At first my task was to assist the guards in the task of escorting the Emperor to safety, but events led to me being told to escape the sewers and contact one of the guards, by the name of Baurus, if I was interested in assisting in an investigation of an assassination.

When prompted, I chose to be a warrior (one of the many preset classes) rather than develop my own custom-class, which would have meant picking my primary and secondary skills, and various other statistics. As a compliment to my class, I also chose the warrior as my star sign, which provided me with added bonuses to my strength and endurance.

The main story quest is a long one (compared to most of the other quests in Oblivion), made up of many, increasingly perilous, missions. However, it’s just one quest out of hundreds, the majority of which are crafted to an above-average standard or better. One of the hallmarks of Oblivion is that you can, if you wish, begin whichever of these quests takes your fancy, in whatever order you so please, and there’s no limit set on the number of quests you can have going at any one time.

You don’t even have to do quests, specifically. The moment you emerge from the dark, gloomy, rat-infested sewers, the whole magnificent province of Cyrodill is open to you. So, if the impulse takes you, you can just swim across that river and plunder that mysterious ruin, completely ignoring the demands of the main quest, which in fact I did.

Oblivion bears its RPG heritage on its chest. Cyrodill is littered with massive subterranean interiors: archetypal examples of that old stalwart of the genre, the ‘dungeon’. You might choose to randomly explore; or you might choose to devote yourself to quests. Either way, you won’t be able to avoid experiencing them. I came across three varieties of dungeon: the bog-standard cave, the imperial fort, and the grand and ancient Ayleid ruin. I’d say there’s a fairly smooth gradient of entertainment value from the dungeons, with the ruins being the most fun to explore, and the forts being interesting but not quite as enjoyable. I’ll get to the caves in a bit.

The gist of the lore behind the ruins is that, long ago, they were the cities and strongholds of a great and proud race that once ruled Tamriel (the continent that contains Cyrodill), the Ayleid. You can find out a lot about the Ayleid and their ruins both from quests (especially the main one, and the quests you get from the mages guild), and from reading.

The ruins feel tangibly alien, with incredibly elegant architecture made up of a mix of pristine squares and rectangles, and grand curves for arches. Sliding shutters wrought of metal forged in a twisted lattice often bar the way to the next level, or to a central tomb. Main entrances and exits take the form of stone slabs, with great trees etched into them in silver. And you’ll also notice glowing stones of different shapes and sizes, called ‘Varla’ and ‘Welkynd’ stones, which you can pick up and take with you.

Since I mentioned reading, it’s important to realise just how much there is for you to read. I don’t know exactly how many books there are in Oblivion, but I’d guess the number at around two hundred, and I’d say that’s a conservative estimate. And that’s excluding the many editions of Cyrodill’s newspaper, The Black Courier, and all the letters and notes that populate the world. The books aren’t all non-fiction either; there’s a great deal of in-game fiction to enjoy too. So, you can read up on the landmarks, history, religions, and factions of Tamriel; or you can read short stories. The writing in the books is very decent as well. It’s certainly decent enough that I’d recommend spending at least some of your game time browsing through them.

One thing that’s really distinctive about Oblivion is the way that Cyrodill changes over time, in more ways than one. The levelling system adjusts the world to match your character’s ability, so that as you progress in level, the creatures in the world will scale upwards in potency. If you plunder a cave when you’re at level three, you’ll probably encounter some lowly goblins, with a shaman commanding them. If you plunder that cave at level twenty, you’re more likely to run into some far more formidable health-regenerating trolls, or perhaps even a fearsome minotaur swinging a six feet long warhammer in your face!

Levelling-up is not the only factor that determines how many and what kind of creatures are roaming Cyrodill. The main quest, being as momentous as it is, has a singular impact on the world. As you learn more and more about the conspiracy surrounding the assassinations, and as you confront more and more of the conspirators and their efforts, an increasing number of portals materialise around the countryside.

The portals all lead to the titular realm of Oblivion, which is home to all manner of sadistic, freakish creatures, called Deadra. Unfortunately the Deadra aren’t content to mill around on their side of these portals. Instead, they choose to slide through into Cyrodill and, in most cases, roam aimlessly. In rarer cases, they choose to pour through in waves.

As part of the main quest, you are forced to clash with the Deadra repeatedly, and also in many instances, you must enter Oblivion, collapse particular planes, and thereby also close the Oblivion gates. There are plenty of Oblivion gates to keep you occupied outside of the main quest too.

There’s an incredible level of detail in Oblivion. Cyrodill is inhabited by hundreds of NPCs, and what’s amazing is that each and every one of them has his or her own established daily routine. One quest in particular made me acutely aware of this. It began in Skingrad, one of the seven major towns in Cyrodill. A short and quite ridiculous looking high elf approached me with his concern that he was the target of a conspiracy.

He set me the task of spying on various residents of Skingrad, observing them as they went about their business around the town and its environs. As it turned out, none of them were doing anything that looked especially conspiratorial. What they were doing was carrying out their various duties, meeting other residents for conversation, or in one case, taking a pew in the local chapel.

Apart from a few exceptions, all of what I’ve talked about – Cyrodill, Oblivion, the creatures, the people, the cities and towns – looks pretty damned spectacular. At least, it did when Oblivion first came out. Admittedly, the game is beginning to look slightly dated, with stupidly good-looking titles like Crysis on the horizon, but Bethesda’s fine artwork shines through. What the art in Oblivion does is make the most of the graphical prowess of the engine; just as WoW makes the most of its engine.

Much has been made in other reviews of the beauty of the landscape, in particular the woods and forests, with their delicious canopies of foliage, luscious grasses and aged trees. For me, it’s the cities and towns that account for the greatest beauty in Oblivion. I still remember the awestruck feeling I had the first time I stepped back away from The Imperial City, looked back, and gazed at the wonder that is White Gold Tower, gleaming in the light of the sun – a fully HDR-enabled sun, I might add.

The grandeur of The Imperial City is echoed in the seven surrounding towns. Each town has its own distinctive architectural style, in most cases explained by its being twinned – either by history or by proximity – with Cyrodillic or provincial cultures. The styles range from Bruma’s crude but sturdy huts, which, as the residents will tell you, are a part of their relationship with Nord culture (the Nord province of Skyrim is directly to the north), all the way to Skingrad’s grand, spacious estates.

I rate the towns and cities higher, graphically, than the landscape outside of them; but I don’t want to give the impression that there’s nothing amazing-looking to find ‘out there’. Apart from the forests, I think the skies are a major visual highlight. On a fine day, a glorious sun beams down, revealing a perfect blue sky; but on the next day, the sky might turn to soft, pale grey, dotted with clouds being blown from horizon to horizon.

You’ll also notice that the sky undergoes a striking transformation when you near an Oblivion gate, gradually morphing into the hellish blood-red of Oblivion itself, streaked with lightning. On a clear night, the stars shine brightly, and you can very clearly make out neighbouring planets, exquisitely painted on to a pitch-black void. If you’re like me, you’ll frequently find yourself gazing upwards.

Oblivion doesn’t only excel in its visuals either. Everything sounds marvellous, from voices, to rainfall, to the ringing of sword on sword. The voices are the most immediately impressive, because no previous RPG has ever been furnished with such a totally comprehensive library of voiced dialogue.

Leading the charge in the voice-acting are a select few master actors: Patrick Stewart, the womanizing Sharpe himself, Sean Bean, and Terence Stamp. These guys were well picked, because they stunningly raise the bar in terms of conveying raw emotion and creating suspense, such that the characters they portray and the story that they are part of are hugely enhanced.

I mustn’t forget to praise Oblivion’s melee combat system, which I rate as probably the best in its class, next to its counterpart in Dark Messiah. What can you fight with? The range of weapons isn’t as comprehensive as it is in other games (I’m thinking of the massive arsenal in Neverwinter Nights), but more emphasis has been placed on getting the look and feel of a smaller selection as close to perfect as possible. Quality over quantity is the order of business. You’ll see what I mean when you first pick up a sword, or a hammer: even the basic weapons (those unenhanced by magic) have been given an expert design treatment.

The weapons aren’t just pretty sculptures, either. Oblivion’s melee is incredibly kinetic. It feels just right: from the moment you rip your sword from its sheath, or you lift your axe off of your back and bring it around to face the enemy, to the matching ring of steel on steel, or the ‘thwack’ of your adversary’s head being caved-in. That ‘thwack’ will at least shake your opponent, if not knock him back so that he’s off-balance and vulnerable.

The choice is there for those who prefer a zwei-hander combat stance over a sword-and-shield one. Those wielding two-handed weapons will find that they have a much greater reach, so they can keep a safe distance between themselves and quick knife-strikes, or cunning slashes from a short-sword. They’ll also find that they do a much greater amount of damage with a successful hit, and can more easily bash people around.

Of course, these bonuses come with a price. A two-handed weapon is always slower than a one-handed one, so you’ll need to time your strikes well. Furthermore, you’re forsaking the – in my opinion indispensable – benefits that come with carrying a shield in your off-hand. Of course they endow you with a vital protective barrier, as is the norm, but as you increase your skill with shields (by successfully blocking), you’ll unlock a passive ability that turns your shield into a weapon, making you bash back at an opponent when you’re holding it up. Shields are very much in the player’s control as well. They’re not, as has been the standard in RPGs of the past, ‘always up’; you have to bring it down to strike when your enemy is vulnerable, and then back up when she’s about to strike back.

The impression you’ll get is that the combat isn’t just about blind hacking and slashing; it demands close attention from the player, and constant awareness of the environment. I’m not saying that melee combat has reached its pinnacle in Oblivion; but Bethesda have definitely taken it in the right direction.

I know that most of what I’ve written so far has probably given the impression that I think very highly of Oblivion. I do, in many respects, but I also think that it leaves itself open to a lot of criticism. I actually feel more at-ease being negative about it than I do praising it.

For instance, I know I’ve rambled on about the great visuals, but the fact of the matter is that I was tip-toeing around a massive, ugly elephant in the room. When you’re travelling across the land, everything looks pretty flawless as long as you’re not looking out over a vista. Occasionally, I would emerge from the concealment of a forest, anticipating a magnificent view, but instead distant land would be rendered horribly glitched and undefined. This is the kind of thing I would expect on my old computer; not on my new Core 2 Duo/8800 GTX with all settings at maximum. Very disappointing.

While I’m on the subject of glitches, I think I have to talk about the lag I was suffering from. That’s right, lag. Oblivion was one of the reasons I upgraded to my current specification, but it turns out that even now I can’t play through it without stuttering. I get drops right down to around 5 fps when in combat, and all too predictable choppiness when riding around outside. I’m obviously not lacking the right hardware, so I can only conclude that there’s something wrong with the game-code itself.

Technical issues aren’t my only grievances. I said that the characters are well-voiced, but it’s not all good news, I’m afraid. Stewart, Bean, and Stamp are truly brilliant, but that only accounts for three characters out of the hundreds in the world, all of which have their dialogue voiced as well. Hiring a new actor for every character, or assigning only a few characters to each actor, would’ve been an unprecedented undertaking, but that’s just what you ought to do if you don’t want the master-work of ‘the trio’ to be dragged further and further down into the mud every time the player is subjected to ‘the Nord woman’ actress, or ‘the Imperial man’ voice.

It strikes me as downright foolish that Bethesda managed to attract star talent like Patrick Stewart and then assign one actor or actress to play all characters belonging to particular gender/race combination. Also, while I’m offering retrospective advice to the developer: don’t get rid of the great Jean Luc Picard within the opening chapter of your game! At least have him speak to the player from beyond the grave, or come back as a ghost in the style of Obi Wan.

Not only are the bulk of the NPCs generically voiced, they also have some of the most ridiculous and most repetitive conversations that I’ve ever been witness to. They all go about their business in a procedural (non-scripted) way, so if they have a conversation, that conversation is constructed on-the-fly by the game, drawing from a large, but sadly insufficient, range of questions and responses. The inevitable result of the small amount of effort that’s been made in this area is that, in your wanderings around the town of Anvil, you’ll hear the same conversation about ‘Imperial goods being boycotted in the land of the Altmer’ far too often. The dialogue is also very disjointed, and often nonsensical, to the extent that you’ll get the impression that you’re exploring a world inhabited by toy robots rather than people.

Things like persuasion and lockpicking – typically relegated to an unseen calculation in most RPGs, followed by a ‘you have successfully persuaded’ or ‘you have picked the lock’ message – are implemented as mini-games in Oblivion. For a while, I quite liked them, but after that early period of being mildly entertained, I began to feel the irritation crawling up my spine (or whatever brain region irritation does its daily-rounds in). The mechanics of speechcraft – the skill that allows you to get on someone’s good-side – are okay, but what spoils it is that every time you click on a wedge (I can’t summon the energy to explain how the wedges work), the NPC you’re talking to blurts out some pithy, and of course generic, comment. The lockpicking is just plain frustrating.

Finally, with regard to caves (and you thought I was going to break my promise and forget about them!), I have to say that they’re among the few areas in the game that tend to rapidly induce boredom. I know there’s not much to work with when you’re creating a cave. When we get down to basics, caves are just hollowed out rock formations. But surely Bethesda could’ve mustered a bit more of the design genius that they evidently possess, when they were making theirs?

The majority of your time in caves will be spent staring at dull greyish walls, thankfully interspersed with the odd shaft of light piercing through the darkness from above, but that’s really it. I occasionally had this reaction to Oblivion planes as well, and I’m not just talking about the caves inside of the planes, I’m talking about the planes themselves. Sometimes I found myself just going through the motions, instead of becoming engrossed in exploration, and experiencing feelings of heroism.

If I’m asked straight-up, I have to give Oblivion a thumbs-up, but that’s not to say that it’s anywhere near the kind of game-of-the-year material that so many reviewers have said that it is. Yes, it’s a bold attempt, and there’s no doubt that the staff at Bethesda have some serious talent, but it falls drastically short in presenting a world full of believable characters, and it can often feel like a chore to play. It’s also plagued by technical shortfalls and crappy mini-games, which can effectively ruin whole sections of gameplay. Ultimately, if I have to recommend a single title as a champion for the genre, it’s not going to be Oblivion; it’s going to be my old favourite, Planescape: Torment.

✓ Involving main quest
✓ Great melee combat
✓ Beautiful graphics and spot-on sound
✓ All of Cyrodill immediately open to you
✓ Patrick Stewart, Sean Bean, and Terence Stamp
✗ Some glitches and lag
✗ Moronic conversations with NPCs
✗ Sometimes feels like a chore

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