Sunday, December 25, 2011

A 3DS-less christmas but...

Really wanted a 3DS for christmas but if you've got parents like mine who just totally hate games then there's no chance in hell I'd get a 3DS let alone any games. However lucky for me I've got the best girlfriend ever and she more than made up for it. A Swan Crystal and 3 games that I have yet to identify. I love you Sarah! Also got a great christmas jumper! Happy Christmas everyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Oiche Mhaith

Well you learn something new everyday. The game Oiche Mhaith was brought to my attention the other day, oiche mhaith translates to goodnight in Irish. It's kind of strange to find an irish themed game so I was intrigued, being from Ireland as well. Then I found out it was made by Terry Kavanagh who is also the guy that developed VVVVVV, another personal favourite. It's great to know that there's such good games being developed in Ireland.

Anyway here's the link to Oiche Mhaith:
Try it out, it only takes about 15 minutes to beat. However be warned, it's got some  adult themes but is surprisingly moving.

Monday, December 19, 2011

System Shock

Caught hacking into the TriOptimum corporate network, you are apprehended and taken to Citadel Station, a science and research space station orbiting Saturn. However luck is on your side and one of TriOptimums executives, Edward Diego, offers you your freedom in exchange for hacking SHODAN, the AI that controls Citadel Station. He even throws in a military grade neural interface if you carry out the task.  It’s a bit of a no brainer and after removing SHODAN’s ethical constraints and handing over control to Diego, true to his word you are fitted with the neural interface which requires a six month healing coma. However upon waking up six months nothing is as it seems. You are attacked by the station’s robots, the crew has been replaced by hideous mutants and cyborgs and it seems SHODAN, now given a voice and personality, is very much in charge.
The excellent System Shock intro explains it much better than I ever could

System Shock is based on a modified Ultima Underworld engine. While it can’t match the large open spaces or the sheer number of enemies thrown at you by Doom, in many ways it’s a far more sophisticated engine. Movement of the player and objects are governed by a physics engine. It’s not as robust as today’s physics engines but back in 1994 this was groundbreaking stuff. This allows the player far more interaction with the environment than most FPS games, where the only interaction is usually with the end of a gun. Items and grenades can be thrown and the player can jump and even scale the sides of obstructions; maybe not impressive now but a very big deal back then. You can also lean around corners and duck under obstructions, again not impressive now but very novel ideas at the time. The engine supports sloped surfaces, unlike Doom, and also supports polygonal models in the environment. The result is some very detailed environments with a sense of place and purpose to each room in Citadel Station. The engine also allows for some very impressive effects like faking room over rooms, transparent force bridges and security monitors that update in real time. Impressive shadow and lighting effects add atmosphere and even affect gameplay, finding a light source is critical to survival in the early stages of the game.

An example of the extra detail System Shocks engine allows

 System Shock is not your normal first person shooter and contains many RPG elements. The HUD takes up most of the screen and is necessary for manipulating all the items and weapons you collect on the way. Weapons must be chosen wisely since there is limited inventory space. Most weapons have multiple ammo types that are effective against different enemies. For example, EMP grenades and armour piercing weapons are useful against robots while the magnum’s hollow point ammo makes a mess of cyborgs and mutants. System Shock is also quite possibly the first game required you to manually reload weapons and has recoil governed by physics.

Executive area is none too shabby, apart from the dead bodies

 At the time the only objective in FPS games, and even now in most cases, is to find the exit to the next level. Systems Shock instead presents you with complex and far more interesting objectives requiring complex steps to complete. These can range from destroying antennae to stop SHODAN from downloading herself to earth’s networks to ejecting a garden grove where SHODAN is performing sick experiments on what is left of the crew. Citadel Station is set up as a vast non-linear series of floors interconnected by elevators. Completing objectives may mean going back to previously visited floors. Clues as to how to complete objects are found in audio logs and subtle environmental details. As a hacker, hacking also plays an important role. Hacking is presented as a mini-game, where panels need to be rewired or power redirected to bypass security. You can also enter cyberspace which is presented as a ‘Tron-like’ fully 3D wireframe environment to explore, although watch out because SHODAN has set up elaborate defences and will kick you out of cyberspace if you take too long.

Cyberspace can be a bit disorientating!
System Shock has an interesting method for dealing with death. SHODAN has converted revival chambers in each floor into cyborg conversion units. Get incapacitated and you will be turned into a cyborg that will serve SHODAN and its game over. However you can switch these chambers back to their original function and if you die you will be restored at these chambers. It’s a bit like the Vita Chambers from Bioshock but instead of the constant safety net, you only gain it once you find a way to convert the chambers back to their original function. However not all floors have a revival chamber.

Oh shit!

Systems Shock's cyberpunk story of corporate greed and technophobia is one of the highlights of the game. For a game from 1994 it is remarkable that System Shock not only has an elaborate story but also a really good one. The story is pieced together by the player through a series of audio logs you find scattered throughout the station and on scraps of paper you find. It’s the same method used by many modern games such as Bioshock. These audio logs are surprisingly well acted; you really do feel like you are listening to the last few desperate moments of these people’s lives. System Shock absolutely nails the atmosphere. The tight claustrophobic corridors of Citadel Station and eerily empty living quarters are punctuated by the inhuman sounds of the cyborgs, mutants and robots around the next corner. Sound design is excellent as is the soundtrack, which changes dynamically depending on the location. It’s one of the best midi soundtracks ever composed and well worth listening to. System Shock has its fair share of scares and creepy moments, in particular the entirety of the maintenance floor which is badly lit and full of semi transparent and thus hard to see mutants.

 An example of the excellent music in the game

And of course there’s SHODAN. She will constantly interrupt communication with Rebecca, your only contact with earth. She will constantly mock you; referring to you as an insect and making you feel insignificant. Even when you can’t hear her, her visage will appear briefly in security monitors just so you know she is always watching you. Fantastic voice work by Terri Brosius and a raft of sound distortion effects really bring the character to life. It’s no surprise that she constantly appears topping lists of videogame villains.

She's always watching you

System Shock is a game that I really recommend you should experience, particularly people that are interested in the evolution of the first person shooter and the genesis of masterpieces like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex. I still fell System Shock is just as relevant today as it has ever been despite being superseded by its amazing sequel. It’s become one of my favourite games ever. However the game isn’t without problems and the main one is the control scheme. There’s a lot more verticality to System Shock than games like Doom so it really needs a mouse-look type control system. However since it was created before Quake popularised the mouse-look WASD scheme for FPS games, System Shock uses a strange hybrid system. Calling this system awkward is putting it kindly. After years of playing FPS games it was like trying to learn how to ride a bike but using my hands to push the pedals. These controls are also stupidly not configurable. This is the third time I’ve tried to finish the game and thankfully this time I was successful thanks to System Shock Portable.


SSP is a version of System Shock with Dosbox included that will run on Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7. It also has the ability to toggle between mouse-look and a free mouse for manipulation of the HUD.  Best of all it also has configurable controls. You’ll need to open a config file with wordpad to change them but it’s better than nothing and to be honest the default controls that are included are excellent. One tip I have to give is to always save before entering the full map screen because the game often crashes when exiting the map. If you play with invert mouse like me make sure to change the y-axis mouse sensitivity to a negative value in the cfg file. Unfortunately there’s no way to invert the mouse in cyberspace so you’ll just have to deal with it. System Shock Portable is available here:

There are also instructions on how to install a soundfont which will really improve the music and really make the excellent soundtrack standout.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Good Old Games sale: More games than sense

Who doesn't love a good sale? Well the guys at GOG have one on now and I'm afraid I went a bit crazy and bought 29 of them. I doubt I'll get through them all in my lifetime!

Well at least there's nothing else to spend money on, I've got all my Christmas shopping done.... until the steam sale.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Legend of Dragoon

 The Legend of Dragoon is the best game ever. If you are one of the people that think this you are a very bad person. Either that or the rose tinted mists of time are clouding your recollection of a game you played when you were young, foolish and knew no better. The Legend of Dragoon (LoD from now on before my fingers melt with hatred from typing it) technically isn’t the worst game of all time. It is however the most hateful.
So why is it the most hateful game ever? It’s a cynical corporate cash-in with no soul. I’ve played many bad games before but mostly their heart is usually in the right place; a lack of development time, money or a developer with high ambitions and without the talent to realise them are the usual reasons for failure. LoD however stinks of a designed by committee mentality. At the time due to the unexpected success of the Final Fantasy series the biggest genre around was the Japanese RPG. Sony decided it wanted a bite out of the pie and set about developing its own RPG franchise. After 3 years of development and satanic rituals LoD was unleashed on the world. 

This game wants so desperately to be Final Fantasy VII. The main protagonist with a stupid name, Dart, with his spiky blond hair, a big sword and a mysterious past that he can’t clearly remember is a blatant Cloud clone. His BFF Shana is the meek girl of the party with healing spells who might just have a mysterious power in case you haven’t already guessed. The rest of the party are utterly forgettable other than Rose who is a bit like a female Squall except with menstruation based attacks (I shit you not: ). I actually kind of liked Rose, she acted less like a gormless bellend than the rest of the cast, but it wasn’t enough to save the rest of the game. The bad guy has silver hair and is trying to destroy the world. They couldn’t even change his hair colour to try to disguise the fact that they were trying to emulate Sephiroth. 

Some of the prerendered backgrounds can be pretty if a bit generic
 The storyline is generic textbook JRPG.  A globe-trotting quest to find mystical trinkets that in the wrong hands could destroy the world. An ancient, thought to be extinct civilisation called the Winglies (because they have wings and evidently zero imagination, fuck you localisation team!) is tied into it these events, just like Grandia or Breath of Fire. The whole story reads like the JRPG entry on TV Tropes. It throws around mystical mcguffins as an excuse to keep the plot moving. In an attempt to emulate the emotion of Aeris’s death in FFVII, LoD has its own death scene. Unfortunately this involves an annoyingly goody two shoes character whose death I’d been wishing for long before it was granted. If you did feel any emotional attachment to this character, any sense of loss is quashed when he is quickly replaced by another character with the same abilities. Actually, if you lose any character permanently they’ll be replaced in a similar manner, completely missing the point of why Aeris being missing from the party in FFVII was so successful in eliciting emotion from the player. Destroying what little enjoyment you could have gleamed from the awful plot is one of the worst localisations ever, bereft of any soul or emotion, countless grammatical errors and horrendous voice-acting.

I’ve played and enjoyed a lot of RPGs with hackneyed stories but LoD has worse issues than its story. What makes the game unbearable is the gameplay. The random encounter rate isn’t too high but the battle system is so slow that it kills any pace the game has. The battle system is based on ‘additions’. In a tragic attempt to add some real time involvement to the battle system every time you attack you can extend your attack by timing button presses to an on screen indicator. This might seem like a good idea but as the game progresses, additions get longer and battles drag on even more. As you progress in the game your characters gain the ability to transform into a Dragoon, accompanied by long transformation sequences. You gain an attack bonus but the timing on the additions is so strict you end up doing less damage the majority of the time. Also Dragoon transformations are the only way to cast magic other than using items. All magic spells result in long animations similar to the summons in Final Fantasy prolonging battles further. Another well meaning but ultimately ridiculous addition to the battle system is that healing characters requires you to defend which gives you 10% of your maximum health. During particularly tough battles this defend mechanic can really drag out battles. You can use items to recover health but they are usually in short supply since the amount of items you can carry is extremely limited and mostly taken up by elemental spell items since if you run into a boss and your characters are the wrong element then it can really screw you over. One of the party members has a dragoon spell that can heal but it takes forever to charge up and use her dragoon transformation and she’s fairly useless so you can’t rely on it. Long drawn out battles can really ruin an RPG. There’s nothing worse than getting into a battle in a dungeon that is so long that when it’s over you have forgotten where it was that you were headed to. Due to the length of dragoon transformations and the fact that you basically only have a single attack, the battle system is completely devoid of any sort of strategy and the battle cries like ‘Rod Typhoon!’ will drive you insane.

Technically the game is a mess as well. For a game released at the end of 1999 it only looks slightly better than FFVII. Most of the character models are barely texture mapped and using the same gouraud shaded polygons as seen in FFVII. Compare that to FFVIII released earlier that year or Metal Gear Solid the year before with their detailed and fully textured models and environments and LoD looks very dated. The battle engine also runs at around 10 frames per second. This is a major problem for a game which relies on timing since it introduces lag into the controls and makes the timing of the addition attacks a lot more difficult than they should be. The timing of button presses for additions is before when the game indicates you should press the button. Some of the pre-rendered backgrounds do look nice and whenever water effects are present they look remarkably good. The CGI cutscenes are of a high quality but there’s very few of them. The game comes on 4 CD’s but with the lack of CGI cutscenes I honestly don’t see what was taking up all that memory. The soundtrack has its fans but I’m not one of them. There are a few good tunes but the rest of it ranged from unremarkable to downright awful. The battle theme in particular is obnoxious and it’s the tune you’ll be hearing the most of. 

Meru manages to be the most annoying character in the game, a feat in and of itself
LoD really isn’t the worst games ever, there’s some really frustrating games or games that are unplayable messes due to bugs and bad programming. However it’s just such a corporate exercise that I can’t help but hate it. There’s not an original idea in the game and it’s all put together with such a corporate mentality, ticking all the right boxes to appeal to the masses. What is hard to understand is the rabid fanbase the game has built up. I’m guessing most of these people played the game when they were much younger, impressionable and didn’t have much experience with JRPGs to compare it to. The attack on the review at the Gaming Intelligence agency, a perfectly fair and reasonable review, really doesn’t paint them in the best light:
I’m sorry if I hurt some feelings with this review but it’s a game that really gets under my skin and makes me hyperbolic. If you do think that the game holds up, try it again with some newfound maturity and experience because it really is a shallow and boring game. Just don’t pay the ridiculous Ebay prices for it. It really isn’t worth it.

Disengaging rant mode!