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30 January 2008 @ 12:08 pm
More interesting sci-fi game news: Chair Entertainment partners with Orson Scott Card to develop a videogame based on the Ender's Game series of books.

We'll have to see if this will result in a videogame at all. And if it does we can only hope the game remains faithful to the spirit of the books. The original Ender's Game novel is one of my all-time favorites, and often when media companies take on established sci-fi or fantasy literary franchises the results are usually less than encouraging (with some notable exceptions of course).
29 January 2008 @ 12:09 pm
Codemasters has announced that it'll be publishing the revamped version of 2001's Jumpgate: Jumpgate Evolution.

Finally a new space-based MMO to compete with EVE Online. Jumpgate has one major advantage already: direct ship control. EVE's indirect control system never gives you the feeling of being in total control, while Jumpgate plays more like an online version of Privateer.

I just hope they polish up the graphics and improve on the features of the 2001 version. With EVE's recent graphics update, Jumpgate will need to look very smooth indeed if it's going to capture sufficient players.

14 January 2008 @ 12:11 pm
In my previous entry, already a while ago, I lamented the fact that so many shooters came out on the market in such a short timespan. I'd omitted one: TimeShift. But I saw it as my duty to you, my faithful (though probably nonexistent) audience to sacrifice myself and play all of these games to determine just how good they really are. So here then, my brief analysis and review of each:

Gears of War: It was a long time coming, this Xbox title's appearance on the PC platform. I'd seen it at a friend shortly after its original release but I refuse to buy a console for just a single game. (Although I will most likely forsake that principle when The Force Unleashed goes gold - my principles have limits you know.) So I was happy when GoW finally made it to the PC, and I didn't hesitate to play it.

GoW is not a bad game. The action is fun and intense, the control scheme is well adapted to the PC's mouse and keyboard. The story, thin as it is, moves along nicely if predictably. However GoW gets repetitive. Really repetitive. But it stays just short of being too repetitive. It's a bearable form of doing the same thing over and over. The scenery changes a little, but not much. There are some novel levels thrown in, but not many. You get some new guns, but scarcely. The enemies the game throws at you change a bit, but only so.

GoW has just enough novelty and surprises to keep you playing, but after playing it you do feel like you've been doing the same thing for too long of a time.

Score: 7/10

TimeShift: Have you ever read Dan Simmons' Hyperion saga? Have you ever wanted to be the Shrike? Well, TimeShift gives you the opportunity to be the Shrike. A watered-down, lesser-limbed, not so awesome version of the Shrike, but still. TimeShift is really just a basic shooter with only one novelty: you can influence the flow of time. A little.

Playing as a scientist with a hidden past (Gordon Freeman copy?) you're wearing a special timesuit that allows you to slow down time, stop time or even reverse the flow of time. You can do this without those same effects affecting you at all, so really you're only changing the way time behaves for you while the world proceeds as normal. This gives you some great opportunities for carnage. You can freeze time, walk up to an enemy and shoot him in the face repeatedly. Then when time resumes the guy's head disintegrates while you're already busy whacking the next fellow.

The game throws some situations at you that require effective use of your timeshifting powers to survive, but other than that it's a lot of the same: slow time, kill enemies, stop time, solve puzzles, reverse time, get across exploding bridge, etc etc. Neither the levels (some are pure HL2 clones) nor the weapons (Wolfenstein on steroids) are that interesting, and the plot is unremarkable and predictable.

I hope TimeShift's cool new feature will be copied in other, better games, because it does give you a sense of power and leetness. Too bad that these timeshifting powers are insufficient to save this otherwise dreary shooter.

Score: 6/10

Crysis: There's a lot of fuss about Crysis's system requirements. It's a game that, even if you have the bestest, fastest, leetest piece of hardware out there, you won't be able to run it with full details at the highest resolution. It's that heavy. Yet you can still get a decent game experience out of it on a lesser machine. Just tone down the resolution and details and you'll get an acceptable framerate with only a few hiccups here and there, and the game will still look pretty damn cool.

The gameplay is sweet too. As part of a team of hi-tech commandos you're dropped on an island swarming with North Korean bad guys, and you're wearing a superspecial nanosuit. Not quite the same suit as in TimeShift, mind you, though you have the ability to move really fast in it. But the suit can do more: you can get superstrength for a short period of time, or superarmor, or even turn invisible for a few seconds. Cool stuff and it gives you a few more tactical options in a firefight.

Combine this with above-average gameplay and a slick story that, while unoriginal, provides sufficient surprises and unpredictability to keep you going, and Crysis sets itself above the rest of the pack. It's a great game and definitely worth your time. But it's not the best of the lot.

Score: 8/10

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: Because this is the best of the lot. By far. You'd think the CoD franchise was exhausted by now, and to be honest if they'd done another WW2 shooter it would have reached its saturation point. But the developers are smart and gifted and they moved the action forward in time to the very near future, all the while keeping the best of the previous CoD games and enhancing it further.

And it works. It works very, very well. The action is intense, the gameplay thrilling and exciting. The story moves between settings and environments, and there's a great variety in tactical scenarios, weapons and enemies. And that's just the single-player campaign.

Multiplayer CoD4 will blow you away. The XP-system they've implemented, combined with the game's superb experience, makes multiplayer highly addictive. The game's various multiplayer game types provide an almost perfect balance between tactical teamwork and mindless carnage, and the XP-system will keep you going to get that extra weapon, earn that extra bonus, achieve that extra rank. It's superbly done and it turns an already spectacular single-player shooter into a truly magnificent full package that you just can't miss if you're a fan of FPS games.

Score: 10/10
13 November 2007 @ 03:38 pm
Crysis, Call of Duty 4, Gears of War PC. All released in the same week. Oh, the agony of choice.
05 November 2007 @ 12:11 pm
Portal is one of the games in the Orange Box, but you can purchase it separately (as I did) through Steam. I already owned HL2 and Ep1 and didn't feel like buying the whole box just for Ep2 and Portal. Granted, you get Team Fortress 2 as well, but these days I'm not that much of a fan of online multiplayer slugfests anymore. Must be my old age catching up with me.

Anyway, Portal. My expectations weren't too high about this game, as it's described as a technology demo in the form of a puzzle game. As an avid fan of digitized murder, mayhem and mass destruction, the word 'puzzle' in a video game context always makes me twitch. Yet somehow Portal turned out to be the most fun I've ever had in a game where no one died. More fun than I've had in most games where people did die, too.

The premise is fairly simple. You're a test subject in some sort of experimental laboratory controlled by an Artificial Intelligence. You receive a gun that shoots teleportation holes. You shoot a hole at one wall, shoot a second hole at another wall, and when you walk through the first hole you emerge from the second hole. Sounds fairly simple, and it is. But for something so simple, it's so much fun.

For example, when you shoot a hole horizontally in a floor and put the exit hole vertically against a wall, the momentum you have when you fall through the horizontal hole is maintained when you exit the vertical hole. This allows you to make some truly spectacular jumps, using gravity as your ally.

The AI sends you to one room after another, each room with a new challenge to overcome, a new obstacle to cross. It starts simple but gets progressively more difficult. The first few rooms you can navigate without much trouble, but later on in the game you'll find yourself faced with challenges that at first sight will leave you scratching your head and thinking "how the hell am I supposed to do that?!" Yet the game never becomes frustrating. Every new challenge is a welcome one, as you get to explore new cool stuff you can do with teleportation holes. And when you finally do crack the challenge and get across that seemingly insurmountable obstacle, you'll experience a genuine HELL YES event that so few games can provide.

The laboratory's AI is a funny character all of its own, and I won't say too much about it lest I spoil things for you. Just know that finishing the game is a must, as the song you get at the end is worth every second of your time and effort you've poured into it.

Portal really only has one drawback: It's WAY too short. A game that's this much fun should not be over so soon. That's just criminal.

Score: 9 out of 10
27 August 2007 @ 09:35 am
BioshockBioshock is easily the most anticipated shooter of the year. Finally a shooter that's released straight to PC and not just on consoles (although it's released simultaneously on XBox 360). FPS games should be played on a PC, but I'll stop beating that dead horse. Until the next shooter is released of course.

Anyway, Bioshock. Much hype, much controversy, both pre- and post-launch. The hype was mainly about the superb graphics and RPG-influenced gameplay as shown in multiple trailers, and the controversy was about the game's moral ambiguity and later about the SecuROM copy protection that came with it. So let's put the hype and controversy both to the test, shall we?

Bioshock starts out promising. It's 1960, and you find yourself in the ocean as the sole survivor or a plane crash. You swim towards a tall structure that emerges out of the waves and find a doorway. Once you step in you're on your way down to Rapture, an underwater city build after WW2 by a mad scientist type called Andrew Ryan. The style of Rapture is very 1950's Art Deco, which gives the game a unique look & feel. It's a refreshing change from all the sci-fi shooters from years past. You'll still find yourself scurrying along dark corridors and eerie hallways, only now instead of hi-tech futuristic textures and equipment you'll find fifties era jukeboxes and that disgusting wallpaper your old aunt still has in her living room.

All is not well in Rapture apparently, which is a good thing otherwise it wouldn't be much of a shooter. One of the technologies this Andrew Ryan fellow came up with involves genetic manipulation on-the-fly, resulting in superpowers like shooting bolts of electricity from your fingertips and setting stuff on fire from a distance. Jolly good fun. Only it seems that abundant use of these genetic enhancers causes people to go batshit insane, which is good for you, the player, because it means you get to shoot them.

You also get these genetic boosts yourself, only you don't seem to be affected by the mind-altering side effects. Though one can argue that rampaging through an underwater city shooting at almost everything that moves to be a sign of a less than fully coherent mind. These plasmids and gene tonics, as the gene boosters are called, are fun to use. They're a bit like Force powers from the Star Wars Jedi games, only they're more visceral and, well, bloody.

There are several types of genetic upgrades, some of them with permanent boosting effects and some that require a special type of fuel called EVE. This EVE stuff glows blue and you'll find it throughout the game. You shoot it directly into your veins like a craving smack junkie. The first time you see yourself doing it is quite unsettling, but you get used to it quickly, which in itself is a bit disturbing.

You can buy more genetic upgrades with a substance called ADAM (EVE, ADAM, get it? Yeah, the game's creators aren't that subtle). This ADAM stuff can only be gathered from creatures called Little Sisters, which is where the moral ambiguity starts. Little Sisters are small girls, roaming the city in search of corpses. They harvest ADAM from these corpses, and you can only get ADAM from these Little Sisters if you either harvest or rescue them. Rescuing a little sister sets the girl free from the parasite that has made its home within her, and you get a little ADAM from it. Harvest the girl however and you forcibly extract the parasite from her, killing her in the process. This yields twice as much ADAM, but whether you feel comfortable killing the girl is a choice you'll have to make for yourself.

Not to mention the fact that the Little Sisters are protected by lumbering brutes in armored suits called Big Daddies. You need to take them down first before you can either harvest or rescue a Little Sister, and a Big Daddy is no pushover. Prepare to empty entire clips into one of them and still see it coming at you. Fortunately there's quite an arsenal of weapons to choose from to release your opponents from their mortal coils. You have the basic stuff, like a revolver, a machine gun and a shotgun, but there are also more exotic weapons like the crossbow, grenade launcher and flame thrower. Not particularly exciting, every shooter has pretty much the same set of guns, only in Bioshock you can load them with different types of ammo.

The revolver for example has standard bullets, anti-personnel bullets and armor piercing bullets. The anti-personnel work best against standard flesh & blood adversaries, and you'll find yourself saving the armor-piercing rounds for when you need to take down a steel-plated Big Daddy. All weapons save one come with different ammo types, each one proving useful in a different situation. The only gun without different ammo types isn't really a gun - it's a camera. Yes, a photo camera. You can use it to snap pictures of your enemies to put in a big scrap book and show to your mommy. Seriously, every time you take a picture of an enemy you 'research' it, which means you do more damage against this type of enemy and you get a hint about what type of ammo works best against them. It's a bit of a challenge to snap a picture of someone shooting at you, but it pays off in the long run.

Additionally you can upgrade your guns at special vending machines, giving them more kick or bigger magazines. Regardless of these little gimmicks, the weapons in Bioshock aren't particularly novel, and you'll find yourself sticking mostly to the basic set of guns until you run out of ammo and urgently switch to the flamethrower before that Big Daddy stomps on your skull and makes it go squish.

There are multiple types of vending machines in the game, offering everything from ammo and health to weapon upgrades and plasmids. You can hack most of these machines, as well as automated camera's and turrets. The hacking itself is a sort of mini-game where you have to guide a stream of glowing blue stuff through a series of tubes. it's pretty straightforward and will get boring fairly quickly, so you'll find yourself using auto-hack devices a lot if you have them or simply clicking the buyout button where you spend some cash to automatically hack the machine.

The game's story, adeptly told through voice-recorded diaries and a fellow called Atlas that talks to you through a radio, is pretty straight-forward at first but it has a plot twist late in the game that elevates it a bit from the standard "work your way to the supreme bad guy and repeatedly shoot him in the face" fare of most shooters. Also the two ways of handling the Little Sisters provides some replay value, as it seems the ending is somewhat dependent on what you did with them. The first time I've played through it I devoured all the Little Sisters, so I got to see the 'Dark Side' ending. I'm playing through it again, only this time I'm rescuing all the darlings.

In terms of graphics Bioshock looks superb. The system requirements are a bit on the heavy side, but if your PC has enough RAM and a decent video card it'll be smooth playing. Just make sure you keep the graphic settings low if your PC isn't state of the art - the game looks really good on low resolution settings anyway. The water effects are superbly done, as are the lighting and textures. Every room in Bioshock is unique as well, you never feel like the makers have reused sections. The same can't be said of textures, but then how many authentic 1950's wallpapers can you come up with before it becomes repetitive, right?

So is Bioshock worthy of the hype? Yes. Despite some flaws (unremarkable weapons, quick to play through, repetitive textures and enemies) it's a great shooter and a lot of fun to play through, although it suffers a bit from the FEAR effect - the first time you play it, it can get a little creepy so you'll find yourself dosing your gameplay and logging out once every few hours to catch a bit of a break from all the nerve-wracking action. The second time around the game isn't so creepy anymore, as you've come to know what to expect.

Is Bioshock worthy of the controversy? Not really. Sure the killing of parasite-possessed little girls can be misinterpreted entirely, as seems to have happened, but the game offers you basically the same choice as the average Star Wars game: Light Side or Dark Side. It's nothing new and experienced gamers won't lose sleep over it. I do think the game is deserving of it's M rating, as it's not for the young or faint-hearted. But then again, what shooter is?

About the SecuROM copy protection, I understand game developers' need to combat piracy, but it's an uphill battle anyway. Every copy protection scheme will get hacked eventually, but developers need to keep trying. It's either that or develop games exclusively for consoles, where piracy is much less widespread. It would be a damn crying shame however if games would disappear from PC's, so I'll gladly fork over cash for a good PC game in order to support the industry. And Bioshock is very much deserving of my money.

Total score: 8.5 out of 10.
10 August 2007 @ 03:11 pm
Halo 2After an extended hiatus where no worthy new games came my way, I got my hands on a copy of Halo 2 that runs on my XP machine. Don't ask where I got it.

I enjoyed the first Halo when it arrived for PC, as I refuse to play shooters on a console. Every gamer worth his salt knows that shooters are meant to be played on a PC, as the console's controls are simply severely lacking in terms of speed and accuracy. Now that Halo 2 allows players on both PC and Xbox 360 to play against each other online,  Microsoft had to give console players an auto-aim function for them to be able to complete with PC gamers. Ironically, auto-aim is considered a severe cheat in every other multiplayer shooter.

The single player side of Halo 2 is remarkably fun, providing you liked the first Halo. It's basically the same story with some new tweaks and a scarce few new guns and opponents. One interesting novelty is that the game allows you to play as an Elite in a separate storyline that eventually joins Master Chief's main story. While it sounds like a cool feature, it plays pretty much the same as the rest of the game. You can pick up and use the same weapons, you fight the same opponents and you fly & drive the same vehicles. The only difference is that instead of marines at your side you now have other Elites that sometimes join you.

The graphics are fairly good though not up to par with recent PC games, which is unsurprising when you realize Halo 2 was originally released in 2004. The atmosphere generated by the graphics is effective, some areas have an almost palpable sense of threat and danger though nowhere does the game reach FEAR's levels of sheer terror.

Overall Halo 2 is a slightly above average shooter when compared to other PC titles. It may have rocked the console world, for PC gamers it's just not that special.

Score: 7 out of 10
05 April 2007 @ 01:33 pm
STALKERSTALKER is getting pretty decent reviews on the established gaming sites. Their score on metacritic is 8.2, which is a score I disagree with. Sure, the game has pretty good graphics, decent RPG elements, and an original setting. But all that is insufficient to compensate for the game's flaws.

For one the 3D engine is a pretty bad one. STALKER may be an RPG, but it plays like a shooter. And you want a shooter to be smoothly playable, with easy aiming and movement that feels natural. STALKER's 3D engine does not give you that. Instead you get clunky gameplay where aiming is difficult, movement is very artificial, and things just don't feel right.

On top of that the RPG elements seem added on, like the game was meant to be a shooter but the developers figured it wouldn't be good enough for just that (which would be a good assumption), and decided to bolt on some roleplaying stuff and some malformed plot that vaguely resembles a storyline. It's so tacky they didn't even bother to come up with an alternative to the thoroughly worn out 'memory loss' starting point.

STALKER doesn't deliver on its promise. For a game that's been in development this long, we'd expect something better.

Score: 5.5 out of 10
12 March 2007 @ 10:33 am
Supreme CommanderHere we are again, after a bit of a hiatus due to excessive traveling on my part. In between my trips to Nigeria, France (twice) and Shanghai I haven't had all that much time to try new games extensively. However I managed to acquire a cheap PSP in Shanghai and will be adding PSP games to my reviews. Coming soon: my review of Marvel Ultimate Alliance for the PSP.

But first the RTS that everyone's been waiting for: Supreme Commander.

Real Time Strategy isn't my most favorite genre (shooters have that distinction) but they're up there, and while I don't play every RTS title that hits the shelves I do make an effort to give the big names a try. A couple of years ago I totally lost myself in Total Annihilation for a few weeks, and as its spiritual successor Supreme Commander was a promising title from the start.

First off, the system requirements. Due to several novel features, huge playing maps, and full 3D rendering of everything in the game, you'll need a pretty heavy PC to run it all. I have an AMD Athlon 64 3200+ with a GeForce 7600GT and 1 GB of RAM, and while SC ran smooth on most levels in the single player campaign, the later missions did have frequent stutters. The game remained playable though and the framerate decrease never frustrated me.

The high demands the game makes of your PC can easily be forgiven when you realize what the game offers. The maps are huge, there can be literally hundreds or thousands of units in the field at any one time, and all projectiles (shells, missiles, debris) have their own trajectories. Combine this with a fairly intelligent AI that governs all those units, and you come up with a game that not only pushes your graphics card to the limit, but your CPU most of all.

Supreme Commander is heralded as a landmark in RTS games, and it's hard to disagree with this statement. Its most revolutionary feature is not the sheer scale of the game, but its superb zooming function. You can seamlessly zoom in to a single unit to admire its smooth textures, and then zoom out until you see the whole map with units and buildings as icons. This 'strategic zoom' is fluid and works so well that most of the time you won't scroll the view to see a different area, you'll just zoom out and zoom back in to where you want to see the action. Thanks to this feature you'll never lose track of what's happening. You have continually full overview of the conflict raging on the screen, and regardless of how massive the battles become you will always remain in control over your units.

The strategic zoom gives you the amount of control that makes it possible to wage such enormous battles. In any other RTS game fighting on such a huge scale is an impossible task, as you quickly lose track of what's happening and where. Supreme Commander makes it possible, and in such a fantastic way that you wonder why no one else has done this before.

Some other great features in SC are the excellent building queue system, the unit/group command system that allows you to queue commands and movement options, and a nice ferry system that allows you to automatically airlift units to distant locations on the map as soon as they come rolling out of your factories.

You can fight with three different factions, each with their own color scheme and aesthetic approach to units and buildings. The game works with four tech levels, each giving you new and better units. However each tech level is pretty similar in the type of units it provides compared to the other factions, and you don't get any truly unique units until the 4th level, the experimental units. Those are pretty cool though (the Cybran Monkey Lord rules), but they're also ridiculously expensive to build so you'll still have to form the core of your army around the same basic unit types. That's not much of a problem, but it does limit your options in terms of tactical variety. You will have the same basic army as your enemy regardless of what faction you play, which makes it challenging to come up with inventive uses of your units' capabilities.

The single player campaigns in Supreme Commander all have fairly straightforward storylines. They're fun to play through, but after one go with each faction you'll probably won't be returning to them. Still the campaigns serve their purpose of teaching you the game's basics and let you get to know each unit. Then you can move on to skirmishes against the AI, and once you've mastered those the real challenge of multiplayer games await you. Sure, you can skip the campaigns and skirmishes and go straight to the multiplayer mayhem, but you'll be served up as shish-kebab by any relatively experienced opponent so you'd do well to get to know the game first.

So is Supreme Commander really the landmark RTS game that the hype says it is? Well, yes. Mostly because of one thing, the zoom function, but all the other little innovations add up to make this game a superior RTS experience. Once you've played Supreme Commander you'll have a hard time adjusting to a RTS that doesn't have similar functionality, so the new Command & Conquer game that's just around the corner better have something good to bring to the table or it'll have lost the 2007 RTS fight before it's even truly begun.

Score: 9 out of 10.
22 January 2007 @ 10:58 am
I make no secret of my loathing for Second Life. Thus I find this parody to be utterly hilarious.