Tag Archives: PC

Podcast 23: The Games That Didn’t Quite Make It… Part 1

We know, we know. Surely Post 101 was the end of this thing? Well it was. Kind of. But we couldn’t finish without having a not-so-quick look at the games that didn’t quite make the magic 101. The games that made an impression, that were loved, that were remembered, but lacked that special something.

The next post and podcast will feature Lewis’s games that for some reason weren’t quite up to scratch. In this post though we will be looking at Ian’s selection. Games that due to the pressure of time he never got round to writing about. And by pressure of time we of course mean laziness.

Just to warn you this is a long podcast, but it feels fitting to give these games that time. C’mon, you owe this random collection of old games at least that!

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Podcast 23 Games That Didn’t Quite Make It Part 1 – Ian

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Ian & Lewis

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#83: UFO: Enemy Unknown

Format: Amiga 1200 Genre: Strategy, Turn Based Tactics Released: 1994 Developer: MicroProse

 

UFO: Enemy Unknown box art with, as was usual in those days, a picture of something that did not appear in the game.

 

Do you believe in love at first sight? That you could be at a crowded bus stop in the rain and your eyes meet with a special someone. Suddenly you know that this is the person who is going to make your life complete, that will bring sunshine and happiness into the darkest corners of your soul and will be the one who has to sort through your stuff after you drop dead from an aneurysm which struck as you were bending over to pick up a (101 Video Games) pencil off the floor?

I don’t. In fact I’ve had several relationships with women that, when we first met, neither of us was particularly interested. Or more accurately they weren’t particularly interested. But on the second or third meeting something clicks, and before you can say ‘I must warn you that there’s a history of aneurysm and pencil related death in my family’ you’re strolling through parks holding hands and kissing each other inappropriately in front of friends while they try to pretend they can’t see you and awkwardly carry on their conversation.

It’s not just love that sometimes strikes the second time around. Ever seen a film or heard an album that for whatever reason you just can’t get into? Then you’ll go back to it a few months, or even years, down the line and for some reason you see or hear something you just didn’t notice before.

Happens to me all the time. But for some reason it doesn’t really happen with video games. Maybe it’s because the video game, as a medium for entertainment, is constantly evolving. That in the same time you might try an album once then give it another go a bit later a game would have had three sequels with vastly improved graphics and game play. There was one game though that I definitely came back to years later, and got far more into than I ever did the first time around, and that’s UFO: Enemy Unknown.

I got UFO: Enemy Unknown (also known in the US as X-Com: Enemy Unknown)for Christmas 1994. Set in the insanely futuristic world of 1998, UFO put you in charge of a secret, international, military organisation dedicated to intercepting UFOs and defeating the cattle bothering, probe wielding aliens within. A mixture of resource management and turn based tactics, UFO tapped into the general popularity of aliens, conspiracy theories and the unexplained that was floating around in the premillennial mid-90s. The tone of the game was all dark shadow-y. The X-Files had just started to be shown on terrestrial British TV and I remember how every review of the game ‘hilariously’ referenced Scully and Mulder in some way.

 

Find out what makes a 'Grey' grey.

 

I was really into all that kind of stuff back then and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the game and start dissecting aliens. Imagine my disappointment when I realised I was rubbish at it. My troops would be wiped out during the turn based missions. My bases would struggle to break even as various countries would pull their funding and start making secret deals with the aliens and I never seemed to have enough alien materials to build better weapons. After about a year of trying, I gave up.

 

Equiping your troops so they can face those evil aliens. The game would randomly generate a name for each soldier, all of which were ridiculous. For some reason MicroProse seemed to think that just 4 years into the future we'd all change our names to things like Boris Zachery.

 

Flash forward to the even more futuristic year of 1999. I’ve just got a second-hand laptop so I can write essays at home rather than in the University Library. And of course play games. While out one day I came across a budget collection of all the X-Com games and, on a whim, decide to get it. I more or less ignore all the follow ups but decide to try UFO: Enemy Unknown again and this time… This time I get it.

 

The mission sections had a curious feature where an enemy would only appear on-screen if a character was looking at them. This lead often led to you stumbling on a group of aliens, or worse, being killed by an alien which you somehow didn't notice as it wasn't directly in your eye line, despite it standing right next to you!

 

I don’t know if it was just me being a bit older, or by sheer chance I had stumbled on how crack the game (lots of saving basically – maybe I felt that saving every other go was cheating when I was 15). Whatever the reason the second time around it clicked with me, and I became obsessed with finishing it. I certainly wasted a lot of time playing it when I should have been writing those essays. A lot of people seem to have been similarly obsessed, there seems to be a massive on-line fan community with all sorts of updated versions of the game and mods. There’s even a new sort of sequel currently in development – a first person shooter. (An FPS? Is nothing sacred?)

It still ranks as one of my favourite games ever. Indeed writing this has made me think that maybe I should give the game a third go…

 

You were recommended to place your first base in rich countries as they'll give you the funding. The UK was always my first base's location though. National pride was at stake!

 

Ian

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Filed under 1994, Amiga, MicroProse, Strategy, Turn-Based Tactics

#47: Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2

Format: PC Genre: RTS Released: 2000 Developer: Westwood Pacific

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 is not only the greatest C&C game but one of the finest RTS games ever made. Yes, you read that correctly. Stick that in your non-Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 RTS pipe and smoke it!

Box Art for PC version

Ok, before I justify such a bold statement (I’m sure there are literally… 6 furious people right now) a bit of background. C&C: Red Alert 2 is a sequel to, unsurprisingly, C&C: Red Alert, itself a spinoff to the original Command & Conquer games. The C&C series are real time strategy (RTS) games. Essentially you build a base, collect resources, build an army then attack. A simple idea but when done well RTS games are as fiendish and tactically minded as a game of chess (note – I don’t play chess).

Set in a more or less separate universe to the first Command & Conquer, Red Alert depicts a world where Hitler never rises to power (somehow he’s stopped by a time travelling Albert Einstein – no, really). Instead of WWII we get a war with Stalin’s USSR. The suggestion is the people of the world just really wanted a war in the 1940s. Good thing there was another totalitarian one party state led by a psycho with a moustache. Otherwise we’d have just got bored. You play as either the Allies, pushing back the massive Red Army and defending freedom, or as the Soviets, bringing the revolution to the capitalist pigs of Western Europe.

Red Alert 2 is set a few years after the first game (in a world where the Allies won) where the Soviet Union still exists under the rule of Allied puppet leader friendly to the West. Except he’s not! He’s just pretending you imperialist idiots, and before you can say Fyodor Dostoyevsky there are Zeppelins in the skies above New York and Soviet tanks rampaging through Texas. The Cold War just got Hot.

I’ve always loved the C&C games. I was there at beginning, getting the very first C&C game on, slightly bizarrely, the Playstation (alright, I know technically Dune 2 was first but I never played it so it doesn’t count). One of my all time top gaming moments is the end of the NOD campaign where you get to decide which famous monument to destroy (for patriotic reasons I always went for the Palace of Westminster). Of course the gameplay is great, yadda yadda yadda but C&C games are known for their full-motion video (FMV) cut scenes.

FMV was already a bit of an oddity by the time of Red Alert, with most games preferring to use CGI intros and cut scenes. It was cheaper and I’m sure many designers probably felt they were less jarring than video scenes. But the FMV makes those games. In Red Alert 2 they are over the top, bombastic, ludicrous and hilarious they totally bring you into the games. Just watch the intro above. How can you not love a game which opens with an American President talking to an intern who looks suspiciously like Monica Lewinsky?

The C&C games which, to me, have been the weaker entries to the series are C&C: Tiberium Sun and C&C: Generals, and I put this down to the lack of/poor FMV. Generals dispensed with FMV cut scenes entirely and while Tiberium Sun still had them, the characters in them did not talk directly to ‘you’. For me at least it really made a difference. It made  playing the game a strangely detached experience.

Red Alert 2 also has the most finely balanced sides in the game, each with corresponding strengths and weaknesses. Being the Allies or the Soviets isn’t just window dressing, you really do play the game in a different way depending on which side you’re playing as.

An Allied Base. Quiet. Maybe too quiet...

There are just enough units to make the gameplay varied and interesting, but not too many to become overwhelming. I’m working my way through Red Alert 3 at the moment and while it’s fun they seem to have dispensed depth for variety. Though Red Alert 3 does have a lot more women with big boobs in it than the last ones. Swings and roundabouts.

The Soviets Invade! Bye, bye Pentagon

There is a sense of joie de vivre which can be seen and felt throughout Red Alert 2. Considering it’s a war game it doesn’t take itself to seriously, in fact in so many ways it’s stupid. You’re talking about a game where one of the military units at your disposal is a giant squid. Yet Red Alert 2 is a properly satisfying gaming experience.

Now, if you forgive me, I need to dig out my Russian hat and turn the Eiffel Tower into a giant electric weapon again. Or maybe fight for freedom and try to stop the Commies from blowing up the Statue of Liberty. ‘Incoming Transmisson’…

Ian

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Filed under 2000, PC, RTS, Westwood Studios

#34: Commandos: Beyond the Call of Duty

Format: PC Genre: Real-Time Tactics* Released: 1999 Developer: Pyro Studios

I’m not even sure if I actually like this game or not, but I feel it deserves inclusion for the simple fact that it dominated my life for a week or so in early 1999 or thereabouts. Whether it made my life better or just scarred me for life is up for debate…

Commandos Beyond The Call Of Duty Box

In early 1999 I was in the first year at university, and one of my friends in halls had a one-level demo of Commandos: Beyond the Call of Duty on his PC (incidentally, the game is a standalone expansion pack for Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, which was released the previous year). The idea of the game is simple – you control a squad of commandos (sniper, driver, spy, green beret, etc.) and the aim is to sneak around behind enemy lines performing various acts of sabotage and assassination. However, the actual execution (if you’ll forgive the pun) is mind-numbingly difficult – if you’re spotted by one of the enemy troops, it’s pretty much game over, which means you have to plan every single move in excruciating detail.

Commandos Beyond The Call Of Duty screenshot 1

Before moving anywhere you have to scope out the patrol paths and lines of sight of all of the enemy guards to ensure you don’t end up wandering across any wayward Germans. This generally equates to crawling around painfully slowly and hiding behind bushes – as you might have guessed, this definitely isn’t an action game. In fact, shooting anyone is practically committing suicide, as the sound of gunshots draws in every German from the surrounding area, resulting in a quick death for Johnny Englishman. The only way to really progress safely is to sneak up behind each enemy and dispatch them silently before hiding the body – no mean feat when the level I played was approximately the size of Normandy (you can see why it took me a week to complete one level).

Commandos Beyond The Call Of Duty screenshot 2

The cautious nature of the gameplay and the massive penalties for detection meant that I had to save the game after practically every move I made, and there were several occasions where I had to backtrack to a previous save point and redo a whole section of the level because I’d gone the wrong way or found myself in an impossible situation. God knows where I got the patience from.

However, as they say, the greater the challenge, the greater the reward, and the sense of achievement I felt on completing the demo was utterly amazing – somehow the elation of triumph over adversity overshadowed all the hardship and frustration. I imagine it’s the same kind of feeling as being trapped down a mine for a week and then stumbling, squinting and bewildered, into the sunshine, safe in the knowledge that you can happily get on with the rest of your life.

Commandos Beyond The Call Of Duty screenshot 3

That makes it sound like the game was a chore to play, but that’s definitely not the case – frustrating and difficult it might have been, but it was also extremely rewarding, not to mention very pretty to look at (I reckon the hand-drawn graphics still stand up pretty well today). Then there’s the fantastic sound effects, the speech in particular. The green beret (I think it was the green beret anyway) said everything in a wonderfully sneering tone, and ordering him to move anywhere would elicit a sarcastic “Yes… sir“.

But does the game stand up today? The inspiration for this post came from seeing Commandos 2 on the PS2 for a ludicrously low price in a game shop over the weekend. I couldn’t resist picking it up for nostalgia’s sake, but I was bitterly disappointed when I got it home – after less than an hour I’d become utterly frustrated with the glacial pace of the gameplay and the constant restarts. Perhaps this game is best regarded as a fond memory. Or at least as a worthwhile exercise in endurance.

Commandos Beyond The Call Of Duty screenshot 4

Although having said that, the PS2 conversion was utterly dire – the attempt to map the various controls to a joypad resulted in probably the least intuitive control system I’ve ever had the misfortune to experience. Plus it had the most tedious tutorial I’ve ever seen in a video game, but I had no choice but to sit through it because the controls were so damn complicated that I didn’t have a hope in hell of playing otherwise.

Still, these days I prefer my gaming in bite-sized chunks – I just don’t have the time to play games like this anymore. Anything that requires me to play a level for an hour or more – let alone a week – just doesn’t get a look in. Aaah, to be 19 again, with acres of spare time spread in front of me…

(This is actually a video of Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, but you get the idea.)

Lewis

*Bit of an odd genre this – Commandos was an early example of a real-time tactics game, but Cannon Fodder (which will be appearing on the list soon) was one of the very first. A list of RTT games can be found here.

(Screenshots from http://www.gamespot.com)

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Filed under 1999, PC, Pyro Studios, Real-Time Tactics

#23: Sam & Max Hit The Road

Format: PC Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure Released: 1993 Developer: Lucasarts

Believe it or not, I didn’t actually own a PC until 2007 (which is why there are precious few PC games on this list), although during my teenage years I would often nip over to my PC-owning friend’s house to rattle through the latest point-and-click adventure. Day Of The Tentacle was a definite highlight of this time, but my favourite was Sam & Max Hit The Road.

Sam & Max Box Art

Point-and-click adventures, particularly the Lucasarts ones, are perfect for playing with two people: you can collaborate on solving tricky puzzles and neither one of you feels left out if you’re not in control of the game (after all, you’re just pointing and clicking, not taking down helicopter gunships with your bare hands). Most importantly, the jokes always seem funnier when there’s someone else there laughing along with you; and Sam & Max was very funny indeed.

Sam & Max Screenshot 1

The game follows the adventures of the self-styled ‘Freelance Police’, a duo that consists of Sam, an anthropomorphic dog, and Max, a psychotic rabbit. At the beginning of the game they’re called upon to investigate the disappearance of a frozen bigfoot from a carnival freakshow, and it just gets weirder and weirder from then on in. The pair’s investigation soon takes them to all sorts of random tourist attractions and bizarre slices of Americana, such as ‘The Mystery Vortex’ and my personal favourite, ‘The World’s Largest Ball of Twine’ (complete with a restaurant on top), and the humour never lets up along the way.

Sam & Max Screenshot 2

A sardonic quip, wry aside or visual gag is inserted at every opportunity, and some there are some cracking lines, such as:

Sam: “Where should I put this thing so that it doesn’t hurt anyone we know
     or care about?”
Max: “Out the window, Sam.  There’s nobody but strangers out there.”

Or:

Sam: “Now what are you doing?”
Max: “I was just waving at some toddlers in the next car. They’re crying now.”

Or:

Sam: “Don’t you just love stopping for breakfast when you’re on the road?  I
do… and so does my hairy little friend. And Max does, too.”

Sam & Max Screenshot 3

One of this game’s greatest innovations was the method of conversation – rather than selecting a line of text from a conversation tree (the method featured in previous Lucasarts games such as The Secret Of Monkey Island), the player clicks on an icon that represents a topic of conversation, which then generates a line of dialogue from Sam. This has the bonus of keeping the dialogue hidden until it’s read out, as in the words of developer Michael Stemmle, “nothing would kill a joke worse than reading it before you hear it”*. The CD version of Sam & Max was also one of the first point-and-click games to use actual voice actors rather than written dialogue, and, unlike the dodgy CD-i interactive movies that debuted at around the same time, the acting throughout was generally excellent.

Sam & Max Screenshot 5

As I remarked in my Beneath a Steel Sky post, it’s good to see that point-and-clickers are making a bit of a mini-comeback, and I recently found out that Sam & Max: Season One is now available on the Wii (does this mean that point-and-click adventures are now mainstream again?). Hopefully, this marks the beginning of a trend: I’d love to see games like Full Throttle and Grim Fandango (or even sequels to them) making it onto the Wii, and I was particularly encouraged by the announcement of a Secret Of Monkey Island remake for X-box Live Arcade.

Long live the point-and-click adventure!

Lewis

*’The Making of: Sam & Max Hit the Road’, Retro Gamer March 2006

(Screenshots from www.mobygames.com)

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Filed under 1993, Lucasarts, PC, Point-and-Click Adventure