Review: Rogue Trooper (PC)

Atmosphere: A.  Full of dark and brooding colors and environments, it nevertheless has a crispness and completeness to it that makes exploration a pleasure.  Very high production values for the time (2006) and still looks decent to me today.  The soundtrack (both music and FX) is absolutely fantastic, with rumbling militaristic bass beats in every action scene, fun screams and satisfying gun reports.

Intelligence: B.  Conceptually weak on science but better than most games.  Where it really shines above however is the script and directing of the entire plotline.  There are many cliches, but soldiers speak and think like soldiers and the GI does not screw around; he never sways from his course of duty for a moment, even when characters such as the “high-ranking enemy cliched slutty chick” show up.   The player interface is also very well-designed, and getting him to do very deadly things is extremely easy and entertaining.

Involvement: A.  I found this game highly addictive from the start, with an interesting and unusual storyline (rich with background information that thankfully isn’t retold much here), good character progression and fun abilities to gain with each new level.  Making head shots and stealth kills never really gets old.  The idea of walking around in a poisonous atmosphere (and all your enemies suffering in various ways for this fact) is also a lot of fun.

What will annoy you:

Multiplayer.  Alas, every good game seems to be missing something big, and for this one, it is a rich multiplayer experience.  You are limited to only a few maps with specific mission criteria and no deathmatch.  Personally I’m fine with that last omission (since I love co-op), but with so few options to choose from, it would have been a simple way to expand their available options in network play.  It is even more disappointing because the game has a wonderful combat system and is high quality in nearly all other respects.  And perhaps most relevant of all, at this time (the end of 2010), despite the fact that this game has a devoted (if small) following, lack of good multiplayer has left this gem of a game all but forgotten.  The last few times I have checked, there has not been a single online game up and running anywhere in the world.  That is a crying shame.

Ease.  This game is very easy if you have any FPS skills.  Sure, you can die quickly in the wrong spot, but you’ll quickly find all kinds of ways to “game” the system.  For instance, no matter what difficulty level, a headshot with the standard rifle is always a kill.  Walking around crouched makes you deadly silent and much harder to spot by the enemy than appears reasonable.  Even at the highest difficulty you’ll end up getting enough salvage for all your upgrades and any ammo you need, and in the end you’ll rarely use other weapons.  Micromines are versatile and powerful, and completely free to use, so you’ll almost never employ grenades.  Setting up the tripod as covering fire creates an invulnerable distraction that can kill things forever, while you walk around with a pistol that has infinite ammo, apparently as much power as the rifle, and can make the same head shots (plus it sounds fantastic, like every other sound effect in the game).  You’ll even headshot snipers with your pistol from across maps.

Weapons.  While very cool in concept and effect, unfortunately most weapons pale in comparison to the standard rifle/pistol at higher difficulty levels.  This is because enemies have more hit points, which reduces the effectiveness of even shotguns at short range so greatly that you’ll just go for a headshot instead.  Grenades are very effective but I find it hard to use them when I could just lay down a large pattern of Micromines instead (which can kill even the heaviest units after a few drops), without costing a thing.  Simply put, if you’ll play this game you might as well spam all your other weapons whenever you please just to have a bit of fun, because you’ll never actually need them save for a few specific circumstances.

Bugs.  Only a few, and most of them forgivable, but they’re there.  Occasionally you’ll find yourself getting stuck when trying to climb up a ledge from the wrong position or jumping at the wrong angle.  Less serious errors include being unable to cancel out of certain motions when done by mistake, which can lead to deaths during combat.  Reloading from the last checkpoint is, however, very fast and never requires much backtracking.

Review: Starcraft 2

Atmosphere:  A.  Very few flaws can even hope to disrupt your suspension of disbelief.  Every mission or scene brings originality and the mark of fine craftmanship.

Intelligence:  B+.  The execution is nearly brilliant and only slightly less impressive than the presentation.  At its base is a thoughtful and prolonged exposition on the kind of men who wage war most effectively and their place outside of it.  The interface is also greatly improved in terms of usability.

Involvement:  A+.  Massive content and insightful writing create a thrilling engagement not easily distracted.  Both the single-player and multi-player aspects are of the highest production quality.  The campaign even offers some replayability due to a few dichotomous choices and financial limitations.

What will annoy you:

Price.  I do agree that the game is worth $60, but it is not easy to stomach that kind of price for a modern computer game that offers only a single campaign.  If more games of this quality were available and I was accustomed to both this and a higher price, I personally would probably not have any objection at all.

Interface.  While massively updated, there are still some glaring omissions in helpfulness.  Your ability to zoom out always feels just a bit cramped, and the standard screen-edge-scrolling is very old hat.  More hotkeys to automatically select certain classes of buildings (like W for all Warp Gates as the Protoss) would also be welcome.  I’m also still disappointed to see that units must be purchased before they are actually produced in queues; it really doesn’t make sense, and basically just feels like a punishment for planning ahead.

AI.  Again while this is an area that has had enormous attention, there are some issues with units failing to pathfind (mostly in balls of both large and small units such as Marines and Thors) and incredibly stupid SCVs who will box themselves in after building a structure.

Voice acting.  Many of the voices are fantastic, but some sound quite weak.  The Tank gunner sounds like he is struggling to replicate his original voice.  Tychus, for being a main character, has a voice that is just a bit overdone.  Kerrigan also didn’t strike me as very sincere in her affectations.

Final Fantasy.  One of the last new characters to appear in the game is very much out of place as some kind of effeminate anime representative.

On the death of Games Workshop

When I was 11, my brother brought home some small metal figurines.  I wondered (and asked), how do they work?  They don’t have any moving parts, so what do you do with them?  When my brother told me “you paint them”, I thought, wow, imagine that; you can give them color!  Neat.  He let me have a couple miniatures he wasn’t crazy about, and I painted them up (poorly, but impressive to both of us).  Not long after that, Warhammer 40,000 was released, and the lure of sci-fi warfare left a permanent mark in our hearts that persists to this day.  My brother sent away for his first pack of plastic Space Marines (a box of 30 was $20 if I remember), and we were hooked for life.  I also started getting into Battletech heavily, but only with my own house rules.

Many years later, and still many years ago now, Adeptus Titanicus/Space Marine was released, and I dived in with all my allowance.  I also pursued Space Hulk, Blood Bowl and other small off-shoot games.  But in the next few years, GW started making changes.  They effectively stopped supporting the Epic 40k universe (and other games I loved) completely, started charging unbelievably exorbitant prices, and developed an aloofness and arrogance that I could only compare to companies like Microsoft (and Apple nowadays) and ComEd, or the American car companies before they got hammered, or Sony when they were so certain the Playstation 3 was worth $600 and everyone would buy one.

So when did this:

Turn into this?

My brother and I often lament the great misuse of the intellectual property that is the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  For instance, how did the very dangerous and intimidating Space Marines turn into colorful posers with “accessories”?  Who thought it was reasonable that ultimate soldiers going to war would do so with embellishments and loincloths?  Where is the camouflage and concealed proof of rank?  Where is the maximization of combat effectiveness?  When did these superhuman warriors become primarily religious crusaders?

At the same time, the years have seen many changes in other races.  The Squats, those wonderful space dwarves, were eliminated from the lineup, despite being perennial favorites of so many players who appreciated their greedy-biker-vengeful-blacksmith personalities.  And in place, we were given…  Robot zombies, female Space Marines, and Asian Manga men.  WTF.  Very original.  I even wrote to them and expressed my views over this.  Their response (in my own words):  “Well I guess we made the right decision because everyone’s buying them, so go #&%@ yourself.”  In my opinion, the fact that more consumers were buying their product was part of the problem.  Leonardo Da Vinci might not have died an outcast if he had spent his time producing what the average consumer wanted.

When I first heard about the Tyranids, I thought “well, it’s a knock-off from Aliens and many other things, but they’re not doing a bad job”.  Still, a little part of my mind worried about the future and what else could be around the corner.  Would they continue to refine the original races, or would they “go commercial” and turn from being a small quality studio with dignity to a mass-production company aimed squarely at the average consumer and run by executives?

The final straw for me was when I read something in a new rulebook detailing Chaos Daemon usage.  It was in regards to the effect of a psychic attack the Lord of Change could use which killed enemies in an area and turned them in to Pink Horrors.  To paraphrase, here is what it said: “For each unit killed under the blast template, you may place one Pink Horror exactly in its place.  You must have the real Pink Horror figures available; you may not use any other figure to represent Pink Horrors in this manner.  If no Pink Horrors are available, this has no further effect.”

Yep.  The company that produces the rules to use with the miniatures that I have paid thousands of dollars for at this point is actually telling me, outright, that I am not allowed to use their rules without buying more of their miniatures.  My army actually suffers versus the enemy because I have not given GW enough money.  Instantly, I built a resentment toward GW that had only fledgling support in the back of my mind up to then.  I started to look at all I had bought and all that other people had spent and began to think it was ridiculous.  The prices, the constant recycling of old material to re-release for more money, the wastefulness, the aloofness, the cancellation of some great material…  I started moving my interest more heavily into computers, Battletech and other games at that point.

But it was so tragic to watch the managers of the incredible Space Marines and their Emperor turn the hobby I loved into overpriced geek smut, catering to the masses, caring nothing for the purity and the grit of the original enterprise.  Gaming has always occupied a huge part of my life and I had more than a little heartbreak over this.  I even wrote to them directly several times.  The bad news just kept coming each year; I even found out from insiders just how they planned to cycle games and how often they would abandon support for older ones (I believe it was every two years), so it was confirmed that they planned to dump my beloved Epic game all along.  Finally they took the sales business into their own hands and opened their own stores, legally preventing any other store online from advertising their product.  I made two visits to these stores, and was repulsed by their very aggressive sales tactics and disturbing support of people with clearly pathological addiction to their product.  Every time I hear about a GW Store closing, I do a little dance.

I have many Warhammer 40k novels.  Aside from computer games, that is the only thing bearing any GW property I have paid money for in perhaps 10 years.  I continued to use their rules for many years and wouldn’t mind picking up a game or two right at this moment.  But, when I think of the years I’ve devoted to them and the complete disregard they’ve shown me, I don’t want to give them another penny.  I’m a big fan of many computer games that license their property, but I’ve never paid full price for them.  And again, I like the books from certain authors who can rekindle a bit of my childhood interest in the mystique and adventure of living a Space Marine’s life.  But oh, how I long to have the millions necessary to purchase this intellectual property outright and return it to its right direction.

Alas, I believe the Corpse-God may truly be dead after all.

Review: Torchlight (PC)

Atmosphere:  B.  Smooth and appealing graphics and sound.  Not wholly original in many ways, but well done.

Intelligence:  B+.  Overall structure and interface are vastly improved over Diablo II (the obvious forefather).

Involvement:  B.  Short, highly addictive and only slightly annoying.  No crashes over hours of play.

What will annoy you:

Treasure hunting.  This is definitely one of those Platemail-and-a-bag-of-treasure-under-every-rock kind of games.  Personally I can’t stand this and it’s one thing I hated about Diablo II (which must be directly compared, as the game is clearly selling to that crowd).  It really takes the joy out of finding important items when magical ones are lying around all over the place.  Why would I want to imagine a reality where I’ll spend half of my time finding, sorting, identifying, and selling trinkets?

Bosses.  Diablo II made it very clear when you were about to face a quest boss, both in location or circumstance, and also graphically or musically.  This game basically leaves it up to you to figure out when you’re fighting a boss.  Many of them really don’t look different at all from other large enemies wandering around.

Targeting.  As with Diablo II, it can be difficult to have your hero attack an enemy instead of run past them (or run up to them when trying to attack at range).  It really seems more difficult than it needs to be.  This also includes problems with overlap, such as large doors, treasure items, and enemies all covering the same space, and often preventing you from getting the result you desire.

Character model.  While three isn’t bad, it would have been great to see more control over your statistics.  These are permanent features of your avatar, so why not fill them out instead of adding more item management to the game?

Price.  $19.99 on Steam.  I’m on the fence over this.  The game is high quality but just doesn’t quite have the “feel” of a game that should command more than $10 for a download.  It is only 10-20 hours of gameplay depending on your style, and the storyline is not as compelling as the environment, so I don’t expect a lot of replay value.

Favorite PC games of all time

I’ve always loved games with a great atmosphere and intelligent writing.  The more immersive the better, and if it also has a great interface (that didn’t annoy me completely) and gameplay, I’ll never forget my experience with it.  The great thing for you is, many of these games can be found freely on the web as abandonware.  I urge you not to underestimate any of these greats.  To this day, I could pick up and play any one of them.

Counting down to number 1 (that being the best)…

Multi-Player:

10. Starcraft

9. Rainbow Six

8. Shogun: Total War

7. Conquest: Frontier Wars

6. Total Annihilation

5. Viet Cong

4. Dawn of War

3. Ghost Recon

2. Unreal Tournament (with my custom voice packs and skins)

1. Serious Sam: Second Encounter

Single Player:

20. Commandos 2

19. Darwinia

18. Master of Orion

17. Warcraft 3

16. Majesty

15. Tron 2.0

14. Final Liberation

13. Planescape: Torment

12. Mechcommander

11. Axis & Allies (1998 and 2006)

10. The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

9. Bionic Commando: Rearmed

8. Dark Omen (best interface EVER)

7. Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate

6. Master of Magic

5. Space Hulk (1993)

4. Outwars

3. Homeworld

2. X-com

1. Fallout 2

Honorable mentions:

Postal (1997), for intensely satisfying my anger issues.  The sequel was too malevolent for me to be interested but the first game felt very direct and focused on anger at stupid people, of which I had a lot.

Dune 2 (1991), for bringing me into computer games, and being just about the best $40 I ever spent.  It doesn’t make this list because it just isn’t playable compared to newer games anymore.  Head over to Dune 2: The Golden Path to find the remake I am developing.