Deus Ex – Betrayal!

Turns out, murdering a fellow agent isn’t the thing to do if you want to earn favor with your boss. But surprisingly enough all I got was a scolding. […] In retaliation for the betrayal, they’ve remotely deactivated Paul’s augmentation and activated his kill switch. Your brother has twenty-four hours to live. If Paul has a kill switch, that means I do too. Step out of line, and the powers that be will snuff me out. This kind of puts a dampener on morale; nobody likes to work for a jerk!

This post is the fourth in my series which chronicles my journey through the original Deus Ex. Read part three here.

The pursuit of stolen Ambrosia continues. I’ve successfully traveled to the private section of LaGuardia airport in pursuit of Juan Lebedev, the man behind the theft of the Ambrosia vaccine. According to Joseph Manderley, my boss at UNATCO, “Lebedev poses a continuing threat to UNATCO. He is also a dangerous man, and if the operation should result in his termination rather than capture, there is no doubt that the agent responsible would be found acted appropriately and with the full force of the law.” Lebedev is loading the stolen vaccine onto a plane in preparation for transport elsewhere. My job is to find him and the vaccine, and prevent both of them from leaving the airport. 

Sneaking around the airport was tense, but not as difficult as I thought it might be. Due to my unfortunate resort to violence in the last mission, I was well stocked on tranquilizer darts here. There were a few security bots I had to sprint away from, but I was able to get the drop on most of the security guards. Outside of the the airplane hangar, my main objective, I had a little bit of trouble with the guard house. There were two ways in: a door, and a second-story window. Entering through the door put me in full view of two NSF troops. There was no way for me to incapacitate both before one of them triggered the alarm. Going in through the second-story window put me in a dorm room. There were some supplies, but I needed a lockpick to get out, and I didn’t have one. At this point I’m starting to wonder if lock picks really are so fragile, or if the game has made them disposable for the sake of balance. It’d be kind of overpowered if I only needed a single lock pick to open every locked door in the game, right? To get in the guard house, I wound up going back outside through the window, and tossing a few metal crates around. The noise attracted one of the guards from inside, which I batoned into submission. This left me free to give the remaining guard a dart-infused nap. Obstacles removed, I stood freely in front of my objective: Lebedev’s 747.

Betrayal! In this hangar I find a terrorist-operated 747, a barrel of stolen vaccine, Juan Lebedev himself, and my dear brother Paul waiting on the front steps to greet me. He’s a double-agent, affiliated with the NSF but working undercover at UNATCO. Shocking? Maybe to some people, but it was pretty clearly telegraphed by the game up until this point. What I didn’t expect it what Paul tells me about the virus. The Gray Death is a man-made virus, which means someone unleashed it intentionally. Since UNATCO is the only organization capable of creating and distributing the cure, every organization on earth is subject to their whims. Earth is controlled by bankers. Who’d have thought?

I go into the plane and prepare to meet Lebedev. Before doing so, a friend of mine suggested I plant a LAM, Lightweight Attack Munition in the hallway outside our meeting. It seems a bit odd to me to plant an explosive outside of a peaceful meeting between a government agent and a world terrorist, but who am I to judge?

Explosive planted, I walk in to interrogate Lebedev. He surrenders and says little else. My conversation with him ends, and the hallway outside his room explodes. A second later, I hear footsteps walk past me and into the bathroom. Following them inside, I notice that Anna Navarre is cloaked and registering as a hostile. Shooting her a few more times, she falls and then explodes. Cybernetically augmented agents do that, apparently. Wait, what? I planted the explosive in the hallway, and Anna detonated it. The explosive is triggered by any kind of motion, friend or foe, so that’s why it detonated. The blast wasn’t enough to kill her, but she registered it as an attack and responded by activating her built-in cloaking defense. At this point, she is hostile towards me since I planted the explosive. I had to shoot her a few more times to preserve my life and Lebedev’s. She then died, at which point her cybernetic implants went into overload and exploded so nobody could recover them.

So what would happen if I didn’t try to explode Anna preemptively? Deus Ex is great in that it gives nearly unparalleled player freedom, but it doesn’t necessarily make clear what the alternative options are. As it turns out, if Anna had come into the meeting between JC and Lebedev, she would have issued an ultimatum: Kill Lebedev or she will. Kill the prisoner, and you both go back to UNATCO. JC would be riddled with the guilt of murdering an unarmed man; a man who his bosses claim is a terrorist. In addition he’d be no closer to knowing why his brother betrayed an organization that’s the embodiment of international cooperation. Kill Anna, and you’ve betrayed the world government and will presumably suffer their full wrath.

Since killing an unarmed prisoner isn’t my cup of tea, I decided that to betraying my host organization was the moral thing to do. It was a good thing that Anna had been removed from the picture. After she, er, departs, Lebedev is in more of a talking mood. He states that JC and Paul are genetically-engineered humans; a pioneering experiment in the absolute control of mankind. UNATCO is a lie, that it’s just a puppet for the real threat: a secretive organization called Majestic-12. Why else would there be only one corporately-manufactured cure to a global plague? Shouldn’t the recipe for healing be transmitted to any company that’s capable of manufacturing it? The Gray Death is about controlling the population. The NSF was working on getting the vaccine to a man in Hong Kong named Tracer Tong. He’s working on reverse-engineering the cure so it can be mass-produced and distributed to the masses.

Treason committed and sinister plot uncovered, it’s time to go back and report to the boss. Manderley is not happy.

Turns out, murdering a fellow agent isn’t the thing to do if you want to earn favor with your boss. But surprisingly enough all I got was a scolding. Manderley was happy enough that they were able to take Lebedev into custody, but he’s very upset at Paul’s abandonment. In retaliation for the betrayal, they’ve remotely deactivated Paul’s augmentation and activated his kill switch. Your brother has twenty-four hours to live. If Paul has a kill switch, that means I do too. Step out of line, and the powers that be will snuff me out. This kind of puts a dampener on morale; nobody likes to work for a jerk! To make things worse, my next official assignment is to go to Hong Kong and execute Tracer Tong. UNATCO takes their anti-competition clauses quite seriously.

I walk over to the helipad and meet up with my pilot, Jock. He’s not taking me to Hong Kong, but rather back to Hell’s Kitchen. Paul returned to his apartment and is in need of my help. You know, since he’s being murdered by the people who made him. Upon capturing Lebedev’s jet, UNATCO now has the locations of many other NSF agents around the world. This puts Paul’s allies under the hammer, and they’re getting wiped out left and right. Paul went back to Hell’s Kitchen because there’s a communication center nearby he can use to broadcast a warning to his friends.

There’s a lot to this section, but I think the most important thing is that I (finally) learned how the game’s durability system works. Doors, panels, and certain other objects have ratings assigned to them. These ratings make it easy to see how difficult it will be to access them. Take a look at the screenshot below; there are two ways to gain access to it. In order to open it up, I need to either use two lock picks or deal more than 10 damage to the door. 

Thankfully, the damage stats for each weapon in your inventory is pretty easy to read. My upgraded pistol deals 16 damage per bullet, making it a very logical choice to get that cabinet open.

However, there’s a door right next to that cabinet that required some… more powerful… methods in order to get it open.

The room that I blasted my way into contained some incriminating data on UNATCO. Paul needed me to broadcast that to the world along with the warning to other members of the NSF. This required I work my way back on top of a building to get to the broadcast terminal. Since I was still friendly towards the UNATCO troops who occupied the building, this was not a problem. However, part of being a cybernetically-powered super soldier is the always-on monitoring software. It’s this feature which allowed my tech support Alex to record – and then delete – my interaction with Anna on the jet. This is the same feature that allowed Walton Simmons, evil robotic overlord, to witness me broadcast a signal to the NSF in real time. Since he, through some malevolent influence, commands all UNATCO forces, this was a problem for both me and my brother Paul. Now we’re both enemies of the state.

Paul was back at his apartment, sitting defenseless whilst surrounded by now-enemy troops. When I make it back to visit him, he tells me to run for the subway station and leave him there. Leaving and running is the most logical thing to do. I possess no heavy weapons, and even if I did I don’t have the training to use them effectively. There are at least a dozen human soldiers to contend with, as well as two or three tough Men In Black. The only problem running away is that if I do so I also condemn my brother to death. Leave, and he’s out of the story. Considering that it’s his influence that caused me to betrayed the only peacekeeping government on the planet, there’s no chance I was going to just let him sit there and die. 

Since my armament consisted of little more than a pistol and a mini crossbow, this was a tough fight. I had to resort to using my one LAM to take out the Men In Black, and that was barely effective enough. My pistol proficiency was good enough that I could stay crouched and land head shots consistently, but the ammo reserves dwindled very quickly. The lobby of the ‘Ton held a more challenging fight. A dozen or so UNATCO troops wait stationed at various locations, all of them holding different armaments. I had to save, reload, and reload again to find a path that worked effectively. In the end it took a combination of pistol shots, tranquilizer darts, and a well-placed gas grenade to ensure that my brother and I could leave the hotel alive. After the battle Paul pushed me towards my only route of escape: the subway. Unfortunately, Gunther was waiting to remind me that there is no escape from scary robot men. 

Deus Ex – Hell’s Kitchen

All of these paths forward are completely optional. If I’d wanted to, I could have skipped all these other distractions and just walked through an alley to approach the warehouse head on. Tactics dictated that doing that was a bad idea for me. Since I’ve been playing with a stealthy, mostly non-lethal approach, I have no practical means of neutralizing multiple enemies at long range. Plus, I just don’t want to go in with guns blazing. It’s that Deus Ex thing again: giving players a choice about how to play the game.

This post is the second in my series which chronicles my journey through the original Deus Ex. Read part one here.

Terrorists have intercepted a shipment of Ambrosia, the anti-plague vaccine. JC, that’s me, recovered a lone barrel of it in Castle Clinton, but the majority of it remains unaccounted for. Clues point inland, towards a warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen. The NSF’s armed forces have retreated there and set up a line of defenses. Such hasty movement shouldn’t be a problem since UNATCO employs multiple cybernetically-augmented superman. But part of their defense involves a powerful generator that produces an electromagnetic field. This effectively blocks UNATCO troops from entering. Your mission: Disable the generator so your brother Paul can swoop in and recover the vaccine.Hell’s Kitchen is kind of a barren place. What first strikes me about the environment is how much it does and doesn’t feel like a big-city neighborhood. On one hand, its depiction if a city block is pretty spot-on when compared to many other games released around the turn of the millennium. On the other hand, it’s really, really barren. Cities are a hard thing to recreate in video games. In the real world, there are thousands of tiny details and variations that give buildings and neighborhoods a human touch. Even in subdivisions filled with cookie-cutter houses, the personalities of the people who dwell in them set them apart from each other. Gaming technology of the late 90s just didn’t have the power to display all of that. As a result, buildings become large shapes comprised of overly-simplified geometry. Those large shapes are then covered with a small patch of a texture, tiled and repeated to cover the surface area. Since the human brain wants to find patters, big rectangles covered with repetitive designs stand out like a giant sign saying, “this isn’t real!” This is supposed to be the heart of New York city, after all.

From a gaming perspective this usually means that if there’s a detail present in a large open area, it’s there for a reason and worth investigating. Shortly after entering the level, I find a corner of the map where there are a few crates and a dumpster. On the building exterior above them is a ledge. Thinking this must lead somewhere, I stack the crates so I can jump onto the dumpster and then traverse the ledge to an open window. It’s connected to a small one-bedroom apartment. There’s a safe in the wall, so I use one of my valuable lock picks to get it open. Inside is a bio-electric cell and another lock pick. There’s another locked door in here, but I don’t have anything to open it with. The loot I got didn’t seem worth all the trouble, but at least I didn’t lose anything valuable. Before leaving, I scan the room for anything else of interest and my cursor briefly highlights an object on the wall. Out of curiosity I crouch down for a closer look. It’s an electrical outlet. I press the right mouse button to interact with it, and wind up shocking myself. Puzzled as to why the game would allow this, I shock myself a few more times before losing interest and move on. Maybe some practical use for this will reveal itself later on?

Feeling sufficiently energized, I head off to explore another corner of Hell’s Kitchen and walk right into a firefight between UNATCO and NSF troops. The bad guys were severely outnumbered here, so I crouched behind a barricade and let the battle play out. Once the bullets stopped flying I did what any decent soldier would do and looted the corpses that piled up in the street. Since I’m still not planning to play this game with the intention of shooting everything in sight, I didn’t recover much that was of use to me. Most of the troops were carrying machine guns and big bullets; not anything I’ve used so far. Talking to the sergeant in command of UNATCO troops, I learned that the bad guys had fled through a nearby door. It’s secured with an electronic lock, but nobody knows what the pass code is.

As barren as Hell’s Kitchen is, there’s still a lot to do. In addition to the firefight, I also saved a bum from getting beaten up by NSF thugs. I met a drunk outside of a hotel who warned me about a hostage situation inside. And last but not least, I beat up a pimp who was trying to further the exploitation of one of his call girls. All of these activities are completely optional, but all of them enrich the main path of progression. The bum offered a clue that could get me to the main warehouse via an entrance hidden by shipping containers. Clearing out the hostage situation in the hotel provided me with  a clue to the location of a window I could climb through to gain access to my objective. Knocking out the pimp led to more discussions about crime in the area and ended up giving me the pass code to the door that my UNATCO ally told me about earlier.

All of these paths forward are completely optional. If I’d wanted to, I could have skipped all these other distractions and just walked through an alley to approach the warehouse head on. Tactics dictated that doing that was a bad idea for me. Since I’ve been playing with a stealthy, mostly non-lethal approach, I have no practical means of neutralizing multiple enemies at long range. Plus, I just don’t want to go in with guns blazing. It’s that Deus Ex thing again: giving players a choice about how to play the game. I decided to go the quiet route, back to that warehouse entrance protected by a keypad. After sneaking past some guards, picking a few locks, and climbing a ladder or two, I found myself on the rooftops.

In the times I’ve played this game before, the rooftops have always been a cakewalk. Enemies didn’t seem to be able to see three feet in front of themselves, allowing me to wield a baton and knock them all out stealthily. That didn’t work this time. The improved AI in GMDX surprised me. While I was standing near a ledge using my binoculars to scout he rooftops ahead of me, I started taking damage. Where did that come from? I frantically panned around and couldn’t see anything! Finally I noticed there was a sniper on a rooftop below who had just hit me for the third time. In a panic I whip out my pistol and send some bullets back in his direction. The firefight attracts the attention of two other enemies, and I wind up lining up some long-range shots with my pistol. So much for the quiet entrance.

As I get closer to the warehouse, I drop down to ground-level and find a staircase that leads to a second-floor office. There’s a lone NSF soldier sitting at a computer. I introduce my baton to the back of his head and then hack into the workstation. Before I know it, I’d turned off the generator and an alarm starts blaring! It was my intention to see what the computer controlled and then do some more snooping around, but I inadvertently shut down the generator and triggered the end of the mission. Now NSF troops are rushing past me towards the roof, where I hear a lot of gunfire. The enemy troops are exchanging fire with an unseen assailant on the roof. One by one they crumple to the ground in front of me. Gunther Hermann, an ally of mine, had been dropped on the roof via helicopter and was securing my extraction with a lot of bullets.

Warehouse infiltrated? Check! Generator shut down? Check! Lots of enemy troops, gunned down in a hailstorm of bullets? Uh, check, I guess. While it wasn’t my intention to complete Deus Ex with a nonlethal run, I didn’t really want it to turn into a bloodbath either. The fact that you can still complete your mission even after things go wrong is one of he alluring things about this game. I’m certain that if I was a lot more careful, I could have completed this mission more discreetly. It’s a relief to play a game that’s comfortable with improvisation, rather than programming the player to fail unless they do things exactly as specified.

Speaking of failure: after returning to UNATCO HQ, you find out that Paul botched the retrieval mission in the warehouse. UNATCO still doesn’t have the drugs they were after, and Paul didn’t report back to HQ. The NSF is still moving the vaccine, conceivably through abandoned subway tunnels. It’s your job to clean up your brother’s mess and go find the drugs. I poke around at headquarters for a bit, healing from the bot in the med lab and then try to hack into an email account or two. It turns out that some of the top brass isn’t happy with Paul. The “Primary Unit” isn’t behaving as expected, and they are releasing him from service. Ominous tidings for my bionic brother…

Enter the Gungeon Makes Failing Fun!

Most of your enemies are bullets, and I mean that literally. Enemies are sentient bullets that move and fire guns. Which, in turn, send actual bullets in your direction. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

I don’t know if I have what it takes to beat Enter the Gungeon. It’s possible for skilled players to complete a run through the game’s six levels in under an hour. I am not a skilled player, at least not yet. A few moments ago, my sixtieth run at the game ended once again in failure. This time I was killed by the Bullet King, who I consider to be the easiest first-level boss. After reading the details on the game-over screen, I unconsciously tapped the button to immediately begin again. It’s a strange thing, because repeated failure doesn’t typically make games fun to play. And yet, after sixty attempts and twelve hours of play time I want to keep playing.

This is the end of attempt #60. I died after 6 minutes and 38 seconds, with 53 kills in this attempt.

Gungeon is a deceptively simple game. It’s easy to play, especially with a controller. Left stick to move, right stick to aim. Different buttons fire, reload, dodge, and use items. Your objective: fight through an enemy-filled fortress in pursuit of a powerful artifact. Every level of the fortress is filled to the brim with those who would do you harm. They all protect the treasure contained within: a gun that can kill the past. This relic can be used to make what was done, undone. Simply put, this gun gives the one who wields it the ability to erase their failures from the past. You control any of four characters, the Marine, the Convict, the Pilot, or the Hunter. Each of them has a past that must be erased; tragedies and failures that must be set right. Only the most haunting of pasts can possibly be motivation enough to face what lies inside the Gungeon.

I absolutely love the pixel art style of the game.

Most of your enemies are bullets, and I mean that literally. Enemies are sentient bullets that move and fire guns. Which, in turn, send actual bullets in your direction. I couldn’t make this stuff up. The simple controls allow you to devote your focus on the delicate and frenetic combat. Different classes of enemies have their own types of weapons and movement patterns. Some fire single, slow-moving projectiles. Others wind up and unleash a wall of bullets. My least favorite charge directly towards you and explode spectacularly. The hazards of the Gungeon prove that situational awareness is just as important as your reflexes. It’s a bad idea to be in corner when a Gun Nut unleashes a barrages of angry red projectiles in your direction.

Shooting at bullets is ridiculously fun thanks to the lighthearted tone of the game as well as the varied and frequently tongue-in-cheek weapon design. Every gun, and there are a lot, has different strengths and weaknesses. Many of them are utterly entertaining to use, even if they aren’t entirely effective. For instance, The Bullet is a bullet. It fires guns. That also fire bullets. It’s asinine in the most entertaining of ways. My favorite weapon so far has to be the Lower Case r. Instead of firing bullets, it fires out letters that spell out the word “bullet”. Score a hit on an enemy, and instead of an explosion you’ll see the word “BLAM!” in glowing orange text. The Wind Up Gun is a homage to Futurama. It’s a blue rifle that shoots green projectiles and plays “Pop Goes the Weasel” as you wind the crank to reload it. I’ve also come across weapons such as a camera, a garbage gun, an M1, a mer-shotgun (a shotgun with a mermaid tail that shoots deadly water), a dripping barrel that fires deadly fish, the Thompson Machine Gun, shotguns, and the Klobbe; a fantastically useless weapon.The glee of using some of these more than makes up for the untimely deaths I suffer when wielding them.

Look carefully. I’m not firing off bullets, I’m shooting off letters.

Knowing when not to shoot is just as important as accurately unloading a magazine of bullets, rockets, letters, or fish. Your primary defense against the enemy onslaught is the dodge roll. Timed correctly, it will vault you safely over nearly any glowing red orb of death. Used recklessly, it’s just as effective at placing you in harm’s way. Boss encounters are usually a battle against one large enemy that can literally fill a room with unfriendly fire. These encounters are slowly teaching me that it’s okay not to be firing at enemies all the time. Sometimes the best thing to do is stop pulling the trigger and focus on not getting hit.

This is what they call “bullet heck”.

Gungeon is a punishing roguelike experience. This means that each level is procedurally generated. While every floor of the Gungeon will contain similar elements, the level layout, enemy makeup, and item drops will be different every time. Roguelike also means that permadeath is the name of the game. Die on level three, and you start again on level one. Though I must note that you don’t start completely from scratch after every death. Through the course of the game, you encounter other characters in the fortress. Setting them free allows them to set up shop in the game’s central hub so you can interact with them before starting a run. They offer special items or other quests to complete in return for rewards. Defeating bosses will give you a glowing green currency that survives permadeath. This currency can then be used to unlock new weapons and equipment that will show up as drops in the Gungeon in future attempts.

This is not a game that’s meant to be rushed through. Nobody will sit down and breeze through to the final boss in an hour or two. Instead, Gungeon will sit installed on my hard drive for weeks and months. Over time I’ll chip away at it bit by bit, making one hard-earned step of progress at a time. I don’t know how long it will take for me to kill the past, but I know I’m going to have fun trying.

I’m dead. Doesn’t this look fun??

The Cast of Wolfenstein: The New Order

Each member of The Resistance has been burned by the evil in the world, and all of them want to do their part to end the menace of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Watching their stories unfold in cut scenes is just as riveting as the in-game gun play. You will get attached to these people before the story ends.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is one of my favorite games of all time. If I were to rank my favorite shooters, this would currently get my #2 spot. There’s a lot I love about this game; too much to fit into a single blog post. Therefore, consider this to be the first in a series. For the opener, I focus on the cast. 

Wolfenstein: The New Order is all about spectacle. The opening mission alone contains more shock and awe than the whole of many other shooters. You are William “BJ” Blaskowicz, American soldier on board an Allied bomber as the forces of good make their final assault against the cold Nazi regime. This is no ordinary bomber mission. In short succession you’ll be required to extinguish a fire in the fuel line, dump your cargo, and man the nose turret to take out enemy fighter planes. Then you jump off your plane onto the wing of another, only to crash land and participate in a beachhead assault on the Axis regime. By the time I was fighting in the trenches beneath a towering Nazi robot I thought it impossible to fit more over-the-top action sequences into a single mission. I was wrong. There’s quite a bit more in this opening mission, and heaps of it in the remainder of the game. It would be wrong of me to spoil it if you haven’t already experienced it for yourself. Except the Nazi moon base. I’ll spoil the moon base simply because you have to see it for yourself.

Spectacle is fine, but can be quite tiring if it isn’t grounded. A series of fantastic events will overload your perception of a game’s world. What’s the context for the things that are happening? How does it affect the people in this world? This is where the incredible cast of The New Order comes into play. Fergus is the foul-mouthed war veteran who has seen it all. Impossible assault on the enemy’s last stronghold? Just another day in the war.  On the other side of the coin stands Private Wyatt, the greenhorn who is new to the carnage of battle. Upon first meeting the young lad, you’ll be prompted to slap some sense into him. Yes, really. Later, BJ offers the young lad some practical advice about how to better deal with the horrors of war. Wyatt is obviously out of his comfort zone, but he’s doing the best he can for his country. By making the player focus on how the supporting characters are reacting to the events in the game, it takes pressure off of the player to be impressed by it all. We start to empathize with our squad mates instead of considering just how ridiculous it all is. It’s a great narrative trick that makes the main story beats resonate on an emotional level.

It is true that the characters I’ve just described fit the cookie cutter character stereotypes found in many war stories. What may be surprising is that none of them feel that way; they all feel completely genuine. Part of the reason for this is The New Order’s approach to storytelling. We’re not forced through a segment of exposition and backstory explaining why we should care about anyone. Instead, we’re shown how their personalities respond to the situations they’re in. Fergus knows there’s a job to do, but he still spares a moment to tell his squad mate to look after a wound. Wyatt refers to everyone as “sir” in an respectful tone of voice, even when he’s scared out of his wits. Even BJ will whisper some of his thoughts and motivations during quiet moments in the game. Amazingly, his soft-spoken demeanor doesn’t seem at odds with is proficiency for killing Nazis. By themselves, none of these elements would work. By all rights, none of them should work. But somehow, all the different elements work together to create one of the most memorable casts in gaming.

The New Order knows this, so the cast is thrust front and center throughout the game. The most prominent showcase is found in the Resistance headquarters. You’ll visit this location a few times over the course of the game. It’s used as a place of respite and safe haven from the hordes of evil foes. When BJ first arrives at Resistance HQ, he’s given a room to sleep in. Above the doorway is the nameplate for its former resident, their name now scratched out. A pillar in one of the upper room holds dozens of candles keeping silent vigil over portraits of the fallen. The entire space is an effective device to remind the player that BJ is in a world that’s much bigger than himself.

More than just a museum in which to passively read journal pages, the Resistance HQ offers some combat-light exploration missions that flesh out the personalities and backstories of your allies. Tekla is a young scientist obsessed with finding the equations to explain everything. J is a guitar virtuoso who would be world famous had history taken a different path. Set Roth is a Jewish scientist and a member of the secret Da’at Yichud society that provides hope for The Resistance. The New Order gets special notice for being the first game I’ve played with a portrayal of a mentally handicapped character: Max Haas. Max is a man who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child, and possesses the mental capacity of a five year old. He was found on the streets and taken in by another member of the Resistance, Klaus Kreutz. Klaus is a former Nazi. He was turned from their cause when the Reich murdered his wife and son because of perceived impurity in the child. Klaus now looks after Max as if he were his own son.

Each member of The Resistance has been burned by the evil in the world, and all of them want to do their part to end the menace of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Watching their stories unfold in cut scenes is just as riveting as the in-game gun play. You will get attached to these people before the story ends. The last scene of the game is an emotional one, with one main character making a major sacrifice for the sake of the others. It’s sad, to be sure, but it feels right. It works because both the character and the player know there was no other choice to be made. Any time a video game can make players pause to reflect on the nature of sacrifice, it’s doing something right. Many games show characters beating impossible odds and saving the day without being touched by real danger. The New Order doubles down and digs deep into the trauma that comes with heroism. All of our heroes here are broken, but that’s what makes them so compelling. They stare into the face of evil and instead of giving into despair, they steel themselves for the fight against it. In a genre where so many characters demand your affection, the cast of The New Order earns it. I can’t wait to see what they’re up to in The New Colossus.

Far Cry: The Predator Simulator

The original Far Cry is essentially Predator: The Video Game. But instead of playing the part of a freaky outer-space alien hunting Army jocks, you’re a freaky Hawaiian shirt-clad jock hunting other mercenary jocks.

Welcome to First Impressions, where I relay my experiences of a game’s opening moments. 

The original Far Cry is essentially Predator: The Video Game. But instead of playing the part of a freaky outer-space alien hunting Army jocks, you’re a freaky Hawaiian shirt-clad jock hunting other mercenary jocks. After a brief tutorial, the game sets you free in a beautiful tropical vista. Saltwater shimmers in a nearby bay, reflecting the image of far-off beaches. A flock of birds flies in front of you from right to left, inviting your eyes to notice the scope of the environment in front of you. On the dock below, a mercenary absentmindedly holds a fishing pole while two others walk back and forth on the beach. This is the moment that defines Far Cry.  Freedom. Freedom to approach the situation how you want to. You could start shooting from your elevated vantage point, attempting to blow up the yellow container of fuel on the dock. You could sneak down closer to the structures, engaging enemies at close range. Or you could circle around to the left, avoiding confrontation altogether. A game that gives you options: this is Far Cry’s claim to fame.

Yes, it took me three shots to explode the barrel. Don’t judge me, that’s a long way for a pistol shot.

I opt to go loud. It takes me three shots to make the barrel go boom. The fishing merc got thrown off the dock by the explosion and is now bobbing in the water, face down. Another mercenary charges up the hill towards me, firing as he runs. Panicked, I return fire. It takes a surprising number of bullets to his torso before he slumps to the ground. Enemies in this game are tough! I walk down to the hut, hoping to find a needed medkit and maybe other items of value. There’s a a machete on the table, but I can’t imagine getting close enough to enemies to use it on large islands like this. On my way out of the hut I come face to face with an enemy I wasn’t expecting. He lights into me as I reflexively fire my pistol. Somehow I land a hit to his face that drops him instantly. Useful fact: headshots are extremely effective in Far Cry, if a bit difficult to pull off.

Doyle, an ally, is talking to me via the video-phone I picked up in the game’s tutorial. I’m not sure how the phone gets a signal our here on these remote tropical islands, but you can’t argue with a plot device! He directs me to another small shack on the top of a hill. Here I find some high-tech binoculars and spy on the next enemy encampment. Doyle informs me that all mercenaries are conveniently tagged with microchips by the bad guy’s administration. These trackers work in my favor. Once scanned by the binoculars, enemies show up as an arrow on the mini-map. Green means they have their guard down, yellow indicates they’re alert, and red means actively engaged and shooting bullets. The mini-map is useful even if you haven’t tagged any enemies from afar off. Loud sounds are registered as oscillating circles in their approximate location. The bars on either side of the map serve as a “detection meter”, indicating how easily enemies are able to spot you. There’s a lot of information packed into that corner of the screen, and it does a good job supplementing your visual observations without feeling like it makes the game too easy.

“Don’t worry, boss. You can count on me to lose sight of the guy in a bright red Hawaiian shirt!”

Using the binoculars, I spy on the next enemy encampment and tag five enemies. There’s a shallow bay between me and the camp, so my only option is to go for a swim. A guard tower looms overhead, and I’m worried that my presence on a beautiful beach is painfully obvious to a man with a large gun. Somehow, he doesn’t see a muscular dude in a red Hawaiian shirt swimming ashore. Walking a little farther inland I crouch down and line up a shot with my pistol. I pop off a few rounds that should have been direct hits, but the bullets don’t register. The guard doesn’t even react to the sound of gunfire. Huh. I guess I’m too far away. As I creep closer and start spraying bullets around, the whole camp knows I’m here. Since I’ve tagged enemies with the binoculars, I’m able to fade into the jungle and avoid them. Tiny red arrows become large red arrows as I maneuver to line up my shots. When necessary, I toss rocks to cause distraction and lead the enemy where I want him to go. I am Predator. All enemies are subject to my mercy. Except for the ones that I missed when scouting the camp and therefore don’t show up on my map. My screen fills with a red glow as gunfire erupts from behind me. I turn around to see a merc lighting me up. He shoots me. I absorb bullets. I die. Subsequent attempts to clear the camp go much better.

Maybe that guard has T-Rex vision. If I don’t move, I’m invisible…

It takes my brain a little while to settle into the slow-ish pace demanded by the game. It actively discourages running and gunning; this is Predator Simulator, after all! Mercenaries are good shots, and you are susceptible to damage. Prepare to die quickly if they see you before you see them. That’s quite a challenge with all the beautiful and dense jungle foliage covering every island. It’s happened more than once that I burst through vegetation into a clearing only to be greeted by an enemy and a stream of hot lead. This is where the smart-tagging binoculars come into play. Stop frequently to scout thoroughly and make sure you know the location of every enemy. Thankfully the goggles aren’t totally dependent upon line of sight and can tag enemies even through thick vegetation. They are absolutely essential to survival. When it is time to engage in a firefight, the game forces a methodical approach instead of haphazard running and gunning. Firing from the hip while moving will spray bullets over a wide area; it’s rarely effective, even at close range. Stopping to crouch and aim down the sights nearly guarantees a hit, but also makes you an easy target. For those long-range shots, go prone to make it count. As someone who is rarely able to do well in twitch shooters that reward reflexes, I appreciate Far Cry’s methodical approach to combat. It lets me be the hunter.

There’s a lot to take in while playing Far Cry’s opening level. It pulls no punches, showing you everything the game is about. It’s a big, dumb shooter that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. You and a bunch of guns against a whole archipelago of islands full of baddies and mutants. What more could you want?

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Exploding Gracefully in Multiplayer Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

Thinking I had a decent grasp of the basics, I loaded up the game and headed over to the multiplayer lobby. After a short wait the matchmaking service drops me into an arena with a foe named Sinistro. He begins the match with some friendly chat, “So how many online games have you played?” Knowing that my newness to the game will be exhibited in how poorly I play, I tell him, “Including this one… One.” He responds with a greeting of welcome, capped off with a smiley face. I take the gesture of politeness to mean I won’t be destroyed instantly.

While it can be intimidating to play any game online against real people for the first time, real-time strategy (RTS) games have a reputation for being more intimidating than most. This is partly because the difference between victory and defeat in an online RTS match comes down to efficiency. Knowing what to do and when to do it are the keys to victory. There is little margin for error, and mistakes are punished. Despite all of this I decided Friday evening to play my first ever online match of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (DoK). The game’s developers were celebrating its one-year anniversary and broadcast an open invitation for people to come and play the game with them.

If you’re not familiar with it, DoK is a RTS game developed by Blackbird Interactive. It’s a ground-based prequel to 1999’s legendary space-bound Homeworld. The core elements of multiplayer matches are much like that of other RTS games, with a few special twists. Multiplayer consists of you and your army versus your opponent and their army. Each army has a “hero” unit called a carrier. The carrier houses resource processing, production facilities, and research labs. From it you construct new units and run your war campaign. Build an army and annihilate your enemy’s carrier to win the game. One of the fun twists of DoK is that games can also be won by what’s called artifact retrieval. On each map there are three central locations that house artifacts, glowing purple orbs of special significance that appear after a time limit is reached. If either player can retrieve five artifacts and transfer them to a designated extraction zone, that player wins the game. This is easier said than done since there’s only one type of unit, a Baserunner, that can pick up an artifact and carry it to the extraction zone. Baserunners are slow and fragile, and don’t offer any significant offensive or defensive capabilities. It takes skill and cunning to retrieve artifacts, but it can be done. To me, the thing that sets DoK apart from other games is its smaller-scale battles and highly strategic gameplay.

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My home base is at the bottom in blue, my enemy up top in red. The artifacts are the three blue icons in a row across the center of the map. The two extraction zones are the right and left sides of the map.

Thinking I had a decent grasp of the basics, I loaded up the game and headed over to the multiplayer lobby. After a short wait the matchmaking service drops me into an arena with a foe named Sinistro. He begins the match with some friendly chat, “So how many online games have you played?” Knowing that my newness to the game will be exhibited in how well poorly I play, I tell him, “Including this one… One.” He responds with a greeting of welcome, capped off with a smiley face. I take the gesture of politeness to mean I won’t be destroyed instantly. Knowing that it’s my first online game ever, my opponent chats to check in on me a few minutes into our match. “Have you expanded yet?,” he asks. Expanded? Expanded what? I respond to confirm my ignorance, fully embracing the fact that I have no clue what I’m doing. Graciously, my opponent relays concise instructions about how to expand my resource gathering operation. More resources means I can build more units, and more units means I may be able to put up a fight. That makes sense. I do what he says. For the next couple of minutes I make a few groups of units and send them around the map to do their thing. None of them return to base. Each of them destroyed by my well-prepared adversary. For each mistake I make, Sinistro shares tips about how to do things better next time. He even lets me steal an artifact and blow up a few of his units so my pride has a chance to recover. But like the helpless mouse being played with by a hungry cat, I know my demise is coming. My expanded resourcing operation radios in a distress call, “Enemy units spotted!” I pan the camera over to it and see three dozen enemy land and air units pop into the edge of my sensor range. Explosions burst from every direction and my resourcing operation is laid to waste. Ninety seconds later my carrier explodes in a flash of white light, transformed into a smoldering pile of rubble. Game over.

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See all of those ships with the red bars above them? Enemies! See the big ship with a giant explosion coming out of it? That’s mine… It’s not in good shape.

So went my introduction to the world of online play in DoK. My first match ever lasted twenty-three minutes and fifty seconds, though my opponent could have easily laid waste to me in half that time. Many thanks for Sinistro to being a class act and showing me the ropes!

My second and third matches of online DoK went much better than the first. I was able to play in team matches with employees from both Blackbird Interactive and Gearbox Software, as well as other gamers in the community. I blew up some enemy units. I recovered some artifacts. I didn’t die instantly. It was a good night. While my experience confirmed to me that the game is a blast to play, the bigger impression was left by the helpful and friendly community. They’re enthusiastic about a great game and very welcoming towards newcomers. Check out the links below if you’d like to check things out for yourself. If you’re looking for a smaller-scale RTS game to play online against some friendly folks, DoK might be the game for you.

NOTE: DoK has an excellent single-player campaign that shouldn’t be missed. I’ll be writing a feature about that sometime in the near future. 

Where to buy:

Steam – $49.99

Community Involvement:

Deserts of Kharak Subreddit

Unofficial Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak Discord

Screenshot Mini-Gallery

Star Wars: Battlefront – Beauty Without Soul?

After mulling it over for several hours I finally made the realization that the real failure of Battlefront isn’t how it looks, or how it plays: it’s how much I care about what’s going on. Yes, these are spectacular battles rendered with craftsmanship and fidelity never before seen in a Star Wars game, but I just have no reason to care about any of it. […] Having said all that, I’ll buy the game the next time it’s on sale for $20 or less.

I wanted to totally fall in love the new iteration of Star Wars Battlefront, I really did. Considering it combines two things I absolutely adore, Star Wars and action games, by any rights this game should be a perfect fit for me! And yet, in spite of having spent an entire weekend with the prerelease beta and another four hours with the full game this past weekend, it just hasn’t hooked me yet. After feeling somewhat disappointed by the beta I had hoped the newly-released skirmish mode for offline play would be enough to win me over. And yet, all the free trial managed to accomplish was to cement my sense of indecision. It comes down to the simple reality that Battlefront has no soul. And that makes me sad.

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It looks like this moisture farm on Tatooine would have a lot of great stories to tell… but it doesn’t. It tells nothing.

On the surface, it has all the things that fans of Star Wars and of action games could ever want: dazzling graphics, phenomenal sound engineering, the rousing orchestral score from John Williams, all some of the planets, characters, vehicles, and weapons we know and love, and exquisitely detailed game environments. Make no mistake, Star Wars: Battlefront is the Star Wars-iest Star Wars game I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot of Star Wars games. The miracle workers at DICE are to be commended for creating what is, quite frankly, the most beautiful and most complete rendering of the Star Wars universe in a video game. Every pixel, every sound, every movement, every object, every environment is 100% certified Star Wars. But considering the cinematic inspiration for the game distinguished itself by imagining an imperfect and dirty universe, the perfect rendering of that world in a video game somehow feels shallow. The end result is that the game feels more like an impression of an experience than the genuine article.

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Piloting speeder bikes is all fun and games until you crash into a tree. Which happens. A lot.

In spite of the beautiful and immersive environment, there’s something that just doesn’t feel right. Oddly enough, it’s not the gameplay – even though it is simplistic to a fault. The actual mechanics of the game are more than fine. Shooting feels good, navigation and movement is spot-on, the game modes feel like they’re taking place in a galaxy far, far away, and all of the different parts contribute to an escapist whole. After mulling it over for several hours I finally made the realization that the real failure of Battlefront isn’t how it looks, or how it plays: it’s how much I care about what’s going on. Yes, these are spectacular battles rendered with craftsmanship and fidelity never before seen in a Star Wars game, but I just have no reason to care about any of it.

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Thermal Detonator makes stormtroopers go boom.

Battlefront puts you squarely into the shoes of a no-name soldier to show you a ground-level view of the war between the Rebellion and the Empire. From such a low perspective the morals and motives of either faction don’t matter. Survival is the name of the game. The Rebels are always ill-prepared and fighting against the odds, and the Empire is always a military superpower trying to quash dissent. There’s no real motivation to fight for either side other than the fact that this is the way it’s always been. In a sense this might be considered one of the game’s successes, that it replicates the experience of being a pawn in a large-scale galactic war; but I believe it’s also why the game feels so empty. For a franchise that was the catalyst for millions of people to imagine themselves as a hero in a galaxy far, far away, spending hours in a game as an ordinary foot soldier is a bit of a letdown. Focusing on the little guys and giving them repetitive and relatively small-scale objectives removes the context from the fight and turns what should be an epic clash into just another day on the battlefield. Star Wars has always been a grand space opera about ordinary people becoming extraordinary and then doing heroic things. Even though Battlefront allows players to “be the hero” with powerups, there’s no real justification for their presence on the battlefield and they end up feeling like nothing more than a fancy costume for the ordinary soldiers. In spite of how much you want your role to have a sense of significance to it, the game never gives you that empowerment. No matter what you do you’ll be just another pawn fighting in a war against other pawns. At the risk of mixing up my metaphors, Battlefront ends up feeling like playing checkers when you want to play chess.

Having said all that, I’ll buy the game the next time it’s on sale for $20 or less.

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Wait, what? Yes, I’m going buy the game when it goes back on sale. There are two reasons why. The first of which is that, for all its shallowness, it is still genuinely fun to shoot at wave upon wave of stormtroopers. The second reason being that Star Wars Battlefront may be the proof that EA DICE has what it takes to do some incredible things with Star Wars games, and that’s something I want to support. The developers obviously care a great deal about the source material, packing the game full of details most players will miss. A prime example is on a map for Supremacy on Endor, which is set at nighttime. A few minutes into the game I approached the outer border of the map which happened to be the bed of a lake. As I turned my character to pan the camera around my jaw dropped slightly. Sprawled out before me was a tranquil lake with a cluster of teepee-like dwellings perched over the water. Looming ominously overhead was a pair of Star Destroyers while the uncompleted Death Star dominated the twilight sky. This in-game scene is obviously directly inspired by Ralph McQuarrie’s original concept paintings for The Return of the Jedi. This glimpse of the real Endor displays how much attention the development team paid attention to the details that make the Star Wars universe special, even if those details are subservient to a grander and more boring big picture. If DICE can do this as icing on the cake in a multiplayer shooter, I’d love to see what they’re capable of in a dedicated single-player experience!

In the meantime, I’m learning that even shallow games have their beautiful moments. It took me four hours before I noticed one on Endor, maybe Battlefront has more to discover?

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I’m still trying to figure out why the Empire built those hangar bays into such a shallow rock face instead of just putting them aboveground.