Exploring DOOM

But should you choose to get lost and ignore the guiding lights, you’re bound to discover something. And that’s the fun thing about exploration in DOOM: it’s never forced, but it’s almost always rewarding.

“Don’t follow the lights.” This was Gollum’s advice to Frodo in Sam as they traversed the Dead Marshes in The Two Towers. The Dead Marshes were haunted swamps which covered an ancient battlefield. The putrid water trapped the bodies and souls of those who had fallen long ago. Lingering too long could cause one to be lost to the murky abyss. Much the same could be said about DOOM. Except it takes place on Mars. In the future. And there are demons. From Hell. And following the lights is a good thing. Similarities abound!

This does kind of look like Mordor!

I’m playing through DOOM (2016 all-caps version, not the 1993 original) again. Seeing the gameplay reveal of DOOM Eternal at Quakecon made me want to. It’s just as much fun to play now as it was the day it came out. The action is as fast, frenetic, and adrenaline-inducing as it’s ever been. It truly is one of the most-fun shooters to have ever been released. But amid all the action and explosions and flying bullets and bodies, it’s my opinion that part of DOOM’s appeal is often overlooked: the level design.

After all the bullets stop flying and the demons are dead, it’s just you and a totally awesome base on Mars. Players can be forgiven for missing out on the detailed level design, to an extent. But when you stop to admire the sights it’s plain to see: the UAC makes a pretty base. (“UAC” stands for Union Aerospace Corporation, the hyper-villainous entity responsible for unleashing hell on Mars)

Every room and corridor is a lovingly arranged bit of sci-fi aesthetic engineering. Employee lockers have contents spilling out of them, computer screens have data or error messages scrolling down them, safety warnings are plastered everywhere; there’s a lot of detail present even before it’s covered up by the remains of unfortunately dismembered base personnel.

It’s not all cosmetic, either. Green lights guide the way. Present on walkways, railings, and equipment; these lights emit a piercing green glow which serve as a point of orientation. All you have to do is follow the lights for the surest route of more progress.  There’s no way they could be called ‘subtle’, but they never look out of place.  They’re placed smartly enough so as not to be noticeable when looking backward over your path of progression. This is especially beneficial after a disorienting gunfight. Between the lights and the in-game map, it’s almost impossible to get lost. 

But should you choose to get lost and ignore the guiding lights, you’re bound to discover something. And that’s the fun thing about exploration in DOOM: it’s never forced, but it’s almost always rewarding. Exploring is the means by which you acquire upgrade points for your suit and weapons. Sometimes you’ll stumble upon an alternate path to your main goal. If you’re lucky, you’ll discover the hidden lever which unlocks the area where classic maps are unlocked. And if you know just where to look you might stumble upon more than a few Easter eggs, like a skeleton having a birthday party

So the next time you find yourself battling the demon horde in a UAC research facility, make it a point to slow down and take in the sights. You never know what you might find…

Deus Ex – The End!

“Here is a sandbox where you get to play with all the different game mechanics; figure it out and have fun doing so. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the second half of that mission. It takes place in tunnels underneath the base and is guarded by devious four-legged security bots that don’t hesitate to electrocute you to death. “

I finished Deus Ex. Finally. It took about 30 hours of play time spread out over an extremely busy over four months, but I did it. My first thought after seeing the end credits roll? This game is way, way too long. Even so, I now understand why Deus Ex is regarded as one of the best and most influential games of all time. Ultimately it comes down to player agency, and providing a gameplay environment for it. There’s almost always more than one way to do things, and one option is just as valid as the other. Enemy encampment? Kick down the front door and run in guns blazing, or sneak through a vent knocking goons unconscious with your billy club. It’s possible to beat the game without killing anyone. Ridiculously hard, but possible. Deus Ex is the first game to offer this amount of choice to the player, and do it well.

The game falters a bit at about the halfway point, in Hong Kong, because that’s where it should have ended. At this point you discover that the global plague is manufactured by the UN as a way to control the people. They manufacture the plague as well as the cure, doling out either as they see fit. Ideally, the game would have wrapped up here with a mission or two where your character destroys the plague, manufactures the cure, and saves the world. Instead, more conspiracies and secret organizations are added to the fray. The Illuminati show up, as does a rogue AI, a few crime syndicates, and a lot of powerful angry white men. It didn’t take too long before I forgot who was an enemy, who was an ally, and why I cared about anything that was happening.

In spite of the story threads resembling a plate of spaghetti, the gameplay stayed pretty sold through it all. My favorite, and most memorable mission is probably Vandenberg. Jock, my personal helicopter chauffeur, drops me off on top of the main building of a military base that’s just been taken over by the bad guys. I walk around on the roof to get the lay of the land, mark out targets, and evaluate potential points of entry into the base. It’s a setting that encapsulates the spirit of the game. Here is a sandbox where you get to play with all the different game mechanics; figure it out and have fun doing so. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the second half of that mission. It takes place in tunnels underneath the base and is guarded by devious four-legged security bots that don’t hesitate to electrocute you to death. Just fighting one of those robots is a challenge if you don’t have the right weapons, let alone a half a dozen.

And that example illustrates one of the problems with player choice: it’s all too easy to make decisions that come back to haunt you. Spending skill points on pistols is a great idea until pistol skills are all you have to deal with a half-dozen murderous electrocution robots. These decisions also extend to your personal cybernetic upgrades. Each upgrade is picked up as an item that fills an inventory slot. They can only be installed in certain parts of the game by a medical bot. Each upgrade serves one of two functions and can’t be reassigned. Though the game does offer a description of what each upgrade does, it’s difficult to grasp the gameplay ramifications until you have a chance to use it. While in Hong Kong, I found an upgrade that let me choose between an Aggressive Defense System and a Spy Drone. I went with the defense system because it sounded better. However, I had spent the entire game up to that point building a stealth character and the defense system – used during open combat – would be practically useless for me. The spy drone would have allowed me to deactivate turrets, cameras, and yes; even murderous electrocution robots. Live and learn, I guess?

As convoluted as the story is, the game’s final chapter wraps things up in a relatively satisfying way. As the mission progressed, I received personal communiques from the main faction leaders asking me to act on their behalf. Even though at this point I had little clue how the major players fit into the overall story, the game gave me a clear path for how those stories would conclude. I could either merge with an AI to lead humanity in peace and harmony, let the Illuminati take over and do things they way they’ve always been done, or I could destroy the global communication grid and plunge the planet into a New Dark Age. New Dark Age it is! All it took was the disengagement of some coolant lines and overloading a reactor and the world as people knew it was over. Seems like it should be more difficult than that. My only complaint is that while the game gives the player full freedom to choose the ending, the result of that choice isn’t conveyed in a meaningful way. After pressing the button to blow the reactor, I got treated to a scene that shows my character running through an exploding room and then the game ends with a quote superimposed over a globe. I expected to see some bums huddling around a fire in the darkened ruins of New York or Paris. My actions would have had more impact if the game had shown what this New Dark Age looked like.

Deus Ex is widely regarded as one of the best, most influential games of all time. Having completed it, I can understand why that is. Playing through titles like Thief, Prey, Dishonored, Alien: Isolation, Bioshock and others; it’s easy to see the influence of Deus Ex. Some of the greatest games since 1999 have buit on the foundation laid by Deus Ex;. Even though it’s hampered by a convoluted story and a bit of bloat – expect to spend 25+ hours to get through it – it’s still one of the best games you can play today.

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 – Dealing Drugs, and the Dumpster That Should Not Be

Owing to my inability to tell the difference between the men’s room and the women’s room, I find myself in the men’s bathroom. There’s a junkie here named Lenny, and he’s in bad shape. He threatens to blow me up unless I can get him a fix. As luck would have it, I picked up some drugs in Hell’s Kitchen. Here is where I have a brief moment of internal crisis. Do I really want to be a low-level drug dealer?

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

The working theory is that the terrorists took the stolen vaccine to the warehouse, then dropped down into some abandoned subway tunnels to transport the goods elsewhere. First step: get to the old subway tunnels. A chopper takes me away from UNATCO HQ and drops me off at battery park, outside Castle Clinton. There’s a shanty town nearby where I press sum bums for informatio. Though I have no memory of the encounter, in a previous mission I was told the Mole People’s secret password. A bum in the shanty town pressed me for the passphrase, which JC knew. He gives me a secret code to activate a hidden entrance behind a phone booth in the nearby subway station. After punching in the code the entire booth sinks into the floor, granting me access to a passage that leads to the old subway station.

Ah, good old decrepit subway stations. Dark, moody, and just not a whole lot to see. A couple of bums walk the platform, as well as a hooker and a junkie. There’s a door on one end of the station, but the hallway behind it is blocked by some heavy debris. One of the bums on the platform tells me that everyone living in the station has been suffering since the water got shut off. There’s a valve that, when opened, will restore the flow of water; but it’s located past the blocked hallway. I do have an explosive, a LAM, in my inventory, but I don’t want to use it just yet. It’s usually best to search through the area and make sure there aren’t any other pathways forward.

On the level above the platform I run into a group of stout and well-armed gang members. All of them instruct me to talk to their leader because “he manages the business”. So that’s what I did. Upon seeing my augmentation, he offers me a job: take out the drug dealer on the platform below in exchange for some high explosives. I decline the offer; I didn’t sign up to do anyone else’s dirty work. Upon reflecting on his method of payment, it’s pretty obvious that the only path forward is through the blocked hallway. After turning the water back on and clearing the path, a nearby bum tells me that there’s a secret passage in the women’s restroom. The NSF moved “a bunch of barrels” through there an hour before I arrived. The secret passage is opened via keypad under the sink. Owing to my inability to tell the difference between the men’s room and the women’s room, I find myself in the men’s bathroom. There’s a junkie here named Lenny, and he’s in bad shape. He threatens to blow me up unless I can get him a fix. As luck would have it, I picked up some drugs in Hell’s Kitchen. Here is where I have a brief moment of internal crisis. Do I really want to be a low-level drug dealer? Is that why I play video games? I already blew through the passage, so I don’t really need more explosives. But then again this is Deus Ex, and I’m certain that there will always be a need for explosives. I tell my conscience to shut up and trade the drugs for a LAM. It’s only as I’m writing this I realize I never did anything about the drug dealer on the platform. Oops. Maybe Lenny will live to take a hit another day. 

Downward towards the Mole People! The secret passage takes me to another closed-off section of the abandoned subway tracks. In these depths are more bums, barrel fires, and patrolling NSF troops. In one corner, a kid and his dog are standing by a barrel. Two NSF troops stand nearby, talking to themselves. From my best estimation, the enemy troops are far enough away not to notice me. I approach the boy and ask him if he’s seen the troops moving any barrels of Ambrosia. He begins telling me his answer when I hear a rapid beeping sound. Yeah, we blew up. As it turns out, those two NSF troops were in range! While I started talking to the boy, they tossed a grenade in my direction, blowing up all three of us. Jerks! I reload my game and decide to try again. This time, I sneak up to the corner and launch a tranquilizer dart at one soldier, switching to my pistol to take out the other. Satisfied that I had cleared the area, I again approach the boy to listen to what he has to say. We blow up. Again. Turns out there was a third NSF soldier that I hadn’t seen the first time. I reload my game again, then equip my pistol and go Liam Neeson on them. Finally, I can listen to the boy! He tells me that the terrorist leader lives down here. He’s got a hidden residence nearby, and the button that grants access to it is hidden; shaped like a brick. I never found it.

Instead I went what turned out to be the opposite direction and find a set of bathrooms. Again, one of them leads to a secret passageway. What is it with cyberpunk terrorists and hiding secret passages in bathrooms? Where do they go when they actually have to use the loo? In short, I wind up in sort of a large hallway protected by two security robots. There’s only one way forward, and it’s through them. I suppose it may be possible to shoot them down, but I haven’t the firepower for it. There’s a manhole cover nearby. Out of curiosity, I check it out and find it leads to a section of sewer. At the end of it, there’s a crate that conveniently contains an EMP grenade. It makes short work of the bots, allowing me to progress. Thank goodness our terrorists hide crates containing live ordinance at the bottom of a sewer!

As I approach the next section, Alex, my tech handler, comes in over the radio to tell me I’m approaching a helibase terminal. It’s connected to LaGuardia airport, and it’s where the NSF is ferrying all the drugs through. He even tells me that they’re close to identifying the person responsible for moving the shipment. Sounds ominous. This would be a story beat that occupies the forefront of my thoughts, but I get distracted by something completely trivial. Look at the screenshot below. Do you see it? If you can, then you know it is nothing other than The Dumpster That Should Not Be.

The Dumpster That Should Not Be

Okay, I realize that this probably wouldn’t bother most people, but it sticks out to me like – well, a dumpster that has no right of being there! Think about what a dumpster is and where you see them in real life. When you go to a strip mall, it’s a long series of shops and storefronts. All the customers go in through the front doors, do their business, and walk straight out again. All the ugly, smelly business goes out the back door to the dumpster. There’s usually a service road where the dump truck drives through in the wee hours of the morning and hauls all the nasty garbage away. In an office complex, it’s on the back end of the building, surrounded by an open expanse of parking lot. Even shopping malls have collection points that allow a garbage truck enough space to maneuver around them.

Why is there a dumpster here? Look again at the screenshot above. I’ve just come to an underground helibase through service passageways and tunnels. This would presumably be where garbage is taken away, but none of the passages I walked through are large enough for a dumpster or a dump truck to drive through. No lifts, no garage doors, no open passageways. Check out the screenshot below: the double doors might presumably be large enough to push a dumpster through, but why would people take their trash out of the office only to have to cart it back through again? It makes no sense! It’s little things like this that make me do a double-take in games. These missed details pull me out of the world just a little bit and make me wonder if the game’s level designer really thought things through. 

Deus Ex is certainly not the only game ever to make these mistakes. Doom, Half Life, and Far Cry have all done the same thing. Crates, vehicles, or other large objects are present in a space where there’s no logical way for them to have gotten there. It’s a sort of spatial anachronism that just eats away at my sense of immersion. Does it really matter? Not at all! But it does shed a bit of light on the evolution of game design as a whole. Years ago, before games had the ability to render believable spaces, they relied on artistic license to convey their setting. When technology started to catch up with artistic vision, there was a bit of an awkward period where it was hard to create semi-realistic environments just right. Details like this and the logistics of how that game world really functioned were overlooked. All it would have taken for some of these areas to make sense would be to place a large garage door on one wall. It doesn’t need to open or to lead anywhere, just serve as a suggestion that the game environment is bigger than what the player can see. Game developers got better at this with time, and it’s just interesting to see what some of the growing pains were. I don’t think it invalidates the experience at all; moments like this are the exception rather than the norm. Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled blog post:

Sneaking Into the Helibase

I’ve been crawling through service tunnels, trying to make my way up to LaGuardia airport to track down some stolen drugs. Right. There’s an atrium before me, surrounded by a series of offices that I need to sneak through. Enemy troops are very active here. At least five of them have patrol routes that take them through or overlooking the atrium. It’s going to be difficult to sneak past all of these guys.

Trying to be the nice anti-terrorist agent, I do my very best to neutralize the guards on patrol in a non-lethal manner. My results are mixed since some of these enemies are quite far away. If I can hit someone in the head with a tranquiler dart, they’re rendered unconscious immediately. Hit them anywhere but the noggin and they panic and try to alert everyone in sight. It’s a challenge to be an accurate shot with the darts, since their trajectory drops significantly over long distances. Trying to factor a the path of a projectile against a moving target makes incapacitating guards at long range a tricky proposition! What usually winds up happening is that I aim too low and land a dart in their upper torso. Victims know the toxin is moving in their body and they’ve got a few seconds to do something before losing consciousness. They panic and run to their allies. In this particular case, there’s an alarm in the base. All they have to do is press the giant red button and everyone comes swarming to that location.

After a few attempts to disarm the base the nice way, I decided the only way to progress was to play for keeps. It’s time to whip out the silenced pistol and take down these terrorists one by one. The downside to this is that fallen bodies alert other soldiers. Now I not only have to neutralize the enemy, I have to clean them up. In a cold and logical way, it makes sense that I would have to do this. How many times have we watched a spy movie and and seen the secret agent drag a body to a closet so they could safely continue clandestine operations? In video game form, it’s really no different. Discovery means failure. Neutralize the target, wipe the evidence, and move on to the next one. The only problem here is that by the time I cleared the area I felt less like a secret agent and more like a twisted serial killer.

Hmm. There were more enemy troops around than I first expected. But my cover is still intact, somehow! That’s a good thing right? With the area clear, I can proceed to the maintenance elevator and go up to the ground level of LaGuardia airport. As I survey the helicopter landing pad one more time, I can’t help but wonder how all of those giant shipping containers got there…

 

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…

Deus Ex – Beginning Again

So what makes this game so special? The gameplay takes place from a first-person perspective and combines elements of action and shooting, stealth, role-playing games, and character-rich dialog trees. In short, it aimed to be a game where any style of play was a viable option. Enemy outpost ahead? You can mount a frontal assault with guns blazing, or you can sneak around to find the back door. Talk to a few civilians nearby, and they might even offer other alternatives. It’s possible for two people to play the same game and have wildly variable experiences.

Deus Ex is widely regarded as one of the best PC games ever made. Its critical and commercial success heralded the mainstream arrival of a genre called Immersive Simulation, or ImSim. It’s not hyperbole to say it was groundbreaking at the time of its release, and modern-day developers still draw inspiration from it. Last year, Deus Ex made it to the 23rd spot on PC Gamer’s Best PC Games of All Time feature. Though gaming journalism thrives on gaming in the current era, the merits of Deus Ex are still worth contemplating in a five-part series.

So what makes this game so special? The gameplay takes place from a first-person perspective and combines elements of action and shooting, stealth, role-playing games, and character-rich dialog trees. In short, it aimed to be a game where any style of play was a viable option. Enemy outpost ahead? You can mount a frontal assault with guns blazing, or you can sneak around to find the back door. Talk to a few civilians nearby, and they might even offer other alternatives. It’s possible for two people to play the same game and have wildly variable experiences.

The game’s story paints a bleak picture of the near future. The world population is at critical levels, and to make matters worse there’s a raging plague known as Gray Death spiraling out of control. Cure for this plague is in short supply, and most of what’s available is handed out to those with money or status. This inequality causes tension between socioeconomic classes and threatens to boil over into violent conflict. Fringe groups have started stealing shipments of medicine and redistributing it to the common people.

Cybernetic augmentation of humans is becoming more and more common, with many soldiers receiving upgrades that leave them looking like humanoid robots. Bionic implants have just taken a major leap forward, leaving its subjects more human-looking while granting greater augmented capabilities. Enter JC Denton, the second man to receive these new abilities and the character you control throughout the game. JC works for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition, UNATCO. They thrust him into the middle of this mess to find the missing medicine and bridge the gap between common man and the future of augmented humankind.

Even augmented humanoid killing machines have problems with vending machines.

In spite of an entire laundry list of enticing features, I’ve never played Deus Ex through to completion. As best as I can figure, the farthest I’ve ever made it in the game is to Hong Kong, which is about a third of the way through. I don’t know that there’s been any one thing that causes me to quit. It’s not like I encountered a difficult stretch of gameplay and gave up because it ceased to be fun. The extremely sad part is that I’ve started and quit playing the game no fewer than four separate times. There’s a lot here that I should absolutely fall in love with, but for some reason Deus Ex has remained one of the biggest titles on my shameful list of unfinished games.

Not anymore. Here and now, I pledge to start and finish Deus Ex for the first time ever. Why? Two reasons, primarily. First, I just can’t stand the idea that I’ve let this game go uncompleted for so long. I know I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played, I just wind up dropping it for some reason. This time I’ve got to see it through. Second, since Deus Ex is such an influential title in gaming history, it’d be a horrendous oversight not to be familiar with it. In order to recognize its influence, I’ve got to know what it accomplished on its own. There are quite a few games in my library that owe some part of their existence to Deus Ex; Bioshock, Stalker: Call of Pripyat, Dishonored, and Prey, to name a few.

Yeah, there’s not much you can do to hide 18-year-old video game graphics here.

Since Deus Ex is nearly eighteen years old, it has a few rough edges not even the thickest rose-colored glasses of nostalgia can smooth over. That’s why I’m going to play a modded version called Give Me Deus Ex, or GMDX for short. From all reports, it manages to leave most of the lore, layout, and level design of the original game unchanged. It adds enhanced graphics by way of high-resolution textures, as well as changes to the user interface. Enemies are more intelligent, behaving a bit more lifelike than the original design. Plus there are dozens of changes and tweaks to gameplay mechanics that I won’t list here. In short, it seems to be a mod that is faithful to the original design philosophy of the original game. As I write this I’ve had a chance to play the first two hours in the mod, and I think I can safely say that it is true to the spirit of Deus Ex. It makes a lot of cool tweaks and improvements without feeling like a rewrite of the game everyone knows and loves.

Liberty Island

The opening mission of the game is one that perfectly illustrates the vision of Deus Ex. Diverted from their escape plans after stealing a cache of anti-plague vaccine, a group of rebels has taken over Liberty Island. Yes, the same island which the Statue of Liberty calls home. They’ve taken a fellow UNATCO agent hostage and are holding him the base of the statue. The terrorist leader is hiding out in the top of the statue, waiting and hoping for a chance to escape. Your brother, a fellow augmented UNATCO agent, informs you that you’re working the mission solo. Someone “high up” wants to see how you handle the situation. It’s your job to capture or kill the rebel leader. You do have at least two choices when it comes to handling the situation: Either you can use brute force or try to sneak around undetected. The design of this level forces a certain amount of discretion, no matter what your intent is. The area around the statue is flat and open, so it’s difficult to engage with enemy soldiers without alerting their squad mates.

The South Dock, where it all begins.

Since ammo is scarce and I didn’t have any ranged weapons worth using, I decided to clear the island in a non-lethal manner. At first, I thought I’d sneak up on enemy soldiers one by one and knock them unconscious with my handy baton. That worked extremely well for the first soldier. The second one was, apparently, alerted by the sound the baton makes when it extends and turned around to face me before I could land a blow on the back of his head. He fired a shot or two as I started whacking him in the face with my baton. It took about four or five blows, but I eventually knocked him over. No time to celebrate victory though, as the gunfire wounded me and alerted more enemies to my location. Though I could outrun the pack for a few brief moments, the next time I turned around I saw six enemy soldiers firing pistols and machine guns at me. Time to reload and try something different.

The fact that I had this much trouble so early in the game speaks volumes about the improvements GMDX makes to enemy AI. While any stealth game is about exploiting the AI and game design to an extent, it’s nice to feel like there’s a real challenge to overcome here. It didn’t take me too long to adjust my tactics and make some progress in infiltrating the statue. There was a brief moment near the cargo yard on the east side of the island where I thought it was all over. I had worked my way clockwise around the island and was preparing to climb up a pile of crates. An enemy turned the corner, saw me, and started sprinting in my direction. I heard a burst of gunfire and was momentarily puzzled as to why my health stats weren’t going down. Then I noticed impact marks behind the terrorist. A lone UNATCO security bot, patrolling near the north dock, had come in range of the terrorist and opened fire; it saved my rear end. For a brief moment I considered luring the other nearby terrorists into the firing range of the security bot, but decided that would go against the pacifist position I’d adopted for this mission. After a missed jump or two, I’d safely navigated the piles of cargo containers and made it onto the second major level of the statue foundation. 

Near the end of the mission, I found myself stuck in a predicament about three-quarters of the way up the statue. On my way up I’d somehow managed to sneak past two soldiers who were hanging out near a stairwell. They should have seen me, I’m pretty sure one of them was suspicious, but neither one came after me. I climbed up a stairway past the two of them, walked down another hallway, and then climbed another set of stairs. Here’s where the problem became apparent. There were two more mercenaries at the top of these stairs, and there was no possible way to sneak past them. It was easy to take the first one of them down with a well-placed tranquilizer dart from my mini crossbow. But as soon as the first enemy dropped, the other immediately became alerted to my presence and started shooting at me. Dealing with one angry soldier isn’t a problem, but the sound of gunfire alerted the two soldiers below me. By the time I’d downed the second soldier on the upper level, the two from the lower level came to spell my doom.

Eventually I realized I had stolen a gas mine from a supply room below. I planted that in the hallway between the two groups of enemies. This time when the lower set of guards was alerted to my presence, they walked through the hallway and triggered the gas mine. The explosion and ensuing gas cloud incapacitated them allowing me to leisurely send a tranquilizer dart in their direction. Hard part done, I made it to the top of the statue where the terrorist leader had taken up refuge. He told me that I was too late to recover their shipment; that it was already on the way to the mainland. Primary mission accomplished, you have the option: let him go, or shoot him on the spot. Owing to my non-lethal commitment for the mission, I let him go to be scum for another day.

After this are another two missions I won’t go into much detail about. UNATCO HQ serves to fill in some back story and introduce you to more of the cast members of the game. You’ll certainly read more about them in future posts. Assault on Castle Clinton is the next one that, while fun, doesn’t resonate with me as much as other missions in the game. I think part of that is because after assaulting the ruined Statue of Liberty, it’s hard for me to be excited about a mission centered around a big brown circle. Worth playing and kind of fun? Yes. Fun to read about? Not so much.

Next up – Hell’s Kitchen!

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?

Screenshot Gallery

Virtual Hardware – Bryar Pistol

In most games that involve shooting, the gun you start out with is the one you can’t wait to get rid of. This lowly weapon seems to exist only in order to make you appreciate the weapons you’ll get later. Occasionally, a starting weapon will contain some characteristic that renders it useful throughout the entire game. Kyle Katarn’s Modified Bryar Pistol from the Dark Forces series contains just those characteristics.

Virtual Hardware: The blog column that highlights some of the many items available for players to use in gaming, and why they’re either awesome or the worst thing ever. 

In most games that involve shooting, the gun you start out with is the one you can’t wait to get rid of. This lowly weapon seems to exist only to make you appreciate the weapons you’ll get later. Occasionally, a starting weapon will contain some characteristic that renders it useful throughout the entire game. Kyle Katarn’s Modified Bryar pistol from the Dark Forces series contains just those characteristics. At the onset of 1995’s Dark Forces, you’re infiltrating a top-secret Imperial base armed with only this seemingly insignificant pistol. It has a slow rate of fire, part of the barrel is yellow, and it wasn’t even in the movies! How can this thing deal with the might of the Empire? Though the game quickly gives you the iconic and more powerful E11 Stormtrooper blaster rifle, the practicality of that smaller pistol soon becomes self-evident. Pinpoint accuracy is a trademark of the weapon, ensuring it remains useful in large open environments where you can get the drop on your enemy. Plus, it consumes significantly less ammo per shot than other weapons. The gun’s rendering in Dark Forces is crude by today’s standards but manages to evoke the essence of some kind of “space revolver”. A rectangular protrusion on the left side of the weapon is obviously where the ammunition is fed into the cylindrical chamber of the weapon. The back end of the pistol contains a hammer assembly with some red detail that only hints at how the weapon actually operates. If Katarn is a rogue outlaw, the Bryar Pistol is the sidearm that never lets him down.

bryar-pistol

1997’s Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II features the second iteration of the weapon. Jedi Knight renders the Bryar in a fanciful three-dimensions, albeit in somewhat ugly fashion. Like every other object in the game, the weapons  were constructed from a small number of polygons, relying on textures to add some details. As a result, the slight curves and elegance of the Bryar pistol were lost. Gone was the prominent protrusion on the left side of the weapon, presenting a sleeker if less interesting design. In spite of the rough render, movement animation makes the gun feel more lively than its first iteration. The game kept the weapon’s trademark yellow barrel and pinpoint accuracy, cementing its place as a most useful weapon in many of the games vast outdoor environments. It’s helpful that most of the enemies are dumber than a pile of rocks. You can snipe them with the Bryar from a half a mile away, and they’d never move.

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Jedi Knight also saw a prop rendering of the weapon in the game’s full motion video cutscenes. The physical model is a bit larger than I would have expected, but to me the size of it really cements the pistol’s iconic status as “not just another space gun”. If you’re one of the bad guys, you don’t want this thing pointed at you!

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In 2002, Jedi Outcast brought back the Bryar pistol in a big way: It now had an secondary firing mode. Holding down the alternate fire button powered up a charged shot which deals extra damage. This firing mode stacks on top of the pinpoint accuracy, allowing you to deal a punishing blow to your opponents. Stationary turrets and large targets like probe droids are much easier to deal with when you have a charged shot at your disposal. Outcast utilizes the Quake 3 engine, which means each item is rendered in more detail than was possible in Jedi Knight. The Bryar doesn’t look so ugly this time! Some design details were added in the form of tubing near the muzzle, though the rectangular protrusion on the side of the pistol was still conspicuously absent. Jedi Outcast is the first game to show characters other than Kyle using the blaster, though none of them use it with the same effectiveness as Kyle. It’s also worth noting that Outcast is the only game where the Bryar pistol’s shot is colored straight yellow instead of the red / orange of other Star Wars weaponry. 

After Jedi Outcast I began to fear we’d never see the trusty Bryar pistol again. Though you could use cheat codes to spawn the weapon in Jedi Academy, the expansion to Jedi Outcast, it didn’t have a proper place in the main game. To my great surprise, 2015’s Battlefront added the Bryar pistol as part of its Death Star expansion. Battlefront called it the K-16 Byar Pistol, because for some reason Battlefront thinks every gun is more distinct if there’s a number in its name. Thankfully, this high fidelity design hearkens back to the original as shown in Dark Forces. This time, the protrusion on the left side of the weapon is clearly where energy packs are loaded into the pistol. Gone is the yellow blaster bolt from Jedi Outcast, though the secondary charged shot remains. It’s a bit slimmer than the gun shown in the video scenes of Jedi Knight. From a design standpoint, it’s slimmer, sleeker, and looks more like a mass-produced weapon of war. Though I understand the gun’s design needed some tweaking in order to fit the aesthetic of Battlefront, I think it lost something. The slimmer and more “realistic” design takes away some of the weapon’s character. It’s no longer a special gun for a hero, but a standard issue instrument of no real significance. starwarsbattlefront-2016-12-01-18-18-22-66

Though Battefront takes away some of the magic of this gun, I’ll always think of it as an extension of Kyle Katarn’s mercenary persona. Cut down from a larger rifle, his pistol is a powerful and elegant tool in the fight against the scum of the universe. Versatile and fun to use, this may be my favorite weapon in the series. Sniping enemies from crazy distances? No problem! Stationary target that needs a blast shot? Got you covered! It’s the gun that never let me down.

Well, except when I tried to use it against an AT-ST. Don’t do that. It doesn’t work.

To be fair, I missed the shot here. But that still doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to take on an AT-ST with a pistol, especially when you only have 36 health.

More Than Violence?

Blowing stuff up in video games makes me happy. To put it another more controversial way, I enjoy the virtual violence in video games. This revelation came to me about the same time I noticed I’d spent fifty-three hours in id Software’s best shooter, RAGE. Fifty-three hours is a significant amount of time to devote to any game and so I began to wonder just what it was about this one that’s kept my attention for so many hours. Simply put, It’s just fun to shoot stuff. Not only do I get to play with pistols, shotguns, crossbows, and rocket launchers; each with their own sets of alternate ammo; the game also gives me three-bladed boomerangs of death called wingsticks! RAGE contains a myriad of ways to make things die, but that in itself isn’t anything unique. It’s how your enemies bite the bullet that makes the combat or RAGE satisfying. Shoot them in the leg and they’ll stumble as their momentum carries them. Hit their arm and their torso will twist as they absorb the impact. Shoot them in the face and they’ll drop their weapons as they clutch their head with their hands. Violent, but oh so much fun!

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See how much fun we’re having?

My subconscious, realizing it had spent fifty-three hours in this particular bloodthirsty environment, triggered my brain to ask a question: Why do these kinds of action-packed games have such a strong appeal to me? A large part of it is the “action hero fantasy”, wherein I’m given the poise and ability to save the day in impossible situations I’d never encounter otherwise. But on a simpler level I think I can say that action games count as a form of recreational problem solving. This is especially true, if not a bit abstract, in the genre of first-person shooters. “Problems” in these games usually consist of heavily armed bad guys / robots / aliens that need “solving” with copious amounts of gunplay and explosions. It’s a simple way to look at it, but it really does appeal to the aspect of my personality that wants an immediate solution to every problem. Enemy? Boom! Save the world? Boom! I’ve been presented with both a problem and an explode-y way of solving it. What’s wrong with that?

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Got a problem? Yo, I’ll solve it. Here, have some lead from my Magnum revolver.  (Apologies to Vanilla Ice).

Playing as a one-man army to save the world is all well and good, however I often wonder if I’m missing out on other great gaming experiences that maybe aren’t so explosive. Over the years I’ve trained my mind to associate the phrase “video game” with “shooter”. It’s time for me to branch out and challenge myself a little bit. I’m going to retrain my mind and reclaim the phrase “video games” so it means simply “video games”. Therefore during month of September in the year two-thousand sixteen, I vow to go the entire month playing games where acting as an agent of violence is not the main focus. Disallowed are any games where the player takes control of a character or vehicle(s) for the sole purpose of discharging weapons or causing destruction. Games which feature incidental destruction as a result of gameplay mechanics are allowed.

Will I make it the entire month without slipping up? Will I end up playing Kerbal Space Program for the sole purpose of trying to explode those little green space frogs? Perhaps I’ll discover and fall in love with an entire genre of games I had previously never given a second thought to.

I hope my gaming library has enough nonviolent games to last me a whole month…

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Don’t you worry, little space frog; I won’t explode you! Maybe.