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.

Mirror’s Edge

Mirror’s Edge hopes to answer the question: Can a shooter without guns be fun? The answer is yes: if you allow the player freedom of movement. Though the linear nature of the game can be a weakness, the setpiece moments are some of the most fun you’ll have in a video game.

At its best, Mirror’s Edge plays like a Hollywood action movie; an exhilarating thrill ride that puts you in the middle of the chaos, yet always gives you a way to escape the bad guys in the nick of time. At its worst, Mirror’s Edge forgets the strengths of its first-person parkour and decides to ruin the flow of the game with cumbersome, combat-heavy sections. Developed by DICE, the studio famous for games focusing exclusively on bullet-laden warfare like Battlefield, Mirror’s Edge was definitely something that seemed to come out of left field. Could they create a relatively nonviolent game based around freerunning and parkour and turn it into something that fans of first-person shooters would demand to play? It was a risk for both DICE and publisher EA. While it never achieved smash-hit status it did cultivate a core of dedicated fans, and has managed to sell consistently (at a low level) since its November 2008 release. There’s obviously something about the game that manages to draw people in. What is it?

Mirror’s Edge is set in the City of Glass, which is populated a dystopian society that has been built in the ashes of violent upheavals. The People In Charge are the bad guys from this past conflict, and impose their will on the citizens of the city. Surveillance is omnipresent, the words and deeds of every citizen are scrutinized by the Citizen Protection Force (CPF). Though the oppression of the People In Charge looms heavily, there are those who peacefully strive for change. The only way for these dissenters to exchange confidential communication is through the employ of runners, who hand-deliver physical messages via the framework of the city’s rooftops – above the normal patrol routes of the CPF.  You will experience Mirror’s Edge through the eyes of a character named Faith, a runner. Your opening missions begin as basic delivery assignments with minor entanglements, but things quickly become more complicated. Faith’s sister Kate, a CPF officer, has been framed for the murder of a prominent politician and now it’s up to Faith and her band of outlawed runners to find out what really happened.

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Poor Robert isn’t looking so good.

I’ll be honest with you: the story is forgettable. As thrilling as the gameplay itself is, story exposition needs to be downright compelling to compete with sprinting across the rooftops of Glass City… and it’s just not. Each mission is set up with a 2D animated cutscene, and it’s something of a jarring juxtaposition with the minimalist 3D aesthetic of the rest of the game since the two mediums have vastly differing visual styles. My mind has trouble associating the 2D characters with the 3D ones I saw in-game. Neither the cutscenes or the in-game exposition allows the cast to develop enough for you to care what happens to them. Thanks to the conspiratorial nature of the plot, new characters are introduced before you have a chance to register what happened to the old ones and there’s no attachment or shock when any given person inevitably get knocked off for one reason or another. The plot’s there, but it doesn’t make you care. Thankfully, the gameplay is fun and engaging enough that you’ll rarely stop and ask the quintessential question, “What’s my motivation?”

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See that red radio tower way back there? That’s where you’re going!

Most levels start somewhere on the roofs of the City of Glass. Your guide, Merc, communicates with you via headset to give you your bearings and objectives. Missions begin with him directing you to move towards some far-off landmark that you can see, but can’t quite pick out an obvious route to from the current vantage point. It’s up to you to figure out how to climb, sprint, jump, shimmy, crouch, and take flying leaps to get from one end of the level to the other. Despite the wide-open feel of many of the game’s environments, it is definitely not open-world. On the contrary: every level is carefully scripted and controlled, but those invisible barriers are hidden well enough so as to give the illusion of freedom. Merc will occasionally provide audio cues as to where you’re supposed to go, and the rest of the time it’s up to the game’s stunning visual design to direct your path. Mirror’s Edge smartly uses a vibrant but minimalist color palette. Rooms and even entire buildings are frequently washed in shades of the same color, providing a simple but crisp look that makes the world easy to navigate when running through it at full speed. Colors are chosen carefully, especially things that are red. Red objects; doors, valves, buttons, walls, crates, or other objects; comprise what’s called “runner vision”. These red visual indicators smartly guide the player through the level, providing a sense of direction with minimal confusion. Not sure where to run? Run at red! While for the most part Runner Vision does a good job at leading you to your objective, sometimes you get lost. Very lost. Sometimes you’ll catch a glimpse of red in the distance, but get caught between some obstructions and lose sight of your destination. Other times you may only have one or two directions in which to go, but you haven’t gotten close enough to a particular object to trigger it to turn red. At times runner vision seems to be dependent on the player maintaining momentum in the direction they’re supposed to go, and falls apart when the player loses their way. Other times you’ll be in a large, complex area with no idea how to get there. You may see your ultimate destination, but your only option is trial and error while you discover the route. Part of my frustration with navigation stems from the fact that I’d forgotten that the game has a hint button. Press it, and Faith will look in exactly the direction you need to go. Most of the time, though, it works well enough for you to be able to keep a breakneck pace.

But this is where I need to point out a caveat for Mirror’s Edge: I can’t remember how enjoyable it was to play through for the first time. Sometimes it is legitimately difficult to know where to go. If you’re on a level with a slower pace and there aren’t any CPF following you, just backtrack a little and do some exploring to discover what you may have missed. If you’ve got half a dozen cops on your heels taking shots at you, losing your sense of direction is just adding insult to injury. Heck, there are certain sections that vexed me though I’d already played them multiple times. Specifically, there’s a bit where a helicopter gunner tries to mow you down as you navigate some scaffolding. It’s quite reminiscent of the cliffside level with the helicopter from Half-Life, except here my only option is to find the proper path to take in order to make the helicopter go away. No laser-guided RPGs here.

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But by and large, the level design is good enough that combining it with tight controls means first-person parkour is legitimately fun. Faith’s move set is more than adequate for any obstacles you’ll encounter in Glass City. She can do everything expected for a game played from the first-person perspective; run, turn, strafe, jump, crouch. Mirror’s edge also adds a few moves that aren’t present in other games. Pivot is one of them: hit a button to quickly turn about 180 degrees. She’s also capable of climbing pipes and certain grates, swinging from certain overhangs, and slipping sideways through narrow gaps. Faith’s movements are quite versatile because they may vary based on the context. While jumping or falling, hit crouch just before impacting the ground to break your fall and neatly roll upon landing. Sprint alongside a wall and jump to start wall running. Sprint at a wall and jump towards it to plant on it, then pivot quickly face your direction of origin and jump again to reach a high ledge you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. The game gradually introduces you to these moves so that they come naturally when you do need to use them. All of these moves fit into the game world perfectly, and with a little practice you’ll feel like you can fly through each of the game’s environments.

While a lot of the game takes place on the rooftops, a considerable amount of it occurs in indoor or subterranean environments. Surprisingly enough, those more enclosed areas felt more dangerous to me than being on the rooftops. When starting out at a high vantage point like the top of a building, the game takes away the player’s connection and sense of danger from the heights at which they travel. But other levels that start the player at ground level and make them climb to dizzying heights feel more perilous because every step takes them farther away from the safety of the ground. I don’t have a fear of heights, but Mirror’s Edge gives me the next best thing.

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Pay no attention to the fact that Faith can clear 40-foot gaps between rooftops with ease. It’s fun!

In addition to the parkour moves, DICE incorporated hand-to-hand combat mechanics for the inevitable confrontation with the authorities. You’re limited to light punches and light kicks while stationary, or heavy kicks that must be initiated while running. Also at your disposal is the ability to disarm your foes, but this is a special attack that must be triggered in reaction to an enemy’s specific movement. The window for disarming is very small, and you’ve got to have quick reflexes to pull it off successfully. An ability called “reaction time” exists to help you with this. It’s essentially the same as Bullet Time from Max Payne or The Matrix: the ability to slow down game events so you can react faster. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work all that well. Since the window for disarmament is so narrow, you’ll either initiate reaction time too early and miss the opportunity, or you’ll wait too long to push the right button and miss the opportunity altogether. The game never references reaction time outside of the tutorial, so I honestly forgot it was available to me almost the entire time I played.

Combat in the first few levels isn’t bad at all and even winds up being a little bit fun. Sporadic encounters with lightly armored, handgun-toting CPF give you the freedom to choose to engage or simply run away. Even if the game design implied that it wanted to you chose one option more than the other you could still try either route and have some success. There’s something satisfying about running full-speed at a hostile and performing a slide kick to knock them off their feet. Sadly, as the game progresses not only will there be points where there’s no alternative to fighting, but you’ll be locked in a small area and forced to deal with multiple heavily armed soldiers. For example, there’s a mission where you’re forced to walk into a small warehouse with four SWAT troopers. They’re wearing full suits of body armor and are armed with heavy machine guns. When you enter the room they are patrolling on catwalks above you. They know where you are, there’s no clear way out, and you have no other obvious options available to you. Even once you explore the room enough to know where you’re supposed to go, the exit is tricky enough to reach that you can’t possibly access it without becoming a bullet-ridden corpse. So your only option is to fight through FOUR swat troopers in a small environment. It took me about ten reloads before I finally memorized their spawn locations and was able to pick them off one by one. It’s possible to do, but not in the organic way that the developers intended. It’s situations like this where combat is your only option that exposes the limits of the fighting system. For a game that tries so hard to trick you into thinking you can freely run and perform awesome parkour moves in an open-ish world, trapping you in a warehouse and forcing you to fight stands in stark contrast to the strength Mirror’s Edge exhibits.

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But it gets worse. Later that same mission, you’re introduced to an all-new type of an enemy. This comes at a pivotal point in the plot of the game. Faith has discovered a brand new threat to herself and the other runners she cares about, and now she’s face to face with not one but two of these new threats in what I thought was a closed area. Since only a few gameplay moments prior to this revelation I had been locked in a warehouse and forced to fight my way through, I logically assumed that combat was my only option here as well. Wrong. Despite these two new foes being outfitted with only a taser and significantly less armor than the SWAT team I just knocked out, I was unable to put either of these new baddies down. It didn’t matter that I could land about twice as many hits on them as the heavily armed guys. The game apparently decided that I was supposed to run instead of fight, but I hadn’t gotten the message. Instead of feeling the thrill of the chase and a sense of relief when I finally reached safety, I couldn’t help but be annoyed at the seemingly arbitrary distinction between fight and flight situations.

Unfortunately for the game, the emphasis on combat grows with each passing level. Gone are the easy and satisfying fisticuffs of the early levels. Present are a few levels of high-pressure running with annoying unbeatable foes nipping at your heels. With every combat situation that’s forced on me, the more I realize just how shallow the combat mechanics are. Your opponents eventually start blocking your attacks, but you aren’t granted the same luxury. Fights devolve into irritating cycles. Take a few hits, run in circles around your opponents while your health regenerates, and then go for a slide or jump kick, and repeat the process until they go down.

It’s times like this I’m thankful I’m not playing the Xbox 360 version of the game. See, the version for Xbox comes with a whole slew of different achievements to challenge you to play the game differently than you might otherwise. One of those is called “Test of Faith”, which is awarded when you complete the game without shooting an enemy. Regardless of the merit or skill required to earn specific achievements, people like myself will subject themselves to all kinds of gaming torture to earn points that don’t really mean anything. In the Xbox version of the game, the brand of torture meant either avoiding combat altogether or using only hand-to-hand combat to dispatch your foes. The Steam version of the game doesn’t have achievements. Ergo, there’s no real reason not to pick up a gun from the CPF officer you just knocked out and shoot some bullets back and the fools that have been shooting at you the whole game. In an attempt to discourage players from using guns unless absolutely necessary, DICE wisely placed some gameplay handicaps on Faith when she’s packing heat. She can’t run or perform any parkour moves, nor can she reload the gun or even indicate how many rounds are present in the magazine. In spite of those limits, her aim is pretty good and it’s not too difficult to take out anyone that might be giving you trouble. Lesson learned: Don’t make Faith angry.

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The days of peaceful running are over. It’s time for violent rebellion!

Though Mirror’s Edge has some cracks in the experience, it’s worth suffering through the bad moments to experience the thrills.

The police, always alert to what happens in the City of Glass, are on their way and I’m running; always running. My position on the rooftops leaves me exposed and I have to make my way down towards the surface if I’m to find any path of escape. A construction site leads me into in an abandoned subway station. Scaffolding and halfway remodeled hallways leads me to a series of giant air exchange vents. Taking these deeper into the underground leads me to the subway tunnels. My path now includes some well-lit subway track; these lines are active. I move forward to go through the tunnel when the deafening blast of an horn knocks me back and a gigantic subway train roars by. These lines are active indeed. There’s a glimpse of red off in the distance to my left. The subway trains and I have to figure out how to share the tracks. Utilizing whatever maintenance access I can, I work through and around the tracks. Eventually I find myself in a room with a catwalk running parallel above the track and a door at the end. Blue sparks start flying away from the door and I stare at it for a moment before I realize: The CPF know where I am and are cutting their way onto the catwalk. “The trains, Faith! Take the trains!” Merc’s voice sounds urgent in my ear. I’ve spent the past ten minutes frantically running down subway tunnels trying to avoid the trains at all cost. Now, they were my only salvation. At the far end of the catwalk, the blue sparks have completed their slow circuit around the door and it’s blown off its hinges. Tactical police burst through sporting submachine guns and riot shields. Trains it is! I time my jump over the catwalk’s railing and make a hard landing on the end of a speeding subway car. I’m safe now, right? No. It’s time for a solo reenactment of the end of the movie Speed; Ducking below ceiling mounted signals and carefully timing jumps over low-clearance catwalks. Before long I need to jump to an adjacent subway train, again being careful of my surroundings and timing my jump so as not to wind up impaled on the support pillars whizzing between the trains at regular intervals. Soon after, my new ride is shut down by the authorities… but there’s still another one coming full-speed at me. “Get out of there, now!” Merc is yelling at me in panic. I run back in the direction the subway came from, frantically looking for an escape. Some ways ahead there’s a red door in the side of the tunnel. As soon as I notice it the glare of headlights from an oncoming train fills my field of view. Sprinting with singular focus toward the door, I jump through the opening and turn back to watch the newly arrived subway train smash into the first, mere seconds after I reach safety. Just another day in the life of a runner. 

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The Final Raving – Full Endorsement

Anyone who plays video games should give this a try, even if this is a genre you’ve never been interested before. 

There are cracks in Mirror’s Edge, but it’s a whole lot of fun. It’s proof positive that a game centered on movement can be fun to play

Good:

  • Risky design decisions pay off, for the most part
  • Sets a high bar for visual design and original soundtracks
  • An absolute blast to play, provided you don’t get lost

Bad:

  • Overemphasis on combat sucks the fun out of running
  • Sometimes you’ll get stuck in a scripted moment, unsure of what to do

Ugly:

  • Those 2D animated cutscenes. I’m just not a fan

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • I didn’t have any problems getting the game installed and running on my Windows 10 PC, but I did have problems with a terrible amount of screen-tearing. To solve it, I had to use the nVidia control panel to force adaptive v-sync for the game

Tips for New Players:

  1. Resist the urge to fight. The game is about running, not fighting.
  2. Don’t fret too much about which jumps you can or can’t make; it’ll become intuitive in time.
  3. Play through the game at least twice; it’s better the second time around.

Release Date:

  • January 13th, 2009

Developer: DICE

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Where to buy:

Steam – $19.99

Origin – $19.99

Doom 3

I’ve had an epiphany. Doom 3 just isn’t a fun game. It’s a sad realization to make since various aspects of the game had so much potential. In the end, none of them really mattered because they just didn’t contribute to an enjoyable experience.

Note: I played through the original release of Doom 3 with one slight tweak: I used a mod that combines Wulfen’s hi-res texture pack and Sikkmod 1.2. It makes the game look a whole lot prettier and offers a lot of optional gameplay tweaks. The only gameplay change I went with was increased run speed because the default run speed is just the worst. 

It’s been said that familiarity breeds contempt. While I can’t vouch for the original context of the saying I can tell you from personal experience that this statement can apply to video games. For me, it applies to Doom 3. After spending at least sixteen hours on a playthrough, many hours of deep and thoughtful analysis, and vainly writing and rewriting thousands of words in an attempt to convey my thoughts on the experience; I’ve had an epiphany. Doom 3 just isn’t a fun game. It’s a sad realization to make since various aspects of the game had so much potential. In the end, none of them really mattered because they just didn’t contribute to an enjoyable experience. Progressing through the game became a chore; a joyless trudge through an unrealized vision. “Playing” felt a lot more like “tolerating”. The breaking point came in a level called Recycling Sector 2, which is less than halfway through the game. There all of Doom 3’s flaws coalesced into a mess of frustration which had me checking my progress to see how much longer I had to suffer through it; but more on that later. Ultimately, Doom 3 falls flat because it tries to be multiple things but doesn’t really nail any of them. It makes a valiant effort to combine story-driven narrative, a tense atmosphere, and frenzied shooting action; but just can’t quite deliver any of those things.

A company-branded PDA that exists solely for exposition? Yup, that’s Doom!

Doom 3 is the first game in the series to make the story a primary focus. As such, the game begins with a combat-free playable introduction to set the events of the game and introduce the player to the world. You arrive on Mars via shuttle and are free to explore portions of the game’s opening environment: Mars City. While your character is nameless and silent, he is still able to interact with other characters and objects in the game world. Walking up to another inhabitant of Mars City will prompt them to deliver a line of dialog, usually one that has to do about how spooked everyone is by the “secret experiments” going on. Select computers and other equipment will allow you use their interfaces to open doors, turn on lights, or perform other ultimately trivial actions. The primary vehicle for delivering the story is through the use of the PDA. In-game PDAs are what we might call tablets or iPads today; they function exactly the same way. Used to store emails, audio logs, and other personal information, you can pick up and access the information contained in any device you happen to come across. It’s an effective way to build the atmosphere of the game, even if there are some clunky aspects to its implementation.

Audio logs can’t be paused, nor do they have a seek function. Since there’s no text transcript you’ll almost always have to remain at a standstill or stare at the PDA until the log finishes playing to be sure gameplay sounds don’t overlap the audio recording and cause you to miss something by accident. Quite frequently audio logs will contain access codes for storage lockers which contain ammo or other items, which is handy, but it highlights another limitation of the PDA. Since all of the information is all stored according to the names of the characters who owned the device, there’s no way to filter or search for specific content within these logs. For example: If you encounter a given storage locker, the only way for you to know if you have the access code for it is if you remember that specific locker being mentioned in one of the PDAs you previously picked up. The game seems to realize this kind of information would be cumbersome to keep track of, and the end result is that most PDAs will be discovered ridiculously short distances away from whatever thing the PDA would provide access to. Even with their shortcomings I actually love how using the PDAs builds the world within the game. It makes you stop and imagine what the “normal” game world might have been like before things went terribly wrong.

What's the point of the access code? Why not just give me the ammo?
They may as well have just left the locker open…

Contributing to the sense of world-building, the visuals do more than their part to immerse you in Doom 3’s version of Mars. While the original release of the game looks pretty good overall, there are some downright muddy or chunky-looking spots. The more you focus on those spots the worse they look, with many detailed surfaces looking downright terrible when you get close enough to them. If you play the game now, you need the texture mod I linked to at the top of the post. Thankfully, Doom 3’s lighting effects are truly timeless and serve as the major source of the game’s atmosphere. Now when I say “lighting effects” what I really mean is “shadow effects”. Make no mistake: Doom 3 is dark. There’s a reason UAC space marines are given flashlights as a standard issue: their bases apparently have a low lighting budget.

Notice the updated textures are less "chunky", and that there's more depth to the surfaces.
Notice the updated textures are less “chunky”, and that there’s more depth to the surfaces.

Quite frequently the only option available to help you find your way is to holster your weapon, pull out the trusty flashlight, and navigate through the darkness. Yes, you read that correctly: You can’t use your gun and the flashlight at the same time. This intentional design decision has been almost universally panned by reviewers and gamers ever since the game’s release. The year is 2145, surely the capability exists to outfit soldiers with some kind of hands-free lighting device? Sure it’s possible, but it just wouldn’t fit the game. The developers must have felt, and I agree, that giving the player both a flashlight and a gun at the same time was too empowering. Darkness is used as a method to control the player; something to maximize the feeling of helplessness and thus emphasizing the tension.

And tension, really, is the focus of this game. Doom 3 does everything it can to create a horrifying experience for its players, even though its legendary predecessors consisted of nothing but over the top action. All of the members of the demon horde you remember from the first two games are present here, though now they are presented with the objective of instilling fear in the player. Most new enemies are introduced via a dramatic scripted cinematic, which attempts to highlight the specific, unique threats each enemy introduces rather than lumping them all into the category of “mindless cannon fodder.” You’ll rarely engage more than three or four enemies simultaneously, and one could interpret this as an intentional decision designed to reinforce each demon’s perceived threat. It may sound like sacrilege to diehard Doom fans who are used to running full-tilt and firing thousands of bullets at legions of enemies in a single level, but the new approach of Doom 3 actually works. For a while. The first few hours of the game are unforgettable. You’ll genuinely feel tense as you explore Mars base, searching for whichever route will let you progress forward. For a while demons seemingly pop up out of nowhere, sending your heart racing. And then after a few hours of gameplay the realization hits: the demons do literally pop up out of nowhere!

MonsterClosetThe term “monster closet” was coined to describe a room or space in a game’s environment that serves no other purpose than to hide an enemy and put the player at a disadvantage when it is revealed. Monster closets are Doom 3’s mantra. Demons behind doors, demons behind walls, demons under the floor, demons in the ceiling, demons in the shadows, and sometimes for good measure demons will just appear from a spontaneously generated and conspicuous haze of orange plasma. It’s an element that works well in the opening stages of the game to generate heart-stopping scares before the player learns to expect them. There are some genuinely frightening moments there, but the more frequently they occur the more you notice just how scripted these once-scary moments are. These aren’t organic encounters; the result of a player being put in a “genuinely” scary environment with monsters that have their own agenda. No, this is a virtual haunted house where every scare and every surprise is carefully designed in an attempt to elicit a response of fear from the player.  Eventually you’ll learn to recognize the warning signs of these scripted scares, at which point you’ll loathe the moment and fear will be replaced by annoyance.

Monster closets and surprise encounters worked in the early 90s with the original Doom because the game was abstract enough that none of these tricks felt out of place. Sure there were alcoves and hidden enemies galore, but they were fitting considering you were essentially running through a virtual haunted house – with guns. Doom took a certain pride in its cheap scares and traps because they never proclaimed to be anything other than that. In Doom 3, where the player is supposed to be traversing a cohesive and coherent world, every scripted encounter feels like a cheap shot. This scripting ultimately chips away at the established atmosphere and takes you out of the game’s world. Mars Base turns into one boring corridor after another where your only thing tested is your ability to guess which door the monster is hiding behind and how fast you can get your finger on the trigger. Due to the understandably claustrophobic level design, your only option in a firefight is to backpedal slightly and hope you’re spraying enough ammo forward that the enemies die before you do. There are no tactical options available here. There’s no room to run and gun, especially since the game will repeatedly lock you in the same enclosed area as the newly spawned enemies. With no room to maneuver, even two measly imps can kill you in about 20 seconds flat. If it doesn’t sound fun, that’s because it isn’t.

"Here we see a Revenant far outside of its natural corridor-dwelling habitat"
“Here we see a Revenant far outside of its natural corridor-dwelling habitat”

Games are supposed to be fun, and I couldn’t deny that Doom 3 was starting to become quite wearisome about a third of the way through. Wearisome, but not intolerable. I kept telling myself that any moment now, some new mechanic or monster or element would be introduced to add some enjoyment back into the game. When I got to what I thought was going to be the monorail sky bridge, the corridor collapsed in front of me and dumped me on the martian surface. What’s this? Is the game really going to let me freely walk around a wide-open space? And blast enemies that are more than ten feet away? Is this the change I was hoping for? Hoping against hope, I began to believe the game was going to open up a bit and offer some more spacious encounters. My oxygen supply is finite and rapidly running out, but at least there’s a certain freedom of movement here. All too soon I had vanquished the few enemies present in the outdoor arena and was left furiously hunting for air canisters so I don’t suffocate. After a few more moments I make my way to an airlock and return to the claustrophobic corridors I’d begun to loathe. But surely this first experience in a larger area was a sign of things to come!

Doom3 2016-04-10 18-59-23-14
Oh look, poisonous gas. Too bad I don’t have a self-contained air supply. Wait a minute, I do! Why is this a problem?

No. No it wasn’t. Turns out my trip to the great martian outdoors was just an inconvenient detour before traversing back to more deadly enclosed spaces. I had just entered Recycling Sector 2, where it all falls apart. A scripted sequence in the opening moments of the level reveals that Malcom Betruger, the game’s main villain, has been endowed with some sort of evil powers and is now directing the legion of hell to find and destroy you. He has apparently realized that you, the unnamed marine, are the only potential threat to his nefarious plans and wants you dead immediately. He somehow causes the environmental controls of the Recycling Sector to fill the air with toxic gasses in an attempt to suffocate you. Yes, you read that right. Less than ten minutes of game time after your combat suit with its supply of fresh air allows you to battle hellspawn on the surface of Mars, the game’s main villain tries to poison you with gas. Why didn’t our major villain know this, and why can’t I now use my independent air supply to survive indoors? Just as my mind is trying to find the explanation for this logical error, the old man starts yelling into my headphones. Apparently one of Betruger’s super demonic powers gives him the ability to project his voice anywhere on Mars because he now talks to you, hurling insults or other scary phrases at you in random moments. Here’s a sampling of the supposedly menacing dialog:

“Your soul will be MINE!”

“Making progress marine? Your journey is futile. You will die, and your soul will be MINE!”

“My patience with you is wearing thin.”

“Look around you marine, everyone is dead! And soon you will join them.”

“Your friends are with me now. Soon, you will join them.” 

The meaning lurking underneath the surface of these quotes brings two surprisingly relevant questions to my mind. The first one is: Who are these friends of mine that Betruger has supposedly already claimed? The character you play has no name and no backstory. He’s a new transfer to Mars Base and knows nobody on the entire planet. Why on earth would they include a line like this in the game? Am I supposed to have felt some kind of connection with one of the other characters introduced by the game? Or is this a subliminal attempt to get the player thinking about his own friends in real life, and project the fear of loss onto them? Unless the developers were extremely certain their psychological experiment would work, I really can’t understand how these lines made it into the game. From what I can figure, the best case scenario is that this was the result of some horribly sloppy writing that nobody fully thought through.

The other question is: what exactly is hell in the world of Doom 3? Obviously it would have to exist as some sort of literal, physical place, but what is it? What are the demons doing in hell? Who is in charge? Why does the leader of hell need to give Betruger any authority or control of invading Mars? Why do the residents of hell need a human-made teleporter to get to Mars? If the demons can flood Mars via some sort of portal, why do they need to take spaceships to get to earth? (Using spaceships to get to earth was supposed to be a major plot point prior to the Recycling Center). Why can’t they just use the teleporters to get there? Considering the human world of Mars is rather meticulously mapped and planned out, it’s rather jarring that hell exists just for the sake of existing. Some of these questions may be answered in the PDAs scattered about the later levels, but considering how much impact the answers to these questions would have on creating a cohesive story I’m surprised they wouldn’t be more overt.

Doom3 2016-04-17 18-08-21-70
At least hell has interesting art direction.
Apparently in the ancient martian language, "cube" meant horribly spiky murdery thing".
Apparently in the ancient martian language, “cube” meant “horribly spiky murdery thing”.

Coming into the game too late to make much of a difference, is a genuinely interesting story thread about archeological ruins found on Mars. As it turns out, there was an advanced alien civilization that used to reside on Mars. This civilization used a combination of their sciences and religions to use portals for traveling to the different planets in our solar system. At some point in their history this alien species also accidentally opened a portal to hell. Various PDAs and computer terminals will provide details unearthed about this society and how they struggled against the demons. Eventually, this race sacrificed itself to create a weapon capable of killing the demons and closing the portal to hell. Say hello to the Soul Cube. The alien weapon may actually be the most interesting gameplay mechanic in all of Doom 3. In order to use it, you must first “charge” it by killing five other demons. Once it’s charged you can use it to instantly kill any other enemy and transfer its health directly to you. It brings a sorely needed element of strategy to the close-quarters firefights. No longer are you just pressing the fire key, you’re actively picking out the weakest targets first so you can use a charged Soul Cube to take out the more powerful foes. It’s a shame neither the alien backstory nor the Soul Cube is introduced until the last quarter of the game.

There’s a lot I could still say about the gameplay of Doom 3, but I feel like it would just be a waste of words. The story had potential, but it unfolds too slowly for you to really care about it. The atmosphere is, up to a point, incredible. There are plenty of fun and entertaining elements present, but you’ll experience almost all of them before the game is a quarter finished. If Doom 3 got anything right, you would expect it to be the shooty bits, but that’s not the case. There’s a reason I didn’t talk about the game’s weapons; nearly all of them are pathetic, and none of them are fun to use. The gameplay might be passable in small doses, but the thematic and story miscues really put the nail in the coffin for me. If it’s horror and action your looking for, there are other games to spend your time and money on. Doom 3 does have an expansion called Resurrection of Evil which contains new content and supposedly remedies a lot of the issues I have with the original game, but it will be quite some time before I’m ready to step into the world of Doom 3 again. Until then, I’m going to spend some time on games that are actually enjoyable.

 

Doom

But how is it that the various aspects of Doom managed to be cutting-edge in 1993 and yet not distractingly obsolete in 2016? In short, the game’s many components are finely designed with an elegant simplicity that manages to capture an essence of timelessness. What matters here is not so much the obvious age of the technology or gameplay mechanics that may seem basic when compared to modern titles; what matters is that Doom fully utilized the best tools of its time to create a cohesive whole that was complete in and of itself. Great visual design serves the whole rather than detracts from it, and that statement holds true no matter how old the design is.

Navigating down the curved hallway of brown stone deep within Deimos Lab, I notice an irregularity in the angle of the wall. Upon closer inspection there’s a small hole in the floor: a passage down. At the bottom of the passage there’s a hidden room containing only a plasma rifle and a teleporter. I pause for a moment to steel myself for whatever comes next. Doom never gives you anything for free. I step on the blood-red teleport pad to be whisked away to destination unknown. As the green energy burst fades I check my map and confirm that this is a room I haven’t discovered before. Directly in front of me stand two large demons within arm’s reach: A Pinky and a Cacodemon. They don’t know I’m there yet so I weigh my options against my meager supply of ammo. The room is too small for rockets, my shotgun will be too slow, and I have barely any bullets. Guess there was a reason I just got a plasma rifle. Taking them both of them out used about a fifth of my cell ammo and I can still hear more demons somewhere nearby. After checking the small room for and failing to find any hidden features, I slowly walk down a curved hallway and reach an intersection with another corridor. The chorus of grunting is louder now. There are more than a few enemies nearby. My health is 44 percent and I have fewer bullets than I’d like, but how bad could it be? I dash out, gun blazing, mowing down a pair of imps with ease. They weren’t alone. Three more imps send fireballs my way and a burst of pink plasma heralds the arrival of a trio of Cacodemons floating down from the ceiling. Running away to gain some maneuvering room brings me face to face with not one but two Barons of Hell! As their green energy projectiles sail towards me I run back towards my entry point, making the unfortunate realization that this narrow corridor I’m trapped in is nothing but a circle. With nowhere to hide I start firing off everything except my rockets, not stopping to be meticulous. After what feels like an extended engagement both my guns and the demon horde is silent. Narrowly avoiding death, I claim victory – for now. My health is down to 23 percent, my supply of ammo is lower than it’s ever been; only 4 rockets and 39 shotgun shells; and once again my only means of progress is to step on a teleporter to destination unknown. When it seems like I don’t have any options left, I realize I have the same option that I always had: kill more demons.

Doomsday 2016-02-26 21-19-59-18

I still remember my first exposure to Doom. Sometime in the summer of 1994 Jon, a friend of my oldest brother, brought a “legitimate” copy of the game over to our house. He installed it on our family computer and introduced us to the plight of that single green-clad marine waging a hopeless war against the spawn of hell. Many moments from that fleeting demo are permanently etched into my gaming memory. The nervous sideways glances of the Doom guy. Exploding barrels of green goo. A pulse rifle with a sound I can only describe as an “electric rebound”. Floors a shade of blue not seen in real life. The anguished moans from zombies after you graze them with a shotgun. The frighteningly weird hiss of the floating red Cacodemon. My brothers and I loved it. My parents hated it. After the evening’s dinner was finished and Jon went home my parents broke their polite silence, “Get rid of it”. The battles of the Doom guy would have to be waged in someone else’s home, at least for a little while. Over the years Doom and I had an on again, off again relationship. Sometimes it was upstaged by shinier and more fancy games. Sometimes I was just too busy to bother with it. Sometimes I thought it was too simple for me now; compared to new games old Doom was just kid stuff. And yet, Doom has always been there. Somehow, id’s pioneering shooter from the early 1990s has proven its staying power time and time again. After paying attention to the little details on my last playthrough I can confirm one thing for you: Doom is just as good now as its ever been.

Doomsday 2016-02-24 17-01-32-03

Given that video games are pieces of media that all too frequently tend not to age well, it takes a special combination of factors for one to provide an enjoyable experience both at the time of release as well as two decades later. But how is it that the various aspects of Doom managed to be cutting-edge in 1993 and yet not distractingly obsolete in 2016? In short, the game’s many components are finely designed with an elegant simplicity that manages to capture an essence of timelessness. What matters here is not so much the obvious age of the technology or gameplay mechanics that may seem basic when compared to modern titles; what matters is that Doom fully utilized the best tools of its time to create a cohesive whole that was complete in and of itself. Great visual design serves the whole rather than detracts from it, and that statement holds true no matter how old the design is.

Doom’s visual design definitely evokes a feeling of art, abstract art in particular. Most of the game’s designs and specifically the level layouts are open to subjective interpretation. It’s something you examine for a moment and while it doesn’t necessarily bear an immediate resemblance to anything in particular, the intention of the artist is unmistakable. Sure, there are levels and areas that definitely try to look like something, but either through the lack of graphical fidelity or intentional design decisions you’re never looking at something and think to yourself, “Man, they screwed that up.” It’s a large part of why Doom is still tolerable today. You can play through level after level without being constantly reminded of how poorly older gaming technology was able to replicate the vision of the artist. Your imagination can make these locations into whatever you think they need to be. For a prime example look to the opening level of the game: E1M1: Hangar. Though this is arguably the most famous level in the history of first-person shooters, I’ve yet to see any explanation for why the level has the name it does. There’s nothing here that even remotely resembles a hangar. Nowhere is there a space large enough to contain a ship, an airplane, or any other spacefaring vessel. The only open space is filled with green toxic goo. And just why is there so much radioactive green goo around in the first place? Why in the heck are there golden candelabras near the exit? These and other questions will pop in the back of your mind frequently as you explore such locations as “Central Processing”, “Military Base”, “Spawning Vats”, “House of Pain”, Slough of Despair”, and “Tower of Babel”. Clearly, the level design was intended to evoke a feeling rather than to serve as an accurate emulation of any particular locale.

The major difference between the levels of Doom and works of abstract art is that works of abstract art don’t try to kill you when you admire them. The opening levels of the game start with fairly straightforward and uncomplicated layouts; all that is required is for the player to navigate from the starting point to the finish and press a button or step on a pad to end the level. Additional hazards are gradually added into the mix. Some parts of a level may be sealed off and require you to find a keycard to gain access. Other levels are laid out like a maze, either by their physical layout or through the use of teleportation pads. Very frequently the level design embraces the game aspect of Doom and will throw you in the midst of all manner of traps, chokepoints, or other puzzles. The only resources at your disposal to help you navigate the often deadly labyrinths are your wits and a handy automap. There are secret areas containing weapons and powerups hidden in nearly every level. Some are marked by intentionally misaligned textures or offer other visual hints as to their existence, and others are implied only by a switch with no obvious purpose. If you wish, you can spend as long as you like exploring each area searching for hidden goodies. The only thing standing between you and passage to the next level is you.

Doomsday 2016-02-26 17-20-15-74
Here sits a lightly defended red keycard surrounded by a plethora of exploding barrels. Be wary. Be very wary.

Artistic interpretation notwithstanding, it’s hard to deny that some of the later levels of the game are just plain weird, if not disturbingThe cold metal of military bases gradually gives way to nightmarish interpretations of hell, replete with walls of flesh, corpses impaled on spikes, scrolling walls of tortured faces, demonic and satanic symbols, and other oddities. It’s been said that some of the game’s artists often used videos and images of surgical procedures to find inspiration for their designs, and it’s quite obvious a lot of those ideas were implemented. This all plays well with the idea of Doom as a form of abstract art though it’s safe to say that many people will find the game’s content objectionable. I can appreciate a good imagination as much as the next guy, but I still look at certain visual elements and can’t help but wonder, “What were they thinking?”

But I guess it takes a certain kind of imagination to dream up, or have nightmares about, what an army of hellspawn might be like. Doom paved the way in its design of enemies, creating the archetypes that are still followed today. Soldiers and Sargents are your nominal cannon fodder that can be surprisingly dangerous when you’re low on health. The brown, leather-skinned imp is the slightly tougher humanoid that hurls fireballs instead of instant hit bullets. Pinkies are your obligatory melee-damage-only enemies that can take a beating. Cacodemons are an aerial threat with a ranged attack in addition to being bullet sponges. Lost Souls are the original annoying enemy that combines small size, flying, and a shrieking rush attack that’s never fun to deal with. Barons of Hell are giant, lumbering brutes that hurl green plasma that explodes on impact for splash damage. There are bosses, too, but those are more fun to discover on your own. Prepare to do a lot of running.

Doomsday 2016-02-27 08-53-56-72

Photos don’t do justice to the enemy design in Doom. There’s just enough of a convincing menace in the animation of your foes that you will feel threatened by them, sooner or later. If visuals alone don’t do it for you, the aural experience will. While the sound effect library is small by today’s standards, the engineering is perfect for conveying the tortured nature of the beings you’re dealing with. This is due in large part to the use of animal sounds where one might expect to hear sounds recorded by humans. From the anguished moans of the shotgun-toting Sergeant to the hiss of the Cacodemon to the bizarre trumpeting call of the Baron of Hell, the sounds of Doom effectively convey that you do indeed battle against an army that is not of this world.

Sometimes, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Your foes in Doom can and will become embroiled in fights between the ranks, and it’s always a good idea to do what you can to encourage those fights. Before long you’ll learn to use your speed to try and catch different types of enemies in their own crossfire. Once one enemy retaliates against another all you need to do is stand clear and watch the survival of the fittest. Doing this is usually just a bonus, but there are a few maps where causing this infighting is absolutely essential to your own survival.

FightFightFight!
Notice that I haven’t fired a single shot here.

Also essential to your survival is learning to master Doom’s arsenal, though it really is pretty intuitive. At your disposal are your fists, a pistol, shotgun, chaingun, rocket launcher, plasma rifle, BFG 9000, and a chainsaw. Each weapon has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, that lend themselves to particular situations. The pistol, while seemingly useless, is a good choice for long-distance engagements when you want to conserve ammo. Your pump-action shotgun, now a mainstay in first-person shooters, is a good all-around weapon that just can’t fire fast enough when the hordes are thick. While each bullet of the chaingun doesn’t do a lot of damage, the continuous-fire nature of it serves to “interrupt” the attacks of your foes, and can buy you some much needed time to maneuver. Rocket launchers are not good to use in confined spaces. Ever. Doom’s rockets also move with a conspicuous slowness which can mean it’s not the best for long-range engagements. The plasma rifle is a versatile weapon that’s good in any situation, provided you can find the ammunition for it. It works best when fired continuously, as letting up on the trigger leads to a substantial reset time before you can fire again. When something or a small group of somethings needs to die right now, bring out the BFG 9000. It’s slow rate of fire and slow projectile movement gradually unleash a green firestorm of devastation, but it really works best in relatively small environments. And then there’s the chainsaw. For a long time I thought it was only a weapon of desperation, but there is actually a strategic use for it. When dealing with melee enemies, Pinkies or Lost Souls, work your back into a corner and let them come at you. The chainsaw will do the work for you.

BarrelBlast
Doom’s shotgun is the best ever. Period.

There’s certainly more that could be written about Doom: the movement mechanics and how the Doom Guy is able to run at a constant 30 miles per hour, how throughout the campaign you never really notice the technical limitation that prevents vertically crossing layers (there can’t be one story of a building directly over another), the story set-up present only in the game’s paper manual, the implied narrative and geographical narrative movement in the level design and loading screens, and more. To try and do all that would require a whole series of posts, and while I’m open to exploring those topics more in depth to do so here would distract from my main point. And my main point is: Doom is still around for a reason. One of the first games of its kind, it’s still one of the best of its kind. It’s just as fun in 2016 as it was in 1993; and that’s saying something.

The Final Raving – Full Endorsement

Anyone who plays video games should give this a try, even if this is a genre you’ve never been interested before. 

Granted, it’s not for everyone, but anyone who considers themselves a gamer owes it to themselves to play at least the shareware episode of Doom.

Good:

  • While not the first first-person shooter ever made, it’s the most influential
  • Tight gunplay and fast action in spades
  • Two decades of user-created mods ensure near limitless options for a new spin on an old classic

Bad:

  • Disturbing themes may be too much for some people to handle

Ugly:

  • The visuals of the vanilla, unmodded game are a bit hard to take

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • The original game works flawlessly on modern computers, but it’s just a bit too ugly for my tastes. Thankfully the Doom community has been able to make a lot of improvement to the game engine, allowing for higher resolutions and better visual effects. The two most popular upgrades are GZDoom and Doomsday Engine. GZDoom will give you an experience that’s a bit closer to the original game, but I slightly prefer Doomsday Engine since it allows for unrestricted mouselook. Both are worth a look.

Tips for New Players:

  1. Play it on a difficulty that’s hard for you. It makes the game more interesting and will help you write your own stories within the world of Doom. I played it through on Ultra-Violence and enjoyed a good challenge. Be forewarned that the difficulty jumps by a noticeable amount when you get to the fourth episode: Thy Flesh Consumed.
  2. Circle-strafe. Move sideways and keep your enemy in the crosshairs to literally run circles around them. It’s an essential skill to learn if you want to survive.
  3. Everything is a trap. See a keycard? Trap! Is there a button nearby? Trap! Has it been more than thirty seconds since you last encountered an enemy? Trap! Always be ready to move and shoot.

The Details:

Release Date:

  • Original Game: December 10th, 1993
  • Final Doom (Thy Flesh Consumed): June 17th, 1996

Developer: id Software

Publisher: GT Interactive

Where to buy:

Steam – $14.99 – Bundle includes Doom, Doom II, and a bunch of expansion levels

GOG.com – $9.99 – Bundle includes Final Doom and Doom II

 

A Story About My Uncle

Heavily influenced by the first-person and (mostly) combat-free games like Mirror’s Edge and Portal, ASAMU creates an experience where the journey is more fun than the destination. Why walk, drive, fly, or teleport anywhere when you can instead strap on a power suit and use an electric tether to fling yourself between points? It is admittedly an answer to a question that nobody asked, but considering how much fun it is: who really cares where the question came from?

A Story About My Uncle

Release Date:

  • Original Concept: Summer 2012
  • Final Game: May 28th, 2014

Developer: Gone North Games / Coffee Stain Studios

Where to buy: Steam and GOG.com – $12.99

What’s the Premise?

To say it in a very redundant manner, A Story About My Uncle (referred to after this as “ASAMU”) begins with the voiceover of a father beginning to tell his young daughter a bedtime story about his uncle. For the duration of the game the player navigates through the father’s story from a first-person perspective, playing through the narrated events in real-time. The setup for the story is simple: your uncle is missing. While searching through his workshop for clues as to his whereabouts, you stumble upon newspaper clippings about the discovery of new microbial life forms, stacks of books and papers about quantum physics, a specially designed “power-suit”, and the plans for a mysterious “disposal system”. Wouldn’t you know it: before the intro is over your character puts on the power suit and steps into said mysterious disposal system and is transported to a mysterious faraway land…

Originally created and released in 2012 by a team of nine students from Sweden’s Södertörn University, ASAMU was redesigned, remastered, and expanded for its re-release in May 2014. It’s a short game made by an independent studio. Calling it a one-trick pony wouldn’t be a stretch, but don’t take that as a criticism. The one trick it has; first-person platforming; is done very well and the developers wisely paced the game so the core mechanics didn’t become stale. And it helps that there’s a bit of heart contained in the game’s story.

01

Why Should I Play This?

Three words: Joy of movement.

Heavily influenced by the first-person and (mostly) combat-free games like Mirror’s Edge and Portal, ASAMU creates an experience where the journey is more fun than the destination. Why walk, drive, fly, or teleport anywhere when you can instead strap on a power suit and use an electric tether to fling yourself between points? It is admittedly an answer to a question that nobody asked, but considering how much fun it is: who really cares where the question came from?

Suit
“She may not look like much but she’s got it where it counts”

The aforementioned power suit is the game’s way of giving you special platforming abilities, of which there are three:

  1. Long jump / high jump – this is charged by holding down the right mouse button and will result in either a long forward jump or a high vertical jump, depending on how you’re moving when the jump is initiated.
  2. Power grapple – this allows your suit to “grab on” to certain distant surfaces with an energy leash which will then pull you toward the object you’re connected to. When your suit is upgraded, you have the ability to grapple three times while in midair. The ability to use the grapple is “recharged” only after landing safely on the ground.
  3. Rocket boots – Boots with rockets on them. Holding down the spacebar while in the air will ignite the rocket boots, giving you and extra boost in whichever direction you happen to be facing at the moment. Like the grapple, this ability is recharged after landing safely on the ground.

It’s a combination of movement that’s difficult to fully convey via text. Hopefully this .gif will do a better job of demonstrating how the long jump and grapple abilities can be combined:

ASAMU

Though viewing the game in motion may help convey what the experience is like, the sensation of flinging yourself over seemingly bottomless chasms is best experienced firsthand. The mechanics and perceived physics of motion are done extremely well. Controls feel intuitive, and though there aren’t necessarily dire consequences for missing a jump and falling into the void, the combination of visual and aural effects turns a missed jump into a gut-wrenching moment. Close calls that end well generate a palpable sense of relief, and you may find yourself backing away from the keyboard for a moment to steel your nerves before attempting the next set of maneuvers.

Levels are linear, and with one exception there’s only one path to take in order to make progress. The developers wisely took a page from the book of Mirror’s Edge, and use subtle color cues to guide the player through the irregular game world.

First Look
The neon-blue, glowing symbols will guide you…

Quite conspicuous at first, the visual cues will become more subtle later in the game, ultimately forcing you to find a path while you fling yourself under a cliff face and only one missed grapple from falling into oblivion.

05
See that tiny doorway on the back wall? That’s where you’re headed!

The game seldom hold your hand and puts a pressure on you to navigate the levels on your own, trusting that the level design is clear enough so as not to lose or confuse the player. It works – most of the time. There are a few segments in the game where you’ll fling yourself in a randomly chosen direction, furiously trying to grapple onto something-anything in hopes of finding what seems to be the secret way forward. I think there were maybe three or four parts where I had to resort to YouTube to find what I missed. In some cases my struggle was self-inflicted; I missed what should have been an obvious visual cue.

The two most frustrating moments I experienced came about because the game doesn’t have a great way to demonstrate the effective limitations on the grapple and the rocket boots. In one segment I could clearly see that I was supposed to grapple past three floating rocks, and then use the rocket boots to make my way to a distant platform. The issue is that since every jump you make is either pass or fail over a bottomless abyss, there’s no real way to anticipate how far the rocket boots will take you or how close to an object you need to be in order to lock the grapple onto it. If I were to replay the sequences again, I think it would still take a measurable amount of luck for me to clear them.

04

The art direction is vibrant and definitely pleasing to look at. It’s done well, if a bit derivative; it reminded me of Na Pali from the first Unreal with a few helpings of Avatar tossed in here and there.

Lab
There are lots of little details worth exploring in your uncle’s lab. Not explained: How he got Post-It notes to stick to wooden paneling.

Tips for New Players:

  1. Try to plot out your route before making the initial jump
  2. Don’t give in to your desire to click frantically when trying to grapple something; odds are you’ll waste grapple and have to redo the section

The Final Raving – Qualified Endorsement

While it’s not for everyone, if you have an interest in similar games (Mirror’s Edge, Portal, even the platforming elements of Assassin’s Creed) this one might be a good fit for you.

A Story About My Uncle is proof positive that small games developed by indie studios have a place in a AAA world. It makes me look forward to future releases from Gone North Games / Coffee Stain Studios

Good:

  • Fun platforming gameplay that generally works very well
  • Almost unparalleled for exhilaration of movement
  • Vivid art design

Bad:

  • Occasionally frustrating moments
  • If running time trials isn’t your thing, $12.99 might be a bit steep for a 3-hour platforming campaign

Ugly:

  • While there isn’t much of it, the NPC character animation is quite dated

Compatibility Considerations: 

None. Built in the Unreal Engine, this should work fine on all modern gaming PCs.