Dark Souls II – Scholar of the First Sin

The challenge itself is the draw. For the most part, that’s enough. But you may reach a moment, as I did, when you start to wonder why you’re doing this. I made it about halfway through before this persistent question began to erode my enjoyment of the combat.

The original Dark Souls is a masterpiece of game design. A punishing action-adventure hack and slash game, it’s a title that stands in a worthy spot on many “greatest games of all time” lists. Though the story and lore of the game’s world is opaque, players are given glimpses of it in item descriptions and conversations with other characters. Over eighty hours, my initial frustration with the game gave way to adoration and excitement. Though frequently frustrating, the world of Dark Souls had a balance of trials and reward. When you spend hours fighting for every inch of new territory, the game rewards you for it accordingly. By the time I’d made it through the Abyss and on to the Kiln of the First Flame, I felt like I’d accomplished something. Victory over Gwyn, Lord of Cinder is a fist-pumping achievement and worthy of bragging about. The game’s design clearly led to this moment, building the world in such a way that you can recount nearly every step you took from start to finish.

Dark Souls II lacks a sense of continuity and purpose. That’s notable, because Dark Souls games are not known for having a clearly communicated story. Hints of lore and world building are hidden in item descriptions, loading screens, and in conversations with other characters. If you’re really interested in the story, you can go online and read detailed history lessons contained on the Dark Souls II wiki. I’ve not spent any time going through the lore. Personally, I figure that if the game doesn’t try very hard to make sure I know what the story is, it can’t be that important. Why should I care about something if the game itself obviously doesn’t? The original Dark Souls had a similarly hidden story, though the game’s world made up for it. By means of visual signposting and excellent level design, the player always knew where they were supposed to go next. Discovery of the world was motivation enough for me to want to keep playing. Dark Souls II lacks that key ingredient. Since the story might as well not exist, the world design alone carries the weight of motivating the player to keep moving forward. Though the game contains some compelling locations, the whole of the game’s world, Drangelic, lacks a sense of cohesion.

See the ruins, bridge, and tower in the distance? You don’t get to explore any of that in DSII.

Take Huntsman’s Copse, for example. Emerging from a cave, the player sees a large tower sitting atop a cliff. To get there, you must battle your way through a misty forest filled with bandits and poison moths. Eventually you arrive at an ominous passage. Dark walls tower over a narrow walkway lined with irregularly placed stone pedestals. Each pedestal serve as perch for a Purgatory Guardian. These are the toughest enemies I’d yet faced in the game. Armed with whips and giant staffs imbued with the power of dark magic, they are a challenge when fought singly. Advance down the corridor and they’ll drop down to engage you. Advance too much at one time and multiple guardians will engage you. Each fight was tense and stressful, followed by the release of defeat or elation of victory. This sequence is classic Dark Souls; challenge, risk, and reward. It’s a satisfying gameplay sequence. Eventually you’re allowed to walk through the passage and across a rope bridge to the ominous tower. A fog gate awaits you. There’s a boss inside.

Oooh. Foreboding!

The Executioner’s Chariot is a two-stage boss fight that’s pretty standard for Dark Souls games. The fight itself is merely the logical progression of your battle with the guardians outside. Dying here means you must face the entire gauntlet again. Victory means satisfaction, reward, and the incentive to keep progressing forward. Except not in the way I’d hoped. It took me at least ten attempts to figure out how to get through the passage with the guardians, and I died at the hands of the boss at least six times. After so much pain and time and effort to take out a boss, I expected to be rewarded. My hope was that I’d keep fighting up through the tower, discovering some cool new location above the misty woods I’d been trapped in for so long. But, no, that was not to be the case. On the fateful attempt when I did achieve victory over the Executioner’s Chariot, I was sorely disappointed. There’s nothing new to discover. The room that contained the boss was just a hallway; a circular hallway! One alcove contains a bonfire, but that’s it. The payoff for all my hard work is that I get to warp out of a dead end and start another journey somewhere else.

This is the Shrine of Amana. Everybody on the internet hated it (do a search, but beware salty language), but I loved it.

This scene repeats itself more times than I can count in Dark Souls II. The game introduces a new locale, only to cast it aside and shift someplace else after a scant hour or two of gameplay. There is quite a diverse range of locations to explore. Seaside towers, a haunted ship berthed in a cave, misty and foggy woods, stone caverns lit by poisonous green pools, an iron castle sinking into a pit of lava, another castle that seems to float above the world, frozen castles; Dark Souls II has it all! And that’s part of the problem. Instead of each area contributing to the feel of the world, it feels like someone made a list locations that sounded cool and tossed them in without any justification. While most of these places are beautiful, the game clearly values quantity over quality. There are thirty-four different locations, and almost all of them have their own boss. Thirteen of those locations have a single resting point. You’ll be in those locations only long enough to fight some enemies, beat the boss, and move on.

This section of Undead Crypt made me want to quit the game.

For the most part, that’s not a problem because Dark Souls II is still fun to play – to a point. The combat system imported all of the good things from the original Dark Souls. This is a game of skill. Recognizing the patterns, strengths, and weaknesses of your enemies is important. The single most important thing to learn about combat is not to panic. Panic leads to rash decisions, which lead to death. Patience and discipline are essential to living for more than a few minutes at a time. Depending on your preferences, you can opt to wield magic or fire, build a strength character to pummel enemies with big hammers, or use dexterity to become a slasher of supreme order. Most of the time, combat is fair. Sometimes, it is absolutely not. This game loves to toss swarms of multiple enemies at you, and sometimes it’s more than a bit unreasonable. But in the end, it’s still a Dark Souls game. The sense of achievement when you tackle a tough foe is real enough. So too is the despair when you encounter a baddie that you just can’t see a way around. The challenge itself is the draw. For the most part, that’s enough. But you may reach a moment, as I did, when you start to wonder why you’re doing this. I made it about halfway through before this persistent question began to erode my enjoyment of the combat. Forty-three hours after starting the game, I watched my character take a seat on a throne. The throne was inside of some hut, which itself was buried deep within a fortress. The doors of this hut closed slowly, drenching my warrior in inky blackness and the game ended. My character had fought long and hard to sit in the dark by himself. Surely his last thought about his experiences must have mirrored my own: Is this all there is?

Kerbal Space Rescue

There’s a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the good news. There’s only a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the bad news. It’s bad because the crew capsule is no longer attached to an engine. Or maneuvering thrusters. Or any other spaceship parts that allow it to move under its own power. So it’s stuck in orbit above the planet with no way to move. How did it happen? I blame it on my love of pushing buttons.

Things rarely go according to plan in Kerbal Space Program. And that’s kind of sad since my plan was so simple there was almost no room for anything to go wrong. It’s been a while since I’ve spent quality time with the game, so I wanted to get reacquainted. Build a rocket, launch it into orbit, and bring it back. No fancy maneuvers, no tricks, just a simple up and down. Easy stuff we humans mastered back in the 1960s. But Kerbal space program doesn’t have humans, it has tiny green people called Kerbals. And it doesn’t take place in the 1960s, it’s all happening in the here and now. Anything goes, since you’re the one responsible for everything. My plan to get reacquainted had three simple parts. Part one, building a rocket, was easier than ever. Part two, launching it into a stable orbit above Kerbin, went off without a hitch. Part three, returning my brave Kerbalnauts back to the planet, is where things got a little complicated. How complicated? Well, have a look for yourself:
KSP 2016-09-03 20-39-27-21There’s a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the good news. There’s only a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the bad news. It’s bad because the crew capsule is no longer attached to an engine. Or maneuvering thrusters. Or any other spaceship parts that allow it to move under its own power. So it’s stuck in orbit around the planet with no way to move. How did it happen? I blame it on my love of pushing buttons. In this wonderful game the space bar, which I would like to remind you is the largest key on your keyboard, is bound to a command called simply ‘next stage’. You see, each craft in Kerbal Space Program can be broken into different sections or stages that are activated in sequence. One stage may activate solid-rocket boosters, while the next fires a liquid-fuel engine, and the next one jettisons spent fuel tanks, and so on. Having a firm grasp of staging is essential to building and controlling a rocket that does what you want it to. As long as you press the button at the right time. In this case, I accidentally pressed the button to separate my crew capsule from its method of propulsion at the worst possible time.

Having three brave explorers trapped in permanent orbit isn’t the way I wanted to return to a game I love dearly, so I decided to mount a rescue mission. No Kerbals left behind! If a rescue mission is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing! A boring old rocket isn’t good enough here. No, I created a Gigantic Recovery Plane with a cargo bay large enough to contain the stranded space capsule. This vehicle would dock with the drifting capsule and then capture it and keep it safely contained within the cargo bay. Say hello to the GRV: 
20160904080231_1

The design required a few test flights and subsequent modifications before it was powerful enough and maneuverable enough to fly easily. Once it got to a point where it handled fairly well in the air I had to do something I’ve never done in Kerbal Space Program: land a plane.

It went better than I expected.

20160904081206_1

The cockpit is all that survived my first landing attempt. The key word there is “survived”. Before you write that off as a failure, please observe that the ever-brave Jebediah Kerman is still alive and smiling. Any day where your Kerbonauts are alive and on the ground after a flight is a good day. A second test flight proved that I did have what it takes to safely land the plane. At this point, I’m confident that as long as the GRV makes it back into the atmosphere I can get it landed safely. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Before I can return it to the surface I need to get it up into space to start with. And for that, I need a rocket. A really, really big rocket. With eighteen solid-rocket boosters. Say hello to the Giant Recovery Vehicle Launch Rocket:

KSP 2016-09-04 21-21-34-98

My drifting crew capsule is in orbit. The GRV is in orbit with plenty of fuel to spare. At the moment, nothing is in danger of exploding. Now I can relax and think through other problems. Problems like the fact that I’ve never successfully pulled off a docking maneuver. It sounds like it’s simple enough to do. relatively speaking, spacecraft in a higher or larger orbit move slower than craft in lower, faster orbits. I needed to keep the GRV in a lower orbit than the drifting capsule, and then make a series of carefully timed engine burns to match orbits with the drifter. It sounds deceptively simple, but it’s difficult to get the timing just right so that you’re not way far away from your intended target. It will suffice to say that after quite a bit of trial and error, I got close to the drifters. Excruciatingly close.

RescueNotToday

3 kilometers away with a relative velocity difference of only 10.5 meters per second. Keep in mind that both craft are more than 300,000 kilometers above the surface of the planet and traveling at 2,300 kilometers per hour. They’re effectively two speeding bullets traveling in the same direction and I’m trying to nudge one of them to piggyback onto the other one. Coming within 3 kilometers with a small velocity difference like that is pretty impressive to me. Did I mention yet that I have no idea what I’m doing? It turns out that the first 300,000 kilometers of the journey is easy, and closing the gap of the last 3 kilometers is the hard part. The very hard part. I thought I understood what to do but my grasp of orbital mechanics failed me here. No matter what I did the drifters floated farther and farther away from the GRV. I tried a short burn from my engines to bring me closer; it pushed me farther away. I tried long bursts from my maneuvering thrusters; they pushed me in the wrong direction. With each attempted course correction my orbit skewed even more in the wrong direction.

After a few mistake-filled minutes I took a deep breath and looked at my orbital trajectory. It was a lopsided egg totally off track compared to the gentle oval of the drifter. To add insult to injury I was now running low on fuel. With my limited resources there was no possible way for me to rescue the drifters and return back to the planet. Rather than have two craft stranded in orbit in two separate orbits I decided to return an empty GRV back to Kerbin. At least I know I can land it. I nudged the GRV back into the atmosphere and begin my descent.

worried-jeb

Jeb looks worried. That’s not a good sign. Ever. Why is he worried?

KSP 2016-09-05 07-46-12-74

Well that wasn’t supposed to happen. Yes, the GRV blew up. It was torn apart by aerodynamic stresses. There is such a thing as coming into a planet’s atmosphere the wrong way. My speed of 2,500 meters per second probably wouldn’t have been an issue if I’d approached from a shallower angle. As it was I ran into too much atmospheric density too soon and it ripped my spaceplane apart. If I had a shallower approach then the thinner atmosphere would have slowed down the GRV a bit more, allowing for a more gradual and less explodey descent to the planet’s surface. I suppose it’s for the best. If I had successfully retrieved the drifters only to disintegrate upon reentry then I would have been quite peeved.

That’s the thing about Kerbal Space Program: even when an untimely explosion reduces your best plan to bits of flaming rubble, it’s never unfair. Punishing and rarely forgiving, yes; but never unfair.  Every time I’ve failed, and I’ve failed a lot, it’s been the result of something I did. Either my vehicle design was a flying trash heap or I just didn’t know how to fly it properly. It’s a game that’s easy to get into, but difficult to master. There’s no need for a story mode since the best stories will write themselves if you play long enough. That’s the real draw of Kerbal Space Program. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and write the best rescue and recovery story since Apollo 13!

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.

MirrorsEdge 2016-05-16 20-37-07-26
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?”

MirrorsEdge 2016-04-30 17-37-22-65
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.

20160515214752_1

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.

MirrorsEdge 2016-05-17 21-06-50-85
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.

MirrorsEdge 2016-05-20 22-03-21-70

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.

MirrorsEdge 2016-05-21 09-48-09-25
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. 

MirrorsEdge 2016-05-18 21-10-45-56

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

An Evening With Oregon Trail

My first time on the trail was a comedy of tragic events. At the first river crossing one of my party members drowned when my wagon tipped over in less than four feet of water. Tragic, but one less mouth to feed meant my food would last longer for the living travelers. People got sick. Limbs were broken. We got lost. There was fog. There were measles. Then a thief stole some of my oxen. And not just some of them, but most of them. As in, eight out of my ten. Who steals eight oxen?

An Evening With… Is a series of posts featuring games that are relatively small in scale or can be experienced in a short period of time.

Even people who don’t know a thing about video games know about Oregon Trail. Part video game, part learning experience, it’s hard to separate the game itself from its status as a cultural icon. Many people from my generation have memories of playing through the game in school, back when software developers tried to combine education experiences with video games. Perhaps their parents even bought the game for the family computer under the impression their kids would learn a few things from it. My wife has stories about how she and her sister used to play the game together “back in the day”. I was never a part of that crowd, at least not that I can remember. When a cleanup of the home office yielded the game’s discovery on a dusty bookshelf, my wife insisted I play through it.

Starting ShopOregon Trail tries to be a historical simulator. You are the leader of a party that is traveling across the continental United States with the aim of settling in Oregon. You start your journey in Independence, Missouri by picking your profession. Certain vocations lend bonuses that may be helpful over the course of the dangerous journey. A banker, naturally, can afford to buy more supplies at the start of the game. Doctors are more likely to keep their party healthy. Carpenters and blacksmiths have significantly less money to work with, but they can potentially fix their wagon should it break and they will receive a significant score bonus at the end of the game. You can determine how many people you’re taking to Oregon with you. Forewarning: Your party members possess no skills and exist only to fall ill and consume your precious resources out in the wilderness. Once your profession and party members are set, it’s off to the general store to load up on supplies for your wagon. Oxen, nonperishable food, and bullets are the only things you are guaranteed to use; most other things you’re buying as insurance against disaster. The shopkeeper offers advice on what you should buy, but only the trail will show you what you actually need.

My first time on the trail was a comedy of tragic events. At the first river crossing one of my party members drowned when my wagon tipped over in less than four feet of water. Tragic, but one less mouth to feed meant my food would last longer for the living travelers. People got sick. Limbs were broken. We got lost. There was fog. There were measles. Then a thief stole some of my oxen. And not just some of them, but most of them. As in, eight out of my ten. Who steals eight oxen? How could my party even allow such a thing? Did they not notice our only means of transportation mooing as they were led away by someone they’ve never seen before? I’m still mad at that band of traveling idiots. Just after reaching the halfway point of the journey the most tragic thing of all happened: A program crash. Fifty minutes of progress down the drain because I forgot to save my game. I’m not sure what caused the crash; it was the result of either my constant task-switching for the sake of getting screenshots or the fact that I’d been running the game in Windows 95 compatibility mode. I later discovered that I didn’t really need to be running the game in compatibility mode, so lesson learned.

15
No shopkeeper could have prepared me for this.

For my second attempt on the trail I ensured the game was running flawlessly, including my ability to save both the game and its text log. What follows is a selection of the more interesting highlights from the transcript of my trail journal.

My First Second Journey

March 1, 1848
We started down the trail with:
10 oxen
15 sets of clothing
400 bullets
3 wagon wheels
3 wagon axles
3 wagon tongues
800 pounds of food

Oregon, ho! So we endeavor to leave the wastelands of the Great Plains to endure two thousand miles and many months of hardships for a bette- wait. Why are we going to Oregon again? No, really. I got so caught up in the journey itself that I have no idea why we’re making the journey in the first place.

March 6, 1848
We have arrived at the Kansas River Crossing.

The river makes me afraid. 666 feet across and 10.6 feet deep. Evil lurks here.

March 12, 1848
We have arrived at the Big Blue River Crossing.

At this river I am presented with only two options: ford or float. Neither one appeals to me, and there’s no ferry. At 9.4 feet deep, this river is nothing more than a wet death trap. I’ll wait a day to see if the river drops any. It does. Not knowing how far it’s going to drop, I’ll wait until it starts rising again before heading across.

16 days later, the river is down to 3.4 feet. I think it might be safe to try floating the wagon over.

March 28, 1848
We had no trouble floating the wagon across.
Heavy fog. Lost 1 day.
Mandy has a fever.

My party ate a LOT of food in 16 days. Time to hunt.

March 30, 1848
We shot 1 pound of meat.

13 bullets and all I have to show for it is a pound of… squirrel? Is that what that is?

April 8, 1848
We have reached Fort Kearney.

An old dude said this should be the easiest part of the trail, so I’m opting to pick up the pace in hopes of making up for lost time.

We will now travel at a more strenuous pace.

April 19, 1848
Heavy fog. Lost 1 day.

My overall health indicator has dropped to “fair”, what with a broken leg and the measles and all. A hunting trip and a day’s rest are in store.

April 21, 1848
We shot 5 pounds of meat.

I managed to bag three rabbits as they gleefully bounded towards a beautiful stream. Serves ’em right.
We decided to rest for a day.

April 25, 1848
An ox is sick. Poor Fluffernutter.

Sick Ox

Why is it that the image announcing that an ox is sick makes it look like our only option is to put the thing out of its misery? Seriously, I’m getting some serious Napoleon Dynamite vibes here.

Napoleon Cow

April 26, 1848
We shot 71 pounds of meat. I’m pretty sure this didn’t come from the sick ox. I hope.

May 1, 1848
Mandy is well again.
Woo, we’re all in “fair” health again! Pretty soon we can celebrate by decreasing food intake to scarce rations and increasing to a grueling pace!

May 6, 1848
We have reached Independence Rock.
Aww, they’re circling their wagons under the giant circular rock. How quaint.

Independence Rock

May 7, 1848
An ox died. Good, I guess we didn’t eat him, then.
We decided to rest for 2 days to mourn Fluffernutter the ox.

Dead Ox

May 14, 1848
A thief stole 9 sets of clothing.
A thief stole 9 of my 15 sets of clothing? In a wagon full of food and bullets and spare parts, this dolt goes for sets of clothing? This type of seemingly petty nighttime thievery is what to led to things like the Great Train Robbery. I do declare society is preparing to unravel!

Thief

May 17, 1848
We shot 22 pounds of meat.
Why are my bullets so slooow!?!

May 19, 1848
We lost the trail for 5 days.
Ha! Poor guy looks pretty desperate standing in the middle of a field a few paces ahead of his wagon! Oh wait, that’s me. Hmm, I just made myself sad.

Lost Trail

May 24, 1848
We have arrived at the South Pass.
My food stores are a bit on the low side, but I can’t hunt at landmarks because there are “too many people around”? What that really means is this is the only hunting ground where you’re guaranteed to bring something home.

That sounded way more creepy than I intended it to.

Spoiled Food
That looks like way more than 20 pounds of meat.

From here my two options are to go to Fort Bridger for trading or use the shortcut to the Green-River crossing. Since I’m low on food and don’t have much to trade with I’d prefer to try and keep up with a good traveling pace. Time to apply a little math to my dwindling food reserves. 226 pounds of non-perishable food left. Five people eating generous portions eat a pound of food per meal or a total of 15 pounds per day. That’ll last me two weeks. Looking at the hunting limit of 200 pounds of food per hunt, I need to bag at least that much game every four days. Assuming a minimum of four more months of travel time, that’s a total of 1,800 pounds of food I need between now and Oregon. These people eat too much.

May 28, 1848
We shot 1865 pounds of meat but were able to carry back only 200 pounds of meat.

Bison. Slow and huge. A hunter’s best friend. Odd that so many people warned me against hunting them.

Overview

June 5, 1848
We decided to rest for a day. These poor people’s health keeps declining to “fair”. Generous portions, steady pace, what more do these wimps want?

June 15, 1848
Mandy is well again. Yay! Let’s have a party with extra rations all around! Wait, we’re already on “generous” portions! What took you so long to get well?

June 17, 1848
Mandy has a fever.
Why are you so sickly, woman?

June 29, 1848
We have reached Soda Springs. This appears to be a meeting place and trading grounds for fellow trail goers. Do I dare try and trade any of my wagon parts for nonperishable food?

We traded 2 wagon axles for 80 pounds of food. Thos axles were worth $20 each, meaning I just paid fifty cents per pound of nonperishable food. The price seems a bit steep, but what’s the cost of starving to death? You know, other than death?

July 2, 1848
We have reached Fort Hall.

There’s a fort with a general store here and it’s literally three days away from Soda Springs? I lost money on that food for axles trade. If I can find that twerp again I’ll shoot him in the leg.

We visited the store and bought:
1 wagon axle
80 pounds of food
1 set of clothing
We decided to rest for 2 days.

July 7, 1848
No grass for the oxen.

Why the heck does everyone’s health drop randomly from “good” to “fair”? Besides the fact that there’s no water and no grass. I haven’t noticed any pattern or cause and effect to it. Where are we anyway?

July 19, 1848
No water.
We have arrived at the Snake River Crossing.

No water at the Snake River Crossing…so does that mean Snake River is dry? How high is Snake River? That’ll be a test of this game’s continuity. 12 feet deep and 1000 feet across. That’s a big river. This game makes no sense.

July 20, 1848
We had no trouble floating the wagon across. Help from an Indian cost us two sets of clothing. That’s the equivalent of forty bucks. I miss the five dollar ferry.

July 24, 1848
We shot 111 pounds of meat.
Look ma, I just bagged a bear!

Hunting

July 25, 1848
No grass for the oxen.

July 26, 1848
No water.

July 27, 1848
No water.

July 28, 1848
No water.
Why does Idaho not have any water? Maybe potatoes are the cause of all the world’s problems.

We have reached Fort Boise.

August 2, 1848
Kathy has the measles.
“The measles can lead to death, especially among the elderly”. Sigh. If it’s not Mandy it’s someone else. I guess it’s time to take a rest for a few days.

We decided to rest for 3 days.

August 3, 1848
A thief stole 85 pounds of food.

People: this is why we don’t rest.

August 13, 1848
Everyone is in poor health, rather suddenly. What the what. Time to try resting again. If another thief comes I’m going to flip my lid.
We decided to rest for 3 days.

August 21, 1848
We have arrived at the Grande Ronde in the Blue Mountains.
Grande Ronde is quite breathtakingly beautiful in real life. It’s too bad the render in this game makes it look like a pile of irradiated blueberry marshmallow Peeps twinkling in the distance.

Purple Peep Mountains

I’m presented with a choice: Either I can go to Fort Walla Walla to buy supplies or I can take the shortcut to The Dalles. Buying supplies costs money, and I’ll need money to start life in Oregon. Shortcut it is.

August 23, 1848
We lost 41 pounds of food due to spoilage.
Tony is suffering from exhaustion.
We’re all exhausted, Tony.

September 3, 1848
Tony is well again.
Tony looks like a little girl.

TonyGirl

We have reached The Dalles. After talking to the locals, it appears I’ll have the choice of floating down the river on a barge or traveling over the mountain. Pixar movies and my first crashed attempt at Oregon Trail have taught me that rivers are nothing more than wet deathtraps, so we’ll be going over the mountains via the Barlow Toll Road.

September 4, 1848
The trail is impassable. Lost 7 days.
This is just another way of saying “we got lost”. That’s how it looks from the picture, anyway.

Impassable Lost

September 14, 1848
The trail is impassable. Lost 2 days.

This toll road sucks. Whatever I paid to take this route, it was too much.

September 20, 1848
We’re approaching the Willamette Valley, which is rather gloriously rendered by Oregon Trail as two lumpy rocks surrounded by some miniature pine trees. I’d hope it’s more impressive in real life.

WV puny thumbnail

September 25, 1848
VICTORY! I conquered the Oregon Trail after 6 months and 25 days of carrying a wagon full of supplies and several other party members of dead weight!

Willamette Valley

What’s this? I get a score screen? Something tells me the original travelers of the trail didn’t have such a luxury after their journey. 
ScoreScreen

Remember kids, you don’t need to be a doctor or a banker to succeed in life. At least, you don’t need to be one to win in Oregon Trail. No fatalities other than the ox and I get a 2x bonus at the end of it. Think you can beat my score? I’d like to see you try.

How to Play Oregon Trail

Sure it’s an iconic piece of software, but is it a fun game? It can be, depending on your expectations. It’s not what you’d call an easy game, though the game’s developers have tried to make it more accessible over the years. As much as I wanted to see some statistics about the health of my party and how much things like bad water and lack of grass affected them, such statistics wouldn’t make sense in the game world. The game requires you to think through your circumstances and how they would potentially affect your party. I guess it makes sense that people’s health will decline when they’ve had access to nothing but bad water for five days, but I’m still at a loss to explain how and why people break bones so frequently. Considering the base game was programmed in the seventies the depth of the game’s options are still a bit impressive. There are a lot of contributing factors here, and branching paths offer some interesting complexity that makes me want to try playing the game again. I do plan to play some more; partly to see if I can make it to Oregon in less than six months, and partly to see just how catastrophically wrong this trip can go.

I played Oregon Trail version 1.2 for Windows. My wife owns a physical copy of the game, so I copied the contents of the disc to my hard drive and ran the game straight from Windows Explorer. There are multiple copies of the game .exe. The location of the file varies depending on where you copy it, but within the game’s directory it was located in Oregon Trail/OTWIN32/OREGON32.EXE. As I learned the hard way, no compatibility mode is necessary. It is possible to find multiple versions of the game on sites that host abandonware (what is abandonware?), but there are some potential legal and moral implications to this. If gaming with a clear conscience is important to you, consider reading Abandoning Abandonware (Or: How Do You Like Your Piracy?).  To get around any potential issues, you could play the game for free in your browser from the Internet Archive: The Oregon Trail Deluxe 1992 Edition at The Internet Archive.

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.

 

Star Wars: X-Wing

If I’m completely honest, I’ll say that I have mixed feelings about X-Wing. On one hand, it was a landmark moment for Star Wars gaming. For the first time, gamers were given an experience that both included moments lifted directly from the Star Wars movies and added interesting background stories to what we already knew about. […] On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to play X-Wing without without noticing just how much its sequels improved upon the game’s basic design. The basic framework and various parts are there, but without the details and more complex mechanics to tie everything together the experience feels a little too hollow.

If I’m completely honest, I’ll say that I have mixed feelings about X-Wing. On one hand, it was a landmark moment for Star Wars gaming. For the first time, gamers were given an experience that both included moments lifted directly from the Star Wars movies and added interesting background stories to what we already knew about. This is the first time gamers had the ability to freely pilot the iconic starfighters we all know and love without the “on-rails” limitations of arcade cabinets. It’s hard not to have fun when you’re blasting TIEs left and right and waging war against the bad guys! On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to play X-Wing without without noticing just how much its sequels improved upon the game’s basic design. The basic framework and various parts are there, but without the details and more complex mechanics to tie everything together the experience feels a little too hollow. Those missing elements accumulate in your mind over long play sessions to create an experience that is ultimately one of frustration with moments of bliss scattered about.

In terms of gameplay, X-Wing is something of a “lite” simulator. It’s not as daunting as the fully fledged flight simulators of the late 90s, but it’s decidedly more complex than the Star Wars arcade shooters from the 1980s. Simulation aspects are present in the function of your starship as well as the mission design. Your fighter has a limited amount of energy which must be used to run three vital components: engines, shields, and lasers. A certain amount of skill and tactical awareness is required in order to make sure your ship can do everything it needs to do in the heat of battle. For example, increasing your laser recharge rate and leaving your shields at the default maintenance level will reduce your speed by about 12%. This means you have to make some tactical decisions when approaching a dogfight. It’s somewhat safe to sacrifice some speed to charge your lasers while piloting the nimble A-Wing or the X-wing, but this slowness can be a death sentence in the Y-Wing. These limitations placed upon your starfighter always make sense in the world of X-Wing and never feel like a frustrating game handicap.

Ludicrous Speed! Er, wait...
The “E L S” indicators near the center-right of your cockpit show your energy settings.

The missions also introduce some variety that goes beyond just blowing up every Imperial in sight. You might be tasked with assisting in the capture of an Imperial transport, but before you can do that you need to fly close and inspect multiple starships to figure out which one holds the quarry you’re after. Other missions have goals that are tailored to the ship you’re piloting. A number of capture missions see you pilot the Y-Wing so you can use the ion cannons to disable the appropriate craft. One of my favorites requires you to pilot the nimble A-Wing through an Imperial convoy to identify all the enemy ships present. Sure, you could try to be a hotshot and blow up some of the TIEs that launch and pursue you, but that means slowing down enough so as to be vulnerable to turbolaser fire from capital ships. It’s a risk that’s demonstrably not worth taking. Missions where you’re allowed to play a specific part in a battle, and not perform every action on your own, are the ones that are most fun (and memorable).

Unfortunately for you, the game consistently requires you to fly missions and complete objectives almost singlehandedly. You do have wingmates and other friendly allies, but most of them lack any discernible sign of intelligence and are about as useful in combat as a pet rock. Perhaps the scripting language of 1993 wasn’t detailed enough to write complex AI routines, or maybe this was an intentional design decision to reinforce the feeling of the Rebel Alliance fighting as the underdog against the Galactic Empire. Whatever the reason, the effect is still the same: your allies rarely do more than the design of the mission requires them to do. If your mission as a Y-Wing pilot is to disable a shuttle, you may have X-Wings to cover you while that happens. But the moment the shuttle is disabled and the mission scripting moves on to the next event those X-Wings will be gone, leaving you to deal with squadrons of TIE Interceptors and Assault Gunboats all by your lonesome. Occurrences like this would be fine if they could rationally be explained within the context of the game, but as things are your continual abandonment makes no sense. Why wouldn’t faster, sturdier fighters; X-Wings; stick around to escort the entire capture operation instead of leaving a sluggish bomber; Y-Wings; to singlehandedly protect a target of interest?

Abandonment
Red Leader leaves you hanging again. How typical. Be prepared to see this message. A lot. 

The other major frustration is that since you have to complete most of the objectives yourself, many missions will feel more like puzzles than combat simulations. Frequently, you’ll be assigned with flying a long way downrange of your starting position to take out a squadron of bombers, then be required to hightail it back past your start position to protect some other helpless craft. Everything seems to be going well except… Oh wait, there was another squadron of bombers you missed in your first engagement and they destroyed a mission critical craft. Time to start the mission over and play through 12 minutes to do it again in a different sequence. The missions in the original campaigns aren’t totally horrible; it’s a fair mix of puzzle missions and straightforward assignments. However, the difficulty is significantly ramped up in the B-Wing expansion. So much so that hints for each mission are available during the briefing before the mission starts, should you choose to see them.

The most frustrating puzzle for me was the final mission of the original game: the Death Star trench run. What was supposed to be the crowning moment of the game turned into repeated frustration. Starting above the surface of the Death Star, your first goal is to make it to the trench. Once you get there R2-D2 does his job and increases the power output to your engines, almost tripling your speed.  This helps you evade enemy fire and lessens your time in the trench, but it’s not enough. No matter what I tried; shooting turbolaser batteries, charging everything on full, hiding behind pillars to preserve my shields; I got blown up every time. I’m ashamed to admit that I had to look up what turned out to be, to me, a completely counterintuitive solution: Once you’re in the trench you need to set shields and laser recharge to zero and put all energy to the engines. That’s right, run the Death Star trench with no lasers and no shields. If you furrow your brow and look at it from an angle it might make sense from a story perspective: How else could Vader pick off Rebel fighters with two laser blasts in A New Hope? Because they had no shields! But from a gameplay perspective, it’s totally counterintuitive. After playing three dozen missions where managing your fighter to have sufficient shields and laser power at all times is essential to your survival, having the final and most dangerous mission force you to abandon them completely is mind boggling.

And that’s the thing about X-Wing: For every moment of sheer joy, there’s an equal moment of raw frustration.

Successful trench run
Darn it Jim! I’m a spaceship pilot, not a puzzle-solver! Also: Look, no shields! At all!

Note: There are officially three versions of the game, all of which can be found and played today: 

  1. 1993 – Original release – 320 x 240 native resolution, iMuse soundtrack, limited voiceovers
  2. 1994 – Rerelease – 320 x 240 native resolution, runs in upgraded TIE Fighter engine, iMuse soundtrack, many voice parts
  3. 1998 – Collector’s CD-ROM – 640 x 480 native resolution, certain menus and cutscenes redone in higher resolution, polygons (ships and other objects) have textures instead of plain shading, music taken from the soundtrack of the movies plus quality audio

The 1994 version of the game might be worth a quick install just for an understanding of how the iMuse score works; it’s a system that dynamically matches the background music to match the action happening within the game. Not much going on? Slow, relaxing themes abound. Sudden appearance by an Imperial Start Destroyer? The score seamlessly shifts to the Imperial March. It’s quite effective at evoking the feel of Star Wars. However, the super-low resolution visuals and detailess models make for a somewhat painful playing experience. It’s just too “chunky” and jagged to flow right. When flying the Death Star trench run to grab some screenshots I crashed into the surface more than once because I couldn’t tell how close I was to the single shade of solid gray beneath me. Unless you have a nostalgic urge to experience the ’93 or ’94 versions, stay away from them. This retrospective was written about the 1998 version of the game, and is the one I recommend playing.

Regardless of what version you play the game’s menus, cutscenes, and transitions are beautifully rendered in a style that’s barely aged over 23 years. Yes they are a bit “chunky” and you can tell they were done a long time ago, but that doesn’t diminish their appeal. Personally, I don’t think I’d ever get tired of these even after the game ages another two decades. .

Transition cutscene
Pixelated, yes; but still beautiful!

The Final Raving – Qualified Endorsement OR Don’t Bother

If you like Wing Commander, TIE Fighter or Descent: Freespace, then this might be worth your time. However, be prepared for some experiences that can’t help but feel primitive. X-Wing might be best left in your – or someone else’s – memories.

This one is a tough call. If you love Star Wars or space combat games in general, you have to play X-Wing if for no other reason than to experience a slice of gaming history. However, if you’ve only ever played the later games in the series or other more modern space games it’s going to be very hard to enjoy X-Wing for what it is. If you’ve never played any Star Wars space sims and wanted to get started with one, I’d have to suggest you skip ahead to TIE Fighter.

Good:

  • Nails the desperation of fighting for the underdog
  • Distinct gameplay differences between the available ships
  • Moments of theatricality hint at the greatness later games will achieve

Bad:

  • You’re not fighting for the Rebel Alliance, you are the only Rebel alive
  • Mission design gets repetitive about 2/3 through the game
  • The game doesn’t give you enough feedback during missions to let you know exactly what you need to be doing

Ugly:

  • Visuals of ’93 and ’94 versions are just too difficult to adjust to today

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • I own these through GOG.com, and they work flawlessly in Windows 10. You can play the ’93 and ’94 versions using a mouse, but a joystick is required for the ’98 edition. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend playing any edition of the game without a joystick.

Tips for New Players:

  1. Your shields will recharge at an impossibly slow rate, so it’s not usually worth it to increase the power to them. Instead, give your lasers maximum power and shunt energy from them to your shields. It’s always faster to do it this way.
  2. You will be required to blow up a Star Destroyer on more than one occasion. The shield generator towers really do supply deflector shields. Take them out with three torpedoes each and your job becomes much easier
    BwingShields
  3. Once a ship’s shields are down, disable it! This buys you some time to deal with the other interference that will undoubtedly be surrounding you.
  4. Disable what you can, and then leave it there. A lot of missions are scripted to send new waves of ships into battle after one wave is destroyed. In the case of Assault Gunboats in particular, disabling one wave may prevent a new wave from joining the battle.

Details

Release Date:

  • Original Game: 1993
  • Expansion #1 – Imperial Pursuit: 1994
  • Expansion #2 – B-Wing: 1994

Developer: Totally Games

Publisher: Lucasarts

Where to buy: Steam & GOG.com – $9.99

Screenshot Gallery