Deus Ex – The End!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

My Nemesis is a Mini Golf Game

Energy, the ninth hole from Zany Golf, was my childhood gaming nemesis. Despite my proficiency at Will Harvey’s imaginitive vision of mini golf, Energy was the hill I couldn’t conquer. It was the stallion I never tamed; the item never crossed off the list; the peanut butter stuck at the bottom of the jar; you get the idea. Most of the locations present in Zany Golf are a creative twist from the cliched mini golf locations we’ve all come to expect. The opening hole features an iconic windmill that’s near-impossible to launch a ball through. Another hole combines water hazards and a fairy-tale castle. Ant Hill features, you guessed it, the hole featured on top of a hill. To add insult to injury, the hole itself moves around at random. Don’t spend too long lining up the shot! One of my favorites features strategically placed fans which are operated by waggling your computer mouse back and forth. Magic carpet has special pads which allow you to control the speed and trajectory of your ball with the mouse. Hamburger Hole has a giant hamburger covering the hole; click on it to make the ingredients jump!

All of these fantastical locations add a bit of spice to keep a round of mini golf from feeling routine. While tricky, the design is good charming enough that I didn’t mind spending five strokes on the opening hole. The stress of the game comes from the scoring mechanic. Rather than simply count the number of strokes needed to complete the course, play begins with a finite number of strokes. Spend too many on one hole and it’s game over! More strokes are awarded after completing each hole, and there are occasions to earn bonus strokes. This approach to scoring isn’t kind to mistakes, and it’s downright punishing when it comes to Energy. A mistake on the first hole might cost you the round. If the game’s first eight holes were inspired by real-world mini golf courses, the final hole belongs in a mad scientist’s lab. No instructions are given, only a hint that “buttons activate machinery”. It’s up to you to save enough strokes to figure out what it is you’re supposed to do.

By some miracle, for the first time in my life I manage to get to Energy with twenty available shots. Twenty! This is the day I beat Zany Golf! From the tee, my first objective is to switch on the lab’s teleporter. This requires knocking the ball into two separate switches which are guarded by a force field. Touch the force field, and your ball disintegrates and you’re down a stroke. Hit a force field and your ball will be sent careening all over the screen, probably into that force field to be vaporized. Hit the little metal orbs with purple lightning, and your ball will be sent careening all over the screen, probably to be vaporized. Ten strokes are gone. I manage to turn on the teleport and get my ball up to the second level of the hole. There’s no rail here. Hit it too hard, and it goes back to the first level with the force field of death. I hit it too hard. Four times. Finally, finally I get my ball up the hill to the final level of the game. I only have four strokes left to navigate through a half dozen fake holes and three shocky bouncy things.

In what can only be described as the most tense moment of min golf I’ve ever experienced, I gently guide my ball through the minefield of obstacles. The real hole is in sight. I have one stroke left. It all comes down to this. I’ve been here many times before, and I’ve failed every time. Will I finally be able to slay the gaming monster from my childhood? Missing this one shot sends me down the avenue of failure with no option but to start all over from the beginning. Dark Souls has nothing on this game. 

I obsess for way too long over my final shot’s trajectory and velocity. It’s all or nothing. I click, drag, and let go… SUCCESS! For the first time in my life, Zany Golf’s scorecard pops up, detailing my efforts. My score for number nine is cringe-worthy, but I’ve done it! It’s a twenty that I’ll be happy with. 

Think you can do better?

Give Zany Golf a shot over at Classic Reload.

SimCity Classic

The principle of SimCity is simple: build it and they will come. Establish a city on an empty plot of land, provide infrastructure and zoning, then sit back to watch it grow. While that core gameplay loop is fun, it is quite short. However, it almost ends up feeling more like a tech demo or proof of concept than a fully-featured game.

When SimCity was released in 1989, it was clearly the beginning of something special. Any game that makes it into schools and the lexicon of real-world urban planners has to be doing something right! City management gameplay captured the attention and imagination of a large portion of a computer savvy culture. Beyond that, people who didn’t know a thing about computer games knew what SimCity was. Playing it in 2017, I don’t think it’s possible to appreciate SimCity for what it was when it came out. A short half an hour of play time is all that is needed in order to see the building blocks of a series that’s remained relevant thirty years later. Unfortunately, time has been cruel to the original game’s accomplishments in that its own sequels have managed to improve upon it in nearly every way, rendering the original release obsolete.

The principle of SimCity is simple: build it and they will come. Establish a city on an empty plot of land, provide infrastructure and zoning, then sit back to watch it grow. It’s a game built around what the developers call a “system simulation”. Systems are sets of rules that determine how the city behaves. Tools are the hands-on gameplay elements a player uses to manipulate those systems. Everything that happens onscreen is a result of the cause and effect relationship between the rules and tools as used by the player. For example, residential demand is a system that is governed by and responsive to job availability, tax rates, and quality of life elements such as crime and pollution. If there aren’t any jobs available, or if crime and pollution are too high, there may not be any demand for new residences. But as more jobs become available and land values climb, more citizens – referred to as “Sims” in game – will want a place to live. Building residential zones satisfies the system’s immediate need, which in turn generates other needs which need to be fulfilled. There are other systems like traffic, land value, and crime that interact and feed off one another. It’s your job as the mayor to use the game’s tools to manipulate these systems to the desired end: turning a barren plot of dirt into a bustling megalopolis.

Cities begin with the creation of a power plant. Two varieties are available, coal and nuclear. A nuclear reactor will only set you back $5,000, so it’s the logical choice! Draw some roads and power lines from the plant to your nearby industrial zones. Belching pollution and providing a place for miscreants to hang around, industry nevertheless provides a means for your Sims to earn living. Residential zones are ideally placed a ways away from the industrial arm of the city. Waterfront properties are particularly desirable. Commercial zones can be freely interspersed with residential areas. Though busy, commercial squares carry less negative effects than industry. As the city grows Sims may demand police and fire coverage, as well as the occasional sports stadium. Everything costs money to build, and roads and services have recurring maintenance costs to consider. Build too much too quickly and there’s a chance the city will go bankrupt, ending the game. Debt isn’t the only adversary in the game. There is an entire list of disasters that can and will befall your city. Floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns, and even a giant radioactive lizard are capable of reducing your city to rubble.

When I dove into the game about two weeks ago I’ll have to admit I didn’t expect to have much fun playing a twenty-eight year old city simulator. Given the progress other games have made with time, would this first offering be too basic to enjoy now? The answer to that question is yes. At first. Those first ten to fifteen minutes are the most difficult! Ugly. Slow. No details. No real control, at least when compared to other games in the series. A large part of the struggle is that the game doesn’t explain itself. It’s not supposed to. All of those systems and tools are explained in depth in the game’s manual, which is surprisingly difficult to find online. Guided by a manual or not, keen observation pays off and once you start recognizing the systems it’s easy to fall into a rhythm. SimCity is essentially a video game version of Newton’s third law: For every action a mayor takes, the city will respond with equal but opposite reaction. Sims demand a place to live? Put some residential zones down! Now those new residents need jobs? Time for some industry! Traffic on the commute is terrible and people are going to start shooting each other? Well, there’s not much I can do about that. People just need to learn to be nice.

While that core gameplay loop is fun, it is quite short. Once you’ve constructed an area, there’s very little reason to go back to it. If it functions well, it will keep working with no input from you. Making minor tweaks to existing areas is easy since nearly every building has the same footprint. If you need a police station, simply demolish one zone and plop one down. Easy, yes, but not requiring or allowing much creative expression. Trying to redesign or renovate a renovate a section of a city because of that standard zone size. Adding a rail line next to a road usually means you have to demolish an entire block of developments, and at the end of it you’ll have a line that’s 2 tiles wide with nothing that can fit there. If you’re meticulous and know what you’re doing it’s possible to plan in such a way that no renovations are needed, but where’s the fun in that? Disasters are something of a saving grace in that they present an opportunity for an unintentional, albeit not always necessary, remodel. The closest this game gets to requiring creative design is when a nuclear meltdowns leaves behind tiles of radioactive waste that cannot be used for anything. Ever again.

And it’s those limits on creative play styles that holds SimCity back from being truly timeless. Give the game to two different people for for an hour and their two cities would wind up looking very much alike. Even if one player builds two different cities, there are areas where it would be difficult to tell one city from the next. It’s certainly not a fault of the game design, but rather a realization of the limits of technology available to the developers at the time. There’s even a line in the game’s manual stating that the passenger trains aren’t broken; the game literally can’t render more than one train car per city! But the building blocks are there. SimCity exudes potential from every pixel. Potential that would be realized by one of the best sequels of all time…

The Final Raving – Don’t Bother

Handing out a rating of “Don’t Bother” to an all-time classic like SimCity feels more severe than I intend. It’s a landmark title, to be sure. If you have any interest in city-building or management games, you owe it to yourself to play this for at least an hour. However, it almost ends up feeling more like a tech demo or proof of concept than a fully-featured game. In 2017 it’s an interesting history lesson. SimCity 2000 is the realization of the vision presented in SimCity, and as such I’d have to recommend SC2K as the starting point for anyone interested in the series.

Why you’ll love it:

  • The birth of the Sim franchise.
  • Simple, but all the basic elements are there.
  • First look at unique flavor of humor found in games made by Maxis.

Why you might not love it:

  • Very basic when compared to later games in the series.
  • You can see everything the game has to show you in an hour.
  • Top-down perspective and lack of zoom affords a window of the action.

Where to Purchase:

SimCity is not available for purchase anymore. The original Mac and DOS releases have entered the public domain, so the game can be enjoyed online for free here: Internet Archive – SimCity 1989. Be warned that you cannot save your game while playing online.

Also, there’s a version of the game available for free on the Windows store called RetroCity. This is a program that takes the source code of the original game and adds a few new features like zooming and a more polished interface. The downside is that there are a few weird graphical glitches and some of the menus have a weird layout to fit the Windows 10 style. While it doesn’t contain the original challenge scenarios, it does allow saving and loading of cities.

Beneath a Steel Sky

Either Beneath a Steel Sky has some very obtuse puzzle design, or I’m just terrible at adventure games. Here I am in the game’s opening location, a factory, and I’m stuck. Perhaps the game wants me to feel out of my element. After all, my character, Foster, is certainly out of his element.

Either Beneath a Steel Sky has some very obtuse puzzle design, or I’m just terrible at adventure games. Here I am in the game’s opening location, a factory, and I’m stuck. Perhaps the game wants me to feel out of my element. After all, my character, Foster, is certainly out of his element. Abducted from his home by scary authoritarian soldiers and nearly killed in a helicopter crash, he just wants to get back home. Unfortunately for him there’s one giant obstacle standing in his way: A city, made of steel and held aloft from the world below by means of giant supports. To get out is to get down. That’s easier said than done, especially when I can’t even figure out how to leave the room.

The factory floor contains an elevator, a large broken robot, and a pile of junk. It’s pretty obvious that I’m supposed to fix the large robot and use the elevator to go down to the lower level, but I don’t know how to fix the robot. There’s junk on the table, but it’s just junk, right? Times like these I’m thankful for the great video game manuals that were so common back in 1994. When you’re stuck like an idiot on the opening sequence of the game, they include a short walk through to help you out. What does the guide say for me to do? “Insert a character board into the discarded robot shell on the table.” But there is no discarded robot shell on the table. It’s all junk, junk I tell you! I click on every portion of the table and my character confirms my observations. Junk. To YouTube I go in search of a hint. I watch as a player in the video makes Foster look at the junk, and all of a sudden it’s a robot! Apparently, I didn’t notice the robot because I told my Foster to pick up the junk before looking at it. How silly of me.

The robot I just activated is named Joey. He’s a friend of Foster’s and came with him on the trip to the big city. But my task is to fix the other broken robot in the room, the one that will activate the lift to the basement. Fixing robots seems like something Joey would know how to do, so I ask him to fix it. “Do it yourself, Foster.” Smug little bucket of bolts. I ask again. Same Response. Again. Rejected again. Just as I’m about to go back to YouTube to see what I’m doing wrong now, I ask a final time. “You just don’t give up, do you?” Joey moves to fix the robot. Is that what this game is trying to teach me? Don’t give up.

bass02
Joey is a good source of comic relief. Upon seeing a human with a lit cigarette in his mouth, Joey exclaims, “Stay away from him, Rob! He’s a human bomb!” Foster responds, “What are you talking about?”. “He’s got a fuse in his mouth!”, Joey alarmingly points out. Foster assures him that it’s just a cigarette.

There’s a common theme or cycle I’m observing as I wind my way though Beneath a Steel Sky: Exhaust all options. Discover people, places and objects. Reveal them for the first time, then discover them again. Pursue every possible option to progress the game. Click every item and search every pixel for something new. Do this, and don’t get frustrated when logic gets left behind. Ninety minutes into the game it almost makes me feel smart. In a manufacturing plant there’s an equipment room that only allows access to robots. I instruct Joey to go in and disable the security system so Foster can go in and rummage around. Once I’m there I take a key and a can of WD-40. Both those items make logical sense to have in an adventure / puzzle game. Key card? Lets you into places! WD-40? There’s nothing it can’t do! Armed with what I’m certain are items essential to my progress, I leave the equipment room. Foreman Potts is there to greet me. He confiscates my useful items, leaving me with nothing and I begin to wonder if I did something wrong.  After about twenty minutes of retracing my steps in the game, I go back to YouTube to see what I missed.

 

The key and the WD-40 were red herrings. I needed to get some putty from the floor of the storeroom. Take a look at this screenshot and tell me if you see any putty. Look long and hard:

bass04

Give up? So did I. That’s because the putty is right here:

bass05

Note to self: look at all the pixels!

I suppose I ought not be surprised at the presence of pixel hunting in an adventure game. It is one of the things the genre is known for. That, and requiring players to be observant, have great memories, and generally willing to combine all manner of inventory items in all sorts of asinine combinations. Beneath a Steel Sky requires all this of its players, and more. And yet, the experience seems to leap from puzzle to puzzle with little to no explanation of what the current objective is. In one case, I was supposed to con a travel agent into giving me a pass for a tour of different levels of the city. Naturally I assumed I was to use this pass to get to the lower levels, whereupon I would be able to affect a new means of escape. Nope. This was another brick wall, with no obvious means of progression. Consulting a walk through yet again revealed that I was to give this tour pass to a factory owner, who up to this point voiced no mention of a need for a vacation, nor desire to travel anywhere.

The only conclusion the game forces me to make is that I must try giving every item to every different character in order to find the correct means of progression. It’s not that any puzzle design is inherently illogical or counter intuitive, but the important details you need are drip-fed to you one minuscule crumb at a time. Talk to a character and exhaust all options with them. Then leave the scene and come back, only to have more avenues for action. Short of repeatedly engaging in conversation with the same people, there’s little indication of what your immediate path of progression is.

That’s not to say the game rewards curiosity. On the contrary, there are quite a few ways to die here. My first experience with death occurred when my character failed a retina scan at security checkpoint. ZAP! The next time it was electrocution at the hand of a light socket (this is what I needed the putty for). SIZZLE! Other times I was exposed to a massive dose of radiation, crushed by a collapsing tunnel passage, eviscerated by a horrible mutant creature, and crushed by an evil android. FRY! CRUNCH! SQUISH! SQUISH! In most of those cases there’s almost no warning that what your character is about to do is potentially deadly. At least it’s easy to save and reload your game. Just remember to save often, else you’ll be stuck replaying large segments you wish you didn’t have to revisit. It would have been fun if it wasn’t so frustrating.

And there’s that key word, “fun”. Beneath a Steel Sky just isn’t. While seemingly self aware, the game exhibits some sudden and jarring shifts in tone. In one scene, your character will ruminate over a series of dead bodies found in storage lockers, but thirty seconds later he removes his overcoat to reveal a gaudy sweater with a teddy bear on it. It’s symptomatic of the larger issue that players don’t have a reason to connect to the story. Is this a comedy or a serious look at something else? While we’re meant to care that Foster desperately wants to leave the city so he can get back to his beloved home on the wasteland, the game makes no connection between Foster and his home. The events of the game seem more like an annoying inconvenience to Foster rather than a life changing event. With no connection to the past or interest in the future, it’s hard to find any motivation to want to progress forward.

Teddy bear sweaters take away the pain.

It doesn’t help that nearly everything about the game is ugly. Don’t get me wrong, the pixel art and classic adventure style is handled fantastically! However, the environments are a little too bleak and post-apocalyptic. Everything is brown and run-down. Environments are ugly and utilitarian, because they’re supposed to be. There is no beauty to be found either above or below the city in the sky. While serving as an effective representation of the game world, it doesn’t make for an environment that players want to spend any time in. There’s no greater indicator of this than a look at how long it took me to finish the game. Somehow I managed to reach the end after about five hours and fifty-six minutes of play time, but those six hours took me seventy-seven calendar days to grind through. Like, I said: there was nothing about Beneath a Steel Sky that drew me in. Maybe it’s not the game; maybe it’s just me? Perhaps it’s been so long since I played an adventure game that my tastes and abilities have completely changed. The only way to know for sure is to try playing another adventure game to see if I get the same results. Only time will tell…

The Final Raving – Don’t Bother. Go to YouTube and watch a video of someone else playing this, and then fast forward through about half of it.

If, for some reason, you’d like to try Beneath a Steel Sky for yourself, you can get it for free from Gog.com. Don’t forget to find a good walk through. You’re going to need it.

Beneath a Steel Sky is the first game to fulfill part two of my Backlog of Resolutions

Screenshot Gallery

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.