Deus Ex – The End!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deus Ex – Betrayal!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deus Ex – Hell’s Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World of Goo

For me, most of the game’s challenge comes from managing the monstrous goo structures I constructed. Goo itself isn’t rigid, and neither is a structure built from goo blobs. Everything built will shiver and wiggle like it can barely contain the energy contained within. Imagine a game of Jenga where the blocks of wood are actually made of Jell-O! It’s this variable turns simple puzzles into a chaotic affair.

In the course of my time playing World of Goo, quite a lot of things happened. Information about the game’s world is revealed through in-game signs and cute animations between levels. In spite of these hints, I really had no clue what was going on. At various points I thought I was fighting to reopen an industrial goo-production factory. As I made progress I came to understand that that goo was the source of beauty in the world and therefore used for cosmetic products. Shortly thereafter, I got the impression that goo was the sentient fuel source for all mankind and in the process of revolting. Then things went all The Matrix on me, and I was in a goo-version of the internet, fighting to unleash all the spam email in history in one major blow. Why? I couldn’t tell you. Just when I was most perplexed, everything exploded.

Suffice to say I have no idea what the plot is in World of Goo. All I know is that it’s about utilizing different types of goo to help them get from point A to point B. There are 48 different puzzles in the game. Each one starts with a square frame that holds blobs of goo, and it’s your job to get those blobs of goo to the level’s exit: a suction pipe that leads… somewhere. The blobs of goo swimming on the starting frame can be used to build structures off of that starting framework. Drag a blob of goo near the framework, and it it will be anchored in place by two or more gooey tendrils. Repeat this simple action to build towers, bridges, wheels, and other unconventional shapes as the level demands. Safely transport the required amount of goo around the hazards and to the exit pipe, and you win the level.

There are a number of different types of sentient goo that you’ll need to figure out how to use. Black, “unrefined” goo is the simplest. Click and drag a blob to position it near the home structure. Releasing he mouse button places the goo in that location, supported by one to three tendrils. Positioning goo allows the construction of basic structures. Place a blob of black good, and it’s stuck there. Green blobs can be placed and re-positioned. Clear goo can be linked end-to-end, making a flexible goo chain. Red goo is flammable. There are more types of goo giving the ability to fly, grab onto other surfaces, or imitate skulls. Later on, the game gives you goo blocks. While I question whether or not these actually count as a type of goo, it’s difficult to argue with a block that has an eyeball in the middle of it. Call me weird, but I think the blocks are kind of cute.

Each level in World of Goo is introduced passively, by way of a wooden sign. Any hints for completing the level are told you by the sign, present in the level’s name, or suggested to you by the position of the beginning elements. Things start out simply enough, such as building a bridge to cover a small gap, or erecting a tower to reach a pipe in the sky. Things quickly become more convoluted as different types of goo are added into the mix. One of the later levels, titled “The Worm”, tasked me with creating a tall tower which I then had to topple end over end to reach my destination. The difficulty curve is finely tuned. Scenarios gradually become more complex, forcing you to try new approaches to the solution. Generally speaking, I felt moderately intelligent for being able to solve each level on my own. There was only level I had to look online to find the solution for.

For me, most of the game’s challenge comes from managing the monstrous goo structures I constructed. Goo itself isn’t rigid, and neither is a structure built from goo blobs. Everything built will shiver and wiggle like it can barely contain the energy contained within. Imagine a game of Jenga where the blocks of wood are actually made of Jell-O! It’s this variable turns simple puzzles into a chaotic affair. Building a simple tower often ends up becoming a race to stabilize the base before it topples over into disaster. There’s a fun tension to wondering if the structure you just built will stay put or keel over in spectacular fashion. I enjoyed my time in the World of Goo. The tone, quality of puzzles, and sheer exuberance with which the game presents itself reminds me of Portal; and that’s high praise indeed. I’m not certain how frequently I’ll come back to play it again, but I’ll certainly remember it quite vividly. And that’s saying something.

Only after playing this level will you be able to understand just how ridiculous this screenshot 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.

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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:

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

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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

Sid Meier’s Sim Golf

“[…]Sid Meier’s SimGolf eschews realism, slices and dices the various aspects of course design and management, and sticks all the fun bits into a game.”

It’s must be a difficult thing to design a game about managing a golf course. Most people who play video games are probably more interested in a virtual experience that simulates the act of playing golf. It has to be challenging to try and translate golf course management into video game form, especially since their development doesn’t naturally lend itself to simulation gameplay. Take city building games, for example. There you have a natural progression and series of events in each city. Start off with a bare patch of land, place a few roads, utilities, and buildings, and watch your city grow. As the city gets larger, new districts are added, infrastructure is upgraded, and so on. While video games take liberties with that progression, it’s a sequence that fits gaming well. Golf courses are an entirely different beast. Each course is meticulously designed and then built to completion before a single golfer sets foot on the turf. Once the course is open for business the superintendent’s responsibility shifts to managing day-to-day operations to keep the course running smoothly. The short of it is, basing a game off how golf courses operate in the real world probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of fun.

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Thankfully Sid Meier’s SimGolf eschews realism, slices and dices the various aspects of course design and management, and sticks all the fun bits into a game. Play begins by giving you a sum of money and a choice of parcels of land to purchase. Each parcel of land is a different size and fits within a certain environment style such as tropical, alpine, grassland, desert, or others. Every location comes with an already-built clubhouse and potentially other buildings unique to the scenario. After selecting a starting location it’s your job to design and build a profitable golf course. Each hole must be built one at a time. Construction options include all the components of individual golf holes; tee boxes, fairways, and greens. Also present are hazards like various types of rough, rocks and trees, and a few other obstacles that are unique to each locale. The game will allow you to open a hole for play with nothing more than a tee box and one square of green, but the embellishments are what make each creation special. Constructing paths that connect your course aren’t essential to its operation but they do increase the rate of play, which means more money for you. Eventually, you will gain access to specialized buildings that provide some kind of statistical or financial bonus to your course. A golf cart garage gives your customers motorized carts which, further increases the rate of play and drives up your income. Driving ranges and putting greens improve the skill set of your patrons, meaning they are able to play more challenging holes without getting frustrated. Other buildings like tennis courts, spas, and snack bars play a part in providing a boost to people’s happiness stats.

Building things costs money, but golfers bring in income. How much money you make depends on how much your customers like your golf course. In a departure from reality, your patrons will pay for each hole of golf played rather than a per-round greens fee. The more fun they have on each hole, the more money they pay out. If you stick with the most simplistic of course layouts, your patrons won’t have as much fun and they’ll simply spend pocket change on each hole. Create a challenging and fun layout and customers will happily drop wads of cash. And herein lies the great hook of SimGolf: your job is to design a golf course that makes your players feel like they’re good at the game. Each hole is given three ratings that coincide with skill ratings of your golfers: length, accuracy, and imagination. How players of different skill sets react to each hole determine its fun rating. If it has a low rating, only golfers with certain skills can play it well. There’s a handy ‘shot analysis’ tool that shows how people of differing skill sets might play through each hole. This tool is essential to designing holes that will be challenging and fun for golfers of all types.

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See those two shots above the fairway that land in the dirt? The shot analysis tool is telling me that golfers with no length skill will have a lot of problem with this hole.

It’s also necessary to pay attention to what golfers are saying as they play through the course. They aren’t afraid to voice their opinions of your course, which is usually a reflection of how well, or not, the course is tailored to their skill set. One of my courses is set in a hilly alpine environment. Things were going pretty well and I was making plenty of money, but about a quarter of my patrons would quit in rage on the third hole. After paying attention to what was happening, I saw that a certain stretch of fairway was sloped so that short tee shots, even though they landed on the fairway, would roll out of bounds. Players with more length skill didn’t have any issues. Golf rules being what they are, the player would have to take another shot off the tee, leading to a nine strokes played without making any headway on the hole itself. At that point, distance-challenged golfers throw a temper tantrum, toss down their clubs in disgust, and storm off the course. Raising the terrain on one side of the fairway solved the problem and all my patrons were happy again.

Of course, if you’re feeling sadistic it’s entirely possible to abuse the course design to give your patrons an objectively miserable experience. On one such occasion I watched a golfer named Solomon, a divorced Psychiatrist, drive a tee shot right into a cactus. After he expressed displeasure with the cactus I retaliated by placing another half dozen prickly obstructions surrounding his position. Solomon’s next five shots hit various cacti and his happiness indicator plummeted. Growing ever more frustrated, his comments glowed in flashing red text. As his patience comes to an end he yells, “I HATE MY CLUBS I HATE THIS GAME I HATE MY LIFE!!!” Other nearby golfers react to his tantrum and I click a button to have him escorted off the course. For a brief moment I wonder if I’m a bad person, then remember that it’s just a game and Solomon was probably a jerk anyway.

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Poor Solomon. It only gets worse from here, bud.

Should you want to play though your course firsthand the game allows you do so through your superintendent, Gary Golf. Playing is as simple as drawing a line to where you want the ball to go and then clicking to commit to the swing. The ball will more or less follow the projected flight path, deviating slightly depending on terrain and other statistics. Playing rounds of golf will award you skill points to improve your golfer’s stats, allowing you to record better scores. It can be a fun diversion from the construction and management side of the game, but it’s not going to hold your attention for long. There’s just not much to it. The one thing that keeps golf mode from being a complete throwaway is the golf tournament. Play against other computer-controlled golfers and if you win, you get a large cash payout. The potential trade off is that your course won’t earn any income during tournaments, so it’s possible to lose quite a bit of money before a tournament ends. However, when you level up your skill points enough there’s almost no way to lose.

As fun as it is to build your own course and watch the little virtual people play through it, SimGolf does have a few shortcomings. For one, I have no idea why Sid Meier’s name is attached to it. Even after reading multiple previews and reviews of the game, I’m still not sure why it bears his name. If you’re not familiar with him, Sid Meier is something of a legend when it comes to strategy games. Games branded with his name are known for their depth and complexity, presenting simulations that players can get lost in for hundreds of hours. SimGolf doesn’t possess any of those attributes. Once you’ve figured out the formula for making enjoyable golf courses, all challenge evaporates from the game. If your course is doing well financially after five holes, you won’t have any financial problems as you add more holes and services to it. At this point the game moves from simulation to creative sandbox mode and designing new holes and courses is the only draw. This may not be a bad thing, but the more you play it, the more you notice how simplified everything is. The design constraints of the grid system can only produce a finite number of visually appealing layouts. And even though the terrain tools allow for some substantial terraforming, the game wasn’t really designed for it. Objects and scenery don’t mesh all that well with severe slopes and drop-offs, and golfers complain if there are too many hills. The more you use the editing tools, the more you notice how awkward the interface can be. Everything is shoehorned into the awkward interface layout shared by The Sims and Sim City 4, forcing functions to be grouped according to the visual design of the menu rather than grouping functions logically by what they do. Remember the handy “shot analysis” tool I mentioned earlier? It’s buried in the building and terrain editing panel, which has to be accessed by clicking the a large button with a picture of a house on it. Even after spending ten hours on the game I couldn’t ever find it the first time.

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Window showing play statistics for a hole. Take note of the awkwardly placed bridge at the bottom of the screen; the game just can’t handle significant elevation changes.

This menu awkwardness continues into how the game tracks career progression. It would make sense that when you play through career mode, all of your progress can be accessed through a central hub like the world map. From there you’d be able to see which locations you own and what your progress is with each course. SimGolf doesn’t have a method to view your overall career progress. While you can use the world map to see each plot that you’ve unlocked, you have to load up the course file – if there is one – to view your progress. This is made more complicated by the fact that each save game defaults to the name of the course combined with a time stamp on the end of it. So unless you manually rename your save game every time, it’s possible to wind up with dozens of save files for one course. Since there are no visual previews of the save games, you also have to remember the name of the course you’re working on. Who does that?

None of these are insurmountable problems, but all of these flaws coalesce into what can feel like a giant mess. As far as I can tell there’s no one major goal for players of the game to work towards. The game essentially drops you into a golf course design sandbox and lets you do what you want. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing it takes away any sense of discovery the game could have. After about thirty minutes you will have seen all the game has to offer, and that’s a shame.

The Final Raving – Don’t Bother

This is a game that’s better left in your – or someone else’s – memories.

There’s a lot of fun to be had here if you can tolerate the flaws. However, the fun will only last a few hours and it’s probably just not worth the effort it would take to play the game.

Good:

  • Simple gameplay is easy to dive into
  • For the most part, the graphical elements combine into some pretty courses
  • It’s fun to make your golfers mad

Bad:

  • You can’t legitimately buy or install this on modern systems
  • The interface and game file management is absolutely atrocious

Ugly:

  • The “Sim” visual design of the golfers is ugly enough to make you puke
  • The game is locked at a resolution of 800 x 600, and it can’t be changed or played in windowed mode

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • The game isn’t available for purchase on any digital distribution platforms, and obsolete copy protection means you can’t install a legitimate physical copy on Windows 10

Tips for New Players:

  1. As with any simulation game, start small and get a little bit of profit first.
  2. Play in every tournament that pops up. You can’t lose!
  3. Listen to the golfers who complain a lot. They do make some good points.

Release Date:

  • January 23rd, 2002

Developer: Maxis & Firaxis Games

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Where to buy: eBay, but it won’t do you much good…

Screenshot Gallery

Afterthought

Fifteen years after its time I look at SimGolf and see tons of potential. While flawed, it’d be easy for someone to revisit this concept and turn it into a great game today. Imagine a game that shows a map of a city or a small state. On the map are locations of existing golf courses as well as lots, both empty and occupied, that are prime locations for new courses. As a potential course management tycoon it’s your objective to start out small. Build a mini golf course or maybe a pitch and putt to build up your cash reserves. In time you’ll have the funds available to build a nine-hole municipal course. That, in turn leads to private courses and then prestigious country clubs. When you’ve acquired enough design rep, you start fine tuning select courses for nationally televised tournaments. From time to time you’ll have to compete with rival designers who try to undermine courses in select locations. Sometimes they’ll be honest and simply build a competing course, other times they’ll play dirty and try to sabotage your workforce. Beyond design elements the game also includes management of course employees, maintenance schedules, clubhouse restaurants, and other facilities. In addition to career mode there would also be a set of challenge scenarios wherein the goal is to rescue troubled courses, cater to a specific subset of golfers, or simply generate lots of profit. The game would be built with 3D engine that has simple and intuitive terraforming tools, much like Planet Coaster. Scripts of procedural generation can take some of the legwork out of course design, but there’s potential for players to tweak and design every little detail they want. It seems like a great idea to me, and I suppose I’ll work on a design document sooner or later. Playing around in Planet Coaster gave me just a glimpse of the potential that might exist for a new golf management sim:

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Please forgive my use of the Union Jack to mark the location of the hole; it’s all I could find in the right scale…

 

What I Learned From Peace

So I went an entire calendar month without playing a violent video game. Woo. If it sounds boring, that’s because it was! But I say that in reference to the experiment itself and not about the games I ended up playing. In fact, this turned out to be a great opportunity to rediscover some of the titles in my library.

This past September I decided that I needed to put aside the implements of virtual destruction and spend the month playing games that didn’t emphasize violence. Specifically, the goal was to go an entire calendar month avoiding games where “acting as an agent of violence is not the main focus”. If you’re asking why anyone would want to do that, my intentions are recorded in a blog post titled Giving Peace a Chance. While I met that challenge in every aspect, I can’t help but feel I missed some of the experiment’s potential.

So I went an entire calendar month without playing a violent video game. Woo. If it sounds boring, that’s because it was! But I say that in reference to the experiment itself and not about the games I ended up playing. In fact, this turned out to be a great opportunity to rediscover some of the titles in my library. Kerbal Space Program still manages to take command of my imagination as I launch crews of space frogs on missions of great peril. Inevitably, one mission leads to another as I’m led to rescue each crew from the dire straits I put them in. It’s a vicious cycle that’s uniquely rewarding. SimGolf strikes a wonderful balance between creative design elements and light business management. Your objective is to become the best golf superintendent ever by crafting challenging and fun golf courses for your temperamental patrons. And when your patrons get to complaining too much, it’s okay to build an absolutely diabolical course as retribution. Mean, yes; but not violent! OpenRCT2 breathes new life into an old classic and proves Chris Sawyer’s theme park management game is just as addicting now as it was fourteen years ago. Trials Evolution combines motorcycles and implausible obstacle courses into a punishing proving ground for your gaming reflexes. The Dig. Planet Coaster. Forza. Cities: Skylines. 80 Days. I could go on. There are too many games to list here. Many are simple to dive into and have flexible time investments. Play for fifteen minutes or two hours. Creative problem solving can be just as therapeutic as blowing up hordes of evil space aliens!

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Reckless driving =/= violent.

Though I rediscovered many great genres and games, I feel like I missed some of this experiment’s potential. Specifically, I missed an opportunity to make any kind of meaningful observation about violence in video games. There will always be a segment of gaming that thrives on virtual violence, but what about the other games? What about games that present gameplay alternatives to violence, or at the very least offer a non-lethal path through a violent setting? Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored are two notable franchises which give players a way to complete the game without committing a lethal action.

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They aren’t dead! They’re just unconscious. And potentially hurt.

Freedom in game design makes me want to explore whether or not it’s possible to play otherwise violent games as a pacifist. The game may not have been designed with pacifism in mind, but it’s not a question of intent. It’s a question of what you can get away with. For example; The day Call of Duty: Black Ops was released a gamer posted a video of themselves playing through an entire mission and only firing two bullets (language warning). Surely there have to be other games where I can do this! DOOM is all about creative ways to blow up demons, but is it possible to sprint through a level and make progress without firing a shot? Winning a round of an online shooter usually means shooting lots of people, but some also give points for playing a support role such as a medic. How feasible is it to be a team healer in Battlefield, focusing only on reviving fallen teammates? Just Cause 2 and 3 thrive as chaos; can the game handle people who don’t break the rules? Will the game let me take control of an occupied vehicle and drive it peacefully from one side of an island to the other? This video below indicates the chances of that happening are very slim:

 

When it all comes down to it, video games are just a collection of virtual systems designed to function a certain way. Simulated violence is integral to some of those systems. In others, it’s optional. Sometimes it’s a completely unintentional side effect. From time to time I wonder if gamers have been conditioned to go along with anything that’s entertaining, regardless of  moral values (or the lack of them). But the important part in all if this is that we as gamers do have a choice. Violent or not. Bloody or not. Play along with the system or try to break it. My non-violent September has led me to start planning another experiment of virtual pacifism to take place in 2017. I’ll incorporate some actual scientific methods into this next experiment and try to gauge if my behavior or attitudes change measurably depending on what kind of games I play. My wife has been volunteered to assist me as an impartial observer and record keeper for this grand trial. My only expectation is that this is going to be a fun experience. In the end, isn’t that what gaming is all about?

 

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: 
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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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

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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!