Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith

While Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight had some flaws, it also contained more than a few elements that made it endearing to me and a legion of other fans. It was the story of Kyle Katarn’s ascension from a freelance blaster-toting fighter to a member of either the Jedi Order or ruler of the Sith, depending on your choices. Traditional shooter gameplay gave way to using Jedi force powers and spectacular (at the time) lightsaber duels. Combine the enthralling gaming experience with the delightfully cheesy live-action story videos, and you have a game that’s better than the sum of its parts.

Imagine my delight when I saw that this game I loved was getting an expansion that not only dealt with the Sith, but featured Mara Jade as the lead character! A new game with Mara Jade, nemesis of Luke Skywalker turned ally, was a big deal. After all, this was 1998; the peak of the Expanded Universe for Star Wars fans. Considering Lucasarts’ track record, there didn’t seem to be any downside to having high expectations. Just look at this box art! Mara Jade! Purple Lightsaber! RANCOR!!!

Okay, so it’s just the manual but it’s all I managed to hang on to for 21 years.

Unfortunately, Mysteries of the Sith is the least fun I’ve ever had while playing a Star Wars video game.

That’s not saying that the game has aged badly, even though it has. It’s more a reflection of the lack of quality found in the game at the time it was released. In fact, the thing I remember most about my first attempt to play the game was encountering a progression-stopping bug that either forced me to restart it or wait for a patch to be released.

Both Jedi Knight and MotS have some shared quirks. There’s a unique feel to the movement and the action that’s only present in games built in the Sith engine. Because the games were developed in the early years of three-dimensional shooters, everything is big and blocky. And while Jedi Knight embraced this and gave players huge and expansive levels to explore, MotS traded these for medium-sized levels that are packed with more non-player characters and scripted sequences.

I could list off a laundry list of things I observed in my experience with the game, but ultimately I think it boils down to four distinct failures:

Failure #1 Mysteries of the Sith starts off by giving the player control of Kyle Katarn.

By itself, this isn’t a bad thing. Players were familiar with Kyle, and starting a new game with a lightsaber and full suite of force powers is a good way to get straight to what made Jedi Knight shine. Unfortunately, the game’s introduction takes a long time; four of the fourteen levels belong to Kyle instead of Mara Jade. Though she’s present in between missions during the cutscenes, I started to wonder if I’d ever get to play the game’s marquee character.

Finally, after spending two hours repelling a generic Imperial attack on a nondescript base players are given a glimpse of what this game is all about:

At the end of the fourth mission, Kyle abruptly leaves the story to go and pursue rumors of a Sith temple on a faraway planet. This leaves the player to take control of Mara and not do anything related to mysteries or Sith.

Failure #2After immersing the player to fun, competent mechanics it strips all of them for a restart almost 1/3 of the way through the game.

You’re finally in control of Mara Jade on the fifth mission. Jedi student to Kyle, her force abilities are considerably weaker than his. Forget about the first two hours of the game that you spent wielding a lightsaber to block blaster bolts and force-pull enemy weapons out of their hands. You’re a padawan now! While it makes sense from a story perspective, it makes the game instantly less fun to play.

Mara is unable to reliably block enemy shots with her lightsaber, and her force powers are weak and seem to take ages to recharge. It’s much more effective to equip a blaster and shoot everything that moves. Forget about being a Jedi until you can level up your force powers.

Leveling up your force powers happens between missions. Completing mission objectives will usually give you a point or two to apply to a power of your choice. What’s stated in the manual but not in the game itself is that extra upgrade points are awarded for discovering secret areas. I missed a lot of secret areas, so by the time I got to the end of the game I felt like Mara was significantly under powered to face the uncertainty that was waiting for me. Speaking of the end of the game:

Failure #3The key selling point of the game, Mysteries of the Sith, isn’t embraced until the last three missions.

There are fourteen missions in MotS. Kyle makes a vague reference to a Sith temple at the end of mission four, but the player doesn’t actually do anything related to mysteries or Sith until mission 12. So what the heck happened in the middle seven missions? A lot, and nothing.

Mara is sent to secure supplies from a Hutt gangster, who sends her to steal something from one his rivals. In the process of doing this Mara is captured and sent to a dungeon. Eventually she faces off against a Rancor with nothing but her lightsaber and an array of weak force powers. It sounds a lot more fun than it actually was. Fighting a Rancor involved a lot of saving, dying, and reloading while I figured out how I was actually supposed to survive the sequence. There was so much potential for a fun game, but the way the game was executed really sucked the fun out of it.

By the time I got to Dromund Kaas, the location of the Sith temple, I was ready for the game to be over. The last few levels have a ton of creepy atmosphere, but there are a bunch of new elements thrown at the player for them to figure out.

No weapon except your lightsaber will function on the Sith planet. There are creepy statues that block your passage unless you use your power of force persuasion. Scattered about are a few tiny Ysalamiri that sapped my force powers. Oh, and there are some traps and hidden sinkholes that appear without warning and kill you in about three seconds.

And can we spend a minute to talk about the encounter with ‘Evil Mara’? In the first level on Dromund Kaas, Mara enters a foreboding structure to find a darker mirror of herself. She’s dressed in black and wielding an orange lightsaber like Kyle’s. This begins your first lightsaber duel in the game. It had the potential to be really cool, but wound up being nothing but a pile of frustration. My under-leveled force powers were a severe liability here as I tried to cope with Evil Mara’s frequent bursts of force lightning. While I died after about 3-5 hits with a lightsaber, Evil Mara took close to thirty before finally going down.

What wound up happening is a vicious cycle of save, hit, save, hit, die, reload, repeat.

Never mind the fact that I still don’t know exactly why I was fighting against an evil version of myself. My best guess is that it’s supposed to mirror’s experience in the cave on Dagobah during The Empire Strikes Back. In the movie, there are enough subtle and overt clues to let the audience know that this is a warning to him not to fall to the dark side. Mara’s experience in the game, however… I still don’t quite know how to interpret that.

I still have a lot of questions about the direction of the game and I think the answer to them is:

Failure #4The developers had ambitions for a game bigger than the one they wound up making

In short, I get the feeling that the developers had far more ambition than they had resources to realize their vision. 1998 was a legendary year for action games on PC, so I’d guess that MotS had to be released early in order not be competing with other big titles. Releasing a scant five months after Jedi Knight, it’s possible development was rushed to meet deadlines.

While I don’t know how exactly we got the game we did, I do know what it’s like to play now. And it’s not fun. Really. I don’t recommend anyone play this; it’s just not worth it.

It took me about eight hours to beat the entire game. I recorded all of it and cut out about three hours of frustration, wandering, and failing to give you my definitive play though experience. Most videos have some hopefully humorous annotation to give you a glimpse into my madness while playing:


Mysteries of the Sith has some good qualities and a lot of bad ones. There is a wealth of great concepts present here, and most of them were executed flawlessly in 2002’s sublime Jedi Outcast. But that’s a game for another post…

Deus Ex – Dealing Drugs, and the Dumpster That Should Not Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dumpster That Should Not Be

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

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

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

Sneaking Into the Helibase

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

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

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

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

 

Deus Ex – Beginning Again

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

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

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

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

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

Even augmented humanoid killing machines have problems with vending machines.

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

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

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

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

Liberty Island

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

The South Dock, where it all begins.

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

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

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

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

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

Next up – Hell’s Kitchen!

Enter the Gungeon Makes Failing Fun!

Most of your enemies are bullets, and I mean that literally. Enemies are sentient bullets that move and fire guns. Which, in turn, send actual bullets in your direction. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

I don’t know if I have what it takes to beat Enter the Gungeon. It’s possible for skilled players to complete a run through the game’s six levels in under an hour. I am not a skilled player, at least not yet. A few moments ago, my sixtieth run at the game ended once again in failure. This time I was killed by the Bullet King, who I consider to be the easiest first-level boss. After reading the details on the game-over screen, I unconsciously tapped the button to immediately begin again. It’s a strange thing, because repeated failure doesn’t typically make games fun to play. And yet, after sixty attempts and twelve hours of play time I want to keep playing.

This is the end of attempt #60. I died after 6 minutes and 38 seconds, with 53 kills in this attempt.

Gungeon is a deceptively simple game. It’s easy to play, especially with a controller. Left stick to move, right stick to aim. Different buttons fire, reload, dodge, and use items. Your objective: fight through an enemy-filled fortress in pursuit of a powerful artifact. Every level of the fortress is filled to the brim with those who would do you harm. They all protect the treasure contained within: a gun that can kill the past. This relic can be used to make what was done, undone. Simply put, this gun gives the one who wields it the ability to erase their failures from the past. You control any of four characters, the Marine, the Convict, the Pilot, or the Hunter. Each of them has a past that must be erased; tragedies and failures that must be set right. Only the most haunting of pasts can possibly be motivation enough to face what lies inside the Gungeon.

I absolutely love the pixel art style of the game.

Most of your enemies are bullets, and I mean that literally. Enemies are sentient bullets that move and fire guns. Which, in turn, send actual bullets in your direction. I couldn’t make this stuff up. The simple controls allow you to devote your focus on the delicate and frenetic combat. Different classes of enemies have their own types of weapons and movement patterns. Some fire single, slow-moving projectiles. Others wind up and unleash a wall of bullets. My least favorite charge directly towards you and explode spectacularly. The hazards of the Gungeon prove that situational awareness is just as important as your reflexes. It’s a bad idea to be in corner when a Gun Nut unleashes a barrages of angry red projectiles in your direction.

Shooting at bullets is ridiculously fun thanks to the lighthearted tone of the game as well as the varied and frequently tongue-in-cheek weapon design. Every gun, and there are a lot, has different strengths and weaknesses. Many of them are utterly entertaining to use, even if they aren’t entirely effective. For instance, The Bullet is a bullet. It fires guns. That also fire bullets. It’s asinine in the most entertaining of ways. My favorite weapon so far has to be the Lower Case r. Instead of firing bullets, it fires out letters that spell out the word “bullet”. Score a hit on an enemy, and instead of an explosion you’ll see the word “BLAM!” in glowing orange text. The Wind Up Gun is a homage to Futurama. It’s a blue rifle that shoots green projectiles and plays “Pop Goes the Weasel” as you wind the crank to reload it. I’ve also come across weapons such as a camera, a garbage gun, an M1, a mer-shotgun (a shotgun with a mermaid tail that shoots deadly water), a dripping barrel that fires deadly fish, the Thompson Machine Gun, shotguns, and the Klobbe; a fantastically useless weapon.The glee of using some of these more than makes up for the untimely deaths I suffer when wielding them.

Look carefully. I’m not firing off bullets, I’m shooting off letters.

Knowing when not to shoot is just as important as accurately unloading a magazine of bullets, rockets, letters, or fish. Your primary defense against the enemy onslaught is the dodge roll. Timed correctly, it will vault you safely over nearly any glowing red orb of death. Used recklessly, it’s just as effective at placing you in harm’s way. Boss encounters are usually a battle against one large enemy that can literally fill a room with unfriendly fire. These encounters are slowly teaching me that it’s okay not to be firing at enemies all the time. Sometimes the best thing to do is stop pulling the trigger and focus on not getting hit.

This is what they call “bullet heck”.

Gungeon is a punishing roguelike experience. This means that each level is procedurally generated. While every floor of the Gungeon will contain similar elements, the level layout, enemy makeup, and item drops will be different every time. Roguelike also means that permadeath is the name of the game. Die on level three, and you start again on level one. Though I must note that you don’t start completely from scratch after every death. Through the course of the game, you encounter other characters in the fortress. Setting them free allows them to set up shop in the game’s central hub so you can interact with them before starting a run. They offer special items or other quests to complete in return for rewards. Defeating bosses will give you a glowing green currency that survives permadeath. This currency can then be used to unlock new weapons and equipment that will show up as drops in the Gungeon in future attempts.

This is not a game that’s meant to be rushed through. Nobody will sit down and breeze through to the final boss in an hour or two. Instead, Gungeon will sit installed on my hard drive for weeks and months. Over time I’ll chip away at it bit by bit, making one hard-earned step of progress at a time. I don’t know how long it will take for me to kill the past, but I know I’m going to have fun trying.

I’m dead. Doesn’t this look fun??

The Cast of Wolfenstein: The New Order

Each member of The Resistance has been burned by the evil in the world, and all of them want to do their part to end the menace of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Watching their stories unfold in cut scenes is just as riveting as the in-game gun play. You will get attached to these people before the story ends.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is one of my favorite games of all time. If I were to rank my favorite shooters, this would currently get my #2 spot. There’s a lot I love about this game; too much to fit into a single blog post. Therefore, consider this to be the first in a series. For the opener, I focus on the cast. 

Wolfenstein: The New Order is all about spectacle. The opening mission alone contains more shock and awe than the whole of many other shooters. You are William “BJ” Blaskowicz, American soldier on board an Allied bomber as the forces of good make their final assault against the cold Nazi regime. This is no ordinary bomber mission. In short succession you’ll be required to extinguish a fire in the fuel line, dump your cargo, and man the nose turret to take out enemy fighter planes. Then you jump off your plane onto the wing of another, only to crash land and participate in a beachhead assault on the Axis regime. By the time I was fighting in the trenches beneath a towering Nazi robot I thought it impossible to fit more over-the-top action sequences into a single mission. I was wrong. There’s quite a bit more in this opening mission, and heaps of it in the remainder of the game. It would be wrong of me to spoil it if you haven’t already experienced it for yourself. Except the Nazi moon base. I’ll spoil the moon base simply because you have to see it for yourself.

Spectacle is fine, but can be quite tiring if it isn’t grounded. A series of fantastic events will overload your perception of a game’s world. What’s the context for the things that are happening? How does it affect the people in this world? This is where the incredible cast of The New Order comes into play. Fergus is the foul-mouthed war veteran who has seen it all. Impossible assault on the enemy’s last stronghold? Just another day in the war.  On the other side of the coin stands Private Wyatt, the greenhorn who is new to the carnage of battle. Upon first meeting the young lad, you’ll be prompted to slap some sense into him. Yes, really. Later, BJ offers the young lad some practical advice about how to better deal with the horrors of war. Wyatt is obviously out of his comfort zone, but he’s doing the best he can for his country. By making the player focus on how the supporting characters are reacting to the events in the game, it takes pressure off of the player to be impressed by it all. We start to empathize with our squad mates instead of considering just how ridiculous it all is. It’s a great narrative trick that makes the main story beats resonate on an emotional level.

It is true that the characters I’ve just described fit the cookie cutter character stereotypes found in many war stories. What may be surprising is that none of them feel that way; they all feel completely genuine. Part of the reason for this is The New Order’s approach to storytelling. We’re not forced through a segment of exposition and backstory explaining why we should care about anyone. Instead, we’re shown how their personalities respond to the situations they’re in. Fergus knows there’s a job to do, but he still spares a moment to tell his squad mate to look after a wound. Wyatt refers to everyone as “sir” in an respectful tone of voice, even when he’s scared out of his wits. Even BJ will whisper some of his thoughts and motivations during quiet moments in the game. Amazingly, his soft-spoken demeanor doesn’t seem at odds with is proficiency for killing Nazis. By themselves, none of these elements would work. By all rights, none of them should work. But somehow, all the different elements work together to create one of the most memorable casts in gaming.

The New Order knows this, so the cast is thrust front and center throughout the game. The most prominent showcase is found in the Resistance headquarters. You’ll visit this location a few times over the course of the game. It’s used as a place of respite and safe haven from the hordes of evil foes. When BJ first arrives at Resistance HQ, he’s given a room to sleep in. Above the doorway is the nameplate for its former resident, their name now scratched out. A pillar in one of the upper room holds dozens of candles keeping silent vigil over portraits of the fallen. The entire space is an effective device to remind the player that BJ is in a world that’s much bigger than himself.

More than just a museum in which to passively read journal pages, the Resistance HQ offers some combat-light exploration missions that flesh out the personalities and backstories of your allies. Tekla is a young scientist obsessed with finding the equations to explain everything. J is a guitar virtuoso who would be world famous had history taken a different path. Set Roth is a Jewish scientist and a member of the secret Da’at Yichud society that provides hope for The Resistance. The New Order gets special notice for being the first game I’ve played with a portrayal of a mentally handicapped character: Max Haas. Max is a man who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child, and possesses the mental capacity of a five year old. He was found on the streets and taken in by another member of the Resistance, Klaus Kreutz. Klaus is a former Nazi. He was turned from their cause when the Reich murdered his wife and son because of perceived impurity in the child. Klaus now looks after Max as if he were his own son.

Each member of The Resistance has been burned by the evil in the world, and all of them want to do their part to end the menace of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Watching their stories unfold in cut scenes is just as riveting as the in-game gun play. You will get attached to these people before the story ends. The last scene of the game is an emotional one, with one main character making a major sacrifice for the sake of the others. It’s sad, to be sure, but it feels right. It works because both the character and the player know there was no other choice to be made. Any time a video game can make players pause to reflect on the nature of sacrifice, it’s doing something right. Many games show characters beating impossible odds and saving the day without being touched by real danger. The New Order doubles down and digs deep into the trauma that comes with heroism. All of our heroes here are broken, but that’s what makes them so compelling. They stare into the face of evil and instead of giving into despair, they steel themselves for the fight against it. In a genre where so many characters demand your affection, the cast of The New Order earns it. I can’t wait to see what they’re up to in The New Colossus.

Far Cry: The Predator Simulator

The original Far Cry is essentially Predator: The Video Game. But instead of playing the part of a freaky outer-space alien hunting Army jocks, you’re a freaky Hawaiian shirt-clad jock hunting other mercenary jocks.

Welcome to First Impressions, where I relay my experiences of a game’s opening moments. 

The original Far Cry is essentially Predator: The Video Game. But instead of playing the part of a freaky outer-space alien hunting Army jocks, you’re a freaky Hawaiian shirt-clad jock hunting other mercenary jocks. After a brief tutorial, the game sets you free in a beautiful tropical vista. Saltwater shimmers in a nearby bay, reflecting the image of far-off beaches. A flock of birds flies in front of you from right to left, inviting your eyes to notice the scope of the environment in front of you. On the dock below, a mercenary absentmindedly holds a fishing pole while two others walk back and forth on the beach. This is the moment that defines Far Cry.  Freedom. Freedom to approach the situation how you want to. You could start shooting from your elevated vantage point, attempting to blow up the yellow container of fuel on the dock. You could sneak down closer to the structures, engaging enemies at close range. Or you could circle around to the left, avoiding confrontation altogether. A game that gives you options: this is Far Cry’s claim to fame.

Yes, it took me three shots to explode the barrel. Don’t judge me, that’s a long way for a pistol shot.

I opt to go loud. It takes me three shots to make the barrel go boom. The fishing merc got thrown off the dock by the explosion and is now bobbing in the water, face down. Another mercenary charges up the hill towards me, firing as he runs. Panicked, I return fire. It takes a surprising number of bullets to his torso before he slumps to the ground. Enemies in this game are tough! I walk down to the hut, hoping to find a needed medkit and maybe other items of value. There’s a a machete on the table, but I can’t imagine getting close enough to enemies to use it on large islands like this. On my way out of the hut I come face to face with an enemy I wasn’t expecting. He lights into me as I reflexively fire my pistol. Somehow I land a hit to his face that drops him instantly. Useful fact: headshots are extremely effective in Far Cry, if a bit difficult to pull off.

Doyle, an ally, is talking to me via the video-phone I picked up in the game’s tutorial. I’m not sure how the phone gets a signal our here on these remote tropical islands, but you can’t argue with a plot device! He directs me to another small shack on the top of a hill. Here I find some high-tech binoculars and spy on the next enemy encampment. Doyle informs me that all mercenaries are conveniently tagged with microchips by the bad guy’s administration. These trackers work in my favor. Once scanned by the binoculars, enemies show up as an arrow on the mini-map. Green means they have their guard down, yellow indicates they’re alert, and red means actively engaged and shooting bullets. The mini-map is useful even if you haven’t tagged any enemies from afar off. Loud sounds are registered as oscillating circles in their approximate location. The bars on either side of the map serve as a “detection meter”, indicating how easily enemies are able to spot you. There’s a lot of information packed into that corner of the screen, and it does a good job supplementing your visual observations without feeling like it makes the game too easy.

“Don’t worry, boss. You can count on me to lose sight of the guy in a bright red Hawaiian shirt!”

Using the binoculars, I spy on the next enemy encampment and tag five enemies. There’s a shallow bay between me and the camp, so my only option is to go for a swim. A guard tower looms overhead, and I’m worried that my presence on a beautiful beach is painfully obvious to a man with a large gun. Somehow, he doesn’t see a muscular dude in a red Hawaiian shirt swimming ashore. Walking a little farther inland I crouch down and line up a shot with my pistol. I pop off a few rounds that should have been direct hits, but the bullets don’t register. The guard doesn’t even react to the sound of gunfire. Huh. I guess I’m too far away. As I creep closer and start spraying bullets around, the whole camp knows I’m here. Since I’ve tagged enemies with the binoculars, I’m able to fade into the jungle and avoid them. Tiny red arrows become large red arrows as I maneuver to line up my shots. When necessary, I toss rocks to cause distraction and lead the enemy where I want him to go. I am Predator. All enemies are subject to my mercy. Except for the ones that I missed when scouting the camp and therefore don’t show up on my map. My screen fills with a red glow as gunfire erupts from behind me. I turn around to see a merc lighting me up. He shoots me. I absorb bullets. I die. Subsequent attempts to clear the camp go much better.

Maybe that guard has T-Rex vision. If I don’t move, I’m invisible…

It takes my brain a little while to settle into the slow-ish pace demanded by the game. It actively discourages running and gunning; this is Predator Simulator, after all! Mercenaries are good shots, and you are susceptible to damage. Prepare to die quickly if they see you before you see them. That’s quite a challenge with all the beautiful and dense jungle foliage covering every island. It’s happened more than once that I burst through vegetation into a clearing only to be greeted by an enemy and a stream of hot lead. This is where the smart-tagging binoculars come into play. Stop frequently to scout thoroughly and make sure you know the location of every enemy. Thankfully the goggles aren’t totally dependent upon line of sight and can tag enemies even through thick vegetation. They are absolutely essential to survival. When it is time to engage in a firefight, the game forces a methodical approach instead of haphazard running and gunning. Firing from the hip while moving will spray bullets over a wide area; it’s rarely effective, even at close range. Stopping to crouch and aim down the sights nearly guarantees a hit, but also makes you an easy target. For those long-range shots, go prone to make it count. As someone who is rarely able to do well in twitch shooters that reward reflexes, I appreciate Far Cry’s methodical approach to combat. It lets me be the hunter.

There’s a lot to take in while playing Far Cry’s opening level. It pulls no punches, showing you everything the game is about. It’s a big, dumb shooter that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. You and a bunch of guns against a whole archipelago of islands full of baddies and mutants. What more could you want?

Screenshot Gallery

RAGE

RAGE is the ultimate post-apocalyptic cowboy simulator. But instead of a Mysterious Cowboy Hero, you’re a nanotrite-infused superman who’s just woken up from a century-long cryogenic sleep. Instead of a trusty American Colt or other steed, you ride an off-road buggy with nitrous, dual machine-guns, and rocket launchers. And shootouts are very, very fun.

The future can make for some odd employment opportunities. An eccentric, Pickelhaube-wearing gentleman has just commissioned me to retrieve two bottles of his special “Blueshine” from an abandoned distillery. The journey inside was the easy part. The tricky part comes when I turn the machinery on to bottle the drink; the noise is a siren call to a horde of murderous mutants. The controls for the machinery are accessed via a catwalk that provides a great vantage point for the room’s only means of entry. I use the stairs to set up shop on the catwalk, equip my sniper rifle, and press the button to fill the first bottle. Inhuman shrieking commences almost immediately, and I wait for mutants to start streaming down the tunnels. Here they come! One barrels out of the tunnel to the left; it’s moving too quickly for me to hit it with the sniper rifle. By the time I switch to my assault rifle he’s already jumped onto catwalk’s railing and is intent on doing terrible things to my face. As I unload half a magazine into him and look down just long enough to notice more mutants coming in from the tunnels. My vision shakes and turns red. I got hit from behind. They used the stairs, too. Using a bandage to stay alive I switch to the shotgun and start blasting anything that moves. Eight shells are spent and I need to reload, but still more mutants barrel up the stairs. No time for reloading. It’s wingstick time. I press the button to unleash the three-bladed boomerangs of death at point-blank range. The last mutant to mount the catwalk has his head separated from his torso. Thankfully the machine shuts down and the onslaught stops. I have time to catch my breath before filling the next bottle. For the next wave I opt to deploy a sentry bot; a four-legged robot with a machine gun and a nasty swiping attack. After starting the machine a second time, my sentry bot heads down the stairs to meet the first wave of mutants. It can hold its own, but gets damaged quickly when foes get too close. I use my rifle to keep the mutants at bay from above. When there’s a slight lull in the action I deploy a second sentry bot on the catwalk with me. One mutant, two mutants, three; no problem! Another mutant pops over the railing and the bot leaps to take him out… and misses. I get off a few ineffective shotgun blasts as the mutant barrels straight towards me. Reload! I see my sentry bot shimmy slightly, like a cat ready to pounce. In that moment, I finally get off another shotgun blast which vaporizes the mutant. Just then, my sentry bot leaps towards the mutant that a moment ago was in my face. Momentum propels its powerful blow directly at me with full force, killing me instantly. Murdered. By my own robot. I stare at the monitor in bemused disbelief and press F9 to reload my game. It’s just another day in the wasteland.

That pod has been your home for the past 106 years.

RAGE is the ultimate post-apocalyptic cowboy simulator. If you think back to classic movies set in the American West, the protagonist was frequently a “mysterious stranger” that shows up in town to help the little folk. They’d usually fallen into despair from a pack of faceless bad guys who were around to do nothing other than be the “bad guys”. Mysterious Cowboy Hero steps in, devises some cunning plan to beat the bad guys, and comes out the victor in after few cool action sequences. By the end of the story he’d saved the day, won the girl, and rode off into the sunset. RAGE has a lot of similarities to those Western stories, keeping the core elements but changing the details to fit a more sci-fi apocalyptic vibe. For instance: instead of a Mysterious Cowboy Hero, you’re a nanotrite-infused superman who’s just woken up from a century-long cryogenic sleep. The little folk are a bossy bunch of leeches who have no problem letting you and your special abilities take care of everything. Instead of a trusty American Colt or other steed, you ride an off-road buggy with nitrous, dual machine-guns, and rocket launchers. And the shootouts are very, very fun.

The game begins with rendered cinematic sequence showing asteroid Apophis 99942 and its journey through the solar system, which results in a collision with and complete devastation of earth. Your character is part of the special people chosen to survive the apocalypse, buried safely underground in one of many survival pods called Arks. Resting in cryogenic stasis, you were supposed to awaken when the dust settled and then get to work rebuilding civilization. However, upon regaining consciousness you are alerted to your emergence being 106 years later than scheduled. Your Ark-mates are dead, and the only option available to you is to stumble forward into the brightness and face the wasteland. Ten steps later you almost die at the hands of mutants, twice, saved only by a kindly man with a rifle: Dan Hagar. He drives you back to the Hagar homestead in his buggy, and gives you a few starting weapons. Then the game begins in earnest.

RAGE plays like a first-person shooter with light role-playing elements added to it. There are two major game worlds, the North Wasteland and the Eastern Wasteland. Each wasteland is a large outdoor area with one central hub town and other locations which are explored in missions. Wellspring and Subway Town are the main hubs of activity, and from there you’ll get assignments to carry out missions elsewhere in the wasteland. Inevitably you’ll cross paths with other characters who will give you missions or other odd jobs to perform. Some of them follow the main story arc, such as it is, and some are non-essential side missions. It’s worth noting that each time a character gives you a potential mission, you seem to have the option to accept or reject that particular mission. It’s a false dichotomy, since rejecting the mission simply closes the interaction window. Talking to them again reopens the quest window with the same task you just supposedly rejected. It makes me wonder if there was a more complex quest system that got cut from the final release of the game. At any rate, completing missions will often give you a reward of money or resources or some other benefit. Accepted missions will show up in your missions list, and you can choose which one to pursue at any given moment. If you’re looking for a compelling story or some narrative thread that keeps you coming back for more, I’m sorry to say that there isn’t one. While you’re told five minutes into the game that there’s a struggle between “normal” folk and some authoritarian regime, it’s at least halfway through the game before this is explored in any depth.

At its best, the plot is filler that provides a loose context for the game. At its worst, there are a startling number of similarities to Half Life 2. Dystopian future? Check. Technologically superior authority imposing their will on the broken masses? Check. Robotic sentries that broadcast propaganda? Check. Mission where you break into a prison? Check. Long elevator ride up an impossibly tall tower? Check. At least in Half Life 2 you got to see the villain. In RAGE you’re told a few times that General Cross is the bad guy. He’s the one that rigged the ARKs so he could take power in the new world, leaving everyone else buried. But that’s all you know. You never see him in game or are given specific details about how the Authority came into being. Ultimately, it’s up to you to come to terms with the fact that you’re fighting the bad guy for no other reason than its what you’re supposed to do. RAGE would fall to shambles if the core gameplay itself wasn’t so fun, but I can’t deny the lack of a real story left me disappointed.

When the game begins, you’re at the mercy of the various townsfolk who inhabit the wasteland. More often than not, they’ll send you on what can start to feel like some annoying fetch-quests. Meet person at destination A, he tells you to go to destination B and meet someone. Meet person at destination B and he tells you to do something at Destination C. Do thing at Destination C and return to B, only to tell you to return to destination A. You return to destination A to learn that you have to talk to a different person at destination B. I was just there. But thankfully, the weird backtracking slows down once you’ve been introduced to the system. Once the game allows you to catch your breath and make a decision about what to do, the beauty of the system shines forth. In hub town of Wellspring, the mayor and the sheriff will give you story-based quests. Other inhabitants will request your assistance with side missions of various types. In addition, there’s a job board for other opportunities. Feel like driving your weaponized buggy? Join the sanctioned racing league and compete in different races to earn certificates, which can then be used to upgrade your vehicle. Deliver packages in the wasteland for the Stanley Express. Meet a bartender who offers you cash bounties to take out bandits. Gamble at a casino, play card games, try your luck at holo-chess, play five-finger filet, try memorizing guitar riffs, and on and on. For the most part you’re free to spend as much or as little time as you wish on non-story activities. These things have no real bearing on the story progression of the main game, but add a nice bit of depth and diversion to the wasteland.

The Scorchers DLC has some of the most beautiful vistas in the game.

And what a beautiful wasteland it is! In spite of a few warts, RAGE still owns a proud spot on my list of most beautiful games of all time. As far as I’m aware it was the second game to utilize something called megatextures. I’m not going to attempt to describe what they are here in this post, but here’s a good video about them if you’re interested: Reset Button: Megatextures. The end result is that megatextures allow every pixel of the game world to be unique and intentionally placed. As a result, RAGE’s wasteland looks and feels just like you expect it would. While it’s not quite realistic, it’s also not too far fetched. The overall art design favors a slightly exaggerated take on reality, which permeates every aspect of the game. Where it makes sense, locations are bleak and desolate. There are piles of junk, trash and other detritus where you’d expect them to be. No two rock formations look exactly alike. Unique graffiti dots the landscape. Scrappy shrubs and grass wave slightly in the breeze. Vast canyons and open areas prevent you from ever feeling like you’re stuck “in a level”. To me, the most impressive bit of level design goes to Dead City. The focus is a giant skyscraper of a hospital that’s gradually being taken over by some organic ooze. In order to get there you’ve got to navigate the ruined buildings surrounding it. Ruined apartment blocks, street corner shops, and even an inner-city highway form a natural maze are just some of the landmarks that must be traversed en route to the hospital. Even if the world design isn’t necessarily realistic, it makes sense. It rarely yields to immersion-breaking moments where you wonder, “Why can’t I go there?” Most of the unique locations get at least two missions devoted to them. In order to keep locations from feeling stale and overused, the developers utilized a trick most often found in racing games: the second time you visit a location, you’ll traverse through it backwards or via an alternate route. Generally I’d accuse developers who did this of trying to pad the game’s length, but the way the routes are laid out really feels ingenious. Odds are you won’t even notice what’s going on until the end of a mission, at which point you realize how clever the design was.

Click on this to see the full size; there are a lot of details on these characters!

The great design isn’t limited to the game environment. Characters in the game world are wonderfully detailed, both visually and in their animation. One character, Doctor Kvasir, has a shoulder-mounted robot head that tracks Kvarsir’s hand gestures as he speaks. Stanley of the Stanley Express delivery company, wears a bomber’s helmet and has stamps stuck to his face. One elderly woman wears glasses. But in keeping with the post-apocalyptic scavenging locale of the game, her glasses are clearly halves of two different pairs, joined by a wad of tape. There’s so much detail in the appearance and mannerisms of each individual that they actually feel like a character with a personality and life. They’re not just waiting around to give me my next mission. Unfortunately, not all the character designs are laudable. Most of the female NPCs are rather textbook examples of sexism and objectification in video games. Of the few female characters present, I only counted two that were actually clothed according to what you’d expect for a harsh apocalyptic future. The rest have quite a bit of skin exposed that’s disproportionate to any of the male characters. Sarah, start of The Scorchers DLC, even gestures to her overly-revealing outfit and asks, “Does this make me look fat?” This portrayal, to me, is a few notches below the tasteful standard for video games.

I’m having a difficult time thinking how this screenshot could be worse…

So how does it play? Well, it’s been said that one of the original inspirations for the game was “muscle cars in a desert setting”. That game idea later morphed into something like “muscle cars with rocket launches in a post-apocalyptic wasteland”. Combine id Software’s famed ability to make great shooters with their newfound ability to make games with vehicle combat and you get RAGE. The first-person combat is as good as it’s ever been. Driving is fluid, responsive, and surprisingly fun. In fact, the driving mechanics are so good that many people, including myself, still hope to see id make a dedicated racing game someday. One of the reasons why it just works in RAGE is that you’re not really forced to do a lot of racing if you don’t want to. Your buggy is a necessary mode of transport to get from one mission to the next, and I quite enjoyed starting at the gorgeous scenery along the way. A few times you’ll be required to participate in races to further the story mode, but none of them are overly difficult. I for one enjoyed the varied race modes and spent quite a few hours on them.

Though the developers clearly spent a lot of time making sure the vehicle combat felt just right, they spent even more time making sure the shooting felt just as good. One thing that makes the gunplay so engaging is the varied enemy types. id did a great job giving each opposing faction a different combat style, so how you fight will be determined by the types of enemies you face off against. Mutants are fast, agile, and tend to rush you. They can make use of the environment to climb on walls and ceilings, swinging down from above. Don’t bother sniping unless you have the advantage of distance. Mercenary and bandit groups are better armed, use cover, flank you, and try to flush you out of cover with grenades. Authority forces are well armored and pack firepower, you’ll need to hit them hard and fast. There are a few other special enemies that require quick thinking and plenty of firepower to take out. Thankfully, weapons feel fantastic and responsive. Everything from the lowly settler pistol to the Authority pulse cannon are a joy to use, thanks in large part to alternate ammo types. Want your pistol to pack a bit more punch? Buy some Fatboys! Fatboys are larger bullets that deal twice as much damage as a standard round. Go one step up and use Fat Mamas. They do four times as much damage as a standard pistol round, and they can travel through enemies. Upgrade shotgun shells to pop rockets, essentially mini-grenades. Use the crossbow with standard bolts or explosive-tipped darts. Equip machine guns with armor-piercing rounds, and so on. The alternate ammo types ensure that each weapon remains relevant through the course of the game. Assuming you have enough of each ammo type, you’re free to approach every combat situation exactly as you want to. One of the things that makes combat so satisfying is the way your enemies respond to being shot. Hit a bandit in the leg while he’s rushing you, and he’ll stumble and fall over. Wing a mercenary and he’ll stop shooting in order to reset his footing. Land a shot in someone’s face and they’ll drop their weapon as they grab their head with both hands. It’s satisfying video game violence in the most entertaining of ways.

In spite of its flaws, I find RAGE to be a uniquely fun experience among shooters. Its pseudo open-world feels more meaningful than Borderlands and the action is clearly a precursor to 2016’s excellent DOOM. RAGE took a lot of criticism when it was released, and I think most of it was frustration with the game’s technology rather than the game itself. As a result the game’s reputation is tainted, and I’d say that’s rather unfair. RAGE stands the test of time and can proudly stand among the best titles ever produced by id Software. It’s the perfect game for those people who want to be a cowboy, taking their rocket-launching steed right into the heart of a pile of mutants.

Why you’ll love it:

  • Action, action, action. The shooting is done as well as anything id Software has ever released.
  • Vehicle combat is fun without feeling overbearing.
  • Gorgeous art style and visuals still look good today.
  • It’s a great game for people who don’t like to feel rushed.

Why you might not love it:

  • It’s not a true open world. At its core, there is still a sequence of linear missions.
  • Some of the visuals up close are pretty ugly – but please don’t let that distract you.
  • The storytelling is only a shadow of what it could have been.
  • The ending. You push a blue button.

Where to Purchase:

Steam – RAGE + Scorchers DLC – $14.98 (If you decide to buy the game, the Scorchers DLC is essential)

Compatibility / Configuration Steps:

Nothing major is required, but I recommend some tweaks to help with texture loading to minimize pop-in. A guide to do just that can be found here: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=122440311

Screenshot Gallery:

 

Giving Peace a Chance

[…] I’m going to try and avoid “video game violence” for a month. It’s not my goal to make any kind of a statement by avoiding any particular games. Rather my pledge is simply a response to an observation that most of my preferred games focus on destruction. I want to go a month focused on construction. I want to build some worlds instead of tearing them down.

In my previous article, I pledged to go the month of September avoiding games where “acting as an agent of violence is not the main focus.” As August rapidly draws to a close I now have to figure out what exactly I meant. Working off the assumptions most people make, avoiding violent video games should be a pretty straightforward affair. Especially after some informal polling revealed the common perception of what constitutes a violent video game: guns, explosions, blood, and guts. Four things I love in in a video game and I’ve got to go a month without them. But perhaps it’s more complicated than that. Before I can go a month without something, I have to define exactly what it is I’m supposed to avoid. My pledge is to avoid violence, not just shooters. To help in my quest I turn to the ever-present Google to help me define what, exactly, violence is:


Violence
vi·o·lence
ˈvī(ə)ləns
noun

  1. behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something


So as it turns out, virtual violence can involve quite a bit more than pulling the trigger of a virtual gun. There are scores of games that not only allow, but require and encourage the player to engage in willful acts of violence in order to progress through the game. The majority of games which I tend to play operate off some setup where the player is directly responsible for violent actions within a game. That is to say, the player exhibits control of an in-game entity to inflict some kind of action at a one to one ratio with the control scheme. First-person shooters are a good example of this, where specific control inputs from the player result in weapon discharges. Controls in fighting games result in various kicks, punches, or other methods of attack. The same principle applies to games where the player controls a vehicle, be it a combat simulation or an aggressive racing event. Defined as such, Burnout: Paradise qualifies as violent since the player is actively encouraged to use his vehicle to damage, disable, and destroy his opponents. But what about games where the player doesn’t directly carry out violent acts? Is a first-person shooter any more or less violent than strategy games which allow you to control scores of troops in large-scale battles? Is it still violence when clicks of a mouse order dozens or hundreds of digital soldiers to go and wipe out dozens or hundreds of enemy troops? If violence can be simply defined as willful intent to cause damage to something, then the vast majority of video games can be classified as violent.

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“Virtual men, go blow some stuff up!”

Perhaps player intent, and not just the intent of the game developers, can make the difference between certain games being violent or not. When I was a teenager I used to play a licensed NASCAR racing game. NASCAR done right is about as non-violent as you could get. Big blocky cars get on a track and make left-hand turns for hours. No violence there! My teenage brain grew bored of such things very quickly and soon demanded that I drive against the flow of traffic and try to wreck as many cars as possible before my own was battered beyond repair. Because I abused the intention of the game, I turned a non-violent racing game into a carnage simulator. Kerbal Space Program is a sandbox universe where you build giant rockets to explore. Sometimes, you just want to see what happens when you crash a rocket ship into a building! Instruments of science become vehicles of destruction. Even the bright and cheery Roller Coaster Tycoon, one of the more joyous games I’ve ever played, contains death and destruction. Roller coaster crashes, resulting either from poor design or malevolence, fill your screen with large explosions and numerous deaths.

And I’m going to try and avoid all that for a month. Not only am I going to shun games which encourage violence, I’m going to play non-violent games properly in order avoid causing violent events if at all possible. It’s not my goal to make any kind of a statement by avoiding any particular games. Rather my pledge is simply a response to an observation that most of my preferred games focus on destruction. I want to go a month focused on construction. I want to build some worlds instead of tearing them down. I want to discover a story, not shoot my way through it. After many years of training my brain to know that video games are all about blowing stuff up, I’m giving myself a reminder that gaming is also about creating and exploring wonders.

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Building a roller coaster with a jump in the tracks and naming it “Death Trap!” does not qualify as an act of non-violent creation.

More Than Violence?

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

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See how much fun we’re having?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars: Battlefront – Beauty Without Soul?

After mulling it over for several hours I finally made the realization that the real failure of Battlefront isn’t how it looks, or how it plays: it’s how much I care about what’s going on. Yes, these are spectacular battles rendered with craftsmanship and fidelity never before seen in a Star Wars game, but I just have no reason to care about any of it. […] Having said all that, I’ll buy the game the next time it’s on sale for $20 or less.

I wanted to totally fall in love the new iteration of Star Wars Battlefront, I really did. Considering it combines two things I absolutely adore, Star Wars and action games, by any rights this game should be a perfect fit for me! And yet, in spite of having spent an entire weekend with the prerelease beta and another four hours with the full game this past weekend, it just hasn’t hooked me yet. After feeling somewhat disappointed by the beta I had hoped the newly-released skirmish mode for offline play would be enough to win me over. And yet, all the free trial managed to accomplish was to cement my sense of indecision. It comes down to the simple reality that Battlefront has no soul. And that makes me sad.

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It looks like this moisture farm on Tatooine would have a lot of great stories to tell… but it doesn’t. It tells nothing.

On the surface, it has all the things that fans of Star Wars and of action games could ever want: dazzling graphics, phenomenal sound engineering, the rousing orchestral score from John Williams, all some of the planets, characters, vehicles, and weapons we know and love, and exquisitely detailed game environments. Make no mistake, Star Wars: Battlefront is the Star Wars-iest Star Wars game I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot of Star Wars games. The miracle workers at DICE are to be commended for creating what is, quite frankly, the most beautiful and most complete rendering of the Star Wars universe in a video game. Every pixel, every sound, every movement, every object, every environment is 100% certified Star Wars. But considering the cinematic inspiration for the game distinguished itself by imagining an imperfect and dirty universe, the perfect rendering of that world in a video game somehow feels shallow. The end result is that the game feels more like an impression of an experience than the genuine article.

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Piloting speeder bikes is all fun and games until you crash into a tree. Which happens. A lot.

In spite of the beautiful and immersive environment, there’s something that just doesn’t feel right. Oddly enough, it’s not the gameplay – even though it is simplistic to a fault. The actual mechanics of the game are more than fine. Shooting feels good, navigation and movement is spot-on, the game modes feel like they’re taking place in a galaxy far, far away, and all of the different parts contribute to an escapist whole. After mulling it over for several hours I finally made the realization that the real failure of Battlefront isn’t how it looks, or how it plays: it’s how much I care about what’s going on. Yes, these are spectacular battles rendered with craftsmanship and fidelity never before seen in a Star Wars game, but I just have no reason to care about any of it.

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Thermal Detonator makes stormtroopers go boom.

Battlefront puts you squarely into the shoes of a no-name soldier to show you a ground-level view of the war between the Rebellion and the Empire. From such a low perspective the morals and motives of either faction don’t matter. Survival is the name of the game. The Rebels are always ill-prepared and fighting against the odds, and the Empire is always a military superpower trying to quash dissent. There’s no real motivation to fight for either side other than the fact that this is the way it’s always been. In a sense this might be considered one of the game’s successes, that it replicates the experience of being a pawn in a large-scale galactic war; but I believe it’s also why the game feels so empty. For a franchise that was the catalyst for millions of people to imagine themselves as a hero in a galaxy far, far away, spending hours in a game as an ordinary foot soldier is a bit of a letdown. Focusing on the little guys and giving them repetitive and relatively small-scale objectives removes the context from the fight and turns what should be an epic clash into just another day on the battlefield. Star Wars has always been a grand space opera about ordinary people becoming extraordinary and then doing heroic things. Even though Battlefront allows players to “be the hero” with powerups, there’s no real justification for their presence on the battlefield and they end up feeling like nothing more than a fancy costume for the ordinary soldiers. In spite of how much you want your role to have a sense of significance to it, the game never gives you that empowerment. No matter what you do you’ll be just another pawn fighting in a war against other pawns. At the risk of mixing up my metaphors, Battlefront ends up feeling like playing checkers when you want to play chess.

Having said all that, I’ll buy the game the next time it’s on sale for $20 or less.

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Wait, what? Yes, I’m going buy the game when it goes back on sale. There are two reasons why. The first of which is that, for all its shallowness, it is still genuinely fun to shoot at wave upon wave of stormtroopers. The second reason being that Star Wars Battlefront may be the proof that EA DICE has what it takes to do some incredible things with Star Wars games, and that’s something I want to support. The developers obviously care a great deal about the source material, packing the game full of details most players will miss. A prime example is on a map for Supremacy on Endor, which is set at nighttime. A few minutes into the game I approached the outer border of the map which happened to be the bed of a lake. As I turned my character to pan the camera around my jaw dropped slightly. Sprawled out before me was a tranquil lake with a cluster of teepee-like dwellings perched over the water. Looming ominously overhead was a pair of Star Destroyers while the uncompleted Death Star dominated the twilight sky. This in-game scene is obviously directly inspired by Ralph McQuarrie’s original concept paintings for The Return of the Jedi. This glimpse of the real Endor displays how much attention the development team paid attention to the details that make the Star Wars universe special, even if those details are subservient to a grander and more boring big picture. If DICE can do this as icing on the cake in a multiplayer shooter, I’d love to see what they’re capable of in a dedicated single-player experience!

In the meantime, I’m learning that even shallow games have their beautiful moments. It took me four hours before I noticed one on Endor, maybe Battlefront has more to discover?

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I’m still trying to figure out why the Empire built those hangar bays into such a shallow rock face instead of just putting them aboveground.