Friday, March 13, 2015

System Shock 2: A Classic Masterpiece















System Shock 2. The grandfather and holy grail of FPS-RPGs. It was so monumental back in 1999 that it shaped many elements of game design that have become standard practice over the last 16 years. Games like Deus Ex, Aliens vs Predator, Vampire Bloodlines, Doom 3, BioShock, Dead Space, and Fallout 3/NV, all owe their existence at least partly to the innovations established with System Shock 2. Even games like STALKER, Borderlands, and Portal have drawn influences from the almighty System Shock 2.

Despite its immense critical acclaim, winning numerous "Game of the Year" awards and frequently finding its way into modern "Best Games of All Time" lists, System Shock 2 wasn't much of a commercial success at the time. Falling between the cracks of Half-Life in 1998 and Deus Ex in 2000, its legacy was that of an obscure cult phenomenon that few people actually played -- but those who did loved it vehemently -- until BioShock came out in 2007 and renewed everyone's interest in its spiritual predecessor. Even then, finding a working copy was a little difficult, so the game remained largely unplayed and inaccessible until GOG and Steam released digital copies in 2013. Now you have no excuse not to play one of the greatest video games ever made.

The real question, however, as it always is with these "old" games, is whether or not System Shock 2 is actually worth playing in this day and age. After all, lots of old games just haven't aged very well, and why would it even be necessary to play System Shock 2 when there's already BioShock, a more-modern adaptation of virtually the same game design? The answer is simple: because System Shock 2 is a better game, and it still plays remarkably well, even after 16 years of aging. I'll get into more direct comparisons in another article; for now, I just want to talk about System Shock 2 as an independent game and how it's stood the test of time.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Morrowind Sucks, aka, Morrowind is Overrated
















Like everyone else, I have fond, nostalgic memories of playing Morrowind back in the early 2000s, but I was never able to get into it properly. I put about 10-20 hours into it, then gave up and lost interest. And yet, every time I've seen screenshots or heard its music over the past decade, I've felt a desire to reinstall the game and relive the glory days that everyone always harkens back to when discussing Oblivion or Skyrim. And then, whenever I do, I'm soon reminded of why I was never able to appreciate Morrowind, even back in its prime.

It's a shame, really, because I think Morrowind truly is the best of the modern Elder Scrolls games. It has the most interesting world to explore with its completely unique fauna, wildlife, and architecture, and it has the deepest, most complex stats-based RPG mechanics of any modern Elder Scrolls game. There's a reason, after all, that Morrowind was such a popular hit in 2002. For many young gamers, it was their first experience diving into such a deeply rich, complex open-world; for me, I'd already been spoiled by Gothic and Gothic 2, which made it painfully obvious how soulless and mediocre Morrowind really was.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Arx Fatalis: Old School Game in a Modern Skin
















Arx Fatalis is a first-person dungeon-crawling action-RPG from 2002 by Arkane Studios, the team who would later go on to develop Dark Messiah of Might and Magic in 2006 and Dishonored in 2012. Inspired by the Ultima Underworld games from the early 90s, Arx Fatalis is a modern adaptation of old school design. The world of Arx Fatalis is set entirely underground, after a dying sun forces humans, goblins, and trolls to retreat to the old dwarven mines and rebuild their cities underground. You play a nameless human who wakes up in a goblin prison cell with no memory of his past or his own identity. While attempting to recover your lost memories, you learn that you were sent to Arx to prevent an evil god from awakening, which becomes your main quest for the remainder of the game.

Like Arkane's other games, the draw in Arx Fatalis is that it offers players a lot of freedom to decide how to play the game, in terms of building your character in an open class system, how you choose to approach situations and solve puzzles, and how you go about exploring the world. This isn't a thorough, in-depth RPG with dialogue options and multiple solutions to quests, or an open-world sandbox game that lets you go wherever you want and do whatever you want, but it takes elements from those types of games and implements them in a more streamlined fashion. Normally, I would consider streamlining a very bad thing in an RPG, but the execution in Arx Fatalis offers plenty of satisfying depth while keeping the game's pace moving forward in a meaningful direction.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

RAGE: Not Worth a Clever Review Headline














By now I'm sure you're all aware of the colossal "ho hum" that is RAGE, id Software's first (and only) game since Doom 3, which came out way back in 2004. Seven years later, in 2011, they released Rage (as I'm stylizing it from here on out), boasting that it would feature a large world to explore, complete with vehicles, NPCs, towns, side missions, merchants, upgrades, and a crafting system -- a lot of "firsts" for the pioneers of the first-person shooter. The problem, you see, is that other games were already starting to do this at the time (and even a few years prior), and those other games not named Rage did the exact same thing, but better.

Rage is set in a post-apocalyptic future, after a meteor wipes out nearly all life on Earth and leaves much of the planet's surface a barren wasteland. Survivors have banded together in makeshift settlements to defend against bandits and mutants, while the Authority -- a group of technologically advanced soldiers -- attempts to govern the wasteland and restore unity with oppressive force. You play the role of an Ark survivor, a group of subjects put into cryogenic stasis deep underground, in order to repopulate Earth and rebuild civilization. When you emerge as the sole survivor of your Ark, over a hundred years after the meteor strike, you enter the wasteland on a mission to do .... something.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Board Game Review: The X-Files
















In The X-Files, a board game by IDWGames and Kevin Wilson, one to four players take the role of FBI agents Fox Mulder, Dana Scully, Walter Skinner, and Alex Krycek moving across the continental United States solving X-Files cases as they appear, in order to collect enough evidence to unravel the shadow government agency known as the Syndicate. One player takes the role of the Cigarette Smoking Man, who is working against the other players to cover up evidence and delay them long enough to eventually win through attrition and shut down the X-Files department for good. 

On agents' turns, they perform some combination of moving from region to region across the board, trading cards with fellow agents in the same region, collecting influence (which serve basically as action points), and playing cards from their hand -- usually to "investigate" an active X-File case in their region. Each X-File requires a certain amount of "progress" to solve; if an agent plays a card that says "investigate 3," they place three "progress tokens" on the case, and continue playing cards (one at a time, in turn order) until the number of progress tokens matches or exceeds the required amount on the card. For each solved X-File, agents collect a certain amount of "evidence tokens" from a bag, which are used as currency to buy one of nine puzzle pieces that the agents have to acquire and assemble to win the game.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Deadly Premonition is Mind-Blowingly Awesome
















You may have heard of Deadly Premonition, the open-world horror/thriller game from 2010 that proudly claims (on the back of the Director's Cut box, no less) to be "the most critically polarizing game of recent times." With a $20 price tag and review scores ranging from 2/10 on IGN to 10/10 on Destructoid, Deadly Premonition quickly earned a reputation for being "so bad it's good." Like a good "B movie," this was a game whose primary entertainment value seemed to derive from laughing at its failures and its generally awkward incompetence.

There's certainly plenty of reason to dislike Deadly Premonition. The graphics look 10 years out of date, the controls are clunky, the animations are ridiculous, the sound mixing is poorly balanced, the lip syncing is awful, and the music selection is often totally inappropriate. As a result of the clunky controls and the large open-world, the bulk of the actual gameplay feels pretty uncomfortable, and even a little boring, particularly in the beginning when you have very little reason to care about what's going on. Hidden beneath all of these superficial problems, however, is a comically bizarre, oddly fascinating, and uniquely surreal experience.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Five Nights At Freddy's is Overrated
















It's Halloween, which means it's time for the obligatory horror game review. Tonight's game is Five Nights at Freddy's, the latest indie sensation to wet the pants of YouTube "let's players" proclaiming it to be the scariest game they've ever played. Hold it there, chief, you're telling me a game about friendly animatronic animals at a children's pizzeria/playground/arcade is supposed to be scary? What's that? They come to life and roam the building's halls at night attempting to murder anyone they find so they can stuff the human remains into an empty animatronic suit? Well, that's a start, I guess.

In Five Nights at Freddy's, you play a security guard tasked with spending the night at Freddy Fazbear's Pizza to keep an eye on the robotic band members, who're set to "free roam mode" every night because they (supposedly) need the exercise to keep their servos from locking up. Except, really, they're trying to murder you. You have to survive six hours each night (roughly eight minutes in real time) by flipping through camera feeds to keep track of where each animatronic character is so that you can close the doors to your office when they get close. What's stopping you from keeping the doors closed all night, I hear you ask -- a limited power supply. Using the cameras, turning the lights on, and locking the doors all consume power.

Therein lies the game -- a simple matter of clicking through camera feeds, watching the screen, and closing a door at the right moment without using too much power -- but can such a simple game succeed at eliciting genuine horror, or are the masses simply overreacting? The answer is a little bit of both, but more of one than the other. How much you'll be scared by Five Nights at Freddy's depends heavily on how much of a wuss you are, and on how much you can suspend your disbelief and immerse yourself in the security office's confines.