Thursday, February 11, 2016

Great Games You Never Played: The "No One Lives Forever" Series

The Operative: No One Lives Forever and its sequel, No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in HARM's Way, are a series of first-person shooters developed by Monolith Productions in 2000 and 2002, in which players take the role of 1960s secret agent Cate Archer trying to stop a villainous criminal organization from taking over the world. Overshadowed by major releases like GoldenEye, Half-Life, Deus Ex, and Halo, the NOLF series achieved only moderate financial success at the time and was soon abandoned by Monolith in favor of new series like Condemned and FEAR. Fox Interactive since allowed the copyright to fall into no man's land, preventing the games from ever being made available for digital downloads via Steam or GOG, thus cementing the series' cult status in the annals of video game history.

I played these games for the first time in late 2006 and considered them to be some of the best first-person shooters I'd ever played. Playing them again now, 10 years later (and 16 years after the first game's initial release), I can definitely tell how much these games have aged, but the things that made them so novel back in the day -- the story, the characters, the atmosphere, and the humor -- are just as good now as they were then. Some of the gameplay elements feel a little outdated, granted, but these were somewhat groundbreaking games for their time, being some of the first first-person shooters to allow and encourage stealth, while their emphasis on using spy gadgetry to complete your objectives in a story-driven, swinging 60s setting makes these games truly stand out from the crowd.

Perhaps the biggest testament to NOLF's legacy is how well the series compares to other games of its time. When Half-Life came along in 1998, it forever changed the way shooters were made, yet in the years immediately following its release, few shooters adhered as closely to its lessons as NOLF1, which took the immersive gameplay and narrative-driven level progression from Half-Life and applied it to a more cinematic experience. GoldenEye was a defining genesis for console shooters; NOLF1 took its spy gadgetry and thematic objectives and gave them a more robust focus that, arguably, made NOLF1 a better James Bond game than GoldenEye itself. And when Deus Ex turned people's heads with its inclusion of RPG-style leveling and skills, NOLF2 did the same thing and vastly improved its own gameplay. All-the-while, the NOLF games were some of the first FPSs to allow players the freedom to choose how they'd go about completing a level, by allowing you to stealth your way past guards or to go in guns blazing.

In essence, the NOLF series takes the best elements of these iconic, classic games and blends them together with strong writing, interesting characters, a compelling story, an amusing sense of humor, and some of the most memorable level sequences of its time into games that are even better than the sum of their parts. It's even more impressive when you consider that there really are a lot of good parts to these games, with the wide variety of guns, the different types of ammunition, all of Cate's cool spy gadgets, the vehicles, the variety of mission types, and all the different locations. The story offers a solid premise with a lot of good twists and hooks, and the silly, lighthearted Austin Powers-esque atmosphere offers the series a uniquely refreshing flavor that will have you laughing at some of its more absurd moments, or else simply smiling at the realization that these games just want you to have fun, plain and simple.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The New 2014 Thief Reboot Sucks















Dear game developers: if you're going to make a new game in an established series, especially one that's been dormant for years, please give it a title that distinguishes it from the previous entries in the series. Don't give it the exact same name as the original game, or the series in the general. When I type something like "Thief mechanics" or "Thief level design" into a search engine, how does it know which game I'm referring to? When I'm talking with people about the newest game in the series, what do I call it? The new Thief? The Thief reboot? Thief 2014? Thief 4? Thi4f.? It drove me nuts with Tomb Raider, and I'm not looking forward to being in this same situation again when Doom comes out in 2016. I mean really, this whole trend is getting ridiculous and needs to stop.

I pretty much knew from the beginning, when Eidos Montreal released the teaser with the title officially stylized as "Thi4f," that the game was going to be rubbish. Mind you, I pretty much expect to be disappointed by virtually all mainstream AAA games these days, but my cynicism kicks in even stronger when it comes to revivals of beloved classics, and Eidos Montreal's efforts with Deus Ex: Human Revolution left me more skeptical than optimistic that they could do a better job reviving Thief. Looking past the rubbish name, I find that the game itself is rubbish too. It's not just that this is a bad Thief game, and it most certainly is -- it's disappointing even as a game in general. The fact that this is supposedly "Thief" just makes it that much harder to stomach.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Movie Roundup: Mini-Reviews

I spent about 20 hours in the back seat of a car this Christmas season, traveling across the country to visit family, which meant I had a lot of free time to kill. In the past I would spend that time playing handheld video games or reading books, but year after year I found myself not having enough time to finish some of those games or books during the trip, and then would never get around to finishing them once I got back home. This year, I decided to take advantage of my big-ass smart phone and download a bunch of movies to watch. I've now watched 11 movies in the past week, including the new Star Trek Star Wars movie on the big screen.

I don't watch a lot of movies, so my critical eye is not trained enough to write a lot of proper reviews for the movies I actually do watch -- with rare exceptions. But, since it's been a while since my last article and it's taking me forever to finish my Thief 2014 review, I figured I'd throw out a bunch of mini reviews for the plethora of movies I watched this week. In the full article, you'll find brief synopses and spoiler-free reviews of, in no particular order: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Interstellar, Gravity, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Mist, Avenged, Forever's End, Exile, Ex Machina, I'll Follow You Down, and Under the Skin

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Thief: Deadly Shadows is Surprisingly Good

There are two things I've been persistently hearing about Thief III: Deadly Shadows for over a decade: first, is that it's an inferior disappointment compared to its highly-regarded predecessors, and second, is that the Shalebridge Cradle level is so good that it completely makes up for all of the game's shortcomings. Upon completing the game, I feel like I've been somewhat misled all these years. There's a ton of notable detraction from the precedents established in Thief and Thief 2, but it's really not a bad game at all, or even a bad Thief game. The Shalebridge Cradle, meanwhile, is a really well-designed level, but it didn't impress me nearly as much as the constant years of hype led me to expect. 

There are merits for both arguments -- I can agree with both, to an extent -- but I feel like people have been exaggerating the extreme positives and negatives of this game for years, when Deadly Shadows is just kind of an average game all around. There's a lot to criticize in this game (and indeed, I'll be doing a lot of that below), but there's some really good stuff at work here, too. It's a pity that the game had to compromise so much for a new platform and a new audience, and that some of its more brilliant ideas didn't work out like Ion Storm intended, because I actually kind of like Deadly Shadows, despite all of its flaws. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thief 1 vs Thief 2: Which is Better?

Thief II: The Metal Age is technically a sequel -- it's in the name, after all -- but it's so much like its predecessor, Thief: The Dark Project, that it doesn't really feel like a sequel. It's basically the same game, but with 15 new missions, a couple new items, and a few technical upgrades to the engine. I guess Looking Glass Studios realized they had a pretty good formula on their hands, and chose not to do anything too extravagant with the sequel. The two games are so fundamentally similar that people tend to lump them together as one collective entity, because if you like one, then you'll like other.

And yet, people definitely have their preferences, with some people liking Thief 1 more for its darker supernatural atmosphere, and others liking Thief 2 more for its more robust level design. Some people find the undead enemies in Thief 1 to be a turn off, while others think the same of the robotic enemies in Thief 2. Having played Thief 2 immediately after finishing Thief 1, there are certain things I like and dislike about it; it's a tough call trying to pick one over the other.

I'm not going to treat this article as a stand-alone review of Thief 2, because that would feel mostly redundant, since I've already covered all of the basics in my review of Thief: The Dark Project. Most of what I wrote in that article applies to Thief 2 as well, so I'd recommend you start there so you have an idea of my thoughts going into this review. I'm also not going to make this a direct side-by-side, in-depth comparison article, either, because the games are so similar I can't talk at much length about how they differ. Rather, this review will be a more simple look at Thief 2 and, in general, how it stacks up to its predecessor.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Looking Back at Thief: The Dark Project

I remember playing Thief II: The Metal Age about 10 years ago and enjoying it quite a bit. Alas, I only played a few levels before something drew me away from it. I mostly remember breaking into mansions, warehouses, and slinking through the city streets on my noble quest to liberate as much gold as possible from the city's aristocratic elite. I thought I knew what I was getting into by jumping back into the series where it at all started, with Thief: The Dark Project; I was pretty surprised, then, when I went into the first game and found myself descending into giant crypts and haunted cathedrals to sneak past and, more often, fight off platoons of undead zombies and skeletons, among other sinister, twisted monstrosities.

Developed by Looking Glass Studios and released in 1998, Thief: The Dark Project was a pioneer of first-person stealth gaming. Its design was years ahead of its time, with the advanced lighting and three-dimensional sound effects offering an unprecedented level of immersive feedback for would-be thieves trying to hide in the shadows and avoid detection. It's impressive, really, how well it holds up after all this time; games have come a long way in the past 17 years, and yet modern stealth games really aren't that much more sophisticated than Thief. It would not be that ridiculous to claim that no other game has handled stealth as well as the original Thief, with the possible exception of Thief II, but that's a discussion for another article. For now, it's time to take a look at Thief: The Dark Project (the Gold Edition, specifically) to figure out what's good and what's not good with it.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs Sucks















Halloween is right around the corner, which means it's time for another disappointing horror game that couldn't possibly live up to my high standards nor rouse any ounce of emotion from my cold, blackened heart. This year, it's Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, a sequel of sorts to one of my favorite horror games of all time, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In an appropriately horrifying twist, however, Frictional Games decided not to handle the sequel themselves, and instead handed the license to the team responsible for the torpidly bland Dear Esther. Now don't get me wrong, the retail release of Dear Esther is a solid artistic expression, but it features no meaningful gameplay whatsoever and left me beyond skeptical that the Chinese Room could pull off a successful Amnesia game.