10 Jul 2009

REVIEW: Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal

As Telltale Games unleash their second brave revival of a cult LucasArts franchise it's hard not to imagine them ducking for cover behind their desks in anticipation of the uber-fan backlash. If the reception of the new Sam and Max games was anything to go by though, they should be fine. Take the bull by the horns I say, and so they have.

Saying that Monkey Island has a history is something of an understatement, but the ease at which this first episode, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal slips us back into the familiar world of Threepwood and co. is commendable. The instant insertion into a battle with Le Chuck minutes before the credits roll and the familiar sounds of the MI series kick in are stirring to say the least. It's like being held in the arms of your estranged wife years after she ran away to be with that Wookie-faced lover of hers. It doesn't even matter that she's only returned to you because she bled him dry, she's back you fool!

It's not all sweetness and light though. Consistent with Telltale's past projects, the humour in the game can range from well-timed slapsticked to dialogue that just seems as if the writers were trying that little bit too hard to draw a chuckle. There are some great moments though, led by a new addition to Threepwood's physique, and if it's not all laugh-out-loud hilarity it is at least a well-constructed tribute to those games of old.

The puzzles in adventure games are naturally what keep things ticking along and here they're generally well employed. If I were to nit-pick then I'd say that the game does at times tend to scream 'I'M A PUZZLE!' at you when you were already doing perfectly well coming to your own conclusions regarding the dog, the blowtorch and the chocolate eclair. Despite these mild cases of patronisation though the puzzles are nicely thought out, often leading to that ultimate pay-off of striking a solid gold solution with an exuberant 'Ohhhhh... yeah!'.

The game looks crisp and colourful as well, realising the vivid cartoon tones of the series for the first time in full 3D. Wandering about the locales, conversing with characters and inspecting curious objects is half the fun and seeking out little interactions placed amongst such well laid scenes is always a joy. Telltale still haven't made the leap to truly reinventing the genre, but it does mean that the game is accessible to adventure pros and newcomers alike. The former, however, are more likely to be disgruntled with the lack of progression with the format.

Without a doubt there are some things to be improved on with later episodes in this five parter. If the characters evolve enough to become as memorable as those we already associate with the series then it really could become the game that the fans have been waiting ten years for. Most people who play Launch of the Screaming Narwhal are likely to enjoy it a great deal if only for nostalgic value. Others, of course, will refuse to see anything good in it. Personally, I feel that if anyone's up to the task of rejuvenating the Monkey Island brand, it's Telltale.

VERDICT: A fine start to a resurrected classic.


No, my spleen hasn't spontaneously ruptured, nor have I trapped my wang in the bedroom door again. I am, in fact, currently experiencing the thirty level pre-release of the utterly brilliant AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! -- A Reckless Disregard for Gravity. Catchy, huh?

Dejoban Games, those of The Wonderful End of the World famousness - and if you've never heard of that game, walk this way - have created some kind of pleasure-giving software here that feeds off your adrenaline, combining the addictive qualities of extreme sports and flashing lights to contiually tempt you into having just... one... more... go.

So, each level begins with you on top of a tower or platform of ludicrous, unmeasured height with your main objective being to leap from it and reach the bottom not dead. Sounds easy? No? Well, you'll be happy to hear that a parachute has been provided for elegant, cushiony landings once you reach the bottom. Pay no attention to all the other towers and platformy death-traps on the way down though. They'll only break your body a little bit...

Djeeban's unique brand of infectious insanity has been implemented to great affect in Aaaaa!, marrying the sense of impending vertical doom with some sensational of-the-wall visual styling. It really is rather lovely to look at, but once you're careening downwards towards a sadistically placed points marker it'll probably be the last thing on your mind.

In line with it's arcade playability points are indeed the name of the game, unlocking levels and allowing access to certain abilities that will aid you in your quest to become the awesomest virtual base-jumper yet. Sticking close to walls and narrowly missing obstructions on your way down also boosts the payout at the end of each jump so it's up to you to replay and perfect your descents to really get the most bang for your buck.

Above all else, Aaaaa! will help you realise a kind of precision skill that you never knew existed within that pathetic brain of yours. So, I suggest you put your nerves to the test and jump right in. The game is now available on pre-order for just $15 from the developer's site and, with the thirty levels you'll be allowed access to once you put your money down, you'll find it eating up a sizeable amount of your time prior to Aaaaa!'s imminent release.

7 Jul 2009


I feel that there's a common attitude held amongst veteran gamers these days that stems from a nostalgic perception of what we were playing ten or twenty years ago. I'll admit I'm guilty of it myself at times. Many of us at one time or another are prone to saying that modern games appear dumbed down, unimaginative, too focused on aesthetics or just plain dull compared to what we may have experienced back in the day. Of course, this sort of uncompromising generalisation can ring true as much it can seem complete codswallop, but nevertheless we're guilty of saying it from time to time.

What I'm leading up to in a rather convoluted fashion is that whilst playing Frozenbyte's recently released co-op platformer, Trine, I had a revelation of sorts. Something about the childlike nature of the game was appealing in such a way that it occurred to me that it's something I wish I'd been able to play when I was younger, being the sort of game with enough creative energy and style to draw you in and really stick in your head for a good while. So much so that I can imagine people in years to come might say: 'Hey, do you remember that game with the wizard and you could move stuff around to solve puzzles? And you could switch characters? Games just don't do things like that anymore...'

So, I'd like to preface this piece with a little advice to those as cynical as me: Remember that computer games exist for our enjoyment and that time can cloud judgements. Games like Trine are here to remind us of that.

Right. Now that the fluffy, over-sensitive babble is out of the way I'll get on with the review proper.

I'll go ahead and predict that one thing which will crop up in many reviews of this game is the word 'charming'. This is because Trine is charming to the core. From the introductory video through to the character design and the vivid variety of the visuals, playing through the game is like being read a fairytale before bedtime. What with the three noble heroes, the classical fantasy setting and a nasty skeleton horde to dismantle as you please, you may as well be rescuing a princess from a tower. Except you're not.

The plot, in fact, revolves around the discovery of a magical artifact called the Trine by three very different people. The Thief - all sarcasm and slyness - is the first to happen across the object, after which comes the womanising Wizard and finally the burly, oafish Knight. As their hands each touch the stone we discover that they've been bound together in one body with the ability to switch forms on the fly. Hence, we have our first major gameplay device.

All of the above is swiftly and seamlessly delivered by way of three short tutorials in which you control each character as they approach the ancient stone. From then on you're let loose on a quest to dispel the evil of the land and find a way to release your souls from the stone.

Before I go on, I need to point out that my first experience with the game was less than magical. Setting up the control system for two player co-op took a good half hour, mainly due to the insane default configuration of the gamepad controls. Admittedly, I don't have a 360 controller which I imagine most games are geared towards these days, but when a handful of essential button-presses are bound to several directions on the right thumbstick it's easy to become more than a little peeved by the trial and error approach required for controller configuration. However, compared to these initial issues, once you're actually playing it controls like a dream.

The actions are responsive, the controls intuitive and the visual feedback that you get from jumping and moving around is spot on, meaning that you rarely get caught out by tricky maneuvers. All of this is paramount for a game that is built around such kinetic use of simulated physics.

Throughout the levels - besides the evil skeletons you'll want to be killing - are spread many blocked paths and seemingly impassable areas. The beauty of the game is the way in which you work around them using the powers available to your trio. The Wizard can move objects around in the world and construct boxes and the Thief's ability to grapple and swing from anything wooden makes her indisposable for certain tasks. The Knight, well, he's just a brute. Switching between characters to suit your needs at the press of a button is an excellent system and one of Trine's main selling points.

The puzzles in the game are certainly not mind-bending conundrums. The focus here is on using teamwork and inventiveness to bypass problems in the best possible way. The lack of chin-scratching is definitely a good thing though, allowing the players to be experimental and construct solutions on the fly without losing the excellent pacing of the game.

Taking all of the above into account as well as the ability to play through the game with company means that Trine is guaranteed to make you laugh a lot, most likely through your own ineptitude or that of your partner's. At some point you'll think you've concocted the perfect solution to a puzzle only to end up flying off the screen or dropping serenely into a vat of lava. Well placed checkpoints that revive your party ensure that these sorts of events never frustrate.

On top of the standard platforming you'll also be presented with a simple leveling system that allows you to advance by collecting experience points from downed enemies or finding potions scattered about the levels. It makes for a compelling reward system and if you keep your eyes open you'll also discover many chests dotted about that contain magical trinkets or armaments to enhance any character's performance.

Depite my love for Trine, I have to admit to one minor failing of the game. I played it through with my girlfriend and it took us around nine hours to complete. The first eight and a half were fantastic. It's fair to say we were completely captivated by the style, beauty and endless dicking about that it allowed us. The last half hour of play, however, stunk. After adventuring through such varied locations and making the most of the exploration that the game encourages we were confronted by the ultimate platormer horror: A RISING LAVA LEVEL.

We were horrified. Two days of gorgeousness for this? It was as if the game had collapsed under it's own brilliance, hurling everything it had at us from above whilst perpetrating one of the worst genre-cliches in the business. It was like a physics-vomit within the depths of hell and even after the satisfaction of finally succeeding and completing the game, we were left with a bitter taste in our mouths and angry beyond belief. For those who fancy a challenge then you may find it to be a cakewalk, but for us it was a disappointing departure from everything that had come before.

That said, soon after the infuriating finale, we did the best thing we could to cleanse those unhappy feelings, and started the game again. Bliss.

With Trine, Frozenbyte have come up with their own unique selling point. Three characters, three sets of abilities and three ways to solve problems. Despite the wealth of alt-platform games we've received in the last couple of years, Trine still manages to be a breath of fresh air. It may not have the ego or ambition of the competition but, as it is, Trine remains a consistently fun and beautifully compelling game. Playing it alone is enjoyable enough, but cooperatively the possibility of inadvertant comedy and a multitude of puzzle solutions just makes it so much better.

I may have knocked the game for the woefully generic final level and the control issues I encountered, but there's no denying that this is a game to be played and enjoyed in the purest sense. No mind-bending situations to puzzle over, no grinding for points or pixel-perfect jumps. It's just great platform gaming with a few neat tricks thrown in for good measure. So, take my advice - parents play it with your kids, girlfriends play it with your boyfriends and friends play it with your other friends. If this happens then I'm pretty sure we'll all look back at some point in the future with very fond memories of Trine.

VERDICT: Compellingly versatile, Trine is a platforming gem.

EDIT: Frozenbyte have contacted me since this review was posted to say that they're planning on releasing a patch for Trine very soon that will lessen the difficulty of the final level as well as allowing the difficulty setting to be changed easily on dying. This should go some way to relieving any frustrations.

30 Jun 2009

It's been released? Oh, right: Battlefield Heroes

EA seem to have pushed this one out the back door, meaning that very few are trumpeting the release of aeons-in-the-beta-testing, Battlefield Heroes.

The game comprises of these things:

- Multiplayer shooting
- Cartoon graphics
- Unlockable weapons
- Vehicular combat
- Micro-transactions

Somewhere behind the garish, 'comedy' exterior lies a stripped-down, family-friendly Battlefield game. It's World War 2 gone slapstick and whether I like it or not, I haven't yet decided. Having dipped in and out of the beta once or twice I couldn't quite get to grips with the unresponsive controls and the matchmaking service. My God, I hate matchmaking services. If there is one way in which console gaming has detrimentally affected PC gaming it's with those idiot-proof, disconnection-prone, electronic waiting rooms. Dammit, I've gone off-topic.

I'll probably download the client tonight and have a bash at it, but whether or not it's any good will dictate whether I cover it again here. If I hate it I might just draw a big picture of a cock and balls and add it below.

29 Jun 2009

Less Content, More Matter: Robert Yang's Polaris

Polaris was released earlier this month as part of a series of micro-mods for Half-Life 2 based around the unusual themes of a) not shooting things and b) not running around all that much. It's the first release emerging from the project's initial volume called More Matter, which in turn falls under the collective series name, Radiator. Unlike the confusing multitude of their titles though, the mods themselves are designed to be concise, with the intention that they become thought-provoking, original works of fiction.

This first part has your unnamed female character spend the evening standing at a bench in a forest watching and learning about the starry sky with her date. I won't go into it any more detail than that because I think it's quite important to experience it for yourself, unaware of what's to come.

On his website, Robert Yang, the creator of the mods, claims that they have 'unorthodox gameplay mechanics used to artistic ends'.

Having played Polaris through several times now, I am still undecided as to where exactly the word 'artistic' from that quote fits into the game. And I'm not knocking the developer. I just feel that in this time of burgeoning independent games production, some people are a little too quick to label something differing from the norm as 'artistic'.

Of course, if a game was created with artistic intentions then that, by definition on a base level, makes it art. You can't argue that, you can only say that you don't like it. The problem - in my opinion - with many 'art' games such as this lies with the workmanship that leads to the final product. Does it subscribe to the same elements of influence as already established art-forms? When you look at a painting, the visual aspect of the thing is the only sensual input you receive from it. It's set, never changing, but it can alter your perspective, provoking thoughts or feelings that leave you dazzled by the skill of the piece.

So, with games then, when there are so many facets to their development, why aren't they infinitely more affecting more often?

The answer to that question, I feel, rests with the age of the medium. Because it's such a complex combination of assets, we're witnessing the early stages of its life. We're finding our feet with the staple genres and taking our baby steps through experimentation with looks and sounds and interactivity. Perfecting all three in one glorious software application is not an easy task.

I'll end this tangential ramble swiftly by saying that, although Polaris hasn't deeply affected me, I do believe that this kind of gaming and the thought that is at work behind the creation of such a series is entirely the right direction for the medium to be taking.

If so far I've given the impression that I didn't enjoy the game then I've gone about this article in the wrong way. I really did like it, mainly for its atmosphere and quaintly constructed puzzles. For such a short, restrictive experience there is a tremendous sense of belonging to the world helped along by the finely constructed scene, with an astronomical map spread across the bench and soft guitar music playing from an iPod, it's hard not to feel that you've walked into the early days of an uncomfortable relationship, aided by the writing that accompanies play. Whether or not it happens to be art seems to be of no consequence when you're playing Polaris and neither should it be.

The novelty of playing such a non-violent, reflective game in the Source engine is also a big part of it's appeal. However, the promise of further episodes offering differing stories from other perspectives has me rather excited. Traveling between different people's minds and experiencing a diverse selection of situations, locations and characters really has me wishing for the next instalment as this ambitious series could well become the definitive Quantum Leap of gaming.

You can grab the mod from the Radiator website and while you're there it's interesting to read up on Mr Yang's developer guidelines that form the basis of the series. Oh and you'll need to install Half-Life 2: Episode 2 to be able to run the thing.

28 Jun 2009

Trine: Truly Divine?

Those who believe that platformers have no place in the PC market may want to re-evaluate their opinions now that Trine has arrived on the scene. Highly anticipated for its head-turning prettiness and unique three-way game mechanic, it could easily become the next big indie hit of 2009. Will they ever stop coming?

Finnish developer Frozenbyte have gone out of their way to create an enjoyable and diverse experience with Trine, making use of co-op play as a way to work together in solving puzzles and dispatching trad-fantasy foes.

Well, the main indie checkbox has been ticked anyway - that being the ten-foot-tall box marked PHYSICS. In their own words:

'The gameplay is based on fully interactive physics - each character's different abilities and tactics can be used to invent new ways to overcome obstacles and save the kingdom!'

Having played through the demo I can safely say that this will be no flop. The platforming is smooth and satisfying and the whole thing gels together in such a way that you could be fooled into thinking Frozenbyte have been making games for years. With their only other IP being the Shadowgrounds series it's a good indication that we may have a very talented young development team on our hands.

Anyway, I'll say no more because I'm hoping on a review copy of the game, in which case I'll post a lengthier critique. Until then you can try it or buy it via Steam, as always.

27 Jun 2009

Relocated: Home of the Underdogs

So as not to turn the Dead Pixel into a Jagged Alliance masturbatorium, I figured I'd post something unrelated today.

What with all the job-losses and business liquidations spurred on by the death rattles of our mistreated economy, it's good to hear of a success story close to the hearts of those who like to game.

It's not exactly breaking news, but as one of the gems of the internet - at least from a gamer's perspective - it's great to hear that Home of the Underdogs has returned to the land of the living. No longer does it linger as a snapshot of better times, but has actually been revived and will be updated and cared for from now on just like the old mutt used to be. It will probably take a while to get back up to speed, but it's likely to reclaim its place as your one-stop-shop for retro recommendations, reviews and downloads.

Off you go then.

22 Jun 2009

Jagged Alliance 2: Isometric Masterpiece - First Contact

The team touched down on Arulcan soil at 0700 hours, rappelling from the aged Blackhawk and pounding their feet into the dirt as the air from the chopper's rotor blades rushed about the dilapidated homes that stood all around. Immediately they whipped their weapons from their backs and set to work, scoping for any signs of movement, checking for shadows behind the window panes of the nearest buildings. Any flicker of life could signal imminent death.

The chopper was making a terrific racket above them, but it eventually tilted forward like they do and flew off in a direction that may have been due SSW.

Flinch raised her hand and, in one swift flick of the wrist, made some sort of signal that meant they were all to keep low and take up forward positions by the nearest wall.

Steroid grunted and muttered something derogatory about 'Little Miss GI Jane' under his breath before following through with the orders. He sternly reminded himself that he could be court-marshalled for disobeying his superior officer. Everyone knew that and it was apparently a really bad thing to happen.

All right! Andy McNab, eat your fucking heart out!

Okay, I'll cut that nonsense out now, but it is extremely thrilling to write in such a way and you can't deny that it makes for engaging prose. Admittedly, my entire military knowledge is limited to several war movies and computer games, but I can really see why Tom Clancy and co have spent their entire lives knocking out this sort of shit. Right away I feel infinitely more positive about settling any problems I may have by shooting people in the face.

Indeed, it's put me in the perfect frame of mind to continue. So I will...

In reality, the four of them were standing like lemons at the edge of the entry sector and would have continued to do so if I hadn't told them to hunch down and hug the side of the nearest building. There's no sense of self-awareness or self-preservation with these guys. It's all player-controlled so I could have left them standing there until the sun set or they passed out from exhaustion and they wouldn't have been able to shit without my ordering them to do so.

Note: Shitting is not actually an aspect of gameplay.

It's important to remember that JA2 will always inform you of any enemies inside a sector, but unless you're defending you'll never be sure of exactly how many baddies you're likely to face. It could be two plebs with rusty slingshots or you could be facing a twenty-strong deathsquad. In this case I guessed it would be closer to the former instance - bar the slingshots. The game isn't known for giving the player an easy ride, but I couldn't imagine that I'd be thrown right into the eye of the storm from the off.


First contact came unexpectedly from the same doorway that my mercs were foolishly huddled around. The guy had probably been busy making his lunch when the helicopter appeared and he was now standing stock still in the doorway surrounded by what must have been the most unnerving scene he'd ever witnessed.

Instantly, the game snapped into turn-based-war-bastard mode and I handed all responsibility to Buzz.

It took one shot to the skull at point blank range to take him down. He exhaled as he dropped to the ground. The first kill had been handed to me on a plate. If the rest of them were this easy I'd be laughing.

I instantly sent Buzz up onto the roof and crawled her to the southern edge to scout for more. After another goon was spotted making his way carefully between two other buldings I realised the battle was pretty much over before it had even begun. The enemy were seemingly caught off-guard by our sudden arrival and Buzz appeared to be the most efficient gunwoman in the world. Hence...


No one else had a chance to react, not even on my side. The woman took each kill on the first shot from a decent distance. I could have kissed her, but the limitations of virtual reality denied me such actions.


A small boy and his mother appeared from one of the houses.

[At this point I'll take liberty in cutting a long story short because I'm aware that this first part of the diary may now be appearing to be more of a gamefaqs walkthrough than recounts of an exciting expedition.]

The woman - Fatima - led me to the rebel base in the neighbouring sector and I chatted to the leader after proving my worth with a signed letter from Enrico outlining my business. I've neglected to mention the basic story details and my reasons for setting out to liberate this nation so, in short, Queen Deidriana is the evil woman in power. She loathes her people and has subjected them to awful conditions after denying Enrico - my employer - the throne. Therefore, she needs to die. It's a simple setup. As Ira puts it:

Oh dear. Ira. I'd forgotten all about her. Aside from that excellent opening statement, everything Ira says and does following this is always irredeemably awful. I hate her - probably more than I should - but let's have a run through her profile to see why:


STRENGTHS: Shit all as far as I'm concerned.

INFO: Ira is of American nationality, presumably from somewhere on the east coast due to the irritating New Yorkian whine of her voice. She came to Arulco as an aid worker and now lingers around like an elephant's fart. The woman is a five-foot-tall bullet magnet. It's incredible, her ability to suck bullets in and throw out only useless moaning in exchange. She endears herself to no-one and shoots like an old lady. A hateful person.

And she is now my guide. I recruited her for free and now she shall lead me to Drassen, my next destination and a town that I've been instructed by the rebel leader to take from the Queen. Righty-ho. I'll take care not to let my despondency rub off on the team.

Next time: I'll cover more ground in less text now that the introductions are over. It's shooting and adventuring from hereon in.

Jagged Alliance 2: Isometric Masterpiece - The Setup


The most important thing for me to do before firing up the old girl was to give the game a quick injection of life from the community-made 1.13 patch. This is important because, unless your computer hardware hasn't received an update since the late nineties, you'll be working at a resolution much higher than the game's native 640x480 humongo-pixel res. Of course, graphics aren't everything, but it's nice to make use of an available visual upgrade and the wider perspective means much less scrolling when it comes to commanding troops on the battlefield.

Both the mod and its subsequent update are available from the game's wiki here and if you're having any problems getting it installed it's probably worth popping over to The Bear's Pit Forums - a Jagged Alliance community that is very much alive and kicking - for a bit of friendly advice.

Adjustable resolutions aren't the only improvements with this mod, but the hundreds of actual tweaks and add-ins are far too numerous to summarise here. In short, the AI has been improved, the inventory system has had an overhaul, a bazillion new weapons and items have been added and several experience-altering settings have been changed. Ah, yes. As I found out to my detriment, it's best not to play 1.13 straight out of the box as it were. several significant changes have been made that could result in you getting your arse handed to you and your game ruined very early on, no matter what difficulty setting you play on.

For info on what changes you might like to make, head to the mod folder on your hard-drive and open the .ini file for comprehensive instructions on which setting does what bad thing. For me, because I'd like to use varied tactics rather than put my back to the wall and shoot eighty grunts as they sidle through a doorway, I'm basically reverting to the vanilla style of play, but with the extra variety. Sure, I may get criticised for being ball-less, but at least I'll have fun. After all, this is a story-telling exercise, not a test of nerd-skillz.


The first thing you'll notice when starting the game proper is that Jagged Alliance 2 uses a mock-up of a laptop as your main control centre. It's an excellent narrative device that solidifies your role as the contractor tasked with organising and overseeing the entire operation. From this screen you're able to search the internet for guns or mercenaries, check your emails and keep track of your financial situation. It also provides a wealth of information on your mission and updates as you explore the game world, displaying tidbits of information about places or people and offering up several plot details that you may not pick up from simply observing cutscenes or having conversations with NPCs in the game. Most of all, it's always a giggle to work on a virtual computer within a virtual world. Even the in-game web pages take long enough to load for you to realise that JA2 was released several years before the word 'broadband' came into common usage.

And so, from this screen, I check through all my emails. There's a list of ones already opened from Enrico Chivaldori - my employer - that outline the proceedings so far, but the one I'm really interested in is the unread mail at the bottom. It's from I.M.P., the Institute for Mercenary Profiling. Using the activation code contained within I'm able to get onto their website and into what most people will recognise as a standard RPG character creator. Before patch 1.13 you were required to endure a ludicrously macho quiz that would supposedly tailor your merc's attributes to the answers you gave, but it was so woefully obtuse that it seems to have been thrown out of the window in favour of common sense by the current mod - thankfully.

From here I'm able to personalize a guy or gal to lead my soon-to-be bunch of hopefuls. Name, face, voice, stats and special skills are mine for the choosing. Anyway, here's what I came up with after a few minutes of tinkering:

NAME: Cassandra "Flinch" Morley

STRENGTHS: Shooting, mainly.

INFO: I'm not sure why I decided that the nickname 'Flinch' would be appropriate for a hardened killer, but I'd like to think that deep down inside it's due to an aversion that she has to loud noises such as, say, gunfire. Regardless of this possible flaw that I just made up, she certainly has enough strength and agility to lug herself across miles of rough terrain and rather fancies herself in camouflage make-up.

So there she is, my Boadicea, my woman of war. Leader of men and killer of, er... other men. At the moment I'll admit she's lacking in certain areas, but after offing a decent proportion of the military populace of Arulco I'm pretty sure she'll scrub up nicely. Anyway, she'll have the support of her team at hand, which brings me on to the next bit...


So this is the point at which I consider planning a well-rounded team with which to carry out my courageous liberation of the aforementioned third-world state. My method of accessing such files is the handily bookmarked A.I.M. recruitment website. Within this system is a selection of forty mercenaries that you can pick and choose, depending on ability and price and so on...

Playing the game on experienced skill allows me a starting fund of $35,000. This is about enough to bag me a five-man team of low-to-averagely skilled mercs. Usually I'd make a point of picking a medic, a sharpshooter, an explosives expert, etc., but from experience I know that the initial battles can be long and frustrating if you lack anyone who's able to hit the side of a barn from three feet. Therefore my focus here is on firepower and strength. I spent some extra cash that restricted me to only three more mercs, but I think you'll agree is was worth it:
NAME: Bobby 'Steroid' Gontalski

STRENGTHS: Er, strength. This man could break a crowbar in half with his forehead. He's a decent shooter and mechanic to boot. Also, his excellent one-liners could kill a man dead.

INFO: An ex-firefighter, Steroid is used to getting hot and sweaty. He practically channels Arnie through his words, brute force and numb-headedness.
NAME: Louisa 'Buzz' Garneau

STRENGTHS: Buzz is a sharpshooter through and through and her inherent wisdom means she'll be quick to learn in the few areas that she lacks skill.

INFO: Not only is Buzz brash and ballsy but she's also a militant feminist. She hates men to a point that makes me worried she won't think twice about backstabbing the two males in the group if they fall out of line. Meh. I'll take that chance.
NAME: J.P. 'La Malice' Viau

STRENGTHS: The ability to offend the entire French nation.

INFO: I couldn't not pick La Malice after he's seemingly gained his entire knowledge of the French language from watching re-runs of 'Allo 'Allo!. I'm not entirely sure what his skills are, but my faith lies in the possibility that his absurd racial stereotyping may win the hearts and minds of any foe he encounters. Seriously, he pronounces the word 'oui', 'ooo-aye' . Sold.


So, the squad is picked, the scene is set and the game has just begun. Soon enough I'll see how these mercs fare on the battlefield...

19 Jun 2009

Isometric Masterpiece: Jagged Alliance 2

It's pretty much gone unsaid so far on this site as to what I would truly hold aloft as my favourite PC game of all time. Anybody would think it was something actiony and violent, simplistic in form, but addictive in nature. Surely it's a game by illustrious action-innovators Valve Software? Portal perhaps? Half-Life even? Nope, you're way off. The clue is in the post title. And that picture right there.

Back in 1999, one whole year after Valve's magnum opus hit the shelves, Jagged Alliance 2 gave me my first experience of turn-based strategy gaming. I'd missed out on the UFO series a few years before so it became my first real stab at the genre and it was life-defining in the sense that my obsession with PC gaming was forged and I had experienced, in that early period of a lifelong hobby, computer gaming's vast capacity to entertain.

JA2 wasn't released to any kind of fanfare though. It received decent enough reviews, but I seem to remember PC Gamer awarding it just over 80% and being genuinely hurt by a lack of obsession or understanding on their part as to what made it game of the year - nay, game of the decade - for me. It says something that over ten years since its release very few games have come close to matching the effect that the Jagged Alliance series had on me.

The first game was generally forgettable, but this sequel presented all parts in the correct amounts. It was the ultimate splicing of genres. Part dumb action movie, the selection of mercenaries you could choose from were full of character whilst widespread stereotyping reigned supreme and hilarious accents offered up genuinely funny quotes. There were forty Schwarzeneggers at your disposal and each had the potential to make you laugh as much as the first time you ever watched Commando.

JA2 was also an RPG, the tactical decisions that you made ultimately affected your future experiences. The country of Arulco in which the game was set was split into grids to allow you to go anywhere you pleased and shoot whomever you wanted. You were able to choose your path thoughtfully or let chance dictate if the direction you had decided on led you into a war zone or an entertaining distraction. Like all good role-players your mercenaries boasted stats that could be raised through combat or training. They had energy levels that indicated when they were running on empty and when they couldn't last another minute without a good, hard nap. They interacted with the other characters in your party in what became a monumental clash of egos and each reacted differently to the NPCs you'd encounter on your journeys.

JA2 was, for the most part though, a turn-based strategy. Working on the universal currency of Action Points, you and your enemy exchanged turns until one of you was left with their force's guts spilled onto the dirt. It was a gun fetishist's wet dream and the tactics you could employ were intricate and varied. The whole system controlled in a way that meant you rarely felt that failure to win a battle was anyone's fault but your own.

Is that all? Not quite. When you had made it far enough through the game it became a management sim too. Whilst playing around with all of the above you were required to build up a militia, to train a rebel army and manage your income by utilising the various mining towns dotted about the country.

So why am I going into such enormous detail about an age-old game when I could be covering newer, better (well, not better) games? Well, it's because I believe Jagged Alliance 2 is well overdue an update. It needs a brave sequel that really shows how the limits of gaming can be pushed and highlight comparatively how little we have progressed since those halcyon days of epic ideas and endless playability. You can cite tales of Fallout 3 and Oblivion and the features of a range of recent sandbox games as the evolution of gaming, but it would mean little to me. For the most part they're testing the water of the genres that they are alleged to have defined.

And so, over the next few months I'll be chronicling the adventures of my small band of heroes as they journey through Arulco, liberating the inhabitants and setting straight any punks that happen to get in their way. I'm hoping it'll be of interest to any that may have never heard of the game and demonstrate what a cracking play it really is. Following that you'll want to pick it up from GOG.com for only $9.99. In fact, pick it up right now. It would be foolish to wait.

For a brief -albeit poorly made- introduction to the plot of the game check out the game intro video below.

More to follow...

17 Jun 2009

Today I will mostly be playing... catch-up

Honestly, I'm away from the site for two months and all hell breaks loose. I'll do a quick round-up to get back on track but, coincidentally, my last post about Blueberry Garden is still relevant as the game has just been released. So there. Buy it here, enjoy the game and comment on the review below.

Off we go:

  • 3D Realms disbanded and Duke Nukem Forever is now delayed indefinitely, as opposed to simply being delayed for an undefined length of time. The difference is brain-meltingly subtle. Many mourned the loss of the company as a father figure of PC gaming whilst some people likened the sudden news to God poking his head through the clouds and announcing that Jesus won't actually be making a comeback after all. That is: astonishing at first, but the actual outcome was to be expected. And before you take that metaphor the wrong way, I'm not likening the 3D Realms team to God. For starters, God is yet to put his name to any above-average corridor shooters. Tee-dum-tshhh!

  • Popcap released Plants vs Zombies, following which I rediscovered my love for computer games. Twenty hours of my life were stolen by what is essentially a Flash game and I decided to give up blogging in order to cultivate virtual flora. I've arrived at the opinion that if you play this game and don't devote most of your free time to it then you probably lack the emotion and humour to remain a valuable member of society. In fact, if you haven't made your first kill already or at least begun eyeing up tramps as potential victims then I'd start locking any blades away now because it's only a matter of time.
  • E3 happened. Too much to go into here, but it was surprisingly interesting to keep track of. Many titles appealed and out of nowhere MMO shooters were suddenly all the rage. Nothing, though, excited me more than Just Cause 2's delightfully explosive approach to action gaming. The first game was good enough, but if this sequel delivers on its promises then we could be looking at the new benchmark for sandbox shooters. And then hopefully the GTA series will cheer up a bit and learn some new tricks. Quick time events have to go though...
  • Left 4 Dead 2 was announced to a hilariously unexpected degree of anger from gamers. It seems that people who bought the original expecting updates akin to Valve's TF2 dedication were a little upset. It was another case of a roudy mass experiencing a misjudged sense of entitlement. Assumptions were lobbed about that in turn got people even more riled, whilst a small proportion of them fumed that Half-Life 2: Episode 3 was still floating about in the ether, unreleased and unannounced. Seriously, check out the RPS comments thread of the announcement and experience a sense of superiority in the knowledge that you're not a whining idiot. Unless you are, in which case have a whinge below. You idiot.

23 Apr 2009

A field of dreams: Blueberry Garden

I know I keep regurgitating the same old observation of how every new indie game I come across is beautifully expressive or lovingly wacky, but as a blanket statement it actually tends to be the case far more often than you'd expect. Currently it seems indie gaming is all about bringing the medium forward by delivering unusual feasts of gaming goodness that differ greatly from the slop we so often have to suffer on the high street shelves. You could say - and I often do - that small independent developers don't feel required to create what they think the consumer would like so much as what they themselves want to play, the product of which is usually off-the-wall content.

You could also be of the opinion that it's a conscious decision to stand out from the crowd. Bold colours and zany characters are the key to success and without a novelty device or some kind of graphical twist they will undoubtedly be left to rot in some darkened corner of the internet.

Without venturing too far along this trail of thought, I'll introduce Blueberry Garden by saying that it's not your standard platformer... but it is your typical indie game. It shows off abstract, hand-drawn visuals, classical piano music and several fruity gameplay twists. It's colourful and accessible, but having said that, it also surpasses the indie gaming stereotypes by being pretty damn good.

The winner of the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the IGF this year, Blueberry Garden is the creation of Erik Svedäng and a game that is well deserving of the praise it has received so far. Soon to be released, Erik has been kind enough to let me take a sneaky peek at his contribution to the indie scene.

'So, what's the deal?' I hear you not ask.

Well, as soon as you load it up you'll be confronted by a game that seems to take its inspiration from dreams more than anything else. As a result it's abstract and pleasantly directionless. Deeper though are the aforementioned additions that twist the gameplay away from what you'd expect from a simple platformer.

Enter the man with a beak on his face. You play as this guy, flying about and collecting various oversized household objects. Giant apples, books, top hats and suchlike litter the landscape which you must then trek across to find. Each time you succeed in doing so, you'll teleport back to the start of the level along with the object you found stacked above you to form a rudimentary tower. Each item you add gives the tower more height which allows you to fly longer distances and reach unexplored territory.

So that's the zany part... and now here I go with one of my many predictable statements: Blueberry Garden is instantly engaging.

When you start playing you'll be skipping about, reading the tutorial signs and trying to figure out what on Earth you're actually required to do and how to go about it. The trees and wildlife offer some pointers. Fruits that grow in the game essentially become power-ups and using these effectively will allow you to access previously unreachable areas in order to continue the search for another piece of the tower.

Within the game world you'll find a bunch of friendly denizens that are all too happy to go about their business, eating the fruit that's dropped and spreading the seeds to grow new trees. Whether this is integral to succeeding, I'm not entirely sure, but it's certainly a workable strategy and using the various plant and animal life to your advantage is part of the fun.

Amazingly, the object of the game didn't occur to me until my second attempt at it. A water level that is virtually out of sight at the start of each new game rises slowly as you play. It's your biggest obstacle and anything you can do to stop yourself drowning is best done quickly. Reaching pieces of the tower before they become inaccessible is obviously at the forefront of your mind, but so too is finding a way to stop it and escape. Have I managed this yet? No. Will I keep trying? Of course. Make that a yes, after a period of obsessive playing.

The most fascinating aspect of the game is that you are left almost entirely without direction from the off. Just like a dream, you're required to make sense of a world that is familiar, but not quite normal. The game contains several references to standard mario-style platformers, but it differs through the use of a few interesting devices. A completely real-time world that continues to evolve off-screen and coexisting wildlife are a couple of things that confirm just why this game received such credit at the IGF awards.

To return to my original comment, Blueberry Garden is your typical indie game, but in the best sense possible. It's original and innovative whilst taking the finest parts of a well-tread genre and expanding them to show what can still be done to keep it fresh and involving.

From what I've seen, I think a lot of people already have quite an affection for Blueberry Garden from just watching the preview videos posted about the internet and if you aren't one of them then what are you waiting for?

22 Apr 2009

Valve give the gift of Survival

For those of you who don't know, today is actually 'International Downloadable Content for Zombie Shooters Day'. It's a worthy cause, with all funds going towards... well, creating more zombie shooters, I expect. As far as I can tell though, Valve Software are the only ones who have really contributed to this wonderful occasion by releasing their long-promised Survival Pack for co-op horror hit, Left 4 Dead.

If you've already bought the game the update will download as soon as Steam is started and after it's done you'll be presented with the Dead Air and Death Toll campaigns playable in Versus Mode as well as a brand new Survival game-type.

The new Versus maps are a welcome extension to the original game and something players been waiting some time for, whilst Survival mode is something altogether different, recreating those intense siege moments that make up the end of the campaigns. Except it's timed. And there is no rescue.

Taking rooms from various parts of the campaign -and one brand new lighthouse map- the premise is to stock up on guns and ammo before triggering the horde and then being torn to pieces within ten minutes. Although you're apparently less likely to make it to five. Ouch.

It's been a while since I last opted for a bout of Infected slaughter so it seems an appropriate time to dust off my shotgun and get right back into it. Here's hoping more developers will be offering up their support next year on this, the day of undead-depicting-software celebration!

21 Apr 2009

REVIEW: Zeno Clash

First-person action gaming can at times appear rather stale and uninspiring. It seems that we, the players, are often made slaves to the genre staples established by games that were seen as being revolutionary over a decade ago. A great many titles released these days differ little from the norm in terms of theme, colour or expression and there seems to be a fear prevalent amongst many developers of enriching gamers' imaginations or exceeding expectations - a fear of scaring people off perhaps.

Of course, this is good enough if you want to guarantee a quick buck, but the end result is this: You could point most PC gamers in the direction of the latest shooter and they would know - without blinking - exactly how to deal with the nazis, terrorists or aliens that are inevitably going to attack in their hundreds. And those types of enemies, well, they all really equate to the same thing don't they?

So where is the sense of surprise or the excitement of exploration? Where is the continued thrill when it's always just you against identical evils with a gun?

And whilst we're on the subject of guns, anyone who has played a few action titles will already know what to expect. We've become amateur weapons experts. Yes, it's a very basic familiarity, but these sorts of items form a safety net within these virtual shooting galleries along with warehouses, crates, exploding barrels and the colour brown. How on earth would we cope without these genre standards?

It takes only a few minutes of play to realise that Zeno Clash is from a different galaxy to ours. Its feet are firmly on the ground, but its head is way, way up in outer space, scouting around for whatever weird shit it can find and pull into existence. And that's the first point of interest. Almost everything is alien here - not in the sense of spacesuits and laser rifles, but simply... unusual. The landscape, the flora and fauna, the weaponry and the characters are all captivatingly bizarre. It's a jumbled freakshow of a game where anything you see can be simultaneously beautiful and repulsive and rarely standard fare.

Zeno Clash is very much it's own creature, but the laziest way to describe the game's aesthetics would be to label it as cave-punk. It's a stupid term - I'm well aware - but it's inhabitants are often wild in nature, neanderthal and unkempt. The clothing they wear is striking and organic. Bones and animal parts adorn masks and helmets to make the whole world appear as if conjured by a voodoo priest on an acid high. It's so fantastically insane that even if the gameplay were appalling, the eye-candy alone would probably be enough to keep you pushing onwards until the end.

You play the part of Ghat, a human being and son of Father-Mother, a ten-foot tall crow-beast with a giant chip on its shoulder. The game begins with the death of this hermaphroditic monster and after a brief and amusing tutorial on the basics of combat you find yourself on the run from your kin, a motley crew of birdmen, ogreish humanoids and giant rats (to name but a few). The ensuing story is told through a series of intermittent, playable flashbacks as you explain your past to your female companion, Deadra, who bucks the gaming trend by not being at all irritating.

The storytelling is schizophrenic in nature, but the back and forth of the plot suits the style of the game. It's a decent tale and one that's tightly written and compelling enough without requiring any drawn-out expositions to explain what the hell is going on amongst the madness of the game world. The voice acting is also remarkably well-done considering the size of the team involved and whether the often absurd dialogue is down to poor translation or not, it only seems to add to the charm of the game.

The only sticking point for me is a significant lack of characterisation, especially in the case of Deadra, who says little of worth and explains even less about why she's actually following you and helping you out. I can only assume that this will be resolved in the next game, to which there is a feverish nod at the end of this one. So, to all you cliffhanger-haters out there: you may want to prepare yourself for the worst.

As you'll know if you've seen any of the preview videos, the gameplay is strongly focused around the combat system. A good old fashioned fist-to-the-face isn't something you often see done well in first-person games. It's a mechanic that's difficult to perfect, to recreate the brutal satisfaction of hand-to-hand fighting. Chronicles of Riddick is the closest comparison I can draw to what you'll see here, although that game seemed more geared towards portraying the violence of such confrontations than creating completely workable methods of attack and defence.

Zeno Clash handles it admirably. It's a solid enough system that allows you to lock on to an opponent, left-clicking for a sequence of blows and right-clicking for a more hefty thump. This simple control basis eventually opens up a variety of fighting techniques, allowing you to block or peform counter-attacks and once you've pummelled someone enough to stun them you can either elbow-drop them or launch them across the floor in the hope they'll take another down with them. The visual and audio feedback from each successful hit is fantastic, to such an extent that I often caught myself reeling backwards like a fool whilst winding up a powerful right-hook.

On the whole, the combat is well implemented and if you take the time to learn the moves and if your reactions are reasonably quick, you'll soon feel like a champion fighter. However, there's a strong chance at times that you'll find yourself battling the controls when facing multiple foes. The problems come infrequently, but are frustrating enough to mention. Targeting inconsistencies and the fact that the same key is assigned to locking on and picking up health or weapons sometimes means you'll lose tricky brawls because the controls got the better of you.

As a side note, for those players who do become adept at brutalising their opponents there is a seperate challenge mode that requires you to confront several tiers of increasingly tricky enemies. It's a nice addition and increases longevity of play with online scoreboards through which you can compete with your Steam friends for top spot. It's an unexpected addition and a great way to keep enjoying the game without having to retread the entire story.

During the main game, when you're not using your fists to hurt others you'll most likely be shooting things at them. Weapons appear periodically and if you can spare the time to pick one up and fire it before some oaf knocks it from your hands then it's useful for keeping enemies at bay. Ammo is thankfully unlimited, but the clip sizes are small and timing your reloading is crucial to keeping yourself standing up.

I have to say that the weapon models and animations are incredible. Technically they handle no differently from standard FPS pistols or rifles, but once you've hunted down a giant rabbit with a couple of fish guns in your hands you'll begin to wonder at what period in the history of gaming did most of the creativity, insanity and pure joy of playing get thrown out of the window.

Zeno Clash brings it all back with formidable style.

And style is where the true appeal of the game firmly rests. What many people may realise whilst playing the game is that the diversity of the visuals is not quite matched by the variety of play. With all the surface material stripped away it could appear to be, in part, a regular corridor shooter. The bare-knuckle and melee action is brilliantly implemented, but there is an awful lot of it, especially towards the end of the game when you'll be pelted with bosses or three or four nasties at once, several times in a row.

In this case the motivation to continue isn't only for personal pride and completion, but the prospect of exploring more of the world. With the environment shifting so much from level to level, it's a tour de force of artistic design, of locational beauty and wonder. For me to give away too many details of what scenes you're likely to explore would be detrimental to those moments of sheer awe that you'll encounter after turning a corner and being confronted by something magnificent, so I won't.

Zeno Clash, however, is not a simple case of style over substance. In fact, most of the game exposes its style in such a way that it becomes part of the substance. In much the same way that the Half-Life series deviates the player's attention from its limited walls, Zeno Clash uses corridor shooting to its advantage, opening it up with fantastical set-pieces and a creativity of design that puts most developers to shame.

Ultimately, Zeno Clash is something that I would encourage every action gamer to try, even if it does lead you to find every subsequent game you play to be somewhat lacking in imagination.

VERDICT: Barking mad and, in turn, an insanely enjoyable experience.

Zeno Clash is created by Chilean developers, ACE Team. It was released today and is available to download from Steam and Direct2Drive.

15 Apr 2009

Thieving Speculation

Yes, it was a dumb joke about System Shock 3, but this one's all non-lies...

It seems the latest speculation flooding the deliciously nerdy end of the internet is that Eidos Montreal, developers of the upcoming Deus Ex 3 have made a teasing post that their next game is soon to be announced. That is literally all they have said so far, but certain hopefuls have taken it upon themselves to draw some significance from the style of font (no, really), likening it to the Thief series' bold type.

This has caused the longstanding Through the Looking Glass community forums to hammer out a forty-plus page thread on the chances of this being what we've been after since the last game's release in 2004. To be honest its high time they threw in another addition to the now legendary PC gaming series, but it will have to be a wonderful sequel.

Personally, I'd be careful what to wish for. The recently publicised Deus Ex 3 hasn't filled me with glee, judging on early screen shots and tidbit info (I loathe cover-systems, okay?).

I remain hopeful and sceptical at the same time, because the Thief series is extremely dear to my heart and they really don't make games like that anymore.

1 Apr 2009

System Shock shock

Still reeling from yesterday's news, I found myself positively bowled over when it came to this titbit of exciting information. Go on, have a guess...

That's right, System Shock 3 is on it's way. Is there anything else I need to say? Probably...

Having apparently been in undercover development for over a year, Ken Levine today let slip some insightful thoughts on the rejuvenation of the decade-old franchise. In an interview with Knee High Gamers he is quoted as saying 'We have no clear idea for a release date, but I can tell you that SS3 is forthcoming. We're currently focusing on rounding off the next Bioshock release before we'll be able to confirm a timescale for completion.'

Take a second to process that information...

Ready for more?

When pushed for further information on the second sequel in the space-horror franchise, Levine offered up very few clues, but mentioned that they were likely to focus 'more on the combat aspects of the game' this time around in order to give it a 'more visceral appeal than its predecessors'.

'We realised after Bioshock's release,' says Levine 'that people really loved the overall style of the game, the way it looked and felt to play. Comparing that to System Shock's slower pace and clunky control system we feel we're now on the right path to creating the best and most accessible game in the series. We'll be carrying over a lot of the things we learned to do right in Bioshock and integrating them into the System Shock universe. Believe me when I say, we are aiming high with this next game.'

It's good news then for those who fell in love with Bioshock's run and gun approach to RPGs and could we even take from this stupidly small amount of information that 2K might be getting rid of inventories and character attributes entirely? Only time will tell.

No further information has been released, but I'll post as soon as it is. I'm half expecting the sky to fall tomorrow.

31 Mar 2009

The Sims Free (of DRM)

I was greeted by big news this morning as I logged on to the BBC News website and scanned through the usual bleak headlines. The thing that caught my eye was sitting right at the front of the Technology section:

EA 'dumps DRM' for next Sims game

And so I discovered that EA has reportedly backtracked from their usual stance on the use of digital rights management with their games. The Sims 3, they say, will come bundled with no such thing.

Shock and awe followed. Then a question formed in my mind: Has the company finally realised that their piracy deterrents are less effective than a fart in the ocean when it comes to combating crooks on the internet? Has last year's bungled Spore release and subsequent backlash finally penetrated some skulls within the EA stronghold?

Stating that they are planning to revert to good old-fashioned serial codes with no online activation at all, a spokesperson from EA is quoted by the Beeb as saying "there is always going to be a level of protection for games and this solution [DRM free] is right for The Sims 3."

Considering how likely The Sims 3 is to be EA's money-maker for a good chunk of the next decade (if its predecessors are anything to go by), it's certainly a brave first step towards relieving the proposterous amount of shit that PC gamers have to wade through these days in order to get games up and running. That quote also begs the response: Is DRM appropriate for any games? And if so, which ones?

The spokesperson goes on to say that the way in which "these things roll out in the future will be down to the developers". When we've seen it so often proclaimed by game-makers during restrictive security debacles that the Big Bad Men from the publishing company made them do it, could it be that the power now lay in their hands and that they'll put an end to the madness?

My guess is that EA are treading very careful around the subject matter in case they need to hurriedly retreat to the safety of their DRM fortress. Either that or they are lying about the omission of online activation.

Regardless of any cynical speculation, this can only be perceived as a major change in attitude towards copy protection from one of the big industry players. It seems as if the people have spoken and EA - the pantomime villain of PC gaming - has responded, not so much to the shouts of "it's behind you!" but to the blood-curdling yells of "it's right there in front of your fucking eyes, you idiots! DRM isn't the answer!".

The Dead Pixel can only hope that this leads to a deluge of game reviews on Amazon that are about the actual game rather than the wrongdoings of overprotective corporations.

My eyeballs are now firmly glued to this space.

24 Mar 2009


Built squarely upon the expectation that players probably want to see something different emerging within the RTS genre, Dawn of War 2 is as much hack-and-slash as it is tactical management. Squad sizes have been cut down and troop numbers diminished. There is no base-building anymore. You can almost hear Relic straining to force this Space-Marine-shaped peg into a Diablo-Rogue hole. It doesn’t fit. Not quite.

Although the idea behind this new direction is sound, no part of the game is furnished to the degree of excellence that we come to expect from Relic post-Company of Heroes. Promises of deeper relationships with the units, a tighter focus on combat, loot and character-levelling seem to have come up empty because there are so many ideas here that there seems to have been a sacrifice of substance.

The battles, all wonderful in their crimson-gore splendour, tend to play out in much the same way. Aside from the fact that you must repeatedly play on the same maps - with laborious boss fights marking the end of each one - the game supplies neither the terrain nor the variety of units to support deep strategic play. You’ll find yourself relying on the same few moves time after time and on top of this the levelling system has an emptiness to it that I just can’t put my finger on.

VERDICT: Fun in short bursts, but it’s not the RTS revolution we were hoping for.

21 Mar 2009

REVIEW: The Path

Considering the mass of unexpected controversy that suddenly surrounded this game on release I felt I couldn't pass up reviewing The Path as soon as possible.

The game has so far - having only been released a couple of days ago - divided opinion so entirely that there have apparently even been calls for Valve to pull the game from Steam. You need only glance over certain internet discussions to see how the fiery, hate-propelled bandwagon may have started up and to observe the offence that has been caused to some people claiming that the game promotes paedophilia or rape.

Before I go into any detail of what the game actually consists of, let me lay straight where I feel the anger and discomfort in the community stems from.

Certain sections of The Path possibly contain allusions to rape. Depending on your mindset. The protagonists for the most part are very young girls. Those are the basic facts. However, (and it's a huge HOWEVER) I feel the game is being misunderstood. In the same way that an idiot may view a newspaper headline and immediately draw their own conclusions, I feel that some people aren't delving any deeper into the intentions of the developer, to read between the lines. The developer's reason for the creation of The Path was clearly not to make a 'rape simulator', a phrase that makes me shudder through it's inevitable misuse or, indeed, use at all. On the other hand, I feel that the developers haven't successfully dealt with the uncomfortable subject matter enough to deviate the attentions of the player from the most obvious of themes. The theme of physical abuse in the game is not based on anything solid or immediate. it's an idea that is drifting about on it's own without a simple plot to tie it to and I can see how some players may get the wrong impression. However -again- only an idiot would say that this game is solely about rape. Only a fool would conjure such a simplistic interpretation of the game. The developers, Tale of Tales, may have misfired, but you must understand where that misfire comes from.

The Path, if I were to pigeon-hole it into a genre, is an adventure game. The problem that many people will encounter -including myself- is that it's more of a statement than a game. It's a *deep breath* art game, a jumbled box of emotional responses that congeals into something not altogether savoury. It's an experience more than a game. If you hate it for any other reason than the bugs you encounter or the tedium of the controls, then the developers have succeeded in making you feel SOMETHING, in making you CONNECT with the game on an emotional level. The problem with it being such a statement of a game is that its true purpose is never revealed - or if you like, the statement isn't actually a statement.

Of course, it's still a game. Games don't need reasons to exist other than your own entertainment. The problem is, I will struggle to call The Path entertainment in the traditional sense. I will struggle at any length to find it's true purpose for existence, beside the fact that it seems to create such diverse reactions amongst its players. There is clearly something further that the developers want us to see or interpret for ourselves, but since so much of that message is concealed behind avant-garde, partly directionless, sometimes pretentious artiness, you may get put off before any consistent emotional bond is established with the characters or environment. If you want my advice: see it through.

It's one of the most inconsistent games I've played on so many levels and I have no idea whether the developers intended it to be. At times it's light and at times dark. It's adult and childish, morbid and gleeful, frightening and exciting, ugly and beautiful. Where it does remain consistent tends to be where it fails. It can be repetitive, tedious, glitchy and aimless depending on what you have come to expect from your computer games.

But I'll continue to explain the game...

The Path begins with a room. In this room are six girls, each dressed in red and each innocent in their youth and attire. Instantly, even if you have read nothing about the game prior to playing it, you'll see the connection to Little Red Riding Hood, but I won't go into the background and original folklore because this review is already long enough. However, if you are interested then Wikipedia is the place to go to see where the darkest of the themes presented here have originated from.

Clicking on one of the girls in the room will select her as your protagonist for the next chapter of the game. And so it begins. Starting at the crumbled edge of a paved highway, you are left facing a single dirt track with dense woodland converging on either side of it. You have a basket that consists of goodies for Grandma and which also doubles as an inventory. Nothing in it is usable and it serves only as a receptacle for objects and memories.

Your options are to get to Grandma's house directly (which takes about two minutes at a trot) or wander from the path.

This is where the initial problems with the game may arise for some people. It's a free-form experience in the purest sense. There are no goals or objectives (despite the developer's attempts to parody video game achievement systems). You do as you please. You explore and encounter whatever draws your attention.

This aimless approach to play can destroy someone's interest immediately. 'Where do I go?' is the first question you'll inevitably ask yourself. On my first go I took a deep breath and turned right, heading into the uninviting shade of the trees.

The second question you'll ask yourself is 'what do I do?'. In my own experience as I wandered between the imposing trunks, I was captivated by things in the distance that were either interesting locations or manifestations of my imagination. It was amazing how many times I thought I glanced movement or a figure in the distance only to realise I seen nothing at all. Without giving anything away, because I feel an uninformed introduction to the game is the best way to play it, within the forest you will encounter items and scenes and wolves.

Many of these points of interest have markers placed around the edge of your screen so you're never entirely stuck for new things to explore. Every hundred metres you travel also causes a dotted 'treasure map' to appear briefly as an overlay so you'll usually have a rough idea of your position in the game world too. You also may be aware at times that if you leave the controls alone the character may run over to something and interact with it. It's an interesting mechanic but it's limitations are obvious within the game and can even become an annoyance when you were simply stopping to get your bearings.

In total there are three different wolves to discover within the forest and each one has a certain effect on a selected girl. These encounters can vary in subject matter and you can take them any way you like, as I mentioned above. Inevitably, however, after each encounter you'll awaken dishevelled in the centre of the path. Then you get up and walk -excruciatingly slowly- towards grandma's house and the girl's inevitable death.

I think this is where I struggle to interpret the game correctly because with each girl, up to a point, you may begin to create notions of her past life, her troubles and whimsies built upon by your experiences in the woods. To have these assumptions cut short at the end of each chapter with death can be jarring because it often doesn't follow on from the existence you may have been concocting in your head. However, that's a literal interpretation and, much like those who call 'rape' following each wolf encounter, I'd be foolish to assume that each death was anything other than a metaphor for something more meaningful. What that meaning was though, I was never entirely sure.

I found that the more I played the game, the more I liked it. Depending on how far you explore with each girl, you'll likely pick up different aspects of their characters or begin to form vague ideas about their past and what has led to their demise, metaphorical or literal. Ginger's experience in particular had the biggest effect on me. Without giving too much away, the wolf you encounter isn't quite what you may expect it to be and -I'm sorry- going back to my initial comments regarding physical abuse in the game, this contains no pointers towards such a grisly fate. If anything, unless you take it in a ham-fisted literal way, it simply points to the loss of friendship, desertion and loneliness. It's a joyful, light-hearted experience and one of the The Path's finest moments.

For the most part, the art design is fantastic (when it isn't self-indulgent enough to force itself upon you). The daydream atmosphere of the forest and the sudden feeling that you may have strayed too far from the path adds to the proceedings an uneasiness that also permeates throughout the entire game. Even the somewhat tedious ventures through Grandma's house still hold a degree of uncertainty and fear since the experience differs each time you enter it.

The sound design can also be quite effecting, becoming more intense every time you begin to run. Coupled with various uncomfortable sounds of laughter or growling you may find yourself having to sit a little closer to the edge of your seat. There are also some nice touches with music, although it can become more than a little grating after long periods of play.

In a way, I recommend going into the Path without reading anything about it beforehand, which obviously defeats the point of this review, although I purposefully tried only to describe the heart and soul of the game without poking at the actual flesh of the gameplay. To venture into it with no preconceptions and interpret each interaction in your own way is likely to get you the most from the game. It will undoubtedly create divided opinions between those who bore/offend easily and those who are fascinated by games that do things differently.

The fact that I'm almost on the fence regarding this game seems to leave me in a strangely unique position. In some ways I feel the developers have aimed too high, I feel the game can be tedious, pretentious and dull too frequently. In other ways I think it can be a mesmerising experience if played with an open mind whilst attempting to relate to the girls. I feel certain themes have been developed with a heavy hand but conversely some parts, such as the joy of watching the girls interact with the environment, can bring to the surface thoughts and feelings that anyone who was once a child can relate to.

Honestly, this is the toughest review I think I've ever done and that can only be due to something the game is doing right as much as it is about what the game is doing wrong. As such, I must recommend that every gamer with even an inkling of curiosity at least gives it a go as whether it's loved or hated by gamers or critics alike, I don't think anyone can deny that it's an interesting, controversial and perhaps important step for computer gaming.

VERDICT: An intriguing attempt to try something different. A game that almost isn't a game, but something I would recommend everyone plays. As a piece of art though, it often fails.

To check out an entirely different perspective on the game and one that turned my stomach with its sensationalist content, I recommend taking a look at Alex Lucard's review on Diehard GameFAN alongside playing the game and drawing your own conclusions. I feel I have to link to this because his review made me desperate to sit down and write my own feelings on the matter.