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.