Friday, January 28, 2022

Retro Review: Diablo [1997]

25 years ago this month, a friend of mine got his hands on the North American version of Blizzard's then latest videogame: Diablo. It was a precious acquisition that he rightfully wouldn't let out of his sight. It wasn't slated for release in the EU for another 11 months so the only way to play it was on his laptop. And that I did, I took over his laptop and played the whole game over the course of a few days and it was amazing.


Diablo was forged at the beginning of Blizzard's success, their Warcraft RTS games had given them notoriety but it was Diablo and then StarCraft the following year that cemented their place in history. Blizzard produced a simple action role playing game that was instantly accessible to anyone. This was proved by the fact that this was my first video game RPG and I was able to play the thing on a laptop, using only a mouse, the number keys and the shift key. No other controls were needed, a far cry from the 80+ different keyboard commands one had to memorise to play X-Wing. No, Diablo was simple and that was one of it's greatest strengths.

Simple as it was, it wasn't easy. One had to employ tactics against increasingly tough enemies. Clicking the right area, the right enemy, the right spell or potion at the right time was mandatory or you'd easily die. But unlike something like Dark Souls nowadays, it was forgiving in so far as you easily could get out of a tight spot or if you died you could just change your tactic and it would likely mean success.

Diablo at it's time had the best voice acting, the best music and the best sound. It also notably had the best cinematics by far. Blizzard's 3D cinematics were years ahead of the curve - even when compared with LucasArts who had Lucasfilm resources behind them. No one held a candle to what Blizzard produced back then. Diablo's cinematics set the scene for the game but unlike many modern games that use scenes to flesh out the story, Diablo's appear only at the beginning of the game one close to the end and a final cinematic which is enough to tell the story along with NPC exposition.


In Diablo you play a nameless hero of one of three archetypes or classes, the stalwart Warrior who one may argue could be considered a Paladin, the sneaky Rogue, which played more like a Ranger and the physically weak but magically powerful Sorcerer. Your quest in the game is simple: journey beneath the town's cathedral and vanquish the evil that lurks within, some 16 levels deep. While you have your basic equipment to begin, you'll soon acquire more and more powerful weapons and equipment as you venture downwards into the bowels of hell itself.

Before I lost my CD version I replayed Diablo a number of times. The dungeons were partly randomly generated lending itself to some level of re-playability and you never found the same equipment (apart from the quest-reward gear) twice. As the game was not available on a digital storefront, I attempted to install an imaged disk version of the game early in the Windows 7 lifecycle but I was unsuccessful and didn't spent do much time working at it. However when GOG surprisingly released Diablo in March 2019 it answered the prayers of those who longed to play it again or certainly, for the first time.

I finally installed the GOG version of Diablo to mark it's 25th Anniversary and the rush of nostalgia was palpable. While it's not by any means a beautiful game when it's ancient graphics are displayed on a 4K screen, GOG's Direct-X implementation is quite satisfactory and flawlessly executed. The game is perfectly stable on Windows 10 and there wasn't a single hiccup in my playthrough. The new GOG launcher, which can be initiated through GOG Galaxy allows a few options, one of which can display the game in all it's original VGA-era glory. I declined the offer favouring the (slightly) new sheen on an otherwise quarter-century-old video game. 

 

It took me just over 15 hours to complete but with short play sessions as alas, I was in danger of developing RSI if I played more than a level at a time. The controls for Diablo may the simplest of any video game but the constant left click is likely to reduce your mouse's lifespan if not your finger's. Nevertheless the pros outweigh the cons and it was enjoyable to look back at and re-experience one of the most famous RPGs of all time. I would recommend anyone so inclined to relive the adventure as I have.

Diablo (bundled with it's Hellfire expansion) is only available on GOG for €8.89 but has a 15 or 20% discount in frequent sales.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Retro Review - Half-Life: Blue Shift [2001]

20 years ago Half-Life: Opposing Force developers Gearbox created what was known as "Half-Life: Guard Duty" as exclusive extra content for the Sega Dreamcast port which was due to be released in 2001. However when Sega pulled the plug on the console and it was then abandoned by all major publishers, including Half-Life publishers Sierra, Valve decided to release Guard Duty as a stand-alone expansion to Half-Life as with Opposing Force. Expectations were understandably high for the newly dubbed Half-Life: Blue Shift as in 1999 Opposing Force had been the first expansion pack to be nominated for PC Gamer's Game of the Year. Sadly these lofty expectations were not met and it was neither received well by critics or the fans.

I hadn't played Blue Shift since the PC:CD-ROM era, so over the holidays I decided to take the Steam version for a spin in honour of it's 20th anniversary as I did for Opposing Force. As with the earlier expansion, Blue Shift now takes advantage of the Half-Life High Definition Pack which contains the high polygon and retextured assets developed for the Dreamcast but have since been added to the original Half-Life games on Steam over the years through patches and updates. Although they were added in 2005, I had not played it with the HD assets before so it was great to see the enhancements do the same for the game that they had done for Half-Life and Opposing Force.

Blue Shift itself is extremely short with less than 3.5 hours of game play. This is understandable when you understand that it was designed to fit on a Dreamcast disc along with the entirety of Half-Life as well. However for a full-price expansion pack to last just this long irked many reviewers and fans in 2001. It further disappointed with less weapons in the arsenal and limited to enemy types than were only seen in the original game. Blue Shift has an insignificant plot and sadly the game overall offered none of the innovation that was introduced in Opposing Force some two years previous. 

While Marine Corporal Shephard's story in Opposing Force was an amazing parallel story to scientist Gordon Freeman's adventures in the original game; in Blue Shift you're just security guard Barney Calhoun simply plodding your own way through Black Mesa. The story is again parallel to both Shepard and Freeman and evokes some moments of nostalgia as you briefly see Gordon himself and hear Shephard being mentioned over the radio but unlike those iconic heroes you're not trying to stop anything world-ending, you're just trying to escape and that's just not a great driving narrative for a game whose progenitors were some of the best story-driven FPS games in their day.

Half-Life Blue Shift's only real saving grace is that it's familiar and slightly scratched the itch for fans of Half-Life for... more Half-Life. There is precious little in the expansion for anyone other than a fan of the earlier entries. There is sadly no innovation over the original game so it may actually benefit one to play it between Half-Life and Half-Life Opposing Force as the latter features advancements in both game mechanics, enemy types, weapons and story over the original game that Blue Shift just does not use. Due to the limitations Gearbox were under it makes sense to us now that Blue Shift could only use the assets from Half-Life (the game on the Dreamcast disc) and nothing from Opposing Force but as these limitations weren't made clear in 2001 to it's PC audience the reception was understandably frosty.

On a modern Win 10 system with SSD storage and a fibre connection, Half-Life Blue Shift will download and install in less than 60 seconds. There was a mouse issue which is fixed by setting 'Accept Raw Input' in the Mouse Settings. There were no install issues, pauses or crashes and it ran within 3 seconds after execution. 4K resolution is accepted but there is no HUD scaling (nor did I seek any 3rd party modifications) so one needs to drop resolution to a level where you can read the HUD and text. As with all Valve games Half-Life Blue Shift is only available now through Steam for €3.99. While this is genuinely acceptable for the sublime Half-Life Opposing Force, I absolutely do not recommend Blue Shift at this price point. I got it for 0.79c on sale and you can wait for this too.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Rest in Peace my friend

 

 
Today the family and friends of one of my own dear friends gathered to say goodbye to him. While he peacefully passed away on the 4th of the month, it seemed so surreal to me that it's really only now I can acknowledge it. While he was added to the UK's Covid-19 statistics he will never be a statistic for me, he was a good friend and his name was James Dutton.
 
While his physical form is gone, James will for me, forever be a collection of fond memories that began on September 3rd 1997 when we started working together in our early 20s. He was a fan of both Star Wars and Star Trek, loved the music of Hans Zimmer and acknowledged Michael Bay as the greatest director of the time; so naturally we were instantly friends. For the next few years James instructed me on the finer points of Dungeons & Dragons which we played with friends and he would often come to my house to play LAN games of Quake, Unreal Tournament and StarCraft. While I always maintained we were evenly matched, James would hold his chin and go "hmmm!?" whenever I mentioned it, but I now freely admit to never being able to beat his Sithlord at Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight (even when I modded my character to have two lightsabers).
 
James was a fiercely loyal friend who never denied a favour or failed to offer advice. To those who didn't know him well he presented as a quintessentially polite British gentleman from a BBC period drama. Once you knew him better, you'd discover his sharp wit and experience an endless supply of colourful insults - many in different languages. He would often speak about topics covering business, law, economics, finance and politics - sometimes within the same conversation - and he would not be dissuaded from an opinion he held dearly.
 
While he left Ireland to return to live in South Yorkshire in the early 2000's, the magic of social media allowed us to keep in touch after text messaging became passé and James often posted here as the Sith Apologist I will miss his honest takes on the news of the day, his amusing yet often blasphemous (to me) Star Wars memes and most prominently our general banter.
 
Goodbye old friend, you're one with the force and you'll never be forgotten as I'll always remember you especially every time I 'Roll a 20'.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

RIP Hector Garrido

I had heard the name Hector Garrido but I didn't know much about him other than his work. He was an Argentinian artist who immigrated to the U.S. and began working professionally in the 1950s. While he did a lot of book covers for the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels among others and plates for the Bradford Exchange he will be forever immortalised as one of the people who brought G.I.Joe: A Real American Hero to life by creating the artwork that accompanied each action figure.

Because Palitoy, owners of the distribution licence for G.I.Joe toys under the Action Force name had a marketing design team bereft of any talent whatsoever, it would not be until they ceded market control to Hasbro before we began to see the proper artwork (and Larry Hama's filecards) printed on Action Force in the EU.


In many cases the artwork was a key factor in deciding which character to buy next. This may often have been the incorrect decision because Garrido's artwork could sometimes illustrate a toy in a much better light than what was rendered in plastic. But the images nonetheless are just as clear in my mind now over 30 years later as when I was playing with them.

Garrido retired some 20 years ago and it was announced yesterday that he passed away on Sunday last at 92. Rest in peace Mr. Garrido, and thank you.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Replay Review: Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy Remastered (2005)(2015)

Note: The original game was either Indigo Prophecy (U.S.) or Fahrenheit (other territories) and released in 2005 by Quantic Dream. In 2015 Aspyr released an uncensored Remaster with UHD resolution support and HD textures. The latter version is reviewed here.


Despite Quantic Dream being a french production house I played this when it was released originally in 2005. I found it a very unique experience; interesting premise, quick-time-event (QTE) gameplay and had the production quality of a movie with it's camera views and angles, high quality voice acting and Hollywood class score delivered by Angelo Twin Peaks Badalamenti. While I thought the story was interesting, I'll admit a lot of the gameplay wasn't great. Still I thoroughly enjoyed it, and both the game as a whole as well as creator David Cage were nominated for Whopper Awards that year.

I had been looking forward to playing Fahrenheit again with this "remaster" after picking it up on sale and got that chance recently and took it to mark the game's 15th anniversary this year. Sadly this took a bit of determination to get working; The game won't launch as normal, it will sit there with a blank screen after the logo. To get around this you have to either ALT+TAB to the separate error console and 'IGNORE' the call stack error messages or press Return during the blank screen period which 'hopefully' launches the game. When first launching you choose your language - In my case English. When you get around the first issue, the game launches in french. You have to google translate the screens to create a profile to verify what it is you're doing which is fairly obvious, but still... The game will likely crash when you create a profile, so restart, select the selected profile and continue. You finally change the language to English in the in-game menu but it doesn't save this setting in the main menu - it will however save language in your game so say "Oui" to "Lodez Voux" or whatever the fuck you figure out the french is - I mean seriously!? Of all the fucking languages this could have been defaulted to!!!!


That launching bullshit pales in comparison to a corrupted save error. If your save is corrupted you  have to start again from scratch. The error translated message was "Loading failed! The backup you are trying to load is Corrupted" which I presume is a mistranslation of "Your savefile is corrupted." Thankfully this only happened once after less than 90 minutes, but if it had happened again I'd have given up. Steam discussions reveal the hoops one has to go through to get everything working, it's a bit more than one would expect for something released just 5 years ago, it would be more acceptable if you were trying to get the original DVD version running on a modern system. Aspyr were glad to listen and engage people who suffered from the errors, but seemed to be satisfied that people were able to workaround the launching problems and simply apologised to anyone who got a corrupted save as opposed to implementing a fix. No patch of any kind was ever issued. Certainly no goodwill earned by Aspyr either.

Anyway, EVENTUALLY it's working, it defaults to 4K and the graphics settings are as good as I can expect due to the age of the game regardless of the retexturing. Model polygon counts are unchanged. I couldn't change the settings other than volume of characters, SFX or music, language or difficulty level. Anything else resulted in a crash. I played on easy mode as my ol' reflexes and co-ordination are not what they were in my 20's and I was able to play away without any additional issues. 


You mainly play as one of three different characters at different points throughout the game. You are Lucas who finds himself being possessed and committing a gruesome murder in a New York diner restroom. You also play Carla and Tyler, the two detectives who are hot on Lucas' trail. This puts you in the unique position of investigating the murder you've 'done'. You elaborately hide clues only to 'find' them when playing as the cops! Later the game devolves from a gripping noir-ish serial-killer manhunt into esoteric concepts like the occult, ancient prophecies, saving a orphaned girl who is the only hope of saving the planet from the next ice-age, you know, regular stuff. So it sort of falls off the rails, but despite it's shortcomings it still engages.

At time of release, Quantic Dream had achieved success with developing The Nomad Soul for PC and Dreamcast published by Eidos and by all accounts they upped their game to create Fahrenheit for PC, PS2 and Xbox, published by Atari. Interviews with creator David Cage revealed he was influenced by the TV series 24 which often used multiple views of the same scene in order to see all the action. While the work of David Lynch as well as the movies Fight Club and Angel Heart had a major influence on the story. The impact of The Matrix on the fight choreography design is evident to anyone who has played.


Fahrenheit is still the thoroughly engaging game it was. It is very atmospheric, the music and score have a lot to do with setting the mood. The graphical enhancements and presentation in 4K are quite acceptable considering the game's age. You don't really have to shoot anything apart from one mini-game target-practice sequence, and it's not a point-and-click adventure. It's probably unlike most things you've ever played especially if you've never played the QTE-fest Shenmue. My favourite aspect though is how much like a movie it's presented, only here you get some control over the direction.

Quantic Dream have since achieved success with Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls and Detroit: Become Human and while originally developed exclusively for the Playstation 3/4, I'm looking forward to them being released on Steam later this year. 

 

There are three significant issues which can't be ignored. 1. The launching issues reveal that this remaster remains unpatched - so either Aspyr are unwilling or unable to fix the issues. 2. The QTE gameplay, I can understand why some people may find it frustrating, there are sequences you may have to try several times (the eagle-eyed military base guards got me) to get right. And 3. The story starts out fantastic and engaging, but descends into utter madness. That's why I can only recommend this when it's on sale for less than €2 which happens fairly frequently. 

Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy Remastered is available from Steam for €8.99 [DO NOT PAY THIS!] Humble Bundle €8.99, Fanatical for €8.99 [€1.79 at time of writing] or Green Man Gaming €8.99 [but just 59c at time of writing]. 
Alternatively, the original 2005 version (non-remastered) is available from GOG for €5.39

Monday, April 06, 2020

Covid-19 Emergency Instruction - Quick Cut T-shirt Mask

 

The US Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools have issued this instruction showing a no-sew skivvy shirt facemask. It may also be useful for civilians to use on your own shirts if necessary at this time.

Remain at home.

Major General "Whopper" Creedon, April 6th 2020

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Classic Review: Call of Duty [2003]



In January 2002, the developers of EA's Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, 2015, Inc brought the franchise which had achieved success on console to it's true representation on the PC. It won awards and accolades and established EA Game's position in the forefront of World War II shooters. Then EA for some unknown reason took development of further MOH games in-house and so 2015, who had already begun thinking about MOH:AA's sequel were left high and dry. That didn't last long because long-time EA rivals Activision had their iron sights set on stealing EA's WWII crown and they did it by hiring all the displaced 2015 developers who had reformed into Infinity Ward and putting them to work on what would become a new franchise: Call Of Duty.

In October 2003, Infinity Ward produced a game somewhat similar to, but different in several ways to MOH:AA. Graphically it was slightly better as the developers had already become familiar with the idTech3 engine on MOH:AA so they had a superior understanding before beginning work on COD and even built IW Tech 2.0 a version of idTech 3 with a skeletal animation system. The campaign was from the viewpoints of three different soldiers, an American, a British and a Russian soldier who were all pretty green but the core of the gameplay in COD emphasised that the player, spent most of the time with A.I. team-mates who support the player and helped the immersion and the realism of the situation in difference to the common one-man-army approach winning WWII mostly by yourself. 


Including being part of a squad, the game embraces more realistic elements, so one can't bring 10 or more weapons into battle. You get two main weapons, likely a rifle or sub-machine gun together with a machine gun or a scoped rifle, a sidearm with grenades and that's it. As the levels tend to be long, one often runs out of ammunition before the end and you do well to learn to pick up and use the weapons of the Germans you kill, or you may need a different weapon than the one you have so you'll have to drop one to pick it up, a trade up which you may often second-guess. The weapon damage modelling was considerably better applied than in MOH:AA insofar as one wouldn't need to practically empty an entire sub-machine gun clip into a Nazi as was necessary in the older game.

Infinity Ward crafted a very cinematically-framed experience as this was now more possible to do dynamically, rather than predetermined scripted sequences. One could show several dozen moving characters on screen at once now, especially during the harrowing Battle of Stalingrad [pictured below], which rivals MOH:AA's Omaha Beach landing for intensity. Shooting is the core and following the compass is essential but the mission types have some variance, so every now and again you may be in a support role with a machine gun, clearing out bunkers with grenades or be the sniper taking out enemies before they have a chance to kill your allies. The British and U.S. campaigns feature on-rails levels where you're shooting your Thompson while leaning out a car window, or firing a Bren Gun from the back of a lorry, but the Soviet campaign gives you command of a tank, and you get to do both the driving and shooting, much more fun. 


Activision threw considerable resources into acquiring significant voice talent for Call of Duty. Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan) Earl Boen (Dr. Silberman in The Terminator franchise) Micheal Bell (G.I.Joe) Nick Jameson (24) Michael Gough (Diablo II & III) Neil Ross (Mass Effect, Transformers) and Steve Blum (Star Wars: Rebels) all lent their voices, and even Jason Statham, yes that Jason Statham was roped in as Sergeant Waters of the SAS - who spent much of his time yelling at you. Composer Michael Giacchino who who would later go on to compose scores for both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, had earlier provided the exceptional score to the Medal of Honor games. He was enlisted by Activision to out do his earlier work and while he did succeed in delivering a suitably brilliant and unique score, in my opinion the music for Medal of Honor remains superior.

The only aspect that COD was genuinely criticised for really was the fact that the campaign's total length was about 6 hours in comparison to the 8 or 9 hours required for Medal Of Honor: Allied Assault even though the game concentrated it's development squarely on the campaign rather than the multi-player. However, in time gamers would soon come to terms with the shorter length of single player FPS campaigns further into the decade and upon replaying, it seems a normal length today. 

 

It's worth noting that while Medal of Honor evoked Saving Private Ryan and Return to Castle Wolfenstein nodded to Where Eagles Dare, Call of Duty pays homage to... well almost everything else. A Bridge Too Far, Enemy at the Gates and even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was referenced to name but a few. In fact it would become a staple point of the COD franchise going forward to pay homage to a notable cinematic movie sequence or two in every subsequent entry in the franchise, always resulting in a better experience than trying to play an "official" movie-tie in game.

Call of Duty itself still holds up to this day and I do prefer it to Medal of Honor. While technically and graphically inferior to all modern engines and representations of WWII now of course, it still provides the player with a cinematic experience of being part of a U.S., British or Russian squad as you and your allies proceed to take back German occupied land, destroy their weapons, defences and other infrastructure and of course kill hundreds of Nazi's which I'll admit, never gets old.


Since 2002, the Medal of Honor franchise saw more titles released by EA each year, usually either exclusive to one platform or another, with varying degrees of commercial success until 2007. In 2010 they attempted to modernise the series away from WWII as Activision had done by then, but this was successful for only a single game, as it's sequel in 2012 was enough to put Medal of Honor on ice indefinitely. Activision have released a new Call of Duty game every year without fail since 2005. All ten Call of Duty games released between 2010 and 2019 occupy a place in the top-20 highest selling games list in the U.S. It was nice to go back and see where the ideas that would define the franchise take form for the first time.

Call of Duty is available from Steam for €19.99 which for a 17 year old game is fucking ridiculous. This is the worst thing I've personally experienced with Activision - while the game certainly was worth the full price in 2003, today most 17 year old games are under €5* when on sale but the pricing of Call of Duty franchise, even when the maximum 50% off remains premium and thus prohibitive to this day.

*Steam full price today of example games released in 2003: Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy / Knights of the Old Republic (€8.19), Deus Ex: Invisible War (€6.99), Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (€9.99), Rainbow Six 3: Gold Edition (€4.99)