Monday, August 12, 2019

First Play Review - Assassin's Creed [2007]

My first experience with Assassin's Creed was in fact on a console. I had the opportunity to see it in action on a Playstation 3 at Christmas in 2007. What struck me initially was the scope - Ubisoft recreated, from historical maps and records, what Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem existed as near the end 12th century. They were vibrant, populous cities, teaming with life, both benign and hostile and the game blended stealth, investigation, assassination and parkour to play in them. While I was aware that the game's inception was from ideas for a new Prince of Persia, I was intrigued by the fact that one of the chief designers modelled the protagonist's look and skills on the early representation of G.I.Joe's Storm Shadow. I knew when the opportunity arose to play it properly on a real machine a dozen years later I had to take it.

It was a good move, Ubisoft enhanced the version to be released for the PC some months after it debuted on consoles providing more content and combined with today's hardware it ran flawlessly. History reflects that when released first, levels took about up to 5 minutes to load and there was significant framerate drop in crowded scenes. Fast forward twelve years and Assassin's Creed can be properly enjoyed as it never drops below 60FPS, even with over a hundred people on screen and it takes mere seconds to load each city now.

 You play a character called Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, a member of the Assassin's Brotherhood based in Syria in 1191 but you're really playing Desmond Miles, Altaïr's descendent and a near-future New York bartender who is reliving Altaïr's genetic memory through a device called The Animus. OK that last part is a descent into bollox but while it's the story, it had precious little to do with the gameplay. It can be likened to a confusing version of The Matrix, but what little we see of "The Future" or the "real world" is nothing more than a framing story that apparently links the franchise together - as the meat of the franchise takes place in many different time periods - and for Assassin's Creed the real game is centred primarily in the Holy Land in the 12th Century.

As Altaïr you are tasked with nine assassinations, which doesn't sound like a lot of people to kill for a video game and indeed it can take only mere seconds or a minute or two to actually eliminate them - but finding them and preparing for the assassination can take hours. One must investigate the areas, represented by the icon filled maps that Ubisoft has really grown to love, and only by securing your exfiltration route by pre-preparing the areas means getting to your target and just as importantly, getting away intact, is 90% of the game. If this sounds like pacifying outposts in Far Cry games then yes, this is pretty much the same idea. Ubisoft are nothing if not consistent and much like outposts, the investigations themselves get a bit repetitive the third or fourth time.

The learning curve is short and the game has a very unique control system. It's possibly more suited to a controller - if you can use one of those bloody things - but if you have a gaming mouse with a few extra buttons it will stand to you. You control Altaïr pretty much like puppeteers marionette as you need keys or buttons bound to eyes, feet and hands. It feels very strange at first but the tutorials are good enough to get you free running over rooftops and eliminating sentries before long. Altaïr can blend in a crowd and take in the the sights and sounds of the cities but he must also climb to the highest towers and rooftops to reveal new points of interest for his investigations.

Melee combat is what you eventually won't avoid for long and it can be quite finicky to get it to work but Altaïr can be a great swordsman once you get your training and practice in. You have a sword, a shortsword, my favourite: the Hidden Blade and even some lethal throwing knives which represent the only ranged combat you'll engage in here. Your best defence however is to just run because the longer you are fighting, the more attention you'll draw and you could eventually be overwhelmed. Altaïr is swift and nimble but needs you controlling his jumps so you can get him to a hiding spot before his enemies catch him.

Some of the games highlights, other than the varied final assassinations are scaling vantage points in the cities to reveal new map areas and looking below to see dozens if not hundreds of people going about their business. You will occasionally come across a Templar knight, they are quite unhappy to encounter you as evidenced by the fact that they will draw their blade and attack you on the spot and until you learn how to fight them, they can be dangerous foes (Pro Tip: Approach from above or behind). They're all mostly french, so are fair game and they shout french obscenities at you which remind me more of John Cleese in Monty Python and The Holy Grail than anything. But I think the most exciting part of the game is when you eventually have to cut and run; you've been discovered, the bells are being rung in alarm, citizens are screaming and running in panic, the music has ramped up in tempo and every guard in the city is after you, yelling  in their native tongue. Eventually, you're so skilled you probably could fight them all, but it would take hours, running is the better and more exciting option - until you fall - so don't fall!

Overall Assassin's Creed is a pretty unique game and a welcome change from a deluge of RPG or FPS games, the parkour mechanics deliver a fresh and unique movement system though controls are a little finicky but you'll get used to them. Some of it's elements are pretty repetitive and suffer from common Ubisoft tropes that you well may be used to/sick of by now and sadly the very end of game degenerates into pure combat rather than assassination as it had been up to that point but obviously set it up for it's many, many sequels. The game is graphically "grand" for a 12 year old title and runs as good as it could ever today. It's an awesome historically-contextualised representation of the 12th Century Holy Land which makes a nice change from a high fantasy world of strange magics and creatures or a sci-fi planet with a dozen moons and belligerent aliens.

Assassin's Creed can be found for as little as €3.39 during sales for UPlay, GOG and Steam.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Retro Review - Half-Life: Opposing Force [1999]

Modern gamers, younger modern gamers that is, are only used to DLC which serves to extend a main game with extra levels for multiplayer or a few extra hours of content for single-player. They will never know the thrill of waiting 8-12 months after the release of a 'main' title, to pick up a so-called 'expansion pack' from store in a box with a CD-ROM/Floppy disks for a few more hours of fun likely with some extra enhancements for the main title. Some of the greats from the 1990's were Defender of the Empire for Star Wars: Tie-Fighter, Tales of the Sword Coast for Baldur's Gate, Mysteries of the Sith for Star Wars - Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight and The Plutonium Pack for Duke Nukem 3D, but none of them came as close to being the sublime masterpiece that was Half-Life: Opposing Force.

While Valve's 1998 breakout game Half-Life, one of the most significant video game events of the late 1990's actually did live up to it's massive hype, as would it's sequel years later, the task of creating it's inevitable expansion pack was outsourced to the fledgling studio Gearbox, who would go on to make their own name much later with the Borderlands series. Gearbox took the engine and assets from Half-Life and skilfully created, a practically new game that while similar in many ways to Half-Life, was different enough to become it's own thing.

Opposing Force casts you as Corporal Adrian Shepard one of the U.S. Marine Hazardous Environment Combat Unit antagonists of the original game. Only from your perspective now of course, you are a protagonist, oblivious for a while as to your true purpose in Black Mesa but it's handled with some pretty logical storytelling without either interfering with Half-Life's main story or casting you as 'the bad guy'.

Now in addition to the denizens of Black Mesa from Half-Life like scientists and security guards, you encounter invading Xen aliens (you kill them), Race-X a separate alien race who will attack you or Xen aliens indiscriminately (so kill them too) and Black-Ops soldiers who are there to silence Black Mesa personnel, any variety of alien they encounter while doing it and have no issue about shooting you on sight too (so kill them). In fact the only people in this game that you don't shoot are your fellow Marines who are there to provide assistance. You get fire support from the Machine Gunner, a shot of health from a Corpsman and an Engineer is sometimes needed to open an otherwise inaccessible door. Now these were not the same class of AI teammates as in Rainbow Six or Hidden and Dangerous at the time, as they basically charged into battle with reckless abandon without using either common sense or cover but they would serve to add some character to the world and remind you you weren't entirely alone on this crazy mission and if nothing else they all dropped much welcomed weapons when they were taken out.

As for weapons, Half-Life had a fantastic arsenal but I always found it daft that a bespectacled research scientist Gordon Freeman seemingly was able to pick up any military grade weapon and instinctively know how to load and use it with precision accuracy. Opposing Force has a much better excuse for this as you're a Marine, so it's kind of your bag to be able to use the weapons (they even train you in the prologue) - and you get plenty of cool modern military, cutting edge science and of course liberated weird alien weapons to eliminate the obstacles in your way that would prefer you not to escape Black Mesa.

At the time of it's release in November 1999 Opposing Force was a pretty big deal as far as expansion packs went. In 2000 the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences gave it Computer Game of the Year Interactive Achievement Award. PC Gamer dubbed it "Best Expansion Pack" and nominated it as 1999's overall best game of the year (although it lost to Homeworld), they wrote that Opposing Force "makes history by becoming the first expansion pack to be considered for Game of the Year. Yes, it really is that good."


Opposing Force is as dated as Half-Life looks today but thanks to HD texture packs it looks slightly better than it did back then, which was graphically on par with Quake II or Jedi Knight. While nowhere near up to Lucasarts level design in comparison, Gearbox copied Valve's design play-book and did just as good a job as Valve originally did. It's pretty much as linear as they come, but does a good job of masking that by interposing large cavernous areas reached by funnelling you down narrow corridors or vent shafts. In my option it's gameplay is solid enough to warrant sparing a mere 6 or 7 hours to go and relive the glory days from 20 years ago.  

On a modern Win 10 system with SSD storage and a fibre connection, Opposing Force will download and install in about a minute and a half. I report no configuration or initialisation issues, pauses or crashes and it ran within 4 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.

The only faults I had with Opposing Force today, are pretty much the same ones I had 20 years ago. Gearbox had clearly no military advisor nor apparently anyone close to the production who was related to anyone in the Marine Corps. I'm thinking they probably watched Full Metal Jacket or An Officer and a Gentlemen a couple of times and shoved in their own idea of a drill instructor from that who jarringly referred to Marines as "soldiers" all the way through the training levels. The word "soldier" was repeated about 40 times and I gritted my teeth every time I heard it. Of course they do other little things like calling the Corpsman a "Medic", but that's a standard Hollywood mistake too. There was a HD texture pack released between Opposing Force and the second Half-Life expansion pack Half-Life: Blue Shift that did include some SFX alterations and I hoped they would correct at least the drill instructor's offending dialogue, but sadly no, that itself creates a new issue of using 9mm ammo in an M4! So it's just a case of doing what the DI says and "Suck it up!" At the end of the day I guess it's an issue that only really annoys those who wear the uniform.

Note: The original CD-ROM version of Opposing Force required the original Half-Life disk to authenticate - but the Steam version is treated as a stand-alone expansion and does not require the original Half-Life to be in your game library. The team version will automatically load the HD texture pack.

Half-Life: Opposing Force is only available from Steam for €3.99 but can be found in some sales for just €0.79.

Monday, January 07, 2019

RIP W. Morgan Sheppard

William Morgan Sheppard was a British actor and a permanent fixture on TV and movies from 1983 to 2012.

Among his credits were General Trimble in Gettysburg & Gods and Generals, Captain Archibald Witwicky in Michael Bay's Transformers and several credits in the Star Trek franchise where he appeared in Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek [2009], as Dr. Ira Graves in Star Trek: The Next Generation [pictured] and the Prison Warden in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Other fans will note him as Professor Martinson in SeaQuest DSV, The Soul Hunter in Babylon 5, from an appearance in Dr. Who or his voice of Dum Dum Dugan in the Iron man animated series. He was also the narrator for the Medal of Honor video game series and Civilisation V.

Sheppard passed away Jan 6th in Los Angles, he was 86. He is survived by his son, actor Mark Sheppard (Warehouse 13, Dr. Who, Supernatural, Lampkin in Battlestar Galactica).

Friday, January 04, 2019

First Play Review: Crysis Warhead

As I recently replayed Crysis, I decided it was time to try out Crysis Warhead for the first time. Crysis Warhead was a standalone expansion for the original Crysis that was released in 2008, a year after Crysis itself. It's purpose was not so much to extend the Crysis story but to enhance it by showing you the same story from a different perspective as well as address some of the critical concerns with the game.

Firstly, as this is not a sequel, but an expansion, one must never expect too much by way of evolution to the game engine or its features. Crysis Warhead delivers much the same experience in terms of gameplay and features as Crysis with a few additions in the form of some new weapons to play with, some new vehicles and a couple of new alien types but nothing so overt as to break the immersion that this is basically the same time-frame as the parent game just experienced differently. The Nanosuit, Crysis' main 'gimmick' is still as awesome as ever, so once you remaster it's settings and controls you'll have few issues with the game.

The game engine is the same, but according to the developers at the time, it went under some significant optimisation to address most reviewers concerns about needing an impossibly specced PC to run it. I can't say it runs any differently to Crysis as far as I'm concerned, I still kept the resolution at 2K (1440p) as 4K was too much for my GPU to render Crysis at so I presumed there would be no change. I did notice a better use of volumetric smoke for smoke grenades, but lighting, shadows and reflections were as awesome as before.

Playing a different part of the game through the eyes of another is not new. Valve in fact did this with great results by releasing Half-Life: Opposing Force and Half-Life: Blue Shift where you played from the perspective of one of the Marines sent to Black Mesa or Barney, one of Black Mesa's security guards respectively. In Crysis Warhead you play as Sgt. "Psycho" Sykes, one of your player character (Nomad)'s team mates from Crysis, and you now follow Psycho's adventures on "the other side" of the island to Nomad and you fill in some of the blanks left by Crysis - such as the big obvious one where at the end of Crysis, Psycho is on the flight deck of the USS Constitution with his captured an alien! Little things like that.

Psycho is voiced by Sean Chapman (whom movie buffs will know as the guy who first opened the Hellraiser puzzle box) and his East-end of London accent is as thick as Jason Statham's. While the original score to Crysis was produced by veteran video-game Israeli composer Inon Zur, for Warhead, Crytek enlisted Peter Antovszki who would go on to compose music for Sudden Strike IV, Ryse: Son of Rome and subsequent Crysis games. His score here certainly seems more intrusive than Zur's and it probably overuses the Japanese takio drum a bit but it's still excellent and I think fits the pace of this game more than reusing Zur's sore would have.

Much of the story is told through 3rd person perspective movie-style cutscenes. This serves to flesh out the character of Psycho to a far greater degree than Nomad's character ever way and even you eventually feel more connected to Psycho. There is a cinematic quality here that would not be lost in a Michael Bay movie and this quality actually works much better even though Psycho's 'choices' in the cutscene are taken away from you; but even this accepted as this is not a free-open-world RPG though, this is a linear shooter, although you don't feel as confined as in liner shooters such as Half-Life.


The pace of Warhead is quite different from Crysis. The original game had long periods of wandering though the jungle or alien ships where you weren't shooting, but Warhead has you in a firefight almost every 60 seconds. It's possible to be evading a group of pursuing enemies and running into another group. There's not a great deal of taking in the scenery - as here the scenery is pretty much identical to Crysis, I guess Crytek assumed you already did your sightseeing there, and they were right. Now is the time for shooting!

All in all this is a fun diversion that expands the Crysis saga by about 5 hours and gives you some new toys to play with in Crytek's world while you kill North Koreans or Aliens.

Crysis Warhead is strangely €19.99 on GOG, but much cheaper on Steam for €9.99, or on Origin for €7.99 , but as always watch out for frequent sales and bundles as this is now over 10 years old and no reason to not get it when it's below €5.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Retro Review: DOOM

As in December 1993, id Software released DOOM the public, I felt it was fitting that it would be the final game I would play in 2018, 25 years later. Now I actually never played DOOM on my own PC instead ever only experiencing it on someone else's machines, nor had I ever intended to go back and replay DOOM because I knew it was just too old and primitive in comparison to what's available now. However, a recent too-cheap-to-pass-up offer on gave me DOOM 3 along with Win10 compatible versions of both "Ultimate Doom" and "DOOM2: Hell on Earth", so I thought 'what the HELL'!

DOOM is one of the most written about an analysed video games in history, and I'm not going to spend hours explaining the cultural impact and worldwide phenomena that it was but I will just state the four things I credit the game with; DOOM was (1) responsible for truly establishing the IBM-compatible PC as a gaming platform to rival any console or arcade game, (2) what gave the rise of multiplayer over a network, (3) the game that brought the idea of game modification and home-made level design to the masses and of course (4) the game that established the first person shooter as one of the most successful video game genres of all time.

It was easily 23 years since I played DOOM and as soon as my 4K screen began rendering the pixillated environments it was like going back in time, memories of past battles against the forces of evil, the inability to reload, jump or look up or down and the way sprites always faced you. To be honest, the graphics were not as awful as I expected them to be, I had nothing extra installed to enhance them (as I did with my Dark Forces replay earlier in the year) so I'm assuming that there was some enhancements to Ultimate Doom that came out in 1995 that made things less jarring.

I recall may times during the more intense battles that my friends 486DX66 (the pinnacle of tech for the day) would sometimes begin slowing up if there was many enemies on screen - it was this observed event that was always on my mind when designing new systems to prompt me to achieve technical superiority over any game I intended to play. I would have been somewhat shocked if I encountered such slowdown on a contemporary machine today but naturally that didn't happen, in fact I did notice that DOOM was using far less CPU and RAM resources while being played than the idle web browser I had on in the background!

John Carmack's id-Tech 1 engine could not have sloping surfaces, nor could it render space above space (there was no rooms over rooms) so it wasn't a true 3D environment. It is instead considered 2.5D, which employed visual trickery to give the impression of 3D. Because of the limitations, the level design is elementary and block oriented but promoted exploration and considered by video-game historians to be art. Much of it was conceived by designer John Romero and back in the day, and the desire to find all a level's secret areas led to significant replayability. 

DOOM is famously lacking in the narrative department, but from the original game manual - you are a Space Marine who is set to the UAC's hazardous waste facility on Mars (punishment duty after assaulting a superior officer). The military is conducting secret teleportation experiments which naturally open up a gateway to hell and it's inhabitants come through. It's obviously your job to stop them because (1) everyone else has been killed (2) you're armed and (3) it's fun!

Now as much as I love the chainsaw (never begging the question why are there chainsaws on Mars?) my favourite weapon was the Plasma Rifle, shooting balls of blue er.. plasma at demon spawn, and it worked well. The chain-gun was a far better use of all the pistol ammo you picked up as you explored and of course you used the BFG9000 when you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room.

Back in 1993, the use of the arrow keys, and CTRL to fire was the normal way of playing, but Ultimate DOOM had mapped WASD, Mouselook a more modern control set allowing for greater freedom of movement. It became quickly apparent that playing the game with the modern controls as well as superior tactical knowledge of playing FPS games of the intervening decades furnished me with a level of skill far in excess of what would have been the average back in 1993, allowing me to complete the entire game in under 4 hours. Caveat: I did not complete the episode "Thy Flesh Consumed" as that was not part of the original DOOM game and from all accounts it's level design is "too weird" even for DOOM.

All in all, a worthwhile, nostalgia filled experience that I recommend to anyone who enjoys not only FPSs but video gaming in general. It good to acknowledge and remember from where we came from and indeed how far we've evolved.

Ultimate DOOM is available as a stand-alone product from GOG and Steam for about €5 but frequently discounted for about €1.60. 
Alternatively the DOOM 3: BFG Edition bundles DOOM 3, DOOM II and Ultimate DOOM for €19.99 on GOG and Steam, but again, frequently discounted for about €8.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Happy New Year

In memoriam, 2018

Let us remember those we lost in 2018:

Paul Allen, 65, American businessman and co-founder of Microsoft.
Stanley Anderson, 78, American actor who played the President in both "The Rock" and "Armageddon".
Kofi Annan, 80, Ghanaian diplomat, Secretary-General of the United Nations (1997–2006), Nobel Prize laureate (2001).
Captain Alan LaVern Bean, USN Ret., 86, American naval officer, naval aviator, aeronautical engineer, test pilot, and NASA astronaut. The the fourth person to walk on the Moon.
Ken Berry, 85, American actor, "F Troop".
David Bischoff, 66, American novelist and television writer "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episodes "Tin Man" and "First Contact".
Steven Bochco, 74, 10-time Emmy winning American television producer and writer "Hill Street Blues", "L.A. Law", "NYPD Blue".
Anthony Bourdain, 61, Four time Emmy winning American chef, author and television host
Jim Bowen, 80, English television presenter and comedian, "Bullseye".
Peter Brace, 94, British actor and stuntman, "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "Batman", "Highlander" and Peter Mayhew's stunt double in "Star Wars".
Staff Sgt. Russell Brown, USA Ret., 96, 82nd Airborne Division. Made every combat jump during World War II.
Barbara Bush, 92, American political matriarch, First Lady (1989–1993) and Second Lady (1981–1989).
President George H. W. Bush, 94, American politician, President (1989–1993), Vice President (1981–1989), Director of Central Intelligence (1976–1977).
Montserrat Caballé, 85, Spanish opera singer, "Barcelona" w. Freddie Mercury.
Joseph Campanella, 93, American actor "Mannix", "Silent Running", "Meteor".
Frank Carlucci, 87, American politician, Secretary of Defense (1987–1989), National Security Advisor (1986–1987).
Bunny Carr, 91, Irish television presenter (Quicksilver).
Debbie Lee Carrington, 58, American actress and stunt woman "Return of the Jedi", "Total Recall".
Reg E. Cathey, 59, Emmy winning American actor "House of Cards", "Luke Cage".
Colonel Joseph Gordon Clemons, Jr. USA Ret., 90, American soldier, subject of "Pork Chop Hill".
A1C Adrian Cronauer, USAF Ret., 79, American disc jockey, subject of "Good Morning, Vietnam".

L-R: Professor Stephen Hawking, Margot Kidder, John Mahoney

Steve Ditko, 90, American comic book writer and artist "Spider-Man", "Doctor Strange"
Sir Ken Dodd, 90, English comedian.
Rear Admiral Alene Duerk, USN Ret., 98, American Navy admiral, first female admiral in U.S.Navy.
John M. Dwyer, 83, Oscar/Emmy nominated American set decorator, "Star Trek", "Star Trek: The Next Generation" movies "Star Trek IV, V, Generations, First Contact, Insurrection" and "Nemesis".
Ssgt. (Hon GnySgt.) R. Lee Ermey, USMC Ret., 74, American drill  instructor and actor "Full Metal Jacket", "Toy Story"
Carlos Ezquerra, 70, Spanish comics artist,"Judge Dredd", "Strontium Dog"
Michael D. Ford, 90, Oscar winning English art director and set decorator "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "The Empire Strikes Back".
Miloš Forman, 86, Oscar winning Czech-American film director, "Amadeus".
Gary Friedrich, 75, American comic book writer, "Captain Marvel", "Iron Man" #45–46, co-creator of "Ghost Rider".
Aretha Franklin, 76, 18 time Grammy winning American Hall of Fame singer, "Respect"
William Goldman, 87, Oscar winning American author "The Princess Bride" and screenwriter "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid".
Leslie "Dirty Den" Grantham, 71, English actor "EastEnders" and convicted murderer.
Korvettenkapitän Reinhard Hardegen, 105, German U-boat commander (Battle of the Atlantic).
Stephen Hawking, 76, English theoretical physicist, professor (University of Cambridge) and writer "A Brief History of Time".
Brig. Gen. Anna Mae Hays, USA Ret., 97, American military officer and nurse, first female U.S. General.

L-R: Derrick O'Connor, Tim O'Connor, David Ogden Stiers

Tom Jago, 93, British liquor executive and distiller, creator of Baileys Irish Cream.
Jóhann Jóhannsson, 48, Icelandic film composer, "Arrival".
Mickey Jones, 76, American drummer and actor.
Ingvar Kamprad, 91, Swedish retail furniture-home design executive and philanthropist, founder of IKEA.
Gloria Katz, 76, American screenwriter and film producer, "American Graffiti", "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom", "Best Defense".
Margot Kidder, 69, Canadian-American actress, "Superman"
Richard H. Kline, 91, American cinematographer, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture".
Sonny Knowles, 86, Irish singer.
Charles Krauthammer, 68, Pulitzer Prize winning American political commentator (Fox News) and writer (The Washington Post).
Gary Kurtz, 78, American film producer, "American Graffiti", "Star Wars".
Stan Lee, 95, American comic book writer and publisher (Marvel Comics).
Sondra Locke, 74, American actress, "The Outlaw Josey Wales", "Sudden Impact".
John Mahoney, 77, English-American actor, "Frasier".
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, 81, South African anti-apartheid activist and politician, MP.
Al Matthews, 75, American actor, "Sgt. Apone" in "Aliens".
Bill Maynard, 89, English actor
Sen. John McCain, 81, American politician and Navy officer, member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Chuck McCann, 83, American voice actor, "G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero", "Iron Man".
Capt. Ernest Medina, USA Ret., 81, American army officer, commander of unit responsible for the My Lai Massacre.
Donald Moffat, 87, British-born American actor, "The Thing", "Clear and Present Danger", "License to Kill".
Derrick O'Connor, 77, Irish actor, "Lethal Weapon 2", "Daredevil".
Tim O'Connor, 90, American actor, "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century"
William O'Connor, 47, American artist, "Dungeons & Dragons", "Magic: The Gathering".
David Ogden Stiers, 75, American actor "M*A*S*H".

L-R: Soon-Tek Oh, Donnelly Rhodes, John Young

Soon-Tek Oh, 85, South Korean-American actor, "The Man with the Golden Gun", "Missing in Action 2", "Death Wish 4", "The Muta-Do" in "Babylon 5".
Dolores O'Riordan, 46, Irish singer and guitarist, "The Cranberries".
Richard Arvin Overton, 112, American super-centenarian, oldest living World War II veteran in U.S.
Roger Perry, 85, American actor "Star Trek" episode "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" as "Captain John Christopher".
Burt Reynolds, 82, Emmy winning American actor, "Smokey and the Bandit", "Boogie Nights".
Donnelly Rhodes, 80, Canadian actor, ""Doc" Cottle" in "Battlestar Galactica (2004)".
Robert Scheerer, 89, Emmy nominated American director, "Star Trek: The Next Generation", "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Voyager".
Frank Serafine, 65, American sound designer and editor, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", "Tron", "The Hunt for Red October".
Marie Severin, 89, American Hall of Fame comic book artist, "Iron Man"#82–83, 85 (inker), #108 (colorist), G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero" #28 (penciller), co-creator of Spider-Woman.
Jon Paul Steuer, 33, American actor "Alexander" in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Reunion".
Dudley Sutton, 85, British actor, "Lovejoy".
Verne Troyer, 49, American actor, "Austin Powers".
Dame June Whitfield, 93, English actress, "Terry and June".
Scott Wilson, 76, American actor, "The Walking Dead".
Celeste Yarnall, 74, American actress, "Yeoman Martha Landon" in the "Star Trek" episode "The Apple".
Capt John Young, USN Ret. 87, American astronaut (Apollo 16, STS-1).

May they rest in peace.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Classic Review: Splinter Cell

A friend of mine got an Xbox for Christmas in 2002 and much like most other consoles the majority of games were uninteresting or too simplistic in scope to interest a pure PC gamer. There was one however that I did find incredibly interesting to the point where I was wondering why it was on a mere console; this was Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell. This was the only Xbox game I had really heard of other than Halo: Combat Evolved because of the incredible ratings it got from every game critic, online score generator or review publication at the time. It's marketing and promotion worked but it wasn't until I saw it in action myself that I understood why.

I had knowledge of, but obviously never played a Metal Gear Solid game, but its influence was clear here; (and confirmed by Ubisoft in every interview) this was certainly a Western attempt to capture the essence of the spy/stealth genre while jettisoning what I term "the confusing Jap shit" in favour of a Tom Clancyesque "prevent WWIII" scenario. As popular as Metal Gear Solid and Hitman: Codename 47 were and as well as Deus Ex and Thief: The Dark Project were lauded for establishing the stealth genre and breaking it away from the faster paced 3D shooters, it was clear that there was enough room for something like Splinter Cell to carve out it's own segment of the market and find it's niche from it's day one success to it's many sequels.

I was able to acquire Splinter Cell itself in early 2003 once Ubisoft ported it from the Xbox - an advantage of this was of course that the Xbox was built on a Windows kernel and most of the internal components of the console were standard PC ones, so it wasn't as much of a stretch nor did it suffer from the 'normal' issues that porting games designed for a 'primitive' form of technology to the superior majesty of the PC imposed. Hyperion, my machine at the time sported a P4 2.2GHz processor and the GeForce 3 Ti500 GPU which meant Splinter Cell ran with a graphical fidelity far in excess of it's Xbox cousin. The lighting and shadows alone were key to the way one must play the game and the immersion in the world was easily the reason I spent some 40 hours in it the first time. 

But on to today, now, 15 years later I reinstalled Splinter Cell to see how well it held up. Uplay gave me the game for free in 2016 in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Ubisoft so I had no need to go fiddling around with the original installation CDs. Once the game was installed I proceed to follow the instructions outlined in this thread on Steam which enable most users to get the game running in the highest settings possible and for me, in 4K resolution!

My first (new) impression was that the game certainly did not look as good as this in 2002. Advances in technology in the intervening time meant that there was a HD remaster for a PS3 version and some enterprising individual packed it up as a 64bit texture upgrade patch into the PC - and of course running in 4K with FSAA it can surely look no better than it does now. In comparison to today's games it does look dated but one must remember that this was one of the first games to use Unreal Engine 2 which allowed both light and dark gameplay and thus it's leaps ahead of games that were only out a couple of years before it. 

It had been quite some time since I had been in any Splinter Cell game so it was great to hear veteran actor Michael Ironside as Sam Fisher grunt his way through the script as well as the acrobatic posturing I put his character through on my quest to save the world. Not being a bog standard 3D shooter, instead focussing on a 3rd person perspective meant that most of the controls involved making Sam Fisher, jump, climb, crouch, shimmy, rappel or a hold of other activities and it took me a few tries to create a proper control key scheme in order to successfully retrain my mind to embody the ex CIA, ex Navy S.E.A.L. turned NSA operative once again.

Despite his name adorning the cover, Tom Clancy had little or no input into Splinter Cell (or any of Ubisoft's Tom Clancy brand games) even before his death in 2013. Ubisoft simply bought a 'brand' to represent the techno-futuristic, quasi-militaristic, pro-US jingoism found in Clancy's writings and create game worlds based these concepts. Needless to say the story on offer here is thin, involves a prelude to nuclear war and points to almost anyone with a Russian or Chinese accent as the bad guy, but your true enemy here is of course, light!

Splinter Cell was hard then, and it still is. You can't play it as a shooter because you literally never have enough ammunition to do so. You do have enough ammo to fire a few bullets into the individuals you're allowed to kill, but knocking them out is often worth the 15/20 minutes it takes you to get into a position to do so. You would do much better if you use what ammo you have to shoot security cameras and lightbulbs to remain hidden and undetected. If you raise any alarm and you're not hidden, you're likely to be shot at and you can only take about four hits before you're dead, so the game forces you into stealth, not like Deus Ex where it's a choice. It might not be everyone's cup of tea but it's the hallmark of the series, and if you don't do stealth than Splinter Cell or any of it's later iterations are not for you.

While the genre is stealth, the name of the game is espionage. Think of who you'd be if you're what would happen if you took away James Bond's tux, Jason Bourne's amnesia, if Jack Bauer followed orders and you were a ninja. The game creates tense situations were observation of searchlight patterns and guard's patrol routes and your timing between them is key to success. Sound plays a significant part because you my be relying on enemy footsteps to time your own movements and music will alert you to guard's alertness level. 

Don't underestimate the use of your own mind! Often puzzles are presented to you and there may be multiple ways of solving them. You are given objectives, such as find the server and collect the data, but no guidance on how you do it save a crude map and a picture of someone you're looking for. Exploration and your common sense are what you need to employ to get the job done in most situations. That said, don't confuse this with some latter day open world the-sky's-the-limit sandbox Ubisoft is known for today, this is even more linear than a standard 3D shooter and there's usually only a single available route to your objective, you just have some work to to to find it.

After 15 years I can say I remembered only the first couple of levels, breaking into the CIA HQ and an oil rig, but nothing about the rest of the game. I think that perhaps it's because the locations in Splinter Cell were pretty generic, office blocks, embassies, warehouses and the like in comparison to the later games in the series which put you in much more diverse weather environments and in different uniforms with more unique set-pieces like Chaos Theory's lighthouse. or Double Agent's Shanghai. Splinter Cell was the genesis for a franchise that spawned well received sequels with perhaps another on the way soon and cemented Ubisoft's Tom Clancy brand to continue indefinitely, and yes it still holds up today.

Splinter Cell is: €4.99 from  GOG, Ubi Store or Steam but found on sale on one or more of these platforms for €1.70 every few weeks.