Monday, October 03, 2022

First Play Review: Assassins Creed 2 [2010]

Note: The version reviewed is Assassin's Creed II: Digital Deluxe Edition

Assassins Creed II is a direct sequel to the original Assassins Creed. The modern day story of The Animus continues as does the struggle between the Templars and the Assassins. The Templars continue to seek "The Apple of Eden", a McGuffin which they intend to use to enslave the world, and the noble Assassins seek to protect it. The genetic memories being followed to lead the Assassins to victory however are now of new protagonist and his adventures in Renaissance Italy. Many of the elements return such as the hidden blade, rooftop parkour and blending into your surroundings to escape your foes.

It has been three years since my first step into the world of Assassin's Creed by enjoying the original game in one of Ubisoft's most famous franchises and I was itching to return to see for myself why the series had spawned almost a dozen sequels in just 15 years. During the summer Ubisoft announced that they would limit the functionality of some of their older games, including the retirement of multiplayer and servers used to deliver DLC on September 1st 2022. One such game would be Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, the third game in the franchise which I had not yet played. However, more pressing was that I hadn't yet played Assassins Creed II which preceded it. It was early July and the race was on.

Assassins Creed II picks up for Desmond Miles in the 'present day' pretty much when we left him at the end of Assassin's Creed. However after exhausting the immediate relevance of Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad's memories you now delve into the past of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a descendant of Altaïr some 300 years later and whom the modern-day Assassins believe will reveal the location of "The Apple" in 15th century Florence. Ezio is a completely different character to Altaïr which is a godsend as the latter was an uncharismatic and deathly serious compared to Ezio who quickly establishes himself as a lovable, womanizing rogue, yet fiercely loyal to his family. We learn more about him in the first 30 minutes than we are ever likely to know about Altaïr and it's easy to see why our new protagonist is considered the favourite of the series.

There are many additions and changes in Assassins Creed II. Ezio can heal his wounds, disarm foes in combat and is subject to a notoriety system which will have guards more alert to his antics. The main story is far more gripping than the original. It's structured differently and the gameplay missions are more varied now with multiple objectives that advance the plot as opposed to simply stalking and killing a target. Interestingly it also intersects with some more famous individuals one may remember from history class such as Pope Alexander IV, Lorenzo de Medici and your new best friend Leonardo da Vinci who creates some new equipment for you such as dual hidden-blades! In addition to the main story quests there are plenty of extras which range from mundane feather collecting to exciting assassination contracts. There are also Prince of Persia-esque puzzle-dungeons in which your accuracy and speed with acrobatics are considerably tested, rewarding you with the means to unlock powerful equipment.

One of the more interesting additions to the game is the inclusion of a central hub that's more than just the Assassins' safehouses of the original game. Ezio gets a home base in the form of the dilapidated walled town of Monteriggioni where you use your money to renovate, restore and earn income through tax. You will likely make far more than you can physically spend in the game, finishing with about a quarter of a million florins, enough to buy the papacy if you were allowed. Your home also allows you to display paintings you buy and display weapons and amour you acquire throughout your adventures all of which serve to cement your connection to the character as well as properly establish his connection to the world in a way not done in the original.

The detail level of the environment is also incredible. The Italian cities feel much more alive then those of the the holy-land and even more crowds of people are going about their business. NPCs range from courtesans which can be hired for distraction, street vendors telling you they have the best prices in all of Italy, to men carrying objects who curse you for causing them to drop them. And of course how could I forget to mention the deliberately annoying mandolin players blocking your path as they play misic for you in the hope of you sparing them some coin. Running through the streets can be difficult in crowds so free-running across rooftops can be a better way of traversing the world once you avoid guards positioned on the roofs who scold you before attempting to force you down. 

Sound design was standard Ubisoft fare, plenty of people cursing you and screaming in English but in vaguely comical Italian accents. Jesper Kyd returned to provide a competent and unobtrusive score as did Nolan North (Uncharted) and Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) reprising voices for Desmond and Lucy respectively. They are joined by Roger Craig Smith (Resident Evil) as Ezio.

What really impressed me about this game, more so than all other elements was the sheer accuracy of the setting. I've never been to Florence, Venice or the other Italian locales depicted in the game but I do know something about architecture and to see the level of detail and accuracy of the famous buildings that still stand today is remarkable. After playing for a few hours I found myself watching travel videos on YouTube which go into the architecture and history of the buildings in which I had just spent hours scaling to find secrets and sneaking around silently killing guards. The thought occurred to me of course that it may in fact be easier for developers to input architectural studies of these famous buildings into to a 3D modelling application for the game engine than it would be to create an entirely fictional environment. Scaling the famous Giotto's Campanile and Brunelleschi's Dome on the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower is an extraordinary experience probably more than flying over somewhere familiar in a flight simulator and enhances the unique connection one has with the game world.

Final Verdict: Ezio is a likeable protagonist who is enjoyable to control. His arc spans three games, the first two - this and Brotherhood - vie for first and second favourites of the pre-RPG genre that the franchise adopted with Assassin's Creed: Origins. It's easy to see why as Assassin's Creed II is as superior a sequel to a game as Half-Life 2 or Mass Effect 2 are. It took all the mechanics of the original, and refined them, making the ones that worked better and took what didn't work and changed it to make them work.

DLC: Originally Assassins Creed II featured two DLC packs The Battle of Forlì and Bonfire of the Vanities with several hours of additional story content. They were sequences cut from the base game on release due to time constraints. Purchases of Assassin's Creed II: Digital Deluxe Edition include these packs reintegrated seamlessly and unskippable as part of the main game.

Technicals: 37 hours playtime through Ubisoft Connect using a Nvidia 3070Ti @ 3440x1440 @ 175Hz on Windows 11. Cutscenes force 16:9 ratio, returning to 21:9 for gameplay. Win 11 HDR provides no notable enhancement. Only bug was about two unexpected program quits over the course of 37 hours.

The Assassins Creed II base game is available from the Ubisoft Store or Steam for €9.99.with significant sales occasionally. The Assassin's Creed II: Digital Deluxe Edition was not available for sale at time of publication. Reviewed copy purchased from Fanatical in 2019 for €3.39.

Series Timeline [PC]:
Assassin's Creed [2007]
Assassin's Creed II [2010]
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood [2011]
Assassin's Creed: Revelations [2011]
Assassin's Creed III [2012]
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag [2013]
- Assassin's Creed: Freedom Cry [2014]
- Assassin's Creed III: Liberation HD [2014]
Assassin's Creed Unity [2014]
Assassin's Creed Rogue [2015]
Assassin's Creed Syndicate [2015]
Assassin's Creed Origins [2017]
Assassin's Creed Odyssey [2018]
- Assassin's Creed III Remastered [2019]
Assassin's Creed Valhalla [2020]
Assassin's Creed Mirage [2023]

Saturday, September 24, 2022

First Play Review: DOOM [2016]

Despite the success of DOOM 3 in 2004 it would take Id Software twelve years to release the next installment along with some incredible new technology. DOOM released in 2016 is more a sequel to the games released prior to DOOM 3 as that game's perpetually dark survival horror didn't really gel with the Doom concept. As a consequence DOOM is also a reboot as such and has lost its numbering but retains it's primary identity of balls-to-the-wall demon-killing FPS shenanigans where you put an end to the latest demonic invasion from Hell. Only this time you learn to be quick about it!

Doom has always been light on story. Any plot was even once relegated to a few pages of the manual that came with the original games of the 90's and DOOM 3 had very little by way of narrative in contrast to its peer FPSs of the early 2000s (it was released in the same year as Half-Life 2). DOOM today however has an 11.5 hour (on average) campaign which, while not a narrative cutscene filled epic by any sense, still fleshes out the story of the Doom Slayer (or Doom Marine) as your character still only gets a moniker as opposed to a name but you get the feeling you have more in terms of a story, a past and a goal. You play the Slayer that was essentially there since DOOM (1993) and you piece together a story that you were captured by the demons and imprisoned in hell after the events depicted in DOOM 64, only to be excavated by those working in a new Martian hellgate project facility under the control of scientific-genius(?) Dr. Samuel Hayden. Of course at least until he naturally loses the control and releases you to clean up the mess. So that's your job and just like you did in the 90's, you go through all of Mars and Hell itself to do it (again).

Much like it's predecessors, DOOM follows the principle of basically shooting everything that moves and doing it while not stopping. Stopping, even slowing and any form of careful strategy is death here, one must keep moving and killing rooms of enemies before you are allowed to progress to the next one. One of the ways employed to keep you moving is "glory kills", context-sensitive melee attacks that guarantee to both kill your target and claim rewards like health, armour and ammunition that 'spew' from it as it's beheaded or explodes in gore (no I don't know what the in-game explanation for why that happens). It's a genuinely fun mechanic and encourages you to shoot and finish an enemy off with a melee attack which powers you up for the next target and so on until you clear the room.

The game brings back not only the Doom Slayer but also has the elements that make it Doom, your weapons, enemies and systems. Your weapons are all here, shotgun, plasma rifle, minigun, chainsaw and naturally the BFG. This time you get alternate fire modes and a choice of two modifications that are upgraded as you progress expending the base weapons with zoom functions and specialised explosive ammo etc. The mobs are what make DOOM Doom in my opinion and they all return here, Zombie soldiers, Imps, Barons of Hell, Cacodemons, Mancubui and Revenants to name but a small few. Everything is basically a upgraded design from mobs as seen in DOOM II, sure they have some variants with different attacks and strategies but they were all just too iconic not to use again.

Even with welcome additions like RPG-lite enhancements to customise your weapons and armour, the additions of grenades and jumping jet boots DOOM is still the essence of the experience it was in the 1990's. You sometimes have to grab a blue/red/yellow skull-key to unlock a door or reveal secret areas (some which are pieces of levels from DOOM (1993)) with collectables or ammunition and finishing a level gives you screen to tell you what goodies you found but also what you missed if you want to try it again for full achievements.

As good as the visuals are, the sound design and score are even more outstanding. Mick Gordon's score was a multi award-winning highlight and primarily consisted of digitally synthesized progressive metal processed with analog effects. The post-industrial, dark synth-rock influenced score contains references to earlier Doom entries by Bobby Prince. Audio designer Chad Mossholder's work on the mobs, environments and weapons were punctuated by a disembodied demon narrator voiced by prolific video game and TV voice-actor and impressionist Piotr Michael.

Final Verdict: Despite being a visceral experience with heat-pounding fights where you are always outnumbered, DOOM is still comfort-gaming as it evokes much of the spirit of FPS gaming from the 1990's when times, and games, were simpler. The only real difference is that you're doing it with modern era graphics and effects. Id did the right thing here, they didn't try to do something vastly different with the franchise, just take the originals and update it to reflect the technological evolution of the 20+ years since it first appeared. The overwhelming success of of DOOM and that it spawned a sequel, DOOM Eternal four years later means it's exactly what people wanted.

Technicals: 18.5 hours playtime through Steam using a Nvidia 3070Ti @ 3440x1440 on Windows 11 partly with HDR enabled. No crashes or bugs evident.

DOOM is available from Steam for €19.99 but is occasionally found on sale for around €9.99 or less either on Steam itself or using Fanatical, Humble Bundle or Green Man Gaming. Review copy purchased from Steam for € August 2018.

Series Timeline:
DOOM [1993]
DOOM II: Hell on Earth [1994]
- Final DOOM [1996]
- DOOM 64 [1997]
DOOM 3 [2004]
- DOOM 3: Resurrection of Evil [2005]
DOOM [2016]
DOOM Eternal [2020]
- DOOM Eternal: The Ancient Gods I [2020]
- DOOM Eternal: The Ancient Gods II [2021]

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Review: Dark Souls - Remastered (2012) [2018]

Note: The original game was Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition and released in 2012 by From Software. In 2018 they released a remaster with 4K support and a 60 FPS framerate. The latter version is reviewed here.

"I'm too old for this shit", were words I repeated about 3 dozen times when I started playing this, the 2018 remastered version of the 2012 classic Dark Souls from From Software. Dark Souls like it's spiritual progenitor on PlayStation, Demon's Souls heralded a new RPG sub-genre the "soulslike" which is basically a way of telling people "this is fucking hard".

After trying it out in late 2020, I gave up after a day as it was (a) nigh-on impossible to control with a mouse+keyboard and (b) when I did make some progress, I was killed in seconds. I returned earlier this year in honour of the 10th anniversary of it's original (PC) release and reinstalled it after purchasing a third party Xbox One controller. Armed with the controller I made much more significant headway and was at least able to move and fight far better than using a mouse+keyboard making this the first PC/console game I've ever played that IMHO is only playable with a controller pad. 

Playing a little at a time in order to get used to the controller was a good move, but when I felt like I was actually able to properly hold my own against enemies I would progress a little further only to either miss one parry, or swing and miss at the wrong time and suddenly I was dead again. Bear in mind there is no difficulty modes that you can just turn down to 'normal' or 'easy'. This is permanently 'nightmare' or difficulty that one unlocks only after beating other games on 'hard'. There is no quick save or even a forgiving checkpoint system. When you die, you respawn at the last bonfire/sanctuary you rested at. The bonfire could be as little as 60 seconds or possibly 20 minutes behind you - and to make it worse - anytime you rested to heal, or died and resurrected - every non-boss enemy would also resurrect and you must fight your way through 20 minutes of mobs again! Naturally the more this happened again and again, replaying the same path with the same enemies who were always as deadly as before, wore you down, you start making mistakes and dying even earlier than you progressed before. This was certainly neither fun, nor enjoyable and left me with little sense of accomplishment.

From Software don't do "cheat modes" so there's no console commands to make you a god or even give you any advantage. But the beauty of the PC being the ultimate gaming platform is that no PC game is impervious to glitching, hacking, modding, cheating and or some class of reverse-engineering. Being more than sure that I was certainly not the only player to have issues with the difficulty, I set about researching not a "god mode" as such but more a way of giving me enough of advantage to make more significant progress. I discovered a method of "duping" inventory items which I applied to consumable souls items you pick up from fallen heroes who came before you. Once I applied the dupe I increased my Strength, Dexterity, Vitality etc. to 99 and while I was far from a god, I was able to take more than a few strikes before dying (which I reduced by about 90%) and was able to one-shot most enemies save for bosses or mini-bosses which required a little more attention. At least I was finally able to play the way I wanted.

The plot of Dark Souls is fairly simplistic. You just go in a mostly linear fashion and to do the next thing you've been told to do, be it ring the bells, descend into the abyss or kill some powerful entity. All this is done with the overarching goal of breaking a curse that has befallen the land and allowing the undead to rise again and again and finally give them (and you) peace. It's easy to forget however because you could be playing for days before you meet someone that tells you something, even then NPCs speak cryptically and it's not like you have a quest log or a map.

The lack of map or log makes navigation a pain especially as some areas with very high level enemies are accessible if you take a wrong turn. Of course the UI is also bare bones and there's no indication of a enemies level until you're dead in seconds (even with exploited stats). I had to resort to external guides about which area I should avoid or explore next and needed to watch other players on YouTube to actually see how you get there.

Combat in the game is actually great. So many games have some default attack animation supplemented by a plethora of button-click powers/abilities but Dark Souls combat is very involved with blocking attacks, parrying an attack, rolling out of the way, jumping attacking, heavy attacking and so fourth. It felt great killing a lot of the enemies. Some enemies later employed your tactics to block, parry, riposte etc. and this should lead to very challenging fight - but in this game all the fights are challenging and exhausted my fingers and thumbs up to the point where it was more efficient to boost my health and defence up and use duped health regenerators every 60 seconds or so just to advance in the later game.

I can't speak to the original 2012 version but the remaster looks stunning at 4K High Quality. During my playthrough I switched systems to an Ultrawide 3440x1440 monitor and while the game itself is not HDR enabled - using the Windows 11 HDR renderer to enhance the visuals was a treat. From Software created some of the most unique and grotesque monsters I've ever fought in a video game. Some of them were standard like zombies, ghosts, skeletons and minotaurs but others were not. Treefolk that skewered you with their branches and a Dragon whose entire centre section was a gaping maw with teeth were just two extraordinary designs of note. A lot of game was dark, underground, in crypts or dark forests but occasionally you'd climb to the surface and be met with a beautiful but sadly fleeting vista worth screenshotting.

While the game exhibits little by way of any form of help, assistance or generosity to the player, the inventory system is actually pretty solid. There is no limit to your carrying capacity as I was able to lug around 20+ unique suits of armour of various quality in my bag. As you don't have a central base as such, this makes sense for you to to have access to everything. You can store things in a box that you can access from any bonfire, but I've just realised after finishing the game that I did put things in for safe keeping.... I never took anything out of it, so ultimately I didn't need it.

There was quite a few times when plodding through Dark Souls bleak and depressing but beautifully and expertly crafted world that I questioned continuing because I just wasn't enjoying it. And that is a feeling that I get very rarely in a video game. It wasn't a feeling I had all the time, but it certainly surfaced when I died and had to repeat a tedious section of wandering before getting to the good bit again. However once I researched how many areas I had done , what was left to do, estimating the time it would take to finish and wanting a solid return on investment on my €30 controller I stuck the course and completed the game after 68 hours (according to Steam). Dark Souls: Remastered also contains the substantial Artorias of the Abyss DLC, but at which point of being able to access it, I felt thoroughly done with the game.

Final Verdict: I'm glad I played it, and got through it even if it was somewhat unconventional (hey if the developers didn't want you to dupe they would have patched the exploit in the last 6 years). But despite the awesome creatures and involved combat here it's just too depressing, too difficult, too repetitive if you fail something and too light on plot or characterisation to make me feel like a hero or even connected to the world in any meaningful sense. I don't often know I'll never play something again - but I do this time. It's sequels are another matter... we'll see.

Technicals: Played through Steam on Nvidia 980Ti @ 4k in Windows 10 and on Nvidia 3070Ti @  3440x1440 on Windows 11 with HDR. No crashes or bugs evident.

Dark Souls: Remastered is available from Steam for €39.99 but is occasionally found on sale for €19.99 either on Steam itself or using Fanatical, Humble Bundle or Green Man Gaming. Review copy purchased from Fanatical for €18.39 in March 2020.

Series Timeline:
Dark Souls [2011]
Dark Souls II [2014]

- Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin [2015]
Dark Souls III [2016]
- Dark Souls III: Deluxe Edition [2017]
- Dark Souls: Remastered [2018]

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Operation London Bridge Executed - Queen Elizabeth II 1926 - 2022

Queen Elizabeth II was constitutional monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and was arguably the most famous 'next door neighbour' to everyone else on this island. While she was 96 upon her death on Thursday, it came as a surprise to many due to the fact that she had only appointed a new Prime Minister a mere two days previous. While it may have been accepted due to biology that she had not a great deal of time left, it is nonetheless strange for anyone born in the 1950's or later as they have never been aware of any other monarch of the UK.

PrincessElizabeth had honorary military titles but in 1945, she was appointed an honorary officer in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (left) and trained as a driver and mechanic. She became Queen in February 1952 following the death of King George VI and reigned for more than 70 years, the longest of any British monarch and the longest recorded of any female head of state in history. Elizabeth II reigned through significant political changes marked by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, devolution in the United Kingdom, the decolonisation of Africa, and the United Kingdom's accession to the European Communities and more recent withdrawal from the European Union. 

As former British territories such as India gained independence and some realms became republics over her many years, Elizabeth II's territories ultimately shrunk in size. She travelled to China, Russia, Australia and New Zealand, and the Republic of Ireland in some of her historic visits. She was politically neutral and performed acts which were designed to widen the gap between the monarchy and the government so that the monarchy would have no political, only ceremonial role. Once such act was appointing an elected conservative party leader and not one based on advice given to her.

As well as being Queen, she was also a daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother and even great-grandmother. Such was the devotion to her family was that she sought to replace the term 'monarchy' with 'the Royal Family' which gained traction in the press and is one of the most successful rebranding examples in history. 

Operation London Bridge is the codename of the British government's plan for protocols to be followed in the event of the Queen's death. It went through many iterations over the decades and was the subject of extensive leaks in the U.K. media in that time. Sadly it began to be executed on Thursday September 8th 2022 before 18:30 BST when the world was informed she had passed.

A few short years before becoming Queen, Elizabeth II promised the British public “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” Her life was long and she did indeed keep her word. May she rest in peace.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Review: The Master Chief Collection - Part 1 - Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (2001) [2020]

Note: The original game was Halo: Combat Evolved and released in 2001 by Microsoft. In 2011 they released Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, a remake with enhanced graphics and features for consoles. In 2020 a PC version of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary was released as part of The Master Chief Collection. The latter version is reviewed here.

So many games were being released in 2001 at the time the original Halo: Combat Evolved released that I had to perform a sort of triage and make decisions about which of them I was going to play at the time. I had a Halo demo (remember game demos?) and it presented a gaudy and colourful alien shooter that to be honest at the time didn't seem to be much 'evolved' from the likes of Unreal Tournament. I elected to instead play Return to Castle Wolfenstein as my "story shooter" and Aliens vs Predator 2 as my "multiplayer shooter". While both the Wolfenstein and the Alien franchise have continued with varying levels of success, they are far from the world wide phenomenon that Halo became and cemented the branding of the Microsoft XBox consoles for over twenty years to this day. So with the Master Chief Collection's arrival on Steam it brought a newly enhanced Halo: Combat Evolved - Anniversary to the platform and I thought it was time to begin to see what all the fuss was about.

While I don't think narratively at least Halo: CE is the first in the series, it is first in the sequence of release order so I said I'd play this series in this order as that's the way people have originally enjoyed the series. The original game established the characters of Master Chief, the genetically enhanced super soldier and his AI companion Cortana as they battle aliens in the 26th century and seek to uncover the secrets of the mysterious ring-world Halo.

I felt the story was OK overall; much more fleshed out than I expected. There were many tropes in play, crashed space vessel, mind-controlling aliens and even bizarre shift mid game from military science fiction to sci-fi survival horror for a little while that I felt was done surprising well for the time. I have no doubt that if I had played this 20 years ago, I would have critiqued it's story much better. The problem is that while I accept that there is much by way of originality here, it's likely been ripped off by so many other games, TV shows and movies in the last two decades that it feels tired now when experiencing it for the firs time.

While a story is obviously important to any game or franchise, of course it won't get anywhere if it's gameplay is weak. Halo:CEA doesn't have that issue and is more than a competent FPS game. It's weapons are varied and do feel like you're packing a punch. Sadly the enemies of limited variance do a lot of absorption before they go down in some places as you progress through the story. Master Chief can only hold carry two weapons and use them one at a time. I felt this limitation encouraged you to think tactically about the situation, what are you facing? will you have enough ammo going forward? what almost empty weapon will you pick up to replace the full capacity weapon you are carrying because it's not as effective in this situation? While doing this in a "reality" based game is understandable, I think for a sci-fi game where you're wearing a powered armoured suit you should be able to carry more weapons, and I think ultimately this design decision artificially slowed the game down because you had to stop and consider a load-out every 15-20 mins at least.

The game also eschewed a quick save/load option in favour of checkpoint saves. This would not be an issue if it saved more frequently but it doesn't. This wasn't the norm, certainly at the time of release. It's a feature I despise on games like this as it forces you to replay the same section, sometimes from a point much too far back to be 'fun' and it serves only to artificially extend the time it took to finish the game.

One thing that struck me as incredible was vehicle combat. Now the Covenant flying machines were a bit shit, but the Warthog is one of the greatest gaming vehicles in existence. It's precision and handling were better than most actual driving games and it was easy to control and shoot from perhaps even more so than the jeep in Half Life 2 or vehicles in Far Cry, both of which were released much later.

The level design was varied from cold wintery environments to lush swamplands but mostly you were in Sci-fi spacecraft/installation environments and this was all good as it fit into the main story. Level design at the beginning and the end were great but there was a section in the middle where you often had to fight your way into an installation - then turn around and fight your way out again. Basically the same level in reverse that's still designed for funnelling you in the opposite direction when you're going backwards and was frustratingly disorienting. It felt a bit cheap as again it was artificially inflating the time in game with non-unique experiences.

The sound design was top notch here from the enemies to the weapons. While clearly not there was one particular enemy that sounded like a Half-Life head-crab but that might have been my own ears playing tricks on me. Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori's sublime score would become one of the most celebrated in gaming history and echoed through this and much of the Halo titles as the franchise evolved, winning significant praise, awards and accolades. 

Final Verdict: I think the good elements outweighed the bad and while I admit it is just a bit too late to fully enjoy it as it was meant to be, the graphical improvements of Halo:CEA make this very consumable to enjoy in the modern age.

Stats: Playtime 10.3 hours through Steam @ 4K on Windows 10. No mods installed. No Glitches/bugs recorded.

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is available either as a stand-alone title from either Steam or the Windows Store (€9.99) or as part of  Halo: The  Master Chief Collection (€39.99).

Series Timeline:
Halo: Combat Evolved [2001]
Halo 2 [2004]
Halo 3 [2007]
- Halo 3: ODST [2009]
- Halo: Reach [2010]
- Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary [2011]
Halo 4 [2012]
- Halo: The Master Chief Collection [2014]
Halo 5: Guardians [2015]
Halo Infinite [2021]

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.