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.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

RIP George H.W. Bush

Years before his son sent us to invade Iraq in 2003, George H.W. Bush gave us a mandate to liberate Kuwait from it's Iraqi invaders. It was a mandate few questioned, it was right, it was just. It was a glorious time and a decisive victory.

George H.W. Bush is known for the little things, such as getting the Secret Service to stop at stop lights so as not to inconvenience other road users - as he was for the big things such as the aforementioned Gulf War against the evil forces of Saddam Hussein

Also every American in a wheelchair or some disability benefits from George H.W. Bush's Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and he famously spent many hundreds of hours amending the Clean Air act (now of course being eroded by the current administration).

What's truly amazing to me is that he did what he did while democrats controlled both houses. The U.S., nay the World has today lost one of it's most extraordinary leaders.

Rest in peace Mr. President.


Sunday, November 11, 2018

Remember them

Those of us who know of war only through playing toy soldiers and video games, and watching movies and television must remember we do so only because of the sacrifices of others. Remember them, especially those of World War I today.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

September 11th - 17 years on.

Remembering LtGen Timothy Maude and the 124 military personnel, contractors and employees killed at the Pentagon on September 11th 2001.

The flag is unfurled on the west side of the Pentagon near the 911 Memorial at sunrise today.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

RIP General Newton

RIP General Newton (U.S. Army Ret.), a patron of the arts but was not a traditional art lover. He admitted while he didn't know the difference between a Picasso and a car crash, he just couldn't "stand the idea of a bunch of frenchies owning America's greatest painting".

General Newton was played by Burt Reynolds in Bean (1997) who died today at 82. May he rest in peace.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

First Play Review: Deus Ex: Invisible War

The 2003 sequel to the sublime Deus Ex is regarded by many PC gamers as a lacklustre shitty console port which shouldn't even be spoken in the same sentence as the original. However as it was a sequel to something I enjoyed, and I only paid €1.74 for it in a March 2016 sale I thought that it might have been worth a few hours.

The first bug I encountered was that my mouse wouldn't work on the menu screen. This would have been okay as one could still [arrow-key] + [Enter] around the main menu, but the problem is that it wasn't just the main menu but ALL in game menus as well and DX2 has several including inventory and a biomods screen that would be beyond frustrating. Among the half dozen fixes or workarounds for this bug, one is apparently reducing the Windows custom scaling resolution from 150% [in my case with a 28" 4K screen] to 149%. Barely noticeable when looking at the screen but apparently redefines the X/Y axis of the mouse enough for the game to detect it(?).

The next major bug was that the game would minimise to the desktop every time you transitioned to a new map. Now this would have been tolerable if it happened in Deus Ex as it's levels were quite large. Sadly the issue is extremely annoying for DX2 as due to the console constraints for the game (2003 consoles were woefully inferior to PCs of the age), the levels were only a fraction of the size and so transitions/loading were much more frequent and so this white screen/minimise to desktop issue would manifest itself every few minutes. The final straw was a crash as I was entering a nightclub and but when it crashed, my desktop resolution was set to the game's resolution (a maximum of 1080p or so) and it wouldn't allow me reset it back to normal until I actually restarted the computer! 

I found this situation untenable but a solution presented itself in the form of this mod created by an industrious individual called snobel who has done similar work for the Thief franchise. The Visible Upgrade mod fixed the resolution, mouse and the level transition issue as well as increased the visual fidelity to more than satisfactory standards. I had a fully working game and in 4K, huzzah!

Once the game could actually run it was grand. DX2 was developed by Ion Storm again but really for the the Xbox as opposed to the PC. It's not just the level size being smaller, it was many things including the whole 'simplification' of the inventory and biomod aspects (console players couldn't handle complex systems like those of Deus Ex), the complete removal of the skill tree making your 'Alex D' character just 'good at everything' paled in comparison to depth one could sculpt DX1's J.C. Denton and it's loss was significant, reducing the character to nothing but a generic protagonist. The control system was awkward and it was obvious that one of the Xbox 'sticks' selected weapons, while the other handled biomod abilities which could not be mapped beck to your DX1 control system but instead use the numeric keypad to activate. What a mess!

I felt combat overall was substandard for what's essentially an FPS. Weapons felt weak in comparison to other games of the time. Whomever had the idea to green-light the notion of using a single type of ammo for all weapons from a pistol to a rocket launcher was a complete moron because when you run out of ammo for one weapon - you run out for all your weapons! This must be the dumbest thing I've ever encountered in a game like this. At one point I had to replay a level using different tactics because in the end I was left fighting an ED209 type mech with a fucking sword! Also, I never got to use the sniper rifle because as I've mentioned before, the levels aren't big enough in length or height to ever require a sniper rifle. The default pistol would kill everything as accurately, it was silenced, and used less of the universal ammo. One could say the sniper rifle was a misfire (chuckle).

Thankfully the plot was more interesting than the gameplay, set 20 years after the Deus Ex, and the world is only beginning to recover from the catastrophic worldwide depression caused by the ending of the previous game. In the chaotic period of recovery, several religious and political factions see an opportunity to re-shape a worldwide government to their agendas, understanding that the right moves now could determine the shape of human society for decades- even centuries- to come. In this techno-nightmare, you play a part in the dark struggle to raise the world from its own ashes. I do think that the branching choices and storylines, while not up to RPG standards, are certainly a better employed device than in DX1 and you feel and see the consequences of your actions before one of four different endings are played out based on those choices. At 10 hours to complete its about a third of the size of it's predecessor, but this length is comparable to games at the time.

I choose a female Alex D because Laura Bailey is a much more recognisable name and voice to whomever Christopher Sabat is. That said, any voice would have been better to the monotonous drone of Jay Anthony Franke who put in an almost robotic performance as J.C. Denton in both games. I'll add that Alexander Brandon's score was superior here to the score he and Micheal Van Den Bos crafted for DX1, but by this time games were using high quality soundscapes, even if (as here) it was just keyboards and where afforded - orchestral scores.

Pros: Good story. Freedom of choice with regards to how it ends is superior to the original. Impressive soundscape and voice-acting.
Cons: Game is broken and looks shit today without user modification. Weak combat. A console game at heart.

Deus Ex: Invisible War is available from Steam @ €6.99 or GOG @ €8.09, but is frequently on sale for just €0.97!

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Second star to the right... and to the left.

On August 25th, Brigadier General "Whopper" Creedon, assumed the duties of SPEARHEAD Deputy Commander for Global Security from Major General "Jäger" Brandt, who vacated the office following his retirement from the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces).

Air Commodore “Eagle Eyes” Carter of the RAF was appointed to replace Creedon as Assistant Commander for Intelligence and Information, a position the marine held for almost five years.

Before leaving SPEARHEAD HQ, Mount Olympus, Greece for the final time on Saturday, the former SPEARHEAD Supreme Commander General "Stomper" Santorno pinned a second star to Brigadier General Creedon promoting him to the United States Marine Corps grade of Major General. 

As a Deputy Commander, three Assistant Commanders, one each for Intelligence and Information, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, and Suppression and Containment will now report to Major General Creedon.

Former SPEARHEAD Supreme Commander General "Stomper" Santorno USA (right) promotes SPEARHEAD Deputy Commander for Global Security Brigadier General "Whopper" Creedon USMC to Major General

Monday, September 03, 2018

SPEARHEAD change of command

Incoming SPEARHEAD Supreme Commander Gen. Sir "Knuckles" McKenzie (left) shakes hands with outgoing SPEARHEAD Supreme Commander Gen. "Stomper" Santorno at the SPEARHEAD Change of command ceremony at Mount Olympus, Greece, Saturday September 1st

After a series of unprecedented events in 2012 decimated UNPASID leadership and left UNETIDA in crisis; then-former U.S. Army Major General "Stomper" Santorno was taken out of retirement by President Obama and chosen to take the reigns of the troubled organisations due to his extensive experience with both. Now after six illustrious years of rebuilding and restructuring them into SPEARHEAD, it's first Supreme Commander is stepping down to make a second attempt at retirement.

British Army General Sir "Knuckles" McKenzie, KCB, CBE, DSO who served as SPEARHEADs Vice Commander since 2014 was tapped by the Security Council in 2017 as Santorno's successor. Gen. McKenzie gave a speech honouring the remarkable achievements of his predecessor.

General McKenzie: "Good morning lads n' lassies, n' those of ye who have nae decided what side of that fence yer on eh? Hah ha! We're 'ere today to mark the departure of a great man indeed. A giant in our field, General "Stomper" Santorno."


General McKenzie: "The general was the perfect choice to lead our former organisations UNPASID and UNETIDA. His experience began in 1982 when then-Captain Santorno's special operations team had an encounter with what was described in his report as "not alive, but nae dead either"."


General McKenzie: "From that moment on, his eyes to the hidden world all around us, that we keep from the general public, were opened. Later as an operations officer with Delta Force, Major Santorno was awarded the Silver Star fer rescuing his unit from what he later discovered were extra-terrestrials. Due to his experience and the fact he had been exposed to both vicious undead and a belligerent extra-terrestrial force, and lived, he was recruited into UNPASID to bolster their special operations group and where he supervised training and survival methods.

After taking part in the invasion of Panama and serving in Operation Desert Storm he returned to UNPASID as the Deputy Special Operations Commander until he was asked to serve as the military advisor to the UN High Commissioner for Paranormal Affairs. Lt. Colonel Santorno lent his considerable expertise, to UNETIDA as he then served as the agency's Deputy Special Operations Commander before serving stints as both UNPASID's and UNETIDA's Special Operations Commander after which he received his first star and assignment as UNETIDA's Deputy Director of Operations in 2000.

From 2002 to 2003, Brigadier General Santorno served as UNETIDA's Chief of Staff and later Deputy Director of UNPASID. Upon promotion to major general, he was made director of UNPASID a post in which he served with distinction until his retirement from the U.S. Army in 2007.

Rather than depopulate the fish of North American rivers or buy a boat, the general spent his "retirement" as the Extra-Terrestrial and Paranormal Activity Advisor to the National Security Council of the Bush administration. From 2009 until 2012 he served as both an Extra-Terrestrial and Paranormal Security Advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in times of need.

In 2012 a time of even greater need was then upon us; we sadly lost Major General "Skullcrusher" Shaw in tragic circumstances and in light of the fact that all other senior ranking officers assigned to UNPASID died, went missing or were remanded in military custody, and UNETIDA itself was being scrutinised by a UN commission, it was proposed that a new commander be appointed to oversee both organisations simultaneously. There was only one name on the list. Major General "Stomper" Santorno. The general was taken out of retirement, pinned on a third star and given the mandate to oversee the organisations through their difficulties.

At the time, Lt. General Santorno assured us that despite what his appointment represented, it was his mandate that the missions and operations of each unit would be given the same attention that they have always deserved. He offered that while there would be some change, he hoped that the directorates could make those changes work fer the better to ensure the ultimate success of as he said "keeping the world safe from things it's not ready to believe in".

The man was true to his word, and just a year into his appointment, through his deeds he strengthened our position by overseeing the permanent amalgamation of UNPASID, UNETIDA and their forces and missions into SPEARHEAD. He raised the perceptions of the importance of the work we do to the politicians and lawmakers in the UN and around the world and secured massive international support and funding."


General McKenzie: "The importance of SPEARHEAD in the international military stage is evidenced by the elevation of his billet in 2015 to that of the highest military rank."


General McKenzie: "For which I'm personally thankful."


General McKenzie: "And the fact that as of this year I'm delighted to announce that every one of the the 193 countries in the United Nations is for the first time represented by a member of SPEARHEAD either in the military, scientific or in our many support fields somewhere in the world, or above it."


General McKenzie: "It's with great certainty that I can tell you we wouldn't be be where we are today without his guidance and that while honoured to be appointed as the SPEARHEAD Supreme Commander, I can only succeed General Santorno but cannae ever replace 'im."


General Santorno: "Thank you for your kind words General McKenzie, and congratulations on your well deserved appointment. I will try not to keep you folks too long, I know Knuckles is itching to work you to the bone. If there's anyone here who thought I was tough, you're in for a surprise let me tell you."


General Santorno: "When I retired eleven years ago the last thing I assumed I'd be doing would be standing here again, two stars and *ahem* more than two pounds heavier."


General Santorno: "No, I was in my mid-50's and was looking forward to the civilian phenomena of lie-ins in the morning and gardening. But after a week of that I had killed all my wife's beautiful plants and she begged me to go and find something less destructive to do with my time."


General Santorno: "So I did. For the next five years I assisted both President Bush and the Joint Chiefs with their understanding of the constantly evolving threats SPEARHEAD now deals with today. I was aware of the crisis that UNETIDA and UNPASID faced and when the offer was made to me to return to uniform to lend assistance and guidance, they didn't need to ask twice.

I'm grateful for the confidence shown me by my superiors in the U.S. Government and in the UNSC who enabled me to strengthen our organisation for the better and I'm thankful for the support of the many people here who helped me to get the job done. General McKenzie says that we may not be here without my guidance but that is only true because of the support, willingness and drive from each and every one of you. I especially wish to thank Colonel-General "Kóbec" Yurkov of the Russian Federation and his successor, now my own successor General "Knuckles" McKenzie of the British Army for serving as my second in command and representing SPEARHEAD when required.


General Santorno: In closing, I wish only to assure you that you will have extraordinary challenges ahead and I hope I have left you with an adequate base from which to meet those challenges head on, but from what I've seen from you all, that will certainly not be a problem.

Thank you and goodbye.


Saturday, September 01, 2018

McCain's memorial service

I was unable to attend Senator John McCain's memorial service today due to prior commitments but I wish to commend NBC who live streamed the event on Youtube.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Classic Review: Crysis

Crysis, the game that brought even the highest specced hardware at the time to it's knees is now 11 years old. "But can it run Crysis?" became one of the most famous gaming memes of all time. It referenced the fact that practically no PC, neither launch or for many months following the game's release in 2007 could actually play it at it's highest settings. I constructed Maxximus that year with the intention of playing Crysis but only managed high resolution for most of the game, with alien levels grinding it to 10FPS in places. Even 10 years on, many including myself currently lack the GPU power to render the game on ultra detail at 60FPS in 4K, despite being able to run some later games with those settings without issue, but it makes me smile rather than annoyed because... well because it's Crysis!

After recently playing Far Cry, I thought I'd take Crysis out for a spin again. I'm pleased to report that the EA's normally crap Origin platform installs the best version of the game without issue but you may need to edit a config file to manually generate a resolution above HD as that wasn't considered at the time of Crysis' development. I played in ultra detail but in 2K [1440p] as I wasn't getting close enough to 60FPS at 4K. I'm pleased to report that the game holds up very well and I had no issues with it at all for it's duration.

Far Cry, Crytek's original game, was noted for it's extraordinary draw distances, superbly drivable land and sea vehicles and it's sandbox approach to the outdoor levels which allowed the player to choose their own route to an objective rather than standard linear path with dozens of scripted sequences as employed by many developers. For Crysis, Crytek took those elements and enhanced them with an even more free roaming environment, superior AI, added an airborne vehicle and wrapped it up into CryEngine 2, a magically beautiful and realistic graphics engine that can still hold a candle to the first person shooters that followed it but has been surpassed by a few iterations since then to power the Crysis sequels, the Sniper series, Homefront and 2017's Prey.

The gameplay experience is still top-notch especially the majority of the game's campaign that dealt with you killing a lot of North Koreans. You can around the island picking them off one by one in your heavily armoured and souped-up Nanosuit or go for a full-frontal assault depending on your play-style or your mood. The the game caters for multiple approaches for the same problem, be it stealth, distraction, long range or just drive in and kill everything!

You have an arsenal of weapons to chose from, mostly real-world fare - pistols, machine gun, shotgun, assault rifle, minigun, rocket launcher etc., all which can be customised with necessary attachments like suppressors, grenade launchers and scopes, basically all the tools you need including your Nanosuit. The Nanosuit is Crysis' true gimmick and it can both save your life and enhance your gaming experience with its different modes, the default being armour which prevents damage, strength for jumping or punching your way through doors (and people), speed for running and a cloak which bends light around your armour effectively making you Predator.

The latter third of the game sadly falters a bit due to it's alien levels. You find your way eventually to an alien ship thingy and the gameplay changes radically from what it was to fighting flying aliens in zero-g! It's thankfully not as misjudged as the infamous "Xen" of the original Half-Life, but it's a bit shit. Improvement comes later when you escape from the ship and proceed to the final showdown on board the USS Constellation aircraft carrier which was for the most part thrilling and exciting in it's own way but not as good as when you were battling the N.Koreans.

It's evident now, looking back at this that Crytek were not just building a game, but a game engine tech demo that had pretty much all of the possible graphical features they could think of putting into it like force-based destructible scenery, enhanced volumetric smoke, realistic surface water behaviour, unpredictable artificial intelligence and physics based combat, all without any regard to people being able to actually play it or not - the fact that it ended up being a great and successful game must have actually been a surprise to them. 


In my opinion, Crysis represents the first game for the way games look like today because one would be hard pressed to find a graphical or physical engine feature in a game now that isn't just a more modern or better version of what Crytek did here. Developers (even Crytek themselves) sadly don't put as much effort into games, or innovate as much as Crytek did for Crysis because that's not what makes money today, instead it's micro-transactions and loot crates.

I'm glad I could go back and enjoy Crysis as it was meant to be experienced after a decade. I feel primed now to play Crysis Warhead, Crysis 2 and 3 for the first time soon.

Pros: Still a fantastic looking game. Nanosuit! Customisable weapons! Kill North Koreans!
Cons: Still can't play Ultra detail in 4K @ 60FPS 11 years later! Alien levels are shit. Boss fights a bit tedious.

Crysis is available to buy today from:
Note that my original experience was with the PC CD-ROM version and this review is based on the Origin digital download version.

Disclaimer: This post uses elements from my own original Crysis review dated September 14th 2008.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Replay Review: Quake 4

Quake 4 was released in 2005 and continued the sci-fi single-player narrative id began in Quake II by doing what it does best - pitting you against the forces of the Strogg so you can kick their ass - with a Hyperblaster! Quake 4 is the very definition of a mid-2000's bog-standard shooter, it is nothing special and brings little to the table. So why play? Well it was developed by Raven Software who were major players in FPS development at the turn of the century with multiple successes in both the Star Trek and Star Wars IPs and the Soldier of Fortune games. Development was supervised by id, the people that defined the FPS genre but I guess the real reason it's just nice to play something dumb that you don't really need to think about - that's Quake 4

2004's Doom 3 was id's proof of concept tech demo of their Tech 4 engine and they gave it to Raven for this, the fourth iteration of the Quake franchise. Tech 4 included normal mapping and specular highlighting for the first time but it's primary innovation was its use of entirely dynamic per-pixel lighting, as opposed to pre-calculated per-vertex lighting or lightmaps and Gouraud shading. The engine was designed for somewhat dark environments and criticized for its perceived inability to handle extremely large day-time outdoor areas. This coupled with the fact that id didn't licence Tech 4 before Doom 3's release (which was delayed) meant that Epic Games cornered the market with the Unreal engine to this day. For such an essentially dark game as Quake 4 this meant that the lighting effects alone would be responsible for it's graphic fidelity and finally getting a chance to see it in it's ultra glory in 4K was worth it.

Unlike Quake II, this game features (and is pretty generous with) AI teammates. Yeah, they shoot and kill enemies only about a tenth as effectively as you do and seem to be blessed with much better armour because it takes a lot more for a Strogg to kill them than it does to kill you! That's fine because more often than not a 'live' team member needs to 'stay with the computer to open the door' or some other plot device designed to send you out on your own again - patterns which Raven used as superior plot devices in Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force earlier. Team mates provided a much needed realistic idea of being in a war zone with entire units of troops (something that the WWII games of this period were already doing) with fluidly changing objectives rather than just plodding on as a one-man-army which was a concept that is best was reserved for Doom or games with unrealistic mega-hero or Mary Sue characters. One of your team mates is voiced by Peter Stromaire himself so that makes it worth it alone but the late Charles Napier puts in a good turn as General Ulysses Harper.

I prefer Quake 4 to Doom 3 because the sci-fi combat on an alien planet setting is superior to the sci-fi horror aspect of Doom 3 which was too dark and the jump-scare tactic got old pretty fast. Essentially in Quake 4, you're a space marine who is dropped in to fight the evil Stroggs again and destroy their communication equipment which will render them incapable of continuing to fight effectively. Because of my previous experience with Raven's games such as the sublime Jedi Knight II, I was expecting much more plot wise with Quake 4. Sadly this didn't really come to pass, it appears id exerted too much influence and prevented Raven from crafting a plot fitting the adventure.

It's not the shortest FPS of this era and while one could probably complete it in 7 or 8 hours, less than other games that year such as Call of Duty 2 or Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. I note that F.E.A.R. which was released at the same time and had a similarly modern engine was also an 8 hour game but by virtue of the fact it had an better plot it was not as noticeable as Quake 4 as being too short. Raven only did 2009's Wolfenstein following this and  they now seem to exclusively support whatever primary developer is working on the Call of Duty franchise.

Quake 4 is still worth loading up but has issues on modern graphics cards with more than 1 Gb VRAM (which I guess is practically all of them), and it looks terrible even with ultra textures and HD resolution. One must rummage in either GOG or Steam forums to find configuration settings which you can edit into your installation with a text editor, which is a simple and painless process to get it working correctly. One example is here.

Pros: Shoot aliens with a variety of great often classic weapons like the nailgun, combat is king. It has Peter Stromaire
Cons: Short. No environmental variety. Wafer thin plot.

Quake 4 is available on GOG for €14.99 or on Steam for €14.99, both overpriced so wait for a sale and get it for about €3.50.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

RIP Sen. John McCain

Senator John S. McCain III, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has died aged 81. 

McCain was a Vietnam war hero who flew A4 Skyhawks for the U.S. Navy and survived five years as a prisoner of war after being shot down in 1967. His captors offered him early release after learning his father was a notable naval officer. But he refused to leave before the other prisoners and released in 1973 instead.

In '86, he was successful in the Republican Arizona senate race and subsequently served three decades in Congress, even securing his party’s nomination for president in 2008, a race which he unfortunately did not win.

McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2017 and flew back to Washington days after surgery with a large scar visible above his eye to partake in the Senate’s health care debate. In his final hours,  his family announced that he had refused further treatment.

Capt John S. McCain's awards
He achieved the grade of O-6 (Captain) in the Navy and his "fruit salad" would allow him free drinks in any officer's mess with multiple awards of the Bronze Star, Legion of Merit and Navy Commendation Medal (all with combat 'V's to signify awards from combat engagements) in addition to the Silver Star, Combat Action Ribbon, POW Medal and two Purple Hearts, and many more, undeniable proof of his status as a hero despite the claims of some.

McCain is survived by his wife Cindy, seven children and five grandchildren.

Friday, August 24, 2018

First Play Review: The Witcher

I embraced Bioware's Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises so fully since the turn of the century that I missed out on what are regarded as two of the best RPGs ever. One is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and the other is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. At time of writing both remain unplayed in my  playlists, oversights I believe I may finally have a chance to rectify in time mainly as I believe the the energy of Bioware's star may now be dying.

I was put off playing either Skyrim or The Witcher 3 because they were not the first games in the franchise. However I learned from the several people I spoke to who have played Skyrim only two have played any other Elder Scrolls games so it's not necessary to have done so and not get rewarding value of the experience. The Witcher is a little different however as you play the one character throughout all three games and in a fashion similar to Bioware games - some of your choices are recorded and used from the final save. So before I could ever play The Witcher 3, I would really need to establish my canon by playing the previous entries.

The Witcher was released by Polish developer CD Projekt in 2007 (who also established and while it received praise and favourable reviews, it lacked the spit and polish of it's peers and suffered some instability as well as poor voice acting. An 'Enhanced Edition' was released in late 2008 that corrected the instability and other bugs, added new animations, side-quests, NPC models and recoloured generic NPCs and mobs. It was also noted that it vastly expanded and corrected dialogues as well as voice acting replacements and load times were reduced by roughly 80%. It's this Enhanced Edition (known as The Director's Cut in the U.S.) that's available on both Steam and GOG.

Graphically, the game uses a bastardized version of Aurora, the successor to Bioware's Infinity Engine, featuring full 3D environments, real-time lighting and shadows and surround sound. Aurora was used to produce Neverwinter Nights in 2002 so it was five years old when The Witcher was originally released but there was so many graphical enhancements (by CD Projekt and modders) that one would think it was a more modern engine than Aurora, or at least a game that graphically on par with anything from 2008. The character and monster models and animations are sub par but the lighting is something I found very effectively used in this game. Things hide in the shadows and you use what's essentially night-vision goggles by drinking a 'Cat's Eye' potion (which you must craft yourself). Artificial intelligence is pretty standard but I like the way that when it starts raining, that NPC's run for shelter and complain until the shower stops.

Combat in The Witcher received very bad press at launch because it's different to any other game. The Witcher's game manual describes the nature of combat, what needs to be done and when as it's an event that needs timing. Paying attention during the tutorial level will also help. It's worth noting that the easy difficulty gives you an nonintrusive colour coded cursor assist for attack combinations whereas the harder difficulties this assist is absent. I played in easy mode (because I'm old) but I did not find the system difficult although it took a bit of getting used to. You will likely ever use one of two weapons for the most part, a steel sword (against man) and a silver sword (against monster) and you will need to be in one of three combat styles: quick, strong or group to be in any way effective. I found the combat one of the more interesting aspects and a welcome deviation from the standard single click for an attack on an enemy in almost every other RPG. 


I would say that CD Projekt concentrated more overall on story than graphics or gameplay, while I think most players would prefer a better mix of the two, the story here is certainly enough to allow players to overlook it's shortcomings in other areas. The setting for The Witcher is a bit more realistic than Dungeons and Dragons' staple of fantasy or Dragon Age's dark fantasy. I would class this more like a medieval fantasy, just with the obvious additions of monsters and magic. The original creator, Andrzej Sapkowski, author of The Witcher series of novels drew heavily from Slavic mythology for his monsters and fusing them with Tolkeinesque ideas of dwarves and elves of modern fantasy. The final piece of the puzzle is of course the titular Witcher himself, Geralt of Rivia who has been compared to Philip Marlowe in that he is both cynical and noble. The result is a truly compelling setting for a detail-rich RPG where one may need to abandon one's traditional concepts of good and evil as well as order and chaos in order to get the most of the incredible adventure that this would seem merely the first part of. 

To the best of my knowledge, some fan-made enhancements have made it into the official release of The Witcher which also enhanced it's value. Ten years on, while playable it's strongly recommended that one uses some extra modifications which correct the last few possibly game-breaking story bugs in some of the side quests and enhance the graphics for modern systems. While I will say I noticed a distinct enhancement to the graphics especially as I played in 4K, there was a large amount of crashes but fairly isolated to going in and out of taverns. Sadly you do this a lot so the game crashed a lot (about 50 or so crashes over the 60+ hours I played the game), but the story and desire to stick with such an impressive game kept me hooked enough to ignore the excessive crash inconvenience. It just made me quick-save when going near a tavern.

Pros: Compelling story. Interesting characters and setting.
Cons: Combat will be too odd for those who cant adapt. Quite buggy and unstable, but your mileage may vary.

Handy links:

The Witcher is available now from:
But as always find it for less than €2 during frequent sales.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Super Soldier Serum being worked on by SPEARHEAD?

FOX News reports that archaeologists in Egypt have now unlocked the secrets of the ancient black granite sarcophagus unearthed recently in Alexandria dating back to the Ptolemaic period 2000 years ago. The huge coffin was found to contain three skeletons, those of a woman of 20 to 25 years of age, between 5-feet-3 and almost 5-feet-5, a man between 35 and 39, who was between 5-feet-3 and just over 5-feet-5 and a second man between 40 and 44, and was between 5-feet-10 and just over 6-feet tall.

The infamous disgusting red liquid that was found inside the sarcophagus was theorised by Dr. Ayman Ashmawy, head of the ancient Egyptian antiquities sector, as likely to be sewage water combined with the decomposing remains of the skeletons’ wrappings. More than 30,000 people signed an online petition asking to drink the liquid believing that by doing so they would absorb the mummies' powers.

The strange petitioners may be onto something however as it was understood that SPEARHEAD had an "R&D interest" in the liquid and a man believed to be Brigadier General "Whopper" Creedon, the Assistant Commander for Intelligence and Information was sighted in the region in July.

A man believed to be Brigadier General "Whopper" Creedon in Egypt in July.
Internet speculation has swayed between SPEARHEAD developing a Super Soldier Serum to them covering up a secret unearthed in the tomb not suitable for the general public.

Source: FOX News

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Classic Review: Far Cry

German developer Crytek's first game was Far Cry, one of the first FPS to evoke a sense of freedom by breaking out of the linear "corridor" gameplay of its genre predecessors. Far Cry was one of those games that few could play at max settings at launch even with above average hardware. It was an issue that would be exacerbated later by Far Cry's technical successor Crysis but Far Cry had the issue before it albeit to a lesser degree, certainly not not enough to spawn memes.

Far Cry was the last game I played with my old GeForce3 Ti 500 as the poor resolution at which I was forced to run its demo prompted me to get a 5900XT in March 2004*. Even then however, it fell slightly short of the 'Ultra' settings I dreamed of and was incapable of either full screen anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering to any degree without reducing the frame rate to sub 30FPS which is shit. Even with the details set to medium it got choppy in places and had to run at 800x600 for some outdoor heavily populated levels. Despite the disappointment, overall it didn't prevent my enjoyment of the original game experience delivered by Far Cry as high resolution on such a fantastic engine as CryEngine1 was amazing but it certainly made me less surprised concerning the Crysis situation a few years later.

By the time I was benchmarking a new ATi X800 Pro in mid 2005 (GPUs were replaced a bit more frequently than today) the Far Cry issues were tamed boasting a 60FPS with 4x AA / 8x AF @ 1280x1024. Recently I got the chance to return to Far Cry for a third time to enjoy the whole lot on ultra but this time I had 64 bit textures for the first time and the ability to play in 4K resolution.

Reinstallation from CD is untested at this point but a modern download installation of Far Cry from Uplay, GOG or Steam should set up everything without too much tweaking. The game received updates to v1.3 but an additional patch for 64-but systems was released later to include bump mapped rock face textures and increased environment activity. 4K resolution was available in my system after a restart.

Far Cry may seem old to those that have only been playing FPSs for 15 years but at the time, when most weren't even able to play it a max it still looked extraordinary. To see it in it's maximum glory I'm happy to say that it still looks impressive. The graphics gap between this and games that were released five years before it is far greater than the visual gap between this and games made five years after it possibly even 8 years. The original CryEngine is significantly superior to idTech 3 including superior bump mapping but wasn't quite up to idTech 4 as that innovated with per-pixel lighting as opposed to vertex shading. Of course it would have been impossible to render Far Cry's expansive island-hopping environment Tech 4 at the time as evidenced by the mainly darkened indoor confinement of Doom 3 [2004] and Quake 4 [2005] so the trade off in this case was welcome as neither if id's 'tech demos' could hold a candle to Far Cry.

The outdoor environments of Far Cry were truly astonishing and it felt like a living breathing world. You could see distant birds fly, water flowed and rippled and enemies pottered about on their daily routine (before you killed them), but the absence of animals may be noticed by those more familiar with later Far Cry games. The islands are supposed to be lush islands in the Pacific. Old Japanese World War II bunkers, scuttled ships and downed aircraft often provided set pieces for the adventures of Jack Carver, your character and one of the more inappropriately dressed protagonists in videogames.


Weapons feel effective and punchy, they're typical real world 2004 weapons, Desert Eagle, M4 Carbine, H&K MP5, Machine Gun, Sniper Rifle, Rocket Launcher, grenades etc., the usual fare. Interestingly the game has an advanced version of the OICW which was a prototype weapon being tested by the U.S. armed forces in the early 2000's. The OICW never left the prototype phase but it excited Hollywood and videogame developers appearing in many releases including Universal Soldier 2, Die Another Day, the Delta Force games and the Ghost Recon franchise.

Enemy models are well done for the age of the game but there's little variety among the hundreds of human mercenaries who are there to prevent you casually walking to the end game. The genetic mutant army is a little more interesting and diverse and the most science fiction-ey element of the Far Cry franchise which grounds itself to quasi-reality from Far Cry 2 onward. The artificial intelligence on display here wasn't too shabby, enemies took cover when under fire and search for you if they saw you. Sadly sometimes they had super-vision and were able to see you while prone in the long grass, but stealth in this game was never a viable strategy anyway.

This was as far as I recall the first FPS that I played that evoked such an extraordinary sense of freedom. While it's pretty much the norm now, it had to begin somewhere. In Far Cry you required driveable vehicles on the roads or the water in order to reach some objectives, or to just generally traverse the expansive outdoor levels. Sure you had to travel around and do a lot of killing, but the journey to go and do this is still a wonderful experience.

Pros: It's like taking a tropical island holiday (just have to contend with unruly locals). Great weapons, vehicles, scenery and AI. Looks great on a modern system 14 years on.
Cons: A few linear 'indoor' levels are a pretty 'standard' FPS experiences, but an welcome change of pace mid game and there's not as much as most shooters. Later levels with the heavier Trigens aren't as good as the earlier levels.

Far Cry is available today on the Ubisoft Store @ €9.99, Steam @ €9.99 or GOG @ €8.09 but as always often appears for €3.50 or so in many sales.

Friday, August 03, 2018

A definition of retro gaming

I was recently asked what my definition for "retro" gaming with regards to PC gaming is. The question is necessary as everyone's answer regardless if they're a console or a PC gamer, is different. It's one of those questions that's unlikely to ever be definitively defined in such a way as to be agreed upon by everyone.

Quake II

For PC gaming, some sources will use the arrival of the CD-ROM or the move from a dedicated DOS mode to a native Windows game is the deciding factor. Others define the viewpoint, control system or essence of the game as retro - e.g. I've seen Pillars of Eternity (which evokes Baldur's Gate's isometric viewpoint) or games like Cuphead (a traditional side scrolling Run & Gun) being referred to as retro because they're *based on* the ideas of the types of games that aren't considered modern, although the games themselves certainly are.

In the gaming console community, many players use the generation of the console and say that 4th generation consoles or those that came before them are retro. Others however drag that out to 5th and others claim 6th generation consoles, meaning that the Playstation 2, Game Cube and XBox and the games designed for them are all retro. Players from both camps have argued that the switch from 2D to 3D games to define what's retro and what isn't.

So it's obviously subjective as what is retro or just 'old' at the end of the day, but for me personally I tend to consider a few factors including how well a game functions on modern hardware without significant editing but I would consider the game's base engine technology as a primary factor. A game's engine has a considerable effect on the look and feel of a game, both graphically and functionally although in some cases an engine can be pushed from it's retro beginnings to something that wouldn't be considered retro at all, for example Max Payne (2000) and Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (2003) use the same engine (MAX FX) but for Max Payne 2 it was so much improved that it surely surprised everyone that it was using the same engine as it's predecessor.

I designate games like Quake II as retro due to the fact they were created using engines that game developers were still getting to grips with the concept of true 3D engines. I think my cut off point would be games using those early blocky 3D engines like Quake II, Unreal, Jedi Knight and Neverwinter Nights where humans had square heads, triangles for noses and were woefully animated. Many were in fact less asthetically pleasing than their 2D counterparts. In my opinion the Unreal Engine 2 (Unreal Tournament 2003), id Tech 3 (Quake III) engine and their contemporaries are less dramatically different from today's similar games and shouldn't be regarded as retro. Splinter Cell (2002) for example was one of the first games to use the Unreal Engine 2 which was considered good enough to power the entire Splinter Cell franchise for 11 years, up to and including the most recent Splinter Cell: Blacklist (2013).

Splinter Cell

There was a crop of games between around 1999 and 2003 that straddle the divide between retro and not, I'll just give you a few examples:

  • Quake III: Arena (1999) = Not retro (id Tech 3)
  • Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance (1999) = Retro (Last in the greatest game series of the 1990's but graphically a dinosaur compared to space-flight games of the 2000's)
  • Deus Ex (2000) = Retro (Unreal Engine 1, needs work to get working on modern PC)
  • Star Trek: Voyager: Elite Force (2000) = Not retro (id Tech 3)
  • Max Payne (2001) = Retro (MAX-FX engine in development since 1997)
  • No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way (2002) = Retro (LithTech Jupiter engine, is comparable to idTech 3/Unreal Engine 2, but rights issues have prevented re-release and support of the game and it requires retro-style shenanigans to get working).
  • Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (2002) = Not retro (id Tech 3)
  • Neverwinter Nights (2002) = Retro (Aurora Engine, Bioware's first 3D engine)
  • Knights of the Old Republic (2003) = Not retro (Odyessy Engine, Bioware's second 3D engine, a dramatic improvement over Aurora that would set a standard for years). 
  • Judge Dredd: Dredd vs. Death (2003) = Retro (Rebellion used the Asura engine previously deployed with Aliens Vs Predator (2000) and this iteration of it was not up to id Tech 3 standards but later iterations were).

Of course I reserve the right to change the status of the entries on this list in time due to technical circumstances, but this is what I suspect to be true at time of writing.

In conclusion 'retro gaming' is an entirely subjective concept and merely a semantic issue at the end of the day, unlikely ever to find a true concensus. But now you know where I stand.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Retro Review: Unreal

"Will I try out Unreal or Quake II on a modern system?" I contemplated recently. These two games dominated 1998 and required serious hardware at the time. I constructed Magnus, a Pentium 333MHz PC with a Voodoo2 accelerator just to be able to play them. Their rivalry was legendary; Quake II pipped Unreal to the finish line releasing at Xmas 1997 while Unreal ended up releasing 4 months later and was really the only competitor to Quake II at the time. Quake II went the sci-fi military route after Doom's sci-fi horror (and the original Quake's Gothic horror). I certainly enjoyed the Quake II premise more than Unreal's setting, which was an alien planet, with medieval architecture(?) with eh... sci-fi weapons and you were a prisoner on a ship that crashed there and had to survive oh.. and liberate the friendly locals from an evil empire... or something... hey if you're looking for Shakespeare, go and play KOTOR or Mass Effect!

I've always considered Quake II to be a demo of the second iteration of ID's ID Tech engine which showcased neat graphics over substance. Unreal on the other hand was technically superior with more graphics options, greater atmosphere, superior AI behaviour and fantastic music fidelity. The legacy of both games is still felt today; ID Tech powers Doom, Wolfenstein and a few other big shooters but the Unreal engine technology has gone on to power hundreds of games in the past 20 years and the latest iterations of both engines are still in use today.

The fact that Quake II demands €4.99 on Steam or the GOG version Quake II: Quad Damage forces you to get the extra mission packs as well for €8.09 put me off buying Quake II and Unreal still demands just under €10 on both platforms - but is often given a significant discount to drop it under the €2 mark. I'm fine with spending €2 or 3 especially on a game I already own, to just not faff about with CD's. In May, GOG gave everyone (who was quick enough to grab it) a free download of Unreal Gold - which bundles Unreal with it's official add-on Return to Na-Pali - in celebration of the game's 20th anniversary which made the decision which of the two games to play much easier.

Support for Unreal officially ended in 2000 with patching to version 2.26f by Epic MegaGames. Sadly this in not enough to maintain the game to work satisfactorily 18 years later but thankfully Unreal has enterprising fans who have enjoyed modding and enhancing the game's capabilities in the intervening years. Among the necessary downloads today are Patch 2.26i the latest community patch which had the blessing of Epic games - this is found at and one should also visit to grab high end textures for the game.

With some tweaking, one can get the game running fine in 4K quickly enough and I was soon once again on escaping from the Vortex Rikers as memories came flooding back. The ship is crashed and you're the only survivor a former prisoner, now free to explore and kill - yay.

One memory that was tainted by time however quickly became apparent. Quake II's weapons were solid and varied enough to have the proper tool for each job but sadly I found the weapons and combat inferior in Unreal by comparison. One should expect an enemy to drop from two or three shots from the second (as in not the shitty default) weapon you pick up. They don't, it was something like 10 - and this is the issue with Unreal, the combat is significantly inferior to Quake II. In my opinion this was corrected when the first Unreal Tournament came online simultaneously with Quake III: Arena - this time the combat in Unreal was better than Quake's - but that's another story.

I was hoping for a quick play-through of Unreal but even though the game was now being presented to me in a far superior fashion than ever conceived even by the developers at time or release I knew I wouldn't have had the patience for the dull combat for too long. I decided to play "permadeath" which is to play as if you only have one life. I did my best to stay alive for a few hours until a well placed tentacle monster riveted me with it's stingers and the camera panned slowly away from my fresh corps after which I uninstalled.

I may give it another go at some point in the future, with some mod that increases the power of your weapons to reduce the tedium of the combat.

Pros: The game that gave us the Unreal Engine used in many hundreds of games since.
Cons: In game HUD not good at scaling in 4K. Time has not been kind to the combat mechanics. Story is very meh, but it shouldn't just be considered as the 'Unreal Tech demo'.

Unreal Gold is available for €9.99 on Steam or €8.09 on GOG but appears frequently in sales for under €2.