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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Retro Review: Dark Forces

My recent foray into playing the old Deus Ex led to an understanding that there had also been progress on "enhancing" the gameplay and technology of Lucasarts' 1995 Star Wars shooter Dark Forces. This piqued my interest as by today's standards Dark Forces is ancient, my devotion to Star Wars is obvious, I had fond memories of the game, I bought it in October on a GOG sale for €2 and hadn't tried it out yet. Sadly playing such old games on a 28" 4K monitor isn't ideal so enhancements are required and I was eager to see if they worked.

Dark Forces is now 23 years old and on boot-up it certainly looks it. Also, you likely won't be able to point and shoot because of the controls. 1n 1995, no one, not even Doom developers ID had created a 3D shooter environment in which a player could look / shoot up or down before. There was also no mouselook, instead you used PgUp/PgDn to aim upwards and downwards and the arrow keys moved you around. While GOG's Dark Forces Dos Box solution adds mouse control, the solution is a terrible mouse/keyboard control solution for the game.

The graphics have been addressed with DarkXL which was an ambitious project to allow higher resolutions and colour depth as well as a more modern control option (WASD/Mouselook). Sadly development has been halted, which is a shame because there are a few obstacles that can't be overcome due to the engine changes and unless you're prepare to work around them, you will encounter a game breaking bug or two. This Steam thread discusses DarkXL in depth, but it's the same issue for GOG. An alternative to DarkXL is Dark Forces Plus, a  "compilation of key mappings and a GlovePie script that is intended to allow the game to be played more like a modern FPS while retaining close to a vanilla aesthetic".

It wasn't my intention to play the whole game and I was intrigued with DarkXL, how it would look, run and how far I could get using it so I went with that option to take me back to a time when they made great Star Wars games. The difference in using DarkXL was phenomenal by comparison to vanilla Dark Forces. Firstly I could control movement and aiming as one can in today's FPS. There was no pixelation of graphics, yes the resolution is still low - not expecting miracles but there was light mapping, glow and antialiasing galore and I was getting a much more immersive and smooth gameplay experience overall.

The best way is to show you the difference using these YouTube videos someone created specifically to show the difference between vanilla Dark Forces (top) and DarkXL enabled Dark Forces (bottom).

Notice how jagged everything is in the first video and how harsh e.g. the ceiling tiles look as you move. Then compare it to the DarkXL beneath. I stopped at the "Level 9 crash" as mentioned in the mod's notes, but up to that point there was a flood of nostalgia coming through the screen at me. As DarkXL is open source I hope some enterprising individual can pick up the mantle of it's developer and correct the few (but considerably large) bugs that remain.

The Dark Forces / Jedi Knight games have fantastic level design that made the best use of vertical space unmatched by anything since. The sights, sounds, enemies and weapons are all Star Wars, it's certainly not Doom in a Star Wars skin. The story and it's protagonist Kyle Katarn were one of the keystones of what was known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and while rendered non-canonical now due to Disney's "Legacy" directive it can still be enjoyed for what it is - a great game that spawned the Jedi Knight sequels. While of course technically inferior more than 20 years on, no one who had played them can forget them unlike many such games since.

Pros: It's Star Wars. Outstanding level design. Interesting plot for a shooter, probably the first FPS with an interesting plot.
Cons: Ancient tech but mods have lessened the impact to a great degree. Sadly it's difficult to finish the game with them without some hacks.

Available from GOG @ €4.89 or Steam @ €4.99 - but wait for sales to pick it up for €2 or so.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Retro Review: Finally checked Deus Ex off the bucket list

Three new IPs appeared in 2000 that would certainly define aspects of gaming for the new century, Hitman, The Sims and Deus Ex. I regarded The Sims as pure nonsense even to this day, but can't argue against it's popularity nor disregard it's positive affect on PC gaming over the years. I eschewed Hitman as a series because I wouldn't want to spent that amount of time with what is essentially a bad guy. As for Deus Ex, well, while I loved The Matrix and conspiracy movies it was still a new IP but my gaming schedule was so full back then. In Summer 2000 alone, Soldier of Fortune had already arrived, Diablo II and Icewind Dale came out and both Star Trek: Elite Force and Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn were released at the end of the summer to take us into the first Xmas of the new millennium. There just wasn't time.

Deus Ex could have been the game I got at Xmas that year but instead I choose No One Lives Forever - a tongue-in-cheek 60's styled FPS that was as much Austin Powers as it was James Bond and arguably possibly one of the best female protagonists in gaming history. Today I lament the fact that due to Fox/WB rights issues it can't come to GOG or Steam. Despite Deux Ex being lauded as #1 or 2 game of the year, NOLF was so good I had no regrets. As 2001 was filled with just as many distractions like Aliens vs Predator 2, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal and of course Max Payne, I all but forgot about Deus Ex.

In 2003 the Deus Ex sequel Invisible War didn't come into my radar range as much as it's original and I recall the consensus was that it wasn't near as good. I recall however in 2005 I noticed that Deus Ex was still getting one of the top 5 spots in the greatest PC Games of all time lists no matter what the source. I thought maybe I should have played that after all, but made no move to do so. In 2010 the situation hadn't changed that drastically which still spoke volumes about its quality and as a third entry in the franchise, eight years since the last, was creating a lot of buzz I thought perhaps it was time to correct the Deus Ex oversight. It was still ANOTHER 5 years later before I added the Game of the Year edition to my Steam library in 2015. There it sat for more than two more years before I finally said "Deus Ex - let's do this!"

When you boot up a 18 year old game, no matter how good the optimisation is on Steam or GOG it will run, but may not run the best it could and certainly not going to look very pretty. Initially I discovered the game was much too dark, I was having a significant frame rate drop when looking at water and boy were graphics that ugly in 2000! Thankfully due to the game's success, popularity and much beloved status, fans have programmed hundreds of fixes, add-ons and patches that improve the Deus Ex experience exponentially for modern gamers. The ones I used to give me the best solution were a new Direct3D 10 Unreal Renderer, high resolution textures and a new launcher with which to configure parameters for the game that wouldn't have even been dreamed about 18 years ago such as making the GUI big enough to prevent eye strain at 4K resolution with which I enjoyed the entire game with with no issue.

Normally to stand playing something so old there would need to be a wistful sense of nostalgia involved commonly from having played the game back when it was modern and if nothing has replaced it in the intervening years and I'll cite the X-Wing franchise and Duke Nukem as examples (I chose to ignore Duke Nukem 4Ever). In Deus Ex's case there is no familiarity as I never played it before and it's mechanics with RPG elements are so out of place from a game of that era I found myself both unprepared and marvelling at the game which I can wholeheartedly agree was way ahead of its time.

The RPG elements which slowly found their way into more modern shooters may have been touched on by earlier games than Deus Ex but there was enough here to call Deus Ex an FPS/lite-RPG. Customising your character with different augmented abilities and specifying skills were astonishing. The weapon upgrade mechanic was something I thought was originally Crysis' bag, but J.C. Denton was doing it in Deus Ex several years earlier. The multiple physical approaches (sometimes more than two or three) as well as style (stealth, tech, guns blazing) to the objectives in each mission comprised of multiple and optional goals were features that I now see were directly responsible for the game's longevity and valid reasoning for support for many play-throughs, none of which were likely to be identical unlike so many other examples of the genre.

The game is hard - managing an inventory of only a few spaces when you had so many great options for equipment and weapons made decisions to drop and select things very hard - you want to carry everything unrealistically like other games. Unlike most video-game heroes you're not carrying a quarter of a million rounds of ammunition around with you, you need to improvise, adapt and overcome which was undoubtedly developer Warren Spector's goal as well as weaving a carefully crafted narrative with characters that adapt to many of your decisions. Deus Ex is also a product of a time when FPS games were far longer in length, taking me 34 hours to complete and I'm glad to say that I have. 

Pros: More than just a mindless shooter, Interesting RPG elements and multiple paths were ahead of it's time.
Cons: Needs some finnicking with third party software at installation to get it working properly, it won't run best out of the box anymore.

Available at Steam for €6.99 but wait for frequent sale when it's about €2.75 or less.