Sunday, December 29, 2019

Retro Review - Beneath A Steel Sky [1994]

One game that sadly never got a proper remaster treatment [save a quasi-'remastered' IOS port] was Revolution (Broken Sword) Software's Beneath A Steel Sky, a 25 year old point and click adventure with a dystopian/cyberpunk sci-fi setting and a cult following to this day. I said it would be nice to sample a short adventure game for a change and as BASS has been freeware since 2003, and delivered free with GOG accounts, there was no reason not to.

As Robert Foster, stranded in an irradiated desolate wasteland outside the city walls as a child you are found by theatrically evil security forces and returned to the Union City. Foster soon escapes from his predicament and begins to uncover corruption and conspiracy around every corner - much of which as he discovered is all about someone important called Obermann - but is Foster Obermann himself?!!! 

One of the principal draws of the game however is the collaborative effort of famous comic book creator Dave (2000AD/Watchmen) Gibbons on the game. Gibbons was responsible for the character designs as well as the backgrounds and had an extraordinary level of input including a graphic-novel style intro and finale.

It wasn't quite as slapstick as Lucasarts' point and click efforts but it was certainly more tongue-in-cheek than Sierra's offerings from the period. I would compare it far more to the Star Trek 25th Anniversary/Judgement Rights games in tone. While the plot is certainly dramatic and dark, the interactions and dialogue is absolutely fucking hilarious and delivered with just as hilarious voice acting - including a turn from a young Jason Issacs.

Puzzle wise, there were a few quite less than obvious solutions that I'll admit needing a walk-through for, and each time I'd admit I'd likely never have tried that as a solution to the pending issue, but there are not many of these situations. Most puzzles/solutions are revealed by carefully moving your mouse around at anything that might look like it's vaguely interactive and most of the time it is, and there is a palpable sense of accomplishment when you do figure it out for yourself.

Beneath A Steel Sky sports an exceedingly simple control system - you can select everything from right or left click and F5 brings up the save/load/quit menu, and that's it! It's certainly easier to play than any other point and click and that simplicity made it a more immersive experience. In fact when coupled with Gibbons' influence it was almost more like reading a comic book for seven hours than playing a game.

This year, Revolution announced a sequel: Beyond A Steel Sky, was in development. It is again in collaboration  with Gibbons and is expected to release in 2020.

Beneath a Steel Sky is free on GOG.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

First Play Review - Bioshock [2007]

Note: This review is for the 2016 Remastered version of the game.

With so many people surprised I hadn't played a Bioshock game and so many recommendations were given, when I had to opportunity to get "The Bioshock Collection" a bundle of all games in the trilogy in November last year, I took it.

Now I want to start by saying I'm not a fan of the horror genre itself. I can't relate to most horror movie characters because they're so incredibly dumb. I also particularly isolate the games, or movies of the survival-horror genre. I regard survival horror as unentertaining and a waste of my precious time for the most part. For example, I hate Ridley Scott's Alien [1979], the thought of going into outer space without an arsenal of heavy weaponry and the military training to use it is the most dumbass concept I've ever seen committed to film. I only bring this up here because Bioshock is often labelled as survival horror. I disagree with this label as unlike the say, Resident Evil series, because Bioshock gives you enough guns and ammo; and while it's tense and atmospheric, it's not frightening or scary. I just wanted to nip that concept in the bud before the entire internet goes wild with "Creedon played a survival horror game!!!?" or some such social-media 'panic'.

Bioshock, the spiritual successor to System Shock marries Steampunk/Cyberpunk with biological elements creating a sort of 'Biopunk' as it were and if you can visualise that concept then you have a fundamental understanding of the world in which the game takes place. The story is a simple concept, it's 1960 and you survive a plane crash, washing up near a lighthouse that's actually an entrance to a giant underwater city - Rapture. Unfortunately it's a world in chaos and you must navigate it's perils guided by an ally on your radio to get you to safety.

Despite it's somewhat horror-oriented setting, you never feel like you're in too much peril. You have an array of weaponry as you would expect from an FPS: pistol, shotgun, machine gun and the like but also a few weapons unique to it's biopunk setting. The trick is that ammo for all the weapons is not plentiful but you can pick up raw materials and craft ammunition at special stations which are plentiful enough. If an arsenal of weapons wasn't enough, you also have some biologically created "superpowers" called Plasmids that allow telekinesis, mind control or the ability to burn or freeze enemies or the environment to name but a small few. You can upgrade not only your powers and talents as you would in an RPG but also your weapons, so eventually you feel powerful enough to ignore most dangers and waltz around killing everything like an omnipotent god.


Most of the characters are unfriendly towards you, which is not unusual for an FPS but sadly enemies are not incredibly varied. All are humanoid, mostly the former denizens of Rapture who are all driven insane but in contrast - one duo of enemies is very interesting - Big Daddies and Little Sisters. I will say now that I say these in my head as I type, it feels really weird! Little Sisters are a plot point, they are the ones who carry magic essence harvested from the ocean floor, they are immune to your interference while their protectors, the Big Daddies - mutated humanoids in deep sea diving suits - are active. One of your main objectives is to incapacitate the Big Daddies, so you can rescue the Little Sisters from their power-induced mind-controlled state or if you're evil you can harvest their power for yourself! 

The environment of the game is truly unique and I've never seen, let alone played in one like it. It ran great at 60FPS in 4K. I didn't play the 2007 version of the game but I know that lighting, texture detail, volumetric smoke and surface reflections were unlikely to be as good in that as they are in the 2016 version. The sound plays a very important part adding to the atmosphere. You will need to become familiar with the groaning and moaning of the Big Daddies to track them and you'll likely hear them long after you turn the game off! Voice acting isn't shabby with Armin Shimmerman and J.G. Hertzler (Quark and Martok on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) lending their voices to characters as does Juliet Landau (daughter of Martin Landau) who is remembered as Drucilla in Angel.


Bioshock was a worthwhile diversion for 24 hours, which is certainly longer than the norm for first-person-shooters and I'm looking forward to Bioshock 2 and Bioshock: Infinite at some point in the future.

Bioshock: Remastered is available on it's own for €19.99 or €4.99 in many sales on Steam or GOG. Steam also offers Bioshock: The Collection which has Bioshock 1 & 2 Remastered and Bioshock: Infinite in one package, and this collection is often discounted from €60 to €14.99 or even cheaper on a Key-vendor like Fanatical.

Note that the 2007 edition of Bioshock is no longer available for sale, but a purchase of the 2016 remastered version (or collection) will have the original version also added to your game library. The same goes for Bioshock 2. Additionally if you own the original versions of Bioshock or Bioshock 2 on Steam, you have access to the remastered versions for free.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Review: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain [2015]

The 32 year old Metal Gear franchise, brainchild of Japanese developer Hideo Kojima, spans over 20 games and is often referred to as one of the most complex narratives in video game history. It's also a predominantly console-oriented affair with only about five of them being ported to the PC. I never played any of them because more often than not, console games are crud when ported to the PC and I dislike playing franchise sequels without playing the original. The mouthful of a title Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain however, the last in the series, was really pushed for the PC more than any MG title before it and as I got it free with my GPU when MG fans were paying €50 for it so I felt it would be rude not to try it.

I've played games which one completes and indicates you're done in the form of an end credit sequence and only offers you to reload your last save, likely the last one made before the game ends. Some games offer the ability to go through the whole thing again on harder difficulty, only now you have all the weapons and gear you picked up along the way. Others offer some sort of continuation to online multiplayer, while most genuine online or MMO types of games offer the promise of continuation and "the grind" until content is updated. In the Autumn I self-imposed a completion of MGSV, easily one of the most interesting, rewarding and addictive gaming experiences ever. It felt strange uninstalling this as while I had finished all the main missions and seen the story to it's conclusion, there was still hundreds of hours of game to get lost in. I guess I didn't feel I was entirely finished with it yet; but after 589 hours (according to Steam) I figured that I probably should be, so that I can play others, so I had to forcefully pull myself out.

My initial thoughts were mixed. The first hour of the game is heavily scripted, with little by way of gameplay. Without spoiling anything, you're escaping from a hospital being invaded by a paramilitary force and you've just woken up from a coma, so you're not yet "at your best". It's filled with scripted events, blocked exits, fake doors, and you're lethargically following a bandaged man unmistakably voiced by Kiefer Sutherland (which somehow is also your own voice?) in a backless hospital gown telling you to do everything. That said it was exciting and spectacularly directed in terms of visuals but it makes no sense until the end of the game about 50 missions later!

Prepare yourself for a whopping 4 hours or so of cutscenes and scripted sequences spread throughout the game where Kojima advances the bizarre story, which does have some exceptional dramatic moments, one of which I had I can only describe as "traumatic". It certainly makes me appreciate the level of following the franchise has and perhaps justifies the adoration for Kojima I've seen online. Sadly while the game satisfactorily ends it's story, there was a few threads that were left unfinished but this was because publisher Konami put pressure on Kojima to finish it up and thus did not have time to complete everything including the most major thread which should have been "Mission 51" - the details of which can be viewed on Youtube. However I must stress that MGSV:TPP does not have a KOTOR2 situation to the ending, where the publisher demanded the developer cease development, tack on an ending and release it in that state, leaving a plethora of unanswered questions. In MGSV the main ending to the game is intact and was likely completed at the same time as the start, so various Internet musings on the game being "unfinished" are inaccurate, it's just not 100% complete. I can't speak for it addressing all the plot points that the overall lore of the whole 20-game MG series demands but unlike KOTOR2, the ending is paced adequately and the game is bookended satisfactorily.

While the 50 or so story missions are the driving force behind the game, one would have a difficult time as you progress through the story without completing Side Ops - similar to side-quests in any bog-standard RPG - which are the real meat of the game, more so than the story missions. This is certainly where one would sink most of their time into as one really has the freedom to complete Side Ops in which ever way you choose as there is only a single win condition. They can take as long as you like, use whatever tactics and resources you want and it's all good so long as you eliminate (kill or extract) a target or rescue a prisoner etc. There are 150 of these missions throughout the game and often you find yourself repeating them for the rewards in order to build up your military strength. The list of Side Ops available changes every time you complete some and return to the helo and are often updated with new ones as you complete story missions so one must always check them out after a main mission as some of them needed to be completed before a main mission will unlock and vice versa.

Building up your military strength is a crucial component of MGSV and one I particularly enjoyed. One can't really progress in the game without doing it because the enemy begins to develop countermeasures to your attacks and you need to stay ahead of the curve by developing better weapons and equipment. You eventually get a Fulton recovery device which you attach a balloon to a person or animal that you have incapacitated (not killed), a container or a vehicle and it's magically added to your resources. The person is brainwashed into joining your team, you get a reward for rescuing the animal, the container translates into resources needed for development and the vehicle becomes yours to drive later or sell.

This brings me to Mother-base - your base of operations which you really need to build up so you can hold more staff, develop more and more weapons and equipment and thus can complete missions faster, easier and with higher chances of success.  Mother-base can be visited (a lot of the the plot points force you to return too) and there are some training missions to be had there. It does get rather big (35 separate platforms when fully developed) but you can drive between platforms in a jeep (if you have the time), fly on a helicopter (of you have the money) or my favourite: sit in a cardboard box on a delivery area and Fed-Ex yourself to another site!

Of course when you complete building Mother-base, the building doesn't stop. The Forward Operating Base or FOB is the final type of content for MGSV. One develops a basic FOB (essentially a near identical copy of of Mother-base in other territorial waters) during the single player game but it's really for multiplayer or event driven content. Developing an FOB increases the limits you can expand your staff even more. This is needed if you want to develop a higher grade of weaponry than you have and also generate automatic materials procurement through automatic mining, which in turn allows you to expand even more, and build even more FOBs, to expand more staff limits, to get higher levels of staff, to get higher levels of weapons and so on. I didn't get to the maximum level, I don't know what it is but I had 109 platforms which cost filled with 2800 unique staff when I called it quits.

There is a con to the FOB though. As your FOB (containing a percentage of your resources - even though you collect as part of the single-player story game) is permanently online, it is actually vulnerable to attack from other online players! Other players can actually land on your base - and if they're good enough - kill or abduct your staff and steal your raw materials! Unless you're good enough to retaliate, the only real defence against this is to not develop an FOB which severely limits the military level you can achieve and you would find it more difficult to complete. While I'm confident the issue was serious a year or two into the game's release - four years on I was only invaded once losing a mere 13 staff which were replaced instantly with staff from the base's "waiting room". It would be prudent to develop security devices and adjust the security level as high as you can so that only vets could ever attack your base and not some random noob!

In addition to a kit that might take you a while to decide what to bring from dozens (later hundreds) of available options - each of which can be customised to your liking - you also can take an AI 'buddy' to aid you in your mission. You start out with a horse first, it's good for getting around but it's limited. The buddies I used most often were D-Dog, a dog, a good dog that can sniff out weapons, vehicles, enemies, wildlife, resources and medicinal plants or Quiet a sexy semi-naked expert sniper for which no expense was spared on the movement physics of her breasts - remember the game was developed in Japan and they're a bit strange over there. I spent about 100,000GMP in game to develop clothing for her, thus treating her like a soldier and not the Dutch underwear model that provided her motion capture. Quiet's a dab hand with the sniper rifle and can actually be sent on command in to an area and methodically eliminate enemies while you leave the game to go and take a shit. She's actually a good quarter of the story to the game too so don't kill her when you first meet her.

I will say graphically the game is top tier. The Kojima Productions FOX engine is easily the most optimised graphics engine I've seen in years netting me a steady 45+ FPS at 4K Ultra detail. I needed to drop to 2K during the hot summer due to heat but FPS rose to 60 which I limit manually. This is much better performance than any Western-produced game in it's class. Character modelling is impressive for the main characters, but secondary characters not so much. Animations aren't the best either with some of the characters stances looking a bit constipated but environments are astonishingly detailed even though there are really only two regions; rocky and sand-brown Afghanistan or swampy green yet more brown Zaire. This game proves that there is indeed beauty in the mundane but it would have been nice if there had been a reason to have more temperate, arctic environments or even coastal regions.

I need to mention the game's soundtrack because it's certainly the most impressive I've heard since World in Conflict. The game is set in a version of 1984, and the soundtrack reflects that exceptionally. Midge Ure's "The Man Who Sold The World" is sort of the game's theme, and there are other offering from Kim Wilde, a-Ha, Hall & Oates, The Cure, Ultravox, Billy Idol and many more. As you invade installations you can take tapes of the songs out of the cassette players and they'll be available to listen to on your own in-game Walkman as you play or there's an option to choose your "helicopter music" - So I challenge anyone to say they have lived until they ride in a helo that's blaring Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy" on it's loudspeakers! Additionally, the in game score by Swedish composer Ludvig Forssell with Justin Dungeons & Dragons Burnett and Daniel Call Of Duty: Black Ops III and IV James deservingly earned them the best score at the Game Awards. 

Bring a trained Force Recon Marine allows me to appreciate it when game designers understand the value of a tactical approach to warfare. Often such designers and Hollywood directors are of the idea that "Special Operations Forces" means "louder bangs with less men", and while it certainly can be, more often than not it's the completion of an objective before the enemy realises you've been there. What MGSV:TPP allows, is for you to take any approach, from any direction, from any distance, in daytime or night, lethal or not and complete the military objective by killing everyone loudly, neutralising everyone silently or vanishing without ever being discovered. Games like Call of Duty rely on scripted sequences to convey stealth but it's eventually just an exercise on who you kill first and how many, while the Splinter Cell franchise is built on stealth and penalises you for going loud or being discovered. MGSV in contrast gives you to the freedom to adapt to do whatever you want to do to the point where I'm sure many other games will now feel a little hollow or too constricting, even "ruined" by comparison to such a free-form experience.

I have no issue recommanding Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to anyone who appreciates shooters and stealth games but this is not for casual gamers. The only way to progress is by spending time doing some legwork and that takes serious man-hours, but I feel the rewards are worth it in the long run.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is worth the €29.99 you'd pay on Steam but you can find it bundled with it's prequel episode Ground Zeroes as METAL GEAR SOLID V: The Definitive Experience for the same price but as with all you can wait for a sale and get it all for about €6.99.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

First Play Review - Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines [2004]

Note: This review is for the game using the Unofficial Patch v10.4 (31/5/2019)


This year marks the 15th Anniversary of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, one of the most unique RPG experiences for the PC that is beloved by many and often spoken about when referencing the best RPGs of the '00's but also as one of the best bug-ridden games of all time. It's also the year in which a sequel - Bloodlines 2 was announced much to the surprise and delight of fans of the original. So now that it has received significant fan patch support and was recommended by a trustworthy source I thought it was was time to see what the fuss was about.

My first pen and paper role-playing situation was not with D&D but in fact with White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade. It wasn't a particularly long adventure but I learned the basics of role-playing through White Wolf's system and I found the World of Darkness setting itself to be most intriguing, later even sampling Mage: The Ascension. I recall in the late '90's / early 2000's that White Wolf was to bring elements of their world to video games. Having achieved some success in 2000 with Nihilistic Software's Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption set in the dark ages, White Wolf later licenced V:TM to Troika Games who leveraged Valve's powerful new Source engine to craft an action RPG set in 21st Century Los Angeles.

The combination of melee or automatic weapons with vampiric powers made real by the engine for Half-Life 2 was certainly a winning combination in theory but sadly the execution fell just short of perfection. While it's fair to say Activision gave Troika many extended deadlines, they finally forced it's release in November 2004, creating a game that was "playable" (as deemed so by Activision, not Troika) as opposed to complete. The remaining bugs themselves weren't game breaking but excessive load times, apparently missing content and moronic A.I. were just some of the peeves that prevented the game from greatness. What didn't help the case was that Troika's previous game Dungeons and Dragons: Temple of Elemental Evil was also pushed out the door before completion as well, so people were already weary of another instance of that and Bloodlines' state upon release was enough to dilute enthusiasm. Despite very favourable reviews from the game press, Troika itself didn't survive the poor sales and financial failure and it shuttered in 2005.

In the meantime two enterprising individuals sought to open the game up and make valiant attempts at 'fixing' V:TM-B. Dan Upright first created an unofficial patch but it was taken over by Werner Spahl from version 1.2 and Spahl continues to update the patch to the time of writing. Not only are there substantial graphical improvements but all the content that was cut from the game was restored as well as a significant amount of character 'paths', dialogue trees and added features. A feature of the patch allows for a basic experience that simply fixes bugs but leaves the gameplay otherwise untouched from 2004 or the "Plus" version which includes the restored content and other tweaks that bring the game into a more modern way of playing. Spahl has received praise and creative assistance from former Troika developers and the GOG version of the game actually includes the unofficial patch today.

So how does the game play now? Well I can only tell you that as this was my first time with the game but it was an interesting experience. It's an FPS at heart but clearly an RPG in execution and scope. As a Kindred (vampire) you choose a clan, sort of like choosing an RPG race/class combo and this determines your powers. Based on a series of questions you answer at the start the game chose the Tremere (Blood mages), Brujah (anarchists), Malkavians (the insane), Toreador (the sexy ones), Gangrel (animalistic) or the Nosferatu (monstrous). For me it was Ventrue, Vampire nobility, destined for leadership. Your powers duration and intensity is determined by a blood pool - which can be refilled by feeding from people - but don't get caught by someone else as the whole point of Vampire: The Masquerade is not to reveal the existence of the Kindred to humanity. The rest is standard RPG faire: get quests from NPCs, complete quests, get loot, sell loot for money, get XP points, spend XP points on character sheet to increase power and ability, advance plot and repeat until end credits.

So one would have assumed that using an FPS engine like Source would have made the action element great and the developers would have only to worry about story, animation and RPG elements, but no, combat is bad! I get the idea that the pen and paper system itself is being emulated to some degree and one must spend points into say - firearms to improve accuracy, but I'll be honest, in a video game situation, where you are carrying around about seven of them at a time, it's not fun shooting at someone with a gun and hitting your enemy once in six shots before reloading, especially when they are all crack shots against you! This would be acceptable if there were ways to avoid combat completely, but other than areas you can use domination or charm (Jedi mind-tricks for vampires) or stealth - which despite the patch, is a broken or cheesy mechanic depending on how you look at it - combat is still inevitable. There are really too many combat sequence especially in the last 20% of the game for you not to put all the experience points you can into combat abilities just to stay alive. In fact I admit that I turned on "god mode" for much of the game because I was genuinely becoming bored by the combat itself.

But if the combat was boring, why continue? Well thankfully, the plot is well written, rich and nuanced and has a level of freedom that I did not expect for this era. It has consequences to your actions and has a range of possible endings to your storyline that Bioware should have taken a cue from it for the Mass Effect saga. The story drip feeds you V:TM lore through NPC dialogue which is much more satisfactory than the usual CRPG trope of reading a book you've looted. The lore as presented in the game itself is merely the skin on top of the soup that is the pen and paper sourcebooks but its plenty for the game purposes in which you are cast as a newly embraced fledgling Kindred who is completely clueless as to what they have become and not only must now navigate the game world but also the complex intricacies of vampire politics.

The design of the world itself is worth noting, it's naturally in perpetual darkness as it's taken as a given you don't wander around during the day for obvious reasons. The locations are mostly urban L.A. but there are distinctive differences between them, e.g. Santa Monica is by the seafront, Downtown is comprised with tall skyscrapers and Gothic architecture and Chinatown is filled with lights and eastern style signage. This isn't a sprawling open world, you're eventually blocked by a fence and inaccessible tunnels at the ends of each street which act as invisible walls, but there's no reason to explore beyond anyway because for the most part you're going to a specific building to advance whatever quest you're on. Exploration only occurs within a building, down a sewer, or other enclosed area, rarely topside in the streets of L.A. There was one particularly well crafted level that took place in an abandoned hotel that your character is sent to in order to get rid of a spirit that had chased away the renovation crew. It was filled with eerie sound effects, jump-scares and poltergeist-like shenanigans. Had the entire game used the investigation-style gameplay employed in this level in the rest of the game without instead such a heavy reliance on combat it would have been a much better game. 

Voice acting is 90% excellent but some was abysmal, and I expect I could tell when Spahl got a fellow fan to record a piece of missing dialogue for the cut-content, but not having played the unpatched-version I'm unsure. That said it's less than two-dozen lines of dialogue in several thousand so I wouldn't be too concerned. The score was produced by Rik Schaffer who composed the music for Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer and Activision licenced songs from contemporary minor artists at the time and they form part of the games nightlife atmosphere especially in the many bars and nightclubs you frequent which are littered with the posters of real-life bands.

Having now played the game myself I can say that the game is a product of it's time and hasn't aged as well as others from the mid 2000's. Sadly while the unofficial patches have made the game quite  playable, it suffers from often moronic A.I. or the lacklustre and at times, chronic combat. With that in mind however, the strength of RPGs like this lies in the story they weave and combat is just a means of navigating obstacles in the way of advancing the plot, of which this game certainly worth the €5 price tag.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is available from Steam for €19.99 or GOG for €17.99. However the game is often on sale from either vendor for somewhere in the region of €5. However during the most recent sales I observed only a minor drop in sale price to €9.99 possibly due to a resurgence of interest in the game because of the imminent sequel in 2020. 
At time of publishing, the unofficial patch is v10.5 and available here.