Friday, January 28, 2022

Retro Review: Diablo [1997]

25 years ago this month, a friend of mine got his hands on the North American version of Blizzard's then latest videogame: Diablo. It was a precious acquisition that he rightfully wouldn't let out of his sight. It wasn't slated for release in the EU for another 11 months so the only way to play it was on his laptop. And that I did, I took over his laptop and played the whole game over the course of a few days and it was amazing.

Diablo was forged at the beginning of Blizzard's success, their Warcraft RTS games had given them notoriety but it was Diablo and then StarCraft the following year that cemented their place in history. Blizzard produced a simple action role playing game that was instantly accessible to anyone. This was proved by the fact that this was my first video game RPG and I was able to play the thing on a laptop, using only a mouse, the number keys and the shift key. No other controls were needed, a far cry from the 80+ different keyboard commands one had to memorise to play X-Wing. No, Diablo was simple and that was one of it's greatest strengths.

Simple as it was, it wasn't easy. One had to employ tactics against increasingly tough enemies. Clicking the right area, the right enemy, the right spell or potion at the right time was mandatory or you'd easily die. But unlike something like Dark Souls nowadays, it was forgiving in so far as you easily could get out of a tight spot or if you died you could just change your tactic and it would likely mean success.

Diablo at it's time had the best voice acting, the best music and the best sound. It also notably had the best cinematics by far. Blizzard's 3D cinematics were years ahead of the curve - even when compared with LucasArts who had Lucasfilm resources behind them. No one held a candle to what Blizzard produced back then. Diablo's cinematics set the scene for the game but unlike many modern games that use scenes to flesh out the story, Diablo's appear only at the beginning of the game one close to the end and a final cinematic which is enough to tell the story along with NPC exposition.

In Diablo you play a nameless hero of one of three archetypes or classes, the stalwart Warrior who one may argue could be considered a Paladin, the sneaky Rogue, which played more like a Ranger and the physically weak but magically powerful Sorcerer. Your quest in the game is simple: journey beneath the town's cathedral and vanquish the evil that lurks within, some 16 levels deep. While you have your basic equipment to begin, you'll soon acquire more and more powerful weapons and equipment as you venture downwards into the bowels of hell itself.

Before I lost my CD version I replayed Diablo a number of times. The dungeons were partly randomly generated lending itself to some level of re-playability and you never found the same equipment (apart from the quest-reward gear) twice. As the game was not available on a digital storefront, I attempted to install an imaged disk version of the game early in the Windows 7 lifecycle but I was unsuccessful and didn't spent do much time working at it. However when GOG surprisingly released Diablo in March 2019 it answered the prayers of those who longed to play it again or certainly, for the first time.

I finally installed the GOG version of Diablo to mark it's 25th Anniversary and the rush of nostalgia was palpable. While it's not by any means a beautiful game when it's ancient graphics are displayed on a 4K screen, GOG's Direct-X implementation is quite satisfactory and flawlessly executed. The game is perfectly stable on Windows 10 and there wasn't a single hiccup in my playthrough. The new GOG launcher, which can be initiated through GOG Galaxy allows a few options, one of which can display the game in all it's original VGA-era glory. I declined the offer favouring the (slightly) new sheen on an otherwise quarter-century-old video game. 


It took me just over 15 hours to complete but with short play sessions as alas, I was in danger of developing RSI if I played more than a level at a time. The controls for Diablo may the simplest of any video game but the constant left click is likely to reduce your mouse's lifespan if not your finger's. Nevertheless the pros outweigh the cons and it was enjoyable to look back at and re-experience one of the most famous RPGs of all time. I would recommend anyone so inclined to relive the adventure as I have.

Diablo (bundled with it's Hellfire expansion) is only available on GOG for €8.89 but has a 15 or 20% discount in frequent sales.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Retro Review - Half-Life: Blue Shift [2001]

20 years ago Half-Life: Opposing Force developers Gearbox created what was known as "Half-Life: Guard Duty" as exclusive extra content for the Sega Dreamcast port which was due to be released in 2001. However when Sega pulled the plug on the console and it was then abandoned by all major publishers, including Half-Life publishers Sierra, Valve decided to release Guard Duty as a stand-alone expansion to Half-Life as with Opposing Force. Expectations were understandably high for the newly dubbed Half-Life: Blue Shift as in 1999 Opposing Force had been the first expansion pack to be nominated for PC Gamer's Game of the Year. Sadly these lofty expectations were not met and it was neither received well by critics or the fans.

I hadn't played Blue Shift since the PC:CD-ROM era, so over the holidays I decided to take the Steam version for a spin in honour of it's 20th anniversary as I did for Opposing Force. As with the earlier expansion, Blue Shift now takes advantage of the Half-Life High Definition Pack which contains the high polygon and retextured assets developed for the Dreamcast but have since been added to the original Half-Life games on Steam over the years through patches and updates. Although they were added in 2005, I had not played it with the HD assets before so it was great to see the enhancements do the same for the game that they had done for Half-Life and Opposing Force.

Blue Shift itself is extremely short with less than 3.5 hours of game play. This is understandable when you understand that it was designed to fit on a Dreamcast disc along with the entirety of Half-Life as well. However for a full-price expansion pack to last just this long irked many reviewers and fans in 2001. It further disappointed with less weapons in the arsenal and limited to enemy types than were only seen in the original game. Blue Shift has an insignificant plot and sadly the game overall offered none of the innovation that was introduced in Opposing Force some two years previous. 

While Marine Corporal Shephard's story in Opposing Force was an amazing parallel story to scientist Gordon Freeman's adventures in the original game; in Blue Shift you're just security guard Barney Calhoun simply plodding your own way through Black Mesa. The story is again parallel to both Shepard and Freeman and evokes some moments of nostalgia as you briefly see Gordon himself and hear Shephard being mentioned over the radio but unlike those iconic heroes you're not trying to stop anything world-ending, you're just trying to escape and that's just not a great driving narrative for a game whose progenitors were some of the best story-driven FPS games in their day.

Half-Life Blue Shift's only real saving grace is that it's familiar and slightly scratched the itch for fans of Half-Life for... more Half-Life. There is precious little in the expansion for anyone other than a fan of the earlier entries. There is sadly no innovation over the original game so it may actually benefit one to play it between Half-Life and Half-Life Opposing Force as the latter features advancements in both game mechanics, enemy types, weapons and story over the original game that Blue Shift just does not use. Due to the limitations Gearbox were under it makes sense to us now that Blue Shift could only use the assets from Half-Life (the game on the Dreamcast disc) and nothing from Opposing Force but as these limitations weren't made clear in 2001 to it's PC audience the reception was understandably frosty.

On a modern Win 10 system with SSD storage and a fibre connection, Half-Life Blue Shift will download and install in less than 60 seconds. There was a mouse issue which is fixed by setting 'Accept Raw Input' in the Mouse Settings. There were no install issues, pauses or crashes and it ran within 3 seconds after execution. 4K resolution is accepted but there is no HUD scaling (nor did I seek any 3rd party modifications) so one needs to drop resolution to a level where you can read the HUD and text. As with all Valve games Half-Life Blue Shift is only available now through Steam for €3.99. While this is genuinely acceptable for the sublime Half-Life Opposing Force, I absolutely do not recommend Blue Shift at this price point. I got it for 0.79c on sale and you can wait for this too.