Wednesday, June 28, 2023

First Play Review - Black Mesa: Definitive Edition [2020]

Half-Life's hype reached epic proportions when it was shown off at E3 in 1997 promising extraordinary level design and outstanding enemy AI. Even the Die-Hard meets Evil Dead of the story and gameplay set it apart and upon release it clocked up over 50 Game of the Year awards. While it endured in comparison to it's contemporaries at the time, it has now alas aged considerably graphics wise over the past 25 years. While Half-Life is an expertly designed game it's sometimes difficult, even with nostalgia to brave its legendary 15-hour campaign. To much disappointment, a 2004 port to Half-Life 2's Source-engine was not the remaster that most thought it would be. While it did go a little way to improve graphical fidelity, it was basically a simple asset port, and no true incorporation of the advances in technology to the new engine such as physics, lighting or particle effects were to be had.

The lack of a serious remaster by Valve for the game and the fact that CEO Gebe Newell said that it was "inevitable" that someone would fully mod Half-Life into the Source engine, prompted a group of modders called Crowbar Collective to work for some years on a true remaster of the game which they called Black Mesa. It was never intended for commercial release and was missing the Xen chapters but it was released in 2012 to much praise. It was subsequently voted to be released on the Steam storefront by fans though Valve's 'Greenlight programme'. Valve also approached Crowbar Collective with a proposal commercially release the game in the newer version of the Source engine which they agreed to so they could fully realise the game as it was meant to be. In 2015 an early access version was first released and a full Definitive Edition release now including the Xen chapters launched on Steam in 2020.

It wasn't until this was promoted and sold that I took notice. I don't have time to investigate too many mods for games or I'd never get through the backlog but this was certainly a unique case and for a beloved game. One of the best shooters ever melded with the full engine upon which one of my favourite shooters of all time was built. The accolades and review scores were positive so it became 'essential'. Before I had finished Black Mesa the game was over I knew I could never go back and play Half-Life  ever again.

Crowbar Collective did not remake Half-Life with the same level design, enemy placement and give you only the tools to experience Gordon Freeman's adventure through the Black Mesa complex, out to the surface and eventually to Xen exactly as it was. No. That would be a small step up from what Valve did in 2004 for their own game. Here, Crowbar took the 'essence' of Half-Life, the major set pieces, events and battles and created a new take on how Gordon makes it there. It's still the same Half-Life - not to a staunch purist perhaps - but it's so polished and professional that it's hard to come to terms that it's just a glorified mod. They expanded the game to about 20 hours which is not unwelcome as the both the new and familiar environments are exciting to traverse and fight through.

All of the original elements are stunningly realised but with new twists and turns and puzzles. The puzzles don't have Valve's genius behind them but again the essence of what they did is present, the use of gravity for example, as an aspect of being able to manipulate the environment is made possible through the Source engine and is used in ways not even conceived when the original game was created. The level of detail in the broken and sparking underground complex is realised to a more modern level. While the limitations of the engine as it stands may not be on par with games of the 2020's it's still years beyond the late 90's fidelity - or lack thereof.

Despite the accolades afforded to Half-Life upon its release, it's only real issue was the Xen chapters. The setting for Half-Life's final act received the most criticism at the time, and over the successive years. Filled with bland textures and boring zero-gravity jumping puzzles, Xen was lacklustre especially when directly compared with that had come before in the game. Crowbar Collective however took five years to reimagine Xen and it's truly the crown jewel of Black Mesa. Xen is now awash with colour and activity, it begs exploration and it truly now feels otherworldly. Unlike the science facility which is instantly recognisable, Xen is almost nothing like the original save for the main set pieces which even then are quite different. It was genuinely a delight to explore and unlock the secrets and expanded plot of Xen including the exhilarating and terrifying new realisation of the major boss-battles: The Gonarch and The Nihilanth.

Final Verdict: This is not Half-Life as you remember it, it's both the same and very different. But in most ways, all the ways that really matter, it's better! This is the way I'll consume the Half-Life game going forward, embracing this polished masterpiece from a dedicated team of developers who clearly had a passion for the game and wanted to make their ideal version of Valve's original classic. It's time to commit Half-Life to memory and acknowledge that without it, we would not have Black Mesa today.

Technicals: 22.3 hours through Steam on RTX4070Ti @ 3440x1440 / 175FPS

Bugs: None

Availability: Black Mesa: Definitive Edition is only available from Steam for €14.99. Review copy purchased in Oct 2017 for €7.99.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Classic Review - Batman: Arkham Asylum [2009]

As much as I loved Insomniac's Marvel's Spider-Man Remastered earlier in the year, it reminded me that I hadn't played much super-hero video games at all. There had never been much overlap between them and game genres like RPGs or FPS so that did have a lot to do with it. Now as I embrace the actions-adventure genre more and more with the likes of Assassin's Creed, Tomb Raider, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Sony's recent PC ports I felt it was time to check out something that's often lauded as among the better examples of a super-hero game, this of course is the Batman: Arkham series.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is the first in a trilogy of Rocksteady Studios Batman: Arkham games. It was followed by Batman: Arkham City and Batman: Akham Knight (Batman: Arkham Origins was developed by WB in house and is a prequel game to fill the gap in development time between Arkham City and Arkham Knight). While I had read about the games over the years, all I really knew was that you are Batman and you're up against his popular rogue's gallery of villains; but not directly associated to any comic-book, TV or film version of the caped crusader, much like Spider-Man Remastered.

As Batman (the late Kevin Conroy) you deliver The Joker (Mark Hamill) to Arkham Asylum but soon realise that it was Joker's plan to come to the titular asylum, stage a takeover of the island and turn everyone in Gotham into his personal Bane-venom-powered army! Naturally Batman has to investigate the Joker's plan and subsequently thwart it by taking down dozens of inmates and some of the other more infamous Batman villains Joker has placed in his path.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is an action adventure game and I can really only compare it to Spider-Man Remastered in so far as, like Spider-Man it's one of the only games I've ever played where you don't kill anyone; as this would of course be contrary to the character. Arkham Asylum isn't just a fighting game with a Batman skin on the characters and environment, the gameplay here immerses you as Batman and fighting is just one of the tools employed to get from A to B and complete your objectives. It's possible to bypass some of the combat and evade and sneak past your foes, but that didn't strike me as fun in this setting - everyone must be brought to justice and I subdued everyone I saw - that's "my" Batman.

Combat did take a little while to learn, fighting, blocking, jumping, stunning, evading and using powerful 'takedowns' were not easy to master but once you get the hang of each move they game becomes effortless and you can enjoy the more cinematic experience of Batman breaking the bones of the nameless denizens of the asylum. The enemy types were not too varied and some needed specific approaches such as stunning knife wielders or using the batarang to hit and evade brutes at the last second. Combat became furious if you had multiple enemy types in the same 'arena' and had to employ multiple tactics one after the other, but that was when the game was at it's most exciting.

What wasn't exciting was some of the 'boss' fights. These included Scarecrow's nightmare sequences or a fight against Poison Ivy who was inside a giant plant! The perspective of the game changed from the 3rd person over the shoulder camera to a view of the platform or 'arena' and your movement no longer followed the camera - forward was 'left' for example. It took one out of the game and it was difficult to navigate, let alone fight and evade when your controls no longer did what you expected them to. I got through them eventually but they took longer than I would have liked and didn't appreciated the control and perspective forced upon you.

Batman's most famous accessory is his utility belt with an array of gadgets. You start out with Batarangs and a zip line as standard but as the game progresses you fill the belt with an array of additional gadgets that assist in your progress such as the Bat Claw which can move obstacles or remove AC vent covers before crawling about in them (you do a lot of that) and a gun that squirts a plastic explosive onto a weak surface then manually detonate it to reveal a passage or a secret. Batman's keen senses manifest as "detective mode" where he can see points of interest highlighted in his vision and usually point to something that can be manipulated in the environment to use to your advantage. This can also be use in combat where you can see the bones of your enemies.

I said I would try out the tutorial level/sequence of this now 'old' game to see if it was going to be necessary to add in a new fan made enhanced textures pack. But I was met with vibrant well-modelled characters and atmospheric surroundings. To be honest while obviously not 2020s standards, graphically it was far greater than I would have expected from a 14 year old game. I decided against any texture upgrading and left everything as the developers intended for a change.

Final Verdict: Batman: Arkham Asylum was well worth a visit even if a little late, but it's combat was fluid, gadgets were exciting and your progress as a detective was meaningful as you progressed through a pretty straightforward Batman story. Annoying boss fight mechanics kept it from being perfect but I'm certainly looking forward to trying out it's sequels in due course.

Technicals: 15.5 hours through Steam. 3440x1440 @ 62FPS (game limit) on Nvidia 4070Ti under Windows 11

Bugs: None

Availability: Batman: Arkham Asylum Game of the Year Edition is available on Steam or GOG for €19.99. Review copy purchased in Feb 2019 in a bundle with Arkham City and Arkham Knight for €9.99.

Batman: Arkham series:

  • Batman: Arkham Asylum [2009]
  • Batman: Arkham City [2011]
  • Batman: Arkham Origins [2013]
  • Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate [2013]
  • Batman: Arkham Knight [2015]
  • Batman: Arkham VR [2016]
  • Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League [2024?]

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Replay Review - Max Payne [2001]

One of the greatest video games and protagonists came to life with Remedy Entertainment's smash hit Max Payne in the summer of 2001. It took the bullet time from The Matrix, fused it with John Woo's action styling and wrapped it in a Micky Spillane inspired noirish graphic novel with an investigation and conspiracy story that even delved into Norse mythology. It may sound like a bizarre mash-up of ideas but it walked away with the BAFTA for best PC game that year. As Remedy announced a remake of Max Payne 1 & 2 last year, I said I'd go back to the original and see if it still held up.

I've gone back to Max Payne several times over a little more than 20 years. The cinematic experience of seeing your own character on screen for the whole game was a pretty new concept to me in 2001. Jedi Knight and Rainbow Six had situational 3rd person views but Max Payne was my first real 3rd person shooter and I played the hell out of it. The last time was before 2015 however when I pretty much ceased the use of my optical drive.

Max Payne had two major gimmicks. It's story was told through an extremely well done graphic novel style pages with panels appearing from the darkness as various characters voiced their speech bubbles with the subtlety of a grenade. The sheer style of this was extraordinarily unique for the time and I don't think any game I played has presented its plot so well, no matter what the quality of full motion cutscene it had.

The second gimmick was of course bullet-time. With a snap of the right click button (and a combined direction), Max would enter a slow motion bullet time as he dived and you could effortlessly target and shoot enemies with a perfection and clarity not afforded to you by real-time action. While stylistically it was The Matrix, the action was it represented was as much John Woo than anything. Only the doves were missing as Max perforated enemies with dual Uzi sub-machine pistols.

Like many other 20+ year old games, Max Payne has certainly aged - but absolutely not as much as most others of the era and certainly not once the one of the games dedicated fanbase patches with A.I. upscaled textures has been applied (in fact the 'vanilla' Max Payne game is unlikely to run natively on Win11) . The Max Payne 1, Complete FixPack - 2023 Edition is a one-stop shop fix for the Steam version, fixing the expected incompatibility issues six or seven versions of Windows later.

Final Verdict: I'm delighted that Max Payne can still be enjoyed today. Sure there's a lot of nostalgia at work but the core gameplay added with some refreshed graphics from dedicated fans make this classic well worth a revisit.

Technicals: 8.5 hours through Steam with an Nvidia 4070Ti @ 3440x1440 (Capped FPS to 60). UW support via fix pack. Win 11 HDR provided minimal enhancement.

Bugs: Vanilla Max Payne didn't run on Win 11. It ran flawlessly once the 'Complete Fix' pack had been applied

Availability: Max Payne is available from Steam for €9.99. Review copy purchased from Steam for €2.25 in Sep 2016.

Max Payne series:

  • Max Payne [2001]
  • Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne [2003]
  • Max Payne 3 [2012]
  • Max Payne 1 & 2 Remake [TBA]

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

First Play Review: Tomb Raider [2013]

I do recall trying to master the very finicky control system using the the keyboard's directional number-pad to manipulate a heavily polygonal Lara Croft in a demo of the original Tomb Raider in 1996. Despite how cool the game looked (for it's time) and it felt very Indiana Jones, unfortunately the controls weren't something I had the patience for at the time. I dismissed the game as something people probably weren't going to bother playing. Fast forward 17 years to 2013, after I had been proved wrong (a significantly rare occurrence I know) and Tomb Raider not only achieved success as one of the best selling games of the year but countless accolades from the industry and a BAFTA for it's creators. It had by 2013 spawned a whopping 8 sequels including a reboot.

In 2013, the media and industry buzz for the 9th Tomb Raider sequel, and second reboot of the franchise, simply titled Tomb Raider again was unavoidable and the game presented a new take on Lara Croft a more grittier re-imagining of the character, a more mature rated story and a more realistic setting and characters. In 2015 I saw the game on sale as a new one was release that year, so I bought Tomb Raider as it was marketed as a logical entry point into the franchise. Instead it became the foundation on which my backlog was built and it remained unplayed in the digital pile for 8 long years until this March where I finally installed it on the game's 10th Anniversary.

It wasn't so much the time I had been waiting to play it but more a recent surge in enjoying so much of the action adventure genre in the recent Sony releases that prompted me to finally see what Tomb Raider was all about and I wasn't left disappointed. In Tomb Raider, Lara and her friends are shipwrecked on the Island of Yamatai, depicted here as somewhere in the Pacific near Japan. It soon becomes clear that a belligerent force has also been stranded there for some time and are quite unfriendly to outsiders. As Lara Croft (Camilla Luddington), you must uncover the secrets of the island in order to save yourself and your friends from Yamatai before it becomes your tomb.

Tomb Raider is an action adventure game in the purest sense. Gone was the crazy control system that so put me off the original and Lara had now become as easy to control as Kratos or Spider-Man once you came to terms with the movement, camera and unique actions. Lara is athletic, nimble and traversal is genuinely exciting especially when using climbing ropes or needing to jump and catch ledges at the last second. QTEs appear to add excitement (but mostly annoyance) to key moments in the narrative. A survival mode enhances Lara's senses revealing possible hook points, or hints how to proceed.

Combat is a mix of free-form shooting and some light QTEs for stealth and close quarter combat. Lara employs a bow, pistol, shotgun and assault rifle all which can be customised and upgraded to be more useful as you begin to engage tougher, and cleverer enemies as you progress. Enhancements to combat and survival abilities allow you to engage more with the environment opening previously inaccessible areas although there's no great reason to actually do this; it's good that it's there should one want to explore and find more tombs and secrets.

Puzzles take advantage of physics but are exceedingly simple to solve allowing you to return to action without too much of a head-scratching distraction. Although the  do take you out of the action, I did find the "challenge tombs" themselves too short or to easy to solve, they're not aptly named. Sadly from reading about previous games there seems to be two modes to Tomb Raider puzzles, exceedingly easy or deathly hard but I'd want something in between. The ones here are of the easy kind and it would not have been out of place to have them occupied by cultists rather than being empty. These are option though so they don't affect the game much.

Final Verdict: For the 20 hours I played, I kept cursing myself for not playing this when I fist purchased it, and it has made me more anxious about the unplayed gems I'll find while installing other backlogged titles. There's not much to fault with Tomb Raider, yes the tombs are a bit simplistic and the QTEs are annoying but the combat is visceral, traversal exciting and the plot compelling. I hope this continues with it's two sequels.

Technicals: 19.4 hours though Steam. 3440x1440 native @175FPS with Highest graphical settings, no mods employed or were required. HDR through Windows 11 provided some enhancement.

Bugs: One crash to desktop near the beginning. It didn't repeat.

Availability: Tomb Raider is available from Steam for €17.99. Review copy purchased in June 2015 for €9.99.

The Tomb Raider Franchise (mainline only)

  • Tomb Raider [1996]
  • Tomb Raider II [1997]
  • Tomb Raider III [1998]
  • Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation [1999]
  • Tomb Raider Chronicles [2000]
  • Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness [2003]
  • Tomb Raider: Legend [2006]
  • Tomb Raider: Anniversary [2007]
  • Tomb Raider: Underworld [2008]
  • Tomb Raider [2013]
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider [2015]
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider [2018]