Gemini Rue review

Don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking: “What’s with all these Battlefield articles?!  The singleplayer story was terrible, I need something to wash the taste away but I’ve only got under a tenner to spend on a new game!  Plus I only class a game as being ‘new’ when it’s released on Steam even though it might have been out for months already.  And on an unrelated topic, why in the great Adventure game renaissance has nobody done something like the Blade Runner game?  That game was amazing!”

My, you do jump around a bit, don’t you!?  Never fear, I understand completely and have the perfect answer to all of your thought questions: Gemini Rue.

Like squinting at Blade Runner

So what is it?  Gemini Rue is a point and click adventure set in a sci-fi, future noir universe.  The game starts you off in control of Azriel Odin, a trenchcoated cop trying to pick up the trail of his missing brother in a rundown city on a planet afflicted with perpetual rain.  The Blade Runner reference is apt with the film’s dystopian style having obvious influences on the look and atmosphere of the game, there are even direct references to the photo analysing Esper machines later in the game and the story covers similar existential themes of memory and identity.  What is so remarkable is how well the game captures that atmosphere using the modest resources of the AGS engine.  It’s clear the game’s creator, Joshua Neurnberger, is a master of this sort of pixel art, and the subtle movement of the rain, characters and background vehicles really add life to the still backgrounds.

The game doesn’t all take place in the rain, though.  Half of your time is spent controlling ‘Delta-Six’, the nameless inmate of an offworld medical facility.  Between completing daily tasks for the unseen ‘Director’, and dealing with his relationships with the other inmates, you help Delta-Six construct an escape plan to get off the sinister prison-like station.

The opening scene is clearly set in my dentist's

The gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has spent much time with a point and click adventure, with left-click moving your character to wherever you are pointing on the screen, and a right click bringing up a neat menu of interaction options (Eye, Hand, Mouth or Foot) and your inventory.  This is very much a point and click adventure game and not a puzzle game, though.  While there are ‘puzzles’ to solve these are usually pleasingly obvious to bypass after a moments head scratching, and are usually only served up one at a time so you know that pipe you just picked up is probably going to be the thing you need to use to get in that balcony window you’re about to try and enter.  Whilst important items are occasionally hard to distinguish from the pixellated background, the puzzles are generally simple and satisfying to complete without a lot of trudging about to carry out their solution (with one annoying exception).

All that means you can get on with playing through the superb story.  The plot moves at a satisfying pace, with action sequences (yes, action sequences in and adventure game!) breaking up the investigation/escape plan hatching, and genuine twists and turns keeping you guessing until the end.  Planetside there’s a real feeling of playing cat and mouse with the local Boryokudan crime syndicate, with your character flipping from cat to mouse and back again with each bit of plot exposition, and in the cold, bleached confines of the Centre 7 correctional facility the infinitely oppressed Delta-Six slowly takes control back from his oppressors both within and outside the prison population.   It is the best story I’ve played through in a long while, it really is the sort of thing you don’t expect to see in a video game, let alone an indie-title on a shoe-string budget.

Azriel's plot arc summarised perfectly

The only issues with the game are brought on by that small budget.  Locations are reused heavily, and there aren’t any of the branching narrative options that its inspiration so brilliantly included.  The mostly fine voice acting is also let down by awkward pauses between one person speaking and the other, and the characters are strictly limited in their interactions with the world with only plot-specific objects, people and doors rewarding adventurous clicking.  That said there is a raft of appropriate comments from Azriel and Delta-Six when you click on inappropriate items, my favourite being when you try to ‘use’ a top floor window Azriel objects “I’m not THAT desperate” in his deep, noirish drawl.

At roughly 5 hours in length you get enough for what you pay for, and I would urge you to at least try the demo and see if you can resist paying up to continue the story to its excellent, twisty conclusion.  It’s a pleasure to play a well-written, atmospheric and serious adventure game and I can only hope Gemini Rue’s introduction to the Steam library gets it the sales needed to spawn a sequel and more of this sort of thing.

8/10

Even blander than my work canteen

Private Foyle’s Battlefield 3 Multiplayer Impressions…..concluded!

BLA-BOOM!

So, enough with the stories, hopefully they’ve given you a little taste of what Battlefield 3 multiplayer plays like.  If it’s seemed disjointed, manic and difficult to comprehend what I was actually doing most of the time then I’ve successfully described the Battlefield 3 experience.

What do I think of it at this early stage?  I am absolutley loving it.  Compared to Battlefield:Bad Company 2’s (BF:BC2)  brand of anarchic team-based multiplayer, of which I was a big fan anyway, this is a real step up in realism, depth and, through the bigger focus on vehicles, fun.  It’s not a return to Battlefield 2 (B2), and some may be disappointed by that, it’s more of a balance struck between the faster paced BF:BC2 and the more tactical B2.  I for one think it strikes that balance well, capturing the chaotic playground fun of mass brawls where everyone has ridiculously overpowered weapons and the more tactical, careful approach that’s required to really do well and achieve a scoreboard leading points haul.  You can achieve very little on your own in this game, when you do well it is when you’re working with or for your team.

Cool vaulting animation in action

The improvements over the previous games come in the details, and I’m not just talking about the obvious improvement in graphics and sound.  For one, the points system is really well refined.  It’s more forgiving for newbie players as it gives points away like confetti for every little bit of service you give towards your team, so that even on a bad game where nothing goes right for you you will still end up with hundreds of points towards your next unlock or rank up.  Plus the points are even more focused on rewarding team contribution over being the player with the highest kills.

I’m also a big fan of the changed class roles, although it’s not immediately apparent from their basic set ups.  The new assault class seems like an overpowered super class to begin with, with their machinegun rifles, health kits and quickly unlocked defribillator and grenade launcher.  It’s in the unlocks that the balancing begins: If you want to equip that grenade launcher you need to sacrifice your medkits.  And if you want extra ammo for that grenade launcher you’ll have to sacrifice your defribillator, and before you know it you have a classic Assault class player.  Switch that the other way round and you’ll be a Medic.  And either way you’ll have an excellent mid-range machine gun.

This must be one of the peaceful seconds between someone having a lock on me and somebody else having a lock on me

The same becomes apparent for the other classes.  The Engineer has obvious advantages from the off (vehicle repair and rocket launchers) plus a more mid-range rifle aswell, but the seemingly less useful Support class can unlock mortars, C4 explosives, and claymore mines on top of his usual mountable heavy machinegun and ammo refills to become THE defence class, and the only one well equipped to tackle both infantry and land vehicles on their own.

The Recon class is the one that has suffered the biggest cutbacks from BF:BC2 now that they’ve lost their ability to call in mortar strikes and the fact that sniper scopes now give off a glint that makes it a lot easier for your distant targets to spot you when you’re trying to line up a headshot.  Personally, though, I think it’s a fair reduction.  Anyone who spent a frustrated game of BF:BC2 being picked off by invisible snipers on the other side of the map who were earning hundreds of points per kill for the over-generous headshot bonus will probably share my feelings.  It’s still a viable, and occassionally very useful class, but now it’s stripped down to it’s core focus of sniping a spotting I think it’s going to be a lot less popular, so no more teams of snipers to have to hide from.

Ker-SMASH-CRACK!

What it lacks is anything particularly new.  Battlefield 3 has carefully refined and improved the Battlefield experience that already existed, but it hasn’t really added anything.  The game modes are identical to BF:BC2, and although all the maps are cleverly set up to support both Rush and Conquest mode well I can’t help thinking there could have been more.  Inspiration could have been gained from the singleplayer where whole levels are played out in a single vehicle, why not introduce Jet-only modes or Tank-only modes into the multiplayer?  That would be a lot of fun.  Or how about combining Conquest and Rush modes to form something more epic where an area is fought over in a typical conquest style, but when one team wins that section the fighting moves to an adjoining area where more flags must be caotured and held.  That way whole cities could be fought for in a single multiplayer game.

Perhaps future updates will be more adventurous in this way rather than just adding to the already strong line-up of maps.  We’ll see.  For now though, I’m heading back to the battlefield.  Hopefully see you there.

Swwwwwwwsssssssssh-BLAM-BLAAAASTKERSPLODE

 

P.S. By the way, if anyone reading is one of those 3 guys who were in the back of that jeep I drove straight at an enemy tank on Caspian Border, I need to explain:  I’m not a COMPLETE moron, I just figured the last thing he’d expect me to do was drive straight at him and that would give us all the element of surprise when we all leapt out and surrounded him with our RPGs.  In the end it only gave us the element of explosions, death and respawn and for that I am very sorry.

Private Foyle’s Battlefield 3 Multiplayer Impressions…..continued!

Welcome back to Private Foyle’s Battlefield 3 Impressions (If you missed the first batch you can catch up here).  Since yesterday’s initial deployment to the battlefield Private Foyle has been issued with the latest war correspondent technology: A screenshot capture button.  So we no longer need to rely on his frankly terrible literary powers of description to paint a picture of his online capers, he can use the power of his terrible photography instead.  You have been warned:

Kharg Island - Not as Piratey as the name suggests

KHARG ISLAND – CONQUEST LARGE

Oh, yes.  Now this is more like it.  No more tight tunnels.  No more sheltered courtyards and running infantry battles.  Here is a proper Battlefield map.

We find ourselves fighting over flags dotted around a desert peninsula.  The land is open and barren, with fragile warehouses and occasional stone buildings breaking up the crisscrossing sand and tarmac roads.  Warships wait menacingly just off shore.  And is that an Aircraft Carrier I spy?  This is clearly a vehicle led map.

Flag successfully defended

Again I’ve joined mid-game so I deploy my trusty Assault class onto an already captured flag.  After impatiently waiting about 30 seconds to defend against attackers that don’t show, I give up and go looking for a vehicle.

Jeep! Jeep!

Here’s one!  It’s not a tank but it’ll do.  Onwards to battle!  Which way to the frontline!?

Who leaves anti-tank mines THERE!?

OWWW!  What are the odds!  If you can’t quite place that picture it is approximately where the one before was taken from.  I got 2 metres before driving over an anti-tank mine.  Balls.

Luckily one of my erstwhile squadmates (whom I’ve not even seen yet on this vast map) has commandeered a tank that needs a gunner.  It’s so handy just spawning into vehicles like this!

The view from a tank's mounted gun.  The green tint matches the nauseous feeling you get being driven around

Here we’ve just blown up an enemy tank!  I say we, I mean the driver who controls the main gun, but don’t worry I did manage to shoot a few guys before we met a fiery death after something (possibly one of the planes overhead?) missile locked us and blew us up.  I now realise the bleeping warning signals mean somebody has missile locked you.  You live and learn!  Or….well, you die and learn and then respawn.  Into….. an attack helicopter!

SQQQQQUUUUUUUUUUUUUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!  WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!  WAAAAAAAAAAAHHHEEEEEYYYY!

Wooooah.  I've still not got used to the chopper controls

Blank screen:  YOUR TEAM LOST!  Buggar.  I didn’t even reach the mainland.  Must get in an attack chopper again soon.  And back on this map, it’s awesome.

No time to rest, though, onto the next map:

OPERATION METRO – CONQUEST

I was going to quit this one having played it to death in the Beta, but then I remembered that was only the Rush version, and a Conquest game played out on the Paris park at the start of the Rush map would be awesome.

Battlefield 3 running on my PC. (There's a sprinting joke in there somewhere)

Oh, right.  The Conquest game plays out in the bloody tunnels.  Bah.  Well, I’ve started so I might as well finish.  We capture 2 flags and then meet a complete bottleneck on the escalators down to the train tracks.  Handily there’s only 3 flags so we are technically winning.  As long as we can hold the escalators this should be easy.

Blurry screen = you are being suppressed, get out the way of the bullets

As well as accruing a ridiculous amount of healing points for plonking down medkits at the top of them (check out the screenshot above: 415 points from healing alone!) I spend most of the game lurking at the top of the escalators like in the picture above and (when I’m not being ‘suppressed’) pop over to shoot peoples.

Only paramedics can spell defibrillator without looking it up

The rest of my time spent resuscitating the piles of bodies that form at the top of the escalator and before you know it…

Hooray!

Hooray, I guess.

Incredibly boring map, though.  Remind me to never play Operation Metro again in any form.

Back to Kharg Island for me I think.  More impressions to follow, I expect.

[A note on the screenshots and system requirements – I won’t bore you with the details but my PC isn’t the newest and most powerful beast, so is running the game on ‘Custom’ graphics settings set a tiny bit below ‘medium’.  Apparently ‘low’ is the equivilent of the XBOX 360 version, so it should be better than screenshots of that, but it’s not going to match up to others you might have seen.  If you’re worrying you’ve just spent £1000 on a new rig and that’s all it’s going to look like, don’t worry, yours will look a lot better!  But for those wondering if their old faithful can play the game mine is a Dual-Core AMD 3Ghz; 2Gb RAM; GTS 250.  Ok, I lied, I did bore you with the details, but if you read til the end you probably wanted to know!]

Private Foyle’s Battlefield 3 Multiplayer Impressions

Battlefield 3 - at least the 5th game in the Baattlefield seriesIt’s here!  Battlefield 3 has arrived and after finally being dispatched far too late by my chosen online retailer I’m at last able to get my hands on the game.  I’ve played some of the singleplayer and I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  It’s taken hefty inspiration from Modern Warfare, and is painfully linear for much of the campaign, but the level of detail in every aspect of graphics, dialogue, sound and the sheer spectacle of some of the set pieces probably set it a notch higher than its inspiration.

I’m not going to go in depth about the singleplayer, though.  There’s already a million reviews out there for it and all of them will tell you one thing, if you weren’t already expecting it: you shouldn’t buy this game just for the singleplayer.  Battlefield has always been about the multiplayer and that’s where we’re going to be taking a good look today.  I say ‘we’ because I’ve drafted in a comrade and online alias of mine to give us a frontline perspective of his very first deployment into the 3rd Battlefield.  His name is Private Foyle and he’s a veteran of every single Battlefield (except the first Bad Company game), and even got to spend many hours on the Battlefield 3 Beta.  What he hasn’t learned through years of walking into lines of cross-fire, over-cooking grenades and trying to stab tanks to death with a rifle butt just isn’t worth knowing.  What he’s going to do is run through a round or 2 of some of the new maps and describe his experience as he goes, hopefully giving us an impression of the game and the maps as he does so.  So without further delay, lets try and patch him through.

Private Foyle, can you read me?

<over radio static> Yep, roger, I can here you.

Great.  Private, what’s the sit-rep?

Err, the err, the what what?

The situation report!  What’s happening there, what can you see?

Oh, right!  Well, I’ve been deployed high in the…in some mountains.  There’s alpine vistas everywhere I look.  Lot of dust.  Lens flare.  We appear to be fighting for a tunnel, that cuts through one of the mountain ridges, linking one valley full of mining machinery with another valley…also full of mining machinery. 

What’s the tactical sense in capturing that?

Err, none that I can see, but we don’t get paid to ask questions.

No, you don’t get paid at all.

Well, quite.  Right.  There’s 3 flags to capture.  One at each end of the tunnel, out in the open, and one in the middle.  There’s a tank here, and ooh, a helicopter!

What’s the plan of action?

Err, probably get in the helicopter before anyone else and see if I can work out how to fly it. 

And if that fails?

Um, probably just shoot some guys.

Ok great.  Take it away Private Foyle:

Damavand Peak - In Conquest mode there is no peak

DAMAVAND PEAK – CONQUEST

Right, the games begun!  Where to spawn?  Deployment area or…inside the scout helicopter?  Helicopter obviously!  Hmm, how do you fly these things?  WASD controls throttle and rudder, that’s fine, but using the mouse to steer and pitch is insanely inaccurate.  No time to perfect this, though, let’s just find the enemy!  I hit the throttle hard and climb up over the ridge leaving my team mates to charge down the tunnel.  Reaching the peak of the ridge I tilt the craft forwards to reveal the enemy deployment area and their already captured flag at the other entrance to the tunnel. Holding the forward tilt so I can aim the guns at their flag (no idea if there’s anyone there to be hit but it’s a good place to start) I charge down the mountain side machine guns blasting and….. POOFSH!  I blow up over the enemy deployment area.  Approximately 10 seconds into game.  I’ve lost the team’s only helicopter.  I have no kills.  Damn.

Respawning at the central control point my more sensible teammates have captured I find a handy crate to hide behind and try and pick people off.  This is going well, much less laggy than the Beta, although this is a 32 player map.  Reach my first rank up just crouching behind this crate and blamming opponents silly enough to come charging up the tunnel!  Easy!  Until… AIEEE!  A tank!  Throw my only grenade vainly at its tracks and run into the nearest cover: a concrete doorway.  Where does this go?  Oooh, a really tight pedestrian tunnel running parallel to the main one.  I wonder if I can reach the opponents flag from here?  Take 10 paces before meeting a tidal wave of enemy fire coming the other way.  I’m not the only one with that idea then!  No where to hide in the narrow corridor = dead.

Respawn inside squadmate’s jeep.  Oooh, I’m manning the guns!  Where are we?  Oh crap!  The middle of the enemies deployment area!  Squadmate parks under enemy’s flag at the end of the tunnel and obviously expects me to keep the hostiles at bay until we’ve captured it.  Luckily most of them are attacking the central flag, but after picking off a few strays we’re interrupted by an enemy APC!  Having gulped down my panic my mounted gun soon cripples the armoured truck and picks off the fleeing inhabitant as they try to escape.  Turns out noone was on it’s mounted gun so no wonder it was so easy!  We capture the flag just in time… they have their own chopper lifting off.  A tense chase around their base (us being chased, natch) ends with us exploding into the tunnel (literally) after trying to make a hasty retreat.  I must have done a lot of damage to the chopper though as moments later I’m awarded points for assisting in it’s destruction.

Conveniently our own chopper is available again as I respawn from that fiery death.  This time I try controlling it using WASD and directions keys instead.  This is MUCH easier.  Position myself at the friendly end of the tunnel and send volleys of machinegun fire down the tunnel.  Have no idea if I’m being any use, though, as I’m so low to the ground the dust kicked up by the rotors is obscuring my view.  This should be annoying but I can’t help a beaming smile at the graphical detail and fun of it all.

In all the excitement I’ve failed to notice we have now lost the central flag and must have done so a while ago as our ticket counter is dangerously low compared to theirs.  I ascend again quickly ,this time ready to bail out over the enemy base and parachute into a corner.  No one seems to have noticed me so I pick off a couple of their guys from behind but all in vain…the screen goes black and the outcome appears…YOUR TEAM LOST!

Buggar.  Oh well.  On to the next map!

Ironic because you will cross the Seine many times in one game

SEINE CROSSING – CONQUEST

Now for my first 64 player game.  I’m deployed mid-battle into a squad lying down on some stone stairs leading up from the banks of the Seine onto a Parisian street.  Paris glows in the sunshine, and looks every bit the lovers’ holiday destination of choice that it is…except for the half exploded military roadblock I can see on a bridge up the river.  Oh, and the noise.  And the cowering on the stairs.  Just from the sound of gunfire and explosions near and far you can tell there are more players here.  It sounds like chaos.  I try to get some bearings.

A quick glance at the mini-map identifies why we’re lying on the stairs: 4 angry red triangles line the other side of the street that we’re trying to push on to.  Having my one grenade I line up a throw that loops over the wall and across the street.  After a finger crossed pause a KER-BLAPT throws grey dust into the air above the street and those magic words appear: ENEMY DOWN 100 points.  Wow, that actually worked!  My squad use the momentum to peer over the top of the stair way and hurl machine gun fire at the enemy position.  Car windows shatter, brick dust flies, sparks and muzzle-flash consume my field of view.  Taking it in turns to pop up, shoot, then duck back down to reload we successfully clear the other side of the street and advance on the previously enemy occupied building.

The squad I was auto-assigned to when I joined clearly knows what they’re doing.  I follow in awe and try to copy what I see as they advance in a tight line, at every corner one drops to the floor and peers round.  No shots fired the rest of us pile past to the next corner and take up covering positions.  Swapping roles again another squadman peers round followed by the rest of us at a charge.  Soon we’re within site of an enemy flag on the minimap.  It’s inside a courtyard with only 2 narrow entrances on either side.  Being my turn to look around the corner I dive into a prone position in front of the opening.  Seeing hostiles I open fire and down one before another gets me.  I can see all hell break loose from the deployment screen as I impatiently tap tap tap the deploy button even though its timer is still ticking down.  Eventually it goes green and I deploy on a squadmate.  We’re still stuck outside the courtyard entrance facing volleys of machinegun fire.

I drop a medkit, one of the assault classes specialities, and start racking up points as it heals my injured squadmates.  The speed with which you acrue points in the game is ridiculous.  Every little action results in some points being added to your total.  A squadmate spawning on you?  10 points.  Healing a friendly?  20 points.  Laying down suppressing fire?  50 points.  That last one is what we try now.  Shooting near to any enemy now causes their screen to blur, forcing them to withdraw and find a less dangerous position.  We use this to our advantage as we fire wildly into the courtyard and chuck our last grenades before charging in.  A squadmate falls but I’m able to revive him with my newly unlocked Defibrillator.  We secure the courtyard and after earning a load more points healing the squad again I push on with the squad again.

The round ends shortly after with my first team victory (which earns another 500 points on top of the 200 for just taking part!)!  And I win a squad ribbon for being part of the best squad!  A quick check of the scoreboard confirms it was definitely the other 3 members that earned us that reward, but what the hell, I’m not going to refuse the points that come with it.

I’ll keep updating with more maps as they come.  On to the next one!

Unwelcome to the Zone

Talking of STALKER, a while ago I wrote about my ridiculous experience starting STALKER: Call of Pripyat for the first time and never got round to publishing it, so for no particular reason other than that here it is:

Which way to the Bureau de Change?You can tell a lot about a game by the way it chooses to introduce itself.  That Call of Pripyat begins with a brief video history of the game’s location ‘the Zone’ in which a narrator reads different information to that which pops up in the subtitles before being cut-short mid-sentence to drop you in the game itself tells you all you need to know:  It’s interesting, complex, confusing and…Bugged.  With an intentional capital B.

But in case you were worried I was judging a book by its cover let me describe my first 5 minutes with the game before I make a final verdict!:

At least I can't see any cratesIntro over you find yourself dropped into that warm, familiar FPS viewpoint: gun in bottom right corner, health bar in bottom left corner, map in top-left corner.  Ahh.  A First-Person shooter.  I think I know what to do from here.  I find myself in a clearing in a grove of malnourished trees.  Radioactive clouds hang overhead, threatening radioactive rain, and somewhere in the distance a creature groans.  Thus begins my journey.

Walking out of a gap in the trees I begin to wander aimlessly into the expanding horizon in front of me.  Nervously (this game has monsters in it, apparently)  I venture through the undergrowth.  Shrubs and bushes obscure my view as I part branches aside.  Suddenly stepping out of the tall undergrowth, no more than 10 feet ahead, 3 armed men appear!

Christ!  How do I aim!?

They don’t appear to have noticed me, yet they’re looking right at me.  Should I shoot?

Wait!  It’s ok!  They must be friendlies.  I shall go speak to them.  Maybe this Zone isn’t so scary after all.

Bumbling up to the 3 men to ask for directions I can’t quite shake the feeling that something is amiss.  As I approach to within conversational distance one of the men, presumably the leader, suddenly raises his rifle without provocation, aims straight at my head (Aieee!) and demands “Put your gun away!”.

Oh!  He wants me to put my gun away!  That’s a reasonable request.  My mother always said don’t talk to strangers who come walking out of bushes holding a gun.

“Certainly, sir.”  I look down at my keyboard perplexed.  Put gun away…Hmmm…’H’ key for ‘holster weapon’, surely? 

I press ‘H’.

Nothing happens.

My nervous smile obviously doesn’t filter through to the game as the other men in the group raise their guns aswell.  One starts to circle around to my side, out of view, always looking down the barrel of his gun, always looking at my HEAD down the barrel of his gun.

“Please, don’t worry gentlemen, I just need to find the holster key and I will of course comply with your request.”

I pause the game and bring up the control options.  Holster….Holster….  I can’t find any keys referring to holstering a gun.

Hmmm.  Perhaps if I walk right up to him a ‘use’ option will appear and we’ll enter a conversation and I’ll automatically put my assault rifle away?  That must be it.

Returning to the game I stride the last few steps so I am touching distance from the man who first accosted me.  No options appear on screen but from my research of the control options I know ‘F’ is the use key.

I press ‘F’.

The man backs away a step.

“DROP YOUR WEAPON!”, he barks again.  And in the game (or was it in my head?) I hear the sound of safety catches being released.

Gulp.

Wait!  Of course!  I’ve got it!  I know the weapon keys are 1-9, maybe one of the ‘weapons’ is no weapon at all.  I’ll just need to cycle through and find the right one!  Easy.

And so, this is why, encircled by 3 rifle wielding, angry as hell, half starved, possibly drunk, definitely crazy, frightening men, I begin to brandish first a knife, then a pistol, then my assault rifle again (all the while staring straight at the man no more than a metre in front of me), then a GRENADE!  Then a pair of binoculars!?  All the while the tension between myself and the 3 angry men is growing to the point that I’m almost ready to shoot myself just to get it over with.  When suddenly, completely accidentally, I hit the binocular key again leading me to hide my binoculars away.

Phew!

The tension blows away with my sigh.  Their guns are lowered, they walk up to me again and before I can think ‘Why were they scared of binoculars!?’ those magic words appear on the screen:

Press ‘F’ to talk.

Ah.

‘F’

“Hello there stranger, how can we help you?”

“Um, could you tell me where the nearest hotel is please?”

“Why certainly: just carry on in the direction you’re headed, turn right at the irradiated school bus, go through the mutant infested swamp, over the hill and head for the derelict ship we call home.  Inside you’ll find a bar, free beds, gun and armour repair and lots of friendly faces.”

“Oh, thanks very much.”

“You’re welcome.  You take care now!”

“Um, you too.  Cheerio!”

“Bye, Bye.”

And so in the opening 5 minutes Call of Pripyat reveals itself:  Frightening, tense and baffling, but ultimately very rewarding once you get your head round it all (and you learn how to put your gun away).

Haven’t I been here before?

Atmosphere with a capital ATI love the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games.  Ever since I first stepped in to the Zone in Call of Pripyat I’ve become totally enthralled by the atmosphere, exploration and harsh environment of these spectacular open-world games.  Having completed Pripyat (twice) and then enjoying the original Shadow of Chernobyl just as much,  I’ve been playing through the slightly less well received STALKER:Clear Sky over the last week or two to complete the trilogy (albeit, in completely the wrong order).  Clear Sky blurs the line between add-on (or DLC, if you must) and full game by having the vast majority of the game take place in the exact same locations as Shadow of Chernobyl, and that got me thinking: Does revisiting an old location from a new angle add something to the game and the world it’s created?  Or is it just a player-jarring cost saving measure by a developer keen to milk every penny from an expensively created environment?  I’d love to know your thoughts on this too, but here’s what I’m thinking:

In Clear Sky it works.  It really shouldn’t but I think GSC got it right here.  One of the great features of STALKER, and any open-world game, is the feeling of exploration as you venture to new parts of the map.  Seeing a grey blob on the satellite image map and carefully heading there through the hostile landscape not knowing whether you’re going to find a giant radioactive lake infested with monsters, or an exploded government bunker (…also infested with monsters) is one of the best thrills STALKER has to offer.  To know that was going to be removed in Clear Sky where 90% of the locations were already familiar from a playthrough of Shadow of Chernobyl  had me prepared for a big disappointment.  What I hadn’t prepared for, though, was how GSC were going to change the character landscape that rests on the physical one.

Hmm, is it Deja Vu....For those that haven’t played it, Clear Sky’s main unique selling point was the ‘faction wars system’ in which different NPC factions fighting for control of the zone could help or hinder your progress depending on your allegiance (or hostility) to each of them.  Ultimately the system was widely derided for game-ifying otherwise simulation-based gameplay, and for frankly being a pain in the arse, but this shift in focus to the human conflict within the zone meant that, where before all but the most secure strongholds were devoid of human beings (of the unmutated and non-zombified variety, anyway) and crawling with terrifying monsters, in Clear Sky areas you expect to be a struggle are a guided by armed-guard walk in the park, and areas you once strolled through are now an inch by inch gun-battle through the territory of a faction you had the misfortune of pissing off.

I guess what I’m trying to say is Clear Sky doesn’t feel like a rerun of the same environment because you still don’t know what to expect as you retrace “the marked one’s” steps through the zone.  The meaning of exploration is in finding out what lies over there and as soon as you realise it’s not going to be what you found in Shadow of Chernobyl that feeling of exploration returns.  Add to that the dynamic weather and passage of time, the atmosphere of a place can be completely different the second time through.  Like when an abandoned industrial site that was once the location of a fear-filled artifact hunt in the dead of night with only a torch and lightning flashes to light the way becomes a pleasant meeting with the head of a friendly faction, complete with reggae music echoing through the concrete halls and shafts of sunshine beaming in through the windows.

Stupid Map. THANKS SHOWING ALL THE BADDIES AND RUINING ALL THE TENSION!I’ve enjoyed Clear Sky, not as much as the other STALKERs, but it’s still a good game.  What it lacks is not a new environment but that feeling of being let loose in a barren, hostile world.  It’s too careful to highlight what you should and shouldn’t do via the enemy markers on the map and the faction standing meters on your PDA.  It feels too much like a game and not an experience.  What I’ve really liked about it, though, is that feeling of following in the footsteps of someone great, heading towards something cataclysmic.  Another layer of tension is added by your knowledge of the previous game, both in the locational sense and the story.  It’s something I’d like to see more of in games, especially games where you can pick and choose your actions.  I’d love to follow in the footsteps of my Fallout 3 or Witcher 2 character in the eyes of, say, an assassin or a detective tasked with capturing the person you once played.  To see the trail of destruction your original character left, which at the time seemed necessary, but through the eyes of your pursuer seems wanton, and to form new opinions of your own actions would be a really interesting mechanic to explore.  It’s not something I’m aware has been done yet, perhaps I’m wrong?

...I could swear I've been here beforeOther series’ have reused locations, especially with DLC.  Rockstar’s return to Liberty City in the Grand Theft Auto IV DLCs The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony works well because the city was only ever a canvas for the story to be painted on.  Again a slight shift in gameplay focus, from cars to bikes to helicopters, matches the shift in narrative focus so you get to experience Liberty City from a new perspective both literally and narratively.

The wonderful Opposing Force add-on for Half-Life let you see Black Mesa through the eyes of an infiltrating Marine, rather than an escaping scientist .  Gearbox created mostly new environments within the Black Mesa facility for the add-on to take place in, but the occasions when you saw a familiar locale, or crossed paths with Gordon Freeman added an overarching feeling of being part of something greater.

I guess that’s perhaps the issue with reusing locations:  If it’s a sprawling open-world like the Zone or Liberty city, there’s scope to force players to revisit with a new story or gameplay mechanics attached and it still feel new.  Something more linear like Half-Life and Bioshock are always going to struggle to create a ‘new’ feeling when you’re venturing down the same corridors to the same areas, which is why their add-ons and sequels have always demanded new locations to be built, even though players want to return to Black Mesa and Rapture.

At a time when procedurally generated 3D worlds are a possibility, like the infinitely constructing Minecraft world, what locations would you like to revisit?  Or is it best to tell each gaming story in a new location?  Let me know your thoughts or if I’ve missed any good examples of revisited locations.

Nostalgia gaming: Deus Ex

My vision is augmented...with HD texture packs

I haven’t written on here for ages, in fact not since Frozen Synapse blew me away with its logical brilliance earlier this year.  The usual excuses apply (I’ve been busy and I’m naturally lazy!) but there’s also been a relative lack of anything particularly interesting grabbing my attention in the gaming world over the summer.  Certainly nothing I really felt like writing about.  One game that always gets my thought engines churning into life again though is Deus Ex and having recently started replaying it with the excellent New Vision HD texture mod (plus this DirectX10 mod and the partially complete DX:HD texture pack mod) I once again find my mind wandering through all things Deus Ex.  With the much-hyped prequel on the way in about a fortnight it seems an apt time to look back at the game that started it all and why it’s still considered by many to be the best video game ever made 11 years after its release.

“God was a dream of good government.”

So what’s it like returning to Deus Ex after all these years?  I should point out this is now my 4th full playthrough of the game.  I got it upon release when I was still a spotty 15 year-old boy and loved it so much that every few years the urge to return to it has grown so strong I’ve found myself reinstalling again, starting once more on that dock on Liberty Island.  Returning to an 11 year old game is certainly made easier by the mods mentioned, there’s something very pleasing about returning to a game I originally played in 800×600 resolution and being able to crank it up to 1920×1200 with 16x anti-aliasing and all the other bells and whistles the DirectX10 mod allows.  It’s no Crysis 2 but the texture pack and lighting effects can make some (though not all) of the locations look surprisingly modern.  The characters, though, will always look like lego men wearing oven-gloves.

I, however, am not one to let some dodgy graphics stop me from enjoying a good game and my god it really still is a superb game once you get past the opening level.  The starting area on Liberty Island has been much talked about for its freedom and multiple pathways but it’s probably the worst part of the entire game.  It almost feels like an obstacle put there on purpose to deter less persistent gamers from the good stuff that’s to follow.  It’s too open for stealth to work (it’s a bit tricky sneaking up on people when the nearest thing to hide behind is 50 yards from the guard you’re trying to stun) and your shooting skills won’t be honed enough to gun your way through either, so instead you find yourself sprinting from shadow to shadow and crouching in the gloom behind shipping crates feeling about as far from the nano-augmented super-secret-agent you’re supposed to be as possible.

Taking Liberty's“No, I wanted orange!”

It is strange returning to a game I know so well after all these years.  Since my last playthrough the mass of Human Revolution previews have made fun of many of the game’s sillier elements, bringing to attention the endless memes about 0431 door-codes and JC Denton’s dead-pan delivery of such classic lines as ‘What a shame’, ‘A bomb!’ and ‘My vision is augmented’, which is all something I wasn’t really aware of when I last played it, making this playthrough seem a lot more comical than the game ever felt before, or was ever meant to be.  In fact knowing the levels and characters so well makes replaying it again a whole lot more laid-back and playful.  It feels like wandering through the set of a much loved film, or going back stage at one of your favourite sitcoms and seeing all the characters for the actors they really are.

Before I used to ponder every choice and make sure I followed the path I thought I would follow if I was in the same situation.  Now though I’m trying everything I hadn’t before and exploring every pointless exercise I can think of just to see if it can be done.  I’d never actually been in the ladies toilets in my previous playthroughs (why the hell would I have?) but this time strolled in grinning when I saw the opportunity, knowing full well the game would have an answer for my actions.  “How unprofessional!” a fully clothed woman sat in a cubicle with the door open shouts.  You can talk! I thought, not knowing the best bit was yet to come: Being briefed by UNATCO boss Manderley on your next mission, only for him to mention before you leave “And another thing, stay out of the ladies toilets!  That sort of thing embarrasses the corporation more than it does you!”.  What a line!  I might have to use that next time I’m telling someone off at work.

Chatting to Gunther and Agent Navarre in the canteen feels strange and poignant when you know full well you’re going to have to kill them both in cold blood before the game is over.  Where can I find agent Navarre’s killswitch anyway? you think as she tries to appease Gunther’s paranoia about the lack of orange soda.

“You mechs may have copper wiring to reroute your fear of pain, but I’ve got nerves of steel.”

So what makes Deus Ex so good?  Many people have given their opinion over the years, often talking about the freedom of gameplay options, the branching narrative and the interactivity with the environment, all of which are true, but for me the most overlooked aspects are the basics which all games need and which Deus Ex gets so absolutely right:  The story, the characters and the setting.  The story is a bit clichéd, sure, the kind of thing that would probably grace an all-out action film if it were in the movie world, but in gaming terms it is still very unusual for a game to set you up as one protagonist only to then pull the carpet from under you on your way to ending up as something completely different.  Replaying the early sections reminded me how much you were drawn into the idea that you were a secret-agent for UNATCO (the kind of ‘story’ most action games would happily base an entire game around) but then slowly and cleverly plant the seeds of doubt in your mind about your employer’s goals and morals, teasing you into the feeling that maybe you’re not fighting for the right side before it opens the gate and gives you the chance to jump ship to the other team.  It’s one of the only linear parts of the story, your inevitable defection to the NSF’s cause, but it’s done so well that it too feels like just another one of those many choices you get to make along the way.

Talking of choices and branching narratives, this is the one element of Deus Ex that appears to have had the most impact on games in the decade since its release.  The Fallouts, Dragon Ages’ and Bioshocks have all made narrative choice a big part of their gameplay but many of these games lay the story branches out on a plate for you to mull over, usually with alternative methods of completion clearly marked as ‘optional objectives’ in a journal, and the consequences clearly spelled out before you make your decision.  Deus Ex rarely sets out its stall beforehand and any options available in a branching narrative are so well written and made to fit so well with the rest of the story that on an initial playthrough you are often unaware that there was any choice at all.

For example, on my first 2 playthroughs my brother died.  Having been told he was dying of the plague and that I might want to see him before he snuffed it I wandered about exploring the New York suburb of Hell’s Kitchen knowing games never actually mean it when they imply you ought to rush somewhere, I was sure that particular set-piece would only start when I get to his apartment.  And sure enough both times I entered his apartment just in time to hear his parting words as he slips away in his armchair moments before his front door is kicked down by gun-toting thugs, just like it would happen in the movies.  It’s so carefully scripted it never occurred to me that there was any other possible outcome.  It would just be too big a deal to write in such an important character to the rest of the game, right?

Right?

Well, this being Deus Ex, no.  On my third playthrough I got the small vial of plague vaccine, Ambrosia, from the NSF compound and this time raced to his apartment when the opportunity arrived.  Climbing the fire exit and entering through the window to avoid the thugs in the apartment block’s hallway I arrived in time to administer the Ambrosia, defend his apartment from the thugs that kick down the door and watch him recover to full health!  And he survives!  For the rest of the game!  He appears a number of times at certain intervals and where previously allies shared their sadness at his passing they instead spoke of his good work continuing.  It must have been such an incredible amount of work to create the 2 alternate realities of Paul dying and surviving, it must have been hard for Ion Storm to resist the urge to bring attention to the fact that the option was available.  This is probably why so many games since have failed to so subtly introduce branching elements to the story without sticking neon signs on each narrative option stating ‘STORY AFFECTING PLAYER CHOICE FOUND HERE!’.

Greatest game location...EVER“Now everyone will see why I needed a skull-gun”

Just focusing on the narrative choices you can make in Deus Ex is to miss the point though.  Given enough care and forethought multiple narrative paths can and have been introduced into games before, and especially since, Deus Ex came on the scene.  What can’t be copied is the free rein Deus Ex gives you to complete any task.  Most of the levels within the game appear to have been created to match some real-world, useable design and the designers then went “here you go, do what you want in it”, but anyone who’s played GTA4 or Oblivion or Fallout 3 will tell you that when this promise is often made the player very quickly hits a brick wall when trying to do something, that in real life would work, but in the laws of the game’s design won’t.  Time and again Deus Ex removes these walls, and that is why it is still the best game ever.

Anyone who has played it will have their favourite example, but mine is during the Hong Kong city hub.  Shortly after arriving in Hong Kong you are tasked with meeting Maggie Chow, a well known celebrity and budding politician with supposed connections to the triad gangs you are trying to infiltrate.  She lives in a penthouse apartment on Tonnichi Road and upon arriving you quickly realise there are a number of ways to get in.  1st, walk in the front door and take the lift.  Not as easy at it seems because the concierge won’t let you in and the lift is locked, but there are ways and means of getting round both these problems.  2nd, a maintenance door at the back of the building lets you access a ladder up the lift shaft, and ultimately Maggie’s apartment or the roof where further access can be found if you have the right tools to get in the locked door.  3rd, you can enter the building next door and find a flat, which happens to belong to your helicopter pilot/chauffeur Jock, from whose balcony you could climb across to her window and break in.  And literally through my first 3 playthroughs these are all the routes I found.

Playing again now though I found a 4th option:  Opposite Maggie’s apartment block is a derelict highrise you can access that has the sole bonus of having a sniper rifle and some ammo on its top floor if you were at all bothered to make your way up there.  From here you can peer across the street and see, a good 10 floors below you on the other side of the road, the grand glass windows of Maggie’s penthouse suite.  I’d been up here before but never had I considered what occurred to me then as I watched the light escaping her window.  What if I could jump from here into her penthouse?  I weighed up my options.  I had unlocked the augmentation that allows you to fall great distances without taking damage… and I knew from previous playthroughs that was definitely her window.  Hell, I have the power of quicksave, lets give this a go…

And so, having activated my aug and brandishing my pistol, with as big a run up as I could get from the broken scaffolding of the derelict skyscraper, I leapt full-tilt across the divide, flying 300 feet above the bustling high-street below, blasting wild shots at the window that just managed to smash in to splintered shards in time for me to land with a thwump on Maggie Chow’s deep-red living room carpet.  Her startled maid pulls a gun on me and gets off one shot before I have my bearings back and unload the rest of my magazine at her.  As she crumples in a heap of crisp house-maid uniform I turn my attention to Maggie, “Mr. J.C. Denton… in the flesh. As dark and serious as his brother.”  Err, yeah, i guess.  Didn’t you just see my jump through the fucking window and gun down your cleaner!?

Now that’s all fun and games, but lets put it in a game design perspective:  The only players who will be making this cinematic entrance are those that meet the following criteria:

1) They’ve had the inclination to even consider going up that block of flats, for which the game gives no enticement or reason

2) They’ve noticed that the top of the building is directly opposite Maggie Chow’s apartment

3) They even beleive that the enormous jump is at all possible

4) They have the augmentation that allows you to survive big drops (This is a complete 50/50 chance depending which of the 2 augmentations you choose to use from that canister)

Then consider it required the design and creation of an entire highrise block of flats (albeit deserted) to give you somewhere to jump from.  The design would have then needed to be tested and tweaked to make sure it was the right height and distance for a player to jump across the street to the window.  Then bear in mind that after all that time invested, for that small percentage of players, this is the 4th of 4 methods of entering the flat of an, at best, moderately important character… in Hong Kong… but in the grand scheme of the game isn’t important enough to even get a mention on the wikiquotes page.

It's good to talk (you get free gas grenades)“I AM the people!”

So why, in many people’s eyes, is Deus Ex still the best game ever and why has it still not been bettered?  Firstly, it’s a case of timing.  Deus Ex was released in 2000, at the end of a decade when the immersion of 3D gaming was introduced, and at the beginning of the decade of High Definition visuals and detail.  While it would have taken some days to add the above mentioned highrise block into Deus Ex, to do a similar addition to a modern game such as Crysis 2 would have taken weeks due to the detail artists would be expected to go into when creating it.  To even remake just the opening Liberty Island level in a modern engine would require a huge team of designers and artists to fill in all the details and graphical fidelity we have come to expect from our modern games.  To go through all that hard work, and more importantly expense, only then to watch a player dash through it in 10 minutes, skipping the optional objectives and routes to your goal, would be so galling nobody dares to take on the task.

Secondly, Deus Ex is not a perfect game, it has a number of issues that luckily my nostalgic, rose-tinted glasses manage to hide.  A modern game trying to imitate Deus Ex would not be able to do so without addressing the simplistic AI, the voice acting, the ‘big-room’ feel of the outdoor locations, the greasals, the ‘regardless of your previous actions please choose which ending you would like’ ending, and that ridiculous fetish gear plus trenchcoat look.  What you would be left with after changing all that, though, would not be Deus Ex and has every chance of being a worse game for all the changes that brings.

“I believe I will enjoy this.”

What does this mean for Deus Ex: Human Revolution then?  The developers have certainly talked the talked.  The branching, conspiracy laden narrative, the gameplay options, the open hub areas and interactivity all seem to be in place from what the many trailers show.  The first reviews are starting to trickle out and some have been very good.  I’ve certainly got my copy on pre-order, but I’m trying my best to ignore the hype, I don’t want to assume it’s going to be something it’s not.  I don’t need it to be better than Deus Ex, I just want it to be a really good game.

Deus Ex doesn’t need replacing, I already have Deus Ex and always will.  Replaying it again now, 11 years on, I’m still enjoying it as much as I did then, though perhaps for slightly different reasons.  Deus Ex was a game of its time and the chances are that the game that replaces Deus Ex as the best game ever (because something will eventually) is not going to resemble the first-person immersive sim in the same way Deus Ex didn’t resemble X-COM (the game I think many would say held the throne until 2000).  Perhaps it will be an MMO that finds a way to mix Minecraft-style procedural generation with single-player FPS style set-pieces, in the same way Deus Ex so seamlessly combined the elements of role-playing, action and stealth games.  Perhaps it will be something as yet unimagined.  Who knows.

All I do know is soon I’ll have finished my 4th playthrough of my favourite game ever and I’ll no doubt uninstall it and put the disc back on the shelf for another 3 years whilst I get on with other, less interesting things.  Altogether now: “What a shame”.