Author Archive

Wot I Think – Aurion: Legacy Of The Kori-Odan

Like most of you (be honest), I know almost nothing about Cameroon. I also know precious little about communing with ancestral spirits, launching fireballs, or punching dudes in the face. How fortunate, then, that Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan exists.

Released in April this year following a successful Kickstarter by Kiro’o Games, Aurion is many things. It’s a fusion of a side-scrolling beat’em up with a JRPG. It’s the first release by a small games studio in central Africa. It’s a long, winding, and philosophical story inspired by several cultures and genres and forms of media. But what ultimately matters is that it’s pretty damn fun.

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Why Gothic Is More Believable Than Modern RPGs

One of the many nebulous concepts that spring up when writing about games is “a sense of place”. We talk about worlds and locations and settings, but often these boil down to unusual geography or art direction – surface details and imagery rather than a real identity.

Gothic, by contrast, wasn’t particularly pretty. Its setting wasn’t the singular underground world of Arx Fatalis, nor the varied alien landscape of Morrowind. Instead, Piranha Bytes recognised back in 2001 that a place is a place not because of its landscape or biome or buildings, but because the people there make it one.

Most RPGs have NPC traffic. Gothic had a society.

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Wot I Think: VA-11 Hall-A

I hesitate to call V4l… Va11 ha1… Val1… Valhalla [official site] a visual novel, which is ridiculous. It wears its influences on its sleeve, sometimes to a fault, and though its most ‘gamey’ aspect is that of a bartending sim, that’s really just a well-integrated excuse for telling a humble story. Is it a good one?

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You Wouldn’t Steal A Skyranger: X-Piratez Is An Outstanding Total Conversion Of UFO/X-COM

In my intro to Silent Storm, I mentioned both modding scenes and UFO (used to distinguish the 1994 original X-COM from the 2012 Firaxis one, and not only out of increasingly sad Eurocentric obstinance) without tying the two together. That, it turns out, was stupid, because X-Piratez, a UFO mod in active development by Dioxine, is the best total conversion for any game I’ve ever played.

Based on OpenXcom Extended, a long-running open source clone of UFO, it takes the story and gameplay structure of the original, and a huge stock of resourcefulness, and turns them into something that’s simultaneously very similar and completely new. The result is a dangerously addictive compound of comfortable old UFO with constant surprise, discovery, and content.

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Art of The Deal: Trading Games Don’t Understand Trade

Trade! Buy low, sell high. Tradey trade trade. Is that intro length? Good. Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about trading in videogames, and why it’s always rubbish.

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What Cinemaware Understood About Cinema And Games

Cinematic! What a loaded word it’s become. Once the game industry’s marketing buzzword du jour, the descriptor certainly earned its current status as a groanworthy sign that a developer would much rather be doing something else.

With such a disclaimer then, it’s safe to specify why It Came From The Desert, and in fact most games from its developer Cinemaware, had “cinematic” firmly in their sights. But in a good way.

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The Joy Of Destruction In Silent Storm

It’s a strange time to look at old turn-based shooters. While we’re hardly swamped, the genre has left its dormancy, casting strange shadows on our old sacred cows. Whisper it now: maybe some of those old things we championed for so long aren’t all that great?

Fortunately, Silent Storm can ignore such insinuations, as it was never sacred. Its 2003 release by Nival Interactive caused little splash, and it didn’t find the legendary status of UFO or the dedicated mod scene of Jagged Alliance 2.

Playing it now, that strikes me as completely unfair.

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Have You Played… Lords Of The Realm?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Are grand historical strategy games in vogue, or will I have to laud Lords of the Realm on its own merits instead of relative to what’s currently popular? Hmm. Let’s find out.
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Have You Played… Salvation Prophecy?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Loners are odd sorts. We all know this. Salvation Prophecy, for example, is a third-person shooter, space dogfighter, and real-time strategy all rolled into one by a lone creator. No committee would even try that.
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Have You Played… Sacrifice?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Centuries ago, some unknown ancient sage called Keeron Gillan wrote about a strange action strategy game called Sacrifice. I haven’t heard anyone mention it since. We have failed.

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A World Gone Sane: Strategy and Story In Hostile Waters

I'm not taking the minutes again, Oliver. I didn't declare war on the world to take bloody minutes.

Strategy games seldom come with a premise more creative than “what if aliens?”, or “what if robots?”, or perhaps “what if alien robots?”, and while this often works – their appeal tends to come from systems and details instead – it does leave a gap for more imaginative fair. Take, for example, Hostile Waters, Rage Games’ 2001 release inspired by the 1988 naval/aerial action strategy hybrid Carrier Command.

The central premise of Hostile Waters’ setting is essentially this: What if the Occupy movement had won?

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Have You Played… Evil Genius?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

It’s a little baffling that nobody’s tried to make Evil Genius [official site] again. A transparent derivative of Dungeon Keeper, it did more than enough to distinguish itself from that noble luminary of base building and evil overlording.

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Doing Comics Justice: Freedom Force Vs The Third Reich

Superheroes are, my dear mole cave people recently thawed following a decades-long slumber, very much in vogue right now. Films about whiny teenagers with the least interesting powers of an arachnid are ten a penny, but video games of this kind have been oddly lacking. The superhero games we do have – for example, the Arkham series – are mainly about specific superheroes, not about the idea or the spirit of their original format, the comic book.

I have a strange bias here, as I’m one of the fifty people on earth who loves games but never cared about comics or superheroes. So I say this without exaggerating or clutching at straws: Freedom Force Vs The Third Reich [Wikipedia page], a real-time, squad-based tactical beat ‘em up from 2005, is the only game that truly shows why people love comics.

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The Ambitious Failure Of Cybervamp RPG BloodNet

I’m known for writing about old games that are worth playing today. This is something of a departure, as I can’t really recommend Bloodnet [Wikipedia page] with a clear conscience. It isn’t a good game. But it’s been lurking in my mind for the better part of 20 years.

It’s a rare game that would excite a traditional RPG fan as well as a genre cynic like me – an unforgiving, non-linear, party-based adventure with turn-based combat and minimal handholding, set in a world devoid of goddamn elves. Instead, it’s set in the kind of future that only the early 1990s could conjure up.

Cast as Ransom Stark, you’re a ‘disgrunt’ – a former employee of evil megacorporation du jour, TransTechnicals, discarded when your work made you sick. Now you’re one of many surviving the dystopian microcosm of Manhattan via illegal activities like ‘decking’ (unauthorised Matrix use. No, not that one. Well, actually….), theft, espionage, and of course murder. Then you’re bitten by a vampire.

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Screw Balance: How Warlords Battlecry 3 Blended Genres

There’s this obscure game called StarCraft – you probably haven’t heard of it. It was one of those games that was so well designed that for years afterwards, most that came after its throne were either failed experiments or pale imitations, and even those that succeeded were just more of the same. Here are a few factions, they’re unique but equal; here’s a campaign where you fight each other faction then a civil war, with each level unlocking more stuff. Get unit x to position y, hold your ground for 30 minutes, insert tab A into slot B. You must construct additional… Mylons. Yeah, that’ll do.

StarCraft numbed me to the RTS for years. Everything wanted to be it, but I’d already played it. Even to this day, I find very little to recommend from that era. In a shock twist, however, there’s an exception in Warlords Battlecry 3.

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Arx Again Later: How Arx Fatalis Blended RPG Eras

Confession time: I don’t like dungeon crawlers. The very name says it all. Why would anyone want to go to the non-sexy kind of dungeon? And crawling – the form of movement reserved for times of serious injury and distress – around a dungeon? It’s a recipe for a dreary, ugly casserole, served by a skeleton archer in a rusty slime-edged prison bucket with a bowl of kamikaze rats.

But then there’s Arx Fatalis [official site], released in 2002 by Arkane Studios. I should hate it. It’s made of brown tunnels echoing with ambient dripping and distant wailing. It’s full of goblins and trolls and spiders and rats. You start in an Easily Escapable Prison, naked, with amnesia. It should bore me rigid, but through some arca… through some recondite formula it turns these uninspiring tropes into an imperfect, but unique and underappreciated brew.

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How To Eat Your Cake: Consortium And The Fourth Wall

We can’t keep saying video games are a young medium. We’ve been saying it since I was your age (or since you were mine, if that fits better), and besides, the last few years have finally shown that there’s plenty of room for games that do more than idly amuse us. Consortium is one such game.

Unlike any RPG I can name, Consortium throws you in with no map, no introductory cutscenes or tutorial. When you start, you don’t choose a character, you sign a disclaimer. It’s disorientating and strange, and immediately different, dedicated fully to its central conceit; you the player are accessing a satellite, provided by the developer, iDGi, that allows you to control a man known as Bishop 6, on board an aircraft, in the year 2042.

It nails role playing as a person in a specific situation, to an extent no other game has. Paradoxically, it achieves this by telling you nothing.

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Darklands Retrospective: What RPGs Are Supposed To Be

A lesson that often eludes the games industry is how much names matter. Though it’s hardly the worst offender, Darklands is about as generic as a name gets, and its cover image (which mattered once) is even worse.

Even discounting that, it faced an uphill struggle, as its original 1992 release was marked by a plague of bugs, which Microprose’s patching never entirely expunged. It can still fritz during longer, complex sections – the ones you’ll save at most – and its occasional glitches compound cumbersome controls and an interface that’s awkward and often repetitive. Its sounds are few and its animations simplistic, with minimal feedback. On paper, it’s a bit of a mess.

It’s one of the best RPGs ever made anyway.

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Why Sid Meier Is Wrong About Sid Meier’s Covert Action

Spies! They’re kind of dicks®. If they’re not seducing us or gambling away our taxes, they’re shoving microphones into cats or jabbing us with umbrellas. It’s hardly surprising that so many games about them veer into cartoonish James Bond territory, or cartoonish parody of cartoonish James Bond territory, or some kind of recursive humour vacuum that threatens to make Miranda Harts of us all.

But there’s a lot to be said for the more grounded approach. Sid Meier’s Covert Action, for example, steers clear of supervillains and outlandish capers, instead presenting a sort of action puzzle, with various criminal mysteries to be solved via a collection of minigames. Say “collection of minigames” in the early 90s and the responses you’d get would likely be “take this film licence dreck out the back and shoot it”, but Covert Action is a far better game than that technically accurate description lets on – and one still worth playing today. Let me explain.

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