Piercing the Veil

It’s 1924. Edward Pierce came back from World War I, the last survivor of the Lost Batallion, with a hole in daddy’s arm where the money goes a drinking problem that’s well on the way to destroying him. He’s set himself up as a private detective, since that’s a profession where there’s a certain acceptance that people will get plastered and fall asleep on their office couch from time to time – but that hasn’t stopped him being assailed by bizarre dreams.

Then it comes – the big case. Specifically, it’s the case of one Sarah Hawkins – a gifted artist famous for her macabre, surreal works. Sarah had married Charles Hawkins and moved into his mansion on Darkwater, a lonely island off the coast of Boston, and was apparently happy enough turning out additional work and being a parent to her and Charles’ little boy. Then a terrible fire broke out in the mansion, and all three were reported dead.

Sarah’s dad, however, smells a big fat rat. For one thing, very shortly before the fire Sarah had arranged to send him a painting – one suggesting that she was feeling threatened. And the police report has these odd inconsistencies – like how they go out of their way to insist that Sarah was mentally unbalanced but also that the fire was an accident. (If it were entirely accidental, why would they comment on her mental state at all?) Sarah’s father is convinced that the official report is at best bungled, at worst a cover-up, and hires Pierce to go to Darkwater, uncover the truth, and thereby salvage Sarah’s reputation.

At Darkwater, Pierce finds that Prohibition is being openly flouted, a gang of bootleggers is occupying the main town, and the locals are feeling surly and demoralised. Once upon a time Darkwater was a major whaling centre, but these days it’s slim pickings out there – almost like the whales have been consumed or driven away by some apex predator. It’s not like it was back in 1847, when the celebrated Miraculous Catch saved the island from famine and made the fortunes of the major local families. All interesting, all apparently disconnected from the Hawkins case… but as Pierce investigates, he discovers that Charles Hawkins had a very special interest in the Miraculous Catch legend indeed – and, more particularly, the deity the islanders thank for the Miraculous Catch… whose call resounds in the dreams of Darkwater’s inhabitants, inspired Sarah’s talents, and provides the game with its title.

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Shadow of WTF

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

When we last left the story of the Ranger Talion in Shadow of Mordor, he’d started his day being murdered by the forces of Sauron and then things just kept getting worse. Given a strange sort of half-life by being fused with the spirit of Celebrimbor, the legendary elven smith who had forged the Rings of Power with Sauron, we followed their journeys together as they began their guerilla war against Sauron, using the power to control orcs’ minds to turn the Dark Lord’s forces against him.

All this Grand Theft Mordor shenanigans was fun enough, but whilst the original Shadow of Mordor was like the Saint’s Row of Middle-Earth, Shadow of War is its Saint’s Row 2: it takes the gameplay of the original and injects it with a hefty dose of absolutely bizarre nonsense that makes a farcical cartoon of the whole thing.

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Soma-ch For All That

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Having developed a reputation for extremely spooky first-person hide-and-seek-em’-ups like Penumbra and Amnesia: the Dark Descent, Frictional Games’ latest offering in this vein is Soma, a return to the more science fictional bent of Penumbra. The player is cast as Simon, an average guy of the present day who has been suffering from a nasty brain ailment after a car accident. You play through the process of Simon going to an appointment to undergo an experimental technique of non-intrusively scanning a subject’s entire brain, giving a perfect picture of their neurological state at the time of scanning, the idea being that this could then be used to devise a customised treatment plan to save Simon.

At the moment the scan takes place, Simon finds himself apparently transported nearly a century into the future, and trapped in the mysterious undersea base Pathos-II. Naturally, because even if Simon is a chump who takes way too long to think through the implications of what he has been told most players soon as hell aren’t, you can quickly infer that the original Simon is long dead, and you are actually playing an activated copy of Simon produced using the scan somehow. What is less apparent why there’s this glowing masses of electronic pseudo-flesh growing and spreading across the complex, or what disaster has overtaken the crew, or what research was going on down here, or what tragedy has occurred to mean the surface road isn’t going to be sending help any time soon. That’s all for you to discover as you explore Pathos-II and try to eke out some sort of meaningful point to your unasked-for resurrection – and, ultimately, to establish some sort of lasting legacy for humanity in general.

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From Box Office Hell to Gaming Heaven

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The original DOOM and DOOM II: Hell on Earth weren’t the original First-Person Shooters – even in id Software’s own back catalogue Wolfenstein 3D preceded them – but whereas Wolfenstein made a modest splash, these were huge, huge hits, to the extent that for a while you didn’t talk about “first-person shooters”, you talked about “DOOM clones”.

In fact, there’s an extent to which it still makes sense to talk about “DOOM clones” as a distinct subgenre, thriving primarily in the three year gap between id releasing DOOM in 1993 and their release of Quake in 1996. Quake was such a success both in terms of critical and commercial impact and in terms of the technological advances it popularised, that after it came out true 3D became the de facto standard for first-person shooters. Prior to Quake, games like DOOM looked 3D but were actually “2.5D” – if you look carefully at a DOOM map, you’ll note that you can map out the entire thing in 2D, with raised and lowered areas here and there but no places where, for instance, one corridor ends up passing directly over a different corridor.

Part of the genius of DOOM, in fact, was how it was able to provide this really fast-paced experience which managed to combine maps about as complex as you could get in the 2.5D format they went with, large numbers of enemies and projectiles, and gameplay principles where the basics are easy to grasp but there’s lots of scope to devise more advanced tactics, all in a package which could run on a wide range of computers. It didn’t hurt that the game has really nice graphical design, with distinctive environments and enemies, as well as a great knack for conveying the feel of how the weapons operate – firing off the plasma rifle feels very different from firing the shotgun, for instance.

These are all things which look easy but aren’t, as is demonstrated by how so many of the game’s imitators like Rise of the Triad or Duke Nukem 3D simply haven’t stood the test of time as well as DOOM, or for its matter DOOM II (which managed to accomplish an awful lot simply by providing more of the same with a very few new weapons and monster types to add new tactical options and challenges.) On top of that, id maintained a good relationship with the modding community, to the extent that there’s still a thriving community producing homebrew DOOM maps today and id were able to release a couple of homebrew campaigns as Final DOOM in 1996. Although I don’t think Final DOOM is as strong as the levels in the original two games, it’s telling that it still stands up as a viable commercial release that isn’t a total technological embarrassment in 1996, the same year as Quake came out; whilst I’d still put the first two official DOOM games above Final DOOM, I’d put Final DOOM comfortably above more or less any of the DOOM clones following the 2.5D format out there.

DOOM 3 followed in 2004. I’ve not played it and I haven’t really felt like I’ve lost out by not playing it; everything I’ve seen on it suggests that it is a competently-implemented but ultimately unremarkable early-2000s FPS. The two major surfacings of the franchise since then have been the much-reviled movie tie-in and this year’s DOOM, a brand new game updating the franchise for current-generation PCs and consoles. Between them they represent a critical low point for the franchise and the chance of a sudden revival.

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A Good Game, Or At Least An Incredible Simulation Of One

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The general rule that even-numbered Saint’s Row games are much better than their odd-numbered counterparts remains true. For both the first and third games, developers Volition cooked up entire new cities to play with and seemed to rush the rest of the content, leaving game 1 feeling like a generic Grand Theft Auto clone with better character customisation and game 3 feeling like it was trying way too hard to play up the comedic aspects and over-the-top disregard for realism that had spiced up Saint’s Row 2.

The second game, of course, had the advantage that by setting the action in the same city as the first game they could get away with just giving the map a light update and concentrate more on stuffing the game with interesting content that gave a fresh spin on the concept. The fourth game repeats the trick by reusing the map of Steelport from the the third game and adding a whole new dimension to the game.

Specifically, it gives you superpowers.

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Gradual Evolution, Not Rapid Mutation

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Playing one of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls or Fallout games is, to a certain extent, what I do instead of taking a long vacation to somewhere unfamiliar. I pick a time when I’m going to have ample days off work, I sit down with the game, I take breaks to eat, drink, and exercise so that I don’t end up like one of the feral ghouls prowling the wasteland in the game, and I plough through the content until I am done. Like one of those absurdly long tubes of Jaffa Cakes that you can get this season, or one of those boxed sets you can get of a fat stack of an artist’s albums in lovingly rendered CD-sized replicas of the original vinyl sleeves, Bethesda’s RPGs aren’t things you indulge in in moderation – they’re optimised for excess, binging on them and wallowing in them until you cease to have fun.

Fallout 4 has maintained that tradition. In fact, Fallout 4 has followed the lead of Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas in more or less every significant respect. To a large extent, it is the same game as either of them. Equally, though, I think it’s the best iteration of that particular game.

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Dragon Warriors? Dynasty Quest?

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Omega Force, the studio behind the Dynasty Warriors series of game, has developed a fine byline in applying Dynasty Warriors-inspired gameplay to other franchises. It’s rather inspired, then, that they should have got together with Square Enix to give that treatment to the Dragon Quest series. There’s already a Dragon Quest Heroes spin-off series of action RPGs based on the series, after all, and the adorable monster designs from Akira Toriyama has long been a strength of that series and provides plenty of fodder to create adversaries worthy of the battlefield – plus the whole “one character against an army who builds up tension to unleash special moves” gameplay of the Dynasty Warriors series fits the the fantasy JRPG genre nicely.

The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below is set in a world where the various cute Dragon Quest monsters and human beings live together peacefully. The player character is a (male or female at the player’s option) captain in the personal guard of Doric, King of Arba, who presides over this happy society. (Whichever captain you chose not to make your main character is still available to you as one of your party members.)

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