Difference

The difference between clever and cunning.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Review


A Brief History of the Future

Before we start this review let me clear the air and admit that I’m a huge Deus Ex fan-boy.  The original 2000 FPS/RPG stands out as one of my all time favorite games. It’s one of the few I’ve played that manages to combine a largely linear story with a tremendous feeling of both freedom and consequence to everything the player does.  If you were willing to look hard enough there was always more than one way around an obstacle, and it was entirely possible to reach the credits without ever firing a weapon. 

Deus Ex was also a member of that special category of game that gives you the power to be a real jerk. I still have fond memories of hunting the citizens of Paris through the streets with a crossbow. Things get hazy around the point where I re-programmed the 15 foot combat robot to target all organic life while shouting that the Machine-War was upon us. 

Barely contained sociopathic tendencies aside, the original Deus Ex did have some issues of note.  It wasn’t an easy game to get into, firmly putting its worst foot forward. The early levels were the least interesting, both visually and in terms of gameplay. While your character was supposed to be a super soldier/secret agent it could be many hours before your augmentations and skills built up to the point where they were really useful. The already aging Unreal engine barely held together at times, the combat and weapons were wildly imbalanced, and the AI could be just plain dumb. 

It's funny because it's true.
Recognizing these flaws the game was, and still is, an amazing accomplishment. The 2003 sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, was not. While not, technically speaking, a bad game Invisible War failed to recapture the feel of its predecessor, dumbing down too many elements and hacking its levels apart into tiny chunks that took too long to load between. It was a major disappointment, and one of the reasons I’m skeptical about games being developed for both console and PC simultaneously. (Though there were certainly other factors at work.)

It was with some trepidation then that I approached Human Revolution, the third entry in the Deus Ex series and the one we’re actually here to review. Set before the events of the first Deus Ex and in the believably near future Human Revolution casts you as Adam Jensen, ex-SWAT and able to really rock a pair of shades. You’re the new head of security for Sarif Industries, developer and manufacturer of cutting edge human augmentations. 

Steel and Flesh

It’s worth noting that in the previous Deus Ex games augmentations were mostly in the form of nanotech. Augmented characters basically had superpowers and occasionally unusual eyes or glowing tattoos with few downsides. Not so in the world of Human Revolution. The products Sarif makes are sleek and streamlined, but blatantly mechanical in nature. An augmented arm might be stronger than the original, but no one will ever mistake the owner for anything other than a cyborg. Still, augs make people stronger, faster and more formidable in every way.

The game drives this home in the opening sequence, when a handful of heavily augmented mercenaries storm the Sarif labs. Try as you might they’re simply to powerful for the normal human Adam to stop. They lay waste to the building, apparently kill Adam’s ex-girlfriend and top Sarif scientist, and leave Adam broken and maimed. Fortunately Adam’s boss uses the technology the company develops to not only save his life, but load him up with robot arms and retractable shades before sending him back into the fray. (After six months of healing and intensive physical and mental therapy, of course.)

Adam has trouble expressing affection appropriately. Surprise hug!
Human Revolution understands the problems that gave the original Deus Ex a high barrier to entry and works to ease the player into the game. Helpful tutorial videos pop up every time a new game element is encountered, and they can be reviewed at any time. There’s plenty of in-game documentation available for stuff like the hacking and upgrade systems. It’s a neat example of how developer and player expectations about accessibility have changed over the last decade or so.

As in the original actions and choices have real consequences to story and gameplay. Once back in control of the newly augmented Adam I chose to ignore the message from my boss to come speak with him and instead explore the Sarif building lobby. After a few increasingly urgent calls I learned that the hostage situation Adam had been brought in to deal with had worsened.  People were now dead because I was rooting through my co-workers offices for snacks and loose change instead of doing my job. Whoops. 

World of Tomorrow

The visuals and ambience of Human Revolution are beautiful. What appears, at first glance, to be a lot of brown is actually a visual theme filled with a gentle golden glow and an infinitely fractal triangular pattern. The music pulses with tension when you’re hidden and dramatic energy when your enemies are closing in. The background hum of the game, the radio broadcasts, TV news, NPC conversations, and incidental e-mails, all come together to create a convincing image of a near future world on the edge of inescapable and dramatic change. 

The game’s central theme is human augmentation, and it treats the issue with a convincing level of ambiguity and moral complexity. There’s no denying that Adam’s augments saved his life and give him amazing powers (not to mention making for great gameplay.) We’ve always looked for ways to enhance and improve ourselves. If you have access to a computer and are able to read this then the chances that you could be considered a “natural human” are very low. If that doesn’t seem obvious just consider how many people you know have benefited from glasses, dental work, or vaccines. 

On the other hand Human Revolution shows many people understandably disturbed by the thought of replacing organic body parts with dead metal and ceramics. Augmented characters are dependent on a lifelong regime of expensive drugs to keep their bodies from painfully and lethally rejecting their implants. And really, who would feel comfortable with profit driven international company writing the software drivers that keep your eyes and legs working? The full range of viewpoints is given fair treatment, even as you use Adam’s robot arms to punch through a wall and neck-snap the goon loitering on the other side. 

Not quite Neo-Tokyo, the cities look good and hide many secrets.
The environments are complex and detailed, with plenty of alternate routes, optional flavor, and useful secrets tucked away for those willing to look. The sprawling city hub levels have a cool Blade-Runner vibe and are great fun to explore and cause trouble in. There are only really two hubs, but you revisit each several times and they change as the story progresses.  

The writing and voice acting is excellent. I particularly enjoyed the back and forth between Adam and his caustic, geeky mission handler. Other standouts include the anti-augmentation activist Bill Taggart and Adams boss, David Sarif. Adam’s own quiet growl is appropriately tired and menacing by turns. The major characters have some depth to them (especially if you’re willing to go digging through their e-mails) and all are believable.

Multiple Choice

The core gameplay holds that you will always have options about how to tackle any given situation, be it by stealth, force, social skills, hacking, special augmentations, or any combination thereof. If you’re willing to hack a few doors and can make it through some toxic gas you can enter a target building unseen through the sewers. Pick up the right ID card beforehand and the guards will wave you through. 

And while you’re there why not add some excitement to their lives by hacking the turret behind them and setting it to kill anyone who isn’t you? Heck, if you have the right strength upgrades you can pick the turret up and carry it around as your personal murder-pet. You’re never at a loss for options, and while some might be more difficult all are completely valid. 

There’s an excellent and intuitive cover mechanic that helps with both sneaking around and not getting shot during firefights. The camera seamlessly snaps between first and third person when you take cover or perform a takedown. You built-in radar makes it easy to keep track of where your enemies are and where they’re looking. You have plenty of tools at your disposal for dealing with foes in both lethal and non-lethal fashion, from hand tazers and stun grenades to the classic FPS brace of pistol/shotgun/machine-gun, etc.

Choose your words with care, or he will pull the trigger.
Almost everything, from hacking to downing foes, earns XP. Practicing good stealth techniques, like silent takedowns and not triggering alarms, awards significantly more, but stealth gameplay is more time-consuming and challenging than straightforward combat. Exploration is always rewarded, and players who find themselves short on ammo should try to take on more of a scavenger mindset. Carefully cleaning out areas will net you the most loot and XP, but you’re never required to do so.

Even if you are planning on killing everyone in your path you usually have the luxury of scouting the area and planning your moves before the violence starts. This is good, because combat is a high damage, high lethality affair. Just a few bullets will drop most human characters, Adam included, so using the cover system is a must. Adam regenerates health up to a base 100%, but natural healing takes a while to kick in and works slowly. Healing items also add a buffer on top of your normal health levels, but even with maxed out defensive augments and buffer health you’re just not that durable. Running and gunning is tricky at best. Combat in Deus Ex is about stacking the odds with tactics like sniper strikes, strategically placed mines, and ambushes. Or you can crush them with a vending machine. Whatever works.

Ave Machina

The glowing nano-swords from the previous games were cool, but there were also a lot of worthless melee weapons. The melee skill and weapon class has been replaced entirely with a new and beautifully animated takedown system. Just get close enough to an enemy (or anyone), tap the appropriate button, and watch as Adam busts out an animated sequence that ends with the bad guy unconscious on the floor. Hold the button a bit longer and Adam guts his target with the retractable straight razors hidden in his arms. 



There’s actually not much incentive to use lethal melee takedowns, because non-lethal earns more XP and is completely silent. All melee takedowns consume chunks of the same energy bar that fuels your cloak and a few other powers so you can’t spam it indefinitely, but it’s still a powerful and satisfying ability. It’s also hard to resist unleashing it on random hobos or other bystanders just to watch Adam at work. The canned nature of the animations means ordinary civilians will sometimes display surprisingly skilled close combat moves even as Adam cracks their skulls with his metallic fists. The double-takedown upgrade is highly recommended.
 
Confrontations with major characters that don’t immediately turn violent are usually in the form of “conversation battles”. These are dynamic exchanges where you choose Adam’s attitude or response in an attempt to get information or assistance out of a character. They can feel a little random at first, but careful observation of how the other character behaves and reacts can help you figure out their buttons. There’s also an Augmentation that lets you better read and manipulate people, although some characters can tell you’re using it and will call you on it. 

It’s not a type of gameplay I’ve seen done well a lot, and it makes for some memorable encounters. Standouts include trying to talk down a cornered terrorist with a gun to the head of a hostage, and confronting your boss about information he’s been keeping from you. As always in Human Revolution it’s possible to fail these encounters and be left to deal with some interesting consequences, though this never stops you from progressing further through the game. 

The best showdowns in the game don't involve weapons.
The hacking mini-game is simple, but potentially extremely rewarding. It keeps a nice balance of tactical choice and tension that keep it from getting repetitive. This is good, because hack-able doors and computers are omnipresent, and you’re going to need to hack a lot of stuff on any but the most violent and straightforward playthroughs. I found myself hacking machines I already had the passwords for just to get at that sweet bonus XP and cash.

Six-Trillion Dollar Man

Money is plentiful but not very useful. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to buy stuff, and any player who checks all the drawers and gains a basic understanding of hacking will earn more than they can spend. You never see any sort of paycheck or stipend from your boss, but perhaps he’s putting that towards the cost of your surgery and robot arms. Even an option to buy low-end healing items or ammo from the vending machines everywhere would have been welcome. As it is you can only use them as bludgeoning devices or moveable cover. 

Character advancement has been simplified, but is still far more satisfying and complex than the barebones system in Invisible War. Every time Adam earns enough XP he gets to choose a different latent augment to unlock. Adam’s actually a pretty capable character right out of the box, and most augmentations open up new abilities or paths, (being able to move heavy objects or hack higher tier computers) or serve as quality of life improvements (being able to carry more stuff). A few, like the personal cloak and Typhoon Explosives System, are almost game breaking powerful. The Icarus landing System, which lets you leap from any height and land safely amid a flash of energy, is especially cool to watch. 

Adam's never afraid to go for the low blow.
No upgrades are mutually exclusive, and most don’t have a lot of levels. It’s more of a matter of choosing what abilities to get first rather than having to make character defining choices. By the end of the game I had about 80-90 percent of Adam’s augmentations unlocked. It’s rewarding to earn new abilities and upgrades, but you won’t find the same opportunities for serious character customization as in the first Deus Ex.  

Sunglasses at night

Almost every element of Human Revolution fits smoothly together except for certain major combat encounters. Whenever you finally run down one of the augmented mercenaries who wrecked Adam’s day in the prologue you’re locked together in a small arena. You can’t sneak past them, you can’t outmaneuver them, and you can’t escape. They’re immune to being knocked out, so all you can do is kill or be killed. 

I wasn’t surprised to find that Eidos contracted these out to an entirely different company, because they couldn’t be more out of place. Just to be clear, these aren’t badly designed fights. The bosses display the occasional interesting ability and there are plenty of supplies and environmental hazards scattered around to exploit. Even a player without any combat augs can probably fumble through with a few well placed stun grenades and some headshots. The Typhoon augment reduces the fights to speed bumps, and in any other action shooter they’d be perfectly functional if uninspired.

The boss fights are, however, completely out of character. Forcing the player into a lethal combat scenario with someone with a pile of hit-points and no way around them is counter to the design philosophy of Human Revolution and the rest of the series. You also never really have any idea who the hell these people are, aside from jerks. The fights don’t have any impact or depth. I don’t think you even learn any of the mercenaries’ names, unless they go by “guy with gun for an arm.”

Nice symbolism. Very... direct.
Boss fights in Deus Ex were with villains you could love to hate, or perhaps even felt a bit of sympathy for. They could be evaded or defeated without firing a shot under certain circumstances. Even the major encounters in Invisible War were with characters you’d been introduced to and been interacting with for big parts of the game. The bosses in Human Revolution could be cut completely for a net improvement in pacing and gameplay. 

Without giving any story details away Human Revolution’s final levels are a bit odd. The tactical stealth/action and exploration of the previous 15-20 hours give way to a sequence that would be more at home in the Left-4-Dead series. There’s an almost unintelligible final boss fight that I was able to flail through without actually understanding what was going on, and then you’re left to chose your desired ending with a single arbitrary button press from the Console-Of-Destiny. It all felt a bit unsatisfying, but I suppose one problem with prequels is that you can’t tamper with certain aspects of the world and core story too much.

Make your choices, deal with the consequences.
These unfortunate sections aside Human Revolution is still an amazingly rich, complex, and fun FPS/RPG. Eidos Montreal has managed to create a worthy successor to the original Ion Storm classic. It’s impossible not to recommend to anyone who enjoys more than the most light and casual gaming.

Reasons to play: Complex, satisfying gameplay with a multitude of paths and options. A deep and engrossing vision of a near future world. Punch hobos with robot arms.


Reasons to pass: Totally out of place boss fights. Final levels wildly break tone with the rest of the game.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games, images, and videos copyright their respective owners.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Portal 2 Review


If you’re even peripherally aware of gaming you’re already familiar with Valve’s Portal. The 2007 game made good use of its original titular mechanic to create unique puzzles and give the player new ways to hurtle around the ole underground lab. For what could have been a glorified tech demo it also had a great story and sharp humor. At the very least you’ve probably been exposed to the memes the game spawned often enough to get tired of them. As such I’m giving my word I’ll leave out any references to cakes or lies for the duration of this review. 

Valve has managed to find time between adding more hats to Team Fortress 2 and not finishing the next Half Life Episode to make us a sequel. I’ll be operating on the assumption you’ve played the first game, or are at least familiar with the basics of premise and mechanics. Portal 2 is also a very story heavy game, so I’ll do my best to minimize spoilers.

Thinking with sequels

That said you’re doubtlessly curious as to how Portal 2 starts, give that everything seemed to have exploded at the conclusion of the first game. As the game opens it becomes clear that you’re still trapped in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center from the first game, though an indefinite amount of time has passed and large sections of the facility have fallen into disrepair. It’s not too long before you get your hands on another portal gun and set out to escape once more.

A lot has changed since you last confronted GLaDOS.
The recently reviewed Borderlands had something to the order of a million possible guns. Portal 2 has only one, and the portal gun functions more or less the same this time around, with the minor welcome change of being able to see your portal through walls and obstacles. The portal gun is a versatile tool, but most of its abilities are dependent on what’s in the environment for you to work with.  

Valve’s single player offerings have always excelled at easing the player into learning new mechanics, sometimes without even letting the player catch on that they’re being coached. Portal 2 puts this to good use with a slew of new mechanics that it builds its puzzles and environments around. This is no mere map pack or expansion, recycling stuff we’ve already seen. As you work your way from test chamber to test chamber and beyond you encounter lasers, jump pads, and bridges of solid light, all of which you’ll need to use in conjunction with your portals to progress. You still get to put the occasional crate on top of a giant red button, so if that’s what you were looking forward to, never fear.

Lasers offer superior button pressing power though.

All the things we learned

Valve takes it’s time, letting you get familiar with each new device and all the ways they can be manipulated before “testing” you on what you’ve learned and letting you combine these devices in new and interesting ways. The standout is the colorful “repulsion gel”, which you can spray the walls and ceilings with, allowing you to move faster, jump farther and even apply portals to newly covered surfaces. Flinging and bouncing yourself through increasingly complex Rube Goldberg like setups is a joy. 

Many of the best puzzles force you to combine different mechanics.

The puzzles are immensely satisfying to complete, and can grow quite challenging later in the game. I only ever found myself stuck a handful of times, and it was usually because I hadn’t noticed some aspect of the environment or had forgotten something the game had already taught me. There’s so much new stuff introduced It’s even possible to find yourself stymied just because you’ve forgotten, for the moment, that you can shoot portals. You will die a number of times just through trial and error.

Loading times in Portal 2 feel just frequent and long enough to start to get on your nerves, but aren’t crippling. They’re definitely more of an annoyance than in the first Portal. Actual game performance and stability was fine. 

The science gets done

The first Portal was short, although you could argue that it was no longer than it needed to be. Portal 2 is significantly longer. There’s a clearly defined three act structure, separated by Valve’s signature first-person rides. These major changes in setting and tone were a good decision, because a whole eight hour game of nothing but test chambers could have started to wear. Portal 2 is extremely linear but it is tightly paced, largely thanks to its level design. You’re rarely unable to see where you’re heading, and the fun largely comes from figuring out how to get there. Areas and mechanics manage not to overstay their welcome. 

The Enrichment center goes down for miles.

The environments are more varied this time around. You will see your fair share of testing chambers, but you also get to spend plenty of time “behind the scenes” crawling around in the Aperture Science infrastructure. These excursions outside the ordered test chambers reveal the terrifyingly macroscopic scale and modular nature of the facility, only hinted at in the first game. Some of the most memorable environments can be found in the games second act, down in the forgotten depths of the Enrichment Center, along with plenty of tidbits of information about the origin and history of Aperture Science.

Some of these giant arenas feel almost wasted, given that you can cross them in seconds with the use of the portal gun. They’re not pretty in the conventional sense, but the sheer scope and scale of the facility never fails to impress. This wasn’t a place built with human frailty or limitations in mind and you will, unsurprisingly, need the portal gun to cover any ground. 

Doing what we must (Because we can)

For a game in which you are the only living human Portal 2 has great characters and hilarious writing. GLaDOS returns of course, though significantly angrier, sharper, and perhaps more human than you might remember. This makes sense given that you scrambled her personality cores in the finale of the first Portal and, as she’s never slow to remind you, did kind of murder her. 

Not that she's bitter or anything.

GLaDOS’s dialog drips with a level of terrifying, barely contained menace directed towards you personally, with more than a hint of mean-spirited sarcasm. While she’s the primary antagonist for significant parts of the game a lot about her personality and origin gets uncovered, and you may even end up feeling just a touch sorry for the homicidal AI. You get to see her react to some highly unusual situations, and it’s always fun when she’s threatening or addressing you directly. 

Wheatley, on the other hand, crackles with barely contained panic and frantic energy. The little blue AI sphere wakes you from stasis at the start of the game and serves as your guide and source of narrative exposition for much of the first act. Wheatley’s a constant stream of ideas, most of them bad. Sporting a British accent and an extremely expressive and lovingly animated eye he rarely stops talking, and everything he says is hilarious. 

What could possibly go wrong?

Rounding out the cast is a series of voice recordings left by Cave Johnson, the original founder of Aperture Science. His relentless enthusiasm and total lack of concern for safety or ethics makes his speeches at least as fun as the rest of the cast. It certainly goes a long way towards explaining how Aperture Science became the place it is today. He syncs perfectly with the rich vein of dark, at least slightly sadistic humor that runs through the game. And make no mistake, Portal 2 is consistently, deliciously funny.

Companions without cubes

The single player game is a complete experience in and of itself, with a great finale for the payoff. The ending song isn’t quite up to the level of the first Portal’s “Still Alive”, but what is? If you want more gameplay there’s a challenge mode where you compete on leader boards for speed and least portals used, but the best addition is the co-op mode.

Being able to see yourself through your own portals is as cool and disorienting as ever.
 
Portal 2 Co-op is definitely something you’ll want to do with a friend, rather than some random internet scrub. It’s as cerebral as the single player game, and good communication and cooperation is a must to make any progress. The little robots you control are endlessly reconstructed when one or the other of you inevitably dies, which helps keep the frustration to a minimum. The unlock-able animations of the robots interacting and GLaDOS’s constant heckling and commentary are more high points. You can do a lot of cool stuff with four portals and two bodies at your disposal, and the co-op campaign does as good a job as the single player campaign of educating you on the implications.

The part where I sum things up

In conclusion it’s hard not to recommend Portal 2. The game displays a level of wit and humor not often seen, while offering excellent mechanics and well polished puzzle gameplay. As much as I wish Valve would curb their hat-lust long enough to finish the third Half-Life episode, I can’t complain too much if games like Portal 2 are what they’re going to be doing in the meantime. It’s an extremely worthy successor to its predecessor while improving on the foundation laid by the first Portal in nearly every way. 

Reasons to Play: Hilarious humor. Top notch writing and great cast of characters. Deeply satisfying puzzle gameplay with a constant stream of fun new mechanics. 

Reasons to Pass: Slightly annoying loads. Extremely linear, for those who prefer more open games.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Kalani W. Streicher Interview

Kalani Streicher is a gaming industry veteran, with over twenty years experience in development, design, and production. He has credit in dozens of commercial games, including the classic Super Star Wars SNES Trilogy and X-Wing/Tie Fighter Series. He’s worked and produced games for such formative companies such as LucasArts, Activision, EA, Universal, Microsoft and has founded several of his own.
 
Thank you for taking a few minutes to speak with us today.

How did you find yourself in game development? Did anything in particular inspire or motivate you to go into the field? What skills or experience have you found most valuable?

Well, I didn’t really pursue getting a job in the games industry. I grew up in Germany and it is all about precision mechanics and fine German engineering. I did an apprenticeship in tool&die in my teens, though I knew then I wanted to get into computers and software. After that I studied computer science and precision mechanics at the Technical College in Frankfurt. At the time computers and computer graphics were just at its infant stages though I was very intrigued by it. I knew the best place to be part of computer graphics and visual effects production is in California. Therefore I move to San Francisco and started looking for a job in that field. Since I had a background in programming and was fluent in German my first contract job was translating C, C++ books from English into German for Microsoft. 

At the same time Lucasfilm Games was looking for someone that can port and localize all their story games for the European market. I was there at the right time and was responsible for the translations and ports of all the story games (Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken, Loom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, etc.) to languages such as German, French, Italian, Spanish and platforms such as PC, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore64, etc. 


The skills and experience most valuable are having a good understanding of software technology, programming and logic. You have to be adaptive to the different platforms and input devices. Further, being highly creative, organized and having a passion for games is a must. 

  
What was working for LucasArts like? Was there anything you particularly enjoyed, disliked, or stands out in your mind?

It was incredible working at LucasArts. The culture and creative atmosphere is like no other place. The attention to detail and the combination of creativity and technology is amazing. Working at Skywalker Ranch was totally fun and it is amazing being surrounded by the most innovative and creative people in the film and games industry. 

You’ve worked with many different types of games over the years. Space sims, platformers, adventure games, and so on. Which have you most enjoyed creating, and why?

I enjoyed each one of them. I like the variety of the different genres with their intricate game mechanics I’m always hungry to learn, understand and evolve my design and development skills by building different games. I strongly believe future games will become a playground of the different game mechanics from different genres. We already see this trend with many games in merging different genres as well as embedding many mini-games or sections of the game with different play mechanics. 

How do you feel many of the classic games you were involved in, like the Super Star Wars and X-Wing/Tie Fighter series, have held up over time? If you were asked to remake them today what, if anything, would you do differently?

I believe they’ve held up relatively well. They are definitely considered some of the top classic games. Though game design has evolved since then and if I’d be given the opportunity to remake them today I’d keep the core essence of the game play and add many more new design features. For example, the Super Star Wars was aimed at the core to hard-core player. Back in the days that’s what all players were. We didn’t have a casual player. Therefore the game is tailored to be very challenging to play. Today I’d make the “Easy” and “Normal” difficulty modes a lot easier, though keep “Jedi” mode for the hardcore. I’d improve some of the level design and also add a better save game system. Back then you had to play a level over and over from the beginning after you died. I don’t think that would fly today. I’d add save points or some other save-game mechanism. I’d give it a graphical and aesthetics facelift, and lastly, I’d add a social and content creation component to the game similar to Little Big Planet.

With X-Wing/Tie Fighter I’d definitely upgrade the visual quality. Today PC or console platforms can make it look like the movie. You’d feel like being in movie. I’d focus on seamless integration of story content and game play. The AI of X-Wing/Tie Fighter is phenomenal and still holds up today, but this area has evolved over the years and I’d add better emergent and expert systems, adaptive AI, as well as more emotional depth.

You’ve recently started a company, Kalani Games, which seems to have a mobile focus. In the past you have also worked for a mobile company, MauiGames. Do you believe the industry is heading away from the traditional business model for big budget “AAA” games? Do you think we’re likely to see the bulk of the gaming industry’s growth in smaller, more agile to develop, social, mobile and “casual” games?
Kalani Games focuses on a variety of game genres and platforms. That is what I’ve done my entire career and will continue to do. Currently we are working on a Virtual Worlds/Casual MMO, DLC, Facebook, and iPad/iPhone/Android games.

Console games today are harder to get off the ground just because most of them are tied to big licenses, budgets and resources. These games are definitely approaching, if not surpassing, the budgets of films and movies. I don’t think console games will disappear in the near future, there is still a lot of room to improve and bring an even more immersive, visual and emotional experience to the player. Though the market and revenue growth will flatten off more over the years. We are approaching what the movie industry has been for the last decade and reaching a certain saturation point. I believe we’ll see additions of other new features such as social, 3D or sensory systems in the console games.

On the other hand, the social, mobile and casual game markets will grow at a more rapid pace over the next decades. There are still so many people that aren’t playing games and our goal as game designers is to capture everyone on Earth playing some sort of game on a device.


I believe these are the areas where game play will innovate the most over the next years. We’ve already seen different ways to engage the players with new interesting game play mechanics. People want to play games anywhere they go and socialize with each other. The new devices such as smart phones and tablets are paving the way. In addition, with the rapid technology development, new input mechanisms and faster Internet bandwidth will accelerate the quality of games. We’ll already see the 3D era on the tablets happening and the convergence of console, PC and tablets. The consoles are slowly becoming the “arcades” games of the past. Soon we’ll be playing console-like games on our mobile devices and be totally connected between various platforms.


Any brief words of advice for the next generation of game developers?

Work hard! Attention to detail! Innovate! Have Fun!


Do or do not. There is no try.

Thank you very much for your time!

You can visit Mr. Streicher’s company website here:

http://kalanigames.com/index.html

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Steel Storm: Burning Retribution Review


Indie games are an interesting breed. They don’t always have the resources and level of polish we’ve come to expect from AAA titles, but they an endless source of innovative new ideas. Pound for pound and dollar for dollar they’re also sometimes simply a better value.

The slightly awkwardly named “Steel Storm: Burning Retribution” doesn’t bring new ideas to the table, but it does provide a slice of frantic, old school, arcade-style fun. You steer a hover tank from a top-down perspective on a quest to explode everything that moves and most of what doesn’t. Don’t worry about story. You won’t be releasing the fire key long enough to read it anyway.

Kaboom!
The intense and tightly tuned combat is the highlight of the game and rightly so. Movement speed, enemy AI, and weapons are all just right. Your tank is fast enough to dodge or outrun most enemy attacks, and good use of the environment will let you avoid the rest. You can’t afford not to pay attention, because the sheer power and volume of incoming fire will destroy you in seconds if you’re careless.

Weapons scale up nicely, and are much of what make the combat fun. In the early levels you dance about groups of smaller enemy tanks, battering and herding them with your weak but continuously firing mini-guns. Later you unleash unrelenting devastation with missile swarms and spread weapons that would seem more at home in a bullet-hell game, laying waste to fields of enemies and rumbling mini-bosses many times your size. The “Finger of God” style beam cannon was my personal favorite.

You advance over dozens of burning enemy hulls, or not at all.
There’s no ammo to keep track of, and little reason to ever stop firing. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s a rare moment where you’re not shooting at something, and staying still is one of the surest ways to die.

Almost everything explodes when shot enough, and looks good while doing so. The models are clean and attractive. For an indie game Steel Storm manages some very slick looking graphics and effects, although performance sometimes chugged when the action was really flying.

Least you come away with the impression that Steel Storm is nothing but a continuous scream of mindless explosions there are some elements that lend it welcome tactical depth.  Weapons aren’t all straight upgrades, and offer pros and cons worth considering when the chance comes to swap them out. For example the homing missiles are obviously useful and accurate, but lack the raw firepower and indirect fire abilities of the ballistic missile barrage. Insidious little repair turrets resurrect destroyed enemy tanks, forcing you to look for alternate paths or pick your way through a regenerating mob.

The best place to shoot someone is from safely around a corner.
There’s a decent variety on display among the level environments. The more open outdoor areas are definitely superior, and the levels that force you to slug your way through narrow linear corridors can start to grind. You’re generally there to hit some switches or blow something up, though Steel Storm tries to keep things interesting with the occasional time limit or escort mission. The friendly AI tanks aren’t very smart, but mercifully you’re never forced to keep them alive to complete the level, making them a minor feature rather than a major flaw. 

The levels themselves can get quite time consuming to complete. I’m not sure I agree with the choice. Steel Storm excels at brief bursts of frantic, arcade-style action and the game’s combat can become repetitive over time. There’s no in-level saves, just a limited number of extra lives. The system would seem to be perfectly suited for short, intense “coffee break” sized levels, but a few of Steel Storm’s can start to drag.

Even the indoor levels have some nice graphical effects.
The developers were clearly getting a handle on their tools by the second episode, which features more interesting environments and gameplay. There are a couple of tense fights against massive, powerful bosses. These brief, arena-style levels are a nice diversion from the longer slugfests, though you should expect to go through a few lives cutting these behemoths down.

Outside of actual gameplay the UI and Front-End are a bit rough, but functional. While Steel Storm is not a brutally complex or unintuitive game some form of tutorial, or even basic documentation, would not have gone amiss. I was stuck for a time on one early level just because I didn’t recognize what the game’s switches looked like yet.

There's a good looking "over the shoulder" camera, but it's too hard to dodge to make it practical to play in.
Co-op is a chaotic blast, provided you can find some people to play with. There’s also a map editor thrown in, if you want to try your hand at making your own levels. You can’t actually make new environments, but you can add in enemies, items, objects, weapons, and what-not. You’re free to string together your own custom campaigns. I was able to find a custom co-op campaign with an even higher enemy density than the core game, which was fun if punishing to the frame rate. Many players probably won’t bother with these features, but they’re a very nice touch, and a good step towards building and maintaining a community.

Reason to play: Intense arcade-style fun. Good indie value. Custom maps and co-op extend life. Splosions.

Reasons to pass: Levels can get a bit lengthy and repetitive. Old school levels and lives system not for everyone.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Borderlands Review




Borderlands combines a potent mix of FPS action and RPG style looting and character development. The game puts you behind the guns of one of four mercenary “Vault Hunters”, searching for a hidden cache of alien technology on the desolate planet of Pandora. Story isn’t really Borderlands strongest feature, but it gets the job done.

First Person Looter

On its most basic level Borderlands plays like a First Person Shooter. Quick reflexes and accurate aim will serve you in good stead.  Beneath the FPS shell there’s a strong RPG backbone that draws its lineage from classic Diablo and World of Warcraft design philosophy.

Each of the four characters has access to a unique action skill that adds some useful tactical twist. The Soldier can deploy a turret for support, the Berserker can (as you would expect) go berserk for a massive boost to melee damage and health regeneration, and so on. Each class also has access to three skill trees that you put points into as you level up. 

The skill trees are lean but powerful

There aren’t as many skills as you might find in a meatier RPG, but almost all of them are interesting or useful in some fashion. Some augment a character’s action skill, like making the Soldier’s turret spit out ammo-packs, while others buff basic stats or add some specific bonus, like making shots pass through enemy shields.  Any character can use any weapon, although each class has skills that improve and modify their abilities with select types. The Soldier, for example, favors the combat rifle. You can re-spend your points at any time for a modest fee, so there’s plenty of fun to be had trying different builds and you’re never punished for experimenting.

Guns Guns Guns Guns Guns Guns Guns Guns

The meat of the game is loot. Guns, as you've likely picked up by now. You can’t move on Pandora without tripping over a firearm, and almost every single one is completely randomized. One shotgun might have a chance to set enemies on fire, another might add a bonus to your melee attack, and a third might have a sniper scope. A high end model might feature all three. A few unique firearms do truly crazy things, like regenerate ammo or fire a bouncing wave of energy. These are not realistic weapons and the rule of cool is in full affect.

Loot, loot, loot. And more loot.
The crazy combinations don’t end with your guns. You might find grenades that steal enemy health to heal you or a personal shield unit that sprays a ring of acid when it’s depleted. Obviously not every combination is useful, or even makes sense, but it’s hard to resist searching for the perfect shooter.

You’re continuously replacing your load-out. There’s no way to tweak, upgrade, or augment any item, so you need to take or leave each gun as you find them. You do earn XP and gain bonuses with general weapon categories, but since you’ve never invested anything in any particular weapon there’s no reason not to swap it out when you find something better or just want to experiment. Items have Diablo/Warcraft style level requirements and rarity color coding, and finding purple or above loot is always a rewarding moment.

Gun on Man Violence

Seeking out and sorting through heaps of guns is a big part of Borderlands appeal, but the game also provides worthwhile enemies to use those weapons on. While not trying to be realistic combat is fast paced and fun. Cover is useful, but the low accuracy of most weapons at long range and your regenerating shields encourage you to get in there and mix it up. There’s a decent variety of enemy species and behaviors on display, though you’ll kill a LOT of very similar bandits before the credits roll. The AI gets the job done but can have trouble dealing with snipers and players it lacks a clear path too.
One of Pandora's countless endearingly crazy bandits, moments before perishing of mysterious severe cranial trauma.

If you do take too many bullets to the face Borderlands has neat mechanic. When your health drops to zero you drop to the ground and are given a last chance to kill any nearby enemy for a second wind. This can make for some very cool and dramatic last stands, and actually encourages you to keep a lot of enemies around. Co-Op allies can also scrape you off the ground if they reach you in time.

No matter your class or play style you’ll want to keep a spread of weapon and damage types to exploit enemy weaknesses and tactics. Almost every creature has weak points that can be targeted for an automatic critical hit, (like the head for humans, obviously) so finding and nailing these spots keeps battles interesting and encourages good aim. The over-the-top death animations and shower of loot that accompanies every slain foe are an entertaining payoff.
I'll give you a hint. The shield isn't his weak point.

Like Pulling a Trigger

While Borderlands does have some depth, such as the skill trees and the interplay between different enemy and damage types, it’s an easy game to pick up and start playing. If you understand the basics of FPS movement and combat then there’s very little barrier to entry. The tutorial takes great care to ease you into the game, going out of its way to introduce and explain even fairly intuitive concepts like using grenades and buying stuff from vending machines.

It’s always better to give the player too much support rather than too little, but the first hour or two of play doesn’t have a lot to interest experienced players, especially given that the game encourages you to try all the character types. The characters don’t begin to play any differently till you unlock their special skills at level five. I’d have put in an option to skip straight to level five and bypass the first few tutorial quests if the player has already completed the campaign once or has a character past level 30.

There are more exotic critters than bandits roaming the wastes.
Outdoor areas tend to be dominated by vehicular travel. Borderlands cars handle nicely enough and give you a formidable level of speed, durability, and firepower. If you manage to trash your ride the stations that spawn them are never too far away, and getting a new set of wheels is free. Running over enemies is a blast and you can just roll past most fights if you’re not interested. You’ll need to disembark to collect loot, and most major encounters are designed so they need to be completed on foot, but tearing across the wastes making road kill is a nice change of pace from fighting on foot. Having a co-op buddy man the turret is also a good time.

It’s hard to get annoyed at a game that’s this aggressively convenient and fun to play. Managing your inventory and accessing your various bits of info is intuitive and painless. Inventory space can get a bit tight although one of the downloadable content packs adds a storage bank. Realistically you’re always finding so many new toys that anything you store will be obsolete by the time you see it again. Loading screens are present but not excessive. I suspect they’re a necessary evil left over from the game’s console heritage. Borderlands simply doesn’t believe in punishing the player or even making them stop having fun for any longer than absolutely necessary.

Bullet Points

The quest structure pulls what narrative Borderlands needs forward, and ensures you always have something productive to do. The quests themselves are mostly standard fetch-this kill-that fare, but the chunk of cash and XP awarded for completing each makes them worthwhile. Enemies respawn quickly, so ticking off objectives and then heading back to turn them in goes a long way towards preventing a feeling of grinding or repetition. You still end up needing to shoot your way back through already cleared areas, but the fast travel system helps.
A fine red mist. Of jam. A Jaist?

There’s not much of a central narrative. The plot takes a while to get going, and doesn’t move very far or fast once it does. You’re mostly just moving from place to place dealing with a string of local bandit lords. There are a few twists late game that introduce some welcome new enemy types. The ending is weak, but Borderlands strength is very much in its gameplay rather than its story.

The world of Pandora is vivid although not a place where most people would want to live. There’s a strong “western-punk” theme in the art and characters. The piles of junk, ramshackle shanty towns, and dusty, hostile wastes would be at home in the Fallout series. The cell shading lends everything a slightly cartoony, stylized mood. The thumping soundtrack serves as an excellent accompaniment to the action, and the opening cutscene and closing credits songs are catchy enough to deserve special mention.

The voice acting is top notch, and frequently genuinely funny. It has a dark and sardonic sense of humor that fits the desolate world. The series of voice-records left by an archeologist as she slowly loses her mind are a standout.

No rest for the wicked

Ultimately Borderlands is an easy game to love and enjoy. It successfully taps into the “just one more” allure that keeps people playing its spiritual predecessors and brethren, like Diablo and Torchlight. Every action, from running someone over to killing them with a headshot, contributes to achievements with juicy XP rewards. Vending machines regularly carry powerful items and change inventory every twenty minutes, so you’re tempted to stop at everyone you pass, just in case.
Some of the Vistas are quite impressive.
While some sort of option to help players of different levels productively team up would have been nice, Borderlands is still a blast to play with friends and working voice chat. Even a total party wipe isn’t excessively punishing, and you’re never out of action long. Enemies scale up with the number of players and loot goes to whoever grabs it first, so you will definitely want to play with people with whom you share a degree of trust and basic communication.

Once you finish the main campaign there’s a number of Downloadable Content packs to extend the life of the game. I’ve only had the chance to play two, but I can definitely recommend “The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned.” which offers an entertainingly creepy setting, some top notch humor, and (as advertised) loads of zombies. “Mad Moxies Underdome Riot” is less an adventure and more of an endless arena-style battle, plus a bank to store stuff. It’s best played with a team of friends, but is still repetitive and surprisingly unrewarding compared to most of Borderlands gameplay. I’d start with the zombies.

Reasons to play: Addictive mix of FPS and RPG gameplay. Scads of randomized loot. Genuinely funny humor. Great soundtrack. Awesome co-op play.

Reasons to pass: You fight a lot of the same bandits, and they don’t get any smarter. Weak story.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Daniel Erickson Interview

Daniel Erickson is the lead writing director at Bioware, perhaps best known for his work on Dragon Age: Origins, and the highly anticipated upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. Mr. Erickson has also worked as a game critic for the now defunct Daily Radar website, and has production and design credit for the NBA Street and SSX series from EA sports.

Thank you for taking a few minutes to speak with us today

1. What’s the job of lead writer like? Do you mostly co-ordinate other writers and their work? Do you get to do much writing yourself?

Erickson: It varies from game to game. On Dragon Age and Mass Effect, for instance, the lead writers are critical path writers, contributing huge amounts of actual hands-on content to the game. With a writing staff the size of the one on The Old Republic I get to do a little writing here and there but most of the time I’m more of the guiding force behind the fiction content for the game. As a former lead designer, I’m also more involved in the senior design structure than I think is usual for a lead writer so my duties are a bit more eclectic.


2. How do you feel about working with a pre-existing Intellectual Property (Like Star Wars) as opposed to one that you’ve been able to build from the ground up? (Like Dragon Age) Do you have a preference?

Erickson: They both have advantages and disadvantages. I loved working on Dragon Age: Origins and being able to come up with a world the team owns is extremely rewarding. It’s also a ton of work and means you have to educate players on all the rules, expectations, etc. You can’t assume any familiarity with the content. With something like Star Wars you’ve got built in fan appeal and a huge amount of content to draw from so you can just jump in and get started which can save months or even years of time. That said, there are a huge amount of Star Wars experts out there so you better know you stuff and you don’t have the flexibility to change the way the world’s mythology works to get around a sticky design decision like you can with your own IP.


3. Have you found writing for games has challenges you didn’t expect?

Erickson: It can be difficult to work in an aspect of game design that’s so much in its infancy that many people still don’t understand why you’re there or see it as a necessary evil. I doubt programmers and artists have to justify their existence as much as writers do. Also, like design, it’s something everyone thinks they understand and can do/comment on.

4. You’ve been quoted as saying: “You can teach a writer to be a junior game designer. You cannot teach a junior game designer to be a writer.” Do you think the two disciplines should be taught and implemented together, rather than as separate aspects of game development?

Erickson: What I was saying there is that writing is a specialty discipline like anything else in games. You’re either a writer or you’re not and if you’re not, you’ll never be anything more than mediocre at it. If mediocre is fine for your game and nobody much cares about the writing than sure, give the writing tasks to a random designer who enjoys it and move on. In the same way I wouldn’t bring in a screenwriter, train them to do basic design and then ask them to balance my combat system! And yes, cross training is crucial so that all designers learn about the complexities of and respect each other’s specialties.


5. Do you have a favorite bit of Bioware writing? A particular conversation or narrative thread that you thought was exceptionally funny or epic or spot on in characterization?

Erickson: I don’t know about a specific line, but I’m proud of the city-elf origin in Dragon Age. I did a ton of research for that one; made sure I really understood the subject matter and tackled some issues rarely seen in videogames. And I tried to do it in a way that I felt was adult and mature in the actual sense of the words, not an excuse for juvenile titillation.


6. Any brief words of advice for the next generation of game writers/designers?

Erickson: Writers write. That’s how you know you are one. Run pen and paper RPGs. You’ll learn a ton about player agency and writing your stories for the audience instead of yourselves. Designers design. Make board games, make card games, learn to do basic programming and make web apps. Anything and everything you can do to test your ideas of what makes fun.

Thank you very much for your time!

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Strife Retro Review


This is will be the first in a series of retro-reviews, where we go back and take a look at classic games from days past. In addition to breaking down their gameplay we'll also be examining how they influenced the industry and later games.


The now venerable Doom engine defined the first generation of First Person Shooters. It wasn’t quite true 3D, and there were a lot of forgettable “Doom clones”, but the engine was responsible for an entire classic genre of play that hasn’t quite been replicated since. While limited by modern standards it’s fascinating to go back and play what was produced as mappers and developers first got to grips with the ability to carve out three dimensional space. Today we’ll be looking at a minor classic called Strife.

Strife was the last real commercial game produced on the Doom engine, back in 1996. It’s largely forgotten today because Quake came out less than a month later, with true 3D and a host of other technological advancements that left the aging engine in the dust. While Quake was a classic in its own right, with considerable impact on the industry, it was also a huge step backwards in some ways.

As a first generation game on a new engine Quake pared gameplay down to the very basics. Run, jump, shoot, hit the switch, etc… In many ways it was reminiscent of the first Doom. Both games were very reflexive and visceral. Levels could get quite abstract, and there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on story or world building.
Note that I'm lugging around an inventory of healing items, spare armor, and other goodies.
Strife, on the other hand, was produced on a mature engine. The developers had a lot of previous work and resources to draw from. They didn’t have to spend time learning the ins and outs of their tools, but could instead focus on pushing that engine to its very limits. What set Strife apart from both its other Doom engine brethren and the first generation of its true 3D successors (and what makes it warrant a look even today) were its features.

Strife could boast stuff that wouldn’t really be seen again until System Shock 2 and Deus Ex several years later. Strife had an actual story that advanced through the game, not a three paragraph blurb in the read me file. It had voice acting, cutscenes, and NPC conversations with relevant choices. There was light character advancement, an inventory system, weapons with more than one fire mode, and even crude stealth mechanics.

The premise, relayed via a colorful narrated comic slideshow on the main menu, has you working as a mercenary freedom fighter. You’re battling to overthrow a group of fanatical cyborgs called “The Order”, who manage to come off as surprisingly creepy. In addition to running missions for the resistance and storming Order bases you search for pieces of the ultimate weapon: The Sigil. 

Hints at the Order's nightmarish bio-technological experiments and other atrocities abound.
The game doesn’t just push you through an episode of maps full of enemies and pickups. Strife is laid out more like an adventure game than a traditional shooter. Most areas feature a hub where you can resupply and heal up between missions. You can always return to any area you’ve visited previously, although on rare occasions major plot points actually change an area. The resistance fighters abandon their old base once you take a bigger and better one from the bad guys, leaving behind rats and a few supplies for the careful scavenger.

The graphics are as blocky as you would expect, but the crisp art in the comic-book style cutscenes and character portraits really bring the world and characters to life. Voice acting is concise and not too hammy. Strife may have the distinction of being one of the first shooters with a “voice of mission control” constantly chiming in to feed you advice, objectives, and occasional humor. The warmly voiced Blackbird, your radio handler and spiritual ancestor of Alyx Vance, is easily the best character in the game.

Combat doesn’t feel quite like classic Doom, mostly because of the prevalence so many enemies with instant hit weapons. Even non-instant attacks move faster than pokey imp fireballs, so cover and line-of-sight is actually even more important than one might expect. Enemies themselves still move at the leisurely pace of most Doom engine creatures.

The weapon selection is satisfying, and the flamethrower is appropriately fun to use on enemy grunts. Strife has the distinction of the most terrifyingly dangerous grenade launcher I’ve ever seen, sending explosives bouncing in all directions with every pull of the trigger. You have about a 50/50 percent chance of blowing yourself up every time you use it. That’s before you break out the phosphorous grenades, which leave free-roaming jets of fire that can clear a room of enemies or toast you in a fraction of a second
Don't touch the flame.
As implied by the two types of grenades some of Strife’s weapons have alternate ammo types and firing modes. You still need to manually swap between them, but it opens up some cool tactical options. The signature maguffin, the Sigil, upgrades and changes its attacks as you claim more pieces. By the end of the game it’s able to drop most enemies in a single blast, mitigated only by the fact that it drains your own life.

The game has optional side missions and areas to reward careful exploration. Depending on which missions you accept and which characters you choose to side with you might not even see some sections. I suspect it’s because of the staggering expenses now involved in production, but I can’t think of a modern shooter that featured entire optional levels. Strife even has multiple endings depending on your choices and actions, adding a bit of replay value beyond bumping the difficulty level. 

You can load up on supplies at friendly shops.
Strife’s non-linear design is not without problems. It’s possible to get lost, confused, or forget what you were doing. The sewer level stands out as a pain to navigate, made worse by the limited number of protective suits available and the large number of areas that will damage you without one. Then there’s the truly bizarre choice of making the game un-winnable if you talk to the wrong characters and accept the wrong quests within the first hour of play. It’s possible to screw yourself out of being able to progress and not receive any indication you’ve done so till nearly an hour later.

Un-winnable dead ends are a cardinal sin of game design, especially in a game with an 8+ hour campaign like Strife. Fortunately it’s only possible to lock yourself into a dead end at one point, and only near the very beginning of the game. It’s still a bad design decision, but at worst you don’t lose too much progress. 
Slap down a teleporter beacon to call in a strike team of Resistance commandos.
 Least it seems like I’m being too critical, understand that this sort of flexibility is still one of the coolest things about Strife. Many of our painfully linear modern shooters could benefit from examining the more open flow of old school map design. Anything to get away from the lockstep of a series of rooms connected by corridors that you march through in rigid sequence.

The stealth mechanic is most notable in that it exists at all. The more human members of The Order generally don’t start a map hostile to you, and can be silently picked off with your punch dagger and limited supply of poison arrows. Your other weapons trigger alarms that send everyone after you and cause shopkeepers to cower behind shutters.

It’s a cool idea, but doesn’t hold up well. It’s impossible to “ghost” any area, because the numerous robot enemies attack you on sight and trigger alarms when they do. Your poison arrows only work on the weakest enemy types, whom watch listlessly as the goon right next to them takes one in the throat. Still, kudos for even trying on an engine clearly not built for this sort of thing.

Strife is worth checking out even today. Finding a copy and getting it running can be tricky, but a good place to start would probably be this source port: http://doom.wikia.com/wiki/SvStrife The game is a fascinating bit of FPS history with the bad luck to come out just in time to be overshadowed by a giant technological leap forward. Gameplay is rock solid and entertaining, and it’s a great way to see a lot of shooter features implemented before their time.

 Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.