Video Games

Intangible but convenient

I’ve had a bit of a game-buying drought as of late. I’ve walked into my 3 favourite game stores (in Toronto) – Gamerama at Yonge & Eglinton, EB at Yonge & Eglinton, and EB Games at Yonge & Steeles, – and have come up relatively empty for several weeks now (I bought Unreal 2 for $10 out of desperation yesterday). I was really jonesing for a nice cheap game purchase; not necessarily for the game, just the purchase, ya know? So I thought I’d look into my crystal ball and try buying a game off of Valve‘s content distribution system, Steam.

Steam is the distribution system first made mandatory by Half-Life 2, Valve’s 2005 game of the year as voted by countless publications including my favourite, PC Gamer magazine. Upon installing the game from storebought discs the user must make an account on Steam, activate the product over the internet, download any patches (optionally), and start playing. Steam must log into Valve’s servers before even the single-player version of Half-Life 2 can be played, but for those with a stable internet connection (not me) this is a much preferred alternative to leaving the CD in the drive.

Having recieved HL2 from a friend I simply needed to enter his password and start playing. Many early-purchasers noted some trouble with Steam due to high volume, but most were up and running minutes after installing.

It should be noted that Steam can be downloaded by one and all for free, and any game, including Half-Life 2, can be purchased and downloaded without taking a trip to the store at all.

Steam’s IM-ey main window

Valve opened up Steam’s embedded web store with its classic roster of titles – the original Half-Life series including its 2 expansion packs, accompanied by the odd third-party shovelware title. Since its illustrious launch, Steam users may choose from an ever-growing list of titles by increasingly prestigious developers such as Lionhead.

My game of choice was Half-Life: Source – the original Half-Life game rendered by Half-Life 2’s Source engine. It’s the same game that I’ve played at least 3 times through already, but as PC Gamer’s game of the year for 1998 it has a ton of replayability. This is the game responsible for transforming the first person shooter genre from baseless free-for-all splatterfests to a storytelling medium of unmatched personal weight. Half-Life was the first FPS to unfold in real time entirely in the first person perspective.

I clicked Half-Life: Source from a surprisingly disorganized roster of dozens of games and was presented a variety of bundles: purchase the game standalone or bundled with Half-Life 2. Having already changed most of the account settings from the previous owner’s, I was simply prompted to enter my billing information (which isn’t required by Steam until you make a purchase). I clicked another button or two and the game immediately appeared on my list of available games. The game automatically began downloading (at about 110KB/s) and was completely installed and updated within 40 minutes. I was emailed a reciept and given the option to print a copy. The total came to $10 USD, no taxes, no fees.

Steam’s IE-embedded web store could be better organized

I tested ‘er out and it worked perfectly. The game looks very slightly better than the original – it uses the higher-res (but still very pixelated and muddy) textures from the Blue Shift expansion pack and it incorporates Half-Life 2’s specular lighting and water effects, but otherwise it’s the same old Half-Life – and that’s a great thing! I look forward to giving this old favourite another good run-through. It’s a toughie!

Overall I am quite pleased with my Steam experience. After enduring maybe 10 fruitless visits to brick and mortar stores it was a pleasure to see a game I wanted, buy it, and play it in less time than it takes to drive to and from a store (granted this is an older 1-CD game).

Of course there remains the issue of Steam’s demise – what happens to all this purchased content if and when Steam disappears? Will Valve generously unlock all their content to be played freely? Or have we all been renting the game from Valve as long as Steam works? We shall see, I suppose.

Thankfully, with an impeccable track record, Valve isn’t going to disappear any time soon. They are blazing a trail here, and hopefully it will only mean good things for the industry. Indie startups like Introversion Software can ride on the coat tails of Half-Life to make themselves better known, and can distribute titles to consumers without dealing with the dozens of middlemen involved in traditional retail channels. This means greater distribution and per-unit revenue for budding developers. Hopefully Steam will be to indie devs what iTunes was supposed to be to indie musicians. (aside – boycott iTunes for screwing the little guy!)

In the end, am I as pleased with my Steam purchase as if I had gone to a store and bought a box? In a word, no. Although Half-Life 2’s packaging was disappointingly sparse (quick reference card instead of a manual, paper CD sleeves) it’s still a package. I have those lovely printed CDs and the very attractive box that sits nicely on my, er, pile of boxes. In truth, I don’t even have a place to put these boxes. It’s obvious that game stores will soon be a thing of the past, but considering the price of the 8-year-old game I bought it would have been nice to have something to hold in my hand. Nevertheless, this bias will surely disappear as we become more accustomed to the trade of intangible goods in years (or less) to come.

Video Games

Mini reviews of 4 innovative first person shooters

Wolfenstein 3D by id Software

The great grandpa of first person shooters is historically important not only for spawning an entire genre of games and inspiring other genres to follow in suit, but for being a great game in its own rite.

This trend setter was not the first game to present the world through the eyes of the protagonist, but it was the first to do so in a fully animated fashion with 360° of freedom. The game’s “2½D” perspective (3D world, 2D sprites) plunged the gamer into a prison cell deep in the bowels of a Nazi castle with knife in hand and the body of a prison guard at his feet. Even in an age of simpler games, what further motivation is required to mow through the ranks of the third Reich? An arsenal of 4 firearms (conveniently using the same-sized bullets) with excitingly huge muzzle flashes and truly kicking aural feedback increased the gritty urgency of the experience, causing the player to gnash his teeth along with B.J.’s meaty noggin shown at the bottom of the interface in varying degrees of bloodiness.

Colourful VGA graphics and lots of digitized sounds and voices coupled with tight controls and a variety of enemies are what discern this game as a classic game for classy gamers.

Fun fact – The Wolfenstein 3D game engine was the first to be licensed to other developers.


Final battle with General Fettgesicht ("fatface")

Doom by id Software

This is the one. The game I'm proud to call my very favourite of all time.

Doom is a superb game with insane graphics, perfectly balanced gameplay, impeccable controls, intense violence, and an incredible soundtrack. Though still a 2½D engine, Doom upped the ante by introducing multiplatformed planes (like multistory buildings and staircases), corners not limited to right angles, animated textures (like bubbling lava), quadrophonic surround (with a Gravis UltraSound audio card), and all kinds of innovations I'm sure I'm overlooking. This game's presentation was such a step up from the status quo that gaming magazines recommended Gravol to queasy players whose inner ears were fooled by the lifelike perspective.

Technical issues aside, the individual parts of this game were a wonder to behold. Character sprites were well animated, brightly coloured, and highly detailed. Level design was intricate and tricky, requiring players to find the corresponding switch or key that opened the next area. The art style was truly diabolical, depicting horrors such as skin-grafted walls, severed heads on pikes, rooms in the shape of swastikas, flickering and failing lights, and barren Martian skylines. Audio was equally frightening and foreboding, ensuring the phlegmy hiss of the cacodemon and the beastly howl of a zombified sergeant were equally as spine tingling as the silence of a long empty corridor. Last but certainly not least, the musical accompaniment was perfectly coupled to each level, upgrading the player immersion to full-on drowning suffocation in the forlorn, decaying hell of the game's martian space stations.

This game can still be purchased from major retailers and used game stores, and played in modern engines such as Doom 3 or modernized open-source engines like jDoom as well as many other handheld platforms. If you haven't played it you're missing out on video game history.

Smiles for miles

Half-Life by Valve Software

A rarity in that it lived up to its self-inflated hype, Half-Life breathed new life into a genre rife with second-rate Doom clones.

It did so by awarding a persona and context to the protagonist, Gordon Freeman, the John Everyman of M.I.T. PhDs of Theoretical Physics. In a bold move, the game's introduction trapped the player in an autopiloted tram, slowly cruising through the Black Mesa science complex, simultaneously showing off the game's artful customizations of the Quake 2 engine while hinting that a world exists outside the player and his soon-to-be-acquired guns. That's what Half-Life brought to the table - a cohesive universe where battles were dynamic, and even scripted events were convincingly presented as unlikely coincidencesces. Part of the game's immersion can be attributed to the fact that there are no cinematic cut-scenes per se; story sequences were presented through Gordon's eyes in real time just like the rest of the game.

The story, while strong, does not overshadow the stellar gunplay. Half-Life was truly a thinking player's shooter - a chess of shooters if you will - requiring strategy, trickery, diversion, and improvisation to overcome the game's deadly arenas. In fact, on-the-fly thinking was required when replaying the same battle after repeated quickloads. The variety of foes terrific, keeping the player guessing who is friend or foe, and who is crucial or expendable. Typically dreaded jumping puzzles were actually a treat in this game, thanks to a great control scheme with a few new moves. Weapons were punchy and fun as well, with some twists like a laser-guided rocket launcher, and some innovations such as an arsenal of flesh-eating xenobugs.

It may seem a "me-too" shooter on the surface - a total conversion of a then-aging engine - but Half-Life introduced enough original twists that it truly stands in a class all its own.

"I think I'm gonna need a bigger crowbar..."

No One Lives Forever 2 by Monolith Productions

The successor to many publications' "Game of the Year" and a real looker, NOLF2's tongue-in-cheek writing proved the genre's flexibility once again.

The original NOLF excelled not only in execution as a FPS title, but also in its mood, style, and witty dialogue. This sequel improved on the original in nearly every way with a breathtaking new game engine, lavish mod-style art motif, still-unsurpassed creativity in level design, and tons more hilarious banter by the game's roster of kooky characters. NPC actor and level design were particular shining points, sporting very fine detail with lifelike qualities and memorable uniqueness - what other game dares stage a boss battle in a tornado-borne trailer that flakes apart in real time, or a chase through the alleyways of Paris on the shoulders of a tricycle-riding Scotsman while pursuing a malcontent mime midget?

The game also introduced some gameplay improvements not so immediately apparent from the surface. In RPG style, skill points accumulated as objectives were completed and hidden items were found, which could be spent on any of the protagonist's numerous attributes. While this enabled the game to be played in a variety of ways (with force or with stealth, for example), it was a little strange that a spy should improve her abilities tenfold on a typical mission. Also, non-combat sequences, such as investigating the run-down Ohio home of a double agent, succeed in keeping the game varied and fresh.

A plethora of incremental improvements preserve this shooter's place in my innovative FPS hall of fame.

A stealthy kill with shuriken yields ninja intelligence

Video Games

Mini reviews of 4 games with cats

Alley Cat by Synapse Software Corp.

A day in the life of a mangy scoundrel of a feline fencer (as in a climber of fences and an acquirer of stolen goods – 200 bonus points for the double entendre!), Alley Cat prowls among the most famous and timeless of CGA DOS games.

As the primo pussycat of the neighbourhood, it’s your job to show the locals who’s top cat! Flex your feline force by liberating apartments of pet budgies and inexplicably welcome mice (why else would someone keep an 8-foot wedge of swiss in their living room?), muddying up kitchen floors with grubby pawprints, and stealing kitty kibble from temporarily ajar windows, all the while foiling the determined defense of mean old bulldogs and Fantasia-esque magically animated brooms that swat at your tabby tush. And what epic tale of struggle and survival would be complete without a contest for the affections of a femme feline fatale? Levels conclude with an ascent past rival Romeos in an effort to bring a box of kitty kandies to your purring princess.

An oldie but greatie, Alley Cat can be Googled successfully enough to play immediately. The game tends to work great in all versions of Windows in a command console.


Wing Commander by Origin Systems Inc.

Featuring the fearsome feline foes (getting tired of alliterations yet?), the Kilrathi, the first 4 games in the Wing Commander series pit the player as a space pilot versus a race hell bent on human-icide.

In the birth of the series, the Kilrathi are portrayed as little more than furry humanoids with a penchant for heat seeking missiles and scathing one-liners. In later games the spotlight is shared and borders are blurred between the Kilrathi and the Terrans (humans) as characters are introduced, revealed, and destroyed wearing opposing uniforms. Out of context of the game world, the Kilrathi stand as a kind of figurehead of that oft-abused term of the 90’s, multimedia. The third game in the series introduced a new Kilrathi, evolved from 2D pixelated animations to a rather fearsome and towering shaggy behemoth replete with animatronic puppet heads and billowing silvery capes, beautifully rendered in high-res full motion video the likes of which had never before been seen.

For cat lovers who will adore their expressive side, to cat haters who will relish obliterating them, the Kilrathi make the Wing Commander series an easy sell to any aspiring space jockey. The original trilogy has been repackaged as The Kilrathi Saga and modified to run on modern machines and operating systems.


Guild Wars by ArenaNet

This groundbreaking, award winning, “sorta” massively multiplayer online RPG is a cat lover’s dream – combat magical sparklies and gushy yuckies alongside your faithful animal companion!

Sure, there are only a few tamable species and customization is limited to giving a name, but the creatures in Guild Wars add a new dimension, custom-tailoring your own personal strategy in this combat-heavy RPG. Though automatically attacking their owners’ targets and passively obeying commands, pets are, for the most part, autonomous, and are advised with broad strokes more than controlled. This chaos leads to some handy, amusing, and of course frustrating behaviour, but what living pet could offer much better than that? Rangers, as the only class capable of charming an animal companion, are a popular secondary profession for those not so allured by the call of spandex tights and feathered tunics.

And who can blame them? What could be more enjoyable, more human, than the ability to boss around a four-legged underling? To live out your totalitarian ambitions one poor creature at a time, be sure to pick up Guild Wars for the PC.


Black and White by Lionhead Studios

Borrowing some of the themes introduced in his first god game, Populous, the ever-ambitious Peter “Thy Lord” Molyneux said “let there be Black and White”. And there was Black and White. And it was good. Well, pretty good.

It’s tough to be taken seriously when you live life as a disembodied hand. That’s why, as a god competing for the affections (or unquestioned obedience) of a pagan populace, it’s handy to employ the services of a hulking animal familiar. Your tiger (one of several selectable creatures) in Black and White is a curious but delicate creature, dipping her toe or plunging head first into uncertain waters until you encourage or deter her from repeating the action. Thus, your tiger is the fruit of your labour and the flesh and blood representative of your mood, your ability, and your judgement. When your pet performed 2 actions in succession it was sometmies difficult to tell which you were encouraging or discouraging, so feedback was improved in the game’s sequel by means of speech bubbles stating clearly the action being addressed. The product was a lean, mean, grain growing machine, a fearless soldier with no qualms about pooping (enormously) on a poor farmer’s house, or a schizophrenic fat glob with an insatiable thirst.

As wonderous and fun as creature interaction is in these games, it takes a back seat to empire building in later levels. Still, even if, like me, you don’t get much further than the second level of each game, there’s lots of fun to be had with your living, breathing Tamagotchi.