Archive for December, 2011

sniper TF2

"Urine review? Oh, yer said YEAR IN Review."

Run “YiR-PC.exe”

PC gaming has stayed strong in 2011. Perhaps it has even grown stronger. Most of the big name, AAA titles are shared between the PC, PS3 and 360 (with the PC version inevitably having the potential to be the best looking and most modifiable). The PC has its own niche titles, as well as a growing market for indie games. There have also been some big launches and a few shakeups in the established order.

Order/Chaos

One big trend we’re seeing is massively multiplayer games moving away from the subscription-based model they’ve used for the past ten years or so and moving towards a free-to-play one. While many MMOs were using the free-to-play business model last year, it expanded astronomically this year. Following the examples of Turbine’s Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings Online, numerous games have foregone monthly subscription fees in favor of optional microtransactions. This has expanded from MMORPGs like Age of Conan to industry giants like Valve’s Team Fortress 2 (when it went free-to-play, that was some big news). DC Universe Online actually came out in January and by November became free-to-play. Even the once-invulnerable World of Warcraft got in on the concept, albeit in a much more limited form. The upcoming revival of Dynamix’s Tribes franchise will be free-to-play; is it a matter of time before The Old Republic is, too?

Do we like Origin itself, or just the games it’s required for?

Speaking of The Old Republic, 2011 saw Electronic Arts’ shoving their Origin service down our throats, or at least trying to. A few of EA’s recent titles disappeared from Steam (although since these were titles like Crysis 2 and Dragon Age II, both criticized for being heavily console-centric, it wasn’t that big of a tragedy) as EA debuted their new digital distribution service. It’s up in the air whether it’s really a successful service – could it have stood up on its own without major games like Battlefield 3 and The Old Republic that require it to play? It remains to be seen how successful the new service will be in the long run.

On the flipside of forcing your customers to use things they didn’t ask for, CD Projekt Red released a patch that removed all the DRM from retail versions of The Witcher 2 (the GOG.com edition was, naturally, DRM-free to begin with). This earned them an immense amount of goodwill, and sales for the game have been strong, especially as it’s a PC exclusive title without the advertising that would have come with an EA or Activision product. And yet it positively destroyed the production values of many games with several times The Witcher 2‘s budget. I know I keep heaping praise on CD Projekt Red, but they’ve done an outstanding job of listening to and responding to the concerns of their fanbase, which is something it seems only they and Valve do.

One of the best deals in gaming this year, hands down. Cthulhu, we appreciate you here...

Of course, there are some strange bedfellows afoot as well, as anti-DRM champions GOG.com acquired some legendary titles from EA’s back catalogue. So far, this has included titles from Origin, Maxis, Westwood and Bullfrog, and included at least one game from 1986. So when are they gonna get M.U.L.E., I wonder?

The Specialists

In addition to the big name games, the little guys have increasingly made their presence known and been given a chance to shine. With the rise of the Humble Bundle and similar packages of indie games, we’ve seen some of the shining stars of the indie scene coming together to support a good cause, providing wider exposure for the developers. In addition, some games that were unappreciated in their original venues (Cthulhu Saves the World, for example) have made their way to the PC and found greener pastures.  You can read more about it in the indie gaming Year in Review (coming 31 December) and listen to our special Indie Fix podcast.

DCS: A-10C

Some of the genres that don’t have much of a console fanbase, like the management, flight sims and real-time strategy genres, have had some notable releases as well. Some of the new management sims have included new entries in well-known franchises, like Tropico 4 and Stronghold 3, as well as an update to Cities XL. The flight simulator genre has received one truly major entry in the form of Eagle Dynamics’ Digital Combat Simulator: A-10C, which is a deep and detailed sim of the US Air Force’s famed “Warthog” ground attack aircraft. DCS: A-10C follows the 2009 release of DCS Black Shark, continuing Eagle Dynamics’ track record of ludicrously detailed if dauntingly realistic and unforgiving flight sims. However, the fidelity to the facts has won over many of the flight-sim hardcore who seem nearly forgotten by the mainstream since the early 2000s. And the RTS genre received a boost with the standalone expansion to THQ’s popular Warhammer 40, 000: Dawn of War IIRetribution.

Portal 2 led off a year so good, not even Francis could hate it.

Turning the Valve

It’s also been a big year for what is probably PC gaming’s biggest distributor, Valve. In addition to Team Fortress 2 adopting the free-to-play model, they released Portal 2, which, for those who have spent the past decade on a desert island in the Pacific, is the sequel to their 2007 sleeper hit. They’ve also greatly expanded the reach and features in Steam (adding a new trading/gifting interface) as well as allowing co-operative play between PC, PS3 and Mac OS players of Portal 2. Portal 2 was (big surprise!) a critical and commercial hit, selling over 3 million copies across all platforms, meaning I’m one of the last gamers on Earth yet to get to it. In addition, Valve has been gearing up and beta testing for Dota 2. And of course, there have been new hats. And there has been trolling – we all saw that Half-Life 3 t-shirt. Why must you torment us, Valve?

Reboot

It’s been a great year for gaming in general, but this year has also done a lot to show that the PC is more than MMOs and prettier versions of console games. It supports the AAA, million-selling games that are easily slated into genres, as well as some of the niche titles and experimental games that smaller developers and indies are putting out. The thing that impresses most about PC gaming is the breadth and easy availability of experiences. It’s a good year. Here’s to next year being even better.

Make sure to check out our other Year in Review articles, coming every day before the new year.

Year in Review 2011: Microsoft

Year in Review 2011: Sony

Year in Review 2011: Nintendo

Year in Review 2011: iOS

Year in Review 2011: Indie Gaming

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The Lost Treasures of LucasArts

Posted: December 16, 2011 in Retro

This Belongs in a MUSEUM!

Most people are aware of the fact that LucasArts makes games based on Star Wars and other LucasFilm properties. If you’ve been gaming for any length of time, you’ve probably at least heard of their graphic adventures from the golden days of the ’90s. In the time before they began churning out soulless Star Wars filler, they were quite a respected studio that made games in numerous genres. While most well-remembered are their adventure games like Monkey Island and Sam & Max, they surveyed and experimented in a wide variety of genres and styles. This is a look at a few of their more obscure titles.

Most of these games haven’t seen a re-release since the 1990s, and as such are “lost” to time for most of us.

Zak McCracken and the Alien Mindbenders

Known to hardcore LucasArts adventure gaming fans but to few others, Zak McCracken was the second game to use the original SCUMM engine after Maniac Mansion. Another humorous adventure in the vein of  Maniac Mansion, for some reason this one tends to fade into the background (despite having some excellent box art by Sam & Max creator Steve Purcell). It was received well enough to warrant a fan-made sequel, however, which is pretty easy to find online.

Outlaws

Think the Red Dead series was the first to take inspiration from Spaghetti Westerns? This little-known FPS running on an enhanced version of the Dark Forces engine will prove you wrong.  Putting you in the shoes of a US Marshall hunting down bandits that murdered his wife and kidnapped his daughter, it’s one of the very small number of games with an Old West setting (the only other I can think of from the ’90s is Konami’s arcade title Sunset Riders). Typical of LucasArts at the time, it’s a highly polished game with great production values. More specifically, it’s got a terrific soundtrack by longtime LucasArts composer Clint Bajakian which appropriately channels maestro Ennio Morricone. It maintains a small cult following to this day – not least of which is Doom co-creator John Romero.

Afterlife

Afterlife Disco InfernoA unique twist on the city management sim that has you managing Heaven and Hell. The game is one of the funniest sims out there, and doesn’t take itself remotely seriously. Like SimCity, there are a variety of disasters that can befall your civilization, including Hell literally freezing over and the classic Disco Inferno, as well as game-ending disasters like the Four Surfers of the Apocalypso. It’s a goofy and very fun take on the genre, although it never gained much popularity. It was also LucasArts’ first take on a game set in the hereafter, a concept they would later revisit in Tim Schaefer’s cult classic, Grim Fandango.

Battlehawks 1942/ Their Finest Hour/ Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe

Before the X-Wing/TIE Fighter series of sims, designer Larry Holland created a trilogy of World War II flight sims that showed the war from both the Allied and Axis points of view.  Before this, most games covered only American and British planes. Battlehawks covered the Pacific Theatre, bringing both American and Japanese planes to the forefront. Their Finest Hour covered the Battle of Britain in considerable detail, and was one of the first games to cover the conflict (considering both Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator and IL-2 Sturmovik have games based around it, one can consider it to be the WWII equivalent to the Battle of Hoth). Secret Weapons of The Luftwaffe was interesting in that it primarily focused on experimental aircraft like the Me-262 jet and flying-wing type planes.

While Holland would later create a game called Secret Weapons Over Normandy, it wasn’t quite the spiritual successor many had hoped for, being more of an Ace Combat or Rogue Squadron-styled arcade flight shooter. It wasn’t bad though. In fact, it was a really fun game – it just didn’t have the detail, or the view from both sides of the war. It did have plenty of callbacks to Holland’s earlier WWII games though, which was a nice addition.

Indiana Jones’ Desktop Adventures/Yoda Stories

I may be pushing the limits of the word “treasures” here – historical curiosity may be more appropriate – but in any case, in 1996 and 1997, LucasArts released two games that, instead of going for storytelling or deep gameplay, were more like a heavily simplified take on the Zelda games that could be played on the desktop. The games featured procedurally generated levels and every adventure could be completed in about half an hour. So basically it was an early foray into the world of casual games. But overall, not too bad in the pre-broadband age if you wanted to play something in class that could be quickly minimized (and were sick of Minesweeper and Chip’s Challenge).

Loom/The Dig

These ones aren’t quite as obscure as the others, but are still not as well-known or widely appreciated as the more comedic adventure games in the LucasArts library. The Dig is a science-fiction themed adventure game that was based on a story that Steven Spielberg was originally developing for his Amazing Stories TV show. It’s much more serious than most of LucasArts’ more humorous offerings, and as such didn’t play as much into their usual market. It also suffered from numerous production delays. It’s still a very good game, however.

Loom is also a more serious game, featuring a plot with less dialogue and more visual and musical cues (most of them motifs from Swan Lake). The game features puzzle solving and spellcasting via musical notes (not unlike Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time would do seven years later), which are used to solve puzzles rather than the typical adventure game style of finding and combining items.  The game was designed by former Infocom dev Brian Moriarty and featured an in-box audio drama that helped set the stage for the game’s fascinating story and setting. It’s a game with a very unique style that I haven’t seen replicated much elsewhere. While the game has a fantasy setting, it’s not a run-of-the-mill Tolkienesque fantasy. It has a very unique world you’re not likely to see replicated elsewhere, especially in today’s “we fear change” game industry.Loom Screenshot

Loom and The Dig are available on Steam, the only two on this list to so far escape total obscurity.

Can EA Recharge a Dead Series?

C&C's classic Orca gunship.

EA has registered Command & Conquer-related domain names like the proverbial Soviet heavy tank rush. The domain names heavily suggest the new entry in the series will be entitled Command & Conquer: Alliances. There is a rumor going around that the new Bioware game that has been teased will be a Command & Conquer title, although this has yet to be confirmed by any sources.

Command & Conquer was, with Blizzard’s Warcraft, one of the genre-defining titles in the real-time strategy genre in the mid-1990s. While the series has continued, most agree that it has suffered greatly since series creators Westwood Studios disbanded, resulting in the lackluster Red Alert 3 and Tiberian Twilight.

The full roster of registered domains is below:

alliances-commandandconquer.com
alliancescommandandconquer.com
candcalliances.com
candctiberiumalliances.com
commandandconquer-alliances.com
commandandconqueralliance.com
commandandconqueralliances.com
commandandconquertiberiumalliances.com
generalsalliance.com
generalsalliances.com
redalertalliance.com
redalertalliances.com
tiberianalliances.com
tiberiumalliance.com
tiberiumalliances.com

Source: Joystiq

Charting the Labyrinth

I, like the rest of our PS3 writers, am a fan of the Uncharted series (seriously, it’s a requirement). I thoroughly enjoy the adventures of Nate, Sully, and their tight compadres trotting the globe, cheating death in precarious ruins, and, of course, the witty banter. So when the first Uncharted novel arrived in my mailbox, I wondered if it would live up to the high standards of action and adventure that the games have set.

Written by Of Saints and Shadows author Christopher Golden (not to be confused with well-known Ravenloft and Warcraft author Christie Golden) it follows Drake and Sully as they’re meeting in New York City to pay a visit to a professor friend of theirs. They soon find he’s been murdered, and the two of them join the dead man’s daughter in a quest for revenge. And treasure, of course.  The adventure takes them to a series of labyrinths, crossing through both Greek and Egyptian mythologies on the hunt for the fabled fourth labyrinth.

The plot frankly isn’t very original – it covers ground that both Indiana Jones and Lara Croft have walked before (an accusation that can fairly be leveled at the entire Uncharted series, but that’s neither here nor there), with Drake even finding one of the early labyrinths in the same place Indy finds one in Fate of Atlantis. However, I think that works well enough for the pulp adventure style the book is going for. It may not be original, but it’s pretty compelling and exciting, and Golden has the good taste to inject a bit of history here and there, and for the most part the sarcastic remarks and corny jokes that pretty much define Nate are intact, although it’s notable that the characterization seems to be largely from his POV, frequently referring to the antagonists as “killers” as though he’s not one himself, and even saying he gets physically ill when he kills someone. Considering my kill tally in a typical Uncharted 2 run numbers in the hundreds, you have to wonder when the guy has time to do all that (offscreen) vomiting.

The majority of the book manages to keep the pacing pretty even and interesting. In my opinion, it wraps up a little too quickly and cleanly in the third act, though. It seems to me more that Golden ran out of space than anything else, as it just seems to have a quick conclusion with a predictable, but still out-of-nowhere, plot twist. It’s kind of a shame since the first 250 pages or so are damned good fun.

Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth is an enjoyable novel for fans of the series. If you’re in need of some reading material or a quick gift for a friend who’s an Uncharted fan, by all means pick up a copy. It’s a good entry in the series that only really suffers from a truncated ending.BNBGAMING Recommended Award

A Look at the Take On Helicopters Demo

Posted: December 2, 2011 in PC

Take On Helicopters ImageUp in the Air

Take On Helicopters Image 1Bohemia Interactive is well-known for their ARMA series of military simulations, and with Take On Helicopters they’re branching into the exciting world of civilian rotor-wing aircraft (or helicopters, in layman’s terms). The game was released in late October of this year, and Bohemia has just released a demo for whirlybird enthusiasts to get their greasy mitts on.

The demo allows you a limited number of options with which to test the game out, and lets you perform basic flight training, as well as two missions (transporting a SWAT team and moving objects around a construction site, respectively) to cut your teeth on, as well as a free-flight mode to explore the detailed Seattle setting based on real-world terrain data.

"Now to rescue that STARS team..."

Probably the first thing you’ll want to do upon starting up the demo is configure the video options to the best of your machine’s capabilities. Even on high specs, however, I was having some noticeable issues with terrain texture pop-in (think Unreal 3 Engine) and objects popping in. I fiddled with the specs to try and get smoother object acquisition, but that was the one problem I couldn’t smooth out. Buildings and trees kept manifesting out of nowhere. Other than that, the game looks pretty good, with nice water and cloud effects, and the chopper models look fantastic, with a variety of paintjobs available ranging from corporate to colorful.

The flight model is impressive. If you’re not used to flight sims, especially if you’re not used to helicopter sims (and I don’t think I’ve played a dedicated helicopter simulator since Longbow 2), it will probably feel a bit sensitive to control, but with practice it will become a joy to fly. This is what impressed me most. You can have a lot of fun challenging yourself with things like hitting higher altitudes (I think I maxed out around 17,000 feet before a disastrous spiral toward Puget Sound) or pulling a barrel roll (not so easy in a chopper). The realism is impressive, although you can crank it up and down to suit your preferences. The training missions do a lot to get you flying relatively quickly, teaching you how to start the chopper up and get in the air. I’m sure the full game offers more advanced training.

Another issue I have to bring up was that the game recognized my joystick (I’m using a Thrustmaster T-Flight HOTAS stick-throttle-combo, for reference), but did not have a control profile for it. That meant I had to manually set up the button mappings. Now, I don’t mind doing this for the trim and such, but it would have been nice if the program could have at least recognized the X and Y axes and not have me map them. Also, the “look around” like you would normally do with a hatswitch is really awkward – you can basically move your head a little in each direction, and not much else. Maybe it works better with a profiled stick. For all I know, the demo doesn’t have profiles for any sticks while the final game does, but I figured there should be a word of warning if you’re planning on using a joystick for the demo.

Take On Helicopters Image

"I don't know where the rotors are...but the important part is, I landed, right?"

Overall, it’s worth checking out, whether you’re a seasoned sim aficionado or just curious about flying helicopters. I think Bohemia does their best work when they can refine one aspect rather than going the exhaustive survey route ARMA takes. The Take On Helicopters demo is available on Steam and other vendors now. Check it out!