Monday, 5 April 2010

My Favourite Computer Games

I have no idea how many games have been produced for playing on the average home computer and here I mean something with a keyboard and a screen, I am leaving aside games consoles with which I have had only passing contact.  I have tens of games, many of which I have never even played as I used to use the purchase of them as a form of 'retail therapy' enjoying the browsing and purchasing and the reading of the little booklet on the train ride home even more than actually uploading the game, especially when I had a computer that only had sufficient memory to hold about ten decent games at a time.  Anyway, I have lost track of the number of computer games I have played down the years, but thought it would be worthwhile to share memories of the favourites.  Of course, since 1999 a great deal of my game playing (and this is a hobby which has ousted watching television and writing fiction from my most common leisure activities) has been with the 'Total War' series of computer games, but I think they warrant a whole posting of their own.  I have realised that aside from that kind of wargame the prime type of game I play is third-person shooting games.  I am certainly not a person for racing games or flight simulators, I think in part I like the stories that such third-person games have as background and in contrast to the very involved mental activity and planning in playing a wargame, with a shooting game there is a satisfactory visceral destructiveness which is good for relieving tensions, though, as I have noted in previous postings, feeling I am being treated unfairly by the game certainly raises my tension.  Anyway, in no particular order are my favourites of this genre.

I might say some that did not make it into this list.  One is 'Gun' (2005).  I enjoyed elements of this game.  It was controversial because of you having to gun down Apaches at one stage.  I made a mistake on sticking with guns rather than bows in the latter phases, making it impossible for me to win, but that reminded me I should check walk-throughs sooner.  The settings in Montana, Kansas and New Mexico in 1880 were well rendered and there were interesting side missions as well as the ongoing story about the hero, a former Confederate officer and gold in a reasonably worked out story.  I suppose why this has not become one of my favourites is partly the US setting and the bittiness of it.  If you are into Westerns then I do recommend it.  Just remember to enter the final stage with a bow that can fire dynamite.  Another was 'James Bond 007: Nightfire' (2002).  Again this has some good elements, I especially like creeping around the traditional Japanese house near the beginning, spotting people with X-ray glasses and shooting them through the paper walls.  However, as the game progresses you get ridiculously powerful weapons that take the edge off the fighting.  There are some very tedious sections like one where you have to jump up ledge after ledge in a vertical metal tunnel and one slip means you fall all the way back to the beginning, really boring.  I have played 'From Russia With Love' (2005) on the Playstation 2.  Like 'Nightfire' it raided a number of different Bond movies, but this time very much from the mid-1960s and that era gives a real flavour to the game.  The story is excellent in building on things such as Kerim Bey from the movie of 'From Russia With Love' (1963) but gave depth to the settings of the movie and giving tasks that seemed logical though very different from the story in the movie.  I would actually like to read a novel based on this game.  Sean Connery voicing Bond was an excellent touch.  It is a pity this game never made it to the personal computer.

No One Lives Forever (2000) and No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy In H.A.R.M.'s Way (2002)
I suppose mentioning spy games is a good lead in to two computer games that owe a lot to the spy craze of the 1960s.  The clothing, the rather sexist 1960s attitudes, the music all combine to create a story which is immersive. These two games are first-person shooters featuring Cate Archer, a Scottish cat burglar turned spy who is kitted out very much in the Cathy Gale - Emma Peel - Modesty Blaise style, though the appearance and voicing makes her distinct of all of these.  There are disapproving and avuncular bosses too, working for the good guys, U.N.I.T.Y.  The stories combine interesting action with tongue-in-cheek action such as a deadly German opera singer, a crotchety Scottish sergeant and in the second game, a series of murderous mimes.  You get fascinating and sometimes unreliable equipment such as explosive lipsticks, helpful robot parrots and distracting robot poodles. 

You have to explore a range of different environments in order to defeat H.A.R.M. a sinister, though sometimes ineffectual, even comic, organisation.  Of course, there is creeping around (and noise attracts opponents in a pretty sophisticated way given the age of these games) and shooting and blowing up things, underground bases and even falling from an aircraft (move as far as you can 'away' from you as gamer, right to the edge of the screen to survive that part).  These games were pitched at the right level, a challenge without the feeling that any moment you would be killed arbitrarily and with no chance to avoid your fate.  The styling and approach was wonderfully done, the stories interesting and successfully combining humour and drama.  A lot of gamers could learn from these two games.  It is no surprise that 'No One Lives Forever' was Game of the Year in 2001.

Hidden & Dangerous (1999)
Thinking about immersive games, brings me to an even older one that I played for ages.  This was 'Hidden and Dangerous' a game that allowed you to switch between first and third person on each of your characters.  This involved you recruiting a team of four specialists in the SAS in the Second World War to carry out various missions in locations across Europe including France, Norway, Hungary and what was at the time the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia.  You had to rescue people, recover objects and assassinate people.  These days it would seem incredibly unsophisticated and it was riddled with horrible bugs which would leave your characters jammed down dead ends or being killed by the engine of the boat they were supposed to be riding in.  However, the tension as you crawled along the ground in pouring rain to line up with your rifle to take out a guard or creeping in disguise through a town or infiltrating a chateau or using the tactical screen co-ordinating the actions of your four men to overpower particular units and then leaping in a car and driving off, was really a thrill.  Again, in its favour, it was tough but not impossible, even allowing for the bugs. 

I liked the stories behind each mission and also the fact that each of the characters you could build your team from had a back story and expertise as a result.  You could have a very multinational team mixing in a Pole, a Czech, a Briton, a New Zealander, a Frenchman even a Spanish Republican.  There was an expansion pack 'Hidden & Dangerous: Fight For Freedom' (2001) which interestingly had a mission in which you fought against Communist partisans during the Greek Civil War 1944-8, even though they had been opposing the Germans in Greece.  In 2004 'Hidden & Dangerous 2' was released, but by then, the clunky graphics and bugs were unforgivable.  The atmosphere and functionality of 'Hidden & Dangerous' were excellent.  It is just a pity that more work was not put into ironing out the bugs as this could have been the basis of a very successful franchise.  Its legacy is in many squad battle games, but as yet, I do not feel any has matched the engaging portrayal of wartime Europe that this game did.

BloodRayne (2002)
This one inspired two movies and a series of comic books.  Again it is based on a strong story, in this case about a half-vampire (termed a Dhampir) working for the mysterious Brimstone Society in the 1930s to prevent a special group of Nazis the Gegen-Geist Gruppe from using elements from a demon to make their forces superhuman.  This game is really gory and reminds me of the fear in the 1980s when there was a fear that 'video nasties' would spill over into the gaming world.  Back then the graphics were not capable of reproducing anything that looked alarming, these days it is very different.  Rayne runs around both feeding on people to sustain her strength and dismembering Nazi forces and various mutants and demons she encounters with long blades fitted to her arms.  Her attacks are often balletic and there is a real delight to be had in spinning through the air in slow motion to go on the attack.  Whilst as in many shooting (and this case stabbing) games there are numerous nameless opponents, a lot of the GGG personalities are detailed.  Some are cyborgs, some priests, some well-armed or psychotic soldiers, but they look and behave differently and there is a large team of them to eliminate in Argentina and Germany.  Mad Nazi machinery including two-legged tanks also get a look in.  All of this creates a fantastical but engaging atmosphere. 

Another interesting aspect is that the GGG often unleashes things it cannot control and you can end up in three-sided battles with the Nazi forces Rayne is targeting fighting off demons and mutants who will also attack Rayne.  Though Rayne gains numerous powers, some of her weaknesses, such as water effectively being a strong acid to her.  Towards the end when Rayne is battling huge demons who can kill her with a single swipe it becomes far too hard and I could not complete it without using cheats.  However, I did want to find out what happened in the end and I think that was a winning element of the game.  The fact that it has inspired such a following I think bears witness to this success.  The sequel, 'BloodRayne 2' is set in the near future in a world that vampires are trying to alter to be more conducive to them.  This is very stylish with Rayne starting in an elegant dress in a German mansion and goes on to street fighting.  However, it is far too difficult to be enjoyable.  You can be killed with a single blow at any stage and Rayne does not gain much better weaponry (though the blood-powered dragon guns look neat) as she progresses.  The fact that there is a facility from the start to enter cheat codes, I believe shows the producers knew it was too touch to survive through normal play.  It is a shame as it looks good and has an interesting story.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption (2000)
I have mentioned this game before.  It features a 12th century crusader who is turned into a vampire while in Prague and goes on missions in medieval Prague and Vienna and then modern day London and New York.  Though there are some anachronisms, the attention to detail of the medieval cities and the equipment and armour you can get, combined with a wide range of skills and spells you can develop, plus the squad approach of operating up to four team members in co-ordination, make this a very engaging game.  Again, it is not easy, but there is not that sense of futility that you get with, say, 'BloodRayne 2' that you will never progress beyond a certain stage.  That was a problem which I encountered with the sort of sequel, 'Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines' (2004) which was cursed with scores of bugs and needed stacks of patches to work.  One strength of 'Redemption' is that it is based on the paper-based role-playing game, 'Vampire: The Masquerade' which means that it came with a developed world of different warring vampire clans and weapons and spells already worked out.  There is a real enjoyment in this game when a co-ordinated plan comes together or you cast a spell to defeat your opponents, I especially like conjuring up a golem to assist me.  The story, again though fantastical, has more than two-dimensional characters and a story that you can really enter and to some degree get through differently depending on the specialisations you pick for each character.  I just love walking around medieval Prague.

Assassin's Creed (2007)
I have realised that a lot of my favourite games date back to the start of the 2000s.  I wonder why this is.  Maybe the good ideas have been exhausted and we have ended up with variations on themes rather than innovative approaches.  However, one more recent game which certainly allows me to indulge in wandering medieval cities to the full is 'Assassin's Creed'.  This is set in Palestine/Lebanon/Syria in July or August 1191 (Jaffa has not yet fallen to the Crusaders which it did on 10th September 1191).  Well, your character Desmond Miles, is from 2012 and is sent back into the body of one of his ancestors in the 12th century to find out various secrets connected with the Templars for the benefit of the sinister Abstergo Industries which had kidnapped him.  His ancestor known as Alta├»r ibn La-Ahad is a member of the Assassins, a genuine body in medieval Lebanon.  Their role in this game was to bring about some kind of end to the conflict between the Crusaders and the Saracen forces.  This was the time of the Third Crusade, with King Richard I of England battling Salah ad-Din.  Altair embarrasses himself at the start of the game and has to restore his standing among the Assassins by carrying out missions in the cities of Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem.  What is stunning about this game is how wonderfully rendered the cities are.  You can walk among the crowds, and being an assassin, scale the walls of buildings and leap across rooftops.  The building details, even the shadows you cast are beautiful to watch.  Great attention has been paid to the historical setting.  Acre, a Christian city at the time, still shows war damage; Damascus is clearly a Muslim city and Jerusalem (including the Dome of the Rock which rather sacriligeously you can clamber on) is a mixture showing its current Muslim occupation and yet with the legacy of years of Christian control.  I have always found the Crusader States fascinating and this game gives you the chance to charge or creep around them.

The one down side is that many of the missions are similar and more variety in what you had to do, would have been of benefit.  Of course, you can go about each mission and the side missions in a different way.  You can simply, if you like leap from rooftop to rooftop sneaking up on guards and pushing them from the roof.  I would like to be able to go into the shops and sit in a cafe, but I suppose exploring the markets and bases of various opponents will suffice.  Have I said, it looks stunning.  You can stand on a high building and simply look out over the city with smoke and pollen and dust blowing around and gaze up to the surrounding hills.  I am so glad that they picked on such a different setting.  I am really looking forward to 'Assassin's Creed II' coming to the PC.  It allows you to play in 15th century Venice, the screenshots look stunning.  There is speculation about the third in the series.  Personally I would favour Paris during the French Revolution of the late 18th century as the next setting, though rumours say it may be somewhere in Second World War Europe.

Deus Ex (2000)
This is an incredibly successful game which has won a slew of awards and has sold over 1 million copies.  I came across it not in a game review but in an article on the BBC website back in about 2003.  This is partly due to the political messages and the chance to have a variety of outcomes to the game depending on the options you take.  It is described as a cyberpunk setting, as you play JC Denton, a man with his body augmented by nanotech which, depending on which options you pick give you a range of special abilities.  Weaponry can also be augmented so two players can end up pretty quickly with very different JC Dentons in the game with different equipment. The story is set in 2052 and Denton works for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO) whose base is at the bottom of the beheaded Statue of Liberty in New York (remember this was produced before the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001) and in seeming to combat terrorism in the USA, Hong Kong and France he uncovers a conspiracy in which a corporation has manufactured a disease called 'Gray Death' so they can get rich selling the vaccine.  However, a load of organisations come into the story like Majestic 12, the Illuminati and the Triads and fictional terrorist organisations such as the National Secessionist Force and the wonderfully named Silhouette, a French terrorist group.

Throughout you can choose different actions to take which impacts on how others perceive you and information you receive.   My brother played the game very differently to me and in many ways this reflected our different personalities, in the way that games like 'Black and White' (2001) tended to show up your personality traits however you tried to act differently.  Ultimately you can pick one of a number of options for governance of the world. Woven through the game are messages about our own world now, for example the steady reduction in the amount of tax large corporations pay.  A sequel set 70 years later, 'Deus Ex, Invisible War' was released in 2003 but I never played it, mainly as I did not have a DVD drive, which it required, at the time.  The reviews of it have not been as good as for the original, which seems to be still available and I recommend buying.

Dungeon Keeper 2 (1999)
This final game is not a first or third person shooting game, it is a building game.  I could have listed 'Caesar III' (1999) or 'Medieval Lords' (2004) or even the 'Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile' (2004) which has great involvement and graphics (why are there never any good Renaissance city building games? Ancient Rome and then Egypt with the odd medieval village seem to dominate), but I have never really engaged with them, 'Dungeon Keeper 2' was different.  Looking over these games I think I enjoy being able to play the 'alternative', to some degree break rules that I could not break in real life.  This is what attracts me to certain games over others.  'Dungeon Keeper 2' allowed this.  You get to play the evil dungeon master and to construct a lair with traps and devices and populate with trolls and others monsters, sorcerors and even sexy dominatrices and then wait for the good knights to charge in and get wiped out.  Stage by stage you take over the kingdom by expanding into the good guys' areas and attracting them into yours for elimination.  Not only do you get the funding of constructing a dungeon in detail, a part I enjoyed when playing the paper-based 'Dungeons and Dragons' role-playing game in the 1980s, you get to be the bad guy, encouraged along by a sinisterly voiced advisor, excellently performed by actor Richard Ridings (born 1958).  One great function is that you can possess any of the monsters or your minions in the dungeon and get to see everything from their perspective which to me seemed wonderful that you can move from working on the 3D overhead view to seeing it on the ground, also useful if you wanted to carry out specific missions using one of your monsters.


Anyway, this is my list of favourite computer games which have not only kept me entertained over the years, but I now realised have in fact provoked thought.  I do hope there is room out there for games that are willing to take a risk to be different.  Games are now part of our broader culture and if, like too many movies, they simply fall back on the tried and tested and parade things we have seen many times before in front of us, then our broader culture is going to be less rich and for me and, no doubt thousands of others, that little bit less fun.

1 comment:

Rooksmoor said...

'BloodRayne', 'Vampire: Masquerade - Redemption', 'Deus Ex' and 'Dungeon Keeper 2' are all available for download to run on current versions of Windows from gog.com