Category Archives: Videogames

An X-Com FPS? Sacrilege!

Creative plundering’s all the rage at the moment. While Hollywood’s rifling through its knicker draw, busily remaking, rebooting and regurgitating every old television show, horror movie and line of toys it can find (coming in 2012 – Keypers: 3D), the music industry has taken to booking dozens of acts who all sound a bit like Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran, and ITV has just served up a lightly warmed-over rehash of The Prisoner starring Jesus and Gandalf.

The videogame industry isn’t immune from plundering its back catalogue either, with Final Fight: Double Impact reintroducing the street fighting antics of its topless, raging mayor to a new generation of gamers. One of this month’s oddest announcements comes from 2K Marin, who in its infinite wisdom has decided to remake Julian Gollop’s strategy masterpiece X-Com.

If you’ve been playing videogames for a very long time, the name Julian Gollop may mean something to you. Beginning in the early 80s, he earned a devoted following for a series of increasingly ambitious turn-based strategy games. Chaos was among his first, and still stands as one of the very best games of its ilk you’ll find.

Essentially a computerised card game, Chaos pitted a group of wizards against one another in a straight fight to the death. One of the few eight player strategy games then available, Chaos made for a uniquely entertaining multiplayer game, and even its more obvious drawbacks (your opponents would have to promise not to look while you selected your spells) added to its charm.

Thereafter, Gollop released the sci-fi strategy classics Rebelstar, Rebelstar II and Lasersquad, before returning to his earlier fantasy theme for Lords Of Chaos, which took the spell-casting concept of the original Chaos and expanded it into a strategy RPG. While a clear line of evolution can be drawn through all of Gollop’s games, the key thing that links them all is their uniquely addictive quality.

Since the advent of the Command & Conquer series, it’s more-or-less taken for granted that a strategy game can make for a compulsive evening’s entertainment. In the 80s, the genre was still largely the preserve of people wearing sandals who enjoyed reading lengthy books about Rommel.

For many, Gollop reached the height of his powers in 1994 with the release of X-Com, or UFO: Enemy Unknown, as it was called in some territories. Although expanded, after publisher MicroProse suggested its gameplay lacked the epic sweep of  Civilization, X-Com was a natural progression from the Aliens-inspired squad management of Rebelstar and Laser Squad. Like those games, X-Com made what, in lesser hands, would be the most ponderous of genres both compelling and addictive. That it’s still regularly mentioned in ‘best games of all time’ forum threads is a testament to its timeless ability to enthral and engross.

Given the widespread devotion that X-Com still receives, it’s unsurprising that 2K’s series reboot hasn’t been given a warm reception by gamers of a certain age. If there’s one thing the PC doesn’t need, it’s another first-person shooter, and one based on a resolutely cerebral strategy game like X-Com is needed still less.

Other retro titles have survived genre crossings, of course. Metroid Prime shoved Samus into the third dimension with aplomb, but how can 2K possibly retain even a small percentage of the original’s tactical depth from a first-person viewpoint? It makes about as much sense as ‘re-imagining’ Halo as a pet simulator.

For a developer with more than the cachet and industry clout of 2K Marin, the appropriation of an old and much-loved property like X-Com seems like a curiously opportunistic move. Without the X-Com name, wouldn’t the project be just another generic sci-fi FPS? Does 2K’s announcement make other fondly remembered retro titles fair game for the FPS treatment? Will Crytek make a shooter based on Horace Goes Skiing, Atic Atac, Monty Mole or Frogger?

If I found myself in Julian Gollop’s position, there’d be only one course of action to take: create a turn-based strategy game based on Bioshock. A properly old-school 2D one, with Rapture rendered in blocky tile-based graphics like a Byzantine floor, and hulking Big Daddies moving around one square at a time. Hell, at least old duffers like me would buy it.

Originally posted at the wonderful Den of Geek

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The rising value of virtual tat

There’s a strange law that governs digital television which dictates that, as you flick further on through the stations, the content presented to you becomes steadily more strange. The early channels are conventional enough – the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 with their soaps and property programmes – but then, as you pass through the barrier reef of E4+1, the laws of logic begin to break down. Here lurk the Turkish music stations and channels devoted to gambling, the obscure channels about religion, dating and Japanese flower arranging.

Best of all, though, you’ll find the shopping channels, and it was there, on a quiet Monday evening,  that I beheld the single most gorgeous, crappy object I’d ever seen. It was a globe, standing two feet high on a faux gold pedestal, inlaid with mother of pearl and sparkling things. The place names were set in Zapf Chancery, one of the top ten most awful typefaces in the world. It rotated and glowed. It was £200.

As much as I’d have loved one of these gloriously dreadful abominations, there was no way I would actually buy one, and I assumed at first that nobody else would either. But incredibly, I’d underestimated the public mood. The consignment of forty or fifty globes sold out within a few minutes.

On a somewhat related topic, I learned this week that a twelve-year-old boy had spent around £900 – much of which had been purloined from his parents’ credit card – on Farmville, the browser-based management game hosted by Facebook. This story, along with the light-up self-propelling globe, was a timely reminder of how true the old adage about a fool and his money really is.

Yet, as ridiculous as spending almost a grand on a virtual farm may sound (and I shudder to think what my mother would have done if I’d done the same thing as a youth), this pales into insignificance next to recent sales in the free-to-play MMO Planet Calypso.

Funded by micro-transactions, the game has become chiefly notable for the increasingly outlandish prices some of its items fetch in online auctions. In February, David “Deathifier” Storey handed over the equivalent of £45,300 for a non-existent egg. The most bizarre thing about this? Storey doesn’t even know what, if anything, the egg holds.

The whole idea of games based on micro-transactions seems alien to me in any case. I’m too steeped in the old-school method of buying games, where money is handed over and the game is yours to play. The notion of having to pop into a virtual shop every few days to buy more bullets or whatever seems insane. This probably comes down to the fact that I can be quite miserly over how much I’m willing to spend on videogames. I’m constantly hunting around for the cheapest deal, or buying ancient Mega Drive cartridges second-hand from eBay.

Nevertheless, the buying and selling of virtual goods represents a potentially lucrative money making opportunity for those brave enough to invest their money. The original owner of the Planet Calypso five figure egg, John “Neverdie” Jacobs, originally bought the item for around £6,500 in 2006. In 2005, Jacobs purchased an asteroid from another Planet Calypso player for almost £65,000. And while remortgaging your house to pay for a gigantic in-game rock sounds like financial suicide, his gamble appears to have paid off once again. After building a nightclub on it, Jacobs has reportedly seen the value of his asteroid increase ten-fold.

To somebody as tight as me, it seems inconceivable that something so intangible – a piece of data that could quite easily disappear off a server at any moment – could be valued so highly. It seems more like (virtual) insanity. I’d lie awake at night, terrified that the MMO’s production company might go bust, or that all the in-game data might spontaneously disappear.

On the other hand, is investing large sums of cash in virtual items really any more risky than betting it on stocks and shares? For those with a sound head for business and a strong stomach, the answer is “possibly not”.

And if dozens of people are willing to pay significant sums of money for a hideous spinning globe that will almost certainly end up in a car boot sale in a few years’ time, then maybe investing your disposable income on virtual eggs and asteroids isn’t such a ridiculous proposition after all.

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Evidence that Kratos will return for God of War IV?


So the final bloody QTE has played out, and Kratos lies fallen on his own sword, with Zeus defeated and Athena thoroughly disenfranchised. But as the camera pulls out for one last, lingering shot on Kratos’s bloodied corpse, there’s a clue that the belligerent anti-hero won’t stay that way for long. Etched into the rock beneath him is a giant bird – could this be the mythical phoenix?

It’s pure conjecture for now, of course, but if the bird does indeed represent the phoenix, then Kratos could be returning for another sequel in a couple of years’ time. And if you watched beyond the closing credits, you’ll have noted that Kratos had apparently crawled out of frame – possibly toward the edge of the cliff – leaving only behind only a pool of blood. Did Kratos sprout his legendary Icarus wings and fly away? Only time will tell.

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Final Fantasy XIII and the need for invisible walls

In the final analysis, videogames are just a collection of rooms and corridors. Sometimes, the rooms and corridors are very, very large and the walls very well disguised, but nevertheless, the walls are there. You may remember, with a shudder, the 2008 reboot of Turok, in which you wandered around a lush green planet infested with dinosaurs – or this was, at least, the illusion. In reality, you were actually being herded through a series of corridors dressed up to look like a forest. Attempt to stray far beyond the ferns and fauna that lined your path, and you’d come up against an invisible barrier. The woods and soaring vistas beyond were little more than wallpaper.

Nothing takes you out of a game more quickly than, while playing the part of a rock-hard space marine who looks as though he could pull the head off a horse with his bare hands, you find your path mysteriously blocked by a flower bed. You’ve got arms like a shot putter’s thigh, yet you’re unable to break the stem of a daffodil, or jump over a rock no higher than your ankle.

Most recently, Final Fantasy XIII has come under criticism from some quarters for its particularly obvious linearity. Its environments, it’s been said, are little more than a series of long corridors with a huge boss at the end of them.

The flipside to these kind of experiences, of course, is the open-world sandbox game. These take the rooms and corridors and make them much, much bigger. They take the boss encounters, non-player characters and objectives and place them much further apart, to the point where you need a car to traverse the vast distances between them.

By Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar, apparently worried that the length of time it would take to traverse Liberty City in a hotwired Nissan Cherry would leave players falling asleep at the wheel, decided to lay on an optional taxi service to chauffeur them to and from the main points of interest.

I have a love-hate relationship with sandbox games. In fact, some of them leave me with a particular kind of dread. I’m the kind of person who gets lost looking for a post box in my own village, or who will walk out of a shop and forget which direction I came from. I’ve heard and read numerous reasons for this condition: a genetic deficiency; a misfiring hippocampus; outright stupidity.

Whatever the cause, the end result is the same: put me in a free-roaming virtual world, and I will get hopelessly, utterly lost. I’ve wandered the forbidden zones ofS.T.A.L.K.E.R. like a well-armed ghost with no idea where I am or where I’m meant to go next. I’ve thundered around the mean streets of Liberty City in my Nissan Cherry, only to take a wrong turning onto a railway line and into the path of an oncoming train. I’ve lost myself among the crimson dust and prefabricated houses of Mars in Red Faction.

Oh, I know there are maps. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. even provides you with a PDA and GPS, kind of. But these toys and gadgets provide problems of their own. I’ve stared at the little maps too long and crashed into walls. I’ve stared at a PDA screen with a furrowed brow, only to receive an uncharitable bullet in the back.

So before you criticise FF XIII‘s invisible corridors too harshly, spare a thought for gamers like me, the perpetually lost and confused. Those of us who spend so long squinting at radars, maps and diagrams that we barely notice the wonderful world around us; those of us who are perpetually disoriented, bewildered, discombobulated and stumbling around in maze-like networks of avenues and alleyways.

Without games like FF XIII or Turok, we’d probably have had a nervous breakdown by now. Without those invisible walls to guide our path, we’d almost certainly never find our way home at all.

Originally published over at Den of Geek

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