Back with a Bang (or rather a whimper)

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I LIVE

I DIE

I LIVE AGAIN

My WordPress dashboard tells me that I published the last post more than half a year ago, shortly after I bought my brand new, shining gaming rig. A very long period of silence followed. How to explain that? An abyss of confusion.

Playing on my old laptop gave me a very limited choice. Oldies or indies. Getting a PC more suitable for my favourite hobby made me think really hard about the concept of choice cost. Suddenly, a whole new galaxy was opened before me – and Steam sales certainly don’t help you to focus on a single target. Yeah, time to change my approach and avoid hoarding unfinished games in my library — which is, by the way, the most disgusting form of consumerism.

Mad Max

The best mediocre game I’ve ever played.

Sure, just like I mentioned in that post, all the reviews I’ve read before and during playing Mad Max were right. It’s flawed. A disappointment. And yet I consider it to be one of the best experiences in my lifetime of a vidya fan.

Sure, I can see the flaws mentioned by other reviewers. Gameplay is repetitive. There are no dialogue options and the text is scarce. Difficulty threshold is way too low and you ascend to the position of a wasteland demigod too soon. Maybe there are many other minor details which would make me criticise this game if I only were a professional reviewer?

Too bad I’m just myself. Someone who finds the weakest points of this game really appealing.

There is no such thing as repetitiveness when you’re impersonating Max Rockatansky in the middle of a wasteland. Everything, driving, fighting, exploration, is hypnotising — which would be hardly possible in another setting.

Verdun

Just a few heartbeats and shell explosions after I’ve entered my first battle, I meet a small team of professional and extremely polite German players who are ready to guide me, a complete Grünschnabel. Out of sudden, I have just found my regiment, the local equivalent of a standard multiplayer clan. The battle is finished and immediately after the new map loads, one of my new trench friends quotes a very gloomy German poem about dying in the trenches. Just a few seconds later I find myself lying on the bottom of a trench, covering from artillery barrage and looking at the uncanny depiction of a hole in human skull and a pulsating brain beneath it. Shivers.

Yeah, maybe I found a FPS shooter which I can enjoy playing online after all.

Goals for this month

Verdun: Reach player level 100

…and stop being such an embarrassment to my dear Kameraden. Seriously, some of them have reset their rank to plain zero since I’ve started playing the game in December.

Space Marine: win it for the Librarius

…finishing the game shouldn’t be a problem even on the hardest difficulty level. What really makes me excited is collecting the missing floating skulls – just because it made me leave the playthrough in the past. Funny, searching for them is far more frustrating than repeatedly dying after a close encounter with a Traitor Marine who still remembers the Heresy Era.

Sunless Sea: Finish it!

According to my Steam counter, it’s almost 700 hours spent on the Unterzee. No wonder I’m so lousy at finishing games. Besides, maybe Sunless Sky is still in development, but there is a fan-made spin-off to give a try to. Hurry up, Captain!

 

This Blog: Summaries.

Amazing! Extraordinary! I’ve actually managed to finish some games since the December. It’s only polite to write about it and feed my Just Finished category.

Constant Feature: Your weekly report

What I need is some discipline. Writing a report about my progress every week seems to be a good start. Of course, it should include noting down my thoughts and posting screenshots which are to brief or irrelevant to make an entire post. Since I do most of my playing on weekends, Monday is the best choice for such reports.

Avantgarde: The New Wave of Soviet Dubstep

In my first post about Soviet City I mentioned that there’s a painful dissonance between the game’s general theme and gameplay, and it’s soundtrack, at least to a person who understands Polish and the historical context behind the speech samples used in the game music. A folk song from the Kurpie region performed by an old lady, or the voice of a classic Polish poet reciting one of his work shouldn’t be used as a background for a game which protagonist is a ruthless official ruling a grimdark Soviet dystopia. Fortunately, Dawid Hallmann, the man behind the SC soundtrack, is of the same opinion and has recently started working on new dedicated music. The first song was published by him on YouTube today.

As the artist himself writes in a commentary below the clip, he’s curious if they’ll like the new song in the Russian embassy. Considering the reaction of Russian gamers on YT and Steam, I think they won’t be exactly happy about the change, but I think it’s a great improvement and hopefully we’ll see more of it soon.

Distraction: Fire Force

The WinUAE emulator has a stable place on my drive and its main purpose is proving me how worthless I am as a player. While returning to the games I played as a teenager is usually a blissful experience, more often than not it eventually becomes a dissapointment — either the game itself proves to be far less excellent than my nostalgia tell me, or my lack of skill and patience leads to frustration. Well, that’s the discreet charm of classic Amiga games! Unbalanced gameplay, lack of saving options, the endless struggle with the emulator configuration in order to match the particular game’s requirements and avoid a visit from the dreaded Meditating Guru… Nevertheless, sometimes I’m not able to resist the temptation and, against all odds, I return to the womb.

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The first moments after inserting the game disk into my virtual DF0: drive made my militarist’s heart skip. The intro sequence would be described as ‘minimalistic’ today, in the age of (faux)retro. A few close-ups of a soldier preparing his battle gear, without any background music, just with short, sharp sounds of a combat knife going into its sheat and a rifle magazine being loaded, were followed by a full size title screen depicting a sterotypical Vietnam-era hero clutching a blade in his clenched jaw, waist-deep in a nameless swamp. Then the screen went black and the drums, or should I rather write THE DRUMS, started beating. Even if it’s only a dozen seconds looped into infinity, the only piece of music heard in the game, it certainly gets the player into a proper mood.

By coincidence, I encountered Fire Force during my primary school years when I was an avid fan of Cat Branigan’s Wings over Vietnam series. If my memory serves me well, it was one of the first games I’ve ever played which had an explicitly military theme. Of course, I had played strategy and simulation games before, Falcon being one of the first games I’ve ever tried in my life, but this was a new experience. Technically, it was a platform game, or at least I would classify it as such with my limited knowledge formed by Super Mario Bros and more ‘mature’ titles like Another World. However, just like the air combat sims I already knew, it had such features like player roster, mission selection screen, precisely defined objectives, and many other novelties which made me, an ordinary boy in his early teen ages, feel really proud that I was playing something far more serious than another game about a cartoon character jumping on mushrooms and shooting bright stars.

 

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Suppressed SMGs? Puny hand grenades? No way, I’m taking some serious ordnance with me.

When I’m playing it again in 2016, I’m quite surprised to realise that Fire Force has some traits of a roguelike. Most levels are randomised to a certain extent, which is especially painful in the very first mission which main objective is to find and murder (‘eliminate’, in the modern newspeak) an enemy commander hiding inside a building. The problem is that there are four houses to search, the time limit leaves little room for errors, and with each new approach the baddie changes his location — a surprisingly realistic feature, because this is exactly the way a prominent enemy of an atomic superpower would behave in the real world.

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A merciless helicopter crew: they never get late, they’ll never wait even one minute

The other feature which makes Fire Force a distant cousin to ADOM is permadeath. The player’s status is saved after each mission and since it’s possible to prematurely finish the career by reaching the extraction zone just one minute too late, all too often I’m greeted with the roster screen showing my hero’s name with the grim KIA or MIA runes next to it. Of course, it’s childishly simple to cheat by using two separate savedisks, one of them being a literal Navy Seal graveyard, the other one serving as the Bit-and-Byte Hall of Glory.

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Everyone has his guilty pleasures and, I know this will sound horrible, I found it in slitting the throats of my hapless enemies. This was another trait remarkable for a game released in 1992: a killing technique of raw brutality, crawling or even running to close contact and butchering the foe. Of course, the whole gore exhibition was just a few frames of animation and a dozen of red pixels, but you can imagine how exciting it was for a teenager who hasn’t yet experienced Mortal Kombat or even Cannon Fodder.

***

Despite the medals and the promised satisfaction, I still cannot bring myself to play Fire Force in a ‘serious’ way and finish it. Because I actually managed to finish the campaign and retire as a mentally scarred satisfied veteran during my first playthrough, more than a decade ago, the only proper way to enjoy it again would be to play it just like the makers wanted it, without using a spare virtual disk as a war cemetery for those unfortunates who missed the helicopter or stepped right into an anti-personnel mine. The thought of playing the campaign from the first scenario after each death isn’t exactly appealing to me, after all, so maybe I’ll just play it for the sport.

Blackout

Occassionally, it happens that I’m playing being extremely tired. Today is such a day and the following words are an attempt to describe this rare state of body and mind. The title is a reference to the book ‘Male Fantasies’ by Klaus Theweleit, an analysis of the masculine Fascist mentality in the interwar period.

Generally speaking, beginning a videogame session after a whole day overloaded with various types of activity, be it work, physical exercise or otherwise, feels like entering an altered state of consciousness. While normally I’m a man who could describe himself as having a certain kind of sensory oversensitivity, weariness and sleep deprivation completely change my gaming experience. First, I’m simply unable to focus on more complex tasks required in adventure or strategy games, which forces me to choose simpler (but not necessarily easier) genres like platformers and shooters. Second, the condition of having my senses temporarily numbed is sometimes an advantage, because it’s significantly harder to be discouraged from difficult, repetetive gameplay. Finally, this condition changes the way of experiencing gameplay. Instead of focusing on ‘winning’, or achieving arbitrary goals, and following the story and dialogue, I tend to immerse myself into the visuals and sounds, the result being literally hypnotical. The pleasure derived from learing an interesting plot and gaining achievements become almost irrelevant, instead the mind quietly enjoys dreamy, alien landscapes and electronic soundtrack music. This is a perfect time to return to old-school Amiga titles or maybe try a bizarre Ludlum Dare browser game.

While I’m fully aware that repeating this kind of alternate gaming experience more often than once in a month would ruin my health, the temptation to do it again returns surprisingly often.

Shards of Glim: Shadow of the Gloomy East

The Khanate is one of the most frustrating locations in the game, but also one which offers a daring and ambitious captain great opportunities. Generally speaking, it’s a rather stereotypical Middle Eastern city with greedy merchants in one of the harbours and a decadent court with two conflicted factions in the other. The frustrating part is the constant presence of guards and agents tracking every step of the bloody kufir — which means that almost every action causes the increase of the ‘Suspicion’ attribute. Beyond a certain threshold, the natives start limiting the player’s possibilities by closing the well-provisioned market. To make it open again, it requires bribing one of the two factions, which is quite a costly affair. To make the matter even more complicated, the degenerates inhabiting the court won’t simply accept money, oh no, this wouldn’t be sophisticated enough. Instead, one clique accepts only the expensive coffee, while the other is even more demanding and requires Drowning Pearls, which are even harder to obtain. Did I mention that even with a low suspicion level, bribes are required for newcomers to obtain a certain ring in order to enter the market? It’s no wonder that after a few visits to the Khan’s Heart, I started to feel xenophobic about its inhabitants. Unfortunately, taking revenge by sinking one of their warships costs suspicion too.

Shadow of the Gloomy East

All this for a chance to buy a bale of silk

However, like I mentioned in the beginning, the Khanate is a place of great opportunity, worth every effort. First, the market offers interesting goods for reasonable prices, some of them required for certain quests. Second, the possibility of establishing a spy network is a great way to obain Strategic Information and gain the Admiralty’s favour. Too bad that there are no options to interfere with its internal politics yet — it would be great to stage a palace coup or even cause a civil war — but maybe a future DLC will introduce this. At least, thanks to Mr. Sacks, I can spread a plague of auto-cannibalism among those arrogant Easterners.

Medal of Honor: Reassigned

My adventure with MoH: Spearhead, where I was impersonating a lapdog of the plutocratic imperialist Western powers, came to a grinding halt somewhere in the middle of the Ardennes forest. What happened was a real disaster: a rail-shooting level with my anti-hero and his team of infiltrators stealing a German APC and maniacally driving through the enemy positions in an attempt to reach the American lies. Yet again, I was betrayed by my unhealthy ambition which made me play on the highest difficulty level and even try to complete missions without manual saving, which was a complete nonsense, of course. Although Spearhead can be a source of fun, being a classic FPS with dynamic gameplay and interesting levels, it simply doesn’t offer enough incentive to constantly replay the same moment of a mission. Especially when the given mission has the protagonist chained to a gun mounted on the open top of a vehicle, without a shield or possibility to take cover. A similar level in Call of Duty: Spain in Flames at least gave you a chance to duck and reduce the chance of being hit by mad Falangists driving other lorries.

Having said all this, I’m abandoning the unlucky soldier, but it’s not a complete surrender. Since I’ve made plans to write about games featuring the WW2-era Italian army, I’ll just jump to the other MoH add-on, Breakthrough, where the Mussolini’s iron legions are supposed to appear in some missions taking place in North Africa and Italy. Let’s just hope that this time the main character won’t get volunteered to become a mobile practice for every Axis soldier in the vicinity.

Beginning Of Darkness: Gunpoint

Promises are to be kept, but the promises a man swore to himself are easily broken.

My Windows desktop has a whole column of shortcuts to previously installed games. Each of them is like a granite rock hanging on my heart and for that reason a few months ago I’ve made a decision to stop trying new titles until I’m finished with that painful burden. Predictably, all I managed to accomplish was to make God laugh again — the proverb about telling Him about one’s plans is a bitter truth about human hybris. First, it was the sudden appearence of Sunless Sea in my life, which has consumed most of my playing time since two months, and then I fell again and purchased Gupoint at a Steam sale.

First Post

Jumping into the muddy waters of corporate crime

How could I resist the temptation? Platform games are generally one of my favourite genres, but the idea of a stealth logical platformer is especially appealing to me. Although it seems to be an invention of the modern retro-gaming movement, I can still recall its possible predecessors in titles like Alcatraz or Black Thorne. The former had innovative mechanics, forcing the player to avoid searchlights by finding hiding spots in a two-dimensional environment, while in the latter hugging the walls was crucial in surviving the fight with mean proto-Orks wearing oversized shotguns.

Another major reason to play Gunpoint was the film noir theme. While I do realise that many of its elements have become a cliché long time ago — cynical protagonists clad in trench coats, poisonous femmes fatales, constant gloom and rain, whisky and cigarettes — I still cannot resists its charm, which is fitting for a man who used to devour cheap Polish editions of Chandler’s novels. Especially when the general theme is accompanied by a soundtrack which matches it perfectly.

When I’m writing these words, my hacker-detective in sour armour has already begun his dubious carreer in the shady P.I. business. After completing a few simple jobs, and even finishing one mission with a perfect score and a very nice golden achievement badge (thanks, Steam!), I feel sure that I can handle the game well, but this time I’m not going to set myself too ambitious goals. I’ll leave that for a second playthrough.

Customer Friendly: Finish all missions with A+ rating

…which will mean that I’ll be riding the moral scale back and forth, because my clientele is a really colourful bunch, some of them wishing to minimise the violence, others demanding a permament removal of all witnesses. Philip Marlowe would be proud of me.