Games reviews for 2009

Even though I play a few PC games each year, I'm not great at reviewing them frequently. By the time I've bought the game, and played it all the way through (or as far through it as I'll ever get), several months have passed since the game was released, and pretty much anyone who was thinking about buying the game has already bought it.

However, just in case you're in the budget games market, here's a roundup of the notable games I've played in the past year (or ten) and failed to review in a timely fashion.

System Shock 2

Irrational Games & Looking Glass Studios [1999]

Alright, it's been an entire decade since System Shock 2 was released, but seeing as it was such a great game, and seeing as I'm reviewing BioShock further down the page, I'll try to explain why I still fondly remember this game.

First off, the graphics were never the selling point. Even in 1999 they looked a bit ropey, especially the models that were meant to resemble humans. But the game was rife with complexity, just as any good RPG is. At the start of the game you sign up to the military and have to choose which specialist branch to join. Your choice determines your strength in weapon usage, repair skill, computer hacking, and psionic abilities. Then you are selected for a special mission: military escort for a scientific research spacecraft, the Von Braun.

Next thing you know, you wake up in a deserted part of the Von Braun, someone urging you by radio to wake up and get moving quickly. As you move through the ship, bodies everywhere, it's clear that things have gone badly, though you can't remember what happened. Soon you realise that not all of the crew are dead, but what's left of the crew doesn't seem to want you around. The peace of a quiet corridor is broken by ragged voices rasping "the Many sings to us!", and then, suddenly, angry growls of "something different, something not right" before a deformed crew member or two is charging at you with a metal pipe. Your day goes downhill from there.

Unlike most FPS games, the baddies never stop spawning in System Shock 2. So that corridor never feels safe, no matter how many times you've fought-off crazed former crewmates, fleshy Rumblers, over-protective Cyborg-Midwives, creepy spiders, and the many other minions of the Many. All through the game, it feels like you're in a totally alien environment, and your presence is not welcome. To deal with the large variety of enemies, you have a large variety of weapons arranged into different classes such as basic, heavy and alien weaponry, plus a large number of psionic abilities such as telekinesis and pyrokinesis.

With the huge number of combinations of ways you can specialise your character, weapons, and psionic abilities, plus the excellent development of the plot, and the terrifying atmosphere throughout, System Shock 2 was an awesome game. Even if the graphics were a bit ropey.

[Note: I did want to capture a screenshot of System Shock 2, but I couldn't find any easy way to get the game to run in Windows XP.]


id Software [2004]

Screenshot of DOOM 3, an imp about to hurl a fireball in a confined space.
Fighting an imp in a gloomy, confined section of Alpha Labs Sector 4.

It's been just over five years since DOOM3 was released, and almost as long since I played the game. But the disappointment is still with me. I dearly loved DOOM and DOOM II: Hell On Earth. They were great fun, like big-game safari played out across the nine circles of hell, hordes of demons to shoot at in arena-sized spaces that let you run rings around your quarry. But DOOM3 was nothing like its predecessors in terms of gameplay. Instead, DOOM3 had you trapped in endless narrow, obstruction-laden corridors where you almost never had space to fight more than one or two foul beasties at a time.

To make matters even worse, big chunks of the game were nearly pitch black, and the rest of the game was set in shadowy gloom. You have a flashlight, but you can't use it at the same time as firing a weapon. Presumably this was done to scare people, but all it did was piss me off. I have enough trouble aiming at the best of times, but trying to line up a shot when you can barely make out a silhouette against a murky backdrop is no fun at all. If System Shock 2 can create oodles of scary atmosphere in well-lit corridors, then there's no excuse for forcing the player to repeatedly navigate dark, dreary, boring walkways while imps repeatedly appear from dark alcoves which open just behind you. And DOOM3 had plenty of boring walkways and dark alcoves, as almost all of the early levels seemed identical. Ten-or-so levels in I came very close to quitting because I was having trouble staying awake.

DOOM3 only gets interesting when you finally leave the dark, dull, machine-room and office-based levels and go through the Delta Labs teleporter to arrive in Hell. Then you're in a totally different, rocky chasm of a place with a backing track of tormented screams and groans. But even then I was wishing for some of the fun I remembered from the original DOOM all those years ago.

Just in case you did complete DOOM3 and want more, the Resurrection Of Evil expansion pack was actually slightly more fun, with some interesting end-of-act bosses to fight, and handy tools such as a rip-off of Half-Life 2's gravity gun, and the ability to slow down time while going beserk and invulnerable.

(For far better news, see my review of DOOM [2016].)


Monolith Productions [2005]

Screenshot of FEAR, a Replica soldier being pummeled by assault rifle rounds in slow motion.
Slowmo is very handy for taking on groups of enemies, and visually impressive.

A bit like a mix of Half-Life and DOOM3, F.E.A.R. impressed me with the sheer strength of the atmosphere that the game created. Even though you're basically just walking from room to room killing psychically controlled clone soldiers, their cold presence mixed with the ominous, haunting sound track gave the game a lonely, terrible atmosphere that DOOM3 failed to instil in me. Not once did F.E.A.R. resort to using levels where all of the lights were turned off, and you have a flashlight that you can use anytime you want. Which shows that creating atmosphere is not all about turning off the lights.

F.E.A.R.'s atmosphere is helped greatly by the soulless, relentless resistance offered by the clone soldiers, and the occassional appearance of their psychic commander, who calmly tells you that you're fighting for people responsible for an atrocity, and that revenge is coming. Also by the sparing use of appearances by Alma (imagine Sadako from Ring), and increasingly violent supernatural activity as you get nearer to the research facility where the highly classified Project Origin met its end.

Whatever the source of the powerful atmosphere, it works well to cover what would otherwise be repetetive levels with scenery and human enemies that are fairly similar throughout most of the game. But the human enemies fight smart, using cover, and grenades, and you often need to make full use of your ability to enter "reflex time" (slow motion) to avoid being killed in gunfights that involve four or five enemies at once. The resulting gun battles are very satisfying, and succeed in making the action element of the game worthwhile, nicely carrying you along through the supernatural storyline.

F.E.A.R. has two expansion packs, Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate. While I enjoyed the extra hours of action that Extraction Point offered, and the unsettling ending it reached, I found Perseus Mandate less compelling.


2K Boston & 2K Australia [2007]

Screenshot of BioShock, a splicer stands in an odd pose in the medical pavillion.
An angry splicer about to charge at me with a very sturdy flashlight.

Developed by some of the same people who made System Shock 2, BioShock should have been awesome. And BioShock does strongly resemble its predecessor in a lot of ways. The most notable difference is that with BioShock the graphics were the selling point. The underwater city-gone-wrong Rapture was beautifully rendered by the game engine, with realistic water effects, detailed design and modelling for the neon-rich deco-styled environment, and smoothly animated human and sub-human characters.

For the first few levels I was fairly engrossed, sucked in by the rich graphics alone. And I remained enthusiastic until the Fort Frolic level, which features a great scene where you are chased around the dancefloor by a gang of crazed splicers while a lunatic plays a musical composition he's created. But that was probably the pinnacle, as it increasingly felt to me that the game had reached a plateau and wasn't going to advance to any greater heights.

The problem for me was that the enemies in the game were all either splicers or Big Daddies, and the splicers all seemed more or less the same, and the Big Daddies were all more or less the same. Plus, fairly soon, you have all of the weapons and all that's left to do is to modify them to give them bigger ammo clips, etc. And well before the end of the game, you have every one of the plasmids (psionic abilities), so there's no need to decide how to specialise because you can have it all. Which just doesn't seem to fit the RPG mould.

I also wasn't wowed by the story, though apparently an entertainment company was so impressed that they're planning to make BioShock into a movie. Sure, there's a clever twist, but apart from that it's basically just go here, then go here, then here, and finally you meet the end boss. And the final battle is laughably straightforward. Compared to the glorious pair of confrontations with the end bosses in System Shock 2, the end battle in Rapture is dire. I finished it on the first attempt, and it was a simple matter of dodge, fire, dodge a bit more, fire again, you win.

So my memories of BioShock are mostly about the impressive scenery. It lacks the complexity, chilling atmosphere, and writhing story of System Shock 2, and lustrous graphics alone cannot make up for this absence.

[I will point out that Bioshock: Infinite is a completely different beast, and an excellent game in all respects.]

World In Conflict

Massive Entertainment [2007]

I was a fan of Command & Conquer in the early days of the series (including the daft C&C Red Alert 2) but the endless carbon copies pumped out by EA did little to build on the strong foundation that Westwood Studios originally laid down. Luckily, other developers did bring innovation to the RTS genre, with games such as Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War.

World In Conflict is another welcome addition to the RTS genre (though its creators sometimes refer to it as being an RTT game because it's all about non-stop action and there's no base construction). The game is set in the 1980s and begins when Russia invade mainland USA by sneaking military vehicles and troops across the water in shipping containers. (I do wonder whether Russian games companies create games where it's always America causing the trouble on Russian soil.)

After a quick tutorial which brings you up to speed on moving your view about the three-dimensional battlefield, and giving your military squads orders, you're dumped straight into action in the US city of Seattle. As you never construct any military bases, you have an allowance of reinforcement credits which slowly increases whenever you lose some of your men. You can use these reinforcement credits to select new infantry and vehicle squads, which are delivered by airdrop to your landing zone. By fighting your way across the map, you can advance your landing zone to make resupply faster and simpler, giving you the advantage against the enemy.

You also periodically get access to tactical aid in the form of a menu that lets you click to select offensive strikes, reconnaisance flybys, paratrooper drops, etc. The offensive tactical aids vary from precise, targeted shots such as the laser-guided bomb, to wildly indiscriminate orgies such as the daisy-cutter and the tactical nuke. The skill in World In Conflict is largely about the timing and targeting of these tactical aids. A well-placed carpet-bombing run at the right moment can turn the tide of a battle.

The single player campaign unfolds as you fight the Russian forces across US territories, though there is a slightly incongruous set of missions set in Europe. The cut scenes add to the sense of urgency and poignancy, though the choice of Alec Baldwin as narrator doesn't seem entirely suitable, as military service isn't something I'd associate with the high-profile actor. The action is relentless, and you're kept very busy defending and advancing, calling in reinforcements, tactical aid, and trying to outlast the waves of Russian infantry and armour. World In Conflict is an excellent real-time strategy/tactics game.

[Note: the latest Nvidia drivers seem to cause texture corruption on the battlefield map, so I'll try to capture a screenshot later if this issue is fixed.]


Crytek Frankfurt [2007]

Screenshot of Crysis, a squad of KPA soldiers walks through the jungle, straight past you, not seeing your cloaked form.
Cloaked, watching enemy soldiers wander on by obliviously.

As previously mentioned, I'm not great at lining up shots. So I need every advantage I can get in FPS games. And the nanosuit that you get to wear in Crysis offers a lot of advantage. The nanosuit lets you cloak, Predator-style, so that enemies can't see or hear you at a distance, which is great for sneaking up so close that even I can hit a target. It also lets you switch to armoured mode, to resist heavy gunfire, speed mode lets you move faster and sprint at an obscene pace for a short burst, and strength mode gives you the power to jump onto buildings with one leap, or fire weapons with less recoil. You almost feel sorry for the hapless North Koreans that stand in your way as you head across tropical islands searching for a group of American hostages.

Crysis is the exact opposite of DOOM3. You have entire beaches and forests in which to roam, and most of the time the environment is lit in brilliant sunlight. You encounter five, ten, twenty enemies at once, and can choose whether to sneak past them, or charge in guns blazing, or combine the two approaches. The size of the maps combines with the flexibility offered by your nanosuit to allow all sorts of ways to tackle the tasks handed to you by your squad leader.

Just as you're getting used to the bog-standard KPA infantry that plague the island, things step up a notch. I was genuinely shocked when, in a dark, moonlit graveyard, someone cloaked in a nanosuit walked up to me, and I realised they weren't on my side. And before you know it, an ancient alien army has awoken, turning a big chunk of the island into a snowglobe before swarming across the skies to attack all human forces they find.

Crysis is a brilliant game, with cut scenes that nicely humanise the experience, and excellent variety provided by the nanosuit and the vehicles and weapons at your disposal. The action takes place in some excellent settings, including a zero-gravity section in an alien lair, and a superbly modelled aircraft carrier.

The expansion pack, Crysis Warhead, got rave reviews from critics for its no-nonsense non-stop action, but I actually felt that Warhead forced you to play in the all-guns-blazing style most of the time, and the cut scenes were a little bizarre. On a couple of occassions the timing in the cut scenes was so bad that it looked like the character Pyscho had forgotten his script. But Crysis Warhead does add a few hours of extra action, and it's certainly worth playing if you enjoyed Crysis.

Civilization IV Complete

Firaxis Games [2005]

Screenshot of Civilization 4, a high view of three of my Russian cities and their cultural territory.
Behold the mighty Russian civilization and its cultural territories!

I used to love the turn-based strategy games Civilization and Civilization II, but I was useless at the warfare side of the game, and that meant that I was usually forced to attempt victory by winning the space race.

Civilization IV adds a bunch of other ways to achieve victory, and my favourite new feature is the idea of cultural borders. (I think that concept was actually added in Civ III but I never played that edition of the series.) Each city you own has its own level of cultural output, and this adds up to create a cultural territory around the city, the idea being that people in the surrounding area have taken to the language, traditions, teachings, art, music and entertainment of your city and they identify themselves as being part of your civilization. The best part is that your cultural territory can collide with that belonging to a rival civilization, and create a cultural border. Depending on how much cultural output your cities produce, this cultural border can move, either increasing or decreasing your territory. If you push your cultural borders far enough, they can swallow up rival cities and increase the chance that the city asks to join your civilization.

This is great news for players like me, because you can play defensively and engage solely in cultural warfare, making sure your border cities concentrate on constructing cultural upgrades such as monuments, theatres, universities, and world wonders. It's even possible to win the game by being first to have three cities achieve 50,000 cultural points. Or you can court your rivals and win the game by scoring a diplomatic victory by election at the United Nations, which is a lot harder than it sounds.

Of course, the military option is still available, in splendid detail. But try as I might, I just cannot make a military campaign work for me. No matter how many advanced units I have, they all get annihilated by some guy with a stick, even on the easier difficulty levels. I find victory in the space race far easier to achieve, and this option is also nicely presented, with plenty of technology requisites and spacecraft components required for success, and nice graphics of the ship as it's being built.

The Complete version of the game comes with the standard version, plus the Warlords and Beyond The Sword expansion packs. I happen to like all of the extra complexity that the two expansions add, such as corporations (instead of spreading religion, you spread your corporate brand and garner necessary resources), vassal states (think Britain in relation to the USA), espionage (which is a bit of a pain but can be useful), plus a bunch of new civilizations and civilization-specific goodies. Altogether, Civilization IV is a huge, detailed, great strategy game, with nice graphics and animations, and it should keep you busy for a while.

(Also see my detailed review of Civilization V.)

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Rockstar North [2005]

Screenshot of Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, the city of San Fierro in the background, cast in golden colours as the sun rises.
San Fierro at sunrise. Not just a pretty background, you can explore the whole city.

I generally cannot stand the third-person perspective used by so many console games of old, but Grand Theft Auto is a game simplistic enough to get away with it, because in return for dumbed-down controls you get a huge playground of a world to play in. And Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas expanded on previous efforts by creating a world of three gargantuan island areas to explore, each with a distinct geography, culture and style, inspired by California and Nevada. Los Santos is a rough approximation of Los Angeles; San Fierro nicely resembles San Francisco; and Las Venturas is near-as-damnit Las Vegas. Surrounding the built-up city areas are dozens of square kilometres of sparsely populated hills, plains and deserts, with little towns dotted about here and there.

I love and hate Grand Theft Auto. I hate the fact that you are so easily drawn into mowing down pedestrians, and slaying bypassers during indiscriminate gun battles. I'm not keen on the fact most of the missions are driven by organised crime, such as the horrifying mission where you're required to terrorise a building site, then push the site foreman into a trench and fill it with cement. But I do love the vast freedom of a world that lets you jump into a car (usually stolen, of course) and then speed or cruise along the roads, freeways and bridges from one side of the world to the other. And in a game world as large as San Andreas, that journey takes more than a few minutes unless you travel by plane.

The main focus of playing the game is the story missions, where you play CJ, determined to restore your neighbourhood to its former glory. In the process you bump into corrupt cops, a crazy federal agent, a chronic masturbator, a wired hippy, and numerous other colourful characters, all of whom prompt you to take on numerous challenges and tasks. A lot of these missions are fun, but far too many are infuriating. Very often you'll have to drive from the mission start point for ten minutes just to get to a tricky bit, and if you fail the tricky bit, you have to travel ten minutes back to the mission start point if you want to try again, as there are no mid-mission save points. This can lead to serious annoyance, and heated swearing.

Alongside the story missions, the game world is chock-full with optional side missions, such as newspaper delivery rounds, racing challenges, late-night burglary, trucking challenges, special item collecting, girlfriend satisfaction, and much more. A lot of these side missions provide special bonuses when completed, for instance the ambulance mission boosts your health capacity to maximum as soon as you complete it, and the vigilante mission increases your armour capacity by 50%, both of which are very useful in completing the story missions.

Despite the merciless violence, frustrations with mission design, the lack of mid-mission save points, and the enraged swearing caused by said frustrations, I have a deep love for the huge world that San Andreas makes available to explore.

Fallout 3

Bethesda Game Studios [2008]

Screenshot of Fallout 3, a deathclaw about to attack amid the fallen buildings of Old Olney, backlit against the bright morning sun.
Old Olney is home to the fast, powerful, vicious Deathclaw. And plenty of them.

There was so much fuss about BioShock, but there seemed to be much less fuss about another FPS RPG released a year later. Fallout 3, in my humble opinion, was far superior to BioShock. Set in the ruins of a post-nuclear Washington D.C. and parts of the surrounding states, Fallout 3 starts when your character is born in a nuclear war shelter, Vault 101. You play through a few scenes in Vault 101, which mostly serve the purpose of letting you customise your character's appearance and core characteristics, and then you're out into the harsh world that is the Capital Wasteland.

Now, somewhat like Grand Theft Auto, you're in a vast game world where you can roam where you please. You can either concentrate on the core story quests (where you aim to find your father, who fled Vault 101 suddenly) or you can ignore the core story altogether (as I did the second time round) and just explore the huge map, encountering places, people and strange events, all of which offer quests for you to complete. Your actions, such as killing hostile creatures and raiders, rescuing people, and finding items for people, earn you experience points which lets you upgrade your character. And how you behave in the world determines your karma, which determines how people react to you.

Your core attributes and skills greatly affect the options you have when making your way around. If you have strong hacking skill, you can disarm security systems and open doors electronically. If you prefer lockpicking, you can open doors and safes with bobby pins instead. Combat skills determine which weapons you're most effective with. Your speech skill decides how likely it is that you'll be able to persuade people to do things to help you, for which they'd otherwise demand a fee or refuse altogether. And there are a dozen-or-so other skills and characteristics that can seriously affect how you play the game.

The Capital Wasteland is a place of built-up urban ruins, desolate scrubland, sewer systems, metro tunnels, and nuclear shelters that fared far worse than Vault 101. To save time you can instantly jump across the map to waypoints (such as a town or metro station) that you've already discovered on foot. But when you start the game, Vault 101 is your only waypoint, and you have to bravely venture out into the wasteland with just a feeble firearm to keep you safe, and your trusty Pip-Boy 3000 wrist computer to map the world as you discover it, warn you about radiation levels, and keep track of your health and inventory.

Fallout 3 is a great RPG, with a huge world to explore as and when you see fit, a satisfying core story, a great variety of mutant beasties to fight with a great variety of weapons, and plenty of human characters to assist (or not) in numerous quests. I easily spent seventy hours exploring the Capital Wasteland, a far richer experience than was offered by the linear adventure of BioShock.