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ArbitraryWater

Internet man with questionable sense of priorities

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The Wheel of Dubious FPSes Episode 15-18: The Hits of 1998

Apologies for taking so long with this one, but between Game of the Year blogs and starting school again, it’s been a bit for me to sit down and pump out some blogs. As a recompense, I’ve just thrown all four games I’ve played since the last dubious write-up into one package. Truly I am generous.

Clive Barker’s Undying

TFW you and your family accidentally unleash an ancient curse of darkness because you read a book at some standing stones like a bunch of dumb kids
TFW you and your family accidentally unleash an ancient curse of darkness because you read a book at some standing stones like a bunch of dumb kids

Developer: Dreamworks Interactive

Release Date: February 19, 2001

Time Played: Around two hours

Troubleshooting: Very little, surprisingly, though there is a widescreen fix and subtitles mod that I probably should’ve installed before streaming.

Dubiosity: 2 out of 5

Would I play more? Yes

Clive Barker’s Undying is a game about Patrick Galloway, the world’s worst fake Irish accent, exploring a haunted mansion of similarly bad accents and uncovering the history of an accursed family. It’s also, quite possibly, a little too good to be among the likes of your Duke’s Nukems Foreverses and Turok 3s, but when has cult classic status ever been a deterrent for me? If anything, it’s the opposite. I’ve never read any stories written by Clive Barker, I’ve never seen Hellraiser, and heck if I’ll ever play the other FPS with his name attached to it. This is the one for me.

Between this and The Wheel of Time, I’m reminded that Unreal Engine 1 had a strong look to it that its id tech 2 and 3 rivals never quite managed to match. There’s still enough sharp art direction to make Undying stand out. It’s not actually scary, but it at least has both spooky vibez and storytelling pretensions between the parts where you shoot demons and pirates, collect keys, and read notes with impossible to read standard definition fonts. There’s also a fun eclectic mix of traditional 1920s firearms, weird magic shit, and a slow-ass rocket launcher that is just a chinese dragon. It’s one of those things where the enemies sometimes come off as a little too fast and/or aggressive for the size of the environments you’re dealing with (narrow, cramped hallways, a lot of the time) but you can do the “shoot magic and guns at the same time” thing from Bioshock 2 about eight years earlier.

It’s a neat little thing, although I apparently did not get far enough to see the part where time and money ran out in the wake of EA acquiring the studio mid-development and shoving the game out the door posthaste. That might be something to look into in the future, although I’m forcing myself to not start any new full playthroughs of games on stream until I “finish my plate” with some of the stuff I’ve left undone. At the very least, it’s doing stuff that was novel in 2001. We’ll have to see what 2022 brings as far as streaming titles.

Shogo: Mobile Armor Division

I literally already made a
I literally already made a "it's just like one of my Japanese Anime" jokes in the video title, but it's just so easy.

Developer: Monolith

Release Date: September 28, 1998

Time Played: Around 90 minutes

Troubleshooting: Fan Patches and Widescreen Fixes and goofing around with dgVoodoo

Dubiosity: 4 out of 5

Japanimation: Off the Charts

Would I play more? No

For as much as Sudeki and Septerra Core really leaned into the “Western game developers try to do anime” angle, they cannot hold a candle to Shogo, which is the most “I bought this bootleg fansub of a Gundam episode on VHS from a guy in New York for $200” energy imaginable. It’s anime through the lens of white dudes watching anime during the anime boom of the 90s, complete with borrowed sound effects, numerous references to other mecha shows, and voice acting that sounds like it was done by amateurs. It’s a cultural artifact of a very specific time, and probably should be taken in that context. In the Year of Our Lord 2022, there are few things I find more tiresome than when a western work evokes anime stuff by throwing in as many “wacky Japanisms” in as possible. Shogo: Mobile Armor Division is not the worst offender in that regard, more an earnest tribute than anything, but the faux-orientalism is still present in a way I found obnoxious.

As a first-person shooter, however, Shogo is a game I would call “messy.” Listen, I know I just gave Blood my “old game of the year” award, but perhaps leaning a little too hard on the “hitscan assholes at all times” modality of Blood was a bad thing for Monolith, actually. The difference is that the shooting, environments, and encounter design of Blood is usually interesting enough that I enjoy it even with the compulsive quicksaving. With Shogo, it’s made worse with the addition of random “critical hits” for both you and enemies, which really doubles down on the “enter a room and lose all your health in two seconds” nature of it all. The parts where you plod around with a giant robot are probably the best parts, although they’re less Mechwarrior and more, um… Heck… Warrior? That’s what they call Doom, right? In any case, take the slow tanky robot because there’s no way to avoid taking damage in this game, which is nominally something I think a game like this should not have.

Oh right did I mention that you have to go into a hex editor to bind the fire button to the mouse instead of control? Wh-why? Why would you do this. Anyway, I didn’t get to the part of the game where you rescue a cat so as far as I’m concerned 0/10.

SiN

COOL DUDE
COOL DUDE

Developer: Ritual Entertainment

Release Date: October 31, 1998

Time Played: About 90 minutes

Troubleshooting: Fan Patch. No other complications.

Dubiosity: 4 out of 5

Number of Basic Instinct references: 1

Would I play more? I don’t understand why NightDive would remaster this game, because my answer is an emphatic no. That said these guys made Star Trek Elite Force 2, which I would like to check out at some point given how solid that first one was.

SiN is a game whose greatest accomplishment is being the game that Half Life beat during all of those fun internet message board wars of the late 90s, and then getting beaten again by Half Life 2 episode 1 eight years later. From the outside, I guess I can see how that would’ve played out with preview coverage and magazine articles, but with the benefit of 23 years’ hindsight it’s not even a competition. Forget that it launched with a ton of bugs and technical issues (the very first Penny Arcade strip being about the game’s infamously long loading times, which I weirdly didn’t experience with my SSD), SiN begins with a loud, dumb turret sequence, which by The Dubious Law of Turret Sequences*, means I’m legally required to say it’s bad. It’s also the most aggressively 90s first person shooter I’ve played for this feature, which I’d say is absolutely a net negative.

As extremely cool 90s action hero John R. Blade, it’s up to you to fight the forces of SiNtek in the far off future of 2037 with the help of your chatty radio co-pilot, J.C. Armack. He’s literally just John Carmack. But watch out dudes, because SiNtek’s leader, Elexis Sinclare is a totally smoking babe with some evil tricks up her sleeve and copious amounts of boob jiggle. Are you a bad enough dude to fight private security forces and mutants in order to save the city? How embarrassed were you by the previous sentences in this paragraph? Are you, perhaps, a teenager with access to the internet in the late 90s? Or a video game developer with access to the internet in the late 90s? It’s like, one step removed from Duke Nukem in terms of “oh god these people think this is actually cool” but I will continue to emphasize that Duke 3D is at least a pretty solid FPS.

Prior to making SiN, the only game Ritual Entertainment made was Quake Mission Pack 1: Scourge of Armagon, which I’ve played enough of recently to say is probably not the part of Quake you should spend your time on. With that in mind, you can see where the comparison to Half Life (and the active rivalry encouraged by the developers) came to be, because there’s certainly some level of “cinematic” ambition here, with things like “set pieces” and “jumping puzzles” and “dynamic mission objectives” and “oh no did you say jumping puzzles.” It’s bright, it’s colorful, it’s got that Quake II colored lighting drip, alongside fun stuff like “interactive computer terminals. The guns are profoundly standard by that metric.

In a shared trait for pretty much all of the games in this write up, it’s also weirdly hard in the way that a lot of games from this era were. Enemies have destructible armor on different parts of their body, which despite being a shared trait with both Akiba’s Trip and several Senran Kagura games, is mostly irritating in the sense that you can blow through a lot of ammunition against regular mooks if you aren't hitting them in the head, especially given their long, drawn-out death animations. It became a big enough problem that my first encounter with the giant mutant monster in a cramped, tiny area with not enough ammo broke me. Enough so, that I eventually just turned on god mode, ran around with the helicopter turret from the beginning of the game and got through the level that way. I’m not above it. Similarly, I’m not above saying that the perfunctory stealth level that follows, while impressive in the sense that first person shooters didn’t usually have stealth sequences in 1998, is a bad time. If I wanted that I’d play Thief: The Dark Project. I stopped there, and you should take my lead and never start. SiN. Not even once. Please look forward to SiN Episodes 1, coming to The Wheel of Dubious FPSes Season 2.

*In the spirit of Eric Wolpaw and Old Man Murray’s “Time to Crate” allow me to introduce “Time to Turret Sequence;” the official Dubious Wheel standard for when your video game has given up. Turret sequences are bad. They’ve always been bad. They’re a low-effort way to try and mix up gameplay, but aren’t interesting or creative enough to do that. Just Say No.

Blood II: The Chosen

oh god why
oh god why

Developer: Monolith

Release Date: November 20, 1998

Time Played: An hour during the GBCER last year and another 90 minutes now.

Troubleshooting: Somehow LithTech being the most troublesome engine to deal with has become a running trend for me, because even with fan fixes and dgVoodoo this ran POORLY.

Dubiosity: 5 out of 5

Would I play more? No. Nooooo. NOOOOOOOOO. I already did it for charity, you can’t make me do more.

As the sequel to 2021’s “Best Game that didn’t come out in 2021” it is my unfortunate duty to announce that Blood II is butt. The other LithTech release of 1998, rushed out the door to compete with Half Life, (wait, sensing a pattern here) it’s a broken, unpleasant mess of a game that both fundamentally misunderstands what makes that first Blood good and also manages to top Shogo in the “quick saving between every encounter” department. I haven’t played Soldier of Fortune, but like… maybe LithTech is a bad engine? Is Might and Magic IX the best LithTech game? Should I go back and try NOLF again?

Regardless, take everything I said about Shogo being hitscan city and just multiply that by the technical issues I was having on top of some of the limpest weapons I’ve dealt with in a first person shooter. See, while Blood II is nominally a sequel to Blood, complete with Stephen Weytes reprising his role as Caleb, it moves the game’s setting and tone from 1920s goofy pulp horror to something vaguely future-ish and dystopian. The story and level design is a bit of a mess, given the game’s blatantly unfinished nature, although some of the inspirations of the original shine through here and there. Oh, what’s that? Most of the guns are inaccurate and have very little feedback or punch, while the enemies will immediately start firing on you as soon as they see you? Wow that sounds terrible. At least Shogo had an okay shotgun and Big Toonami Energy. This just has the occasional quip from Caleb, which becomes less endearing when you hear it over and over again because you keep fucking dying over and over again. I, uh, resorted to the console for this one as well. No regrets.

I cannot emphasize enough, this one’s a real stinker, and probably killed the franchise for good. Given that, due to the nature of various acquisitions and mergers, the license is in the hands of Atari (yes, the hotel and speaker hat people) I think it’ll probably stay that way. That’s fine. There are still plenty of well-liked level packs for Blood 1 I haven’t tried, and plenty of better throwback FPSes I haven’t given full attention to. Better to leave this one behind, because I think I’d rather play Duke Nukem Forever again than touch this one, at least not without figuring out the technical problems. Part of that might be heartbreak, true, but at least DNF functions properly.

That said, please look forward to the last few entries of the wheel we have coming up, because it's nothing but "Bangers" from here on out. I just... I really need to show someone Killing Time. Thank god Fire Warrior broke so that I may show the world the 3DO's Finest FPS.

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