"Classics" Digital Part 6: Informing you about these Programs

Infogrames (Atari SA). A failed French megapublisher which at one point was the largest in Europe. Their library? Mainly trash purchased from other failing developers and publishers. And now we get to experience that trash in a whole new way thanks to Steam publisher Classics Digital whose output I have been examining for six blogs now. And as we near the end of the road the time has come to look at the games developed or published by Infogrames themselves.

Our journey starts in 1987 with a little game called Bubble Ghost. And let me tell you it is bad. You play as a ghost who must blow a bubble to an exit. You can rotate your ghost to angle the bubble and then blow until the bubble makes it to the exit. Like who in the year 1987 would have spent their hard earned money on a premise that basic? This was only a year before the Genesis came out. We already had Zelda, Metroid, Mario, Ultima, Wizardry, Castlevania, and more. This is a game that wouldn't have been out of place on the Atari 2600 yet somehow it is being released a full decade later. And there were some positive reviews at the time. I don't really understand how but there were. The version included here is of course the DOS port which was in turn based on the updated Atari ST version. Not that you could tell. That nauseating shade of baby blue is still the primary color here and it still looks awful. The sound work is likewise terrible, but that is how DOS rolled back in the 80's. Now what would be really nice is if we could have gotten some of the Atari ST or even Amiga ports of these games. But that would have taken actual effort and these guys couldn't even be bothered to change the emulation to ega for this title that existed prior to the default svga. Anywho, moving on.

We next find ourselves in 1988 for Rescue: The Embassy Mission. Like with Bubble Ghost, the Amiga and Atari ST versions of this game received positive reviews upon release but we find ourselves stuck with the DOS version. And like with Bubble Ghost that means we get horrendous audio and visual work featuring the ega standard for DOS at the time. The actual game seems okay. You play as a SWAT team attempting to rescue the hostages in an embassy. To do this you have to avoid spotlights and other hazards to sneak into the building. There might be another element after that, but I would have had to play the game for more than 10 minutes to figure that out and my ears were already begging me to stop after thirty seconds. So two down and so far both have been God awful.

We remain in 1988 for our next entry, Drakkhen. Like with our previous two entries the Amiga and Atari ST versions of this game were not only well received, they are even fondly remembered. Find yourself a British RPG enthusiast of about 40 years of age and chances are he will be familiar with this title. But due to the legal issues surrounding the Amiga we are once again stuck with the DOS version. Of course there is no reason why we couldn't get the Atari ST version considering Infogrames is Atari. But that would require Classics Digital to do actual work which they of course won't. So as stated Drakkhen is an rpg. What that means is that I have no idea how to play it without an instruction manual, which is of course not included. I can tell you from half an hour worth of effort that you cast spells using a combination of runes, but without the list of spells included in the manual I have no way of knowing what spell does what. Luckily, this game supports VGA graphics meaning you get a full 256 colors. So this game actually looks remarkably better than the other two titles despite no time having passed. The game is party based and the player controls one party member at a time while the others are controlled by AI. Combat occurs in real time with monsters appearing at random on screen for you to battle. Beyond that I couldn't tell you as I couldn't figure out how to move my party from its starting location and so could not progress the story. The combat seemed mediocre and the spell casting an obvious ripoff of Ultima, but compared to the complete and utter shit that were the first two games of the day, this title looks like gold in comparison. Still not at all recommended unless you already know how to play.

Finishing out the 1980's we get Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Priestess from 1989. Now I need to give credit where credit is due, this game is actually really neat. It's an adventure game of sorts. The goal is to complete five "ordeals" (read puzzles) in order to free yourself from imprisonment by lizard people. You need to do this in under one hour as well. When the game starts you are given one of five items that you can use to solve one of the five puzzles. Which item you get is random. When you solve one of the puzzles you are given a second item and so on. I wasn't able to make it through all five puzzles, but I did spend several hours playing this game. For an 80's adventure game, it was actually fairly easy to understand and I thought the visuals and setting were effectively evocative of the Z-Movie sci-fi that the game is obviously trying to emulate. Of all the games I have played for this blog series, this is the first one I can say without hesitation that I entirely recommend. Can't say I expected much, but, as I said, I have to give credit where it is due and no other game made this series get delayed by a week.

Next up is a game called Mystical, first released in 1990. The game resembles a vertically scrolling shooter just you play as a wizard shooting spells, not a ship shooting bullets. And that is basically my entire review of it. Feels fine. At the end of the first level there is a form of copyright protection that requires you to input a code based on a sheet included in the box for the game. And let me tell you what Classics Digital did not include with this game. That's right, the manual with the sheet containing the code. So this game is actually not playable. Like I know I've said other titles here are unplayable, but by that I meant obtuse to the point where you would never be able to figure them out. This game is quite literally unplayable. You simply cannot progress past the first level without material not included with the game. As such this title has been reported to Valve. Shame, as I did think the first level was perfectly fine.

We have just a couple games left. I was at first going to split these last three games into their own blog, but decided to do them in this one final entry. So we are now into the 1990's and the Windows era of DOS. Our first entry from 1992 is Eternam. It's an odd one that was compelling but not compelling enough to make me want to play too much of it. You play as a man in a futuristic sci-fi setting who is taking his vacation on a planet that is basically just one giant Ren fair. Or it might end up being more like a Westworld situation as the lady describing it claims that these are humanoid actors playing the roles, not simply just humans. Anyways, the gameplay seems to consist of two very distinct parts. The first is exterior exploration and combat, which functions like a very, very, primitive first person shooter. This was released the same year as Wolfenstein 3D mind you and the shooting is very basic. I can't say if you end up getting multiple weapons, or if enemies eventually more clearly attack you, but as it was I rarely saw an enemy before they were upon me and even then I couldn't have told you what they were beyond a blob of pixels. But, again, as a very early example of full 3D rotation from a first person perspective, it is at least a bit technically impressive. The main portion of the gameplay, though, takes place indoors where the game swaps into a point and click adventure game, except without mouse support. I'll let you think about that one for a moment. It's a really bad choice. You basically have to move your character into the exact right spot to interact with an object, and then depending on what action you want to take you have to hit a different key. Want to examine it? Hit L. Want to pick it up? Hit T. Want to talk to it? Hit S. And so on. It is a super clunky system that made the puzzles just not fun to solve. I will point out that Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Priestess, a game from 1989, had mouse support. And that would have been before the release of Windows 3. So it was both possible, and something that Infogrames had done previously. But I could find no way to activate mouse support in this game, making it very difficult to play. Beyond that, there seems to be some sort of sinister happenings occurring at this planet sized resort and I have a feeling the thrust of the game is going to involve you figuring out what exactly is going on. But after an hour of effort I decided I was done with Eternam and so I'll never know. Not the worst game I've played for today's entry, but definitely not the best.

For our penultimate entry we have Marco Polo, originally for the CDi, but here we are of course getting the DOS port. Made by Phillips themselves and published by Infogrames, this is largely an educational title teaching you about merchant life in the days of Marco Polo. The gameplay comes from simple price management systems. Basically, buy low and sell high as you travel through Asia. There are occasional quests to complete as well as random encounters against thieves and such that you must prepare for by hiring escorts. You also need to make sure you have enough food to make it to the next town and enough beasts of burden to carry your goods. Overall it is a decent little sim that reminds me in a way of some of the space trucker sims of both that era and today such as Elite. But there is a heavy element of education to this title, with a lengthy glossary going over the historical details of the various town, items, and people you meet as well as FMV cutscenes featuring actors in period costumes trying to teach you about the era while also giving you gameplay tips. It's all fine and it was one of the better games on the CDi, but of course there were no good games on the CDi so that isn't saying much. If you are a fan of trading sims, though, you could do much worse (and much better) than this.

And we end our journey and this blog series with light gun game Chaos Control. Of course we get to use the DOS version which is near impossible due to not having light gun support. I can't imagine beating this game using a mid 90's rollerball mouse. I just don't think it would have been doable. Even with a modern day gaming mouse it took some serious concentration to hit the number of targets the game wanted you to hit in the time given. I'm not sure how the game is structured as I never could make it past a specific point in what I guess would be the first level. Anyways, in this game you are shooting alien bugs instead of people and the camera makes a lot of swooping motions as you fly through the air at a nauseating 25 frames per second. I was unable to get DOSBox to run this at higher than 27 frames per second regardless of settings. Dunno what that means but suffice to say, playing a light gun shooter at painfully slow framerates using a reticule tuned for DOS era mice is not the way to play this game. In fact I don't think there is any right way to play this game as it is incredibly simplistic and fairly dull. It has obviously high production values for the time, with prerendered cinemas, voice work, and what could be described best as a failed attempt at a 3D engine. But you just point and shoot as you do in many light gun games. Except here there is no reloading, no cover system, and limited environment interactivity. You literally just point and shoot. And yes, holding down fire does cause the weapon to auto-fire, so you don't even really have to time your shots all that carefully. If it was running at a playable framerate it would be laughably easy. As it is it is just frustrating and boring, a fitting finale to a series filled with boring and frustrating games.

Counting the 5+ games included in the Wisdom Tree Collection, I played over 25 games for this series. I paid $1 for those titles and I would say that the two or three good games included made that a worthwhile purchase. Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Priestess was good fun. Pushover was a neat take on Dominoes. And Alien Rampage was a surprisingly competent shooter. That's three games out of 25 mind you. And reason enough not to pay much more than a dollar for these games. But if you are interested, I do think there is just enough quality content here to make this a worthwhile collection, even if like me you have never played any of these games before.

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"Classics" Digital Part 5: Endless Oceans

In today's blog we will be examining the second half of Ocean Software Ltd.'s Classics Digital library. The first title we will be looking at came out in 1993, making it one of the newest games we've looked at so far. Not that you could tell based on the visuals or gameplay. Sleepwalker is a puzzle/platformer that was made to support a British charity event from the time. As such it is wildly unpolished even for an Ocean Software joint. The concept is fairly simple. You play as a dog who has to protect your master as he sleepwalks through a city at night. Think of it sort of like Lemmings but without any prep time and a terribly controlling Dog to work with instead of a curser. Now it is possible that with enough fiddling with DOSBox settings I could get this game to control well enough to at least play. But, again, the whole point of this series is to not spend hours prepping for these games. I am getting sold a product. In this case the original product was a not for profit project, making the fact that Classics Digital has done nothing to make this game work on modern systems and is still charging $5 for it all the more deplorable.

I wish I could tell you more about how the game works, but I simply could not manage to get past the first couple of screens due to the just flat out broken controls. The main issue is that your character continues to accelerate as long as he doesn't hit into something. And he accelerates like a Ferrari on steroids. It's just impossible to move him accurately. Now this could very well be an emulation issue and not a problem with the original game. I don't know. But, for yet another time, I should not have to manually go in and fix DOSBox settings to play a game I payed $5 to play. If it doesn't work on modern systems then don't release it. Plain and simple. Now it is also possible that the controls in this game were always broken. I couldn't tell you one way or the other. I'm sure this was originally released on some British microcomputer and then ported to DOS after the fact, so the issue could be with that original port not with the emulation of it. Regardless, I simply could not control this game well enough to play it in any meaningful way and therefore cannot tell you if the actual mechanics are solid or not. 5 games into Ocean's library and my recommendation remains that you should not purchase any of these games for their current asking price.

Next up we arrive at Central Intelligence. This is a tough one. First off there is no Wikipedia entry for this game. Giantbomb's wiki page is blank except for listing Ocean Software as the publisher. I can find no mention of an official American release. Over on Mobygames you'll find a bunch of German language reviews from the era as well as a lone English review by PC gamer dated to 1995. I can't tell you if this was an import review, or if this game merely had a super limited release, but I can tell you that it is just inscrutable. And I know the same could be said for a lot of these games, but there is a sense here that the developers knew how impossible the game was and made an attempt to fix the problems. There is an actual tutorial mode, a first for this series, but it simply shows you how to perform two opening moves in this strategy game. I know I haven't described either the goal of the game or the nature of play, and that is because I don't know either of those things. Menus are all icon based, and this being a DOS game, those icons are basically pixelated smears on the screen that give you no indication as to what they represent. Again, the developers seemed to realize this and included tooltips that tell you what each icon on the main game screen do. But hitting any one of these icons opens up another menu filled with more meaningless icons and this one has no tooltips. While I would normally blame the lack of a manual for my lack of understanding, in this case it seems that critics of the day also had no idea what they were doing. With a Metacritic average of 50/100 and that PC Gamer review basically saying that the premise is good but it takes weeks to learn how to play much less learn how to win, it seems this game was just a confusing mess. One of the German magazines seems to have given it the worst game of the year award for 1994. So in this case I will accept that there is likely nothing Classics Digital could have done to make this game make sense. But they could have chosen not to release an awful game that even 1995 era DOS players couldn't manage to figure out.

With our next title we enter into the era of 3D games. Previously I have said that I was not going to do any DOSBox settings tweaks to make these games work, but early 3D games were notoriously hard to get running even at the time, so I'm going to cut Classics Digital a little slack here and actually spend a couple minutes trying to get the settings right for Tunnel B1. *Ten minutes later* Failure is mine. Despite my best efforts I was unable to get Tunnel B1 working well. But I was able to play it on low settings at 20 fps. The game is an early 3D tank shooter. You travel through a series of tunnels shooting enemies and collecting new weapons with which to shoot more powerful enemies. There is some sort of story but I wasn't really paying much attention to be honest. I can say that the game seems to be set in the future and that it looks awful by today's standards. Not that much can be done to help it considering I'm blowing up a VHS level of resolution to a 1080p screen. Anyways, this game is simple and works well enough. Not really very fun nor very appealing but I bet it had its fans back in 1995. Due to being a newer title this game is running for $7 on Steam, which I again would not at all recommend unless you happen to be one of those fans from back in the day who want to look at an even uglier version of the game you played 25 years ago.

And lastly, fittingly, we have Last Rites, a game from the comparatively recent 1997. This game is a Doom clone that is perfectly serviceable. The one major differentiator was that you had AI squadmates that fought alongside you. If Looking Glass hadn't released Terra Nova a year earlier that might have been a major innovation but due to Terra Nova it wasn't. The two levels I played also featured fairly boring environments, the first taking place in a ruined city and the second in a shopping mall. Combined with the limited enemy variety (different types of zombies) and that fact that this game came out after the fully polygonal Quake and not long before Half Life, and you can see why a game with so little unique to offer would have gone entirely forgotten by most gamers. That said, if you are looking for an old school shooter and have played all of ID, 3D Realms, Raven, and Monolith's efforts you could do worse than Last Rites. Of course the kicker here is the $7 price tag. While I did enjoy my time here I still don't think the value works out in Classics Digital's favor with these Ocean Software titles. They just aren't good enough for the price, and while the $20 bundle might seem enticing, so many of the games are unplayable that you really aren't getting too much bang for your buck.

And so we come to the end of Ocean Software's lineup on Steam. Overall I would rate it much higher than Imagitec and Wisdom Tree's efforts if only due to Pushover and Last Rites. Our final couple entries will deal with the games developed and/or published by Infogrames themselves. We'll see how their efforts compare to their purchased catalogue.

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"Classics" Digital Part 4: An Ocean of Possibilities

As we look through the library of Classics Digital I wanted to give a very quick history lesson. And that lesson is that this all ends at Infogrames (Atari SA). This onetime large French publisher scooped up numerous failing developers, publishers, and libraries in a way that is similar to the modern day THQ Nordic. I bring this up because in most cases, the games we are talking about fell into the hands of Classics Digital because they first fell into the hands of Infogrames. The games of Imagitec, which I looked at last blog, were eventually sold to Gremlin Interactive which was itself eventually sold to Infogrames which itself eventually became the new Atari. This blog we will be looking at the library of Ocean Software, a company that was, again, eventually purchased by Infogrames. And eventually we will get to the games developed by Infogrames itself. Point is, despite coming from numerous studios, all these games eventually became the property of a single company which in turn got itself into financial trouble and sold the digital distribution rights to those games to Classics Digital. And that is how these blogs came about.

So this entry we are going to be looking at titles by Ocean Software. 8 games are included in the current Classics Digital library. You can buy them individually for between $4 and I believe $8, or you could buy them as a bundle for $20. While I have yet to play all the titles as of this moment I would highly recommend not doing either of these things based on the earlier releases in this collection, save for one title we'll talk about below. We are once again going to go in or of release date. My idea with this was that we might see some evolution in design or technology that would make playing the games in order of release worthwhile. This didn't really work out with Imagitec due to the games all being different genres and all being borderline nonfunctional. But our first two Ocean Software titles both use a similar format and were developed by the same man.

The perspective is isometric of sorts. Those familiar with British Microcomputer developers of the 80's will likely immediately understand The Great Escape. Utilizing a black background and largely monochromatic environments, games made for the ZX Spectrum, BBC Mirco, and other British computers of the era, are all incredibly ugly and not very fun. If you have Xbox Game Pass you can see what I am talking about by playing the very early games in the Rare Replay Collection, which have a similar look and feel. This game is based on the film of the same name. You are a prisoner of war and must escape a prison camp and make your way to freedom. Holding you back are awful tank controls that are bound to the keypad, obtuse mechanics that punish you for undisclosed actions, and an overall sense that there is a giant manual somewhere that one should have read before starting this game, and yet that manual is of course not included in Classics Digital fashion. And so my first attempt ended in failure when I found what seemed to be a tunnel system leading out of my bunkhouse, but could not see anything. I assume I was meant to bring some sort of light source, but without it I was unable to make my way out of the tunnels and had to restart the game. Luckily, there is an actual restart button in this game, meaning I didn't have to alt-tab and close the window every time I wanted another go as was the case with Imagitec's titles.

My second playthrough ended when I was placed in solitary confinement for doing something wrong. I honestly could not tell you what that thing was. I was making my way from my bunk to roll call when I was suddenly thrust into solitary with no explanation. My third attempt I made it all the way to breakfast before getting thrown in solitary for another undisclosed reason. Was I not sitting at the right bench? Is there a way to know where I had to sit to eat? After several more attempts, none of which made it past my first breakfast I decided this was yet another game that should not have been released without some sort of manual. Now according to Wikipedia this game was fairly well received at the time, so I could probably learn how to play by looking up a guide or watching a walkthrough. But a major component of this was to go into these games blind and see what percentage I could actually play. So far that number is distressingly low.

Released a year later Where Time Stood Still seems to take inspiration from the likes of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In it you play as the four surviving crew members of a crashed plane who have mysteriously landed in what seems to be a prehistoric island. There are several interesting mechanics present here that made it worthwhile to start with The Great Escape. First off, you now control a party of 4 and can switch between each member at will. Each of those characters has a different ability. There is the rugged adventurer type who can shoot for example. And a young man who can run extra fast. I didn't make it very far into this title either but there were several interesting mechanics at play beyond the multi-character structure just in the first 15 minutes. First off, it seems that individual characters can die and the game continues without those characters. I'm not sure whether this indicates a game with multiple paths through or not, but it seems like it. Also this seems to be an early example of the survival genre, as characters have meters that tick down representing hunger, tiredness, and a third bar which I could not immediately discern the meaning of. Progression seemed to involve solving basic puzzles and overcoming both environmental hazards and the wild animals that roamed the island. Of course all this is presented in a nauseating shade of baby blue mixed with the occasional purple that was only found in DOS games that had no other options. I am uncertain if this is a superior option to monochrome Spectrum version. Regardless, it is ugly as sin and has no music and only very limited sound effects. I understand that the Spectrum version did have music at least but we don't get to hear that.

It is also my understanding that this game was incredibly well received at the time and I don't doubt it. While the tank controls and horrible perspective from The Great Escape return here, these were fairly standard for British computer games of the time, even if they make the games very difficult to play today. This game at least has the sense to let you bind the controls how you wish. Of course I ended up having to redo this multiple times because instead of left, right, up, and down I was presented with North, South, East, and West. And no, North is not, as you might expect, the top of the screen. That said, the actual movement itself feels a fair bit more responsive than in The Great Escape, and your AI controlled companions exhibit some interesting behaviors, such as running off if they are under attack. You can of course take direct control of them if the AI is causing issues, but you can only control one character at a time, making the game something of a management title as you try to balance the needs of all four characters with the limited available resources. If only the whole thing didn't control so poorly, and look and sound so truly awful. It's a hard one to enjoy, but maybe the most ambitious and innovative game I've played in this series yet. Worth admiring but maybe not worth playing all the way through.

Our third title for the day is Elf. It is a side scrolling action shooter where you play as an Elf trying to rescue a woman whose relationship to said Elf is unexplained. Also unexplained is how to begin the game. The answer is to hit the right shift key from the main menu, something I only learned when I found a thread on the Steam forums where like minded players were asking the same question. Again, basic usability is a nightmare in these titles. Digital manuals are essential and I simply cannot recommend playing the vast majority of these titles until they are included unless you are already familiar with them. Anyways, at least the actual game is fairly easy to grasp. I called Elf side scrolling but it actually uses a screen swapping approach like in Flashback, Out of This World, or the early Oddworld games. You travel around an area searching for items to trade to various characters throughout a forest filled with monsters trying to kill you. When you give one character an item they give you another who you then give to another character and so on and so forth. I repeated this task quite a few times but sadly never discovered how to save the game. So when I did eventually die and run out of lives I was sent back to the main menu. And instead of spending any more time with this title I gave up and went to write this writeup. Basically, this game seems competent if fairly uninspired. The art design is mediocre at best and oddly out of place at worst. Why are there magic carpet riding genies attacking me in this Elven forest? Also, oddly, you cannot play both the music and have the sound effects on at the same time. While such limitations were common in the 70's and early 80's, this title was released in 1991, making it a very odd technical hiccup. DOS obviously supported music and sound effects playing at the same time, and I selected the highest level sound card in the options selection at the start, so the game thinks I have top end hardware that should even be able to play sound in stereo, so I can't explain why this limitation exist. It does though and so you will have to make your choice.

Still, while definitely more enjoyable than the previous two titles, I still wouldn't recommend paying $5 for Elf, or $20 for the Ocean catalogue. But we have five games left to go so let's continue. Pushover is Dominoes but starring the mascot of British potato chip brand Quavers. When the Quavers dog loses his chips down an ant hill, the player must take control of an ant and play dominoes to get the chips back. Why does playing dominoes get back the chips? I have no idea. Those types of things didn't really matter back then. Anyways, this is dominoes and it works fairly well with some special pieces thrown in that wouldn't exist in the real game. For example one piece topples upwards knocking out pieces above it instead of below or beside it. Another continues flipping endlessly until it hits into a solid object. These make the game a bit more complex than a normal game would be, and figuring out where to place these specialty pieces to get all the dominoes knocked down is the key to the puzzles and what makes this game fairly fun. I have to say that this is the first title I have played in this series that I genuinely enjoyed with no real quibbles. It looks mediocre and sounds mediocre for what amounts to an early SNES title, but it plays just fine. The only complaint is again with the lack of a manual, meaning you have to learn through trial and error what the specialty pieces actually do. But there are not so many that you can't memorize them with a little effort, and the game doesn't have lives so you can just keep retrying a level as much as you want. There are no save states, just passwords that return you to a level, but beyond that I actually quite enjoyed the hour or so I spent playing Pushover, and finally had to force myself to stop and write this. So congrats to it for being the first title I would genuinely recommend as an enjoyable game. Maybe not worth $5, but definitely worth the $0.05 I paid for it.

And that brings us to the end of part 4. We've played four more games and have another four Ocean titles to play next time before ending with Infograme's internally made library. Until then, game on.

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"Classics" Digital Part 3: Imagine the Technology!

In this third part of my look at the majority of Classics Digital current Steam library I will be looking at those titles originally developed by Imagitec Design Inc. Three titles were included in the bundle I purchased, while three more are available as part of the "The Humans" series for $6 on Steam. I won't be paying that much for 3 25 year old games so we'll take a look at the three titles included here.

Going by order of release date, our first game is Prophecy 1: The Viking Child. Despite the dramatic name and the inclusion of the number 1 in the title, there was no Prophecy 2. And that is probably a good thing. This game is an awful side scrolling action game. I couldn't make it more than 15 minutes into it so forgive me for my general lack of knowledge. I can say that you have a pitiful sword with a tiny attack range that makes it all but impossible to hit enemies without taking damage. You also can purchase single use weapons from a shop including things like bombs and a fiery demon. These are fine but neither especially fun to use nor especially creative. Lastly, if you use a gamepad you have to press up to jump. I know this is a PC game and all, but if you have gamepad/joystick support, why not let me map jump to an actual button? This game came out after the launch of the Genesis so there were definitely more than two buttons on controllers of the time. That said, I appreciate gamepad support at all so I can't be too mad about the implementation.

So the game involves killing enemies and trying to make it to the end of the level. There is some sort of story but I couldn't tell you what it is and I never beat the first level because the game is awful and the controls are awful and you have two lives after which you start over from scratch. Basically this feels like a game 5 years behind the times. Controls this bad and difficulty this unforgiving were barely tolerable in the 80's. But this game, again, was released in the early 90's.

On an entirely different note, Classics Digital is still unable to include any instructions with their games. This is all the worse in this case as you have to perform a DOS installation of the game on first time start up. So if anyone wants to give this game a shot, I posted a guide on Steam explaining what options to choose. Short version, select 1, then 1, and when it asks to install to the hard drive select N. Choosing 2 and then 2 will make the game look and sound like a game from 1985 as well as play like one. Choosing the first options at least makes the game look and sound like a game from the 16 bit era.

Next up we have Daemonsgate a classic crpg. Now as an old school crpg, this game seems long, complex, and detailed. I am not going to dedicate the time to figuring it out though, especially without a manual. The controls of the game remind me of the 90's Ultima games, but even more clunky. You have to enter a menu to choose to talk to someone. Clicking on them doesn't work. And it is not exactly clear who you are talking to once you do move the conversation screen. The conversations themselves use a text parcer, similar to the even earlier Ultima games from the 80's. You might be able to free type, but the game is kind enough to let you click on any word in a conversation to ask more about it. Of course 95% of the words will give you nothing but it is a step up from just typing whatever you think of like in the oldest Ultima games. I never made it out of the starting town so I can't comment on the combat or rpg mechanics beyond conversing. There seems to be no in game map, the graphics are ugly even for the time period, and the whole thing would just require an absurd amount of effort to play. If you love late 80's and early 90's rpgs of the Ultima style (as opposed to the first person dungeon crawlers in the vein of Wizardry or Might and Magic), this is going to be right up your alley. If you, on the other hand, have no fondness or nostalgia for the era and format I would highly recommend steering clear.

The last game by Imagitec is an odd one. Called King's Table: The Legend of Ragnarok it is an adaptation of an ancient Norse board game that is vaguely reminiscent of a cross between Go and Chess. Are the rules identical? I have no idea. Classics Digital, realizing that this game was literally unplayable, kindly created a Steam Guide, that then just provides a link to the rules of the original board game. But the video game on display is not that exact game. Or at least it doesn't seem like it. The original game is played with simple white and black stones similar to Go but with one red piece as the King, who the black player must capture to win. King's Table features what seems to be quite a few different types of pieces. What do they each do? I have no idea. And the concept of charging someone $6 for a game with no instructions and no in game tutorial is absurd. I'll be honest, it took me ten minutes just to figure out how to start a game (hint: the menu takes the form of the gray rocks on the left side of the screen). Basically, without someone to guide you, this game is essentially unplayable and since there are no guides and no rules that I could find online I was unable to play it. So I can't give you any insight into the quality of the game itself, but I can call it possibly the worst port/emulation of a game released professionally that I have ever played. In fact it is embarrassing in its awfulness. Don't buy it unless you already know how to play it which likely means you already own it which means you don't have to buy it which means this game has no audience whatsoever.

And that does it for today. After yesterday's slight upswing in quality, today we are back with three games that are somehow less enjoyable than the games of Wisdom Tree. Those games I could at least play. I spent more time today fighting with unintuitive menus and obtuse installation screens than I did playing any games today. The one game that did work was a complex crpg that I just didn't have the time to learn. So steer very, very clear of Imagitec's games. They are very much not worth buying, at least in this crippled form.

Tomorrow we dive into the library of Ocean. Let's hope the results are a bit less awful.

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"Classics" Digital Part 2: A Phoenix Rises From the Ashes

In my last blog I began a look through of 20+ titles from Steam publisher Classics Digital. This library of absolute trash (soon to expand to over 100 titles according to their barely functional website) includes gems from developers Wisdom Tree, Inc., Ocean Software Ltd., Imagitec Design Inc.and Atari SA(aka Infogrames). And since I hate myself that much, I thought I would start with the bottom of the barrel and went through no less than four Wisdom Tree games last time. I promised that this time I would finish up the Wisdom Tree portion of the collection which includes two games based on the Jews' exodus from Egypt.

The first is called Exodus: Journey to the Promised Land and it is a reskin of an earlier game by the same developer before they decided to make Bible games. In it you collect some widgets in each level to open a portal to another level and then repeat. There are enemies attempting to kill you by walking into you and your goal is to avoid them. Maybe the most comparable game I can think of is Lolo's Adventure on the NES. Enemies and obstacles all have specific behaviors and patterns that you must overcome in a puzzle like manner. Expect the puzzles are dull. The sound effects, at least on this DOSBox version are grating, and five levels in, none of the puzzles were especially difficult. So I moved on to the next game, Joshua & the Battle of Jericho. This game is something of a sequel to the previous one, having similar gameplay but with more types of objects and enemies, at least early on. The puzzles are a bit more challenging and the sound effects, while not good, no longer make me want to pull my ear drums out. So of all six of the Wisdom Tree games I played, this one is maybe the best. Mind you that is an incredibly low bar to cross. It's like saying you were the best movie made by The Asylum(you'll have to look that one up yourself). It's not great, or even good, but tolerable and playable. At least for the 15 or so minutes I forced myself to play it. All told, these Wisdom Tree titles are a complete and utter disgrace to both video games and the Bible and even for the low, low, price of $0.05 that I paid, are not worth playing.

To end today's blog I wanted to look at the sole game in the collection not developed by one of the four companies listed above. Alien Rampage is a title so obscure that it has no Wikipedia entry and its entry on Giantbomb contains no information but the publisher and developer. That developer, Inner Circle Creations was made up of two brothers who have made no other games to my knowledge. There are no reviews listed for it on Gamespot, IGN, or even PC Gamer. So a title made by two guys with no experience and given absolutely no press that I can discover. It has to be bad right? Actually, it is fairly impressive. Alien Rampage is a side scrolling shoot-em-up, a la Contra or Metal Slug. You play as the titular alien, on a rampage of vengeance after his ship is shot down. There are several impressive elements to the game right off the bat. The first and maybe most noticeable thing is the sound engine, listed in the credits as the sole function not performed by the two brothers in question. Instead it was made by first person shooter sound engineering master Jim Dose, whose extensive credits include Duke Nukem 3D, Rise of the Triad, Quake 3, Doom 3, SIN, Blood, Portal, Half Life 2, Left 4 Dead, and Call of Duty Black Ops, to name a few. His mastery of the form is fairly obvious with a sound engine that seems generations ahead of anything else in the game. In addition to support for a good dozen sound cards, the game has surround sound support, utilizing spatial placement for things like explosions and weapon fire. For a DOS game made prior to Quake and the advent of 3D game engines this is exceptionally high quality sound programming.

Of course great sound effects don't mean squat if the game itself sucks. And while it isn't masterful it is a huge step above most anything else I have played from this collection. I wish I could tell you if this game was level based or a single open area, but I never made it to a second level after a good half hour of playing. There are multiple save points dotted throughout the level. Also hidden are health vials that increase your maximum health, and numerous secret areas that give you a variety of power ups as well as a currency you can spend to purchase ammo for your various weapons in a shop. While I didn't get to see most of them in action, there are what seems to be weapons of various elemental capabilities, making me think this might be some sort of Metroid inspired title. But I could find no mention of a map and at a certain point I could not figure out where to go next to progress and decided to call it quits. While the lack of a map certainly would hurt if this is indeed a single large open area, I could also have been missing something, as like with Wisdom Tree's titles, Classics Digital opted not to include a digital manual with this old game that obviously has no in game tutorial.

At least there are a list of controls and features in a help menu in the game, making this the most playable Classics title thus far. In addition, once I enabled gamepad support in the menu my Xbox One controller was immediately recognized and I was able to play through the game with that, and even was able to modify the button configuration, something plenty of current Steam games can't manage to get right.

As far as the shooting goes, it is a little finicky but that might be down to the fact that I don't think I was fully understanding the calibration screen. And yes, this game even has a joystick calibration screen. And this is before the creation of the Dualshock and not long after the launch of the N64. Just an all around impressive technical feat. Back to the gameplay, you are able to shoot in 8 directions here, but there is no button to plant your feet, so shooting diagonally can be a bit of a chore as the game might think you are trying to walk forward. That said, it works fairly well, especially considering modern analogue sticks didn't even exist when this game was being made. The fact that it is as playable as it is, is a testament to the quality of the programming and design here.

So I know I am gushing a fair bit about this title. Partly I am just surprised. I expected this to be another trash entry in Classics library but instead it is not only good, but uses fairly advanced tech for its time of release. It holds up fairly well too. The visuals are perfectly serviceable if a bit low resolution. Lots of little quality of life things are present here that were not common when this game was released. For example, your character grabs on to ledges should he fall just short of a jump. Once you reach a save point all your progress up to that point is saved. That means enemies stay dead and power-ups and items remain collected. And you get all your health back when you reload. It is still a fairly difficult game, but there are an impressive number of forward thinking features here that maybe made this a title too ahead of its time in an era when games were designed to be as tough as nails. But overall I am genuinely surprised by this game's quality and how little I can find out about it online. If you do decide to buy Classics' library on some crazy sale (I got it for $1), I would absolutely recommend checking this game out. Even on its own it is worth the $5 they are charging for it.

And that does it for today. Next up, Imagitec.

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Classics Digital or The Rose Colored Turd

It's been quite a few years since I last wrote a blog here on Giantbomb. You might be wondering what type of game could bring a one time active blogger out of a five year long blog hiatus. And the answer is not one but twenty one games brought me here. Those games being the titles so far released by Classics Digital. Now with a name like that you might expect some real gems to be included here. Maybe even forgotten ones. But no, these are some really crappy games. You might also expect even a base level of effort to have gone into making them run on modern operating systems, but that also is too much to expect. So what you have are a bunch of forgotten, abandoned games picked up on the cheap by some homebrewer in Texas who has (incorrectly) configured some DOSBox settings and released the games for $5 a piece on Steam and GOG.

Now before you worry for my sanity, no I did not in fact spend over $100 on a bunch of 30 year old shitty games. Game bundle website Fanatical was kind enough to bundle all but a couple of Classics' library together for a much more reasonable price of $1. At over 99% off I decided it would be fun to see just how bad some of these titles are. And since I obviously hate myself I decided to start at the bottom of the barrel and play not one, not two, but six different Wisdom Tree games.

If you are unfamiliar, Wisdom Tree was a development studio in the early 90's that made games loosely inspired by biblical stories or principles. In fact maybe its most famous game is Bible Adventures. This game is actually a collection of three different games all using the same mechanic. That mechanic is picking stuff up. In the game based on Noah's Ark you pick up animals. I assume you take them to the ark but with limited in game instructions and no included digital manual I actually have no idea what the objective of the game is nor how it is supposed to be played. I know you can pick up animals and there is what looks to be an ark in the level but what do I have to do to get the animals into the ark? I have no idea. Maybe that isn't the goal at all. I don't know. The second game is based on the story of baby Moses. You play as his mother (at least I assume considering there is again no story and no instructions in game) and carry baby Moses somewhere. I would tell you where but that would have required me to be able to make it past the first screen which would require me to understand the basic mechanics of this game, which I very obviously don't. The last game is based on David and Goliath. It plays identically to the other two games in that you pick things up and bring them somewhere. And like the other two games I couldn't for the life of me tell you where that place is or how I am supposed to know what to bring. Or maybe there is another mechanic in the game I am missing. But Classics Digital couldn't be bothered to set up joystick support or a semi-modern control interface. They just drop it in DOSBox and move on.

Speaking of poor DOSBox efforts, let's move on to our fourth, slightly less awful, game. This game is called Spiritual Warfare and in this six game collection it is the marquee title. You can tell why. Unlike Bible Adventures which is barely playable, Spiritual Warfare resembles an actual video game. You play as a nameless bible warrior who must preach the word of Jesus, turning gangsters, drug dealers, and other sinners into pious men of the cloth. At least that is what I imagine the story to be, as there is yet again no actual story given in the game and no manual included with the download. The actual game is fairly complex. You defeat enemies by throwing holy fruit at them, and as you progress you gain more powerful fruits, which you buy in a shop with piety points. You earn said points by answering questions posed by an angel about various biblical topics. Don't know your bible quotes? No worries. The answer to almost every question is obvious. If the words faith or Jesus are within an answer then just select that answer and you will be good. Still can't get it right? Well you occasionally get piety points for defeating enemies as well, but considering you need hundreds of these points to progress through the game, getting one or two per every fourth or fifth enemy is not a good way to go.

Like in a Zelda or Metroid title, you must gather additional items which give you abilities that allow you to progress further into the game. A holy belt of some sort allowed me to push objects blocking my path for example, while I need some sort of holy boots to get past the roads of fire and brimstone blocking my progress currently. Nothing here is remotely unique or especially creative, but I've played a lot worse. Of note, the original game even included controller support way back on DOS and my Xbox One controller was immediately recognized and seemed to work more or less. Some options still required me to make use of keyboard controls (hint: to open the menu you need to press F1 for whatever reason), but this was a more or less playable game. While there were still no instructions, there were characters in the game that offered some hints on how to progress and I was able to get through the first two areas without much issue. While far from recommended, at this stage, with four games under my belt, Spiritual Warfare currently takes the prize as the best game in Digital Classics' clearly lacking library.

As this is getting fairly long, I will hold off on discussing the final two Wisdom Tree games included here until next time. For now, I hope you enjoyed my first blog in half a decade and I hope you look forward to additional blogs going forward.

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Don't Think Uncharted 4 Looks Good? A Video Compression Blog

This morning, like many of you I'm sure, I watched Sony's keynote address at its Playstation Experience in Las Vegas. With each new demo I became more and more underwhelmed with the quality of the graphics in the games on display. Then it occurred to me that maybe the problem wasn't the games but the video compression being used for the stream. But video compression couldn't turn an incredible looking game into an average looking one could it? Well when the compressed version is just a fraction of the size of the full fat version then, as it turns out, it really can. So this afternoon I took the time to download the full uncompressed video which you can get here. You'll notice the only option is to torrent the file. That's because it totals more than 1.5 GB of data, far more than the average computer throughout the world can stream in real time and big enough to eat up the bandwidth allotment of all but the largest websites. But if you download the video (which I would highly recommend), the experience you'll get is revelatory. Really the difference in graphics this generation is going to come down to the ability to render fine details more realistically. And those details are completely lost when streaming a highly compressed version of any video. When it comes to the perfectionists at Naughty Dog losing all of that detail is the difference between a "meh" reveal and a stunning one.

Here are a couple things I noticed when watching the uncompressed video for those who can't download it for whatever reason or just need more incentive:

- About 2/3 of the way through the demo Nate smashes an enemy's head through a small waterfall. In the compressed version this doesn't look especially impressive but in the uncompressed version what occurs is something I have literally never seen before in a game. As Nathan's head passes under the water his hair becomes wet. And I don't mean like in the previous generation where a wet texture is placed over Nathan's body. I mean that the actual physics of his hair changes and then slowly changes back as his hair dries in the sun over the remainder of the demo. Note that his hair blows accurately in the wind up until that point in a way that looks far more realistic than Lara's hair in Tomb Raider. That's a tiny detail but its the type of tiny detail that make's Naughty Dog's games so impressive and it's something you simply can't see on the compressed video.

- Along the lines of small facial details, in last gen Uncharted games Nathan's emotions would show on his face during gameplay and his lips would move while he talked but both of these things weren't done in very high detail. In a sequence a bit later than the one I just mentioned Nate smashes another enemy's head into a wall. That's fine and all but what is really cool is watching Nate's face as the enemy approaches him. Note how Nate's eyes follow what he (or you as the player) are looking at and how his face changes expressions as the enemy moves closer and when he eventually takes him out. It's another tiny detail that is unnoticeable when all the detail is lost in compression.

- I saw several people on the web saying the textures on both the character and the environment had seen a downgrade since the E3 reveal. They haven't. The textures are basically photorealistic but they are heavily blurred on any streaming version of this video no matter how high a quality they claim the video is.

- Small lighting details were also lost with compression. Towards the end of the demo when Nate uses the rope to flee his enemies take a look at the leaves at his feet. You'll notice how each individual leaf on every single plant is correctly receiving the sunlight. In previous generations foliage often didn't receive light or cast shadows at all, and even in the super impressive The Vanishing of Ethan Carter many elements of the foliage were just fancy alpha effects with a lot of crazy blending. But these leaves are full 3D models and the way the light bounces off of the leaves is just stunningly realistic. Think about how when the sun hits a leaf the leaf almost shimmers as the individual crevices in the leaf reflect and refract the light in subtly different ways. When your leaves are just a moving 2D image it can't have crevices and therefore the light cannot accurately bounce off the leaves as it would in real life. But in this demo the light does in fact correctly bounce off each individual leaf, showing that not only are the leaves 3D objects, but are either tessellated or textured in a way that allows the light to take into account depth based on texture opacity or something to that effect. It's another tiny detail but it makes the jungle look borderline photorealistic at times.

- In the last generation games, Nate's shirt would become dirty over time but this was basically a texture swap. It didn't actually change the physical makeup of the shirt and because it was a texture the dirt appeared in preset locations. After Nate slides down a hill of mud late in the demo you can see that his shirt has actual mud on it. Not a texture swap where it now has a brown texture. No this was actual mud that was attached onto his shirt, not part of the shirt itself, and that mud changed how the light reflected off of Nate, proving that Naughty Dog is using an incredibly advanced physically based lighting system more impressive than anything I have seen thus far this generation.

- There were a ton of other minor incidental details you missed in the low quality video. At the very end of the video as the rocks are sliding, Nate grabs onto the top of the cliff and as his hands scrape along the ground trying to get a good grasp, individual pebbles are pulled out of the ground that have fully modeled physics that correctly react to Nate's hands. There are a ton of tiny little things like that which show just how far reaching Naughty Dog's attention to detail goes and how much of a disservice streaming video does to this game.

While full quality videos aren't going to enhance every single current gen game they really are going to be required to appreciate the detail in more and more games. If you really think about it, it's as if you are watching a DVD quality video of a blu-ray quality game. Just like a DVD won't give you all the detail captured by the latest professional cameras, these streaming videos aren't going to give you all the quality allowed by the latest game consoles and PC's. So if you hear your friends bashing the quality of the graphics in a game they have only seen a video of, make sure to ask them if they watched the full quality version or the streamed version. And if you are trying to compare graphics between different versions of a game using a streaming video just stop. Digital Foundry has full quality, uncompressed captures of all the games it examines available for download. If you don't have the bandwidth to download these videos, at the very least hold your judgement as, more and more, judging a game based on compressed videos is doing them a major disservice.

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My Top 20 Games of Last Generation (11-20)

Around this time last year quite a few people (and publications) were creating lists of their top games of last generation. It was something I wanted to get in on but as I started hashing out a list, I realized that there were just too many games I hadn't played to give the previous generation a fair shake. So I decided that instead of spending money I didn't have on a new console with barely any games (and none really worth playing) I would spend the next 12 months playing through the last gen games I missed. Well, it turned out that was easier said than done considering my list of missed games consisted almost exclusively of open world sandboxes and JRPG's. Still I managed to play Saint's Row 3 and 4, Batman Arkham City and Origins, Sleeping Dogs, Infamous 2 and Festival of Blood, and Kingdoms of Amalur through to completion by this point. I also gave JRPG's Final Fantasy 13, Demon's Souls, Ni No Kuni, and Dragon's Dogma each at least 30 hours of my time. And currently I am trying to play through Far Cry 3 and Assassin's Creed Revelations, with Blood Dragon and AC3 still on the way. The only games I really wanted to play by now but didn't have a chance to at all were the Dark Souls games. And I also will openly admit to having not played any of the Xbox 360 Forza games. Lastly, I never purchased a Wii and I have no intention of ever doing so, so sorry Mario Galaxy but you aren't on the list. Other than that I think I have given the last generation a fair shake. I'm sure I've missed a handful of worthwhile titles but I'm only one man so sorry if I missed your personal favorite.

A couple ground rules before I start. This is a list of console games. So no handheld or mobile games, and no PC exclusives. Current gen games with last gen versions I'm also choosing to ignore. Also HD remakes don't count although if you really want some bang for your buck that complete God of War collection has a ton of quality content for not a lot of money. I'm going to do this list in two parts just to keep the length down so check back in a couple of days for part two.

For the top 10 I plan on listing them in order. For these entries, though, I'm just going to give them to you in alphabetical order because really who cares which game is 17 vs 18? It will just waste my time and cause arguments that no one will be able to win. So without further ado, here are numbers 11-20 (in alphabetical order!) in my top 20 games of last generation.

Bastion

Console: PS3/360/PC

Developer: Supergiant Games

Publisher: Warner Bros Interactive

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Bastion is one of those games that has it all. The excellent combat system rewards risk and experimentation. The gorgeous visuals and stunning music create a haunting post-apocalyptic atmosphere. The story itself is a great tale expertly told with dynamic narration that takes into account moment to moment player action. And the great progression and weapon upgrade system, including Halo Skull like items that increase the difficulty while also increasing the possible reward allow players to tailor adjust the game to suit their own play style. It may not be the greatest game of the last generation, but it has no real flaws either. This is a polished title where every system works as promised and lives up to its potential. And it is absolutely worth playing.

The Batman Arkham Trilogy

Console: PS3/360/PC

Developer: Rocksteady

Publisher: Warner Bros Interactive

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Yea, I put a whole series as a single game. Sue me. It's my list. Deal with it. Anyways, the Batman games are great for a number of reasons. The combat system is fun and fluid, featuring a surprising amount of depth and complexity for what initially seems like a series of quick time events. But the real brilliance of the series are the stealth sequences. Before Batman, stealth in gaming was about avoiding conflict. You were meant to be a ghost, getting in and out of a facility without being noticed. Batman rewrote the book on game stealth by having you hide so that you could take out opponents more easily, not sneak past them undetected. Never before had a Batman game made you feel so empowered. Watching your opponents lose themselves to terror as you picked off their comrades one by one was one of the great pleasures of last generation. The great stories in all three games only added to the fun, and Arkham City and Origins remain the only real example of an open world game done successfully on the Unreal 3 Engine, making them a very impressive technical showpiece as well. And lastly, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Enough said.

Dishonored

Console: PS3/360/PC

Developer: Arkane Studios

Publisher: Bethesda

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It is fair to say that if Dishonored's story had been as good as the rest of the game it would currently be sitting in the top five not the bottom 10 but don't let the mediocre narrative dissuade you from playing this incredible game. While the story itself may not be anything to write home about, the world it takes place in most definitely is. A unique mix of sci-fi and and medieval influences were used in creating one of the most compelling worlds in gaming history. Beset by plague and suffering from political turmoil, the kingdom is in shambles. And it is up to you, the ex-bodyguard of the now dead queen, to set things right by slitting the throats of a bunch of bad dudes. Or not. In fact the element of choice is what makes Dishonored so compelling. Many games claim they will adapt to your preferred play style. Dishonored actually delivers on that claim. You can enter any mission guns blazing, shooting and slashing through the corrupt city guard and aristocracy on your way to a target you can blast to pieces just as easily. Or you could climb to the rooftops of these massive, open, and fully explorable levels, and sneak your way to your target with a mix of parkour and supernatural abilities without alerting a single soul. And once you reach that target you could still stab him or her in the back. Or you could find a non-lethal way to get rid of them, ways that ironically are often far worse than death. Or you could play somewhere in between.

Regardless, the game will react to your behavior. If you are butchering guards and civilians then later levels will feature more and better armed opponents to protect against your massacres. The people will fear you. The plague will worsen. Your allies will question whether or not your success is worth the cost. If you spare the lives of your enemies, on the other hand, security will loosen. The plague will improve. Allies will supply you with better equipment and praise your actions. Few games give you the freedom of Dishonored. All the way from the moment to moment gameplay which lets you defeat opponents with a wide variety of weapons and gadgets, to the expertly designed levels that give you numerous paths to reach your target, to your play style as a whole. It helps that the actual combat, stealth, and platforming feel incredible. The next Mirror's Edge should really look to Dishonored as it is the only first person game I can think of where I always felt entirely in control while jumping around. Great art, sound effect and voice over combine to create a great atmosphere. Really the only downside to this otherwise incredible game is how dull the story and its heroes are. From a gameplay standpoint, though, there are very few better games out there.

Flower

Console: PS3 (And PS4 eventually)

Developer: thatgamecompany

Publisher: Sony

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One of the most overused and hyperbolic terms critics use to describe great games is transcendent. There are a lot of great games out there. Few make you feel like you've transcended your physical and emotional limitations and become self-actualized. But for the hour or two you'll spend playing Flower you will really feel like you've had life altering experience. It's combination of gorgeous visuals, enchanting dynamic music and audio, and consequencless gameplay take you to magical place that I can only imagine would be further enhanced with the use of some mind altering drugs(which I am not in any way suggesting you should take). It's a one of a kind piece of interactive art with a story told through the expert use of narrative space (also known as environmental storytelling) over dialogue or even character interaction. That a story so broad and vague can at the same time be so incredibly moving is a testament to the talent of the team at thatgamecompany. Flower is not an example of masterful gameplay or mechanic design, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, Jenova Chen and team utilize gameplay in combination with audio and visuals to create a singular experience which is really only rivaled by the team's even better followup.

The Gears of War Trilogy

Console: Xbox 360

Developer: Epic Games

Publisher: Microsoft

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Yea, I did it again. My list, my rules. Choosing the best Gears of War game is pointless because each entry has its own highs and lows and you really should play all three. You can safely ignore Judgement. The first Gears holds up the worst but its influence can be felt across the industry to this day. The stop and pop third person shooting it popularized has been endlessly copied, but honestly the Gears series remains better at it than any of the imitators. The Lancer (aka the chainsaw gun) is one of the most satisfying weapons to use in a shooter ever and the visuals turned Epic's Unreal Engine from one of several third party engine players into the dominant industry force used by nearly every publisher on the planet. Meanwhile the sequel added the excellent co-op horde mode while featuring the most diverse campaign of the series. You had everything from giant boss battles, to a survival horror level, to an essentially combat free level inside the body of a giant worm. For my money it is the most enjoyable campaign of the series. And the third entry takes everything to the next level. There is more polish and content in Gears 3 than there has any right to be. After being delayed for over half a year due solely to financial reasons, Epic had plenty of time to polish every aspect of the game to an absolute sheen and pack in an absurd amount of content. You have a vastly expanded horde mode, the new Beast mode, a four person co-op campaign, and an expanded multiplayer suite. And every one of these modes was packed with a breadth of content rarely seen in modern AAA games. On the campaign side, Gears 3 became one of the few games last generations to truly end a story. And despite their status as meat heads, the characters actually manage to display some real emotion by the end of the series. Great combat. Great world. Great visuals. A ton of solid modes and content within them. And numerous innovative mechanics and modes that would become industry standards. That is the Gears legacy, and whether or not you enjoy the series, there is no denying not only its quality, but its importance in defining the last generation of gaming.

Limbo

Console: PS3/360/PC/(and more over time)

Developer: Playdead

Publisher: Playdead

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Since the release of Limbo many developers have aped its style. That pervasive sense of dread and despair built through expert use of art, animation, and sound design. But none of the imitators have come close to equaling the work of the original. Limbo is a draining experience. It is truly a disturbing game featuring horrific displays of violence and cruelty. It builds and maintains a tone and an atmosphere better than almost any game out there. But it isn't just the presentation that shines. Limbo also features a variety of clever puzzles that manage to consistently kill you without frustrating. Crafting puzzles that are just the right difficulty is one of the great challenges of game design, and Playdead nails it. Maybe it isn't for everyone, but for any who can stomach its brutality Limbo is the type of game you won't soon forget, with its gripping world and solid puzzles combing to form a truly memorable experience.

Metro 2033

Console: 360/PC

Developer: 4A Games

Publisher(s): THQ/Deep Silver

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Here is where I have to sadly admit I haven't played Metro Last Light despite loving the original. I know, shame on me. The first game, though, is brilliant. A lot of shooter fans bash the gunplay in Metro 2033 but I found it surprisingly refreshing. Every bullet counts in Metro, and weapons are taped together remnants of a lost age. They don't work well for obvious reasons. Their poor quality, along with the fact that bullets serve as currency as well as ammunition, subtly drive you to play more conservatively than you would with most shooters. The game builds amazing amounts of tension set in a stunningly realized world. A post-nuclear apocalypse is a common setting for games, but Metro takes it in an interesting direction, setting the game in the Moscow subway where the remnants of the city's population fight over the remaining scraps and form a variety of micro-nations following various political dogmas. It's a fascinating world and a fun one to explore. If you go in to Metro expecting a standard first person shooter you are going to be disappointed. In Metro guns are a last resort and even then firing more than a couple of shots might as well mean failure due to how badly it will tax your very limited resources. Another game that is not for everyone. If you enjoy games that focus on survival and resource management, though, Metro will be right up your alley, and its interesting and well realized world is just icing on the cake.

12. Portal/Orange Box

Console: PS3/360/PC

Developer: Valve

Publisher(s): Valve/EA

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I was a bit torn about including The Orange Box as Half Life 2 could be considered something of an HD port, but with 4 of the 5 games having their console debuts, I decided to include it but focus on Portal. Half Life 2 is the best game ever made. If you haven't played it then you should do so. But Half Life 2 came out a year before the Xbox 360 and 2 years before the PS3 so that's all I'm going to say about it. Portal, on the other hand, was first released with The Orange Box and it is an amazing game in its own right. The brilliant portal based puzzles of Portal would put this game among the cleverest puzzle games of all time even without the story around it, but with the story, Portal is elevated from clever puzzler to masterful game. Imagine how hard it must have been to come up with any sort of justification for why a character would be jumping through portals. But the master writers at Valve not only came up with that justification, they somehow turned it into one of the best game stories of all time. The hilarious Glados with the sinister undertones hiding underneath that pleasent exterior is one of the single greatest characters in gaming history. She is your sole companion. Your ally, and eventually, your enemy. For a being without a face who speaks in A Siri like monotone, she somehow has a ton of character. Portal was and still is a fresh departure from both AAA first person shooters and indie-puzzle games. There is nothing else like Portal and that is kind of a shame considering it is one of the best games you will ever play. And that end credits song? So freaking good.

Vanquish

Console: PS3/360

Developer: Platinum Games

Publisher: Sega

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I'd tell you about the story of Vanquish but I don't remember it. Considering this is a Platinum game I'm sure it didn't make much sense in the first place. But Platinum games aren't about complex stories or deep characters. They are about brilliant mechanics and Vanquish is no exception. There are two elements of Vanquish that make it so excellent. The first are the rocket boots that let you skate around the environment at incredible speeds. Vanquish is at least in theory a cover based shooter, but unlike any other cover based shooters, sitting behind cover taking pot shots at dumb enemies isn't a viable strategy. Enemies will advance on your position and surround you forcing you to slide across the levels to find new positions constantly. It is an amazingly fun mechanic that turns what by now is a tried genre on its head. The other half of the brilliance that is Vanquish is the weapon upgrade system that creates a risk vs reward strategy of slowly powering up your weapons over time vs the immediate need for more weapons and more ammo. It's an elegant system that creates fun mechanics out of the standard act of picking up the weapons of fallen opponents. Both of these systems take things we rarely think about in shooters and twist them in fun and creative ways. Vanquish may be short. It may have a nonsensical story (or maybe not I don't remember). The voice acting I can confirm is awful, and the visuals are impressive in some ways will underwhelming in others. And if the game has a multiplayer mode I've never seen it. But the mechanics at the core of Vanquish are so enjoyable and so refreshing that it becomes easy to overlook the flaws of this game as numerous or serious as they may be (depending on your perspective). Vanquish may not be the entire package a la Gears of War 3, but it absolutely 100% nails the gameplay, and when it comes down to it, games are all about play and when playing a game is as much fun as in Vanquish, all the rest really doesn't matter.

The Witcher 2

Console: 360/PC

Developer: CD Projekt Red

Publisher(s): CD Projekt Red/Namco Bandai

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People are going to tell you that you can skip the first Witcher and just move on to the second. If you really care about the story of this series I wouldn't recommend that. The beauty of The Witcher is that your actions deeply effect the story and playing up to the beginning of The Witcher 2 is key in that. Anyways, The Witcher 2 is one of the best RPG's ever made. It's got an excellent lead character, a dark and complex world, and a level of choice and consequence rarely seen in games. Two aspects of the branching story in The Witcher series makes it so compelling. The first is how choices don't fall into a simple good/bad paradigm. In The Witcher no one is truly good and few are truly evil. At best the actions of a character will be slightly more noble than the actions of an opponent, but both are scumbags. Do you help the terrorist Elves living in exile or the corrupt and oppressive regimes that have forced them to terrorism in the first place? Just like in the real world toppling a corrupt and cruel government doesn't assure that the replacement will be any better. You may think you are doing the right thing any number of times in The Witcher 2, but even your best of intentions are going have unintended and often terrible consequences. Those downtrodden elves will manipulate those gullible individuals into believing the most terrible of stories, only to reveal that in fact they are using you to commit equally horrible crimes. Even Geralt himself is far from a noble hero. He is self serving no matter how you play him. He is a killer, a murderer. And his lovers are sorcerers who are manipulating events from behind the scenes for their own nefarious purposes. Are you better than those you slay or just another player in a massive game of individuals merely trying to survive and improve their own standing in a broken society? In the end that is for you, the player, to decide, but no choice is saintly.

The other aspect of The Witcher 2 that impresses is in how much the game changes depending on your actions. The entire second act (out of 3) of the game is entirely different depending on if you side with the Elves or the Humans. And the game concludes in a variety of drastically different manners depending on your actions leading up to that point. Alongside Dishonored, The Witcher in my mind is the series that most makes good on its promise of changing the game based on our actions as a player. And CD Projekt Red earns a lot of street cred by giving away all the game's DLC for free to everyone, as well as selling the game DRM free. There are a lot of great RPG's on the last generation of consoles, but very few are anywhere near as good or as deep as The Witcher 2.

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New Consoles and Texture Decompression

Last generation both the Xbox 360 and (especially) the PS3 almost never ran into CPU bottlenecks. The CPU of the 360 was comparatively far more powerful than the GPU while on the PS3 the Cell was generations ahead of the weak GPU it was paired with. As the previous generation neared its close, the limits were virtually always issues with limited RAM and GPU power. You had low resolutions, alpha effects running at 15 fps and 480p or less at all times, and a variety of other cost cutting measures designed to limit the pressure on the very limited GPU and RAM capabilities of the previous generation of consoles.

So it is very interesting to see the exact opposite is true this generation. We have consoles running CPU's less powerful than what you would find in some top end smartphones (and definitely far less powerful than what you would find in Microsoft's own Surface tablets), with mid-range GPU's and enthusiast levels of RAM. This year we've seen a handful of games that seem held back not by GPU or RAM limitations, but by CPU limitations, something that never would have been true last generation. While the limited amount of bandwidth on the Xbox One's DDR3 RAM has required developers to scale back the resolution in some games, hitting 60 fps has so far not been a GPU issue but a CPU one. We see this in both of Ubisoft's open world games (Watch_Dogs and Assassin's Creed Unity) as well as Microsoft's own Halo: Master Chief Collection and Bungie's Destiny. One might argue the excessive load times seen in games like Destiny are also a result of CPU limitations.

The issue behind most of this is in the title of the blog, texture decompression. Essentially we have an issue where there is enough RAM to display massive textures in current gen games, even at a distance and in an open world. And the 50 GB of space on a blu-ray disc gives enough room to store those textures, but in a compressed form. The issue is that whenever a game needs to display those textures it needs to decompress them (along with any other compressed assets). Think of it like this. Every time you enter a new level, or a new area within a larger level, in a game, the CPU has to basically take the level out of a Zip file before it can even begin to render it. The bigger the zipped files, and the more heavily compressed they are, the more time it takes to uncompress them. (Note that you aren't actually dealing with Zip files specifically here, I'm just using the term to help those unfamiliar with the concept understand it) The issue that I think many developers this generation are going to have to overcome is how to get those files uncompressed as quickly as possible.

An interesting solution was actually created by Nvidia earlier this year and those with Nvidia graphics cards now don't have to worry about texture decompression because Nvidia now stores decompressed textures in a cache on the hard drive automatically. Remember that a gun on one level uses the same texture on another, so once any object is displayed a single time a cache is created for its texture, meaning the CPU never has to worry about loading it again. The benefits of this can be seen on the PC version of Advanced Warfare. As per Digital Foundry, a top of the line R9 290 AMD GPU will still see frame rates crash down to 30 fps when combined with an i3 CPU. Meanwhile a 750 ti, a card not much more powerful than those in the consoles and only a fraction as powerful as the 290 will only see drops into the mid 40's when combined with the same CPU. Switch over to an i7 CPU and there is no change in the performance of the 750 ti, but the 290 will now never drop below 60 fps. Basically we are seeing major CPU bottlenecks when it comes to texture decompression which Nvidia's texture cache has solved.

Now it is important to note that even a current gen i3 CPU is in many ways far more powerful than the CPU in the consoles. It has far fewer cores but each core is vastly more powerful. Another solution to texture decompression is utilizing modern GPU's compute cores to perform traditionally CPU oriented tasks. Not to blare the Nvidia horn or anything, as AMD GPU's have equally powerful (if not more powerful) compute cores, but Nvidia created its CUDA system solely for this purpose. If you are an AMD GPU owner and wonder why games using IdTech5 (Rage, Wolfenstein The New Order, The Evil Within) run so poorly on your computer, the answer is texture decompression. IdTech5's MegaTextures require significant CPU resources to uncompress as they take up multiple terabytes worth of space in their full resolution versions. So for Nvidia owners, Id created a system that uses CUDA to decompress the textures in conjunction with the CPU. Since owners of AMD graphics cards are more likely to also own AMD CPU's, these people suffer from major performance problems. Since each core on an AMD cpu is less powerful (but there are more total cores than Intel CPU's) it cannot decompress textures as quickly. This is because each level is filled with a single MegaTexture. A single texture decompress operation can only be handled by a single thread of a single CPU, meaning all those additional cores are useless. Without the aid of a GPU performance is going to plummet. Of course even a high powered i7 can't decompress IdTech5 textures at 60 fps.

The point of explaining all this is twofold. The first point is that by solely utilizing AMD components Microsoft and Sony have forced themselves to write their own drivers to solve these problems, or leave it up to individual developers to write software level solutions which simply won't be as fast or efficient. And secondly, it brings up the important point that the Xbox One doesn't even have any dedicated compute cores on its GPU. In combination with the low bandwidth of its RAM that is going to make it incredibly difficult for developers to match the resolution and texture quality of the PS4. Despite that advantage, though, the PS4 still will suffer major CPU bottlenecks. Simply put, the GDDR5 RAM in the PS4 has ridiculous bandwidth which in theory could allow for extremely high resolution textures, geometry, and alpha to be displayed. But even utilizing the Compute Cores on the GPU it will be all but impossible to fill all of those textures at 60 fps.

I have a theory that the current solution to this problem is to have really long load times that decompress far more textures than you might initially need to start the level, but which will reduce the CPU load throughout the rest of the level. It's in fact the exact opposite solution to the one used last generation where developers would load in the bare minimum number of textures and then stream in additional ones as they were needed (hence the texture pop in seen in a lot of last gen games). Because the previous systems were limited by their RAM more than anything else, and because developers very often had excess CPU resources within each frame this solution made a lot of sense. It's the same solution currently used by most smartphone and tablet games. But this solution is just not going to work with current consoles and I think it is why Ubisoft is having so much trouble with its open world games. Note this is only a theory and I don't have any insider knowledge, but this theory does explain a lot of the performance problems of current gen games. Because they are trying to also render all these AI simulations, Ubisoft games are unable to decompress their textures quickly enough. That is leading to both minor stuttering and major framerate drops. To compare, look at Infamous: Second Son. There are far fewer AI's onscreen at any given time. That allowed Sucker Punch to decompress textures far enough in advance to run the game at 60 fps. They also made use of the massive bandwidth to load a ton of textures into the RAM at one time, which limits the number of new textures that need to stream in. But Ubisoft has a ton of RAM wrapped up in displaying dozens (or in Assassin's Creed's case hundreds) of AI onscreen, and also have to account for the limited bandwidth of the RAM on the Xbox one. I have a strong feeling that Ubisoft didn't expect the consoles to have such ridiculously limited CPU's. And I have a feeling that is why they are having so much difficulty hitting even 30 fps on their games. They made engines utilizing the traditional strengths of consoles while accounting for their traditional weaknesses, but the new consoles turned things on their head. They have copious amounts of RAM and decent GPU's but their CPU's are not much more powerful than those found on smartphones.

Surprisingly, even The Master Chief Collection seems to bump into this limitation. While 343 claims that all of the games run at 60 FPS, this is only partially true, especially for Halo 4. When entering a new area the framerate drops pretty close to the original's 30 fps. After 10-30 seconds the framerate will return to 60 fps. Basically what we seem to be seeing is a CPU that is only giving developers 3-4x the performance of 360 one, with a GPU giving them up to 10x the performance. So while they can obviously render each scene at 1080p/60 they are having major trouble loading all of the assets to render in the first place. This also might be what has lead them to insert loading screens into Halo 2 where on the original Xbox there were no load screens after the initial load. Another (confirmed) example of this is Titanfall. The game loads more quickly on the Xbox 360 because only the bare minimum number of textures are being loaded while the rest are streamed in. This leads to texture pop in and framerate wobble when the streaming occurs. On the Xbox One every single asset is loaded into RAM before the level starts. This resolves all of the performance issues related to texture streaming but increases the load times. You can see a similar disparity in Destiny (although the reason for this is unconfirmed), which has quick load times on previous gen consoles combined with heavy streaming and LOD issues, and long load times on current gen consoles but far fewer streaming or LOD issues. It's a fascinating shift, and I hope Sony and Microsoft build in an Nvidia style caching system on the hard drive that helps alleviate the problem.

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Why Making DLC Pre-Release Isn't Bad

So over the course of the past several years I've seen a lot of myths about game development start to go away. This is due to the increase in crowd funding and crowd sourcing through the likes of Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight. For example, crazy beliefs about the costs of making a game have been replaced by more informed opinions as people try to understand the business side of things before they put money into a Kickstarter project. Meanwhile the practice of releasing games to the public very early in development has given players a better understanding of how a game evolves over the course of development. All of this is great. Gamers blame developers less for delays, and they can at least understand the reasoning behind why a publisher might either cancel a game or force it to release before it is ready when a developer goes over-budget.

One thing that continues to mystify gamers, though, is the practice of starting the process of making DLC before the core game is finished. There are generally two arguments behind why this practice is bad. First, gamers feel that developers should finish the main game before transferring resources over to DLC, and secondly they think that any DLC announced before a game is released should be ready at the same time as the core game and thus be included with it. Now I want to completely debunk the former theory and at least show why the latter may be wrong in specific cases.

I think the core of this issue comes from a misunderstanding of the development process. Gamers tend to think of a studio as a single entity. But a studio is just a company staffed by game makers of various sorts. Now here is the thing. Different developers have different jobs that need to be done at different points in development. A concept artist, for example, will do much of his or her work in pre-production and early production. Most of the concept art duties are done by the halfway point of development. For most major current gen games that means there is a year or more of development left before the game is done. For a game releasing in November, by E3 of that year (June), production should have largely wrapped up. Games need to be done by September to press the game to disc and ship it around the world. So there are only about three months between E3 and the day the disc needs to go to press. At that point about 70% of the staff has completed either the entirety or the vast majority of their work. Systems designers are likely still balancing things, programmers are squashing bugs and optimizing the code, and artists and level designers will need to fix any issues found during testing, but in the case of those last two fields there is a lot of down time as developers wait to see if there are any problems that need fixing. These two fields also happen to be the two fields required to make most DLC.

During these final couple months level designers and artists need things to do. Remember these people are still getting paid full time, and to keep them on as development winds down they need to be worthwhile. So if you think of game development as a bit like an assembly line, first concept artists are finished with their work. They can then start on drawing up DLC based on a plan set forth by the creative leads at the beginning of development. Then, as more and more art is finished for the core game, modelers and environment artists and so on can then make these new assets. Mind you at this point when they are beginning this process of making assets the core game is likely only three or four months away from being in the hands of gamers. Meanwhile level designers can start making maps or single player levels while the levels from the core game are tested and fine tuned. And systems programmers can begin programming any new systems, again, in between fixing existing problems. And once the game goes off to manufacturing there is still a couple months before the game actually comes out. At this point some developers can work on any patches that need doing, while the others can then work on any design needed for the DLC.

So as you can see, the actual development of the core game isn't hindered in any way by the creation of DLC. The way development works certain developers can be working on the DLC without impacting the development of the core game.

Now for the second, and I think more contentious issue, which is the release of DLC. Now I want to start by saying that if DLC is ready day one then it should be a free download for those who purchase the game. That is just consumer friendly business practices. Understand, though, that just because DLC is ready day one does not mean that it was ready in time for the disc to be pressed and shipped. Remember that is at least a two month long process while uploading some DLC on the Internet is a two hour process. Of course if the DLC is on the disc then that isn't true, but any DLC you have to actually download on day one almost certainly wasn't ready when the disc went to press. So that is why you might in certain cases be required to download content. Again, that content should be included for free with your purchase, but don't make the common mistake of saying that if it was ready to download day one then it should be on the disc, because that is definitely not always the case.

Now for DLC that isn't ready day one, well that obviously can't be included in the game. Now you could say that the game should then be delayed until that DLC is ready, but as I said several paragraphs back, at any point in time a developer needs a project in production and one in pre-production if they want to continue to employ all of their staff. DLC lets them do that before the release of a game when a sequel may not have been greenlit yet. To those who think that three or four months shouldn't be enough to make an entire DLC, you are right. That is why those artists and level designers start on the DLC several months before the core game is finished, and many others start work before the core game is released. Six to eight months is enough time to make most DLC, outside of maybe some very expansive single player content. And, again, as a developer finishes work on one piece of DLC he or she can move on to the next, or be transferred to the next full game the studio is working on. Not everyone is working on the same project at the same time.

So the overall point is that if DLC is not ready day one but is ready a month or two after day one that isn't some sort of conspiracy to steal your money. It is the nature of the development process. Now of course this isn't always the case. There is DLC on the disc that is ready day one and the publisher will still charge money for it. And there are publishers that have different studios work on DLC than those that work on the core game (Activision is famous for doing this with Call of Duty for example), but be aware that in most cases DLC is released as soon as possible.

Hopefully this helps shed some light on the process of making DLC. Enjoy!

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