Interstellar: A Rant

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While I was on holiday I decided to watch Interstellar. This was a terrible, terrible mistake, but at least you’re getting what is hopefully a reasonably entertaining blog post out of it. Needless to say, though, this post is going to spoil the hell out of the film, so don’t read if you haven’t seen it yet.

Interstellar is the worst science fiction film I’ve seen since Prometheus .

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Bullfrog Time Machine: Syndicate

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On holiday this week, so here’s the second of my recent excursions into Bullfrog’s glory days.

My love for Syndicate is something that I find difficult to express in words. It’s a game expressly calculated to appeal to both the 10 year-old version of me and the current gnarled oak of a man I have become. It’s all about trenchcoat-clad cyborgs fighting gang wars with weaponry ranging from Uzis to rocket launchers, all in the middle of a living city where innocent bystanders are routinely incinerated in the crossfire from your obscenely powerful guns — and if that idea doesn’t at least catch a glimmer of your interest then I don’t know what to tell you. Probably you’re not going to be very interested in Syndicate. Probably you’ve also had the joy surgically removed from every other aspect of your life, but I try not to judge.

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Thoughts: Sunless Sea

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It’s important to properly set your expectations before entering Sunless Sea . What it looks like, at first glance, is a game in the vein of Pirates! or Elite — a freeform game set in an open world where you can explore, trade and fight according entirely according to your own whims, clawing your way up from having nothing to owning everything. Sunless Sea has one or two elements in common with this sort of game — especially Pirates! — but it is most definitely not them.

Then there’s the roguelikes, specifically FTL , where you have a concrete goal and meander down an unforgiving, randomly-generated path towards it; where the game is geared towards variety and replayability and the player is intended to experience several dozen unsuccessful attempts before they finally accrue enough experience to crack it open and win. Here the resemblance is stronger, but a direct comparison would still be misleading. Sunless Sea isn’t all that much like FTL either.

In fact if you asked me to find the closest touchstone for the sort of game Sunless Sea is , then I would have to dig very deep into my trove of gaming knowledge as it’s been quite a long time since I played anything like it.  Once I came back up, though, I would be holding just one solitary game in my hands, with the following words stencilled across its metaphorical cover:

King of Dragon Pass.”

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Bullfrog Time Machine: Populous

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One of my New Year’s resolutions was to make at least one post on the blog every week. I knew that there’d be weeks like this week when work hit me like a truck, which is why I spent a large part of the Christmas break writing some shorter pieces chronicling my experiences with Bullfrog’s games so that I’d have something to fill the gap. Some of them I’d never played, and most of the rest I’d not played in fifteen years, and since I was stuck with a low-tech laptop for a week I just bought the lot off GoG and played through as many of them as I could, in chronological order. First up is Populous.

I think it would be fair to say that Populous is not a game that has aged terribly well. It had its 25th birthday last year; as Bullfrog’s first release all the way back in 1989 it would be pretty surprising if Populous wasn’t showing those years somehow. Even so, as somebody very used to archaic control systems (I once spent a summer playing through the pre-Civilization Microprose titles) I was a little taken aback at how basic Populous seems given the benefit of modern hindsight, and how painful it is to try and play now. Running at a whopping resolution of 320×200 didn’t give it too many pixels to play with, but even so Populous is downright wasteful in the way it uses its screen real estate, with two-thirds of it taken up by the UI buttons and the minimap. All the action takes place in a small box crammed into the centre of the screen which is commensurately awkward to deal with, and I use the word “action” with a certain degree of irony here because there isn’t much you can actually do in Populous.

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Thoughts: Dungeon of the Endless

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Chances are that if you load up a review of Dungeon of the Endless — any review, doesn’t really matter which one — you will see, at some point, the words “tower defence” and “roguelike” in very close proximity to one another 1 . This is partially a reflection of DotE ’s refusal to be pigeonholed; while it does indeed smoosh together some elements from both genres (you build towers to hold off waves of advancing baddies, but you also have a party of four characters who you outfit in looted equipment and level up as the dungeon progresses) into a single game, it also has some very interesting mechanics that have nothing to do with it being either a tower defence or a roguelike, and which can only be found in DotE . That it’s picked up those labels in spite of its unique qualities indicates that it’s been pigeonholed nevertheless, however, and I think that to describe it as a “roguelike tower defence” could end up misleading people. I certainly bounced off the surface the first time I played it because it wasn’t what I’d been led to expect – playing it like a roguelike simply didn’t work, and it didn’t seem quite tower-defencey enough (you start off with a grand total of one offensive tower, which doesn’t exactly promote strategy) to engage the strategy part  of my brain. It wasn’t until I gave it a second chance after Christmas and accepted it on its own merits — rather than cramming it into a niche where it didn’t fit — that Dungeon of the Endless really clicked for me.

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  1. And yes, I’m aware that by writing this I’ve just added this review to the list.
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Thoughts: Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

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I have fond memories of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light . It was that rarest of beasts: a arcadey spinoff from a AAA series that actually worked, and moreover arguably transcended its source material with its emphasis on pleasingly brain-twisting puzzles that could be solved either solo or as part of a co-op team of two. The multiplayer puzzles worked so well, in fact, that I’d happily put Guardian of Light somewhere in my top five best co-op experiences of all time. Given that the first game was so good it’s a little surprising that it’s taken nearly five years for it to receive a sequel, but now that sequel is finally here. It’s called Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris , and..

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Thoughts – Alien Isolation

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It’s one of the more unlikely success stories of last year: Total War developers Creative Assembly, whose every previous attempt to branch out from the series that made their name has crashed and burned spectacularly1, make an Alien game that couldn’t be further away from Total War if they tried, in a genre they have no prior experience with, and with a very ambitious design brief that flouts most of the established rules of conventional first-person shooters. I think I could be forgiven for being somewhat skeptical of their ability to deliver on that brief prior to release, and yet a scant three months later Alien Isolation has ended up placing highly on nearly every single “Best Of 2014”  list I’ve seen so far 2 ; the sheer weight of critical acclaim resulted in it moving up to the top of my play list so that I could see what all the damn fuss was about.

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  1. Does anyone remember Spartan: Total Warrior ? Viking: Battle for Asgard ? Or *shudder* Stormrise ? If you don’t, rest assured you really weren’t missing anything.
  2. Even if you discount PC Gamer giving it their Game Of The Year award, since PC Gamer is pathologically incapable of giving AAA PC-centric developers a bad review.
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