Category Archives: Video Games

X3: Terran Conflict

I‘ve been a long-time fan of Egosoft’s X3 series: A while ago, I used to play ‘X3: Reunion’, but I have slowly moved to the game’s successor ‘X3: Terran Conflict’ (company info, Wikipedia info and Metacritic reviews).

Following in the tradition of ‘Reunion’, Terran Conflict (or X3:TC) is an open-ended space/combat simulator and if that’s still incomprehensible: think ‘Elite’. There’s no real goal in this game: if you prefer to float around then that’s you choice. However, TC is definitely different than ‘Reunion': first of all, it has multiple ‘story/mission lines’, which you can (of course) choose to ignore. Secondly, TC now provides ‘sector missions’, which are rated missions (from easy to very hard) which you can (again) choose to take up or ignore. These missions literally can fill up your wallet: compared to ‘Reunion’ where it may take months to get to the 10 million credits mark, in X3:TC this is only a matter of days. This of course changes the player’s progress dramatically and with serious consequences: the faster you rate up the harder the competition will get. You’ll find that with all the earned monies, you’ll actually have to buy and use corvettes and carriers to get through some of the hardest missions. Particularly the ‘Patrol’ and ‘Xenon’ missions.

There’s still a lot to explore in this X3-universe: if you’re coming from X3:Reunion, you’ll notice the slight graphical differences, the (changed) user interface (which now offers extensive support for gamers who prefer to play with mice) and several command options that (purportedly) help smoothen out first-time players. In TC, it’s now also possible to board capital ships (as opposed to trying to ‘capture’ them), plus, there’s finally support for using ‘wings’. However, the AI (for your wingmen) is still flaky at times: avoid making too large fighter/support wings.

So, ‘TC’ is the grand finale for the X3 series and (if you’re into these kind of games) a worthwhile buy: However, it can be fairly hard at times. On my game rating level, it’s a 6: the game can be frustrating and has a steep learning curve, but generally, it’s a highly rewarding and one-of-a-kind game. I can’t wait to see what Egosoft is planning next.

See below for screenshots.

04/29/2010: Egosoft bumped up the version to 2.6, which now includes Steam achievements, if that strikes your fancy.

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Dragon Age: Origins

I finished my first ‘Dragon Age’ (official site, Wikipedia) run earlier this weekend, so I thought a write-up was an excellent start of the year of 2010. You may have heard of ‘Dragon Age’, most likely because it received excellent reviews. Metacritic (currently) has it listed with an average of 91 (right here), where reviewers have lauded the game with so many good reviews that it makes you wonder. Let me quote Eurogamer UK, which is a review that will reveal my thoughts about the game:

In its desperation to infuse this setting with “maturity” – be it of the sober, political kind, or the game’s painfully clumsy gore and sex – BioWare has forgotten the key ingredient of any fantasy: the fantastical. Without it, you’re still left with a competent, often compelling, impressively detailed and immense RPG, but it’s one that casts no spell.

And that’s truly it: while extremely detailed (story-line wise), the game feels boxed. If you’ve played ‘Oblivion’ or ‘Fall Out 3′, you’ll find that ‘Dragon’s Age’ is extremely linear. Ferelden is not a place you wander or roam about, it’s a place where you move from A to Z.

It has it’s good sides though: If you like long elaborate storylines, you’ll enjoy ‘Dragon Age’. If you like elaborate interaction with your party-members (and Dog), ‘Dragon Age’ will probably satisfy you. If you love micromanaging your strategy, well, if you’re a programmer, the ‘Tactics’ screen offers a variety of commands to mop up enemies in no time. And since nobody in your party really dies, there’s no way you end this game unsuccessfully.

So, the game is highly immersive and entertaining, if you’d like. However, on my famous ‘Frustration level’, I’d give it a 7: Don’t be surprised if you need to do some parts over and again: battles can be unpredictable and repetitive at times making it less fun at some stages (the ‘brood mother’ battle for example). It’s highly re-playable though, which is a plus for this game and (obviously) that is something you don’t really see a lot in the current gaming world.

Games redux

I finally managed to find some time to play a couple of rounds of ‘Civilization 4: Beyond the Sword’ (2007) and while I’m hesitant to judge it right now, I’m not overly enthusiastic about it (previously.). Particularly considering the current hardware I’m running it on, all across the board (from the custom dialogs to the AI) it is god awful slow. I’ll see if I can revisit this in a separate item.

People who’ve followed this blog, should be familiar with the praise I heaped on X3: Reunion (old material right here): I decided to pick up the game where I left it a couple of years ago. Just recently, I decided to move up to ‘X3: Terran Conflict’ (which incidentally, is also available for the Mac): Excellent once again. Since this is the last game in the X-Universe, it’s going to be curious to see what Egosoft (company site) will come up in the near future.

Minor update: Additionally, I noticed that in Civ4:BTS for some of the technology discoveries some other person’s voice was used (definitely not Leonard Nimoy’s).

Elite 25

Via-via, I heard about the 25th anniversary of the computer game ‘Elite’ (Wikipedia), indeed as Wikipedia calls it, the seminal Space/Trading/Combat game released in September of 1984. It was first released for an Acorn BBC and over the years it was (succesfully) ported to other 8 bit systems, like, in our case, the MSX computers.

If I remember correctly, we found out about the game in a popular tech magazine, which detailed the addictiveness and open-endedness of the game. The graphics for the game were pretty much advanced too, that is, for the early Eighties: I mean, who would have thought of using vector graphics to draw 3D spaceships and celestial bodies?

Eventually, a lot later than everybody else, we got our hands on a copy of the game and found out that ‘docking’ at space stations was a nearly impossible task. We weren’t the only ones who thought it was impossibler: Twenty five years later, David Braben (co-designer of the game) admitted:

Pt2. I might want to make docking a bit easier – but we did try at the time – we had no more memory to make it any more sophisticated.

Et tu, David?

That didn’t stop us from playing the game though: in fact, we managed to reverse-engineer the savegame file format. Which meant that we were able to give ourselves a whole bunch of credits, specialty upgrades and the inevitable and necessary ‘docking’ device (of course). Not bad and I wonder if that part was the foundation for the “file-format studies” I eventually embarked on in my career as a programmer.

I personally never made it to the rank ‘Elite': I can’t even remember how long I played it but it definitely wasn’t for years. Like all other games, it eventually wore out. I don’t think we ever discovered the proper bits to set this rank in our savefiles (we assumed it was heavily encoded with checksums). That is, until recently, I hear that the magic word was 0x1900.

Arma 2

Earlier A town called alicethis month, I decided to get Arma 2 (official site), which is a tactical first person shooter produced by Czech game maker Bohemia Interactive. Originally, BI wrote Operation Flashpoint (which in turn was published by CodeMasters), but both companies have gone their own ways: CodeMasters is currently developing the ‘original’ successor to FlashPoint: if you’d say that Arma 2 is the true successor to the whole FlashPoint line, you wouldn’t be off the mark (see Wikipedia).

Anyway: if you played and finished Ghost Recon (PC) (earlier), you’ll probably like Arma 2. If you’ve played Arma 1 and Operation Flashpoint, you’ll find that Arma 2 has graphically and geographically improved (more land to uncover, I think around 200 square kms) but that most of the commands have stayed the same. This time the game puts us in combat in a fictional land called Chernarusk where (in single player mode), you fight for the US against either one or more of the 6 available factions.

Let me take a step back for a second: there’s one single player campaign (Blood Harvest) and (despite what reviews claim) most of it is scripted. Certain reviews also laud the option to ‘walk around’ freely in Chernarusk and while this is possible, at the end it still feels heavily scripted particularly knowing that the campaign is only 12 missions long. It’s particularly this single player campaign I’m mixed about: it is buggy for sure and I feel that the AI is too unbalanced, that is, for some reason when it finds you, you’re dead. I’ve only been playing Arma in ‘Regular’ mode, but I feel that the AI is hurting the game.

However, the game shines in multi-player mode: literally each vehicle and aircraft is available to drive or fly around. You can even parachute in if you feel so inclined. Complex orders in the single player game suddenly make sense in this mode too: there’s a whole range of commands you can issue to and/or receive from your fellow players. Additionally, the moment you’re on the battle field it’s all about battle tactics with the number one rule: if you can’t flank the enemy, you’re stuck in a rut with bullets flying around you.

I don’t think there’s a need to elaborate too much on Arma 2 today, though: graphically there’s nothing to complain about. On my system (a 2.0 P7350, 4 gigs of RAM, 512MB NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT) the game runs fairly smooth (in 1280 x 800 no less). You probably don’t want to run it on anything lower than that. There’s also nothing wrong with the multi-player part of the game: however, some elements of the single player portion are absolutely buggy. Sure you can make your own missions in the built-in mission editor, but if the AI is buggy the fun will be gone fairly quickly. However, I must admit that ‘The Armory’ (a subsection of the game where you can try out vehicles and planes) can be fun, and is probably the first place to try/practice flight before you start doing this in the multiplayer world.

So, cautiously, if you like tactical fps games and prefer multi-player games you’re fairly good with Arma 2. In other cases, you may want to wait for CodeMaster’s “Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising”, which seems to come with a totally open and unscripted single-player campaign.

See below for more in-game screenshots:

08/09/09: Patch 1.03 was released a couple of days ago with, reportedly, AI and performance fixes.

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Nemesis of the 3rd kind

The Windows Vista Nemesis III, First stagesounds remind me of several sound effects of a game (Konami’s Nemesis III) I used to play on an MSX-2, a whole long time ago. Compared to the other games in that series, this episode was actually one of the ‘easier’ ones, and I finished that game. Like the other Nemesis games, it had a weird storyline but with one fun surprise: In the time travel stage the player ‘travels’ backwards and has to beat various boss monsters from the previous episodes, complete with the original sound effects.

Naturally, somebody was so kind to complete the game and post the results on YouTube:

At one time I was considering replaying some of the Nemesis games, particularly Salamander. I briefly mentioned this in 2005 but my feeble attempts ran amuck because I found out that playing these games was too hard using today’s analog controllers. The widely popular (in the Eighties that is) digital controllers produce that typical ‘clicking’ sound which helps when counting ‘the number of options’ or even, the number of ‘clicks’ one had to make to get to safety during a boss monster fight.

Without a doubt: the Nemesis (or Gradius) games were the finest 8-bit games made by Konami.

FarCry 2

The only reason why I got FarCry 2 is that I find the concept of ‘”Sandbox” First Person Shooter’ games extremely compelling. I think the idea started with ‘Oblivion’ (discussed earlier, thanks Alfons), where players could wander about and around for hours and take on any quest or job that was offered on the road. STALKER (the other ‘Sandbox’ game) was another game I tried (and never discussed, for the reason that I don’t own the game anymore): While STALKER is buggy and graphically not-up-to-par, it provides plenty of space to explore. Brilliant and ugly at times.

So, Ubisoft, the maker of FarCry 2 promises 50 square kilometers of land to explorer, take on missions and what not and after playing the first 7 hours (already?), I think the software maker delivered, I admit, hesitantly. You definitely need the map (and the GPS device) to find your ways around. The most surprising thing about FarCry, is that the graphics engine is highly scalable: I’ve been able to play the game without issues on 1024 x 768 (medium graphics) on this system (A T5600/Nvidia 7600 GO). If you have a laptop system that is newer than the one I have, I wouldn’t be surprised that you’d be able to play the game on higher graphical settings than the one I currently play at.

The game content disappoints, though: I question Ubisoft’s ‘respawn checkpoints’ algorithm. If you clear a checkpoint of enemies, they will be back in full force at the same spot the moment you return: this makes the game extremely repetitive because you end up doing the same over and over. The other nitpick is that the Malaria-feature-thing is obviously a ‘game breaker': I think that without it, the game would feel more ‘open-ended’. Instead, every, what, 2 missions, you’ll end up going back to help the ‘Underground’ just to get your ‘malaria’ fix. The biggest disappointment was the lack of (left/right) leaning and other stealth tactics you needed to employ in the very first FarCry: I hear that the PC version was literally a port from the XBOX 360 version and that support for this would handicap the console-game players. I’m not sure if this is true, particularly looking at Call Of Duty 4, which is available for the popular consoles and has support for this.

However, besides these, the game is ‘immersive': at times, you have time to look around and can make snap decisions about taking a detour instead of going with the mission (nothing will stop you from doing so). You can hide (and run away) from your enemies if you don’t feel like taking them on: you can even finish missions without having it end like a ‘Texan machine gun massacre’ (this requires heavily scouting of areas of interest, which the manual recommends). The shooting mechanics are sufficient but at times obnoxious: during the early stages, it seems like it takes a whole ‘clip’ to kill your foes. Eventually, you’ll figure out that you have to buy up specific weapon upgrades to improve your targeting skill and weapon reliability.

So, yes, FarCry 2 is enjoyable if you can live with the particular nitpicks I mentioned above: It’s not a typical run-and-gun game and yes, it’s highly replayable, that is, if you didn’t burn through the ‘5 installs only’ DRM. It’s extremely stable (there are some storyline bugs) and highly scalable: even on the lowest details, the game is playable and a feast for the eye. However, I’d be the first to admit it’s not perfect at all and (obviously) it looks like Ubisoft didn’t make up on all its promises in early previews and tech demos. Hesitantly recommended: however, don’t bother spending 50 what dollars on it if you were planning to spend it on something else (like Fallout 3).

01/31/09: Looking back at Farcry 2, an interview with one of the designers of the game.

X3: The return

Last week, I X3: The Reunion screenshotnoticed that I had missed an update for ‘X3: Reunion’ (earlier on xsamplex), which should patch your X3 game up to 2.5 (if you’ve got X3 via Steam, it should come as an automatic update).

Since the last time I played the game was probably almost a year ago, I decided to try out the new patch. Three or four days later, I can (safely) report that I’m hooked to it again: It’s an excellent game, that is if you’re into space-sims a la Privateer and Elite. So yeah, here’s the next batch of tips and remarks about X3 (previous tips). If you’re not familiar with the X3 world, you may want to hold up right here.

1. I used to hate flying slow Nova’s and Falcons (M3 classes), however, in the fight against pirates and others, they are superior, particularly when you have an escort of 3 or 4 M4 fighters handy. If you need fast M4 fighters, you can buy Buster Vanguards at the ‘Heart of Light’ system: though, make sure to upgrade their shields and weaponry first (run ‘southward’ via sectors Montalaar and Lucky Planets). Additionally, keep at least 2 captured pirate Falcons. During fights, let your M4 fighters handle the fast flyers, while using your squad of Falcons to finish off the larger ships.

2. The only good transporter is the Demeter Miner: it’s faster than regular transporters and at least it can carry XL commodities like ore and silicone wafers.

3. In the beginning, trade ore, silicone wafers and energy cells in areas like ‘Kingdom’s End’ (via Power Circle and Queen’s Space), ‘Argon Prime/Home of Light’ (via Power Circle and/Or The Wall), ‘Paranid Prime’ (via Emperor Mines, Priest Rings and Empire’s Edge), ‘CEO’s Buckzoid’ (via Profit Share and Seizewell) and ‘Trinity Sanctum’ (via Lucky Planets). Notice that the AI is smart enough to detect when you start dumping raw materials in all sectors, so if you see the prices for ore and silicone wafers fall, it’s time to start trading energy cells or Teladinanium.

4. Use Pegasus M5 scouts to travel through sectors that sell special devices like “Trade Extensions #3″ (see sector ‘Industry of Finance’).

5. A high ore yield for asteroids doesn’t automatically mean profits. You find several asteroids with a yield of 61 in ‘Antigone Memorial': these asteroids eat resources. No, really: you’ll be burning money to keep those mining stations on those asteroids running.

6. You can actually capture Kha’ak interceptors and Xenon M and Ls. They make lousy fighters though.

7. Patch 2.5 added a couple of new sectors, which aren’t that interesting, unless I miss something.

Call Of Duty 4

A Pripyat sniper missioncouple of weeks ago I ended up buying ‘Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’ (Wikipedia). The game, as the title suggests, is situated in today’s world (instead of the usual WWII setting): the single player portion delivers a slightly unrealistic story about a revolution in an (unspecified) Arab country and ties that together with a storyline about a nationalist faction in Russia. You play two officers: a staff sergeant in the USMC and an SAS operative and (obviously) your job is to stop the terrorists at all cost (no, really).

Before I continue to elaborate on the single player missions: I was pleasantly surprised about the hardware requirements: I had no problems running it on my current preferred setup. The game has excellent frame rates at a 800×600 resolution: with a higher end duo-core 2 processor (5600 and higher) and a better graphics card (Nvidia 7200 and greater) you should be able to run COD4 comfortably on 1024×768 or higher, that is, including shadows and that. So: if you bought a computer just recently (lets say, a half year to a year ago) you should be able to run this game provided that it came with a 3D capable card (NVIDIA or ATI that will be). Parents, do notice that this game is rated ‘M’ (17 years+ older).

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What, Salamander?

By coincidence, I ran into videos of a guy completing the MSX game ‘Salamander’ (Salamander at Wikipedia). The video is in 4 parts and doesn’t include the very first stage: movies 1, 2, 3 and the end stage, 4. I discussed this game earlier: yesterday, last year and the year before that. Do I see a recurring pattern here?

There were a couple of things I recognized while watching those movies: I could identify most of the player’s actions. One of those actions is to spread out the ‘options’ [or clones as they were called too, so once in a while] as wide as possible so that every corner is covered by your firepower. I also recognized at what point ‘enemies’ would come from behind, a thought I find creepy and that only because it has been too many years ago.

While I’m on this MSX topic: In the early 80s, the MSX was heavily pushed by Microsoft (the company wrote the operating system [MSX-DOS at Wikipedia] and the BASIC programming language) under the slogan ‘one standard for computers’. I discovered this old video in which a very young Bill Gates explains why the MSX computers (both hardware and software) were the ‘logical next step’ in home computing.

Shoot-em-ups

Earlier this Salamander!week, we were looking for co-op type of games for the XBOX: we weren’t looking for the typical ‘splitscreen’ first person shooter, so Halo and that kind was out. Eventually we settled on ‘Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks’, which allows 2 players to work their way through all the levels. This ended up to be quite fun but at times, say uh, tedious and repetitive. I noticed that there aren’t too many co-op games out there: a good reference I found in this About.com posting, ‘Top Ten Best Co-Op Games on XBOX’.

This also reminds me of the question asked at the local EB Games: where are the typical Shoot-em-ups arcade games for the XBOX. I mean, games in the style of Salamander, Nemesis (Gradius as many other people may know this game for) and R-Type. Glancing through a short-list of games (all of them tagged as ‘shoot-em-up’) seems to suggest that nowadays a ‘shoot-em-up’ game equates to a first-person shooter game. I guess, semantically that would be correct.

Update: More on ‘Shoot’em ups’ at Wikipedia.

Ghost Recon (Gold Edition)

ActuallyWaiting for tanks to come, I wanted to play Medal of Honor, but since the (original) discs appear to be damaged, I ended up looking at a set of Ghost Recon discs. I bought this set of discs 3 or 4 years ago (for 20 dollars or so), played it and never finished it. Actually, I never played the (extra) expansions, which are called ‘Desert Siege’ (situated in Africa) and ‘Island Thunder’ (situated in Cuba). The main game focuses on a couple of incidents in Russia.

The good thing is that games that were new 3 or 4 years ago, play very well on today’s hardware3. So, Ghost Recon works good and the scenery is quite enjoyable on the highest resolution (1280 x 800): I was surprised to see that an older game like this one supporting wide-screen resolutions. There are some screens that show the wrong aspect-ratio, most notably the map and command screens, however, this doesn’t really affect gameplay though. The problem is still there even after applying the latest patch (see the Ubisoft website for ‘latest’ patches) so I guess, it was never fixed.

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Back to X3

With X3 Reunionthe intermittent (or rather lack of) Internet connectivity earlier this week, I decided to copy my savegame data back to the X3 game directory and play a couple of rounds.

Fun: it took a while to get used to the controls, but after an hour my trade routes were set-up and running again (2 Mercuries and 2 other medium freighters), safely [I hope] guarded by a fleet of small to medium fighters. I ended up going after the Nova in the 2nd Unknown Territory: apparently one of my savegames was geared to get that one. I had given up, I guess. The only way to get there unharmed is to get a fast fighter (Discoverer or the Boron M5 class ship I forget the name of) with a jump device, go in, change ships (while exchanging freight) and jump out in the Nova to Grand Exchange. The Discoverer I considered ‘scrap’, but apparently made it out unscathed too.

I’m not sure if EgoSoft (the maker of X3) is planning to create a succesor to the game: it doesn’t look like it. Their website only lists 2 extra bonus packs (including XTM, which I might try) and for the rest, the forums seem to be geared to modding only.