Monthly Archives: February 2011

Lara Croft Tomb Raider – Angel of Darkness

Lara Croft first bounced her way onto games consoles in 1996 in her first game, Tomb Raider. Since then she’s starred in nine games, with a new title, Tomb Raider, due out at the end of this year. Good to see there’s been progression over the years. She’s getting a new look for the latest outing, less… top-heavy (click here to read how that came about), but in the game I’m reviewing here she’s still sporting a gravity-defying bust and rather blocky features.

Released in 2003 for Playstation 2 and Windows, the action follows Lara on a frankly mental journey from the streets and sewers of Paris where she starts, to find out who murdered her mentor Werner Von Croy, into an archaeological dig beneath the Louvre to fetch one of five Obscura paintings, then back up to the surface where it is promptly stolen from her. Then it’s over to Prague where the fifth and final painting can be found beneath the city, but there’s another after these paintings, a killer nicknamed ‘The Monstrum’, who wants all five to revive the remains of a Cubiciulum Nephili, an ‘Angel of Darkness’, thought to be an angel / human hybrid from ancient Turkey.

You then have to sneak into the evil guy’s fortress which has genetically modified things trying to get you, as well as cells with people in wearing straight jackets who also run around after you flapping their straps. Clearly some odd experiments have been taking place and a monsterous ‘Proto-Nephilium’ is also on the loose. Another hunter turns up called Kurtis, and he and Lara join forces to have a final showdown with the Monstrum.

And that was a heavily abbreviated version. There are all sorts of Periapt Shards, demon swordsmen, mutated humans, vaults, halls of seasons and spinning sharp things that will take your legs off across 31 levels of play. It’s pretty big, and quite a slog I found once you’re in the fortress of mutants at the end.

It’s more or less a game of three bits. The first third is in Paris, which I was largely indifferent to as a landscape as it was dark and grimey, and pretty boring and repetitious once you’re in the sewers and you have to swim around turning wheels to open and close doors. The middle third is in the archaeological dig beneath the Louvre and this was the best bit of the game I found, far more interesting surroundings and monsters to kill, and the final third is in the fortress where you have to work your way through the experiment facilities and the casualties of this research to get to the main guy. I actually gave up around where you take over for a short while as Kurtis, which now reading up on the plot seems a bit daft as I was relatively near the end, but I lost interest and frankly gave up caring about what was going on.

I was playing the PC version, which came free with my new laptop, which may or may not tell you something about its popularity seen as they had to give it away. I think it worked well to a certain point as a game, there were glitches, such as when you’re walking up a ladder and end up somehow inside of Lara staring up through the inside of her head, but when I was given a playstation and the first three games to play the differences between them over a range of six years is impressive. I find the first games impossible to play, just trying to get her round a corner can be a challenge in itself, whereas the gameplay with this one at least didn’t make me want to run her off a cliff just to hear her scream to her death.

I think the plot was too complicated myself, for a full description read its entry on Wikipedia, and a lot of it just felt like they were making you go back and forth, like in the sewers, for the sake of it. Turning wheels in pipes is boring, why are you making me do this? So, should you buy it? I’d say no myself as I expect there are far better Lara Croft games out there and the new one is coming up soon, and there are loads of better games in general even if she is a classic.

Critical Acclaim

Gamespot UK gave it 6.5, saying that it has an engaging storyline and impressive locations, but problems with moves means that Lara ‘controls like a cement truck’.  IGN gave it 5.3, saying that it was ‘better looking and more diverse’ than previous Tomb Raider titles, but that ‘game fails in nearly all of the gameplay areas’.

So, average all round.

Fable

This is another of Lionhead Studios’ games, an RPG released for the Xbox in 2004. You play an orphaned boy who sees his village burned and family killed before being taken in by the Heroes Guild. The story follows your quest once you are a grown man, as you find out why your village was attacked and what destiny has in store for you.

A major point of this game is the influence of good and evil actions, which affects your appearance and the reactions of NPCs. This can eventually affect you to such a degree that if you are strongly positively-aligned you have a halo glowing around your head, whilst if you’re strongly evilly-aligned, you grow horns and attract flies.

In my experience of the game I just went ahead and did the quests and didn’t bother at all with trying to woo people to marry me, or customise my appearance with sideburns or bright clothing. I did look noticeably older by the end, which it an interesting idea, if a bit disconcerting if you’re controlling a warrior with white hair who looks like he should be sat in a comfy armchair with the paper and a cup of Horlicks, but the rest of it I found largely irrelevant. If you’re going to spend your time wooing people instead of tearing monsters apart with the biggest sword you can find, I don’t know why you’re playing this game. If it had been a necessary part of the game, as in Oblivion where you have to charm people in order to get necessary information, it would have worked better.

However, I still think this was still an engrossing and fun RPG to play. I found the skeletons hauling themselves out of the ground at one point when you’re in a graveyard a genuinely tense moment, and it’s brilliant when a game draws you in so much that you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for the next rotting corpse to erupt upwards. As you go out slaying monsters there is an interesting opportunity available to you, where you can boast of your fighting abilities and bet on your outcome of a fight, earning you money.

Once you’ve completed the game, if you watch the credits to the end, you can go back into the world, but as there doesn’t seem to be anything to do this is merely an academic point.

Critical acclaim

Fable was well-received by critics, with Gamespot giving it 8.6 and IGN giving it 9.3. Criticisms seem to focus on there not being some promised content included, such as having children, and the story being adequate but not spectacular. I agree, it’s a perfectly good game, with good visuals and enough differences between different areas of the world to keep me interested, but it seems like some ideas, like your character changing depending upon your decisions, are being played with but don’t pack a hard enough punch. Worth a punt.

Black & White

Black and White is a 2001 PC game from Lionhead Studios, who also produce the Fable games, where you get to be a god of a world. Whether that happens to be a kind, benevolent god who treats their town’s subjects with love, or a vicious, avenging god is completely up to you.

There’s a whole plot involving a range of gods, one of which wants to destroy all of the others, and part of this plot involves a creature that you eventually get to control. I played this game a good few years ago now and barely remember any of this plot so clearly it didn’t make that much of an impression. For me the action, and the joy of the game, resided in the control you have over the life and death of those who worship you.

Throughout each level you have to take control over other villages on the island the play is based on, using your village as a base. You build up your village with the natural resources around and encourage your populace to build and multiply, while having people worship you gives you power to cast miracles, or eventually earthquakes, lightning and fireballs. There are various goals for you to achieve during each level. You control all actions through your mouse, with the aid of an on-screen hand, and your creature you control to undertake various actions.

Divide and conquer

The game is based on the concepts of good and evil. You can win over other villages through aiding them, and having your creature entertain them, and different tactics are needed with different villages. Or, you could send an army, and your creature, to crush them. I’m a crusher, and basically rampaged around throwing fireballs until my island was a charred, rubble-strewn landscape. But it was effective and far more fun than donating wood to people. However, you can do what you like and can stray between good and evil throughout to get what you want. The more good you are, the happier your people will be, and the shinier your hand. You will also have white marble temples and the town glowing with goodness. The more evil you are, the more twisted your hand, and when you zoom in to your town, the anguished screams of your people fill the air. It’s great to be this popular. I usually sacrificed a few now and again to show them who was boss, which also boosts your power in the same way as worshipers praying at your temples.

Using the hand you train your creature, which you choose the look of, whether that may be a wolf, gorilla or cow, to do what you want it to do, so if it starts eating your people you can slap it until it stops, and it gradually learns what you want. If it picks up a tree and takes it back to town, you can stroke it to reinforce good behaviour. Again its appearance reflects your game play, with a wolf sporting glowing eyes and massive fangs if you spend your time getting it to terrorise other villages. You yourself can pick up trees, rocks and people and move them to certain places, or toss them around like matchsticks if that strikes your fancy. The larger your population, the wider its circle of influence which impact on what resources become available for them to use. Win over or conquer another village and they’ll fall under your control as well. Other villages may send out an army so you have to keep an eye out for attacks.

And that’s basically it. I really enjoyed it, having complete power over people was very satisfying, and you have different goals to achieve on each different level. I don’t think it was a game I’d replay, but with an expansion pack and Black & White II there’s plenty of new but similar action to be had.

Critical acclaim

It won a whole range of awards, with it being lauded ‘best game of 2001’ several times. IGN thought it was the next best thing to sliced bread and awarded it a 9.7, calling it a PC gaming classic. Gamespot gave it 9.3 and the accolade that it ‘looks and sounds stunning’. It might well have been the best game of 2001, and it certainly gives you a different gaming experience from the RPGs I tend to play, but I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it a classic. I get far more out of games such as Oblivion, or Zelda: Twilight Princess, because they’re far larger games with more engrossing stories. Black & White in comparison can get repetitious because you’re basically doing the same things on each new island you’re controlling, and the constant management of your creature can get wearing. GameSpy apparently agrees, and Black & White tops its 25 most overrated games of all time

So, too much hype building up expectations to an unattainable level? You’re going to have to decide for yourself.  I would recommend it as it’s going to give you a different gaming experience, and it’s so cheap now that it’s worth a go.

Darkstone

Darkstone was released in 1999 by Delphine Software International, a now defunct company, and can be played either on a PC or Playstation. There are differences between the two versions, more about which can be found on Wikipedia, but as I’ve only played the PC version, this is what I’m basing this review on.

An RPG, the action is set in the world of Uma, across the four lands of Ardyl, Marghor, Omar and Serkesh. In the game’s intro you find out that in ages past a monk called Draak gained the ability to turn himself into a dragon and set out to destroy the world, but he was beaten. Unfortunately now he’s back, and the Darkstone, which is a black monolith that appears in town at a point during the game, plunges the world into darkness. Your task is to solve the puzzles and raid the dungeons across the four lands of Uma to retrieve the seven crystals of wisdom, virtue, bravery, nobility, compassion, integrity and strength in order to form the Time Orb. With this, you enter Draak’s lair and enter the final showdown.

I absolutely love it.

This was the first computer game I ever played, and it took me years but I completed it in the end. And one of the best things about it is, there are four levels of difficulty so once your character(s) is/are strong enough, you can play with them at the next level up, which has different monsters and a whole new range of weapons, clothing and armour. Also, you can get different quests, a random selection from 22, if you start different games. It’s the game that keeps on giving.

You can play as one or two of eight different characters; a warrior, amazon, wizard, sorceress, assassin, monk, thief or priestess. They start off with different strengths, but you can alter strength, magic, dexterity and vitality to meld your character throughout the gameplay as you level up. And then off you go.

In the town where you start off there is a training area where you can learn how to shoot arrows or fireballs from a staff but I got stuck in there, not realising that you have to put the staff back down, and died of hunger, so it’s probably best to skip that part. The townsfolk will sometimes give you quests, such as killing the vampire Nosferatu or bringing back a relic. If you’re a thief you can also go around swiping stuff from them, and even the chicken if you fancy an egg. The blacksmith will buy and repair your armour once you’ve been out hacking and slashing, there’s a banker to keep your hard-earned gold safe, and a mage where you can buy spells, mana, and healing potions, as well as all sorts of scrolls and mystical nick-nacks. If you happen to pick up an item with a curse on it and all of your stuff keeps falling out of your bag onto the floor, you can get that removed, or you could toss a coin to Audren and hear her sing a song about the Darkstone.

And the adventure begins

Once you’ve got some rudimentary armour, and maybe a wooden club to clutch, off you go to bash your very first goblin. Savour this moment, because you’re going to see a lot of these snaggle-toothed little buggers around. Goblins and skeletons are the default monsters of the first land. You’ll get increasingly nasty and harder to kill ones the further along the four lands you get, and you’ll get hammered if you tried to move into the next land immediately, so you’ll have to have a wander round and see who’s doing what.

There are two dungeons on each land, each with four levels in, and there’s some sort of theme, which often relates to an area above-ground. For example, a village has been burned by Draak and a baby stolen. You find the mother next to the smoking ruins and you have to go and fetch the baby from the bottom of the dungeon where it’s being held as part of a ritual sacrifice.

Now, I admit that the graphics in this age of wiis and xbox 360s does look dated, and the incessant darkness of running around dungeons, and especially once the lands become dark as well due to the appearance of the monolith in town, does get wearing. However, I still think there’s a lot of joy to be had. Even if you’re not a mage, you can still get good at magic and use all sorts of spells to make you faster, launch bombs, shoot magic missiles etc., and the crunching sounds when you’re smacking the hell out of a skeleton with your double-headed axe is extremely satisfying. This is a meat and two veg sort of RPG in that it’s exactly what an RPG should be: you pretending to be a thief, wielding a bow that shoots fireballs, heading off down a dungeon infested with vampires in order to collect a crystal so you can defeat a dragon. It’s brilliant.

Also, a main selling point is the ability to play two characters that you switch between. This means more swag room to carry your stuff, and hence fewer trips back and forth to town to flog it, and you can build up two characters at the same time and make them different enough for you to cover all bases in combat.

Critical acclaim

Gamespot gave Darkstone an 8.6 when it came out, saying that ‘Darkstone essentially takes Diablo a few steps further’.  IGN gave it a 9, calling it ‘an incredibly fun and addictive game’.  So why is it so obscure? I’ve told loads of people about this game, and not one of them have heard of it, despite it being available for the Playstation as well as the PC.

Diablo, and Darkstone’s similarity to it, may be the answer. Blizzard, who produced Diablo, is also a heavy hitter in the games market with its Warcraft series, and Diablo has one sequal out, with Diablo III currently being developed, so it’s had a constant presence since the original game came out in 1996. Delphine, however, didn’t make any Darkstone sequals, and has since perished.

So, despite of, and because of, its obscurity, I think you should buy this game. It may be overshadowed by Diablo and subsequent RPGs such as the Elder Scrolls series, but it will always hold a special place in my heart.

The Drowned World – JG Ballard

Published in 1962, The Drowned World is JG Ballard’s second novel, which is set in a world reverting to its prehistoric nature. Post-apocalyptic in style, this relatively short story follows Dr Robert Kerans, a biologist who is part of a team researching the ongoing changes in a flooded London. Solar radiation flares changed the Earth’s atmosphere, melting ice caps and creating a world which is mostly uninhabitable. Vast swampy lagoons now form the landscape, with most of London far beneath the surface of the water and just the topmost floors of some buildings visible.

Kerans lives in the Ritz, in a specially climate-controlled pod, whilst the once highly glamorous furnishings of this famous hotel rot and decay in the heat and humidity, useless to everyone. He is supposed to be monitoring the flora and fauna of the environment, but his urgency is fading as he becomes more and more inward-looking. The scientific team are called back north to where most of the remaining population are now living but he, a reclusive woman called Beatrice Dahl who spends her time frozen in her once upper-class existence, reading old copies of ?, and fellow scientist Dr Bodkin, refuse to leave and they settle in the lagoon as it regresses into a neo-Triassic period.

It’s a very dreamlike experience, and it seems to go against what you imagine to be their innate survival instincts. The food they have will run out eventually, as will the fuel powering the generators which are keeping their climate-controlled rooms conditioned. Yet they are becoming increasingly affected by the landscape, with strange dreams plaguing their sleep. This suspended existence continues for a while before it is shattered by the arrival of Strangman, a pirate leading a band of bounty-hunters looking for the lost treasures of the civilised world. It’s a very powerful interruption, where the characters were slowly losing themselves in the landscape, their ‘evolved’ natures draining away as crocodiles and giant iguanas slowly cruise their way between the waterways, Strangman is a completely alien presence. Despite the strength of the sun he is startlingly white, a colonial-type figure who wants to dominate not only the three people who are left, but also the landscape itself, dredging the flooded cities to find old masterpieces of sculpture, …. resolutely surrounding himself with these treasures and eventually draining the lagoon to find what’s left in the once majestic buildings of London.

Kerans and Strangman eventually clash, as Kerans and Bodkin are horrified by this wanton destruction and plundering of their world, but who will prevail, nature or humanity?

As a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction this is a really interesting idea, usually it’s a virus of some sort that wipes people out like in Frank Herbert’s The White Plague, or a nuclear-type disaster such as Walter M Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I found it a shame that it isn’t discussed how people are living now most of the world is uninhabitable, and the apocalypse itself is seemingly fading into the past, so it’s a very narrowly-focused book. However, this does suit the increasing self-imposed isolation of Kerans, Dahl and Bodkin who all seem indifferent to their future, or the future of the human race. Have they resigned themselves to the end or merely adapting to their landscape?