Saturday, 24 July 2010

Thief: Still Superlative Gaming in 2010

After hours of plunder, toil, sneaking, stealing, barely-avoiding guards, spiders and undead haunts; after laying a ghost to rest, and destroying dark artifacts to purge the world of an evil; after treacherous climbs and a brief skirmish (arr!) with some cursed pirate spirits, I am faced with...


I'm unnerved, and excited, to find out what lies within this delightfully forbidding, and inevitably haunted abode. And this is why I continue to play Thief!

Still sorely missed, Looking Glass Studios, I salute you. (As well as Eternauta, the talented and inspired creator of fan-campaign When Still, from which the image above was taken.)

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

July's Observations (part 3)

It's difficult to take any computer or video game seriously nowadays, looking across the shelves of console games (any of the three major consoles!), and it's a tragic mass of manufactured shooting or sports games.

This situation is more than a little depressing in its own right, but it is made even worse having played two of the best PC games that exist: System Shock and System Shock 2. I don't really have the vocabulary to elucidate far as to how these games excite me. But simply, their brand of first-person adventuring imparts a sense of seclusion, claustrophobia, of bettering one's-self in order to progress. The whole "hacker trapped on a space station" plot is mere icing on the cake, the fact that both games have semi-persistent multi-level worlds is what makes them utterly fascinating.

Both games start you off having awoken from cryogenic sleep, with warning bells chiming in your ears as you realise you're in a place where things have gone very wrong indeed. I shan't talk about the sequel too much for now, but the first game's angular level design and near-gaudy, bright sci-fi textures give the Citadel Station a much-missed "light" tone despite the direness of your situation. If the game was released today, it'd be all dark corridors and a dumbed-down interface. But no, bright blue panelling assaults your eyes, and tiny things lay around on the floor for you to pick up - okay so the pixellation does look a touch rough nowadays - such as "power pills", weapons and PDAs. For 1994, the CD version's audio logs were a thing of wonder. And this being Looking Glass, they were well acted and written, imparting a consistent sense of desperation in the crew members as they fight the menace that is blighting it. Of course, nowadays, Aliens Vs. Predator 2010 (and others) employ them to pad out gameplay with pointless observations and soap opera acting.

You feel vulnerable at first, weak attack strength, tiny laser pistols and crowbars being the only weapons to hand. Trips to the healing pods will be regular as you engage enraged, marauding robots, gulping down adrenaline pills searching for that elusive unlock switch, passkey, or access to the next level. The slow progression through the 9 levels, knowing that - as you ascend higher - enemies will become more deadly and the challenge will continue to raise, is a simple game mechanic which has been lost to the "joys" of open-world, multi-mission games.

You can download SS1 from here, and I would recommend using the mouse-look mod with it.

There are a few fan-sites, but interest in the games seems to be waning gradually, unlike Thief's continued worship. To be fair, Thief is also a stellar game - and possibly still the finest stealth adventuring you can experience, especially if you try some fan missions such as Rocksbourg or T2X - but System Shock is simply better. With the addition of the mouse-look mod making "WSAD+mouse" play possible, and higher screen resolutions, System Shock is brought forward to the Duke Nukem 3D era at least. But that's enough. I feel that its esoteric sprite graphics, and over-bright atmosphere makes it feel far, far more unsettling, exotic and enjoyable than any selected modern sci-fi or horror game. Malba Tahan's mod merely makes it more accessible and easier to get started, which is a positive thing.

There is one negative, however. Between playing SS1 all the way through for the first time at the start of this year, and Mass Effect 2, gaming has been almost entirely ruined for me. Music has become more important, but experiencing a game like SS1 was life-changing. Yes, life-changing. Please, go and play it, but I warn you - it may ruin gaming for you if you warm to its standards. Because Looking Glass and Irrational were on top form throughout the 90s, and in System Shock 1, 2 and both Thief games, it showed.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

July's Observations... (part 2)

Hmm, I've come to the conclusion that PC gaming - whilst certainly not dead - isn't in the healthiest creative state right now. Currently the only "commercial" game in production that looks even vaguely interesting is the weapon-less first-person horror adventure by Penumbra bods Frictional, entitled Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

I'm convinced that Frictional are Thief fans. Good start. Shame that Thief 4 will likely be a streamlined, console-friendly shadow (ho ho) of its illustrious predecessors, and that no-one is making System Shock 3... or any other dungeon crawlers for PC, for that matter.

Oh yeah, oops, back to music...

July's Observations...

Speed of Doom is an excellent collection of Doom levels, though it doesn't quite balance for UV -fast.

Currently listening to a bunch of samples from Juno, here's some brief thoughts:

Chloe - One In Other: Very dull minimal techno with hints of dub and generic vocal ahhs, croons.
Micky Milan - C'est Un Bombe: Decent 80s disco funk!
Mossa - Festine: Shuffled, funky minimal techno with a house vibe and lots of glitchery. I'm falling asleep after a few seconds... "I Am You" has a nice throbbing-synth-drone and soft hats, making for a dreamy piece. Rest of the album is the usual hut-SSS-hut-SSS nonsense though.
Patrick Pulsinger - Impassive Skies: Fairly minimal, melodic tech-house with sax, vocals, e-piano (!), later merging into more electro (A To Z) and downbeat (Cache Wash). Still falling asleep, although that might be the vaguely interesting final track which is a beatless ambient piece with soft piano set to some glitching effects.
Kagami - Better Arts: Japanese to the rescue! Mondo-techno madness, fast BPMs, disco licks, big snares, cheeky synths... and two people chatting over some of the tracks? Keeping me awake at least!
Deepchord presents Echospace - Liumin: It should be likeable, distant washy pads and synths, soft drums... you know, DUB TECHNO! Christ, aren't we done with this sound yet? Rod's a decent guy but I do wish he'd resist ploughing the same furrow, and introduce some new sounds. Sub-Marine is a fairly generic minimal-bloop-techno fest at least, rather than the usual reverb-bashing. Firefly even has a trace of melody - and is probably the best tune here - but the whole second disc is a bunch of field recordings. A certain sect of people will enjoy the living cajones off this stuff, but it aint Phylyps, let alone Enforcement! Though - thankfully - it's also not Intrusion.
OST & KJEX - Cajun Lunch: Funky nu-disco / minimal house with pretty decent vocals.
Cari Lekebusch - State Of The Art: Okay THIS is an event. One that I would normally rush out of my chair for, but it's minimal. Yeah I'd known Cari had gone minimal a couple of years back after being massively disappointed with a few EPs he'd put out. But why choose NOW, 7 years after his last LP, to put out another album? There's nothing unique about any of the tracks, they barely even sound like Cari's stamp is on them (outside of the shuffled hats, they're a Lekebusch TM). No "Urthur" punch, no "Tyrant" buildups. The ONLY reprieve is the mighty Krister Linder providing some vox on "Rising Star", and "Art of Technology" is a reasonably reasonable piece of electro. I guess. Considering this is from the guy that gave us the relentless "Det Jag Vet" 11 years ago (!), this is DEPRESSING.
Wehbba - Full Circle: More minimalistic than his previous peak hour productions, but at least it's funky and melodic. Not bad!

... and a slightly older release: Literon - Mutant: The A-side is a totally generic, dull piece of monotonous minimal with little to redeem it. The B-side, "Roll-Off" is - on the other hand - bloody fantastic. It's minimal, sure, but it doesn't rely at all on the usual blips, bloops, side-chained noise washes etc. Huge, sloppy AND crunchy snare/claps with a slightly shuffled rhythm give this that essential head-noddiness, and a slightly noisy gated bassy "pad" synth part plays a simple but melodic part underneath, as some clangy peak-time bells gradually build and build. Great tune, tremendously hypnotic, minimal done right!