Conventional wisdom holds that games have become much more easier over the last 20 years or so and that they are no longer challeging. I started pondering that myself when I got my first PlayStation 2 ten years ago and soon went to play every game with difficulty settings on Hard as default. And most of the time, I didn’t find Hard to be actually that hard. But was that because Hard had become the new Normal? Or was it maybe that I just got much better over time and my experience helped me even with types of games I never played before?
Over the last years or so I have been playing a couple of really old games that I absolutely loved back at the end of the 90s but that I never got around to complete. Most of the time not even the first third of them. Playing the Thief games was a lot of fun. Then this year I’ve been playing Settlers II, which always had me become stuck at the fourth of ten maps, and Knights & Merchants, where I surpassed the furthest point that I had reached as a kid after just 4 hours. I eventually gave up on the game because it was so incredibly slow and dull. It’s charming, and I guess that’s what had me entertained for weeks with this game, but it didn’t seem to demand any real skill or planning.
Now last week, I got the racing game Redout, which I saw described as a superior clone of Wipeout. I got Wipeout HD a few years back because it seemed like the closest thing to a more modern alternative to Star Wars Racer, but ended up finding it not living up to my expectations. The tracks were just much less interesting than those in Racer, both in the layouts and visuals. As it turned out, Redout wasn’t really that much better in this regard either. So I did the only reasonable thing and actually dug up the real deal. The game that I actually wanted to play the whole time. And I very soon realized that while the tracks were still great, Racer is a much simpler game than Wipeout HD or Redout. Not just simpler, but also much easier. The game has 25 tracks and I got first place on almost all of them on the first try. I think four or so took me second try to get fist place. And after just 3 hours and 15 minuts, I was done. I had completed everything that the game has to offer.
It was a bit underwhelming, to say the least. But it also convinced me of my suspicion I had for years now. Games back in the 90s and early 2000s were not harder than the games that we get today. Instead, we really just sucked at playing videogames when we were kids.
Having recently seen Drive and looking around for interpretations about it, I came upon a term that I had never really paid much attention to.
What is Neo-Noir? It really is pretty much the same as Noir except that it’s used for works made from the 80s forward instead of up to the 60s. Other good recent examples are basically the whole Nolan movie catalog, with Inception and The Dark Knight standing out prominently. (Memento and Insomnia also really look like it, but I have not seen them yet.)
Inception is my second favorite movie of all time, beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back. And when you stop and think about it, that movie also has Noir aesthetics all over it. Pretty much everything happening in Cloud City is prime Noir material.
Looking back at it, the first works of this style that I really fell in love with were Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell (including the TV series). Of course, you could argue that these are perhaps the two biggest cyberpunk movies ever made. But what is cyberpunk other than Noir with futuristic elements?
Which reminded me of Mirror’s Edge, one of my favorite videogames that I’ve always been thinking of as “cyberpunk without the futuristic elements”. Yeah, once you consider Neo-Noir to be a distinct category, it falls perfectly into it. The socially isolated protagonist living in a blurry gray world on the edge of legality. Characters looking for meaning in a heartless world and coming to bleak realizations about their own lives. And they hang out in a place that looks like this.
And suddenly it all came together: Mass Effect 2 is also a work of Neo-Noir. The first game had already blown my mind, but I was amazed when I came out to the street on Omega. And never had a game felt so perfect as when I first stepped through the door into Afterlife. It is my favorite game of all time, with no contenders.
After the really cool opening and time jump, the game starts with the Illusive Man smoking in a dark room with his Femme Fatale henchwoman Miranda next to him. I could write a whole article about that. (And I probably will, eventually.)
It might be a bit of a stretch, but I feel that there are at least a great deal of thematic elements of Noir in the Witcher books. The world went to crap, there’s no justice, characters with questionable morales are trying to do the right thing when dealing with those who are morally bancrupt, and there’s always a slight doubt that maybe everyone getting conquered by the Empire might not be the worst idea. And while it would probably be a bit nonsensical to call Bound by Flame a noir fantasy game, the mood of dignified despair is certainly there.
Bonus content: All my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. You know, basically everything with Garak in it. (The Wire, Improbable Cause/The Die is cast, and In Pale Moonlight stand out.) And then there is Hellboy, Thief, The Big Lebowsky, Leon the Professional, True Detective, and Breaking Bad. I think it’s probably much harder for me to come up with a list of amazing movies, videogames, and TV shows that don’t have a strong Neo-Noir aesthetic.
It comes as a bit of a surprise after all these years that there’s an umbrella term that encompasses pretty much my entire top list of greatest works of fiction ever made. But then, many of the works I mentioned are considered to be really great by a lot of people around the world, so it’s not like this is a style that hasn’t proven itself over the past decades. The period of their making also started just before I was born, which probably isn’t a coincidence either. It’s a style that I’ve been exposed to all my life. While the aesthetics of Noir and Neo-Noir are generally pretty easy to pin down, definitions of the genre are usually rather blurred and unclear. Yet at the same time, works tend to fall into a pretty narrow band of stories. Socially isolated protagonists who are living with one foot in prison and one foot in the grave whose lives have become empty and who are searching for any kind of meaning in their seemingly bleak worlds. Sometimes they catch a faint glimer of hope they can pursue, other times they doom themselves.
Questions about identity and filling an inherently meaningless existence with meaning are the basic foundations of Existentialism, which to me is really the only thing worth exploring in a story. I’ve been watching, reading, and playing stories of this type for all of my adult life and so I probably already do know most of what there is to know about it on an intuitive level. But as someone interesting in writing my own stories this seems like a great opportunity to refocusing my research.
I was very much intrigued by The Witcher the very first time I heard about it, back around 2005 or so. “Dark Fantasy” had not really been a huge thing back then and the concept sounded like a fresh new approach to the genre that to me was mostly defined by The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. The game was released in 2007 and I played it the first time not very long after that. However, I never actually finished it. And greatly enjoying the books now and wanting to play the second game again, it seemed the appropriate thing to give this game another go.
The Witcher is based on a series of fantasy books written by Andrzej Sapkowski during the 90s. Basically it started out as taking themes and archetypes from Grimm’s Fairy Tales with some elements of Polish folklore and turning them into serious modern tales of violence and prejudice. It’s a bit similar to what Neon Genesis Evangelion did in Japan with it’s own take of children controling giant robots to fight city annihilating monsters to save the earth. Though usually there’s also a good amount of small meta-jokes here and there that really go a long way in keeping the books from drifting into grimdark territory. The main hero is Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher. When the world was still full of monsters that threatened the survival of human civilization everywhere, the Witchers were created to be superhuman monster slayers, highly trained in swordfighting and the basics of magic and turned into alchemical mutants through various potions that give them immunity to disease, resistance to poison, accelerated healing, hightened senses, and so on. But as the world has become more and more pacified many people doubt that these dangerous freaks are still necessary and there are only very few of them left and even fewer new ones being trained. But as monsters are starting to go extinct, it becomes very clear that this won’t make the world any more safer or peaceful as people are really one of the biggest source of violence and missery. While the last book in the series was published in 1999 and has been translated into over a dozen languages, the English translation has always been very late and the final three books are only being released in English right now, with the last one coming in 2017. The game takes place 5 years after the last book, which of course kind of spoils the ending of the series, but given the popularity of the games it’s pretty much like “I am your father!” and “Aeris dies” now. However, given the themes and moods of the series, I am really not feeling like this makes reading the books any less fun or exciting. The game does a very good job of remaining very brief on what exactly happened during the books and don’t really tell you anything about what was going on at the final showdown. Still, feel yourself warned when I go deeper into the story later in this review, where I will mention how the transition from the books to the game takes place.
The Witcher is in many ways a “classic western RPG” with lots of similarities to various Dungeons & Dragons games, The Elder Scrolls, or Dragon Age. However, because you’re playing a fixed character and there is a pretty clear main story, it’s in many ways much closer to the Mass Effect games. I think the closest comparison would probably be the Gothic series that was developed and released in the early 2000s, but to my knowledge didn’t get very popular outside of Germany. (It was a huge hit here, though.)
Geralt is very well known for the signature weapons of a witcher. A steel sword and a silver sword. Steel is the weapon of choice to kill people and animals but does relatively little damage to supernatural creatures. The silver sword is much better suited to that, but is more blunt in comparion and not ass effective against regular enemies as the steel sword. Though, how Geralt himself puts it “both are for monsters”. Since Geralt is a swordsman through and through, fighting with a sword and no shield is the primary, and effectively only form of combat. You can pick up daggers, axes, and clubs from enemies, but your skill with these doesn’t ever improve while you can become a total beast with your swords. There are three modes of fighting. A strong mode for big and heavily armored enemies, a fast mode that deals the most damage to small and fast enemies, and a group mode in which you lash out against every enemy around you. The group mode deals the least damage per strike, but since you’re hitting lots of enemies at the same time its perfect any time you are dealing with three or more enemies at once. While this is a neat idea in theory, there is very little strategy involved. Usually you can see immediately if the enemy takes more damage from strong or fast mode attacks and all you do is press the button to select the right mode for the current enemy. There is never really a question which mode might work best, it’s always obvious so there isn’t really any choice or tactics involved. The main tactical element of combat is deciding where to stand, which enemy to aim at, and when to move to a new position to avoid getting swarmed by to many opponents at once. But that’s also what you do in Baldur’s Gate or the first Dragon Age and while the animations of Geralt’s awesome fencing style look amazing at first, the novelty of it quickly runs out. Combat is serviceable, but not a particular highlight of the game. The second game went the right way with getting ride of modes and giving you a strong attack button and a fast attack button instead.
There are a few alternative steel swords throughout the game, but you probably end up using only two or three different ones throughout the entire game, and there’s only a single silver sword that you can get slightly upgraded towards the end. There is also a total of only three suits of armor and no magic rings or amulets. What you get instead is alchemy. Which really is a very innovative and fun way to handle combat customization. Throughout the game world you find huge amounts of magical plants and monster parts which you can make into potions once you have found the right recipes for them. And there’s a lot of them. You can either make potions that increase your own health, endurance, resistances, and so on, or make oils for coating your blades that deal additional damage and status effects to various kinds of enemies. And since ingredients are extremely plentiful, you are pretty much always able to make any potion or oil that you want. All you need is to rest at a campfire, which are usually found less than a hundred meters away wherever you are. In practice I mostly used the Swallow potion which gives you health regeneration for about 10 to 15 minutes, and the Cat potion that lets you see in total darkness and eliminates the need for a torch. Swallow is one of the shortest duration potions in the game, most others will easily last you through several dungeons in a row. Even though I played on Hard there was rarely any need for other potions or oils, but when it comes to the tougher fights it really is a very fun system. The only limitation is that you always can have only a single oil on each of your swords and that all potions are slightly toxic. Most people would drop dead immediately when drinking them, but witchers are able to handle four or five of them in a row. One time I was so heavily drugged up and in immediate need of a fast acting healing potion that I actually keeled over dead from an overdose of potions rather than from my injuries. The very last thing I did in the game after the big final battle and before the final cutscene ran – which I didn’t know at the point – was to drink my last remaining cleansing potion that ended all my active potion and removed all the poison from my body. A wonderfully poetic way to end a game of drug fueled mayhem.
And finally Geralt has some limited magic abilities in the form of five simple spells. The ones I most almost exclusively are Aard and Igni, which create a blast of air that can knock enemies over or unconscious or create a big burst of fire for direct damage. There is also Quen, which creates a short lived shield to absorb a bit of damage, but even with considerable upgrading I found the added protection not worth the while. Keeping moving and having a Swallow potion ready is usually sufficient and trying to raise a quick Quen spell doesn’t seem to make any difference for more than a few seconds. There is also Yrden, which creates a stun trap on the ground, and Axii, that lets you turn one enemy against his allies. But stunning all the enemies around you and finishing them with your sword or throwing fire at them always seemed much more practical.
While there is a good amount of fighting throughout the game, I think it really is primarily about talking with people, solving mysteries, and progressing the plot. The game begins with Geralt finding himself in the wilderness near the old witcher stronghold Kaer Moren with no memory of how he got there or even who he is. His old master Vesemir and the sorceress Triss are not too particularly surprised by his loss of memory because to everyone’s knowledge he had been killed five years earlier and several of his friends had been there when he died. But now he’s back, appearing in the middle of a supernatural thunderstorm somehow linked to the mysterious Wild Hunt. Unfortunately, there is not much time for Geralt to try to figure out what happened to him as the ruined castle is attacked by a sorcerer and a gang of bandits that find their way into the lab and steal the alchemical books and ingredients that are used to turn witchers into superhuman warriors. The few remaining witchers decide to split up and try to find any trails that might lead them to the sorcerer and his base, with Geralt going to the kingdom of Tymeria. Most of the game takes place in the Tymerian capital Vizima, where the city guard and the knights of the Order of the Flaming Rose are fighting against a criminal gang called Salamandra, and the elven and dwarven rebells of the Scoia’tael who are hiding in the swamps. The Scoia’tael are one of the most interesting elements of the setting, being a militant group that desires to remove all humans from the Northern Kingdoms and reclaiming the lands for themselves. The human monarchs and their subjects are everything but sympathetic to their cause and react by systematically subjugating any nonhumans on suspiscion of aiding the terrorists. On the other side, the Scoia’tael consider anyone who doesn’t support their cause to be a traitor and collaborateur and also deserving death. At the same time, the great Nilfgaardian Empire in the south is well known to give some reasonable degree of autonomy to its nonhuman subjects and has long had great ambitions of invading and taking over the independent Northern Kingdoms. Even though the Nilfgaardian aristocracy conists of humans, that makes them allies of convenience to the Scoia’tael. Everything considered, it’s a situation that just isn’t going to get a happy ending for anyone involved.
While the plot itself turns out to be nothing to write home about, the game does an incredible good work at bringing the world of the Northern Kingdom to life. It may not be a great Witcher story, but it certainly is an amazing Witcher adaptation. Many characters from the books make an appearance in the game and both they and Geralt are captured perfectly. There are few things I hate as much as comic relief bards in a fantasy story, but I love Dandelion. I love him in the books and I love him in this game.
I believe not many people have actually finished this game, because if they did the ending would be much more infamous. It’s not so much confusing, but certainly pretty weird and going into completely unexpected directions and coming out of nowhere. While sitting through the final dialogues and cutscenes, I couldn’t help but being more and more reminded about the ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Usually I am a big fan of esoteric endings, but here it feels somewhat out of place and something more conventional might probably have been more appropriate.
Back when the game was first released it was notorious for being quite troublesome to getting it work and run well. And while I believe the current Enhanced Edition is a lot better, it’s still partly the case. While many people say it’s running completely fine for them on Linux, I wasn’t able to get it work at all. In the end I had to boot up an old WinXP installation I still had on my computer and that mostly worked quite well. But in about 50 hours of playing I had about the same number of complete crashes. Which is a lot. The game does have four separate autosave slots, but when the game only saves at major area transitions that isn’t terribly helpful when you can stay on the same map for quite a considerable time. Including several major fights. By regularly saving the game manually I was able to play through the whole thing with only minor inconvenience, it’s still very annoying. However, on the positive side, that was the only kind of error I ever experienced throughout the entire game. Not a single time did I have to deal with broken dialoges, a messed up questlog, characters that failed to spawn, or anything like that. I never had to go back to an old save because a quest became unfinishable. For a notriously buggy RPG that is a major achivement.
Visually it looks quite impressing, especially considering that it uses the same engine as the unspeakably ugly Neverwinter Nights. Especially when you can put all the settings to maximum on an average modern computer, the faces and many of the outdoor environments look really very good. The same can not be said for character animations, though. It’s wobbly heads and twitchy arms not much better than what you’d get in the first Resident Evil or Deus Ex. But it doesn’t really hurt the game. The biggest problem I have with the visuals of the game are the colors and most of the lighting. I can get what they were aiming for, but pretty soon seeing nothing but washed out, faded, and dusty colors everywhere was starting to get on my nerves. Especially with the sky being overcast 90% of the time. There are a few spots where the lighting is pretty interesting, but mostly it’s just dreadfully dreary. The environments appear to be heavily inspired by Poland, with the architecture, fashion, and armor being based on 14th century Northern-Central Europe. And as someone who grew up in the German parts of this greater region, it’s really great to see a game that so faithfully draws on the environment and sights of our homeland. And yes, while the weather is pretty accurate too, it’s not working well for a fantasy game. There is such a thing as too much realism and permant overcast sky with slight drizzle is among that. Thankfully the second game went to great lengths to avoid this and uses stark lighting and high color contrast that makes everything look slightly overexposed and I think it works beautifully.
Another thing I feel worth mentining is that the camera work on the cutscenes is pretty amazing. Whoever was responsible for this really knew what he was doing. Lots of very interesting and unusual shots that have various interesting effects on the presentation of the scene. It’s very much unlike anything else I’ve seen in a videogame. It’s actually considerably better than the camera work in the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy. (If you watch the movies again, try to pay attention to it. They consist almost entirely of the most basic and boring shots you can do.)
Making a final judgement on this game is difficult. There is a lot to praise about this game, but also a very great amount of reasons to complain. The story is not great, the gameplay is mostly rather poor, and it doesn’t really look great either. The main selling point of the game is that it is a Witcher game, and as I mentioned, I think the adaptation is done really well. The way that people think, talk, and behave in this world is quite unique and probably the most interesting part about the whole game. If the game were set in any other generic fantasy world, I don’t think anyone would have taken any notice of it because it would be just plain boring. I played the game again because I am a big fan of the book and really enjoyed the second game a great lot and plan to play it a second time soon. So I wanted to finish The Witcher at least once, mostly for the sake of completeness and because I wanted to experience the strange ending for myself instead of watching a video of it. And I don’t regret that I played the game. But I feel very certain that I won’t be playing it again another time. Now that I’ve seen it, I don’t really see why I would want to play it again. The best thing about it is the world of the Witcher, and you can experience it even better in the second game, which is so much more fun and enjoyable in every way. And given that the story of this game neither ties in directly to the book nor the other games really doesn’t make it a big loss for anyone who doesn’t play it. It’s not a bad game and I won’t tell anyone to avoid it. But for anyone who is only now getting interested in the Witcher, I would actually rather recommend starting with The Witcher 2. I would say there is a good chance that this game won’t be fun to play for many people and you have to bring some already existing enthusiasm to it to properly enjoy it. If you’re not already fully on board with The Witcher, I really recommend starting somewhere else. Either with The Witcher 2 or the books.
Thief: The Dark Project is one of the classic games from my teens, wich had gained an outstanding reputation back in the day, but for some reasons I’ve never really got very far past the first two levels. It’s a fantasy stealth game, and you could probably call it the stealth game that defined the genre for PC games. The same year, Metal Gear Solid was released for the Playstation, but even though they are completely different in almost any way, they both made the concept of games in which you secretly sneak around instead of killing all enemies popula. It was released way back in the great year 1998 (on the same day as Baldur’s Gate) for PC, and despite its age I was able to get it to run under Linux with WINE (with only an acceptable amount of trouble). I added some fan mods mostly for stability, but it also added some minor improvements like the night skies and water surfaces. I have to say it still looks pretty good for its age. Many games just a few years older have aged much worse when it comes to graphics. But this one is completely servicable. Audio is superb and I didn’t have any problems with controls or any glitches during play. My first impression had always been classic middle ages with a few anachronisms here and there, but as I got deeper into the story I discovered it to be actually following pretty closely to classic Sword & Sorcery traditions. It’s far more than breaking into castles and stealing gold coins and silver cups and candle holders.
Thief is the story of Garrett, a master thief who in his youth was trained by the Keepers, a secret society of lorekeepers who also have knowledge of semi-magical stealth skills, which come extremely handy for Garrett during the game. Some halfway decent shadows are enough to make him practically invisible, even to people who are standing right next to him and looking straight at him. The other two important groups of the settings are the Hammerites and the Pagans, which is where the Sword & Sorcery elements really start to take center stage. The Hammerites are a religion of smite-happy fanatics who have tremendous power in the City, while the Pagans are a group of wild men and women who live deep in the woods outside the city walls and worship an ancient and dark god of fertility and chaos. During the course of the game, the Pagans become the main antagonists for Garrett. As he delves deeper into their hidden lairs and learns more of their ancient religion, the game is getting more and more surreal and fantastic. It reminded me a lot of some of the more bizare adventures of Fritz Leibers Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The intro should give you a pretty good impression.
I also played the second game, The Metal Age, which focuses on an even more radical sect of the Hammerites, who being a religion of order and machines, make it feel almost like steampunk, with the Sword & Sorcery elements virtually completely absent. Though the level design is greatly improved and the most annoying enemies from the first game almost completely absent, I couldn’t really enjoy the second game for that reason. The first game is all about magic, haunted places, and a twisted evil god and his creatures, and their nightmarish chaos creeping into the city. The second game is all about warehouses and office buildings, avoiding security golems and the like, and that just didn’t do it for me. It is the better game, but with a much weaker story and atmosphere, as far as I am concerned. The third game I didn’t get to run on my computer, and the less is said about the fourth, the better. But the first game, it really is quite amazing.
The game uses first person perspective, which might seem somewhat unusual as it’s normally used almost exclusively for shoting games, but I guess at the time it was an approach that both game developers working with 3D engines and players were already familiar with and so they just went with that instead of trying something completely different and new. But I think it actually works really well, especially for the parts of the game that are really quite spooky. The Penumbra and Amnesia games are pure horror games and are doing very well with this approach, too. You have a sword, but it probably will see very little use except for a few special cases later in the game. In this game, fighting means you failed at being sneaky. The actual main weapons are a club to knock people out from behind, and a bow, which is not usually used to shot people, but to fire all kinds of special arrows, which are the primary tools for getting into places and around guards. The water arrow can extinguish any open flame and though guards notice it, they will not lit it again. Since shadows make you practically invisible, these are always super handy. The moss arrow contains a capsule with magical moss seeds that will grow into a patch of moss about a meter across within a few seconds, allowing you to walk silently on wooden and stone floors. While Garrett is always sneaking around in tap dance shoes is a bit of a mystery, but having to take care of any sound you make is a nice gameplay element. The rope arrow will stick firmly to any wooden surface it is shot at and then uncoil a rope strong enough to climb. It still flies as easily as any other arrow, which I assume is because of magic. You also can pull it out and reuse it again, even though it can hold your full weight, which clearly must be the work of magic. And finally there is the fire arrow, which can light things on fire, or make zombies explode so they don’t get up again after being hit by the sword. You can also uses fountains or vials of holy water to turn your arrows into undead slaying arrows for a minute or so. Your bag of tricks is not as big as in most other stealth games back then and since, but it really is more than enough to always make the game exciting and puzzles fun.
For the first couple of levels you are doing a number of various break-ins, which are only loosely connected. You steal works of art, documents, and at one point even break a friend out of prison. And on the way you grab everything of value that is not nailed down. At the end of the level you get a reward, plus all the other valuables you collected, which will be your budget for buying supplies for the next level. For gameplay reason, all the money you don’t spend is lost and any equipment you don’t use is not carried ove into the next level. Otherwise it would be impossible to balance the challenges to both players who collect very little or grab absolutely eveything. Getting a lot of loot helps you with the next level, but doesn’t mak a difference in the long run. In almost any level there are a number of locke doors which you can not pick and you have to find a key for. Quite often the key is on the belt of a guard, which you can either knock out, or just sneakily pick the key from them. Others have coin purses or healing potions, which are also nice to get. On normal difficulty you simply have to find the item you are looking for and pick it up, and then the level is immediately over. Hard difficulty is immensely more fun, as you not only have to grab the item but also sneak out of the place again, often using a different route. Usually without killing any humans. This not only makes many levels about a third longer (and therefore the whole game), but also requires much smarter methods of getting to your goal. Simply running past the guards in the same room with the item won’t do.
The levels are often very big and you move around very slowly. I think most probaby take between one and two hours, depending on how good you are and how flawlessly your personal pride demands to pull everything off. Slowly knocking out every person in the building and hiding them in safe spots works, but is not nearly as satisfying as walking around them unseen. I also like the maps. You really have to use the maps or you will have no clue where you need to go. There are always dozens of rooms and corridors with lots of connections between them. And sometimes secret passages. The maps are not just clear layouts of the area, but instead you have rough sketches scribbled down on several papers. Sometimes you’re in luck and have proper building plans, at other times you have almost nothing. The only help you get is that the map screen always shows you in what area you currently are, otherwise it probably would be nightmare.
After a couple of levels like this, you get contacted by a man who has become aware of your exploits and has need of someone with your amazing skills. Because he has a job he thinks nobody else would be able to do. Which is where the main story really kicks off. The version that I played is Thief Gold, which adds several new levels to the game and is the version everyone should play. And the one I believe to be on GOG. The first release of the game was criticized for having too few levels in which you break into rich people’s places and steal their stuff, and that for most of the game you sneak around ruins and caves full of monsters instead of doing actual thieving. The new levels from Thief Gold address that and are all about that. They are not just like an add-on or are put between the early introduction levels and the later main storey levels, but spread out quite evenly through the whole game. And somehow they managed to do it so seamlessly that you wouldn’t even know that they added something later unless someone told you. And even if you do, it’s impossible to tell which ones are old and which ones new. At one point in the game you have to find four items. Originally there were two items each in two levels. But then they removed one item from each level and gave them both their own levels. And since the new levels are both again in human buildings with human guards, it breaks up the monotony of monster caves very nicely. It feels a bit like getting the four items take forever now (which it does, originally it took half as much time), but that’s a very minor tradeoff and the new levels are all great.
Now while the mechanics of the gameplay are fun in themselves, I think it really is the atmosphere and the story that make it shine. Or not, since they are both very dark. The Thief series is the only case I know that blends medieval fantasy with Noir. And it works perfectly. If you’ve seen The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca, you’ll immediately recognize the games as Noir. They have it all: Shady businessmen, corrupt watchmen, mysterious women, fancy houses, and it’s always night. And usually raining. But the plot of this game is also Sword & Sorcery. Not at all like Robert Howard, but very much like Karl Wagner or the darkest works of Fritz Leiber. Of course, this combination also gives the later parts of the game a slightly Lovecraftian feel. It’s very difficult to talk about the plot without giving away too much. It’s a story of deception and betrayal, where nothing is really as it seems at first and nobody is trustworthy. It leads to a number of different locations. Not just fancy mansions, but also a prison, zombie-haunted catacombs, a ruined and abandoned, quarter of the city, a hammerite temple, and an ancient cave city. The new levels also lead you into an opera house and a wizard academy. And then there’s of course the infamous mansion of Constantine, which really is one of the greatest gems of the whole series. It’s really unusual and weird, but if there’s any chance that you might play this game, I really recommend not looking up anything related to it. While many people probably would not instinctively group the game with Sword & Sorcery, I think there is a very strong kinship. Most of the world seems almost magic free and to have more in common with steampunk. But this game also has a very strong supernatural element to it. It’s not the zombies or the wizards of the mage tower, but the mysterious plot related to the Pagans. They are a very strange bunch, even much more so than the Hammerites. They would not feel out of places on Twin Peaks or X-Files, and I would not be surprised at all if the makers of this game were fans of those shows. But also, Garrett pretty much fits the mold of classic Sword & Sorcery heroes. He’s exist in a position outside of regular society (being a thief for hire who works only independent), who gets involved with things for personal and selfish reasons (making money and getting rid of personal enemies), and he also takes the initiative and uses daring acts to get closer to his goal. He doesn’t wade through a sea of enemies and cuts them down with an axe. Instead he sneaks into very high security and dangerous places, which is just as crazy and amazing, just in a somewhat different way. He doesn’t fight and doesn’t kill unless you make him, but he’s still pulling of insane stunts left and right. And of course, he’s constantly making comments on things that are wonderfully sarcastic. He may not look like it, but Garrett is in most ways a classic Sword & Sorcery hero.
In addition to being both Noir and Sword & Sorcery, this game also would have little trouble being classified as a horror game. Many levels are completely free of any horror elements and the others are not particularly horrific. But they are really damn spooky! The undead are not that terribly frightening either. But in this game you are always alone and in the middle of the night. And in the spooky levels you also creep around in old abandoned places with no living human soul anywhere, and most of the time barely any light. And of course, you always rely on stealth and there isn’t much to find in the way of weapons or healing. It all helps to create an atmosphere that is perhaps not terrifying, but super spooky. Perhaps the word creepy also doesn’t really describe it, but it’s the spookiest thing I’ve ever seen.
To sum up my thoughts on this game, it’s great. I feel like this will be one of my long time favorites, even though I really played it only this year. And even as old as it is, I highly recommend it. To my knowledge, there isn’t really anything like it around these days. Dishonored may look somewhat similar, but it’s really a completely different thing. I can’t really think of any group of people who play fantasy games, who would not like it. If you don’t like stealth games in general or you’re not a fan of spooky games, then this game probably is not for you. But to everyone else, I really do recommend giving it a look. It’s on Good Old Games and pretty much dirt cheap. Getting old games to run on modern computers can often be challenging, but when you get it from GOG, it usually has been updated to work without problems.
The last month I was filling up some of the gaps in my collection of Playstation games. Among them being Dead Space, which I actually played once before five or six years ago but gave away or traded it for something else after I was done with it. Now I played the whole thing again and there’s really quite a lot to talk about in it. I usually don’t play Horror games because they are – yes, you’re right – too scary for me. Dead Space is one of the exceptions. Compared to oldschool Survivial Horror games it is relatively tame as the scariness goes and it’s set in a setting that I generally don’t consider particularly scary to begin with. I grew up with spooky Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes and it was only many years after having seen Alien that I learned that most people consider it a horror movie. Alien lifeform infiltrating a ship and altering the people on board is an old hat for me. If you’re not immunized to stories of this type, it might be much more scarier, though.
Dead Space was released in 2008, like a whole bunch of other great PS3 games, and while not one of those games that achieved immortal fame, it was still very well recieved and has a lot of great fans. The kind of success game developers can reasonably hope to achieve with a new series. The setup is very simple. The deep space mining ship Ishimura has send a distress call from a remote planet and the company sends a small repair team consisting of a computer technician, an engine technician, and three guards. You play the mechanic Isaac Clarke (little joke here that sci-fi fans should easily spot), whose girlfriend Nicole is also one of the medics on the Ishimura, who had send him a strange message before contact with the ship was lost. When their shuttle arrives at the Ishimura, the whole power is out and the automatic landing system malfunctions, causing them to crash into the hangar bay. Inside the Ishimura everything is in chaos and the whole crew gone. But no three minutes later a swarm of berserking space zombies tears two of the guards to pieces and answers the question where everyone has gone. With the Ishimura being out of working order and the shuttle wrecked, Isaac has to crawl through the giant mining ship, trying to find a way to escape while keeping the ship from crashing down into the planet. And of course try to find out what happend to Nicole and saving her if possible. Good thing he’s an engineer and not some kind of useless space marine or theoretical physicist. Overall, the game feels a lot like a blend of Aliens, Event Horizon, and The Thing. You could also call it Die Hard on a Spaceship. With zombies! Or, as I believe the correct technical term goes, serious fucked up shit.
This is an excelent trailer, by the way. It gives a good impression of what you’re going to get and, more importantly, doesn’t give away any details of the story. I watched this one years ago and quite liked it. And I think it was the only one I watched, which allowed me to go into the game completely blind. Which I think really was very much worth it. Many of the other trailer I’ve seen now give away way too many unexpected revelations in my opinion.
How it plays
Dead Space is described my many people as a Survival Horror game, but I think it’s a very different thing from the old Resident Evils and Silent Hills. While there is a superficial similarity in the environment designs, the gameplay is very different. The first time I played the game I had not really played any action games on console before, so I played it on Normal difficulty. Which I think was really much too easy. But even having played it on Hard now, there is just so much ammo and money around and regular easy access to stores that you never have to conserve your resources. You can kill absolutely everything hostile in the game without any trouble. Also, you’re actually perfectly equiped for the situation with an armored space suit that allows you to survive in vacuum for a while and walk on the walls in Zero-G areas, and you also have exactly the right kind of weapons that make very short work of all the monsters. You’re not really some poor chap who somehow ended up in a situation that is way over his head. You’re a total badass who absolutely owns the whole ship and wipes the decks with any space zombie he comes across. What is nice when you play, but taking away a lot of tension, is that the game is one of the most generous with autosave checkpoints I’ve ever seen. When you get killed by the monsters you usually start right at the door you just opened. That’s really not at all Survival Horror. Sadly, the Resident Evil series seems to have largely abandoned their original gameplay and went the same direction as Dead Space, becoming action shoters with zombies many years ago. The more recent Silent Hill games also appear to have turned in that direction, which really is a shame. Both series are lying in shambles now, with Konami even pulling out of the videogame business entirely. Even after the great praise of the first Dead Space and the still positive reception of Dead Space 2, this series also appears to have been completely wrecked now, as it has increasingly abandoned the faint survival elements from the first game and focused entirely on nonstop zombie shoting. I’ve heard a fourth game was planned but abandoned, which of course is entirely their own fault. Taking an established formula with a dedicated fan base and then removing all the unique elements and making it more generic does not get you more customers. You only lose the ones you had and not offering something new that that hasn’t already been done a dozen times. But back to Dead Space, which I think when looked at by itself, is a really quite good game.
One of the great things of the game is the interface. In a sense, the game does not have any kind of HUD at all. Instead your suit has a holographic display that will project an inventory screen, map, or questlog in the air in front of you. Your ammo counter is also always on the gun you’re holding in your hand. When you go close to a door or a switch, a hologram will appear which serves as the button. One of the real Survival Horror elements of the game is that it never pauses for anything (except when you pause it, during which you can’t do anything else). Going into your inventory or looking at the map does not stop any nearby enemies from attacking or sneaking up on you. Reloading a gun or using a health kit can be done with a quick press of a button, but if you need to switch an air canister or recharge the stasis module, you have to go into the inventory and do it manually. Inventory space is limited but increases as you upgrade your suit, but that rarely became an issue for me. However, it’s still a good idea to regularly check your inventory because that’s the only way to see how much ammo and health kits you still have. If you don’t pay attention you can find yourself unable to reload your gun in the middle of a fight, which can be a bit of a problem. Where the game is very forgiving is that not only do enemies drop plenty of ammo, they also only drop ammo for weapons that you currently have.
Since the first gun you get is actually clearly the best one in the game, it’s really very easy to never use anything else. That way you never have to worry what kind of ammunition to carry or having to switch weapons in a fight. The plasma cutter is a mining tool that shots a wide beam of plasma that can be fired either vertically or horizontally. Which makes it extremely well suited to cutting off arms, legs, or tentacles from the monsters, which does a huge amount of damage. You can kill them by shoting them in the chest, but instead of going for the head, the most damage you can deal is by shoting off the limbs. Shoting off just one limb is not going to kill anything and they will just keep crawling towards you and hacking and gnawing at your legs if you shot off one of their feet. Something really great about the game, which I would love to see in really every shoting game, is that it seems to have quite variable damage. Most of the time it takes cutting of two limbs from the standard enemy to kill it. But sometimes it will keep coming after that, and in some rare cases they will be dead after losing just one. It could have something to do with weapons dealing different damage depending on how they are upgraded, or that sometimes you hit multiple hit areas on the enemy with a single shot, which leads to the damage being added up. But either way, I was very often surprised to see an enemy dropping dead sooner than I expected or keep fighting after I thought I had killed it. In most games that don’t use automatic guns at long distances, you very quickly figure out the rythm of fighting. “One, two, three, dead.” “One, two, three, dead.” And so on, and on, and on. Dead Space doesn’t, which I think is really great. And to make things more interesting, sometimes enemies will just stop moving after they fell over because they got a leg shot off. But then start clawing at you once you step too close to them. There’s also lots of moments where you come upon a corpse and think “Wait, there was no corpse here when I last came this way”, and of course they jump up and attack you. But not always. Sometimes the dead monsters you find are actually dead. There’s always tense anticipation. There is a total of seven weapons in the game. And while the plasma cutter is great and the line gun a more powerful and wider version that can only shot horizontally (to cut of a dozen legs in a single shot), most of the other weapons are really quite bad. First time you see it in the store, you probably think “Oh sweet! A flamethrower!” But it sucks. It’s completely terrible and pretty much useless. Instead of having a zombie that claws at your face, you now have a zombie that claws at your face while being on fire. Even fully upgraded the damage is tiny and you actually have to reignite an enemy several times because it keeps going out much faster than it kills. Or you keep a constant stream of fire on them, in which case you run out of fuel within seconds. There’s also a kind of long range chainsaw called the Ripper. Which also does way too little damage and requires you to keep the spinning blade touching an enemy for way too long. Both weapons really only work when you have a single enemy who has no legs left, in which case you could just shot it with any other gun. The force gun is also quite fun, battering any enemy in its way with a massive impact blast when upgraded. But it’s really the best idea to only use the plasma cutter and line gun and upgrade them for maximum damage. Buying the other weapons and spending the rare upgrade points of them is a complete waste of resources.
As mentioned, Isaac is wearing a space suit that is made for repairing damaged space ships and allows you to work and fight in both vacuum and no gravity. Which is great, because the Ishimura is a total wreck. Breaking up asteroids leaves a lot of big stones flying around and without working defenses the ship quickly got punched full of giant holes. The air supply of the suit lasts for only a minute, which can be upgraded to two minutes, but that’s generally more than enough. In sections where you’re without air for a longer time, there are generally Oxygen refuling stations that you just have to click on to get the timer instantly reset to full. There are also air canister which you can find lying around or buy from the store. Much more fun than the lack of air to breath is the lack of air to hear. Being space zombies, all the enemies are not troubled by vacuum at all. But unless they are stepping on the same deck plate you’re standing on right next to you and you hear the slight shockwaves that travel through your suit, everything is completely silent. And of course, most areas that have no air are either completely wrecked or on the outside of the ship, so you never really have a good view of your environment. Good times. But moving and fighting in weightlessness is even much more fun. Some parts of the ship have no gravity and there’s also none when you’re running around on the outside. Instead you stick to the floor with magnetic boot. Or to any wall or ceiling, really. When you aim at something on which you can stand, Isaac can disable the magnets and make a jump straight in that direction, no matter the distance. Once you reach the surface, your feet will stick to it and it becomes the new floor. Which really works amazingly and surprisingly well. Most games have clear up and down, even Portal immediately switches you around to the correct orientation when you jump into a portal in the floor and come out of a portal on a wall. In Dead Space, up and down is entirely defined by the surface you currently stand on. Sometimes these surfaces are even curved, allowing you to simply walk from a wall to the ceiling without any transition. One great fight even takes place in a room shaped like a giant drum. The only possible downside: I can imagine this getting super confusing for people with a less than excelent sense of orientation. I’ve been playing starfighter simulations for many years in my teens which makes it all very easy, but there are probably many people who would have real trouble with switching a whole three dimensional room by 30 degrees on the z-axis and 70 degrees on the y-axis and still remembering the position of enemies and exploding canisters nearby. That you have to aim your gun to indicate the direction of your jump is a bit clunky, but otherwise it really works incredibly smooth.
One element in which Dead Space really is nothing short of astonishing is the architecture and interior design of the levels. The Ishimura really is a metal hell. It’s an old industrial ship that has been severely battered by asteroid strikes and all kinds of fighting going on inside, with survivors of the first days having created various barricades and written messages on the walls. I particularly like the first and third levels, which take place in the train maintanance section and the engine section, which together with the mining section later in the game are the most industrial environments. Much of these levels consist not of thick solid walls, but of flimsy walkways, metal grates, and steel sheets that let you look through the many gaps. Of couse, the lighting is bad and there’s also lots of steam, pipes, and dangling cables everywhere. It’s very similar to both Alien and Aliens and really a wonderful environment for fighting space zombies. The medical section and crew quarters are very different in style, but it’s never a pleasant place. I say the art design of Dead Space is really by far one of the best I’ve ever seen in any game. It’s relatively simple most of the time, but it’s just perfect for the location in which it is set and the atmosphere of the story.
Also, the Ishimura is huge. Though when you played it a two or three times and then look at the maps, the levels are actually all much smaller than they seem. You start and finish almost every level at one of the many train stations that connect the different sections of the ship. Most of the time you leave at the same station at which you’ve arrived, which means that you either make one big circle through the level or, more commonly, have to make your way back to the train once you accomplished your current task. Bam, instant doubling of the level size! Six of the twelve levels actually take part in the same three areas of the ship. But it’s far from boring. Since the ship is full of monsters crawling around everywhere, you can never be fully certain that there isn’t going to be something jumping out from a vent or coming around a corner. While it’s all scripted with no really random enemy movement, sometimes the enemies show up only the third or fourth time you’re passing through a central area. It’s always staying tense.
I have the sound from my PS3 running over a six speaker surround system, but in most games you really don’t notice it much. In Dead Space, it’s very noticable. Because, holy shit, this ship is noisy! The industrial sections in particularly are extremely loud, which huge machines making an incredible amount of noise that is just overwhelming. And of course makes it impossible to hear all but the nearest enemies. I think it’s even more tense than fighting in vacuum with almost no sound at all. When an engine is restarted or a big machine powered up, it really makes a lot of noise. But even in the other sections of the ship, there’s almost always a lot of minor noises going on. Some metal thing hitting the ground in the distance, muffled screams, hissing, dripping, the whole shebang. And it sounds really good. The only shortcoming that I’ve noticed is that you quickly learn that none of those sounds are made by monsters moving around nearby, they are all just background noise. Which is a shame. It would be so much more fun if you had reason to stop and listen if there are any other sounds and from where it might be coming. But it still sounds really great.
Sometimes there are automated messages broadcasted by the ship’s computer, but they are always so faint that I can never make out what they actually say. Which I think is actually an advantage. It makes the whole place seem much more otherworldly. There’s also often sounds that clearly can not be be actually there. There’s a greenhouse section where fresh food is produced and air recycled and it’s full of jungle noise. Then you get to the other greenhouse section which is both completely stripped by any vegetation, covered by fleshy growths, and almost entirely silent. The contrast is both quite amazing and spooky. There is also a lab where something seems to play a tune for sleeping babies. Which given the context of the place certainly can’t be the case. Since there’s not just space zombies but also lots of space madness among those who are not completely dead yet, there’s always some ambiguity on whether some things might be hallucinations. And in that context, the incomprehensible broadcasts also start to feel somewhat spooky.
The voice acting in the game is also really quite good. It’s nothing noticably special, but I think that’s great. It mostly feels very natural and genuine. The emotions are mostly not overblown, but they are still very much present. When you notice great voice acting, it’s because it’s unusual and draws attention to itself. In Dead Space it’s not the case, but it’s also not flat. It’s not a huge deal and there are no amazing performances, but I think whoever was in charge of the recording and selecting the takes that were used for the game really had a quite good ear for dialogue that flows smoothly.
The Horror, the Horror
What I really have not talked about at all yet is the story. Which really is a complicated topic. I had the fortunate situation of being able to go into this game completely blind, knowing nothing except that there’s a big ship in space that has been overwhelmed by space zombies. And to anyone who has the chance, I very much recommend to do the same. If you’re really curious about it but feel certain that you don’t want to play a game like this yourself (I would never play Silent Hill or Penumbra by myself, way too fucking scary), I would still recommend watching a Let’s Play. (I’d personally go with Helloween, he’s one of the most hilarious guys on the internet.) But I’ll be talking a bit more about some general things before going into specific spoilers later. At its core, the story of Dead Space is really quite simple and basic and there isn’t really much to it. However, many of the fragments of information that you get throughout the game hint at something really interesting going on and since the release there have been a lot of speculations by fans how everything fits together and what certain elements really mean within the larger context. However, the sad truth behind it is that even the writers of the story himself admited in an interview that I’ve seen that they really didn’t pay much attention to many of the details and just threw in a bunch of things they thought were cool. Many of the biggest questions, like how the monsters are actually multiplying and what purpose the Marker has, are really just the result of shoddy and inconsistent writing. There is an infector form of the monster that infects human corpses to make more monsters. But there is one very clear case in which a large group of people were all killed and transformed by a single monster, which clearly was not an infector but a standard warrior. There isn’t really anything given away by telling that the final boss monster is called the Hive Mind, which would have pretty important implications. But actually, no. That boss fight was added to the game without even consulting the writer of the story which resulted in multiple forces being both behind the monster horde but also opposing each other. Following games tried to make some sense of it, but to my knowledge they never succeded. There are also some moments that just sound completely silly, like when the repair team tries to find the captain and they find out that he’s dead. And one of them actually says “What?! How?!” I don’t know? Maybe it has something to do with all the space zombies who killed the other 1000 people on the ship? (It wasn’t, but it was still a stupid question.) And halfway through the game someone mentions that they should find Isaacs girlfriend and get off the ship as soon as possible. How at that point anyone could assume that Nicole somehow is still alive and well while practically everyone else is dead seems completely nonsencical. Again, the truth is actually a bit more complicated, but in that situation it really didn’t make any sense at all.
But I am actually someone who really plays games primarily for the story and I still don’t hate this one with a passion. I actually really quite like it. Why? One of the quirky things about Dead Space is that while it’s story is more holes than plot and makes not very much sense when you look at things logically, the way that it is presented works very well on an emotional level. It’s a poor story that is very well told. The emotions of the characters and their interaction, as limited as they may be, really work. Yes, it’s a bit cliched and stereotypical, but it’s well executed. The distress, treachery, and hybris feels real. Trying to understand the chronological steps of events and the mechanisms by which the monsters are created and multiplying won’t get you anywhere. That part of the story is just a complete mess. But you can understand what each character is feeling and why, and how that makes them behave. And in that regard it’s a good story.
There is one minor twist to the story of Dead Space that comes pretty early in the game, but going completely blind into this game, I really did not expect. And it’s also what really makes Dead Space stand out from other zombie games and movies and makes it its own unique thing. Obviously, spoilers in the rest of this paragraph. As it turns out, I think already in the second level, much of the crew of the Ishimura consisted of members of the Church of Unitology, the largest remaining religion on Earth. And the zombie outbreak on the ship was not an unfortunate accident caused by bad luck. On the planet the Ishimura is orbiting, miners found a strange burried artifact called the Marker. And to the Unitologists, the Marker is a devine relic connected to their version of the afterlife and their belief in a transformation of all humanity. But when they went to dig it out and fiddle around with it, people started getting crazy and turning into monsters. And with many different people having very different ideas what to do about the situation, everything devolved into chaos and the monsters killing almost everyone. At its core, this is the stuff of a good story. People encounter something strange to which there is much more than it seems at first, and conflict breaks out about how to deal with it. The main problem seems to be that the makers of the game went a bit overboard with trying to add lots of additional layers, twists, and complications to that without really having a clear idea of what is actually going on with the Marker and the monsters. Turns out there’s also a government coverup and secret experiments, and multiple conspiracies. Less really would have been much more here. But as I’ve mentioned before, when you look at the story of Dead Space as people responding to a crisis, I think it’s pretty good. It’s mostly the exact nature of the crisis where things get really messed up and confused. The search for Nicole is a good example of that. If you try to piece together what’s really going actually on, it doesn’t make much sense. But you can still easily get the idea what the creators of the game were trying to do with her, and I think it’s a pretty good idea. I also very much love a moment in the later parts of the game where you are trying to board a shuttle where one of your current allies is waiting for you, and suddenly there’s just a bang and blood on his uniform and he falls over while behind him the doors close, the engines start, and the shuttle takes off without you. At that moment, it really took me several seconds to realize “Someone is stealing our escape ship! Why?! Who?!” It just takes off and leaves. You then get a radio call 10 seconds or so later where everything is explained, but when I first played that level years back, it was one of those moments that really made me fall in love with the idea of having major things happen in a story without immediately given any clue what just happened. In almost all fiction, any time there’s a twist someone immediately shows up to explain everything to the audience. It was only 15 or 20 seconds, but I really loved that unexplained confusion. When I work on ideas for stories, I always plan them out in a way that the reader doesn’t get anything told until the protagonist learns it.
So, to my final verdict on the game. Yay or Nay? Clear yay from me. I really like Dead Space. It’s not amazing game, but in many respects it’s a really good game. And yes, in some others it’s a very mediocre game. But it gets some very important things right, which are atmosphere and emotional depth, fow which I really care so much more than logically consistent plots. The sad thing is that I think Dead Space really could have been so much more. I think the potential was there for something like a Silent Hill 2, but they went with the action shoter approach instead of the horror mystery. While looking for the E3 trailer, I also found this launch trailer for the game. Which really looks and feels quite amazing. Unfortunately, it also is really not representative of the game at all. It makes it all look so much deeper and complex than it really is. (It also spoils the thing I was talking about in the previous paragraph.) It’s still a space zombie shoter with with a nice coating of simple story that adds a few interesting but underexplored ideas. But maybe I should try to write a story like that?
Old enough to remember when Halo was first announced. At that time Half-Life and Unreal were the big first person shoters of the day that everyone had to have played. (Though I admit I never played Unreal.) Call of Duty and Battlefield didn’t even exist yet, though there was the Medal of Honor series, which quite likely many of you never heard of. It was the time before the decade of World War II shoters and science-fiction was really the big deal, continuing the tradition of Doom and Quake. The first screenshots were just mind blowing. Because it had outdoor areas that didn’t look like total crap! The first videos of the Warthog jeep were just out of this world. The hype was on almost instantly. When Microsoft bought Bungie and announced that Halo would be the launch title for their Xbox project, it really ruffled some feather. The internet was much smaller back in 2000, but there was still plenty of nerd rage in which I heartily participated. In 2001 the game was released and a huge success, and a few years later we actually did get a PC port of the game. In 2012 followed the 10 year anniversary edition with improved graphics for Xbox 360, which I did get used last year. This review is based on my recent playthrough of this version and how it plays now, looking back at the game 13 years later.
When I first played the game, I really quite liked it a lot. Not quite as much as Half-Life or Half-Life 2, but still a fun game. And when I later got an XBox 360 I also got Halo and played through another two times. So this one it was probably my fourth playthrough of the game. I played it on Hard. The one above Normal and below Very Hard. The game doesn’t call it like that, but I already feel too old to learn all the fancy difficulty names games have these days. It was hard. The one with the two swords, but without the skull. And I have to admit, that game is really terribly boring. Okay, in the games defense, I played it the fourth time and I have an exceptional memory for environments, so I always had a pretty good idea what would be behind the next corner and where all the surprise enemy spawns would be. But still, it’s mostly a straight corridor shoter where you run down these big long hallways. These very, very long hallways of constantly repeating copy and paste segments. And playing on Hard meant I died a good number of time and checkpoints are not nearly as tight as in recent Call of Duty games, so effectively I probably ran down twice as many corridors as the actual level length. On top of that, Halo is also very effecient at recycling levels. Usually you have to fight your way from point A to point B, then there is a cutscene and you have to go almost all the way back to A again, this time with different enemies. Generally I like the idea, as fighting your way out of the base you stormed makes perfect sense. But since there is such an excessive amount of copy-paste corridor segments it really becomes very repetitive, as the levels are also pretty long.
The enemies are a very different story though. The enemies in the game are great and are still fun to this day. The alien Covenant is an empire of many different alien species and you encounter four different types in the first game, with two more added in the second. They also come in various different color schemes, with the Elite also having different ranks and special units. In addition to that you also get the Flood, which is a swarm of alien space zombies, which comes in four types as well, and one type of automated defense robots. The four different species of Covenant are the best, though. You got the little Grunts, which are basically hordes of goblins. Individually they are laughably weak, but usually you get to encounter a whole dozen or more of them, and getting into their crossfire kills you very quickly. They also have grenades that stick to you when they make a direct hit and will instantly kill you. The grunts are supported by the Elites, who are two and a half meter tall aliens who serve as officers for the Covenant army. They are much stronger, have a much better weapon, and are almost always accompanied by a small horde of grunts. But what really makes them dangerous is that they have a rechargable shield, so it’s not enough to just hit them a lot, you also have to hit them a lot in a short amount of time. If they can get into cover for a few seconds, they just recharge and will be almost as good as new. Also, the human pistols and assault rifles do shit against their armor, but thankfully you can pick up their own plasma weapons, which work a lot better. The third type of Covenant are the Jackals, which come in two type. One type carries a large energy shield that covers them almost completely and you can really only hit them by getting behind them, using grenades, or hitting their feet or a small hole they use to put their own gun through. Plasma weapons can punch through the shields, but with human weapons you really have no feasable option other than throwing grenade. The other type of jackal is a sniper, which thankfully leaves a bright pink line in the air after each shot, so you always know where they are hiding. The last, and coolest species of the Covenant army are the Hunters. Hunters are huge ogres who are almost completely covered with impenetrable armor, carry a really big shield on the end of one arm, and a plasma rocket launcher in the other. The only way to hit them is to either shot them in the back, which strangely is not covered by armor at all, or into a gap on their stomach, which they expose when they raise their fucking huge shield to bash it into your face. Which wouldn’t be so bad if they wouldn’t always appear in pairs, which allows even the relatively simple AI to cover each other pretty effectively. It’s rare that you encounter any type of enemy alone, except for the hunters, which makes combat really quite exciting almost the whole time. Every enemy has very different abilities and behaviors, which keeps things always interesting. Another fun thing about the covenant aliens is that each of them has a different, but always very bright color of blood, and that stuff gets everywhere. After a big fight in a tight corridor all the walls are painted in bright orange, purple, blue, and green.
The Anniversary edition has improved graphics that look pretty much like those of Halo: Reach (the fourth game in the series), but you also can switch them to the original appearance and back any time with the press of a button. That way you can directly compare the different between the two. Neat feature, something I’d like to see in other remastered games. Back in 2001, the games looked quite incredible. Some games age really well when it comes to graphics and are still enjoyable in a certain retro way. Halo is not one of those games. The original graphics look like shit. They tried to get over the pixelated look of Quake engine games like Half-Life, but in practice everything simply looked blurry and like shiny plastic. I do really quite love the general art style of the game and the series as a whole. It’s primarily a color palette consting of turqoise, blue, and purple, which gives the whole game a somewhat dreamlike quality. That was a very strong contrast to the brown, gray, and olive that dominated in previous games and that came back in the mid 2000s (“real is brown”). Halo always looked different. Perhaps a bit fake, but I rather take that over always the same thing everywhere.
Regarding gameplay, Halo was the first big shoter build for consoles and then ported to PC. That required some adjustments to established conventions of the first person shoter genre, as a game controler only has about 10 buttons while PC games can make use of over a hundred key combinations. (And back in the 90s, when space fighter and jet simulators were a big thing, you needed all those combinations!) The result was the quite controversial idea to not let the player keep every gun he found througout the whole game (which often could easily be 20 or more), but to be limited to only two. With the press of a button you would switch to your other gun and back, instead of cycling through a dozen weapons until you get to the one you want in the middle of a fight. For the World War 2 shoters it made sense, but for a space marine game it seemed a weird choice. In practice, it really didn’t matter a lot, because there were no real “special weapons” in the game. Every gun you could use would either be regular marine equipment you find on the plenty of corpses lying around everywhere, or be used by the enemies. If you wanted to use a specific gun, you usually could find it on the floor within a few minutes, as well as a good supply of ammo. The alien weapons can not be reloaded (presumedly they would do that between fights back in their ship or at recharge stations you can’t use) but have pretty large amounts of ammo. Once they run out you simply throw them away and grab something else. Which in really big and long fights can be quite fun, as you throw away the useless piece of metal in your hand and grab whatever happens to lie at your feet. Total badass carnage! The game also was more “arcade” by giving your character a rechargable shield. The shield can not take a lot of hits before it runs out, but if you simply avoid getting hit for 10 seconds or so it recharge back to full energy. This is now standard for most shoters, except that in the case of energy shields it actually made sense! Healing 50 bullet wounds in 10 seconds does not. Halo did also have a health bar which you could refill by walking over health packs, but that usually made such a little difference that this feature was discarded for Halo 2 and Halo 3 (but returned for Halo: Reach, as it was a prequel and supposedly retro). Again, the nerds were raging, but it really improved the game. I know that Half-Life is quite different in mood and themes, but in that game I would always try to keep maximum health and shields and constantly quickload when a fight went not perfect. Which for me meant losing more than 20 shield energy of 10 health. In Halo that just doesn’t matter so I was much more willing to just throw myself straight into a horde of enemies guns blazing. As long as I didn’t die, I was good to keep going, even with just one health bar.
However, and saying this should cleanse me of any appearance of being a bro, I always played Halo for the story! I never played any Halo game online. (Okay, I did play Counter-Strike for a while and had a week or so fun with Jedi Knight 3, but that’s about it. Playing plenty of Quake Live years later wasn’t broish at all; that was much more hipster.) And I really quite like the story of Halo. The humans have build a huge interplanetary empire throughout the galaxy for several centuries until they encountered the Covenant, a large alliance of many alien species who are better than the humans at everything! They immediately that by now has been going on for 30 years, but the humans have really only held out so long because they keep very few copies of the coordinates of their planets and go to any lengths to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. But at the start of the game that has become pretty much irrelevant, as just a few hours before the Covenant completely annihilated the colony on Reach, which really was the last human stronghold left other than Earth. However, a single human warship escaped from Reach, which had the coordinates of an ancient alien artifact of great signficance. With noting else to lose they try to get there, but the Covenant seem to know where they are headed and really don’t want to allow them to get there. As soon as the ship gets out of hyperspace it’s immediately shot down by an enemy fleet that has been send to intercept them, but they also appear right next to a giant ring shaped space station on which they crash. Since the aliens really don’t want the humans to get there, it must be something very powerful, and maybe it could be just the miracle the humans need to change the outcome of the war and to prevent the completely destruction of their species? In subsequent games, the story becomes a lot more complex and interesting, but in this one it’s fairly simplistic and rather bland. It mostly sets up the situation on which the whole rest of the series is based, so I doubt the following has any major spoilers for anyone left. You are the Master Chief, a genetically engineered super soldier with armor that qualifies as walking tank. These super soldiers were created to be able to beat up an Elite in a fist fight and they can do that, but the war went so terribly that you are the only one left. All the others have since been killed in battle. (Or to be more precise “Missing in Action”, because “Spartans never die”.) Since the ship is shot to pieces and the Artificial Intelligence of the main computer must not fall into enemy hands, you install the nice lady in the computer of your armor. Who happens to be a snarky and smug lady who is full of mean comments and doesn’t take shit from everyone. But I like her, she’s fun. First you travel over the ring world to find other escape pods, then you go to the Covenant command ship to rescue your captured captain. Then you go to a building on the ring to get the location of another building that has the control center of the station. Once you get there your AI companion sends you to immediately get to another bulding (“no time to explain!”) where finally something interesting happens. Turns out the ring had stasis chambers with an alien parasit, which your people unfortunately released when they were searching for the crates that said “Warning: Can destroy everything in the galaxy!” It turns out not to be weapons, but a parasite that turns humans and aliens into mutant space zombies that already almost destroyed all life in the galaxy. You meet the friendly happy artificial intelligence of the station which is excited to inform you that the ring has been created for the explicit purpose of containing any outbreak of the Flood. However, as a safety measure, it requires the assistance of a living volunteer to activate the ring and can’t do it by itself. So you go to another building to get the key. Then you go to another building to enter the key, but then your friendly computer lady informs you that activating the ring will not just kill the parasites, but everything within several thousand lightyears. Because even though they look like zombies, the Flood is actually a highly intelligent hive mind which can not only use weapons (mutant-alien-space-zombies with freaking laser beams!) but also use, repair, and build space ships. So whoever build that thing really wasn’t taking any chances of any parasites escaping after an outbreak. Of course, you would rather not kill all humans and Covenant alien and take your chances at killing the Flood by hand. To do that you have to go back to the alien command ship where the Captain is held prisoner again and once you get his key card you go to the wreck of your ship to blow it up. Which you do. The End.
There really isn’t much more to it. There are maybe four important cutscenes that make up the story and the rest is running through endless hallways shoting at hundreds of aliens. Given that there are more games of the series now, it has very little replay value. The story bits are barely worth mentioning, the levels not really that fun to play, and gameplay also gets a lot better in the later games. If anyone is interested in getting into the series, I would actually recommend to simply skip this one. After having read this review, you know all there is to the story and can jump straight into the second game, where the story really starts to get off the ground. I got the game for pure nostalgia reason and while I don’t regret it (having paid only 15€ or so), I think I could have done without it.
14 years back it might have been a really exciting game, but it really hasn’t aged well at all. So when it comes to yay? or nay?, I think I have to go with nay. If you don’t have it, it’s not worth getting anymore.