Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | October 19, 2014

What next for XCOM?

I recently returned to my underground command centre somewhere beneath the Himalayas, and once again took control of the XCOM project – a global initiative activated in times of alien invasion, with one goal: preserve the survival of the human race, by any means necessary.

Like my need to read The Lord of the Rings at least once a year, and sit through all three Star Wars movies (what, there’s six? No, there isn’t…), I return time and time again to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown on my gaming PC, sinking hours into a two-year-old title just because it kicks so much ass. However, this time – and for the first time – I didn’t finish the game. I’d grown bored of watching my sniper miss that 99% hit-ratio shot, or that alien berserker pull off a completely improbable, long-range headshot through a window from half a mile away.

I’d had enough of the game.

Once my surprised passed – I’ve loved this game since 2012 – that got me thinking. What’s next for XCOM? Will the developers look backwards to move the series forwards? Or are we doomed to suffer a series of cheap, badly-implimented side-story shooters forevermore (The Bureau, I’m looking at you…). Although no sequel to Enemy Unknown has been announced, one can only hope the owners of such a trend-setting series will have something in the pipeline before too long.

So, here’s four key things I’d like to see make it into the next true XCOM game. Spoiler alert.

Global strategy

Previous games in the series had a scope far beyond the single operating base of 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Although I personally never played 1993’s X-COM: UFO Defense, I know that the action was spread across the globe, and XCOM operated from a number of different bases.

Over time, the organisation branched out into space, reverse-engineering alien technology to create space-based weapons, and even starfighters to take on the alien menace. You weren’t just fighting from one corner of the globe, putting out fires one at a time – you had to think globally, moving resources around from pillar to post, fighting the foe on all fronts. I’d like to see this dynamic return to the fore.

Perhaps the player could have a base on every major continent, and hundreds of trained, battle-hardened soldiers to command. Every combat operation could be directly controlled by the player, or you could set your equipment options, and let the computer battle it out for you, with only a percentage meter telling you the odd of success – much like the Total War series. This means you could fight every battle yourself, or only those you choose to, allowing the gamer to play XCOM more like a strategy game, with the world at stake.

 

While 2012’s Enemy Unknown thrived on the feeling of being a small, elite team facing the enemy largely in secret, I always felt that there was more to see and do – f the aliens had turned up in more superior numbers, XCOM would have been destroyed entirely. Of course, the ending of Enemy Unknown leaves this possibility open – but more on this later.

Mission variety

One of the key problems with XCOM: Enemy Unknown was the extremely repetitive nature of the missions. Each engagement with the enemy essentially equated to the same, hackneyed mission: land, disembark, kill everything in sight. While the excellent DLC add-on pack Enemy Within added a number of new missions – as well as the alien-loving EXALT militia – these special events and missions were largely few and far between.

Enemy Within’s infiltration missions – which saw a single soldier act as a Trojan horse to bring down an EXALT cell – were a nice touch, but grew repetitive fast. Aside from this, the DLC added a couple of special story missions – including one excellent operation that saw a team clearing out a chryssalid hive, before needing to escape the site and nuke it – but again, these were one-offs.

I’d like to see vastly improved mission variety, and it’s not that difficult to come up with new scenarios and locations to battle on. Perhaps the aliens have a number of secret bases XCOM needs to locate and destroy – could one be on a ship that you need to scuttle and escape? Maybe EXALT have seized a military air base and are preparing for a massive alien troop transport’s arrival, and XCOM needs to infiltrate the site, take over the anti-aircraft batteries and shoot it down before it lands, unseen and unexpected?

The options are endless – and it only takes a couple of developers to come up with them.

One of the delights of XCOM‘s play style is being forced to adapt your tactics to those of the enemy. Throw in a mission objective beyond ‘kill everything in sight’ and you’ll be on to a winner in terms of tension, challenge and enjoyment.

Improved statistics management, classes, gear and research items

While Enemy Within added a number of new classes, perks and abilities – including genetic modification, and the ability to have a soldier’s limbs chopped off and a massive, hulking battlesuit soldered on – there’s so much more that could be offered to the gamer in terms of operation team micromanagement.

 

If Firaxis Games are looking for inspiration, you need look no further than the excellent Long War mod. The team behind this nifty little add-on put a lot of time and effort improving XCOM‘s basic statistics management, as well as lengthening the game’s tragically short campaign and making everything more difficult. If you like your XCOM so hard it makes you cry, then I’d fully recommend it – although I’ll freely admit I gave up on Long War after a while. It’s just too hard for me; hard and unfair and great fun for it – if you have the time and patience.

I’d like to see some Long War-inspired skill trees, alongside more weapons and armour and abilities that aren’t so obviously one-sided choosing anything other than the awesome skills you can’t live without would be folly. I don’t think any other XCOM player would have taken the sniper’s ‘run and shoot’ skill over the ability to snipe any enemy that a fellow squadmate could see, anywhere on the map.

Enemy Unknown appears shockingly shallow compared to Long War – and I for one would like to see the depth that the Long War team worked so hard to implement make it into the next game in the series.

Branching storyline with multiple endings

In an age when stories can be directly influenced by the player, having only one end-game for XCOM seemed really rather shortsighted. It may be true that the XCOM games are more about the journey than the outcome, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want a final mission other than ‘go to alien mothership, blow it up, win’.

A good gaming plot should be influenced by the action of the gamer enjoying the experience. If Firaxis were to adopt the tenets of the ‘global strategy’ gameplay I outlined earlier, each gamers’ experience would differ exponentially by the end of the game. Giving the gamer choice as to what tactics to adopt would give the game improved replayability, and build a closer bond between the people of Earth and the commander of XCOM: nuke a city, killing millions of people, or allow an immense alien hive to fester, and possibly overrun an entire continent?

Forcing the gamer to make hard choices like this would offer a considerable enticement to play a game again, to ask ‘what if I’ – and that’s what makes games like Mass Effect 2 so successful – your choices matter (and yes, I’m ignoring the choice at the end of Mass Effect 3. That was an insult).

Also, I’d move fast on a sequel, Firaxis – Xenonauts is muscling in on your territory.

Remember. We will be watching.

So that’s what I’d like to see in the next ‘proper’ XCOM game. Do you have any ideas for Firaxis? Leave a comment below.

Article originally published on 6aming.com

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | September 26, 2014

Retro Reboot: Steel Battalion

I ticked off a gaming life achievement earlier this year. I got to spend a little time with the original Xbox title Steel Battalion – and more importantly with its massive 40-button, two control stick, three foot pedal controller.

This colossus of gaming launched in 2002 at the princely price tag of £120 ($200), and quickly became three things – a commercial flop (due to a low production rate), a collector’s item and a gaming legend.

Sure, we’ve had ridiculous controllers in the past – look at Nintendo’s Robotic Operating Buddy and its hilariously crap Power Glove, or Resident Evil 4‘s chainsaw controller, which managed to be unwieldy, useless and dangerous in the same breath – but nothing really stacks up to Steel Battalion‘s plastic monolith.

However, despite the fact that you have to reconfigure your living room around the monstrosity, and you look like a complete idiot when playing it, I can honestly say finally getting to grips with Steel Battalion‘s gameplay for the first time was a revelation.

Most people will know the tactile sensation one gets from using a light gun in an arcade – try to imagine that feeling transposed and enhanced into being fully in control of a bipedal tank which handles like a washing machine on stilts, and comes complete with window wipers.
(The action starts around 2.15)

On starting Steel Battalion the gamer is treated to a hilarious badly dubbed intro video, complete with what Japan’s game developers think all American drill sergeants look like – a massive, burly black guy – yelling at you. Your character – a well spoken, annoyingly polite nerd – is a new recruit to the army, and has arrived at an isolated base for training.

Naturally it all goes to pot pretty quick, and you get dumped into the pilot seat of your ‘Decider’ vertical tank (VT) – a bipedal, armoured behemoth with two weapons, a close combat plasma torch, five throttle settings and a habit of falling over if you turn too sharply.

Flick, click, flick, press, click

However, rather than dropping you into the game already on the move, each mission starts with a requirement to run through the VT’s startup sequence. This means flipping switches, pressing buttons, balancing fuel and generally feeling like a badass as you slap at your 40-button controller, stomping on the foot pedals.

Of course, once you’ve got your tank started you need to master the tricky control scheme. The two joysticks control your tank’s direction and yaw in one hand, and your weapon arm in the other. Naturally, getting the right balance of steering your vehicle while locking targets and eradicating them is incredibly difficult at first – like a real tank, the upper body of the VT can traverse, so you’ll find yourself walking in one direction, looking in another and firing at distant targets in a third.

Reloading, swapping fuel tanks and using the radio all requires pressing buttons on the huge controller, flicking switches or turning dials, and when the shells start flying and your buttons flash as your VT takes hits, you suddenly forget you’re sat in your living room, in your underwear, playing a game – you’re a member of the VT corps now, and you have a mission to complete.

The level of immersion took me by surprise. Once you get past the sheer size and complexity of the controller, Steel Battalion comes to life in your hands – literally. Like racing wheels in the arcade, the feeling of controlling your steel leviathan with all four limbs and the information displayed on the TV screen transcends simple gaming – you live Steel Battalion.

However, away from the feeling of being a VT pilot, Steel Battalion falls flat. It seems that so much time and effort was put into the game’s plastic-fantastic controller that Capcom and Nude Maker (what kind of a studio name is that, anyway…) forgot to come up with a decent plot, soundtrack, voice cast and graphical suite.

Set-dressing

Sure, the controller and the game work perfectly in sync, but as everything on the screen is blurry and grey, knowing exactly where to go and what to shoot gets difficult very fast. While the representation of the VT’s cockpit (complete with wonderful analogue monitors and clockwork range-counters) is enthralling, the battle outside is all grey and black, with the occasional bit of flame or smoke.

Then there’s the badly translated Chinglish text to read, the stereotypically bad voice acting and the truly awful score. It all feels like a missed opportunity when the game had so much promise – especially as the first game in the series was on the original Xbox, a console known for beautiful games such as Halo: Combat Evolved.

Furthermore, there’s the bad menu design and crushing difficulty to consider. While your controller monolith includes an eject button (under a flip-up plastic cover, no less), press it too late and your character is permanently killed in action. This means going back to the start of the game, creating a new character and slowly earning your way through the ranks, unlocking the improved MK2 and MK3 vertical tanks as you go. It’s a horrible feeling knowing that death, this time, has a cost.

Bring it back

So, what’s to be done about Steel Battalion? Of the three titles in the series the original was the most successful, although it became a collector’s item due to its rarity and cost. Its sequel, Line of Contact, was an online only shooter – and so was only useful to the limited number of people who owned the original, or were really, really patient (the original Xbox’s online component was a little on the slow side).

The last-generation Xbox 360 title Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor… well, the less said about that steaming pile, the better. I’m sure Microsoft will eventually realise Kinect is entirely pointless.

Ideally, while Capcom could play a role in the development of a new-generation Steel Battalion, they’re best kept in the background – you only have to look at Resident Evil to see how they can get it really, really wrong. Instead, I’d hand Steel Battalion over to the folks at Piranha Games, the team behind the really rather good Mechwarrior Online. While the mechs of Mechwarrior are a lot more nimble than Steel Battalion‘s VT’s, Piranha has the ‘feel’ of mechs just right, and could do the animation and controls justice.

I’d also rope in the folks over at From Software – yes, they of Heavy Armor – because that title would of been a great game, if it wasn’t for the Kinect. They got the sensation of movement and the hectic nature of being in a tank battle spot on, and their characterisation was excellent. Drop the motion controls and you’d of had a great game in Heavy Armor.

As for the massive controller… as much as it pains me to say it, I don’t think any next-generation iteration of the series would really require such a plastic monolith – but at the same time, to play without it would be a loss.

So, I’d suggest two versions of the game – one which is a solid mech shooter with a great single player campaign and co-operative and competitive multiplayer, and one with a great single player campaign and co-operative and competitive multiplayer, and a big-ass 40-button controller, two joysticks and foot pedals.

So come on. Get to it.

Did you play Steel Battalion? Leave a comment below.

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | September 16, 2014

Double Movie Review: Lucy

I recently discovered that one of my guest writers – the talented Link Hall – loved the Luc Besson movie ‘Lucy’.
I didn’t. I really, really didn’t.
So, for your perusal, I present Link’s calm, measured analysis of Scarlett Johansson’s starring role – and my brutal dissection of a steaming pile of disappointment.

‘Lucy’ review – Link Hall

As I paid for my Ben & Jerry’s, the multiplex popcorn guy asked what I was going to see, and baulked when I told him ‘Lucy’. He confessed he hadn’t seen it, but dismissed it as a clone of Limitless, in which Bradley Cooper stars as a struggling writer whose life reboots after he ingests a brain-altering drug.

Bit of a brainless assumption, I thought. After all, there are plenty of films exploring cerebral enhancement – including Gerald Di Pego’s Phenomenon and Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man – which have little in common aside from the theme of transformation.

The suggested overlap between Lucy and Limitless indeed proved unfair. True, Scarlett Johansson’s eponymous heroine starts out ¬with forehead stamped ‘FAILURE’ – a massive onscreen ‘1%’ indicates the percentage of brainpower she currently enjoys, and wildlife footage of a cheetah-fleeing gazelle underscores her vulnerability and myopia. And yes, her metamorphosis comes about through a chance encounter with a ‘street drug’. But while Limitless’s protagonist pursues self-advancement in the world of business and politics, Lucy’s scope is not nearly so …. well, limited. In her, we see en entity detaching from the human concerns of society and ego, and becoming increasingly engaged with pure knowledge, experience and possibility. We’re also treated to some arresting physical mutations, evocative of Greg Bear’s sci-fi classic ‘Blood Music’, as purpose is rewritten at a cellular level.

"What did you do to me?"

“What did you do to me?”

As Keanu Reeves illustrates relentlessly, cartoon-pretty faces often strain to project convincing depth or range. But Scarlett Johansson shifts seamlessly from obtuse to otherworldly, touching on the disconnection of her Scotland-roaming alien in Under the Skin. Meanwhile, in his second role this year as a quasi-TED Talks commentator on accelerated intelligence – the first being ‘Transcendence’ – snowy Morgan Freeman guides the audience with speculation on what to expect as the percentages rise. The volume of this exposition is questionable — it’s generally clear enough what’s taking place – as is its scientific grounding. But set against Johansson’s inevitable progressive emotional flatness and fragmenting personal boundaries, Freeman provides an elegant counterpoint: emotionally connected without veering into mawkish celebrations of human frailty, and cautious without descending into Michael Crichton-esque fear-mongering on the dangers of brave new worlds.

Which is what turned me on about this film. So much science fiction scrapes the well-worn groove of ‘change = bad’. There were murmurs of it in the aforementioned Transcendence – though thankfully, the message was subverted. But a thick streak of this stick-with-what-ya-know sentiment runs implicitly through the genre, even in the classics. A particularly nauseating example of this homeostasis worship appears in the dismal coda of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, where the martians were said to be ‘slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth’. Yep, the incalculable terror, pain and death generated across the globe by viruses was apparently a masterstroke of philanthropy in disguise. But this clunky transubstantiation of self-interested predator into blessing sits unselfconsciously alongside other works lauding our imperfections and defending our irrationality.

LUCY 01

“I can feel everything”

With Lucy, we leave behind these parochial cultural affirmations and injunctions. With its various depictions of human pursuits – ranging from the petty to the profound – its frequent allusions to other species, and, eventually, sequences that span the extremities of time and space, Lucy invites its viewers to reassess their own position on every scale. While there’s nothing wrong with the passive roller-coaster pleasure of a decent action flick, one that stimulates broader reflection is a welcome delight.

‘Lucy’ review – Andy Hemphill

Lucy suckered me in. If you watch the trailer below, you would be forgiven for thinking the movie was something along the lines of the Bourne trilogy – an intelligent thriller with an interesting premise and its tongue lodged firmly in its cheek.

 

However, this trailer is a lie.

Luc Besson’s Lucy is little more than an arthouse movie masquerading as a mainstream title, which is so self-indulgent it practically disappeared up its own arse after thirty minutes, and remained so for the rest of its short 90-minute runtime.

That said, if I’d of had to sit through any more of the pointless drivel Besson was throwing at me, I may well have had to go next door to watch Guardians of the Galaxy instead. I honestly felt I’d been cheated out of my £9 ticket by the end of the rip-roaring and utterly confusing adventure.

Lucy – a ditzy, innocent party girl (Scarlett Johansson) – gets herself caught up in some seriously bad stuff. She quickly finds herself acting as an unwilling drug mule for a gang of ruthless, hilariously generic Asian gangsters (Tarantino would be proud), with a bag of blue gunk in her guts.

It’s a brutal, scene-setting opening, and while I could look past the generically evil antics of the drug lord initially, when Besson rolled out the astonishingly stereotypical English right-hand-man, I admit I started to scoff. En route to the airport, the bag in Lucy’s guts splits open, and she finds that as opposed to the 1% of her brain she was using before (a fact reinforced by breaking the flow with massive numbers blasted on to the screen, and intermittent shots of animals hunting in Africa… because Besson loves making an obvious point in an obvious manner), she can now use more and more of her brain’s true potential – and her freakishly unspecific powers. And the percentage is rising fast.

It’s at this point that Besson decides to throw his toys out of the pram and just go nuts. Lucy’s undefined powers quickly have her learning everything humanity has ever known, then beating the snot out of everyone in some stupidly choreographed fight scenes that seemed more a tribute to badly dubbed Manga than any serious movie.

Morgan Freeman wanders in now and then to try and explain what the hell is going on, but despite the (really very long) exposition scenes, Besson doesn’t define the true extent of Lucy’s powers – and therefore when she starts doing some of the really crazy stuff, the audience has simply gone dead to it all. There’s a French cop too (Amr Waked), but he’s mostly there to get himself and his fellow officers shot to ribbons by the generic Asian gangsters – after driving past about 40 of them, who were all loading weapons, bold as brass, in the middle of the street.

Generic Asian gangsters... advance!

Generic Asian gangsters… advance!

I would usually stop here because of spoilers – consider yourself warned – but the final act of the movie was so ridiculous that it’s worth sharing in full.

Now at almost 100% of her brain’s capacity, Lucy can do practically anything. She’s left searching for purpose as a being of immense energy, and some genuinely intriguing questions are raised. Of course, you don’t have time to think of that because of the badly edited firefight going on outside the room she’s in, giving the movie a strange, unsettling duality which ruins what promise it once had.

By the end of the short movie – thank goodness – Lucy can apparently manipulate space and time, and she Dr Whos it around the screen, jumping about like Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap – and leaving me utterly incredulous.

She then turns into an amorphous blob.

Perhaps, unlike my learned friend Link above, I missed the point of Lucy. Perhaps my mind is too narrow to truly understand what Besson was trying to tell me. Perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough.

All I know is, Lucy left me cold, angry, out of pocket and disappointed at the waste of a good story sadly squashed by arthouse tropes, bad writing, awful continuity errors, nonsensical fight scenes, wandering documentary rushes and a plot so far up its own behind it’s giving every audience member a colonoscopy.

What did you think of Lucy? Leave a comment.

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | September 5, 2014

Retro Reboot: Crash Bandicoot

If you’re in your late 20s or early 30s, you’ll likely remember this.

Now, if – like me – you’ve gone into full nostalgia mode at the first notes of such a track, then you’ll want to see the spinning whirlwind of destruction and unhinged hilarity that is Crash Bandicoot make a long-awaited return to gaming.

Crashing in

First appearing in 1996, Crash Bandicoot took the world by storm. Spawned from the minds of the then-relatively unknown Naughty Dog studios, the little critter was a breath of fresh air in an often stale genre – platforming.

Taking control of the eponymous marsupial, the gamer must hop, spin and bounce their way through a series of outlandish tropical settings, in the hope of freeing Crash’s would-be girlfriend, Tawna, from the clutches of the evil (kind of) Dr Neo Cortex.

Cortex – a much-maligned member of the scientific community – has had enough of his peers’ barbed retorts, and instead decides to create an army of mutated animals to take over the world.

 

The sad thing is that Cortex’s ideas aren’t that bad! He’d just unlucky. Or possibly inept.

Escaping from the lab at the heart of Cortex’s castle, Crash finds himself being assisted by the cheeky spirit Aku Aku, who helps him on his quest. Along the way, the mute marsupial must take on bosses including grumpy, tubby clan leaner Papu Papu, demented kangaroo Ripper Roo, and Koala Kong. Yes, Koala ‘Kong’ is exactly what you’re thinking.

Empire of the Bandicoot

After the success of the first game in the series, Crash went through a period when everything was coming up Bandicoot. Sequels followed – good and bad – racing games, mobile games and my personal favourite, the party games.
I have very happy memories of Crash Bash – and of knocking my family and friends off a floating block of ice while riding a polar bear.

 

However, despite his seeming success, Crash’s little media empire waned fast, and by 2010 he was shoved back into obscurity and hasn’t been heard from since.
Unlike his Italian plumber peers, it seems too much Crash can be a bad thing.

Plain Crash

So, how best to revive a gaming series with such a high pedigree?
Personally, I’d strip it right back to basics. Start by retelling Crash’s origin story – with buffed graphics and tightened gameplay. Perhaps you could also add co-operative multiplayer, a la New Super Mario Bros – there’s a lot to be said for being able to knock your friends into raging rapids, and such an experience would likely help expand the fan base once again.

Naturally, you’d also need to get in some great level designers – experienced staff who love Crash Bandicoot as much as the fans do – and who better than Naughty Dog.

Flush with the success of the Uncharted series, and loved by gamers the world over, surely Naughty Dog could be enticed to revive Crash and friends?

Hell, even if it’s only a downloadable title on Xbox Live or Playstation Network, such a game would no doubt make money, and could well reboot a series and revitalise a genre which has been too long without the hilarious, addictive action of Crash Bandicoot.

So come on, Naughty Dog, get on with it.

Article first published at 6aming.com

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | August 28, 2014

Know Your Enemy

Loath as I am to admit it, I thought about Call of Duty the other day. Usually I try to avoid thinking about that once-great series, which has fallen far from its heyday (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare).

But, upon catching a few seconds of the trailer for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and taking in the evil, megalomaniacal motion-captured Kevin Spacey, I thought about the nature of ‘bad guys’.

In fact, I realised that in the short time I’ve been a gamer, I’ve seen bad guys go from one-pixel blips to highly detailed enemies – and what I was especially surprised by was how they’ve ‘moved with the times’.

People inexperienced with videogaming as a pastime usually ascribe to the typical stereotype of the hobby – anti-social strange people living in their mother’s basement, shouting ‘pew pew’ at a screen. Sure, people like that do exist, but as gaming’s matured into a mainstream pastime, so have the games – and so have the bad guys.

Whereas in my youth, my enemies tended to be animals (Ecco the Dolphin), anthropomorphic mushrooms (Mario games) or enemy helicopters (the Strike series), these days my foes tend to be – often shockingly – human.

 

Keep your enemies closer

Though human enemies are nothing new, if you use Call of Duty as an example, the maturation of gaming – and its method of reflecting the geopolitical situation in the wider world to build gravitas – become clear.

While we once spent our time in the past, taking on the evil of the Nazi regime, Call of Duty gradually moved on to tackle the tricky subject of terrorism.

By Modern Warfare, the Western world was busily involved in wars all over the Middle East – and it was clear that Infinity Ward was more than aware of this. The plot of Modern Warfare brought the stark reality of war to light in full detail – this wasn’t some historical battle for you to be the hero – this was survival against a committed enemy who didn’t think or fight like you did.

Then, of course, there’s the ever-present threat of weapons of mass destruction. Sure, the West didn’t find anything in Iraq, but the soldiers of Modern Warfare sure did – if you’ve played the game, I’m sure you remember the slow heat death of a nuclear blast.

The thought of that chilling, slow end remains a standout moment in gaming for me.

 

Later, as the wars continued, the people of the West started to question the morals and ethics of our own leadership.

By Modern Warfare 2, gamers – those who looked away from the incredibly addictive multiplayer – were rightfully distrustful of the government and the military. This was reflected in the plot – and though it was bonkers at points, it still left a sour taste in the mouth of anyone who was even a little distrustful of centralised government.

With the advent of Advanced Warfare, the nature of the ‘bad guy’ has shifted once again. Reflecting the changing nature of warfare itself, the new enemies to be tackled are no longer terrorists or evil man in faraway lands – it’s the growing, unpredictable threat of private military companies – mercenaries by any other name. Men who will fight for the highest bidder.

Sure, I may be generalising, and I’m sure the likes of Blackwater may well have done a lot of good – but exactly what goes on away from prying eyes remains to be seen.

Then, of course, there’s the rapidly shifting political situation in eastern Europe and the South China Seas. Suddenly, the idea of being at war with Russia or China in the real world – as opposed to the situation in Battlefield 4 – doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

I wonder where games – and the bad guys who give gamers something to shoot at – will be in a few years time?

What do you think about the changing nature of videogame bad guys? Leave a comment below.

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | August 16, 2014

Retro Reboot: Dino Crisis

Fifteen year old Andy would never have admitted it, but Capcom’s survival-action thriller Dino Crisis scared the pants off me.
I keenly remember jumping out of my skin whenever I heard the distinctive noise of the raptors lurking around the corner, or the bone-chilling cries of the pterosaur as it circled above, waiting to ambush me, pick me up and toss me into the nearby air conditioning unit.

No, while I did extoll the virtues of the title to my high school peers, I never mentioned exactly how much Dino Crisis made me cower – and isn’t it about time it did so again?

Built on a similar engine to that used to create Capcom’s multimillion pound cash cow Resident Evil, Dino Crisis was Resi’s (in my humble opinion) far more entertaining twin sister.

Set on mysterious Ibis Island (which in no way resembles Isla Nublar from Jurassic Park), the game tasked you – as special forces operator Regina – with capturing a rogue scientist and solving the mysterious disappearance of an agent months before.

 

As part of the Secret Operation Raid Team (subtle name…) the player infiltrates the jungle with the aim of SORTing (see what I did there?) it all out and being home in time for tea.

Let’s do the time-warp again

The only problem is that the crazed scientist who forms the core of SORT’s mission has somehow harnessed a new form of energy – and ‘accidentally’ opened a time portal.

If this portal went to the 1980s the worst SORT would have to deal with is bad hair and power ballads – but no, the portal goes back to the age of the dinosaurs – and the big fellas do so love to explore.

Beforelong, the player finds themselves fending off waves of intelligent (for the time) AI-controlled dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes – all while putting the mystery together, fighting off traitors with goals of their own and desperately trying to find more ammunition for your shotgun.

Like Resident Evil before it, Dino Crisis was tense as hell. As Regina, the player faced a constant challenge to move forwards, exploring, while fending off surprise attacks at every turn. Added to this – and unlike Resi’s zombies – the dinosaurs would work together to flank you, meaning every shotgun shell became precious.

However – and again like Resi – the camera was an utter pain in the arse, and quite often would make it very difficult to find the raptors stalking you, let alone fire at them. Plus, the voice acting was hilarious bad.

 

Dino Crisis was also the first game I ever played with quicktime events – not that the invention of that gaming trope was a good thing.

However, despite its problems, Dino Crisis’ decent story, tight gameplay and constant tension made for a memorable adventure indeed.
While it would be easy to brush the game off as ‘Resident Evil with dinosaurs’, the game held together well on its own – and even spawned two sequels. Granted, they were a bit naff – Dino Crisis 2 was dull, while Dino Crisis 3 (dinosaurs on a spaceship) was frankly insulting.

Bring it back

So, how should Capcom resurrect the series?
Well, firstly, Capcom shouldn’t. We’ve all seen what they did to Resident EvilRE6 was utter tosh, largely alienating its audience and forgetting what the series was known for.

In fact, I think control of Resident Evil should be wrested from their cold, money-grabbing fingers until they can be trusted with a beloved videogame franchise once again.

No, I’d hand the rights to Dino Crisis to Naughty Dog – the folks behind Uncharted and – more importantly – The Last of Us.
If anyone knows how to do survival horror right, it’s them. Imagine a Dino Crisis with the same slick combat and stealth as TLOUs – but while retaining the series’s inventory management and feeling of isolation.

Naughty Dog would also do well to polish up their AI coding before creating an army of time-displaced dinosaurs, however. TLOUs was fraught with dumb enemies who would blunder into your path, or get stuck in walls – I don’t want to see any raptors deciding it’s fine to stick their heads inside a shipping crate to avoid trouble.

A co-op mode would be good too – but you’d have to force the two players to share resources and actually work together. That is when they’re not fighting off wave after wave of tiny biting critters – or T-Rexes.

So yeah, Naughty Dog, get on it.

What games would you like to see rebooted? Leave a comment..

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | August 9, 2014

Andy’s Top Ten: Videogame Technology (part two)

More fun with technology… go read part one here.

Number Five: The Ebon Hawk (KOTOR)

Well-shielded, well-armed, well-stocked and well-sexy looking, the Ebon Hawk would be my selection for interstellar transport in an instant. It’s got all the mod-cons – air conditioning, power steering, massive laser cannons – and plenty of room for your band of unruly misfits to jet around the galaxy in.

Number Four: Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (Portal)

This one’s a no-brainer. Having the ability to shoot portals would make everything so much easier. Imagine going shopping, for example. Shoot a portal into your kitchen wall, then drive to your favourite supermarket (preferably in the Ebon Hawk, for added coolness factor).

 

When you get to your chosen grocer, shoot another portal into the floor, and simply drop your purchased goods through – cake, perhaps.
Plus, commutes to work would be made so easy – the London Underground would be out of business overnight.
Just be careful where you shoot your portal – remember, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.

Number three: Nanosuit 2.0 (Crysis 2)

Prophet’s Nanosuit is a marvel of technology. Constructed of an alien-derived nanofibre weave, the suit can absorb gunfire, leap to immense heights, turn invisible, run really fast, help you breathe underwater and – crucially – will save your life if you’re essentially otherwise completely dead.
I’m looking at you, Alcatraz.
Imagine having this little puppy on under your work suit. Your lunchtime run would be a right to see, what with you leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Plus, if you head to your local park for a kickabout, imagine the expression of horror on the goalkeeper’s face when you go ‘Maximum Strength’ on a penalty shootout.

Number Two: The Amulet of Time (Prince of Persia: Warrior Within)

Ever had one of those moments when you’ve wanted to turn back time? Perhaps a job interview that went wrong, or that time you got your girlfriend’s name mixed up?
That’s where the Amulet of Time comes in. At the press of a button, you can rewind up to about 15 seconds of time, allowing you to try that line about your skillset and qualifications one more time – this time without the admission that you’re a big fan of Lady Gaga.
Plus, being as you’re carrying the Amulet of Time, and not the Dagger of Time, the government can’t get you for carrying a concealed weapon. Clever, eh?

Number One: Metal Gear Rex (Metal Gear Solid)

Slightly more obvious than the Amulet of Time, and definitely not road-legal, I’d nevertheless like to head out to my garage in the morning and hop into Metal Gear Rex.
Surely stomping about in such an immense weapon of war couldn’t be anything less than the most orgasmic feeling ever experienced by mankind? Plus, since you’re piloting a highly-mobile, bipedal tank with the ability to fire completely undetectable nuclear missiles, you’d be able to end wars with merely a threat – you could bring peace to the world through deterrence.
That is, if you’ll stop pancaking cars for two minutes…

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | August 6, 2014

Andy’s Top Ten: Videogame Technology (part one)

Ever played a game and thought “Wow, I wish I could do that”? I know I have – and with the advancement of technology, someday I may be able to do all those things our videogame heroes take for granted. Here’s my pick for the top ten best videogame tech I wish I could play with.

Number Ten: ‘Trident’ goggles (Splinter Cell)

NSA agent and all-round badass Sam Fisher’s ‘Trident’ goggles have gone through many variations over the years, but since their first appearance in Splinter Cell, i’ve wanted to own a pair. Granted, you might look a little odd wearing them as you walked down your local High Street, but having the ability to see perfectly at night would more than make up for it.

Stealth suit and bad-boy attitude optional

Stealth suit and bad-boy attitude optional

Plus, if you have the version found in Splinter Cell: Blacklist, you can see through walls using a kind of ‘sonar’. Don’t tell me that wouldn’t be useful for tracking down your missing dog, or if you needed a little help evading your boss at the Christmas party.

Number Nine: Omni-tool (Mass Effect)

Combination lockpick, computer terminal and offensive weapon, Mass Effect’s omni-tool is the ideal device for modern life. Rather than having to carry around your mobile phone, tablet computer and assorted cables, the omni-tool would do all of this and more – and since it’s made of a seemingly hard-light hologram projection, it’s weightless too.
Plus it looks pretty damn cool to boot.
Also, if you happen to be under attack by a race of starfaring battleship-squid hybrids, it can manufacture a handy disposable dagger-like blade – but this is only turned on in times of war, so it’s safe too…ish.

Number Eight: ‘Glass-shield’ cloaking system (Deus Ex: Human Revolution)

The ability to turn invisible on command would definitely rank highly on my scale of useful videogame tech. How easy would it be to escape from your pushy ex-girlfriend, or sneak into that nightclub you don’t have an invite to. In fact, no-one would be able to stop you – because no-one would be able to see you. Genius. (The tech is in the trailer about 2min 10sec in – and this is still one of the best videogame trailers ever…)

 

Granted, you need to surrender your humanity and have a series of high-tech emmiter/transmitters implanted under your skin to make this one work. Also, you need to constantly eat chocolate bars to use the system.

Could be worse…

Number Seven: Harry Potter’s wand

Anything is possible with a magic wand – and if that magic wand happens to be rather good at protecting you from the world’s deadliest Dark Arts user that’s doubly handy. Need a ride? Summon your car. Need some cash? Summon some moolah – what’s not to like?
Plus, you’d be able to milk your skills on talk shows forevermore.

Number Six: Titans (Titanfall)

Big-ass walker bristling with attitude which falls from the edge of space and has the two legs and two arms you’re used to? Sold.
Imagine walking to work in one of these bad boys. Hell, if you work in retail, you’d be able to stack the highest shelves in the supermarket without breaking stride. Then there’s the emergency services to consider – cat stuck up a tree? No problem. Need the roof ripping off a car? Just let me get that for you.

 

Of course, being a super-killy death machine, you might also find a use in the armed forces – but not as much as the big boy in the number one spot.

Read part two! Click here!

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | August 4, 2014

Andy’s Mad Month

Going three weeks without updating my blog is anathema to me. I’ve been running it since university (an astonishing six years, roughly), and I’ve never gone more than two weeks without updating it with something.

But then, I’ve never worked an air show before.

This year I was sent in my capacity as a sub-editor for Reed Business Information to Farnborough International Airshow for a week and a bit. In fact, the entire office basically upped sticks and moved to Hampshire. Reporters, production, sales, marketing – hell, even the catering staff.

Setting ourselves up in what basically equated to one of those marquee tents you get at weddings – with no toilet and poorly positioned air conditioning – we then proceeded to work our arses off for a week. The movers and shakers from the aviation industry descend on Farnborough to throw their money around, and Flightglobal was on hand to scoop the competition at every turn, and put out a series of daily newspapers – this was my part of the operation.

As a sub, I was part of a team reading reporters’ copy, writing headlines and captions, editing photos and generally keeping things ticking over as we pulled together four daily newspapers (Flight Daily News), and topped it off with a weekly magazine (Flight International). Now, being as the dailies ranged in number from 119 pages to about 70, this was hard work. Throw in another 80-odd page magazine and it became a true struggle.

Reporters and production staff alike hacked away for that week, starting at 7am and typically finishing between 8-10pm. At one point I realised I worked 31 hours in 48, snatching a few hours sleep before reappearing the next morning at 6am, to board a bus and go back to my desk at the show.

But, despite the stress, the noise, the lack of sleep and the constant headaches, I will admit I enjoyed the challenge. I am, I remembered, one of those stupid people who enjoys being stretched to my limit – and after Farnborough, a normal weekly magazine (and the two monthlies I’m responsible for sub-editing) no longer seem the daunting challenge they once were.

That said, I’m not sure I could do such a week from hell more than once a year. Thankfully, Farnborough is a biannual event. That said, however, the Paris air show (a far bigger event, I’m told) is coming up fast. While I don’t know if i’ll be sent or not, I know now what’s expected – and like the work-sadist I am, I’ll be ready to face the challenge again. Just… grumpily.

After Farnborough, and a couple of troubled days at home – I kept waking in a cold sweat at 5am, and panicking I was going to miss the bus to the air show – I flew out on yet another bloody plane to Northern Ireland, where I now have family.

I won’t go into detail, but I will say this – what a beautiful country. I can see many more restful holidays for me out there.

So that’s why I’ve been so tardy in my blog posts. Normal service will resume shortly, entertaining your lunchtimes with nonsense about videogames and geek culture.

It’s good to be back.

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | July 10, 2014

Retro Reboot: The ‘Strike’ Series

If you owned a Sega Megadrive (known as the ‘Genesis’ in the USA), then you’re likely to have played one of the ‘Strike’ games. It was the done thing, back then, like owning a copy of Sonic 2, or saying that everything was “Awesome”.

However, while my enjoyment of 90s slang terms has faded with age, my rose-tinted memories of blowing the crap out of everything in sight in the Strike titles – Jungle Strike, Desert Strike and Urban Strike – remain as strong as ever.

So, to help gamers who only vaguely remember the Strike titles and reboot your childhood memories a little better, close your eyes and listen to this:

 

There. If you’ve played any of these isometric helicopter-based arcade shooters, you’ll be reliving the laughs and explosions by now yourself.

Strike from the skies

The Strike games were simple shooters that masqueraded as espionage thrillers. The objectives in all three games – be it rescuing stranded troopers or destroying nuclear missile silos – were varied and interesting, as well as being worryingly accurate at times.

One of the levels in Urban featured an attack on the World Trade Center in New York city, for example.

The controls were easy enough for my then-7-year-old mind to grasp. Good thing too – these games were tough. Playing from an isometric perspective, the gamer had to steer one of a selection of helicopters (and later fighter jets or tanks) around a map, completing objectives, nabbing fuel and avoiding buildings.

The ‘boing!’ sound effect that played when I accidentally ricocheted into yet another tower block is burned into my memory forever.

The levels ranged from the wide vistas of dense jungle islands to the cloudy skies of San Francisco, and tasked the pilot with completing a series of objectives in any order you choose to do them.

Flying the chopper gave the player a feeling of immense power – but the game’s difficulty stopped the action short of becoming a turkey-shoot. Your foes could be deceptively accurate at times, and the amount of fire blasting up at you could quickly send even an experienced gamer scuttling back to the wide ‘H’ of your launchpad.

Naturally, with fuel a concern as well as ammunition, running out of gas and crashing into the jungle canopy never stopped being annoying.

Bringing war to the warlords

The plot of all three games centred around a warlord or two empire-building, and your cocky pilot and co-pilot pairing taking him down at every turn.

 

The plot of Jungle, for example, evolved around two rent-a-bad-guys who want to blow up America because… well… because. Ibn Kilbaba, son of predecessor game Desert Strike’s antagonist, and Carlos Ortega, a “notorious South American drug lord”, have nukes and are prepared to use them, and it’s up to the player to track them down and finish the fight.

Urban – the last of the traditional Strike games – saw the rise of ‘HR Malone’ – a name that’s hard to forget once the game gets to the twist in the tale…

Sure, the graphics and gameplay seem amazingly low-tech these days, but back in the 90s – in the golden age of 16-bit action – they kicked butt – and still do, if the copy I’m running on my PC’s emulator is anything to go by.

For the record, I don’t count Nuclear Strike as part of the series. It was naff.

Strike back

So, here’s my grand plan for a reboot of the series on eighth-generation.

Firstly, we’re going to need to go 3D – 2D isometric won’t cut it anymore, despite the value inherent in an Indie release on Xbox Live Arcade and the like. This is going to mean a decent flight simulator will need to be co-opted for the action – and this isn’t an easy ask on consoles.

However, I do have a solution. Back when I still owned an Xbox 360, I had the pleasure of reviewing Apache Air Assault. While it would have been easy to dismiss the title as another arcade shooter – this time helicopter-flavoured – the bad box art disguised a pretty amazing flight simulator game.

The controls were solid, the action intense, and the in-game helicopters handled like you’d imagine a multimillion dollar weapon would. Also, much like the Strike series, it had a kickass theme song.

So, if we’re rebooting the Strike series, we’re going to need Gaijin Entertainment. Nobody else will be needed – this company captured the essence of flying a high-agility helicopter and raining down fire from above perfectly, first time.

 

As for the plot, were Tom Clancy still alive, I think i’d tap him for a decent techno-thriller storyline to underpin the action. However, since Mr Clancy is helming a submarine in heaven, let’s get Dale Brown in here – nobody else can do a renewed plot for the Strike series justice.

However, I do have one caveat. HR Malone must return. He may have been a pixellated mess of a character, but he was truly eerie, and left quite the impression on my young mind.

Article first published at 6aming.com

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