Tag Archives: First Person Shooters

Overtime, musings, and dormant styles.

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With everyone going into panic mode around here with the virus scare I’ve been working most of the time. It’s essential to retail and we’ve been short-staffed so I’ve had a couple of weeks with overtime. I’ve managed to get in a stream in or two but not a lot of time to write. Last weekend though I somehow managed to get the weekend free so I decided to stream one of my favorite series: Unreal Tournament.

I wrote a lengthy retrospective a few years ago so I won’t be going deep into the games themselves here. Rather I’ll talk a bit about the things going on in my life at the time these came out and what they really meant to me. Also replaying these games this weekend brought up a bigger question that I’ll get to a little bit later.

The original Unreal Tournament came out in November of 1999. It’s hard to believe but the series is going to be 21 years old this November. By October of 2000, the Game Of The Year Edition was released which had the extra content that had been added later included. Around this time I had left a now-defunct footwear retailer to work at a now-defunct OEM. I needed that change. I was taken advantage of by the new boss I had at the time. Was constantly called in anytime anyone else called out. I was cursed by my own work ethic. And yet I knew if I had called out or slacked the way some of my coworkers had, I’d have been dropped like a bad habit. And working with and selling computers was far more interesting to me than a self-serve shoe store. And of course, at the OEM we often had demos of games.  It was the second of two games I bought where I knew I was going to have to replace my computer at the time. (The first game was SiN.) My CD ROM drive was too slow to load the audio during SiN, and my Pentium 200 was barely handling it. Plus my Packard Bell had integrated video and no expansion slot for a graphics card. I had played UT in software mode on it, and it did run. But the grainy Game Boy Advance level visuals made seeing people with shock rifles in the distance impossible. When my brother and I played the game over a crossover cable, I had zero chance against his new 900mhz Athlon and TNT 2 combination.

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Fast forward and I had gotten a deal through work. My 1.2Ghz Athlon with 256MB RAM and a GeForce 2 were prepped to play it. That game consumed us after work. Sometimes we would stay after closing the showroom and repair center to play that on LAN through the server we had. I’ll never forget the one night a coworker got up from his station to look at my monitor to tell everyone where I was sniping them from. I had been on a sizeable killing spree as I picked them off. “Double Kill!” “Triple Kill!” “Mega Kill!” “M-M-M-MONSTER KILL!”. That came to a quick end when the staff collectively jumped me with miniguns, rippers, and rockets.

It (along with  Quake III Arena) was great because it took the secondary mode we’d played in DOOM over the modem, and made it into its own game. It also went in a different direction than Quake III Arena. It implemented a dodge system and a feigning death feature. Whereas Quake focused on speeding up momentum with advanced strategies like strafe jumping and rocket jumping. Both were excellent. Taking the same basic concepts and doing entirely different executions on them. Thus the Arena shooter was cemented as a subgenre.

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A few years later Epic would partner with Infogrames (Who had just bought Atari and rebranded itself as such) as a publisher and announce UT would be a yearly release. This was because they looked at the game’s story of futuristic blood sport and figured it could mirror what Sports games had done as a genre. So when UT2003 came out it started with an almost pro wrestling level introduction. It had its share of bugs and balancing issues. Plus not everyone was sold on the higher system requirements. Still, I remember the game demo being useful as it was on three of our stations at the time and I could show people that the cheap system wouldn’t run it (Or other games) well, due to the cost-cutting measures. (Low-end processor. integrated video. No card slot expansion due to the use of a flex case) but the midrange and high end would run it rather fantastically. Plus I enjoyed the demo so much when we got it available I picked it up. As I’ve said elsewhere before, it was here that I started to get into the higher-level stuff. I had decided I wanted to “Git Gud” as the kids say these days and that meant playing and researching a lot. And I still went back to the older game too as coworkers played it a lot, and even my friends and relatives enjoyed it.

I started out (and maybe this will help some of you out in a more modern game you enjoy) small. First, I decided that I would get 5 frags per round. I knew I had no hope of coming out on top consistently. There were just too many great players out there. But I was going to get that five kills. Middle. Bottom. I didn’t care. All that mattered was that I would get five kills. It was a small, achievable, reasonable goal. It took a good couple of weeks of playing to do that consistently. But once I got there, I moved the goal post. TEN frags per round.

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The other thing I noticed early on even in the first game was that people often ignored the Bio Rifle unless it was the only gun other than the starting weapon they had any ammo for. (In the first game you started with a pistol. In 2003 they started you off with an assault rifle.)  Much like in the Fighting game community, competitive shooters often have tier lists. (Now Maximillian Dood did a wonderful rant about how they’re often misused in fighters today.) But the same logic can apply to shooters. And while they’re not taken as gospel the way they can be in a fighting game community, they do sometimes have people treating some of the less popular weapons as ignorable and the more popular ones as coveted. Like the Energy sword in the original Halo for example. I remember people being called cheap for using it because people on the receiving end often couldn’t find a counter. In Unreal Tournament people often said that about the Flak Cannon and the Shock Rifle. Namely, because the Flak Cannon’s primary shot could ricochet shrapnel around corners and the Shock Rifle could shoot its secondary ammo with its primary shot after the secondary ammo had been fired. Causing a massive blast that could often kill more than 3 people at once if they were in close proximity.

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By contrast, nobody wanted to touch the Bio Rifle. So I decided since I wasn’t very good anyway, why not use the weapon nobody liked? So over time, I learned that the secondary fire could be held to charge up the slime almost like a spring on a pinball cabinet. And that a full charge would often one-shot someone unless they had full armor, and extra health. Even if they survived, they would be a mere two bullets or a laser or an explosion away from death. So I began practicing that weapon a lot.

Unreal Tournament 2003 also had a couple of extra game types the first one didn’t have which made the game stand out even more. The big one was Bombing Run which was like Football crossed with Team Deathmatch. It wasn’t my favorite mode, but it was interesting nevertheless. UT2k3 was also a crash course in video card upgrades for me along with Serious Sam The Second Encounter. Around this time Nvidia had released their GeForce 4 line of cards, and they didn’t have the most forthcoming naming convention. They had an MX line and a TI (Titanium) line of cards. And unfortunately, they didn’t do the best job of explaining what each was. I bought a GeForce 4400 MX from EB Games when I bought Serious Sam The Second Encounter. Only to find that it wasn’t a big leap in performance over my GeForce 2. It wasn’t until after this I did more research to find out it was basically a GeForce 2 with some more features thrown in. Nice for a buyer moving up from the onboard video. Not so much for someone who already had a card. Fortunately, a coworker needed a card for a slightly older rig so he was willing to buy it from me for a little less than I’d paid. I then ordered a GeForce 4 TI 4600 which was vastly superior. I had also upgraded the RAM to 512MB at one point.

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Still, a year and a half later Unreal Tournament 2004 was to be out. By this time in 2003 things at my job at the OEM weren’t so great. The dot com bust had hurt a bunch of stuff in tech. There was a price war, Things were on the downslope. It was also a time when I was tweaking any possible thing I could to get the best performance in games on my hardware. When I couldn’t crack 60FPS on my computer I had to take drastic action to ensure UT2k3 had as much memory freed up as possible. So I went into Windows ME and turned off all the visual flair making it look like a Windows 98 desktop. Still not content, I turned off animated windows, I tweaked all of the power settings. I even went into the services and disabled so many features I didn’t think I would ever need. Sure things looked pretty plain, but it held me over until I had my next upgrade. I was running the game at 70 FPS on medium to high settings. Pretty cool. Our showroom was scuttled later that year and I ended up taking a transfer to another showroom an hour or so away.  And things were pretty tense. We were given impossible metrics to hit and they eventually expected us to get business in the door by telemarketing out to small businesses in the town. Which obviously failed spectacularly. And our boss at the time just barked at us all the time about all of it even when we had great weeks.

I got along with everyone else though. But UT2003 got me through a number of particularly stressful patches at the time. I could stop worrying about the other shoe potentially falling when I would get home. It wasn’t all bad.  And I would also make a few friends which would eventually lead to me being on an actual team! I also became better friends with a couple of the folks I worked with. One of whom was into a lot of the same bands as I was. So we talked about music and went to some of the same New York and New England shows together. The best being getting to see The Mr. T Experience play The Space in February 2004. Unreal Tournament 2004 would drop in March of 2004. Things were getting really untenable at my job at this point, and many of us were considering walking out. A few weeks later we were told we were all losing our jobs by the end of April anyway. So we grit our teeth and bore it in order to get our severance, which was honestly a very good set of release benefits. I still had a little left by the time I landed another job months later.

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It was around this time I would discover the Super Witch server, where a number of regulars would play. And some of the better players had noticed my proficiency with the Bio Rifle. I was able to hold my own, often getting near the top of the board until tournament level players would pop in and clown me. But before long I was surprised to find a lot of these guys were impressed enough they wanted to help me learn some of the more advanced movement I hadn’t quite pulled off on my own. How to combine wall dodges with double jumps to get to harder to reach areas. Using an elevator jumps more effectively. Better planning map routes to beat people to power-ups. Eventually, I would be invited to join Maximum Carnage. And after a few months of being unemployed, I ended up getting a tech sales job at a big-box retailer. Probably not the one you’re thinking of. But I don’t look to stir the pot so I never mention names. Anyway, by this time I had resolved to build my first homebrew machine. I went with an Athlon 64 3500+ 1GB RAM and a GeForce 6600GT if my memory serves me right. So playing UT2k4 at maximum settings was very impressive at the time. A few years later I went with an X2 4600+ Processor upgrade

My job wasn’t that impressive, but at least on some level, I was still able to do some of what I liked about the previous job. Yes, I dealt with a lot of undue pressure because everything was in sheer panic mode, especially at the end. But getting to talk about tech, tying hardware to someone’s needs, and making people (hopefully) happy with a purchase was something I honestly liked most of the time. I also learned we actually did some repairs in the big box store but the company never advertised this at the time for whatever reason. We had one devoted technician for it, and he would come in a couple of days a week but went to several stores to do this work. I got to speak with him about it from time to time but in the interim, I mostly had the mundane task of sorting deliveries between my department and the others, then putting it all out in between helping people.

The people there at the time weren’t flogging me or anything (yet) but they seemed mostly cold. Nobody was all that personable. You were only spoken to when you needed to be. “Do this task.” “Mention this promo.” “Answer the phone with this call script.” It was a very clinical environment. There was one personable person in another department who ended up being there around as long as I was. So my early days consisted of work, then go home. Sometimes I would go hang out at the nearby record store I frequented regularly after work but more so as we weren’t that far away from it.

I had also joined a local writing group around then, so on nights that I could make the meetups at the local bookstore, I would go share my poetry, and talk about my writing process. It was definitely an older crowd. Not a lot of people my own age were there but I did enjoy that because a lot of what I wrote about was personal. Some of them fictionalized. Some of it was allegorical. But still very much about the inward feelings of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and loneliness I dealt with (and still sometimes deal with though I’m much better today). I also had a very scant few people I felt I could confide in at the time. So this was a creative and therapeutic outlet for me. The other had become my love of Unreal Tournament.

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When the bookstore closed there were a couple of places the writing group would meet up instead, but eventually that folded. In my time there I got the sense that people thought I had a modicum of talent, but probably didn’t like the ratio leaning so much into the dark themes versus the light themes. There were two people there Leon and Josh who I felt did fantastic commentary in their work. I felt happy when Josh actually managed to get something published, and I got to meet a couple of authors in my time there. Lauren Baratz-Logsted was pretty cool. Not exactly game related, but she has a few great novels you ought to look into if you’re looking for something different.

Anyway, I lost touch with everyone there but the Maximum Carnage clan had been a great group of people too. I was mingling with a great group of players, I was getting much better at all of the UT games up to that point, and we were consistently playing in scrims with tournament level clans. Unfortunately, we never got to the tournament level ourselves but we came pretty damn close.  By 2007 though Epic would prepare the third installment in the series which would come out in November.

This is where the series started to peter out, though it wasn’t instantaneous. There were good things and bad things going on. Unreal Tournament III was a great game. Make no mistake. It was a considerable visual upgrade. It retained a fast pace the series had been known for, and it even kept some of the most popular stuff from the previous game. The thing is the underlying gameplay did make some changes. The fanbase liked UT and UT2k4. With 2k4 they basically had fixed the problems 2k3 had while retaining all of the good stuff. Plus it gave everyone the highly acclaimed Onslaught mode. But UT fans also had their preferences. Some in the community preferred the original 1999 game. They liked the heavier gravity and the armor system. The fans who preferred the 2003/2004 model enjoyed some advanced movement techniques like the dodge jump or the double jump wall dodge. The lighter gravity also meant that maps were built around trick jumping. And there was a wide variety of outlandish characters. The 2003/2004 versions also employed an interesting adrenaline mechanic, where rather than picking up power-up icons like in UT99, collecting 100 pills would let you perform a special movement sequence to get the same effect. For instance, strafing left, left, right, right, would initiate the invisibility power-up.

Unreal Tournament III tried to bridge that gap. It went with a similar weight to the original game and used its shield belts, and jump boots too. But it also lets you do the advanced dodges featured in 2003/2004. But the other thing it did that many in the community didn’t like was using the art style of another popular game Epic had made for the Xbox 360; Gears Of War. Gone were the regular but interesting future soldiers of UT99 and the variety of sci-fi horror characters of 2003/2004. Instead, the characters had the big bulky space armor of the Marcus Fenix variety.

One other thing that set the game back a bit was the high (at the time) requirements for the PC version. While Crytek’s Crysis was even higher, both games had scrutinized releases as a result. That said, I had loved the series so much it was one of the few times I’ve actually bought a collector’s edition. Previously, I had even bought a book on creating content with the Unreal 2 Engine and even made a few crude UT2k4 maps in it. My clan took those maps and made them look pretty cool, adding advanced geometry and original textures. We also had the Zounds mutator on the server which had let us type certain words in chat to hear sound bites. Every time one typed in “Goo” into the chat you would hear Will Smith in Independence Day yelling “Oh you did NOT shoot that green shit at me!” 

The UT3 collector’s edition came with some cool stuff. A hardcover art book that you normally would pay a decent amount for if you saw it in a bookstore, as well as a number of videos on the making of the game, and even some interviews with Mark Rein and Mike Capps. It has a similar steelbook to the one Nintendo used for the Metroid Prime Trilogy. Very nice. Despite all of the things going against it, it still did adequately and Epic tried to make up for it with the Titan Black update. While I personally enjoyed UT3 most of the people in Maximum Carnage still played far more UT2k4. Sadly, we disbanded by the middle of 2008 or so. Which wasn’t the best time for me because I had a relationship end. Not a serious one. But it still hurt. Three games got me through it. Unreal Tournament 2004, Unreal Tournament III,  on my computer and the copy of No More Heroes my friend had given to me on the Wii for my birthday around then.

But this was also the time Call Of Duty 4 would be so popular it would almost transplant the Arena FPS as a subgenre. There had been popular military shooters before. The earlier entries of Call Of Duty all did well enough, and Battlefield 1942 surely inspired the Onslaught mode that was in Unreal Tournament 2004. But the grounded realism proved very popular and the Arena FPS would take a backseat.

There were flashes here and there. id Software had some success with Quake Live, which (at the time) was Quake III Arena running in a browser. It was popular enough that it even retained a presence in tournaments for a long time. But on the whole, the publishers shifted gears to military shooters. Call Of Duty, of course, was more focused on individual scoring while Battlefield was a little more team-oriented. But Medal Of Honor, Brothers In Arms, Arma, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, Day Of Defeat were but a handful of the many names that would become quite popular. Even Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six had left a lot of its tactical shooting mechanics in the dust by then giving us stuff like Lockdown, Vegas, and Vegas 2 instead.

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Replaying the Unreal Tournament series not only took me back to those days in my life, but it was also a reminder of what makes the Arena shooter such a great subgenre. Like other multiplayer games, there’s obviously the thrill of competition. But when it comes to the way they play, there is little else like them. First of all, speed. Arena FPS games focus a lot on an arcade experience. So one of the things you need to do is constantly tweak your hand and eye coordination. It isn’t enough to shoot at people. You have to be able to shoot them quickly and efficiently. You also have to make good use of footwork. If you’re a great shot, but horrible at moving, you’re probably getting taken out by different opponent than the one you’re trying to take down. And even if you’re fantastic that might happen anyway.

Arena shooters easy to pick up and play. Anyone can hop in, get a couple of kills and have a good time. But they have a fairly deep meta game in spite of the simplicity. That’s what has made them (along with fighting games) pioneers in the e-sports realm. People like Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel made names for themselves in Quake and Unreal Tournament. They paved the way for the names and genres you see represented today. Even if you don’t have tournaments and endorsements as your video game end goal, learning those advanced techniques can be addicting and very rewarding at the same time. The first time you’re able to find a secret room in a map because you mastered an elevator jump or the first time you survive a shock combo because you timed a dodge jump just right feels very good. When you find you can get around a map with trick jumps faster than you can by walking. These are all examples of the sense of wonder you get when something just clicks.

Of course, since their heyday, we’ve seen Military Shooters, Hero Shooters, and Battle Royale Shooters become the popular FPS multiplayer subgenres. We already talked a bit about the Call Of Duty and Battlefields. But games like Overwatch have proven popular too. Games were rather than grab everything on a map, or begin with a loadout you start with a character. Said character is designed to play a certain role on a team and you try to plan your team composition not only around your own talents but what character is the best at a given task on a certain map.

All of these games take elements from those old school games of course. Military Shooters try to have balanced maps and reward cooperation. Hero Shooters retain some of the fantastical elements. Sometimes in the weapons or utilities of a certain character. Or the otherworldly aesthetic of a certain location. Although it’s a Third-Person Shooter, I find there are many parallels between Nintendo’s Splatoon games and the Unreal Tournament games. Both series, while very different in their goals require a mastery of movement. Where UT has advanced techniques like dodges or wall dodges to quickly cover ground or use them as an unorthodox means of travel, Splatoon requires you to learn how to do swim jumps. Or learn how to swim up walls, or jump between walls to get to a place that was once thought impossible to see. Splatoon’s Bubble Blower Special is eerily close to Unreal Tournament’s Shock Combo.

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These days, the Battle Royale subgenre is all of the rages. Games like Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite, and Apex Legends are always talked about, have huge fanbases and even push their share of collectible merchandise like action figures and resin statues. They’re frequently headlining video game tournaments, and are played by a lot of the world’s top players for thousands of dollars in prize money. And while it would be easy to write them off as a lottery where you run from a dome, that wouldn’t be fair. At their core, they’re the Last Man Standing mode featured in many old school deathmatch games. But expanded to 100 players. Also, like the Arena Shooters of old, you have to go explore to find yourself a weapon of note. And to the subgenre’s credit, the dome mechanic keeps everything from devolving into a snore where every player who finds a long-range sniper rifle will just camp for three hours in the hopes that everyone else will get bored and walk out into the line of fire. It basically forces every player to do so.

Still, I personally wish the Arena FPS subgenre would come back to the forefront of popularity. It’s a fantastic one for the reasons I’ve outlined earlier. Many people agree and likely have similar fond memories of firing up Quake or Unreal, staying up until 4am playing against friends over the internet with a few beers. Or hardcore types going to BYOB LAN parties or local tournaments for the fellowship, community, and competition.

Since then there have been occasional attempts by smaller developers to bring the subgenre back. Nexius was born out of that desire back in 2012 but didn’t get very far out of the gate despite being pretty respectable. Fast forward to 2014 and Reflex Arena hit Steam in an attempt to give people unsatisfied with the lack of a proper Quake entry something to like. To its credit, it did a fantastic job of bringing back the Quake III Arena feel. But it didn’t hold onto a big group of players for very long. The arguably most successful attempt was Toxikk which brought back the Unreal Tournament 2004 gameplay nearly 1:1 on Unreal Engine 3. It came out four years ago now and held a sizable number of players for almost two years. But eventually, it too petered out.

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Epic Games DID have an Unreal Tournament IV in the works. It was going to be a collaborative experiment where they would again align with Digital Extremes, as well as content creators. The original plan was to build the game and ship it for free. Then when the end-users got their hands on the game and tools, they could make their own maps, mods, and total conversions as they had with UT, UT2k3/2k4, and UT3. The difference now being they would sell those on Epic’s digital store and take a cut to cover the cost of production. As well as a profit I’m sure. It actually got pretty far along and you can still download it from their store. The thing is it was canceled when Epic Games realized just how much oil they had struck with Fortnite. The people they had working on Unreal Tournament were moved to Fortnite and the game was put on indefinite hiatus. It’s highly unlikely it will ever see completion at this point.

The other thing, of course, is that games of this ilk can cost millions of dollars to make. Especially if it’s going to have the bleeding edge Hollywood visuals and sound of a AAA blockbuster release. Sadly, that means the Epic Games’, Bethesda’s, EA’s, Activision’s, Ubisoft’s, or Warners of the world probably aren’t going to put the money up to make a go of it. If only the old-timers like me buy it, that probably isn’t enough of a profit to impress their shareholders.

It isn’t only Arena Shooters in this boat mind you. There are other video game genres and subgenres that lie dormant today. Most esoteric these days are probably hex-based strategy games and text adventures. Which still exist and have their rabid fanbases. But they’re not exactly games you’re going to hear about around the watercooler. Be that as it may, it isn’t entirely hopeless either. Things come and go in popularity sometimes. And in the world of gaming, this has happened many times. Back in the age of the Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn, and Sony PlayStation, there were many who thought the 2D platformer would forever have a fork in its back. Super Mario 64, Banjo Kazooie, Crash Bandicoot, were all games that people were about at the time. Nearly everyone was trying to make games where the mascot was made of polygons rather than sprites.

But 2D platformers would eventually come back into vogue and they sit alongside the 2.5D, and 3D platformers today as if nothing had ever happened to them. There was also a time when Square Enix thought their old school JRPGs were done. But just a few years ago Octopath Traveler’s success showed Square Enix that there is still plenty of gas in the tank. It did so well on the Switch that last year they ported the game to PC. Before the release of Street Fighter IV, it was widely thought Capcom may never make another one. The people behind it had to plead their case multiple times before the company would let them make it. Thankfully, they were able to. Not only did it lead the way for other Capcom fighting games, but other companies also brought back their fighting games as well. There was a reemergence of the genre as a whole.

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So there’s always the chance a newcomer will make the Arena Shooter that clicks again, or there’s evidence that enough people do want a proper Unreal Tournament or Quake that Epic Games or Bethesda bring one to market again. The good news is that the old UT and Quake games are still around. The indie releases of recent years are still around. All of which support LAN play. So if nothing else, if you can get a few friends to pick up one of them you can still enjoy them. Maybe you won’t see the same level of competition you would have seen 21 years ago. But they don’t have to die with the generation of people who played them in their prime. I hope some of you will be willing to check the genre out. And some of them like Quake Champions and Toxikk can be played for nothing.

Arena Shooters and Unreal Tournament, in particular, helped me cope, helped me connect with people, made me a better player and even gave me the drive to learn something new. I may not have become a professional player. I may not have gotten a better job or fame or fortune. But I did see some positive things come from what was otherwise a silly game meant for fun. So I’ll always fondly remember them, and I’ll likely keep an eye out for the next attempt at spotlighting the subgenre.

The trouble with tier lists

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Any game with a competitive setting in mind will have a host of tools for players to choose from. Okay, well most competitive games anyway. You really don’t get to select from a variety of paddles in PONG. But throughout the history of video games, many games have given the players who’ve enjoyed them some variety. By the time the Commodore 64 rolled around we had games like Mail Order Monsters where we were choosing which giant twisted creatures we were going to command and level against one another.

Of course, by the mid-1990s we had reached a point where games didn’t have to give both competitors carbon copies of one another. This was also the period when fighting games would truly evolve beyond the usual martial arts competition games we’d seen before. Data East had given us Karate Champ, Epyx had given us World Karate Championship (a.k.a. International Karate), but Capcom’s Street Fighter would move the needle a bit. It had the same approach as Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! in the sense that you were going to essentially be playing a boss rush. To a lesser extent, one could point to Konami’s Yie Ar Kung Fu.

But Street Fighter would spawn Street Fighter II and SNK’s Fatal Fury. and before long the genre would see a slew of contenders. This is the point where fighting games gave players several characters to choose from. Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter, Killer Instinct, Tekken, and a host of other contenders would also enter the fray. All of them would put their own spins and tweaks on the fighting game formula.

While this was going on in arcades, in the PC Gaming side of things another major genre we love today was coming up: First-Person-Shooters. Obviously, we think of games like Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM for wowing everyone by putting us in the head of a hero. But DOOM, Rise Of The Triad, Duke Nukem 3D, and Quake brought us the Deathmatch. And while most of these games gave us all the same character, they all had different weapons strewn throughout their maps. Before long, the FPS would be bringing us multiplayer-focused experiences like Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament. 

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But these genres’ options in characters and weapons both led to something. Something called the tier list.

Tier lists are most referenced in fighting games but they also show up in First-Person Shooters due to the possible weapon matchups that can occur at any given time. Within a few weeks of release, you’ll begin to see them pop up in their respective game communities. Showing off brackets that group the combatants or the weapons into different levels or “Tiers” of effectiveness in battle.

These lists change continually over the lifespan of their respective games. As new strategies are discovered, new content is added via DLC, and when patches are created by the developers to fix bugs or rebalance the game they’re redone. Who makes these lists? Usually, it’s the absolute best players of any given competitive game. The top 1% of the top 10% of tournament level players. Here, they lay their opinions down at the feet of everyone in the community. And to be honest, at that level of play it makes some sense. It gives the absolute best players a good idea of which matchups are going to be the most difficult, or most balanced among two players of equal skill.

The problem is that these lists are not gospel. Even among the top bracket, there will be a lot of debate because one player might intricately know a supposedly lower-tier character or weapon has a technique or talent that isn’t being given enough credit by the author. And sometimes these debates may change the writer’s mind.

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Be that as it may, the unfortunate trend in recent years has been that average people have been taking these lists as concrete law. Leading to a swath of people entering into a game like Street Fighter V, going on Eventhubs to find Karin on the top of the list and immediately choosing to use them. Because they want to win, and in their minds being number 1 on their list means they should always win.

It doesn’t take anything else into account. Why did the authors think Karin was the best character in the game? What does the character have over the other characters? How complicated are these advantages to learn? Are they really *that* much better? Because if one pays any attention they’ll notice that some matchups are nearly even, and there are even a couple of characters that give them some trouble.

And whether you decide to believe a list or not, these were generally made by people who have tens of thousands upon tens of thousands of hours in experience in it. Those who have mastered most of the fighters in a game or weapons in a game as well as arenas and maps. What they’re talking about pertains to a very small portion of the audience playing the game regularly. Although with things like Tiermaker, pretty much anyone can make one about anything. I made a joke list for a private group below.

 

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The reality is that if you take any of the best players in a given game, and force them to use the tools they haven’t written a lot of fondness for they’ll still likely win even if they think they’re using inferior tools. Because they have enough of a handle on the ins and outs of that weapon. They know exactly where the best sniper locations are, and they’ll still take you out with the pea shooter. They know when you’re going to try to use that awesome super and they’re going to make you whiff it. And when you do they will absolutely punish you.

Until you get to that kind of a level of talent in your favorite competitive game, pay no mind to these kinds of lists. Instead, find that character you like, or that weapon you feel comfortable with and try to go as far as you can with them. Along the way, you may just discover things even some of those who are objectively better than you haven’t yet. Then use those things to your advantage. To truly get better at any competitive game you’ll have to get used to losing and analyzing those losses. Eventually, you’ll start finding those holes in your plans and patching them. You’ll change strategies. Something far more effective than looking at a list and changing a character or a weapon.

ION FURY Review

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In recent years we’ve had a few high-profile games that hearken back to the early days of the PC FPS. There was a pretty great Rise Of The Triad reboot, a few years ago. Bethesda brought back DOOM, and New Blood Interactive has hit it out of the park by publishing DUSK, and AMID EVIL. But where all of these games bring back the elements of old using modern technology, Voidpoint went for the new game in the 1990s mold a different way. They actually went with technology that was released in the 1990s.

PROS: An excellent use of the 1996 3DRealms Build Engine in an all-new game!

CONS: There isn’t much for you beyond a terrific single-player campaign.

JON ST. JOHN IS BACK: But not as the gun-toting action hero he made famous.

Ion Fury had a few swerves on the lead up to release. When I bought it in Early Access eons ago it was called Ion Maiden. And it was one bug-ridden demo level. Once the issues were hashed out, it was one excellent demo level. But it hit other speedbumps like a potential lawsuit from a major record label and Iron Maiden because of the letter “R”.

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But a lot has changed since then and now that the game is officially out we have a new name, full-fledged campaign, and some other bonus content for good measure. Voidpoint also built this entire game on the very same technology 3DRealms used itself for Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior.  The game runs in a modified version of Build Engine that works under the modern Windows 10 environment. No need to fire up DOSBox, or write a batch file. It runs natively.

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But they didn’t just reskin a bunch of Duke 3D content. Everything here is all new. A cast of wild and inventive new enemies. A bunch of fun and interesting new weapons. A plethora of crazy new enemies to turn into gibs. A slew of stages that will have you really thinking about how things work in between volleys of enemy waves and hellfire.  They did a lot to push 23-year-old video game engine technology beyond what was thought possible. It even simulates some room over room scenarios with some clever tricks as Build technically was never designed to do so. We wouldn’t see that until iD Software created Quake.

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So the game is technically impressive, but how is the gameplay? Honestly, it’s quite good. If not for a few things I’ll get to later on, this could be the game people wanted Duke Nukem Forever to have been. You play as Shelly Harrison, the protagonist of the little-known twin-stick shooter Bombshell. Ion Fury is technically a prequel to that game. In any case, Shelly is after a mad scientist Dr. Jadus Heskel. Like many fictional insane villains with a Ph.D. Heskel has an army of twisted designs and is bent on taking over the world. He also has many acolytes in his group. So you can expect to go up against every sci-fi, and Saturday Morning Cartoon enemy trope you can think of.

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There are the cultists, zombies, cyborg ninjas, terminators, demons, death bots you would expect to face in a game like this. But there are a lot of other hidden surprises. But the game also gets points for being a bit more original with the designs of most of its rogues’ gallery. You’ve seen these kinds of enemies in many games over the last four decades. But they do have terrific, original costumes most of the time. Though there are a number of them that do not differentiate themselves from the henchmen in the late-night B-movies that inspired them. Though the ankle-biting enemies in this game will likely infuriate you as it can be impossible to see these heads with spider legs when they’re clipping behind 2D scenery sprites like trash cans or trees.

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Regardless of that annoyance, the stages in this game are very well thought out. As you get further in the game they become pretty intricate, rivaling some of the biggest maps from DOOM, Duke Nukem 3D, and Shadow Warrior. In late-game stages, you’ll often find the familiar color-coded keys bring you back to earlier areas or open up previously inaccessible paths. Simply trying to complete some of these can take you close to an hour. Possibly more. Then there are the secret areas. Some of them are obvious. If you’re going down a hallway, and see an air vent you may as well shoot the cover off and climb into the air duct. But others can be rather obtuse.

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If you’re just looking to blow through the game without worrying about finding every last secret and Easter egg, it will still take you a considerable amount of time to do so. As I’ve mentioned before, these levels are quite large with intricate paths. Then there are the set-piece moments peppered in. These are the times where you’ll hear Dr. Heskel taunt Shelly while the game introduces a major puzzle, new enemy group, or a boss encounter. These are done exceptionally well by the actor who brought Duke Nukem to life in Duke3D; Jon St. John. Here, he does a fantastic job of portraying a stereotypical supervillain. Even if the rest of the game doesn’t do much to flesh out the character, Jon St. John makes up for it a bit with some great delivery.

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And while Jon St. John isn’t reprising his most famous video game role, there is someone bringing you the snarky one-liners. That’s Valerie Arem. She’s the voice behind Shelly Harrison and Harrison brings the B movie quips as well as Duke Nukem did. Whether she’s blowing up cyborgs with bowling bombs, discovering new weapons or interacting with things in the environment you’re going to hear some great line delivery. Sometimes the game may replay them a bit too much. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. It really does feel like you’re playing a Duke Nukem 3D spinoff.

Of course, the modern standards that have been added here also make the game much easier to play than the old Build Engine games in their vanilla forms.  But it won’t be an easy game. When you’re not facing hordes from recently opened monster closets, you’ll rack your brain trying to figure out which path to take in the maze you’re currently in. And again, the visuals are all new in spite of running on modified old tech. The gritty textures and sprites will feel both new and familiar. For younger players who never experienced Duke Nukem 3D or Blood or Shadow Warrior back in the day, it might just give you enough understanding of why those games are considered classics while giving you a fantastic new experience.

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All told you’ll spend anywhere between 7 to 20 hours clearing the campaign, and for the completionists out there you’ll spend even further trying to get every last secret. All while jamming to some pretty great Electronica by Jarkko Rotsten that hearkens back to those 90s DTV films that used to adorn the video rental store walls.

When you clear the campaign there is a horde mode to play, but honestly, it feels pretty weak compared to the main game. Even if it can’t compete with the massive player bases of things like Overwatch I think a Deathmatch or Capture The Flag mode would have been much more fun. Barring that, an actual Co-operative campaign option would have been even better, giving players more replay value as they could play with friends on a second or third playthrough.

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Still, for what it is, it is a fun ride that gives you what it advertises; a fun, modern shooter built to appeal to the classics on a classic engine. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in playing, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy your time with Ion Fury. It’s a very well-made game that does what it does well. It pushes old tech to the limit while providing FPS fans with a new game. You’ve seen a lot of what it does before, yes. But it somehow doesn’t feel derivative. It’s a fun game with a cool protagonist.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Insurgency Sandstorm Review

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Wow, two reviews this week? I really had to crunch to get this one done. It’s worth it though because like DUSK, this is a new FPS release that really ought to be on your radar. Insurgency Sandstorm, like its predecessor is here to give you a blend of arcade run speed, with late 90’s tactical subgenre features. But does it reach the lofty goals set forth by the original?

PROS: It’s an Insurgency sequel on a much newer engine!

CONS: Not every promised feature is here (yet.) Minor issues.

GIBS: A common 90’s FPS feature returns.

The original Insurgency set that bar rather high. What had started out as a mod became a full-fledged game that pushed Valve’s Source engine to its limit. It bridged the gap between Tactical FPS games like Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, and large-scale objective Military Team FPS games like Battlefield. In doing so, it offered a great alternative to some of the titles in the AAA space. While it didn’t run on the latest tech, it did give players a unique experience. Insurgency did well for itself, cutting out a nice niche for itself, and becoming one of the most beloved competitive games on Steam for some time.

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So what does this newer version bring to the table? Does it improve on the foundation set by the original? Should you play this over something else in the subgenre? All of these are questions you might have going into this one, and they’re all valid ones to ask. When the game was announced it was touting a robust single-player campaign in addition to the multiplayer goodness fans of the first game came for. It showed off some vehicle play, and all in a vast uptick in visual fidelity.

Well let’s get the one major point of contention some will have out-of-the-way. There is no one-player campaign. At least not yet. Now to be fair, those who followed the news around this game during its development, or played it while it was in Early Access were told it wasn’t going to make it in by launch. So a big chunk of the potential audience who were excited upon seeing it during E3 2017 already know this. But if you were one of those interested who saw the early trailers, put it on your “Look forward to seeing it when it comes out” list, and are just now looking at it? You’re going to be disappointed.

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But this is also not an “All is lost” moment, the studio has said it should be coming later, and that it should be included along with the other DLC. And that’s where the barometer may swing from disappointed to optimistic. Because the folks at New World Interactive will not be charging for DLC, nor implementing micro transactions or loot boxes. So everything that comes out for this game in the future will cost you nothing extra. New maps will be included. New weapons they decide to add will be included. Any new modes they cook up will also be included. So the lack of the campaign might sting, but they haven’t outright cancelled it either. If you only come to your army shooters for a campaign, and touch nothing else, you may want to wait. Or not, because there are things here you might still enjoy.

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Of course Insurgency, became a cult hit for a number of reasons. Its various modes. Its unique blend of styles. And that it pushed an aging technology pretty far in the process of delivering its fun. It didn’t look as good as the games EA, and Activision were putting out, but it stood in the same league when it came to game play. And that trend does indeed continue in Insurgency Sandstorm.

Think of Insurgency Sandstorm as an experiment in combining the best elements of various military themed shooters you’ve played over the years. All while implementing its own ideas into the monster before releasing it upon the world. What does it borrow? Well it gives you the vast conquest maps Battlefield fans would love. It also uses point capture as the primary goal of its competitive modes. Insurgency Sandstorm has three of them. (Though like the campaign, more may follow.)

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PUSH: This is the mode most like the Rush mode in the Battlefield games. It places one army as defenders, and one army as attackers. Attackers have a miniscule number of lives spread across its combatants. While Defenders have a much larger pool. However, if the attackers manage to take the first point on the map, they will gain more lives. They will also force the defensive team to fall back to their next point. This continues until either the defenders are made to fight their last stand, with no remaining lives to defend a cache. If the attackers blow it up, the defenders are defeated. The defenders will also be defeated if all of their lives are lost.

What makes this mode compelling is that there are a number of ways each side can approach their situation. When playing defense, you can do what I like to do. You can literally lie down on the objective (represented by a room with a giant flashing letter.), and attempt to kill any intruders. If enough of your team follows suit, it becomes nearly impossible to take the point. However, I said “nearly”. That’s because there are any number of ways a skilled attacking team can crack this. They can employ explosives to spook people to leave the point or die. They can send in their best stealth players to get inside. They can try to flank spawning defenders rushing to get back to the point. These are just some of the strategies you’ll see employed.

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FIREFIGHT: Is the next mode, and here all of the points on the map are preset with both armies having to take an attack position. One point is predetermined to be for one side. The second for the other side, and the third being unclaimed. The first team to capture all three of these wins. However, it isn’t easy because each player has only one life. The only way you get to come back into the battle is if your team captures a point while you’re dead. What people love about this mode is that there’s a tug of war going on with it. If you’ve got two points, but not the third, you’ll have to send people to take the third. But that means the opposing team will find less resistance, at one of your two points. If they take one, you’re at a disadvantage, and have to figure out which of their now two points is easier to take.

SKIRMISH: Takes the game play of Firefight, and adds the caches from the Push mode which gives each team multiple lives. So you’ll be going along in your back, and forth. But the twist comes when one of the caches is destroyed. Without a cache, your team will fall back to the stock Firefight rules, which makes it easier to become overrun. So you have to decide as a team whether you want to go all out, and take points. Or do you designate a few of your combatants to defend the cache while others go for points? Insurgency Sandstorm involves its own strategies into proven concepts.

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This is where the implementation of other ideas, along with NWI’s modern twists, and original features really begins to take shape. Insurgency Sandstorm may use some ideas you’ve seen elsewhere, but it isn’t a knock off. It isn’t just reskinning a popular game, and shouting “Ta-da!”. It’s transformative. It retools these ideas to work in ways that weren’t expected before. It again, also has original ideas too. That’s what made the first game so great, and that continues here in the combat system.

 

Like the original, it takes a page from the original Rainbow Six games, and goes for far more realistic damage. If you play Rainbow Six Siege, as fun as it is, you can still survive firefights if you get shot. Even if you go down a friend can revive you. But if you go way back, and play Rainbow Six 1,2, or 3, that is rarely the case. In those games a single hit was usually lethal. If you were hit in a limb, maybe you could take a second bullet to go down. Insurgency Sandstorm is tough like that. If you get shot, you’re probably dead. If you’re hit in the arm, perhaps you’ll find some cover to survive a little bit longer. But another hit, and you’re toast. Because while your vision comes back, your health does not.

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But Insurgency Sandstorm goes further. Because it eschews plenty of other ideas its competitors love. For instance, there is no mini map. There are no little lights on a square in the corner telling you where to go. You’ll see a flashing letter in the distance. But that’s it. Insurgency Sandstorm has no kill cam. You may be able to have the run speed of a soldier (provided you have no body armor) of a Call Of Duty entry. But when you get sniped running onto the point, and die you will not be watching the person who killed you as you wait to spawn. You can see your teammates, and communicate with them if you see a threat near them. But that is it.

Insurgency Sandstorm also adds a bit of realism in its movement. When you sprint you may not tire. However, you also can not shoot. You have to think about that when going about. If you think you can blast a nest of enemies while charging into a room, think again. At best you can kick doors down while running, and if it hits an enemy in the process you can kill them with the door. But you’ll also be wide open when the other campers see it. On the flip side, if you’re trying to snipe, and you’re too close to the banister, your arm will simply bend back toward you, as you struggle to find a spot where your gun isn’t going to go up against an object. It’s a small thing, but it adds a lot to the environment.

 

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Insurgency Sandstorm borrows an element from Arena shooters of yesteryear too: Gibs. In this game, getting hit in key parts of the body will cause limbs to fly off, heads to explode, and bodies to disintegrate. Since this game is going for a little bit more realism it doesn’t come off like it would in The Expendables. It comes off a little bit more like Glory. Rather it tries to. It doesn’t quite make that emotional transition, but it doesn’t elicit that same joyous surprise as it did back in DOOM, Duke 3D, or QUAKE. At least not for me. The point is, there is an element of its use in a contemporary setting that might remind some players of how horrific wars can be. Whether or not this is intentional is solely up to the artists to decide. They may have been going for the action movie vibe more so than the dramatic movie vibe. In which case I think it fell somewhere in between. But they do come off as impressive. The first time you see it, you really won’t be expecting it, and it honestly might just shock you even knowing about it going in.

The move to Unreal Engine 4 also means a big uptick in visual fidelity, and a jump in system requirements. However, New World Interactive deserves some praise in just how much they’ve done to ensure those like me, with aging video cards can still play their game with great performance. If you do happen to have the hardware that can run this at or near maximum settings, you’ll be pretty pleased with the end result. There are some very impressive lighting effects, Anti-Aliasing effects, Bump mapping effects, among others that UE4 can support. However, if you have a machine that’s five years old, you’re probably not going to be playing any game maxed out. The scalability this game provides is great, as are its customization options.

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All of the shots you’re seeing in this review were taken at the lowest settings. These can hang with a lot of other games despite the reduced image quality. Granted, you can’t expect miracles either. If you’ve got a ten-year old computer with barely any RAM to speak of by today’s standards,  you probably cannot run it. But If you have at least a fourth generation Intel i5 or AMD FX 6330 (around 5 years old now), a NVIDIA GTX 760 or AMD Radeon 7970 in there (also around 5 years old as of this writing), and a good 16GB of RAM in your system you likely can. And at better performance than you might expect. At the lowest settings, I’ve been able to play between 70, and 90 frames per second resulting in a relatively smooth, and responsive experience.

And with the game slated to hit the Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 next year, it does give those who prefer a console experience something to look forward to. As for the artistic side of the visuals, they’ve really gone out of their way here as well. Textures on buildings, look sharp, the costumes of the characters all fit the motif the game tries to present. Even on the lowest details, the backgrounds all still look great with some nice lights, and shadow effects going on.

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As in the original game, one side of the roster is composed of security forces. So when playing  as a security force member you’ll have a military themed character. The other side is composed of insurgents where you’re basically playing as a terrorist group of villains. One thing this game introduces over its predecessor is a cosmetic customization option. As you play the game you’ll earn in game currency. Much like Nintendo’s Splatoon series, you cannot buy this currency. These are points you use exclusively for this feature. Unlike Splatoon, these clothing options do nothing else. It’s strictly just to personalize your characters when playing online. No perk slots, no RPG elements, that is it. That being said, a lot of the costume selections are quite good, and go for something grounded. You won’t be running around on the security side wearing only pants, and bandoliers or rocking a Cobra Commander costume on the insurgent forces.

As in the first game, there are no unlockable weapons. When you start the game every one of your classes is given a certain number of points. Which you can use on your load out. So you have to use tactics even when deciding what to go onto the front lines in. You may not have to grind your way to that powerful machine gun you want to use. But if it costs a lot of points that doesn’t leave you a lot left over for attachments, or defensive items or a secondary item. Similarly, you can choose to go for a lot of body armor, and items. But this will actually affect your run speed by making you slower. You might be able to take a third or fourth bullet before dying though. So you need to approach every class situation differently.

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Also new to this game are new Commander, and Observer classes. These classes have to work together, and stay within a certain proximity to one another. Because these classes can work to call in air support. They can call in helicopters, or mortar storms to help them push when attacking, or to defend their position when being pressured. Every one of the classes is viable though, and if you couldn’t already tell, the best way to play is with friends who communicate. Insurgency Sandstorm is very much designed around teamwork. It has built-in chat, so you can easily talk to your team on the fly. For those who don’t have a headset, or a microphone, you can still type to your team members.

On the other hand, when playing with random strangers, there is always going to be a troll or two. It’s just the reality of online gaming. Fortunately this time around you can mute everybody wholesale if you have the misfortune of dropping to a match where everyone annoys you. Still, when playing with friends, the voice chat can be an accommodating feature. Especially for those with friends who don’t know how to set up their own chat alternatives like Discord.

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And if all of the heated PvP stuff sounds too tough for you, the cooperative mode included is something you may gravitate toward. Similar to the Terrorist Hunt mode of the Rainbow Six series, Insurgency Sandstorm’s cooperative experience pits you, and others up against a team of NPC bots. With frequently changing objectives. It basically blends some of its competitive elements into the mode. So at first you, and the other humans may be taking points. But then the game will decide you have to defend the one you just claimed against an onslaught, or destroy a cache. But all of it is done in, a fun, and entertaining way.  You’ll get a variety of enemy bot skill levels. Some will be pretty good at movement, others will be marksmen. But you’ll occasionally get that idiotic bot that just stands there after missing. Still, they employ some tactics one might not expect, making for some surprises. And of course for those who only want to go up against the best, Insurgency Sandstorm features a competitive option where you’ll be placed with other people on ranked servers, and modes to keep up your street cred.

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For those who absolutely must have something here for playing alone, there are a couple of minor options though. There are a couple of short tutorials that get you used to the game’s mechanics, and modes. These aren’t really necessary for those who have played FPS titles for years, though it can catch you up on the nuances here. The aforementioned cooperative mode is here however again as a single player option. Sadly this just isn’t going to be as fun as the cooperative experience. That’s because you’re paired with bots who aren’t as adept as the bots you’ll go up against, and you’re only given one life per objective. So if you die trying to get the first objective, the round ends, and you’ll move onto the next. This makes the one player option a lot more challenging too because without some competent bots, you’re basically going up against an entire army alone. Still you get five attempts, and winning alone is doable.

But there are also a load of options for you to tinker with. Not just the aforementioned graphics settings, and performance settings. Not just the look of your hero or villain. You can even tweak some of the marker settings, like changing the colors of the letter markers,  and names to something clearer to you than the default. You can also put on displays to show you the current frame rate, and ping. Things that have been in Unreal Engine games for years, but are often closed off in newer releases. It’s nice to see it here so that you can see the math when turning something on or off.

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There are a few problems I do have to point out though. While I imagine most people will get pretty good performance out of this game, there are a number of small visual glitches I’ve stumbled upon. In one game I noticed somebody’s weapon just flickering in the sky before the round began. Another round I noticed player models that hadn’t completely loaded in. So they were shooting at me, but the weapon they were using couldn’t be seen. These are rare occurrences. But the common issue I run into is texture pop in. Again, it loads in fast enough. It doesn’t affect the game play. But the 2 seconds between seeing a blue wall, and seeing a blue wall, with dents in it, and other details can sometimes distract from the experience. I suspect it could be an issue with older cards, that will eventually be fixed with patches, and drivers. But it is a minor problem.

When playing the cooperative mode, alone or with other players, there are a few minor nitpicks. Mainly with the inconsistent A.I. as I mentioned earlier, the bots you face can have a fair amount of variety in skill which is nice. But when you have to rely on them in your team, and a few decide to be idiots, you almost wish they weren’t there. The enemy bot spawns could have been obfuscated a little bit better too, as there were a couple of times in the single player cooperative I could go out a door of a point I had to defend, and see the game drop them in.

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In the grand scheme of things these issues don’t really amount to much of anything. The A.I. is still better than in many of the bots in other titles. The game rarely looks anything less than great aside from the 2-4 seconds of pop in you may experience. Leaving the bot spawn issues, which really breaks the immersion more than anything else. Back on the pvp end of things, there is far less to pick apart. The net code is generally very good. Unless you’re connecting to a server half the world away, you don’t see a lot of rubber banding, or players warping around like Mr. Game & Watch.

All of the online modes are generally quite fun. The studio kept them to the best maintained modes of the first game to ensure that you can always find someone to play against, and this strategy has worked. Yes, you can get into situations where there are people trying to spawn camp, or situations where you’ll have people on your team who refuse to run to the giant flashing “A” along with everyone else. But these aren’t issues with the game, these are the same issues you’ll run into with certain individuals in any multiplayer game. Fortunately, the game does offer the ability for you to mute individual people, or even everyone wholesale.

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The gun play is fantastic. Every weapon has a nice heft to it, and there are options here for every type of player. If you prefer to cover your team, there are many sniping options. If you want to go stealth, there are a slew of close range rifles, shotguns, SMGs, and other options, and attachments. The sounds of gunfire, and explosions are phenomenal too, which adds to that feeling of weight. You also have to hold your breath to steady your aim. Not only with the long-range weapons, but every weapon. Hip firing will just go wherever the gun is aimed. So panic shooting is going to be a crap shoot. These are all seemingly tiny things. But they add so much depth to the combat.

The maps are also mostly really good. Save for an exception or two, just about every map is built around each mode, and objectives are set that put either an attacker or defender into a tough situation at any given time. There are choke points defenders can use to their advantage. There are multiple paths attackers can take at any given time. The inclusion of vehicles in the Push mode also adds a new dynamic. I would have liked to have seen more of them. But between the drivable trucks with mounted guns, and the air strikes the two new classes can call in, there are new strategies that have to be employed to deal with them. And some maps actually make using these things harder. On the refinery stage enemies can just go inside buildings to escape the wrath of a Blackhawk helicopter. Similarly someone can put out roadside bombs in key locations that might deter someone from racing to the point in a pickup.

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In spite of its faults, Insurgency Sandstorm is a phenomenal game. It offers a real alternative to those who have felt disenfranchised with Electronic Arts’, and Activision’s annualized offerings. While it might not have quite the same level of visual fidelity of Battlefield or Call Of Duty, it also doesn’t require the purchase of season passes or micro transactions to have access to everything included in it down the line. The game play in it is also unique thanks to reintroducing an audience to hardcore simulation elements while retaining the run speed of something more twitchy. Absolute simulation purists may still want to go to the excellent ARMA games. And while this game may not be as recognized by the wider audience, the potential is there for that to change.  Especially if the game’s smaller issues are cleared, and the promised campaign shows up before it sees a port to consoles next year.

Whether you loved the original Insurgency, and poured hundreds of hours into it, or you’re a military FPS veteran looking for something new, this is pretty much a game you’ll enjoy diving into. This is also an excellent option for those who want something competitive to play, but without the pressure to spend more money. It’s also a great game for the casual military FPS fan who doesn’t have thousands of hours to devote to unlocking things. Insurgency was also supported for many years after it came out, and there’s no indication New World Interactive won’t do the same for the sequel. People who were interested solely in a campaign story mode will want to wait for its arrival. But for anyone looking for a unique take on the modern military multiplayer shooter? Insurgency Sandstorm should be on their wish list.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

DUSK Review

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Man, I’m late again, I know. But I’m not late to the proverbial party. Because DUSK has officially launched, and I can tell you it’s really freaking cool. Where a lot of games have been tugging at our nostalgic platformer strings, DUSK tugs away at your nostalgic FPS strings. And while it isn’t the first to do so, it is one of the first to do it this well. It clearly takes inspiration from late 90’s shooters like Quake, Unreal, and SIN.

PROS: Classic visuals. Intricate maps. Fantastic characters. Gun play.

CONS: Minor bugs. One particular puzzle isn’t very intuitive.

DELIVERANCE: Some of these enemies will make you squeal like Ned Beatty.

But not only does it take that inspiration, it runs with it clearly into the end zone. This is noticeable before you even get to playing. Booting the game displays those familiar text parsers to anyone who played DOOM, ROTT, DUKE 3D, or QUAKE for MS-DOS back in the mid to late 90’s. Even after Windows 95 became an overnight sensation, it took a long time for video games to migrate to the environment as the de facto standard. Even in 1996, QUAKE was running on DOS. So this nod is going to make many old school PC game fans very nostalgic.

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But that’s just the beginning, because DUSK gives you a smorgasbord of visual settings, and sound options to choose from. You can run the game in resolutions set for 4K, HD, SD monitors. You can make things look grainy with a pixel filter. You can play with borders. You can screw around with the color scheme. You can have the game looking bright, and colorful. You can have the game looking near grayscale. You can make everything look Sepia if you want. The wealth of customization is great.

As in the FPS games of yore, you can bind nearly every key to your liking, and you can even turn off the vertical axis on your mouse. This is really cool because during the game you can do somersaults, and backflips in the air! It’s just one of many innovations you’ll find this game has added atop the classic shooter. You can also map everything to a controller if you prefer to play with a game pad over a keyboard, and mouse. Ideally, you’ll get much better control with the latter. However with the game getting a release on the Nintendo Switch next year, the controller support is a welcome addition.

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Once you’ve gotten your bindings, and other settings configured to your liking you’ll be able to start the game. As in the Apogee, and iD games from back in the day, DUSK is broken up into three episodic campaigns. It follows a three act structure, and the story is told through a combination of audio voiceover, level design, and paragraphs of exposition upon clearing each of the first two episodes. So many players who remember spending countless hours trying to find every last bit of environmental lore in DOOM, and QUAKE will feel right at home here. Of course this game doesn’t spell everything out right away for you in terms of its story. You’ll start out the first episode in a dingy, and dark dungeon armed only with two sickles.  You’ll immediately be attacked by three guys right out of Deliverance, armed with chain saws while sporting burlap sacks for masks.

It is here where you’ll notice that the game has an aesthetic direction that brings back the look of old FPS stalwarts in addition to the classic game play. Everything looks like it was released in 1997. Even if you opt to put on the fancier visual options, to make it look more modern, it will still look decidedly old school. This is really cool because it isn’t something that has been really done much. The closest thing to it would be Strafe, and that game unfortunately doesn’t come close to this game in terms of level design or gameplay. That’s because this game eschews the trend of randomly generated stages. Instead it builds its experience around some excellent level design, and atmosphere.

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DUSK may look old, and blocky on its surface. But it uses its employment of simplified graphics to its advantage. There are enemies in the roster that are truly unsettling. In fact, they may be more so because of the low detail, blocky designs. DUSK uses its retro chic very, very well. At the same time it takes the motif much further than you might find possible. It reminds me a little bit of American McGee’s Alice in this regard. That game was incredibly eerie for its time, and echoed feelings of a Tim Burton vehicle. But DUSK doesn’t feel like something out of The Nightmare On Christmas. It feels more like a perfect blend of psychological thriller, horror show, and action film. Because it takes elements from all of these things. Episode One will introduce you to a seemingly backwater group of occultists. Occultists with supernatural powers, brainwashed masses, and some horrific monsters to boot. Episode Two begins to show you just how deep their grasp on society in this world really goes. You’ll fight a combination of military, and industrial enemies. But as you go down the rabbit hole of stages, you’ll begin to see things get more, and more intricate. More, and more inventive too. You’ll start out in military installations. But by the end you’ll be dealing with laboratories of mad scientists, and machinations of twisted designs. There’s even a wonderfully crafted, and eerie level designed around M.C. Esher’s iconic Relativity drawing.

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By the third episode things begin to start coming together, and some of the more obvious questions are answered. There are a number of call backs, and the level designs become even more involved.  A lot of these may very well be some of the most memorable stages I’ve ever played through. All of the stages have a bevy of secrets to be found, and many of these even include old school secret exits that lead to secret stages. This is another splendid reference to those games of yesteryear. Many of those titles also employed secret exits to secret stages. But again, DUSK performs this trick in its own way. Really there isn’t a lot to complain about in terms of the game’s campaign. It gives you hours, upon hours of content. As I’ve said before, all of the stages have fantastic designs that will require not only reflexes, but your thinking cap. There are a plethora of puzzles you’ll need to solve in order to find all of the required colored keys to get through the corresponding colored doors, and to the exits. If I were to complain about anything it would be that one of the boss fights in particular isn’t very fair. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll likely know exactly which one I’m referring to when you get there. And it isn’t the final confrontation. That one is fantastic. There is also one gigantic horde mode of a moment near the end of the game where things turn into something out of a Serious Sam game. Which goes to show just how little that series really had to do with the old games many thought it did. It isn’t a bad moment per se. But if you’re not prepared for it you’ll find yourself very low on supplies, which will make getting through it a lot harder than it needs to be.

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Fortunately quick saving mitigates this a lot, and you’ll probably find yourself save scumming a lot during your initial play through. After that you’ll have a pretty good idea of when major hurdles are coming up. So during subsequent play throughs, you’ll have to save far less often. I should probably mention another cool thing about DUSK is just how funny it can be at times. In spite of the fact that things are played so seriously, and that it combines a vintage look with such a dark, anxious tone it will throw in comic relief. But like the best horror movies, these moments don’t make the experience feel campy. Again, it will likely remind you of the goofy stuff hidden in classic iD, and Apogee releases. You’ll be startled by invisible death reindeer one moment, and laughing at a Schwarzenegger impression the next.

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Andrew Hulshult (who did the excellent soundtrack to the Rise Of The Triad reboot in 2013) brings his talents to this game. He brings his love of Metal along with him here, but there are also some phenomenal moments of symphonic industrial sound, and a lot of ambient tracks too. There are even a few tracks involving some eerie pipe organs. One of the hallmarks of a great soundtrack is how it works with the setting of the game it is used in. Everything here melds along perfectly. It rocks out when there’s an ambush or a larger than life boss fight. It feels desperate, and fearful when there are moments of isolation or the prospect of deadly enemies around a corner. The sound effects are also top-notch. They make the weapon feedback feel great. They make the creepier enemies ever so more likely to freak you out. They make the environment feel like the universe the game takes place in feel all the more real.

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Not only does DUSK give you a compelling thirty stage (or more) campaign to battle through, it also includes multiplayer. DUSKWORLD is this game’s competitive death match offering. Now admittedly this isn’t going to be the reason you’re getting a ticket to this carnival. But it is a genuinely fun, and customizable experience. You can choose to play as many of the game’s enemy roster, and you can alter the color scheme of any character you choose. As with the main campaign, you can alter the key bindings, crosshairs, and various visual, and performance settings. The game also supports a multitude of multiplayer server options, and it has a respectable number of maps. The game will also have mod support, so if enough players enjoy it, there could potentially be a fair amount of content added to the game by the community. As for what is here, you’re getting a really good death match mode that can hang with SIN, and QUAKE II. You can rocket jump, strafe jump, and zip along at 100 mph. It’s a lot of fun, and fills a gap for those who miss the arena shooters in the vein of Q3A or UT.

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Again, like the main campaign, the shooting, and movement here is amazingly well done. Everything is not only fast, but responsive. Aiming feels smooth. Projectile weapons feel accurate, requiring a mastery of leading. Hit scan weapons work as they should, requiring you to get the cursor right on the enemy. The visual feedback goes along with everything well, as you’ll see red blood pixels with every hit, along with an audio feedback. You’ll hear a familiar tone when hitting opponents in the arenas. You can expect a full server to result in some spam techniques in smaller maps. But that’s merely a staple of the subgenre. All of the multiplayer maps feature multiple paths through to key power ups, and weapons. These are all either designed for the ground up for death match, or campaign maps that have been properly retooled for competitive play. Net code is pretty good. Finding a server in your area rarely results in rubber banding, or warping enemies. The action in multiplayer is a very fun experience. One can only hope enough people enjoy it to retain a decent player base. But even if it doesn’t carve out a niche for itself, it is possible to play privately with friends. Which is welcome as this is a rather well made death match effort.

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The game also offers a horde mode. It isn’t something most people will choose as their primary way to play the game. But it is here. There are three maps to choose from, and you’re given a limited number of supplies to survive each onslaught of enemies. You keep going until you lose. Basically it gives the game an arcade style Hi-Score flair. There are point multipliers for rapidly killing bad guys in a row too, so if you do enjoy this game mode, do take advantage of that.

Ultimately, DUSK is a must-buy. It retains what made the original two QUAKE games, and its contemporaries so good. At the same time it does so much the those games couldn’t do thanks to running on a modern Unity engine. If you’re an older player, you’ll love all of the pulls at your nostalgic heart-strings. If you’re a newcomer you may find that old can feel new to you. While there are some games that have tried to bring back that classic feel of the past, this game goes all in. Even as excellent as it was, iD’s own DOOM reboot didn’t fully bring back the level of exploration of its original game. But even the old FPS guard will find this game does plenty of new things with a proven concept. I might even recommend this one to some who might not typically be drawn to the FPS genre. It has so much personality, and creativity, those who are looking for something new to try out may find themselves pleasantly surprised. Plus for people who want even more lore there is a digital comic one can pick up with the soundtrack on Steam.

In short; DUSK is freaking cool.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Overwatch Review

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I know. Once again, I’m super late to the proverbial party. You’ve probably made up your mind to buy this game a long time ago, or not. At this point reviewing it might seem like a pointless endeavor. But after receiving the game as a birthday gift recently, I may be able to come up with something new to say about it. Or not. You can decide.

PROS: Blizzard does it again. Fun times, with surprisingly low requirements.

CONS: There really isn’t that much for you if you like to play alone.

TURRET NOOB: Is what I was called after getting a kill streak with a gnome.

I saw all of the pre release hype for Overwatch, but never found myself as pumped to play it as everyone else seemed to be. That isn’t to say I thought from the outset it would be terrible. Just that it might not be my cup of tea. Blizzard has a long history of putting out great material. Most notably the Warcraft, and StarCraft games. They made the greatest MMO of all time too. No other MMORPG has come close to capturing players’ imaginations the way World Of Warcraft, and its expansion packs have. Before WOW, the biggest three MMOs anyone remembers are Ultima Online, Everquest, and Asheron’s Call. A few others might make the pre- Blizzard cut. But the point is, in the eyes of many, they essentially claimed an entire genre for themselves. At least on the monthly payment model. It’s a game that has been going for 12 years strong. Blizzard even had noteworthy titles before Warcraft was a behemoth. They even made the excellent Death, And Return Of Superman beat ’em up for the Super NES, and Sega Genesis.

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The point is I had no doubts Blizzard would do a good job in any genre. They could release an Overwatch shmup tomorrow, and it would probably be very good. Overwatch is very good. My reservations were really less about it being sub par, and more about it not being something I could get into. I love playing First-Person Shooters. Many of my most played games fall into the category. But some of the most revered games in the genre haven’t always gripped me. A lot of people have sunk years into Team Fortress 2 for example. I played that game. I enjoyed it for what it was. But never found myself engrossed in it. Overwatch, at least on the surface can appear to be a Team Fortress 2 competitor.

It shares many of the same modes. It goes for an animated look rather than a gritty or realistic one. It has a bunch of cosmetic unlockable stuff, and even the potential for an in-game economy. But yet, there are a number of differences, that not only give the game its own identity, but make it more compelling to play.

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One of those differences is the cast. The characters in Overwatch are far more interesting. not only from an aesthetic perspective, but because of how each one plays. The game has four classes, and several characters within each. In the Attacker class you have well-rounded, jack-of-all-trades types. They can be good to some degree in most situations. Then you have Support class healer characters. These characters can boost the health of their teammates,  and fill support roles. There are Tank class characters that can take more damage, and defend other players or objectives in key times. Finally, there are the Defensive class characters. These tend to have more ranged attacks to cover the other classes as they push on.

But each character within those parameters is still different from each other. No two tanks are alike. No two defenders are alike. There are different abilities, and perks that change the dynamics of how your team gets the job done. You may have two friends who enjoy playing  ranged attackers. But Hanzo’s long-range archery feels very different from Widowmaker’s sniping. Over time you’ll find it pays to try out every one of the twenty available characters. Not just because you’ll likely find the one you feel best fits your play style. But because each of the game’s maps, and modes require different strategies. Just because you can hold down an objective on Route 66 with Bastion’s gatling gun, doesn’t mean he is a good fit for you when you have to capture a point in the Temple of Anubis in the following game.

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The makeup of your team is also important. You can compose your team with whatever characters you choose. But each map is designed in a way where having every player choose a designated role is beneficial. Odds are that if you have a team with equal number of defenders, attackers, supporters, and tanks you’re better positioned to win. Each character has a distinct load out, and perk to accomplish that victory. You’ll have a primary attack, a secondary attack, and a special ability. Some characters will have other optional moves to beef up their special ability. For instance, when playing as Torbjörn one can set down a turret to target the enemy team. But you can also bang a hammer against it several times to upgrade it. Every character also has a super move you can use after filling up another meter. Most of these are really impressive looking, and powerful.

That doesn’t mean you can’t win with an odd number of each mind you, but it can prove to be that much more difficult. Because if you don’t have enough healers, you’re going down quickly. If you don’t have enough defenders, you’re likely to lose an objective. If you don’t have enough tanks or attackers you can find yourself overrun. Still, there is a fair amount of skill to be found. So truly great players can still overcome the odds if their team is staffed with more of any given class over another. Not easy by any means. But not impossible.

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This leads to an issue some potential players might have. There isn’t much here for you if you’re a solo player. This game is built almost exclusively for team play. If you’re someone who loves campaigns, competitive death matches, or one on one modes they’re not here. You can train against bots to improve. You can play with random players as well. But where the game really shines is when you have at least another three friends to play with. Because the game really values cohesion. You can sometimes find strangers online who will want to organize. But that isn’t going to be the case a lot of the time. Playing with friends means you’re more likely to want to co-operate, and communicate strategies.

There aren’t any innovative new modes here. But there are really well made, well-balanced renditions of proven modes. There is the Escort mode, which is a spin on Team Fortress 2’s cart pushing. One team attempts to move an object from one side of the map to the other with checkpoints solidifying ground gained. The defending team of course, tries to stop them by impeding their progress, and winding down the clock.

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There’s the Control mode, which works kind of like a King Of The Hill mode. A point unlocks on the map, and both sides try to lay claim to it, and hold it for as long as possible. The round is over once one side can hold the point long enough to fill a meter. The team to win two out of three or three out of five rounds wins.

The Assault mode is a variation that involves multiple control points. This plays closer to something like the Rush mode in the Battlefield games. Attackers try to take points, and push the defenders back. If the defenders get pushed all the way back to the last point they lose. The difference here is that there are no objectives at the end of the game, or between points. It’s still a lot of fun to play though, and is probably the best of the various game modes.There is also a Hybrid mode  which blends the three modes between rounds.

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Beyond all of this is the ability to have custom game lists with your friends privately, and a competitive mode which adds a couple of minor provisions to each of the three main modes for the tournament level players like number of rounds. There was also a recent update that added a soccer mode called Lucio Ball. In it you use your characters’ weapons, and move sets in order to shoot the ball across the field. It can break up some of the action of the regular modes, and is a genuinely fun update.

The game also has a season feature, where ranked competitors can try to earn exclusive skins, and bonuses for being near the top. These go on for a couple of months, with breaks in between so Blizzard can make tweaks, and updates. This is in addition to the regular loot boxes you can receive for levelling up over time. Even the standard stuff can be pretty neat, unlocking skins, spray tags, and other cosmetic stuff. Much like Team Fortress 2’s hat crafting, these are purely cosmetic things that don’t change the flow of the game. There is nothing like a more powerful weapon, or super secret character to unbalance things in your favor. However with the inclusion of seasons, there are some cool trinkets you can get for trying to claw your way to the top. Which does give players an incentive to play the game more often. It is true you CAN spend money on lootboxes for a chance to possibly get the cosmetic stuff earlier. But there’s no incentive to do so. Unless you simply cannot wait to unlock all of the skins, spray tags, and taunts.

One thing Blizzard has always done well with in its time making computer games is scalability. All of their games have historically had pretty low minimum system requirements. This has widened the appeal of their games since you could still play their games on fairly old hardware, and still have things look decent. Overwatch continues the trend. It looks splendid at max settings. But it also looks perfectly fine on lower settings. Awhile ago YouTuber LowSpecGamer did a nice video on getting the game running on old computers. While much has changed with recent patches, and things might not be as efficient as when he first made his episode, it’s still pretty good. There’s a fair amount of options you can turn on or off in the game’s own settings menu. So if you don’t have a midrange GPU, and you’re on an old CPU, you may still be able to enjoy Overwatch. Of course, this is all moot if you choose to play this on the Xbox One, or PlayStation 4 instead.

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Whatever platform you decide to play on, you’ll have a pretty good time with Overwatch. It could stand to have a few more modes, like a more robust Team Objective mode, and it isn’t made for lone wolves. But not every game needs to be a one player affair. Hopefully Blizzard will add a deeper Team Objective mode in the future, seeing how it’s something a lot of really good competing games have over Overwatch. Beyond this one sticking point though, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who loves team games.

The net code seems consistent in my time with it, so it’s been rare I’ve suffered any lag. The VOIP options are fairly good. You may still prefer a different option to communicate to your team. But what your given works well. Classes, and characters seem fairly balanced too. No one character really seems to overpower anybody outside of a skill gap between players. Make no mistake, I was obliterated many, many times, and I’m still getting my ass handed to me pretty regularly. But I never feel like it’s the fault of the character I’m using at any given time. It’s pretty clear to me in these times that I still need to better learn a character’s feature, or that the opponent was simply much better than I was. If I had any other complaints it’s mainly with my glitch afflicted experience with the Battle Net app. The game itself seems to run fine.

If you’ve been on the fence with this one, it’s a pretty safe bet so long as you have some friends to play it with. What it lacks in modes, it makes up with its great characters, balanced gameplay, and competitive depth. The audio is pretty great too. The thumping tunes, wonderful voice acting, and some really great sound effects accent everything nicely. Overwatch may not be the best game Blizzard has done, but it’s still pretty great.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Unreal Tournament Retrospective Part 3

UT2k4 was, and is everything a director’s cut should be. Featuring all of the content UT2k3 brought to the table, as well as a bunch of new maps, models, the return of Assault, and Onslaught mode.

Pros: Everything from UT2k3, and more!

Cons: Steep learning curve

WTF?: Bukkake announcement after scoring so many kills with a Bio Rifle.

Balancing the weapons, touching up some rough spots, and bringing back more of what people love. UT2k4 comes out swinging. Nearly everything from UT2k3 is present here. All of the maps, weapons, player models are back.

Death match, and Team Death match are once again back. Kill everyone. Except in the instance of TDM. Then kill everyone except those on your team. The first player or team to hit the kill count or have the highest when the timer expires wins. Last Man Standing is the long running variant of Death match. Everyone has one life. The last person alive wins.

Also returning is the Assault mode from the original Unreal Tournament, which even includes a stage in which you have to invade a space station in a small fighter ship. Once you’ve docked, it’s time to go on foot through the enemy team’s star ship to destroy the warp core.

Speaking of ships, UT2k4’s biggest addition to the series has to be Onslaught mode. At the time of release, DICE, and Electronic Arts had come out with Battlefield 1942. A game that was so good in fact, that it siphoned away some shooter fans from playing Epic’s series of Sci-Fi arena shooters. It focused heavily on tactics, capturing areas marked by flags to control territories. Teams would fight each other over these territory flags.

Similar to BF1942’s flag system. Onslaught mode puts teams of players against each other on really huge worlds. On these worlds there are several nodes peppered throughout the environment. When one team captures enough of these nodes, it brings down the defense system in the opposing team’s base, rendering it vulnerable. The object of course, is to bring down the enemy’s shields, then send a team of attackers to destroy the reactor core inside the base for victory.

This isn’t easy. The control points themselves have shields on them once a team captures one in a line. This pushes forces back to points closer to their own base of operations. All of this making capturing, and recapturing nodes result in epic skirmishes for control. Onslaught also takes a page from BF1942’s inclusion of vehicles.

The first up is the Scorpion. A small dune buggy, it features a laser bolo cannon, and the doors double as blades. It’s a satisfying vehicle to use because it can give fast passage to an enemy control node, or even the enemy base. At the same time in a full map, the blades can make quick work of infantry allowing for quick killing sprees. The trade-off is that it is also a weak vehicle so it’s imperative drivers have enough dexterity to avoid rockets, shock combos, spider mines, and all kinds of other firepower. A sniper can also headshot a driver while that driver is driving. (Say that five times fast) This can lead to a lot of fun action movie moments where the driver dies. Then the ensuing crash leaves the passenger to have to think on their feet.

The Raptor is part plane, part helicopter. It can hover over the entire play field shooting lasers or launching heat seeking missiles at targets. Crafty pilots can fly low, and sneak into control points or bases. It’s also a great way to cover ground troops as they try to advance. Like the Scorpion however, Raptors have low health so beware those snipers, and ground to air missiles.

The Hellbender is UT’s sci-fi Hummer. It has a shock cannon, which acts like an buffed up Shock Rifle, and a ton of health. To balance things out it is a slower vehicle. But it works as a great support vehicle, clearing out platoons with shock combos, and taking out Scorpions with ease.

The Goliath, is the Tank of the game, and behaves the way you’d likely expect. It drives slow, fires high damage mortars, and can take a ton of punishment. Perfect for turning the tide of a losing battle, or plowing through a crowd of enemies.

The Leviathan is similar to the Goliath, except that it has scoped lasers in lieu of explosives. It can also house 5 people. The laser cannon can be charged, and fire a blast with the fury of The Death Star.

The Manta is a hovercraft with giant fans on the sides. This allows you to grind up infantry while you run in guns blazing.

Advanced movement is still here but it has been tweaked. Dodge jumps don’t go quite as far, but are still very useful. Weapon changes come into play too. Many of the weapons have slight adjustments to firing rate, and the amount of damage they dole out. Only the most die-hard followers of the series will notice them. There are two changes everyone will notice though. The lightning gun arc has been altered, and the sniper rifle returns from UT. This time though, a small smoke sprite shows up after firing it. So the more astute players can get a rough idea of where you shot at them from if you miss with it.

The great thing about this is how well the movement system works with both the traditional arena shooter modes, as well as the new Onslaught mode. Players who learn the movement in all of its intricate detail will find themselves outmaneuvering vehicles as well as players. Everything one does in any of the other modes translates to Onslaught very well. This gives everyone incentive to at least try each of the game modes to see which they like best. This doesn’t even take into account the countless mods made by the community.

A decade later, and visually the game is still pretty good. A lot of awesome textures cover the landscape, and player models. Lighting, skyboxes, and a lot of little details can still bring a lot of “Oh wow!” moments when you revisit the game. The lower geometry standards of the older Unreal Engine version show their age these days. But it is still a nice game to look at. Especially all of those small details on weapon skins, or fringes on player models. Things that you might not have noticed upon release if your computer at the time couldn’t run the game at maximum settings.

As with Unreal Tournament, and Unreal Tournament 2003 players can adjust any setting imaginable. Resolution, V-sync, special effects, are the tip of the iceberg. Players can change the size or scope of the HUD, cross hair shapes, and color for each individual weapon. All of this before one even thinks about community made add-ons.

The game yet, again comes with the Unreal Editor tools. So budding developers, hobbyists, and Unreal Tournament enthusiasts can make their own content. It isn’t the easiest utility to use, but with a good guide book even a beginner can make their own levels. The tools also allow players to import models, sounds, art, and other home made content into it.  Many people were able to break into the industry by making mods that became popular, and it is still a great way to get a handle on the fundamentals.

Unreal Tournament 2004 came out in several releases.

The original release came out in a 6 CD long installation. It was also released on a DVD through preorder. The DVD edition also came with or without a headset depending on when you bought it. The DVD edition also had a tutorial disc for using the Unreal editing tools. Both the DVD, and CD came with a rebate offer for those who had UT2k3. Mailing in the manual cover to UT2k3 with a receipt for UT2k4 would net you a $10 check from Atari. An Editor’s Choice version followed which included some bonus content on the disc. The content was also downloadable at no charge for previous buyers. Around the time of Unreal Tournament 3‘s release Midway (Now part of WB) the new publisher put out Unreal Anthology. This was a compilation disc that gave buyers Unreal, Unreal II, Unreal Tournament, and Unreal Tournament 2004 on one disc with most of the community bonus content intact.

If you find any one of them it’s well worth your money. With all of the modes, an easy to pick up, challenging to master movement system, and countless free add-ons you’ll have thousands of hours of gameplay. It’s also available fairly inexpensively (As is the rest of the series) on digital storefronts like Steam,  and Good Old Games!

Some may prefer the original UT over UT2k4. But when one considers all of the strengths it brings to the table, UT2k4 is a worthy addition to the Unreal Tournament line of games, as well as a must play for anyone looking for a hyper competitive shooter. The advanced movement, expanded gameplay modes, add depth to an already great game.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

 

Unreal Tournament Retrospective Part 2

Unreal Tournament 2003

Some sequels are a wondrous continuation of a glorious first effort. Others turn out to be the biggest train wreck this side of Speed 2.

Unreal Tournament 2003 is thankfully closer to the former.

PROS: Almost everything you loved about UT bulked up.

CONS: Even steeper learning curve. No more Assault mode.

WTF?: Mmmmmiiiiiiiissssstttteeerrrr Crrroooooooooooooooowwwww!

UT2k3 added a lot of revisions to the standards set by UT. The first change was an entirely new run of character classes. Whereas UT featured mostly human characters, and a few Unreal Universe villains like The Skaarj, Nali, and Necris. UT2k3 put a more E-Sports spin on the Tournament story adding a wider cast of races. These included The Juggernauts, who resembled Warhammer 40k’s Space Marines. The Liandri Corporation’s AI Robots. The Nakhti, a group of humans in Ancient Egyptian garb. The Nightmare, a group of mutants, transhumans, and experiments gone awry, and The Gen Mo Kai, a group of reptoids.

Each of these races also had their own attributes. The Juggernauts for example could take a higher number of hits before dying than the other races. They also had a little bit more power behind their hits. But they were the slowest characters in the game. The Nakhti were a lot more acrobatic in their air jump animations making them harder to hit. They were also a little bit faster while sacrificing some resistance to weapons fire. The Liandri bots fell in between extremes, making them a popular choice. As were the Gen Mo Kai. The craziest faction were the Nightmare. To this day, Mr. Crow remains one of the most memorable things about UT2k3, and it’s follow-up UT2k4.

In addition to these attributes, UT2k3 also added a new mechanic called Adrenaline. Throughout a game your character would earn pills either by collecting them on the battlefield, or when killing an opponent. After collecting 100 of them players could tap four directions for super secret power moves:

Booster: This increased your health (So long as you’re not being shot) every second until you ran out of pills

Speed: This made you run faster

Berserk: This made your attacks temporarily more powerful.

Invisible: This made you cloak so that you were a lot harder to see.

The third change UT2k3 made was expanding upon the movement set by the original UT. Now not only could you dodge by double tapping directions, you could do wall dodges. By dodge tapping away from any wall, your character would kick off the wall. Players could also now double jump by pressing jump a second time. They could also combine double jumping with wall dodging for even greater mobility. Finally, there was the dodge jump. This move allowed one to jump after a dodge to do a great leap. Dodge jumping would be an imperative skill when trying to escape enemy shock combos.

Movement was vastly more complex here. Maps were also built a lot around the new system. Where UT used dodges to mix things up, the sequel made these advancements imperative. Because not only did they make players harder to get a bead on, they also allowed players to get around a lot faster.

Some of the movement, and adrenaline changes alienated some UT fans, keeping them playing the old game. There was also one omission that would cement that fact: Assault mode. Assault mode was one of the more popular modes from the original UT, and when gamers saw it had been replaced by Bombing Run ( An object carrying mode in which two teams would try to get said object into the opposing side’s goal) many players stayed with the original Unreal Tournament.

Bombing Run wasn’t a bad mode. It could be fun when played with two evenly matched teams. It was a cross between Football, and Capture The Flag. Some of the community really enjoyed bombing run, and preferred it to many of the other modes.  But ultimately it would prove the least popular mode in the game for die-hard fans of the original.

Other modes were the staple Deathmatch, and Team Deathmatch types. Also returning were Capture The Flag, along with Last Man Standing. UT2k3 also had Invasion, a mode that was essentially a horde defense game. In it players worked together against A.I. enemies. Finally there was Mutant, where one player had to fight everyone until he or she died, and his or her killer became the new Mutant.

Grievances aside, UT2k3 carved out a nice niche for itself, as people looking for a game with a lot of depth, and challenge would stick around. Graphically the game was a huge leap over UT, as there were huge environments, higher resolution textures, improved lighting, improved skyboxes, and all kinds of little touches. The changes to movement made the game more aerial, as people learned advanced movement would find, dodges, and jumps allowed for faster navigation along stages. UT2k3 also added rag doll physics, a newer convention at the time. Gone were the canned animation of headless combatants flailing around. Instead, rocket splash damage sent characters flying.

The weapons were also tweaked, and retooled. In addition to this, UT2k3 added a Lightning Gun that replaced the Sniper Rifle from UT. It too had a scope, for headshots. But it would fire a large arc of lightning that could be traced back to the point of origin. Unfortunately the saw blade shooting favorite doesn’t return here.

Customization was still a big part of Unreal Tournament in UT2k3. Players could change the typical resolution, texture, and geometry settings. They could change crosshairs for each weapon, their HUDs, and access console commands. As in Unreal Tournament, the game once again gave players access to all sorts of tools they could use to create their own maps, or mods. There were countless maps, mods, and even total conversions done as the game had gone from Unreal Engine to Unreal Engine 2.

Not only did the engine upgrade make for a very pretty Unreal Tournament game, it also gave its community of fans the ability to create a lot of great content. More than the original game.  Much of this content became so popular on servers, that it caught the eye of game developers everywhere.

Atari, and Epic had hoped this would mark the beginning of an annualized series. They had looked at Electronic Arts’ Madden series, as well as THQ’s wrestling games at the time, and thought they could do for  shooters what those games did with sports, and sports entertainment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game’s story. UT games tend to put in a single player training ladder to get players used to the various modes. During these tutorials, UT2k3 featured a lot of in-game engine cut scenes. All heavily inspired by pro wrestling. From the Titantron videos, to the custom entrances, to heckling fans you’ll see it all here.

For a host of reasons this idea of annual Unreal Tournament never came to pass.

With it’s improved graphics, physics, and new gameplay conventions UT2003 was an awesome addition to the Unreal Tournament series. however it wasn’t without its flaws. It had dropped a very popular mode fans of the original loved, and it’s requirements at the time were high enough to keep some players from adopting early.  Overall, though the wide variety of characters, the advanced movement, and additions to the gameplay made for an ambitious sequel. However, as good as the game was upon release it’s hard to recommend because of a certain little follow-up. You see Unreal Tournament 2004 would include everything in Unreal Tournament 2003, and more.

Final Rating: Try it out! 6.5/10 (If you can find it.)

 

Reposted Review: Hard Reset

 

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(Originally posted on the defunct Blistered Thumbs community blog back in March 2012.)Hard Reset is truly a Frankenstein monster in every way. It’s story takes inspiration from Terminator, Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, and The Big O. The game play takes inspiration from Quake II, Painkiller, Bulletstorm, and Bioshock. Musically it’s a hodgepodge of various forms of Electronica. Visually it feels like someone put TRON, Judge Dredd, Quake IV, Halo, and Doom 3 into a blender.

But is it a Pot Luck Stew you will truly enjoy?

PROS: Impressive effects. Satisfying gunplay involves environments. Interesting premise.

CONS: Short length. Story becomes hard to follow. Derivative at times.

WEIRD: The Swiss Army Knife-ness of your weapon.

Comprised of former members of People Can Fly, Flying Wild Hog Studios quietly rolled out Hard Reset to digital storefronts toward the end of last year. Set in a dystopian future, humans live in a closed off city called Bezoar. Much of the rest of the world is overrun by sentient robot armies who wish to exterminate the last remaining human resistance. The heart of Bezoar holds a place called “The Sanctuary” where the consciousness of many human souls lie interconnected. The machines wish to take down the Sanctuary, and so Major Fletcher heads into battle against the machines to save humankind. Along the way he is contacted by Professor Novak, who is revealed to have created the cybernetic technology in Fletcher’s nanosuit. It is also revealed that Novak created the technology the machines used to nearly wipe out human kind.

The story is told in between levels through narrated comic book panels. There is also some in-game exposition, but it’s mostly the comic book panels you’ll want to follow. The game doesn’t always lend itself well to understanding the story. This is because there are a lot of references to characters or events that are never shown or explained leading to a lot of confusion. Some of the in-game exposition helps, but you’ll be so busy paying attention to playing the game that you’ll likely miss it.

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The story is mostly there as a backdrop for the action however, and in a game like this it thankfully isn’t something you need to follow, or understand to have fun. It is a shame its poorly executed though because some of the art in these comic panels really does look cool. The voice acting isn’t too shabby either when compared to similar games.

As for the game itself Hard Reset does a lot of things you’ve seen a million times before, but it also takes some of its own chances, and liberties with those things. For starters, while you won’t be completing any in-depth mission objectives (Aside from shooting robots), the game does mix it up. Instead of doing the typical FPS fare of either giving you 25 different guns to use, or telling you “There are 25 guns. Pick TWO of them to use, and that’s all you can carry at a time”

 

Hard Reset instead gives you 2 guns. One is a ballistics based gun that has a chain gun, and the other an energy gun that has a plasma rifle. As in Bulletstorm, and to a lesser degree Bioshock however, Hard Reset has capsules that can be opened, and you can spend points on upgrading these two guns to the point you have enough modes to equate to around 20 some odd guns. There are rocket launchers, shotguns, and one of my favorites: the electric mortar. Each of these upgrades themselves can be upgraded.

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In addition to the upgradable weapon system one can also upgrade their health system, allowing for higher resistance to being shot, or a higher health meter. Unlike most other shooters this generation, Hard Reset does not do the regenerating health schtick.

Instead, like PC shooters of yore, you must find health packs in the field, and decide for yourself when it might be worth using, or waiting to grab later. It brings back some of the feeling from Quake II, or Goldeneye, or SiN. There is no ducking out behind cover to regain your health. In a bit of irony there is the “Bloody vision” popularized by Call of Duty. So getting badly injured does make it more difficult to see making it even more challenging in a severe firefight.

While there are some similarities to Painkiller, and Serious Sam in terms of combat, Hard Reset is still a bit different. There are indeed sections later in the campaign that follow those games’ structure of: Enter room\Wipe out enemies\Collect something or press button\Wipe out enemies\Repeat. But the entire game does not do this. There are a lot of sections that evoke feelings of playing Doom 3’s quiet jump scare moments, or Quake II’s exploration for secrets. The game combines just enough of these elements so that it feels both intimately familiar, and different enough you’ll want to see what’s next.

Hard Reset also has a novel combination system. Similar to how Bulletstorm, and Madworld reward players for creatively combining attacks on enemies for higher point boosts, Hard Reset has its own. The game doesn’t go for quite the same thing but it does reward you for using explosive objects in the stage backgrounds to take out enemies. For instance, you may fill your upgrade meter slightly for gunning down a small horde of robots. But blow up a car parked on the street, which in turn blows up a robot, which in turn blows up a flammable canister that destroys 15 low-level robots, and you may nearly fill it right there.

 

The game also delivers a few really awesome “Holy Crap!” moments in its boss characters. The greatest of these is easily the giant skyscraper sized android boss. Reminiscent of TRON, The Big-O, and The Sentinels from The X-Men comics, this Boss will make you nearly soil yourself when you first see him coming. It’s also worth mentioning that for people who may be coming over from Xbox 360 First Person Shooters, that Hard Reset also supports the Xbox 360 gamepad for those who prefer a controller to a keyboard, and mouse.

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As fun as the campaign is, some may find some faults with it as it isn’t perfect.

The biggest issue some may have is the short length. The average person will be able to beat the game in a day or two. While you can replay it several times over to use upgrades to guns you may have skipped in previous sessions, you probably won’t care to revisit it very often. The game does have a ton of achievements for players absolutely obsessed with collecting them, but again, it’s a small segment.

Other minor complaints will be the derivative nature of the art direction. While kudos go out to Flying Wild Hog for putting out visuals that can hang with some of the major big budget studios out there, the fact remains that you’ve seen these settings many times over the last 15 years. I hate to keep going back to Quake 2, but a lot of the robots are a stone’s throw from being actual Strogg.

Finally, as I mentioned near the beginning of this review, the storyline can be difficult to follow for players who want to be invested in it. While it isn’t required to enjoy the game, a lot of people really do play games for their stories, even if they are a lot like other stories, or even if they’re shallow. One thing that will certainly disappoint these players is the rather abrupt ending given by the game.

Some may also be turned off by the fact there is no co-operative or competitive multiplayer to be found here whatsoever.

 

At the end of the day though Hard Reset does have enough going for it to make it worth checking out if you find yourself interested in it. It is a fun ride while it lasts. It tries to do something new with its weapon system, and it takes a slight variance on the creative killing idea put forth by Platinum Games’ Madworld, and People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm. When it does decide to take chances it succeeds.

Even when taking it’s faults into consideration, the low asking price of $20 does limit the feelings of risk. There are games far worse than this one you might spend $60 on.

Hopefully, if there is ever a sequel to this game it will expand on some of these new features, and conventions. Moreover one can only hope  Flying Wild Hog will incorporate some form of co-operative play the way Serious Sam has in the past.

Final Score: 7 out of 10.