sábado, 28 de junho de 2014

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) PC/Amiga Review

For the PC I’ve recently purchased this game through Steam, but I’ve also got the Amiga’s Kixx XL 1992 floppy re-release of this awesome title.

Inside a pretty looking big box, there’s the three floppy disks, a folded manual that includes, besides all basic info, the Translation Table that is simply the copy protection codes that are asked when you start the game. Also inside comes a Kixx XL complete catalogue of their re-releases back in 1992. And, finally, the crown jewel: Dr. Henry Jones diary, like the one we see in the movie. I haven’t read it yet, but I believe that it’s filled with interesting stuff. It has hand drawings, sketches, newspaper pieces, letters and even the map showing the canyon of the crescent moon! It looks like it was written by hand. It’s just amazing the awesome stuff that used to come inside these big boxes back in the day.

Back in 1989, Steven Spielberg brought us the third movie of the Indiana Jones adventures, my favourite one. The Last Crusade transports us into the quest for the Holy Grail, where we have to fight against the Nazis and avoid Hitler getting his hands on the cup of Christ.

The graphic adventure point-and-click game was released for PC, Atari ST, Macintosh and the Amiga. There were also a CDTV edition of the game, but it had any graphical improvements over the original. It only included extra musical content on the CD.

It was published by Lucasfilm Games, the defunct LucasArts, and it was the third game to use the SCUMM engine. It follows closely the film’s plot and, sometimes, go beyond that.

Being a graphic adventure, it misses almost all the action scenes of the movie. These were present in the extreme difficult Action Game version that I played to exhaustion in my ZX Spectrum: the caves, the circus train, the Venetian catacombs, the jumping from window to window in the castle of Brunwald, the zeppelin and, finally, the traps and puzzles of the temple of Petra, in Jordan, where the holy grail is being kept. Although, the graphic adventure game had a few arcade fight sequences that could be avoided by picking your dialogue carefully.

The Spectrum version of the Action game received the best reviews and was number 2 on the charts because of RoboCop. As seen on my last post about Ocean Software, Robocop was number one for 18 consecutive months.

Lucasfilm Games introduced, in this graphic adventure, the possibility to complete the game in several different ways. They called it the IQ Score, or Indy Quotient. By doing this, George Lucas game studio found a way to maintain players interested in finishing the game more than once. This was one big problem with Sierra’s adventure games and made all the difference.

As mentioned before, this title has a built in copy protection at the start of the game. If you enter incorrect codes for three times in a row, the game goes into demo mode and when Indy is asked by Donovan to translate the tablet, he fails completely and he’s throwned outside by Donovan himself, ending the game. 

Later was also released a PC CD-ROM version with 256-colour graphics that didn’t have the copy protection.

Many of the scenes unique to the game were conceived by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg themselves during the creation of the movie. This explains the almost singular success of LucasArts in this area, not only with the Indiana Jones series, but also with their many Star Wars titles. George Lucas was always available to to give some ideas and transmit confidence to the teams behind these awesome titles.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the Adventure game, is a must for all Indy fans and point-and-click enthusiasts.

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segunda-feira, 23 de junho de 2014

Ocean Software, Rise and Fall of a Giant

Repeatedly named the Software House of the Year, Ocean Software was one of the largest and most respected producers in the gaming world, a company that adapted and converted, in a masterful manner, the most successful Hollywood flics and arcade titles for the various platforms, ranging from the ZX Spectrum to Commodore Amiga and also for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Mega Drive (aka as Genesis is the US).

We were, for fourteen years, bombarded with adds of their latest releases in all gaming magazines. Ocean’s logo stamped on the cover was all that it took for the game to sell millions of copies. This shows the strength and the quality of the brand.

It all started in the early '80s when its founder David Ward, after a visit to the United States, realized that videogames would be a good business to invest in, as shown by the emerging potential of the industry in that country. Thus, in 1982, he founded the company Ocean Software and slowly started hiring programmers for its headquarters at Manchester. At the end of the first year, Ocean had already achieved profits of 500 thousand pounds and more than 200 thousand games sold. Then, David Ward became president of the company and his partner, Jon Woods, commercial director. By that time, Ocean had already 60 developers from across England with an average age of around 19 years.

In addition to its talents within the company, Ocean was also proud of its external sources, including Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond, Denton Designs, Sensible Software and Digital Image Design.

David Ward said "The key to sell a lot of games is to make them identifiable to the public" and, thus, Ocean assured licenses for major film successes, television series and arcade games despite their first titles were total flops: Knight Rider, Street Hawk and Transformers were examples of bad conversions.
However, in 1987, profits of Ocean already ascended to £ 10 million with over three million games sold. By this time, Ocean acquires the "defunct" rival Imagine Software, the company responsible for two classic hits like Renegade and Yie Ar Kung Fu, cementing its international reputation through the Ocean brand with excellent conversions for Konami 8bit arcade machines.

Ocean grew exponentially and its influence reached its peak. The developers were able to create fantastic games and started having fun while doing them. 

By this time, Ocean decides to reward their employees putting their names in the credits of each game. Programmers, artists and musicians were now more motivated than ever and thus wanted the title to be the best possible, cause their name was now exposed to the world.

Obtaining licenses to create games from movies was, at that time, very easy and cheap. Movie studios did not have the perception of the potential that videogame industry had started to have. There were attempts, by Atari, to recreate the movie ET: The Extra Terrestrial. Spent £22 million and the results were much lower than expected. Ocean was determined to do it as it really should be done and Gary Bracey was responsible for acquiring the rights.

One of the best licenses was Robocop. This low-budget movie had a huge acceptance from the public and the game sold millions of copies in different platforms. It was probably one of Ocean’s most profitable games and its license was insignificant in monetary terms.

Between all this success and popularity, there was also room for failure. One of the worst acquired licenses was Hudson Hawk. The film, written and performed by Bruce Willis, was genuine garbage and the game does not go beyond that.
Anyway, more than 100 games have comfortably placed Ocean on top of the charts through the years.

However, tension began to rise. There was the need to release the game simultaneously with the premiere of the movie and, sometimes, that forced programmers to work 24 consecutive hours in order to obtain the final product on time to be sent to the duplicating machines.

The arcade licenses were also very important to Ocean. Between 1983 and 1992 half of the games published by the company were based on movies or on arcade games.

Simon Butler worked on many film and arcade successes, such as Total Recall, Platoon, Darkman, The Adams Family and Combat School, and recalls that the conversion to 8-bit machines – Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad – were always the most challenging and complicated to perform. One of the most successful conversions of arcades was Chase HQ. Bill Harbison, who joined the team in 1988, confessed that, to do an arcade game conversion, he needed to have the machine itself in the office and, while playing, he would draw sketches of the scenarios as reference.

There has always been competition and Ocean wanted to be the best. Its biggest opponent was initially U.S. Gold. Later, when the first consoles started to emerge, the extinct Acclaim also became Ocean’s largest rival. Even internally, healthy competition also existed. The various teams were always wanting to better themselves and exceed expectations.

The evolution and changing time eventually came with the 16-bit machines. Programming for these new machines now takes twice as long and Ocean was not afraid of the challenge. They were excited!

The early 90s were, for Ocean, times for reflection. Remained the question of how the industry would develop. Then, in 1994, a new company within Ocean, Tribe, was formed to meet future challenges that had to be overcome: the giant leap from 8-16bit for the 32-64bit.

Were then created separate teams, each comprising a team leader, programmer and main designer. Games began to be planned six months before any programming was initiated and, in 1996, Tribe was already composed by 80 members.

That same year, the company ended up bought by French Infogrames. The headquarters remained in Manchester until Infogrames also purchase Gremlin Graphics in 1999, which led them to change the entire base of operations to Sheffield. Shortly after, Ocean brand was extinguished. GT 64 Championship Edition, for Nintendo 64, was Ocean’s last game.

Who is between 30 and 40 years old, recall with some sadness and nostalgia the disappearance of Ocean. They left a remarkable legacy that, even today, still manages to impress.

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segunda-feira, 16 de junho de 2014

My 4 Best Sim Racing Videogames - It's a Pixel THING

Note: The games covered in this episode are my favourite Sim Racing titles ever.
They were played with an xbox controller, but, obviously, a racing wheel is essential.

Driving games have always been a priority in my acquisitions. The first one is a really slow paced off-road driving sim. It is, also, the more technical I’ve ever come across. I’m talking about Screamer 4x4 that I’ve recently bought through the “good old games dot com” digital platform. 

This PC exclusive title was developed by Clever’s Development and released in Europe in December 2000 and, one year later, in North America.
My co-driver is always warning me to be careful and to drive slower. I simply cannot put my foot down in this game.
Going through checkpoints without touching their markers will get you to the end of each stage without penalties, so, be very careful when you pass them. Checkpoints are laid out at specific points in such a way that the player is forced to navigate difficult terrain. There’s also a Pathfinder mode available, which gives only a handful of checkpoints spread out over the terrain and leaves it up to us to decide how to reach each one (although each must still be passed in a predetermined order).
If you overturn your vehicle, you will also be penalized for recovering it. Disqualification will occur if you hit the crowd or any bystander.
Car damage, due to accidents and rough driving, will affect the control and vehicle performance. Bad weather conditions will also be your enemy, like rain and the creepy fog that drastically limits your visibility.
When you succeed on negotiating all checkpoints and arrive at the finish line in first place, unlockable upgrades to your vehicle will be presented in the form of engines, tires and differentials.
There are a few different areas to drive on. Unfortunately the only variations in the maps are from the geography and the textures used, as there is no difference in handling from one surface to another.
There’s 10 official licensed off road four-wheel-drive vehicles to unlock and 60 courses spread over six different terrain types with, as mentioned before, varying weather and times of day.
At night don’t forget to turn your headlights on!

Next up is another PC exclusive: GTR 2, from Swedish developer SimBin Studios, released in September 2006. 

Inside we get the DVD, as well the awesome manual that tell us everything we need to know about the game: the fantastic multiplayer, race rules and regulations.
GTR 2 offers a bunch of different game modes: Championship, Single Race, Practice, 24hr Race, Time Trial and even includes a Driving School that teaches the player some fancy racing techniques that you can practice later to perfection.
The Official Championships consist of the 2003 and 2004 FIA GT Championship series. However, unlike its predecessor, GTR2 offers smaller unlockable championships as well as the ability to create custom championships.
The 24hr races offers dynamic day and night cycles. The transition between day and night is seamless and steady, unlike in the original GTR where the race had to be paused whilst the new time of day was loading.
The day and night cycles can also be experienced by changing the speed of which the time of day passes during a race weekend. Selections here can be accelerated up to 60 times. But doing so, the realism is not so realistic.. is it?..
There are more than 27 car models included. They range from 600 hp GT class, to 400 hp NGT class vehicles. It’s also possible to create your own content. Many more vehicles have been created by the dedicated GTR2 community.
As for the tracks, there’s 15 real-world included, with 34 different variations to choose from. And there are hundreds of add-on tracks available. Highlights of these includes Laguna Seca and the 22 kilometer Nürburgring.
This is one of the reasons GTR 2 has been so popular, the ability to create custom content for the game. This has led to a large community of players who create new vehicles and tracks to race with.
GTR 2 was considered the best driving PC game of 2006 by major reviewers.

Since we're talking about SimBin and their driving games, a year before GTR 2 was released, other simulator was the delight of gamers around the world: this game was GT Legends

The cover art is simply awesome with a retro kind of look to it. Inside we get the DVD, the manual and some other stuff just to add more weight to the whole package and pay more in the post office.
Most of the features that were already mentioned in GTR 2 are also present in GT Legends, except for the 24 hour races.
It is based on the 2005 FIA Historic Racing Championships for GTC and TC cars of the 60ties and 70ties. This is a modern-day championship for historic cars, and so the circuit designs in GT Legends are those of the modern era.
GT Legends has the same graphics engine as the magnificent rFactor, a similar physics engine but different multiplayer programing. Reviewers from all around the world were blown away by the extreme good quality sounds and realism.
Unlike most Simbin games, GT Legends has a career mode, in which you need to win a series of races in order to unlock cars, tracks and more championships. In total, we get 11 official tracks –  Nürburgring also included – and 27 officially licensed historic cars.
Just like GTR 2, the game supports many add-on tracks and cars provided by the sim racing community.

Last one I have here is the fabulous Richard Burns Rally, developed by Warthog and published by SCi with precious advice of WRC driver Richard Burns himself. 

In the back cover there’s a PC Gamer quote that says “Richard Burns Rally is the scariest driving game we’ve ever played.” And they were right about that!
Inside the case there’s the DVD and a manual that gives us an intro into the rally world explaining everything from setting up the game to exhaustive comprehension of the pace notes given to us by the co-driver.
It was released in July 2004 for PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC, and even to this day, it’s considered to be one of the most realistic and difficult racing simulators. Richard Burns Rally was not made to be modifiable, but despite this there are mods available for the PC version due to a large online community. The game was originally an offline racing title but user created mods have enabled online play. Every day there are hundreds of online championships to enter.
No other title comes even close to the difficulty, realism and, most of all, rewarding sense of fear and speed that this game has to offer. If you know you’re gonna crash, instinctively you close your eyes, grab the wheel hard and just wait for it to stop!

If you’re tired of arcadish stuff that the only thing needed is to floor the throttle and go around corners hitting everything, give these titles a chance and maybe, just maybe you’ll convert yourself into a virtual Pro-driver.

Before finishing this episode of It's a Pixel THING, here’s a couple of honorable mentions:
-  rFactor, for the PC,

-  Race Pro, for the xbox360 

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domingo, 8 de junho de 2014

Star Wars: Dark Forces [1995, PC-DOS] Review - It's a Pixel THING

I’ve watched the movies over and over again, from their releases on VHS to the latest Blu-ray discs, and played almost every game there is based in this great universe.

The game I bring you today is my favourite first person shooter of all time: Star Wars: Dark Forces.

After the unprecedented success of id Software's Doom, the PC gaming market shifted towards production of three-dimensional first person shooters. LucasArts contributed to this trend with the 1995 release of Star Wars: Dark Forces, a first-person-shooter that successfully transplanted the Doom formula to a Star Wars setting.

The game was well received and spawned a new franchise: the Jedi Knight games. This began with the sequel to Dark Forces, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II released in 1997; this game reflected the changing face of PC gaming, being one of the first games to appreciably benefit when used in conjunction with a dedicated 3D graphics card like 3dfx's Voodoo range.

Star Wars: Dark Forces was released in 1995 for Microsoft DOS and Apple Macintosh, and in 1996 for the PlayStation.

The storyline is set in the Star Wars fictional universe and follows the character Kyle Katarn, a mercenary working on behalf of the Rebel Alliance. He discovers the Empire's "Dark Trooper Project", which involves the development of a series of powerful new battle droids and power-armored stormtroopers.

Dark Forces uses the Jedi game engine, which was developed specifically for the game. It was commonly called a "Doom clone", but this brand new engine adds gameplay features to the first-person shooter genre which were uncommon at the time of release, including level designs with multiple floors and the abilities to look up and down, duck, jump, and swim. The Jedi game engine can also create gameplay and graphical elements such as fully 3D objects, atmospheric effects such as fog and haze, animated textures and shading.

The game has a unique "active environment" and special features were included: ships come and go at the flight decks, rivers sweep along, platforms and conveyor belts move and much of the machinery functions. It was a major breakthrough.

The Dark Forces soundtrack uses the iMUSE system to create interactive music using the Star Wars soundtrack composed by the great John Williams. What it does is that it simply synchronizes music with the visual action in the game, and transitions from one musical theme to another. iMUSE sounds like something that came out of the creative mind of Steve Jobs. But no, it was developed in the early 1990s by composers Michael Land and Peter McConnell while working at LucasArts and is patented by LucasArts. The first game to use iMUSE was Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge and it has been used in all LucasArts adventure games since.

Critics gave very favourable reviews to the DOS and Macintosh versions of Star Wars: Dark Forces, but not to the PlayStation version. The DOS and Macintosh versions were praised for the level design and technological advances. The PlayStation version was criticized for having poor graphics and slow frame rates, reducing playability.

Doom and Doom II are considered to be classics and even the newer players have heard of them, but I believe that Star Wars: Dark Forces is a far superior title for all those reasons I’ve mentioned before. The Dark Forces Strategy guide even claims that development was well underway before the original Doom was released and that the game was pushed back so that it could be polished.

Now a fun fact: the game was banned from Germany because they saw it as a Doom clone. How stupid is that?.. More stupid is that, when I captured some footage from Dark Forces using NVIDIA’s brand new ShadowPlay software, it created a folder on my computer called “wolfenstein 3d”! Even today, Dark Forces continues to be seen as a Doom clone! How sad is that?...

Star Wars: Dark Forces will forever be one of my favourite games of all time. Besides being this phenomenal game, it was the first one that I bought with my own money and holds a special place in my collection.

Thank you, LucasArts. I’ll forever remember you ;)

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