John Walker's Electronic House

TB 116

They’re Back 116

Star Trek: Away Team

I’m casting my mind back over the last, what is it, forty or so years of writing They’re Back, and do you know, I can’t think of a single occasion when I’ve mocked Star Trek. It’s barely had a mention. Just imagine it! Imagine the legions of people out there who have yet to get all bothered by my ill-thought-through ramblings on a subject I know little about. By golly, it’s time to put that right.

Star Trek eh? Cornish pasties… red jumpers… tugging suits… 7 of 9’s suit… kill Wesley. Oh good grief, they’ve all been done so many times before. There’s no comedy angle left undredged. Nothing original available… must fight on… review must happen…

One thing that I never get tired of hearing mocked is Troi. On the big screen is a mighty beast, frothing at the mouth, shouting untranslated hatred at the baldie captain, thumping his fist, and launching missiles. And Troi will look up, all hurt-eyed, and say, “Captain, I’m sensing some anger.” However (and this is the link into the review – get ready), were Away Team to appear on the monitor, Troi’s face would be a picture of, well, nothing. (Clever, eh?)

It’s average, you see. Pull an average facial expression. Go on, try. See? Yes.

It’s essentially a Commandos clone, but set on Other Planets, and more importantly, within the clean, disinfected world of Trek. But fortunately, it doesn’t feature any of the characters from any of the tv shows, since this is about an elite squad of space marines, and not a bunch of failed thespians in their pyjamas. Instead, you have some impressively hard lads and ladies, kitted up to their visors with the very latest 24th Century weaponry, all highly trained in all the specialised subjects you want in your Commandos clones.

But what holds it back is its lack of being genre busting in any sense. It just isn’t enough to skin the entire format with a Paramount license, and sit back in your comfy chair – you need to have a good reason for being. And as tiresome as Star Trek can be, the decades of existence have woven a reasonably intricate universe – something in which a well made RTS could have good worth. However, here you get the impression that the only inspiration was: “We haven’t done an RTS yet, have we?”

Well, now they have, and hey, if you’d rather fight Borg than anonymous armies, there’s probably some laser-clad fun to be had.


Dark Reign 2

By the time of reading, there might not be any world left. If this is the case, then I’m intrigued to learn where it is you are at this moment, and from where you purchased your edition of PC Gamer. Back here, in this time zone, we’re all wondering if country X is going to go to war with country Y, and whether it’s time to start packing suitcases and booking places on rocket ships. It’s unclear how close we are to the world in which Dark Reign 2 is set.

Of course, country X is equally at the end of a bespectacled glare when it comes to the other world-ravaging symptom in Pandemic’s RTS – environmental damage. Let this be a lesson to you, President B: if all carries on in the same direction, we’ll be living in a police state, in the “Urban Sprawls”. Of course, he’d not care, being in one of the domes, along with the others possessing the larger sums of cash.

The state that the police are in is called the Jovian Defence Authority. Which is not to be confused with the Jovial Defence Authority – they’re a very different type of oppressive rule, accompanying fascist leadership with a hearty quip, dominating through power with a chuckle and rub of the hair. Oh no sirree Bob, this lot are distinctly lacking in the sense of humour department, far more intent on keeping the masses down in the dumps.

But it is the masses’ uprising that makes a game of it. In a very C&C type way, you are responsible for pulling together this rough and unready bunch, mining for resources, and building yourself an army capable of taking on the snooty dome people.

Like Away Team, Dark Reign 2 brings nothing new to the genre. However, unlike Away Team, it deserves its existence within the genre far more convincingly, being every bit as good as the best of its ilk.


Mat Hoffman’s Pro BMX

I admit it. I don’t get it. I find it completely unfathomable why one childhood pastime should become the elite sport of the ultra-cool, and another should remain in the green recycling box of memories. Why are skateboarding and BMX biking the realms of the superhero, while pogo-ing and hopscotch remain the minority sport of the young.

Personally, I believe that the next big thing will be a souped up version of the space hopper – those big bouncy round things with the handle on top and a slightly scary face printed on the front. I can see them reappearing, this time with a chrome handle, and the face replaced by a grumpy looking skull, or somesuch. And a select group of men in their 20s and 30s will turn “professional”, becoming the envy of younger teenagers everywhere, as they perform “Boingin’ 360s” and “Triple Reverse Chutneys” on obscure cable channels.

BMX riding has long been one of these bizarrely cool activities. Men, far too large for the tiny bikes, leap about on piles of barrels and wheelie along narrow planks, on a tv programme that appears one afternoon in the summer, and then disappears forever. And you look at it, and wonder if they are saving up for a mountain bike.

The ultimate mark of being an extreme sport of the people, is now to be recreated as a cross-platform game using the Tony Hawke’s engine. And here it is, ported across everything from the Gameboy to the PS2. And even onto your humble PC. Of course, PCs are utterly inappropriate for such a game, being all clumsy keyboards and wires, rather than hand-moulded control pads, meaning you’re going to have to buy one of those dreadful plastic peripheral monstrosities to stand a chance. It’s not that inspiring, and you really might as well play Hawke’s, if you’re going to play any of them.


Tony Hawke’s Pro Skater 2

So, I’ve just laid into Mat Hoffman’s BMX Banditry, for being a silly children’s sport, blown out of all proportion, and created into a platform game for Gameboys, annoyingly dumped on the PC format. So it would only be appropriate to now be a complete hypocrite.

Honestly, this is completely true: For some reason, Tony Hawke’s Pro Skater 2 is different. It shouldn’t be. For starters, it’s a skateboarding simulation. Who finds skateboarding annoying? Indeed. You can put your arms down now.

I wouldn’t mind skateboarding so much, if the people doing it were halfway capable. But I have never seen anyone in the street do anything other than fall off like a twerp when trying to ollie off a curb. Grind the railings outside the station, land in a manual, and the ollie onto the roof of a bus, and you’ll have my respect. Wear your Nirvana hoodies (like you have any idea who they were), and fall over the whole time, and I’ll turn into a grumbling old man, tsking at you, before pushing you down.

There’s something genius about the way Tony Hawke’s is put together. (The game, rather than the man himself, although I don’t think he has any complaints). Despite my not having the slightest interest in boarding, I find it completely compelling to play, desperate to complete the set tasks in each level, and determined to collect every hidden extra, and out of reach bonus.

And it’s not just me. It’s my mum too. She didn’t actually play it, or anything, but she found herself watching, rather than looking scornfully, and marching off to be hugely superior to the rest of mankind. I can’t insist enough that this is the highest praise available.

The tricks are impossible, the bloodshed is ridiculous, the riders are invincible, and the songs are loud and annoying. And it’s just a huge amount of fun. (But again, you need a horrible gamepad).


Age of Empires: Gold Edition

I was sure this was going to contain Age of Empires II. I’ve looked everywhere: underneath things, behind things, in that corner, the lot, and in none of these locations was Age of Empires II. It’s nearly three years old. How on earth can something come out called AoE Gold, and not have both?

Amazingly, this is in fact the very original Age of Empires. The one from back in the dusty, primitive days of 1997. Can anyone remember back that far? LA Confidential was at the cinema, Brass Eye was on the TV, Blur were singing Song 2. Is it all coming flooding back? Ahh, the wash of memories from a demi-decade ago.

And of course, this /is/ the Gold version, meaning that not only do Microsoft package each box with a 24 carat gold necklace (this might be a lie), but it also comes with the add-on pack, The Rise of Rome. And some extra levels. And if I’m grudgingly honest, a lot of bug fixes, some new civilisations, and most importantly, an updated interface. But all this happened THREE YEARS AGO!

AoE does an awful lot of what Civilisation did too. You begin in the Stone Age, and bring your, er, civilisation forward for the next 10,000 years. (No, don’t worry, it’s not realtime). Along the way you must rule in the manner which you see to be fit. Do you pillage the lands of the neighbours, and conquer all around, or do you concentrate on discovering new things (new things, how ironic) and becoming the most intellectually superior people on earth? The Rise of Rome applied the same game ideas, but slowing time down to only accommodate the Roman era, and all their naughty ways.

But it does seem odd that it’s only now that Xplosiv are putting this particular bunny out as a £10 budget title. It must be the necklace.


And The Rest

You may notice a rather Xplosiv themed They’re Back this month. But alas, no, it is not due to an enormous bribe taken by your ambitiously dishonest journalist. Instead, it’s just that they’re the only people to have put out anything halfway interesting this month.

For example, I could have mentioned that Sold Out have put out Virtual Chess 2 for £5. I could have given over an entire column to a computer game of a board game. Or even a computer game of a pocket computer game. And how long before our mobile phones are wanting to take us on at a bit of knight vs queen action? But even if the meagre arguments for the pastime’s presence on the PC were strong enough to convince me of their validity, Virtual Chess 2 certainly wouldn’t be the one to recommend. It’s officially Not Very Good. Please fill the empty box on your chart with “38%”.

I also didn’t mention Xplosiv’s other output – Combat Flight Simulator 1: WWII Europe Series. The reason for this is twofold. Strictly, this is They’re Back, and this game has never been reviewed in Gamer, so old is its ways. And more importantly, it’s a flight sim, and I’m scared of them, and I’m not entirely sure if I could get through the installation, let alone the complicated options menu. I’m sure it’s lovely.

Oh dear, I know I’m up too late writing this column when I hear the milkman arrive. I’d better be off to bed.