John Walker's Electronic House

TB 118

They’re Back 118

Hello, and welcome to these 38th anniversary celebrations. Please take your seats, the evening is about to begin.


That’s right. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, but this is the 38th They’re Back typed by these hands. I never thought I’d make it this far, and it’s especially exciting to have reached such a milestone – 38. I hope that you will all join me in celebrating, as we review some games.

We’ve all heard of being fashionably late. Let’s face it, you’re the sort of suave individual who saunters into parties, two, maybe three hours after they start, your open collar and perfectly shaped hair dazzling all those deigned fortunate enough to be brushed against. Anachronox managed to add a new twist to this notion: It was /unfashionably/ late.

No one held their breath with much conviction when it eventually arrived, mostly in light of its being presented on the Quake 2 engine. What does this remind us of? Arrived late, Quake 2 engine… Ah, Daikatana. And add to this the knowledge that Anachronox came out a full year after the aforementioned monstrosity… Oh dear, oh dear.

So of course it had to turn out to be flipping brilliant. It slunk delicately into the already ongoing party, dressed in nothing special, not catching anyone’s eye, and sat quietly in the corner. Eventually some people noticed, and sat to chat with it… and in no time at all were falling in love. The time old truism proved itself once more – you can forget your collar and hair, it’s personality that counts.

Anachronox is definitely an RPG – this shines through its party-based play, turn-based combat and character development – but it incorporates ideas from all over the pool of gaming genres. It owes a lot to your good old FPS, and more than a lot to the sort of RPG thing that is Final Fantasy. But as with all the best RPGs (and all the best /games/ of course), it’s the story that holds onto your collar and ruffles your perfectly shaped hair.

You know what? I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot. There’s nothing worse than the back of a book spoiling the first few chapters, and I’m not about to do that to the first few hours of this game. Instead, I’m going to instruct you to go out and buy this game, and play it. And you’re going to put up with the incredibly annoying combat, because you’re going to love the story so much. No, you don’t have any choice.


This month’s required purchase. Buy it. Or else. And we’re not kidding. You want to test us?

Soul Reaver 2

R Millington described this game as “an attractive woman, with a five o’clock shadow”. You see, that’s the sort of nonsense that is dragging PC games journalism downhill – obscure metaphor, not quite getting to the point, disjointed, unconnected ideas, and wasting valuable words in reviews with elements not pertinent to the analysis in hand.

It’s enormously coincidental how Soul Reaver 2 mirrors the manner in which my reviewing works. Raziel, your vampiric player character, exists within two realms – the Material and the Spectral. Each exist sharing the same universal structure, but in completely different, well, realms. He can change back and forth between the two at will, allowing not only his restoration of strength, but also adding an extra dimension to puzzles. I find this so familiar, as I tend to spend my time in between each review in the Fluff Realm, restoring my powers in order to be strong enough to complete the next collection of paragraphs. And some reviews, the more keen-eyed may have noted, require my existing in both realms throughout.

The most important difference between this pair of dimension sharing similarities is my ability to save at any point. Watch… See? Sadly, Soul Reaver 2 will only let you save at set points, that are scattered far to wide across the enormous levels. It’s not the best excuse for being late to your wedding: “I couldn’t leave, because I had only just recovered the sword, and it took me over an hour to get there, and I think I fluked it that time.”

How was I to know she’d leave me just for that?

Because it’s made by Eidos, it’s required by unholy Law that it be a “bit like Tomb Raider”, and the third person running and jumping bares more than a slight resemblance. But the duo-dimensional puzzle solving makes it a good game in its own right. Or rite.


Star Trek: Hidden Evil

No matter what you might think of Star Trek, you’d have to be out of your mind to not like Q. Somehow, John DeLancie’s character managed to be everything that Star Trek was not – aware of his own ludicrousness, aware of what a pastel-shaded space opera he lived in, and aware of how moralising and annoying the whole series was. Star Trek: Hidden Evil doesn’t feature Q.

But instead, in an “oh look, there’s a form of simile here” way, Star Trek: Hidden Evil seems to be aware of the problems that haunt so many games in the Star Trek universe. They either attempt to embrace the ugly ethos of the utopian ideals, and end up being as convincing as washing up water, or try so hard to not be like Star Trek that they might as well be any other RTS/Space Sim/Etc. But Hidden Evil is one of the few moments in the series when the license has paid off, and produced a good game without abandoning all but the barest parts of the license.

This is not to say that Hidden Evil is without fault. Like any adventure game of recent years, but for LucasArts and The Longest Journey, it suffers from trying to be to much to too many people, rather than just facing up to what it is – an adventure game. Examples of this include the use of phasors to fight enemies, and the inevitable 3D running and jumping.

But where it pokes its head above the crowd is through the puzzles – the stalwart of all good adventure games. Clues are gently and subtly provided, letting you reach solutions without being hand led, and without the desperate clicking of everything on everything.

It also features some decent acting from Patrick Stewert and Brent Spiner, and all the beepy bloopy Star Trek noises you could ever need.


Conflict Zone
Ubisoft Exclusive

Just imagine if every move you made was keenly watched by the world’s media, your every decision being judged by the reading and viewing public. Of course, all you need to do is present a television programme in the UK, and you won’t have to imagine this any longer. At no time in the past has the British tabloid press been more keen to be the first to drag down the apparently squeaky clean, beat their rival to printing the latest prosecuting photo, or serialise the most recent scandalous autobiography. The last couple of months has seen many formally loved stars be reduced to hated figure, at the turn of a newspaper page.

Who is to blame? You. If you are the person who buys these papers, watches these tabloid television programmes, or joins in with the gossip in the local shop. It’s convenient to blame the newspapers, but it is us who are filing our teeth to the sharpest points, ready to tear apart any who might show a sliver of weakness.

So here’s a chance to be on the other side of the telescopic lens. Conflict Zone is at first glance a fairly standard war simulating RTS, but then reveals itself to have an incredibly novel twist. All you do, all your actions and military decisions, are being keenly watched by the world’s media. If you wish to be provided with the resources you need, and therefore have a fighting chance, you are going to have to maintain the support of the public. And you won’t get that by carpet bombing the innocent, or failing to rescue the hostages.

It works, as well, unlike so many games that try to add a twist. It’s just a shame that the threat of bombing innocents in a country that can’t defend itself /doesn’t/ receive the mass public disapproval awarded to a Z-list celeb’s sexual indiscretions.


Pandora’s Box

It’s hard to imagine anything more patronizing. Pandora’s Box is Microsoft’s attempt to win over a female audience to their games. Let’s spot what’s wrong with this…

1) In Greek mythology, Pandora was created as a punishment for men. She was the first woman, and was given all the gifts that the gods could give her, before being sent to earth to be a trap to men from an angry Zeus. She was sent with a jar, some say box, and had been strictly instructed by the gods to never open it. But she had also been given strong curiosity, and could not resist peeking beneath the lid, and in doing so released all the sorrows of mankind into the world. For each god had not only given her their greatest gifts, but also put the very worst things imaginable into the box. Zeus’s wrath was complete. So an odd choice of name then.

2) Women, as you’ll know if you happen to be one, are not pathetic little petals, capable only of sliding puzzles on a big scary man’s computer.

The difference between men and women, when it comes to playing computer games, is not in the sorts of games played, but in the percentage that use computers for gaming. Shocking, huh? There are proportionally just as many male users who flap around barely able to cope with the complexity of Minesweeper, as female, despite the impression you’d get from the male dominated media, who judge female gaming based on the actions of their non-games playing girlfriend, whom they forced to have a go at Quake III once.

Puzzle games are mildly distracting rubbish for the dull of mind. And certainly not for some fictional “weaker sex” in an executive’s naïve marketing strategy.

Oddly, this box does not contain the world’s evils, but instead some average puzzle games by the guy who will never repeat the success of his own Tetris.


And The Rest

Oh! rowan tree, oh! rowan tree,
Thou’lt aye be dear to me,
En twin’d thou art wi’ mony ties
O’ hame and infancy.

Carolina Oliphant, 1766 – 1845

An extraordinary insight, you’ll agree, into the future of flight simulations. Rowan’s Battle of Britain is aeronautical warfare with all the spiffing words you could bally well hope for. Let me hear you cheer for “stall-turn”, “Lufberry” and “BF109”. If you have any idea what any of this means, the jolly good show old boy. Award yourself, and this, 82%. £10 from Xplosiv.

Also from Xplosiv comes StarLancer – dashing around in Outside Space, as the great 21st century literates The Rugrats call it, blowing things up, and showing off the size of your lasers. It’s rather good too, but has some superior peers. A mere fiver, and eighty five of your percent.

It’s a surprisingly flat Christmas for budget games. Xplosiv also offer Microsoft’s reasonable Motocross Madness 2 for £5, which is described as “wicked dirt bike action”, which just sounds rude, if you ask me. 78%.

And here ends our 38th anniversary celebrations. Let’s hope you can all join us for the next big one, in 29 months time.