John Walker's Electronic House

TB 133

They’re Back 133

Of previously released software and magick obscura.

Warcraft: Battle Chest
PCGs 112, 125

The RTS is arguably ideally suited to a multiplayer format, army building and resource harvesting perhaps more interesting when competing directly against others with similar organic brains. But the RPG has had to compromise itself for an online incarnation, turning into the glorified chatrooms of Everquest or Ultima Online. So when making one of those mysterious middle ground games, how do you strike the balance, or more importantly, /where/ do you strike the balance?

Warcraft III scared us all with delays and doubts about its appearance, will-it-won’t-its surmounting pre-release hype. And then it arrived, erupting like a crazed volcano, showering its disconcertingly purple and green lava across the useless lands below. Look at us – we’re impressed.

So as it stamps its way along the fine high-wire of balancing RTS and RPG, which parts from which camp does it adopt? I can tell you. Essentially, at its heart, Warcraft is a strategy game – it is divided up into missions, you play each through in the pre-prescribed order, and you change the race you are playing four times throughout. Plus there are resources to manage, and battles to be fought. However, the role playing memes interweave their story-telling ways through every fibre of the experience. Yes, there is resource management, but only two resources, the notion stripped down to the very minimum without completely disappearing Ground Control style. And yes, the endeavour is mission based, but there is still a continuing narrative as strong as any mighty RPG you’d care to mention.

The cinematic (yet in-game engine) cut-scenes are not limited to the race you’re currently encloaked in, but instead offer all manner of perspectives on the tale, allowing you to appreciate things from every angle. This ensures that the race-hopping antics of standard RTS fare do not destroy the narrative flow, but it does of course inhibit you from bonding closely to your present alliance in the way the bestows such joy in the likes of KotOR.

The other inescapable RPG element is the nature of the game’s heroes. Possessing such magics as an inventory, they are a far more involved character than you’d usually find, and of course stay with you from mission to mission, ultimately defeatable only by the game’s scripted plot.

This re-release contains The Frozen Throne, the mission pack of such magnitude as to almost deserve the title of “sequel”. And of course the whole lot is playable as a 12 player online wargame. It’s hard to think of a reason not to get this.


High orc-tane gaming, an elv-olution of the RTS/RPG format.

PCG 100

I’ve never liked a game’s name so much as this one. In full, it’s, “Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura”. It’s like an intellectual cushion, comforting and enticing. It can be concluded that the usage of “Of” at the beginning of a title makes life up to 12% better.

Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, as it should properly be called, ignoring the publisher’s insisted pre-coloned unnecessary-ness, is a solid RPG that faces one with the ultimate choice: magic or technology. This modernist fantasy world contains both spell-casting and metal-shooting, sparkly lights and clunking machines, and which you choose to specialise in affects your approach and logic when exploring missions. Magic is elegantly ethereal, technology artistically definitive. Which is why this column is written in the air with a beach-wood wand, while a review of Jim’s would be etched in steel by a seventeen foot angry robot.

Upon its original emergence, OSAMO met head to head with Baldur’s Gate II. Both are isometric RPGs, both from creators with ultra-impressive resumes (Bioware’s original Baldur’s Gate and Troika developer’s earlier Fallout were both titles that rewrote the world of role playing games), but one would go on to rule the hearts and minds of the gaming public, and the other fade into beautiful-titled obscurity. Baldur’s Gate’s superior design, visuals and astonishingly massive story deservedly emerged victorious.

However, the sheer joy of They’re Back is the opportunity to walk paths that were previously too expensive to chance. At five pounds, exploring this flawed but passionate adventure has become a viable and worthy task. It /is/ let down by its graphics, and it /is/ disappointing in its interaction and inventory systems, but the pseudo-Victorian world has a lot more to offer than the majority of the slew of mediocre RPGs that muddy our ankles.


RPG Collection( Arx Fatalis, Archangel, Gorasul)
Big Ben
PCGs 116, 117, 107

Big Ben are now publishing the endlessly mediocre Jo Wood releases, which have included such unnoticeables as Neighbours From Hell and Aquanox. Here are three of their RPGs, put together in one remarkably cheap collection, but worries may occur when Big Ben’s own website denies its existence.

However, these worries are not quite as severe as you might imagine, especially when you ignore two-thirds of the contents, and pretend that this is a budget release of Arx Fatalis – their entirely reasonable old-school role player. Designed by Arkane Studios to be a homage to the mighty Ultima Underworld games, they attempted to recapture the level 23 magic of Looking Glass’ inspired creations. While of course this reaches further back into history than even Gamer’s ancient arms, such a move could still be labelled as risky. Those ancient games are still held in extremely high esteem, despite UUII’s including that ridiculous floaty pathway in black nothingness level, on a par with the same company’s ridiculous mushroom-trip Thief II level… I digress.

But the truth is, the world needs to have an update of this brand, and Arx Fatalis does almost as good a job as you’d want for such a nostalgic experience. Despite being let down by being too easy, it blatantly steals enough of Looking Glass’ techniques to work in its own right.

Archangel is a dreadful third person action game that doesn’t merit your attention. Which leaves us a little room to mention Gorasul. On release it received 20% and hatred from every quarter. Originally German, it was barely translated, reading like a Babelfish offering throughout, and hence unplayable. However, there is now a patch available that contains a complete re-scripting of the entire game, which should allow easier access to the not-dreadful Bioware rip-off RPG story inside.

The score goes out to Arx.


Throne of Darkness
PCG 103

Are you looking uncomfortable? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time, there was a little RPG called Throne of Darkness. Tod was a big admirer of Prince Diablo the Second, and used to sit in his modest home, dreaming of having such exciting battles and adventures as his favourite hero. He would stand in front of his looking glass, swinging a large stick back and forth, imagining that he was a mighty warrior, fighting against the forces of evil.

One day, a magical faerie appeared before him. The faerie looked a little dishevelled, one wing ripped, and her pretty dress all tattered and torn. But this mattered none to young Tod, as the sprite began to tell him of her offer.

“If you wish it, I can make you into a real RPG, just like Prince Diablo.”

The little game scrunched his eyes up tight, and wished as hard as he could wish. The faerie waved her wonky wand, and when Tod opened his eyes again, he was standing on a Japanese battlefield, the stick in his hand transformed into a shiny sword. He gasped in delight.

He was now a samurai, one of seven, taking on the evil forces that had threatened his kind. It was too good to be true.

Indeed, it was too good to be true. For the faerie was rubbish, and her wish granting skills were of a terrible quality. Tod’s new world was nothing but a pasty imitation of the Prince’s, all ill-conceived and lazily thrown together. As he charged around killing anything in front of him, he felt none of the glory of his hero, but instead a wholly dissatisfying emptiness at the very core of his soul.

Most terrible of all was his discovery that his new adventure had no discernible story that would hold his attention, and one that could only come to a really disappointing end. The end.


Civilisation III Gold Edition
PCGs 104, 119

My dad never gets to AD. What he does is play through from the beginning to around 100 BC, and then decides that he could probably do it a bit better, and have conquered the Egyptians more efficiently, and have developed better chariots by now, and not lost the support of the Romans. So he starts again.

The terrible thing is, he probably has no idea about the elaborately interesting opportunities Civ III has to offer once things start getting more up to date. The idea that there are giant metal planes filled to the top with bombs, or crazy-modern football parks to entertain your peoples, are notions that shall never permeate his gaming experience. He’s stuck in the past, refining and refining, aiming towards a perfection he’ll never reach. But he’s happy, and hey, out from under my mum’s feet.

Sid Meier’s endlessly revised opus might one day run its course, but in this third complete revision (if we ignore the Civ II sub-sequel debacles) it proves that it is still a format that can win our already won hearts back from ourselves again in a game of heart winning that really doesn’t make any sense. Conquering the world has never been so elaborate, lengthy, or detailed. Tim Stone’s original four hundred page review didn’t manage to capture all that is on offer within – this 300 word column mostly about my dad will obviously do better, but it still won’t be enough.

But that’s the point – you /can/ just play the same few hundred years of Civ over and over, and still have more strategic fun than in a dozen other completed games. That’s how flip-gibberty good it is.

This release includes the previously over-priced but extremely excellent multiplayer add-on Play The World, all now at a reasonable new-game price.


And The Rest

I wish I had a golf game to review, as I’ve just thought of the phrase, “simply put, putting’s simple”, which would be really clever. Sadly, there are no golf games to review. But wouldn’t it have been great if there were?

In fact, until next month’s batch of Sold Out releases, there’s little to report. But I suppose we could suffer through mentioning EA’s latest method of robbing you of £35. If you’re wrong, you might think that the Sims is a great game. What it truly is, is a nice idea that almost worked for a bit, but ultimately was a flawed and desperately over-hyped marketing exercise. Of course, with over-hyped comes over-liked, as the mass populace (they’re the people that aren’t you or your interesting friends) consumes them like frenzied hyenas.

This particular package is prescribed as The Sims: Double Deluxe. This makes no sense on either a grammatical or a contents understanding, seeing as it contains three portions of the beast. There’s the original game, along with two of the money-grabbing, enragingly pathetic ‘add-on’ packs, Livin’ Large, and House Party. “Livin’ Large” – shudder. As if you needed any more information before dismissing this tripe. They add absolutely sod all to the game, pretending to change anything with utter rubbish like alien invasions, or inviting neighbours over for an meaningless party.

I can’t legally express my distaste for everything The Sims has become. But I can give their nasty, overpriced drivel 40% in a best selling PC games magazine.