John Walker's Electronic House

TB 138

They’re Back 138

Old games never die. They just get increasingly out of date.

Magic: The Gathering: Battlegrounds
Best Of Atari
PCG 131
PIII 800, 128Mb RAM, 32 Mb 3D card

Of course, the real card-game-to-computer success is Solitaire. A lot of people are unaware of the background story though, so let’s run through it quickly. The mighty wizard Klondike has lost his armies of, orcs, I expect. An evil enemy mage has cast a spell upon them, meaning they cannot return safely home unless in the correct numerical order. But, his spell is more cruel than any could have known, as the red and black minions cannot stand in battle unless alternated with the other… You know the rest. Sadly, Windows Solitaire lets itself down with no multiplayer option. Which is where Magic: The Gathering: Battlegrounds: comes: in.

Converting a card game onto the PC can’t be an easy license to take on. Fortunately for us, Secret Level approached the challenge with a flair of originality, and the imagination to think outside of the pack. (If you ignore all those daft card game conversions on the GBA, which do the same sort of thing). In an effort to annoy the mad people who play collectable card games, Battlegrounds immediately more resembles a beat-em-up.

However, there’s a lot more to it than that. Embracing the principles of the statistical card game, a ‘round’ begins by selecting various monster types, spells and additional boosts. You then go into battle with another warrior, similarly armed. Over the frantic battle, your avatar casts the various selected spells in the hope of not only defeating the monsters spewing forth from the opponent, but also getting past that onslaught and chipping away at his health meter.

Which means this is really so much more than a beat-em-up, and perhaps even something that could appease the collectable card game playing idiots. Your choice of spells is limited, meaning you must make difficult decisions about how to spend your Mana. Do you get lots of little irritating elves, or a big hulking magma giant? And more importantly, what will your opponent have chosen?

There is a single player campaign, but it doesn’t offer an enormous amount, crucially making it too hard, and hence not much fun. However, with two players at the same computer, or through the hooded shroud of the internet, Battlegrounds offers some fantastic frenetic madness.


Horizons: Empire of Istaria
Best Of Atari
PCG 132
PIII 600, 128Mb RAM, 3D card, net access

They say what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. The torrent of pain-inducing adventure games meeting my desk each month begins to explain my increasingly muscular arms. Taking this idea further, I have been cutting various parts of my body off, and only allowing so much blood to cascade from the wound before stemming the flow. Soon I intend to contract non-lethal diseases, and perhaps trenchfoot. I shall become more powerful than any other mortal man. And destroy Horizons: Empire of Istaria.

Istaria doesn’t cause pain. It comes nowhere near killing you. It merely induces an apathy more powerful than infomercials for stain removing foam. It offers no solace in increasing my mighty strength, but instead withers me with its whimsy. It’s the Massively Multiplayer Online RPG equivalent of melancholia.

Amazingly coming up with no discernibly original ideas, the Horizons universe is built from bricks of tired clichés, humans and gnomes and dragons trading gaming silt and chopping up occasional monsters. Since going online six months ago, various combat elements have been improved upon. However, when such improvements are to add in features so standard as to leave you blinking (a progress bar to tell you how long until you can cast the next spell, a combat queue to tell you which attack action is happening next), it only serves to demonstrate quite how far behind the others Istaria is.

It’s still being tweaked all the time, and the only selling point – dragons – are being given the majority of the attention. But they will never be enough to rise Istaria to a place where it will warrant your time or money. Crush.


V-Rally 3
Best Of Atari
PCG 131, 58%
PIII 800, 128Mb RAM, 32 Mb 3D card

It seems to be about time They’re Back had some sort of sponsorship. It’s not like it’s unusual to have a magazine section sponsored by some company or other, proudly emblazoning their name across the top of the page. I’m feeling inspired by V-Rally 3’s corporate sponsorship feature: bringing management simulation into the rally arcade game, you receive communications from companies proposing funding your driving days. Perform well, and they’re proud to have their logo plastered across your bonnet. Spend most of the race driving backwards, and seeing if you can get up the earth at the side of the road and into the woods, and they will strip you of their whorish advertising ways. (I appear to have inadvertently given away how I play rally games. If only there were some sort of way of untyping on a computer).

However, this is as far as the serious-sim side of the game extends. The rest is just your run-of-the-mill racing arcade nonsense, with all the usual modes of play you’d expect. Nothing new, and nothing inspiring can be found within. And as any V-Rally review inevitably has to say, there’s absolutely no need for it to exist in a world sporting the far superior Colin McRae Rally games.

There’s a reasonable amount of variety, letting you go all around the world, from England to Africa, via Germany, Finland and Sweden, with a few races in each land. But nothing within will set your heart aflame. Unlike Rowntrees’ Jellytots, the small jellied sweet choice for the smarter gamer.


Master of Orion III
Best Of Atari
PCG 122
PIII 300, 128Mb RAM

Look on the faces of dads everywhere. If you are a dad yourself, you can either find another dad and look at his face, or perhaps use a mirror. What is the expression that you see? That’s right, a glum sad dad face. Why? They’re remembering Master of Orion II, having just heard the news that Master of Orion III is out on budget.

They deserve your sympathy, this sea of glum dad faces. If you cast your mind back to 1996 and then 1994, you’ll remember a very different paternal-ocean expression. It was happy! Remember their fatherly smiling faces! There they were, up until 1.30 am even though they had work the next day, controlling their galaxy of planets. Do you now see why the tide has turned those smiles upside down?

When a game is something of a legend, perhaps the best thing is to just never make part three. Unless it’s Thief, of course. Or Broken Sword. Or Civilisation. Hmm. Maybe it’s better to only make part three if you have any intention of making your game even vaguely fun to play. Rather than MOO’s lo-res statistical carcrash. It’s just not fair on dads.

Where once before you had the astonishingly scaled turn-based strategic space opera, now you have a galaxy so overcomplicated with meaningless figures that there can be no joy within.

The first two came from dad games specialists, MicroProse. Until the formation of Firaxis, no developer has ever made so many fathers so very tired but happy. Part three, so very tellingly, did not.


Might & Magic VIII
Sold Out
PCG 85
P166, 32Mb RAM

There appears to be something of a running theme of disappointment in this month’s releases. And if there is cause for concern when releasing a third part to your series (see Master of Orion III), then there must be an entire charitable body of sheer blind panic when you reach part eight.

None of the last four instalments have achieved a mark higher than 52%, and yet for some reason 3DO kept throwing money at it. Which means that someone out there was buying them. Was it you? Was it?

A quick glance at the screenshots might lead you to think that we’re dealing with a game from 1993 here, perhaps released on DOS. Oh no no, we’re firmly in the new millennium here, just four years ago. As Ross astutely noted in 2000, it was already then two years out of date. Which would mean it’s now… more years out of date than even then.

In case you managed to miss all nine in the last fifteen years, Might & Magic is an old-skool RPG, more in the mould of the classic 16-bit Dungeon Master (see The Play That Changed The World) than anything else. Despite the rest of the world having discovered 3D, by the time the series reached its eighth incarnation, it was incredibly still using bitmapped enemies and NPCs to create a laughably awful looking world.

In an attempt to give you a sense of freedom, M&M VIII woefully underscripts everything, leaving the narrative flapping about uselessly like a torn carrier bag on a stick. Oh, sorry, am I being too ambiguous? It’s utter, utter rubbish.


Past Masters
Day of the Tentacle
PCG 23 (reissue)

There are many great adventure games that would need to be chronicled when looking for the most powerful influences in the genre. Sierra’s various Quest series played a huge part in this history, built upon by LucasArt’s SCUMM games. But one adventure stands out as the greatest of its class.

While some will argue that Grim Fandango had a stronger narrative, or Sam & Max delivered louder laughs, let it be said that they are wrong. None have captured the spirit and joy of pointing and clicking better than Day of the Tentacle. Set in three simultaneous time zones, the three beautifully written lead characters interacted through time-travel puzzles (chop the tree down in the past to free the character stuck in it in the future, cryogenically freeze the hamster so it’s available in a couple of hundred years time).

Every single portion of the scenery contained at least one joke, every comeback was quotable, every puzzle was so ludicrous and yet so satisfying. Adventure gaming peaked in 1993.