John Walker's Electronic House

TB 142

They’re Back 142

We pay John Walker so badly he can only afford budget games.

Dungeon Siege
PCG 109, 92%
PII 333, 128Mb RAM

The perfect cure-all for AD&D ADHD.

It’s my fifth birthday. I mention this apropos of nothing, but I just noticed I’ve been writing in PC Gamer for five years this month. I can’t think of a clever way to link this information to the Dungeon Siege review, and people are always telling me that this column is overly self-indulgent, so hey – why not. Send me cake! And ‘cake’ reminds us of parties, and a party is… what you control in Dungeon Siege. I’m the best!

Playing by the rules is surely not for everyone. See above. And when it comes to AD&D, the rules tend to tower high into the sky, contained in thousands of hefty volumes, which /no one/ has ever read. Such books are only ever /consulted/, preferably with the intention of proving someone wrong. And so it is with ignorant delight that I tell you such pedantic nonsense is missing from Gas Powered Games’ interpretation of the universe.

Stripping down can be great. Especially when a complicated genre-type is refined to a few core elements, each amplified and emphasised to create an awesome intense experience. (Or when on a beach at midnight, and the full moon seems to be compelling you). Dungeon Siege tears away the garments of micro-stats and minute character balances, to reveal the proud body of wanton, carnal fighting. It maintains some modesty with a simple XP system, allowing characters to develop, but it does it in such a way that lets you take your party in /your/ direction, and not that of a dusty old manual.

The purist may argue that to make such changes, including the introduction of the friendly pack mule, removing the need for tedious inventory mini-management, is to lose track of the original dice-rolling roots. But the purist is an idiot, and he smells. Such precision reproduction already exists within Bioware’s catalogue, and Gas Powered’s interpretation allows a few more of us numerically challenged types to play.

What Dungeon Siege doesn’t have an excuse for is the clunky approach to narrative, appearing in spits and spurts, rather than through elaborate NPC interaction. However, this does allow it to focus even further on what it does best: intricately controlled and beautifully executed savage battlery.


Battle-heavy, restriction-lite RPG goodness, rewarding tactics over stat tricks.

The Italian Job
Sold Out
PCG 111, 42%
PII 300, 64Mb RAM

Committing crime in a living city has been all the rage for flipping ages now. From Mafia to GTA: San Andreas, a good few years of rehashing this same idea has proven profitable, and also hugely entertaining, for many. Which means it was always with an air of bandwagon-hopping, meme-surfing desperation that Pixelogic threw together such a title based on the most obvious license of all.

It does beg the question whether a license is necessarily the most helpful backbone for this genre-within-a-genre. Taking the two examples above, both are built on the collective ambience of many specific examples. Mafia is in no way an attempt to make Godfather: The Game, and to have done so would be to have limited the game’s scope and options horribly. GTA is the product of decades’ worth of maverick action cinema, but doesn’t make the mistake of restricting itself to the contents of only one film. The Italian Job game has ensured its own limitations before it has even begun.

What’s unfortunate is that it continues to ensure such limitations by also being rubbish in almost every respect. Hoping to catch the spirit of Midtown Madness or Driver, it fails to grasp simple concepts, like the need for an on-screen map if you’re to be able to actually drive anywhere. Although it’s not hard to master, the poorly programmed collision detection, and lame AI of other vehicles means that there’s little reason to want to. Tacky graphics and unimaginative game modes leave little reason to not just buy Midtown Madness instead.


Theme Park Inc
Sold Out
PCG 93, 79%
P233, 32Mb RAM

No theme park would be complete without a terrifyingly suited man, maybe dressed as a GIANT BEE, or a HIDEOUS FROG, his body entirely concealed but for the monstrous appearance of a pair of human hands protruding from the ends of his furred sleeves. Nothing, but nothing, is more horrific to behold. Costume wearing, theme park man-slaves, leave this land.

They are but one of many disappointing aspects of amusement parks. In fact, the only exception in these dens of despair is the rides. Why not just have the rides? /Why not/? And as you’d expect, the same is equally true in TPI. The joy of the previous Theme Park World had been the construction of, and subsequent riding upon, the rides. And it was this aspect that allowed the mediocre micro-management to be forgiven (or ignored).

Inc attempts to put a bit more effort into the numismatic side of things, giving the whole deal an injection of evil Capitalism. You are cast merely as the Assistant Manager of the park, with various goals set to win your promotions. But even so, no amount of corporate scaffolding is going to distract from the reality: the obligatory tedium of pricing the burgers.

The new coaster design kit goes some way to achieving what Rollercoaster Tycoon has always done better, but here with the added advantage of allowing you to simulate a ride upon your creation. But it’s not enough, and in the limited field of park creation sims, it remains fixed in second place.


Clive Barker’s Undying
Sold Out
PCG 94, 78
PII 400, 64Mb RAM

It’s not entirely clear what is sustaining Clive Barker’s career. It’s certainly not his film work, having not a made that didn’t have its audience gouge out their eyes with their fingers since 1987. His books? Meh. His computer game? It’s not overly convincing.

It’s frustrating, as Barker has a good knowledge of Horror as a concept. Undying oozes with horrific atmosphere, perfectly poised sound effects dripping cold fear onto the back of your neck, just when they should. There’s no doubt that it’s a scary game to play. But this is just a trick. Even the lamest movie can generate a moment of tension – the threat of the unseen, enough closed doors, and a tinkling piano – but when the payoff is a stumbling man in a rubber costume, you’ll always feel let down.

Undying just isn’t an enormous amount of fun to play. Unbalanced weapons make the first few levels famously awkward to get through, but even afterwards there’s no moment of Half-Lifian inspiration that earns its place in FPS memory. Despite using Unreal Tourny’s engine, internal levels are painfully smothered in load points, which are hardly helpful when attempting to maintain a tense and distracting environment.

And damagingly, Thief: Deadly Shadows’ increasingly legendary ‘Cradle’ does more in one level than Undying manages in an entire game. It’s not enough to just be scary, it’s got to be ingenious as well, and Ion Storm’s opus shows Undying for what it really is: big on mouth, short on trousers.


War Commander
PCG 110, 35%

If you keep a diary, you’ll know how embarrassing it can be to go back and look at old entries, to read the ridiculous thoughts you had, the sweetly naïve joy you expressed for the eventually disappointing, the time you thought you were in love, but in the end it was a chest infection. Or if you happen to be a PC games magazine, looking back at how Dave Collier said that War Commander being a WW2 RTS was a “welcome break” from the norm. So adorable.

Now you can’t walk for more than three steps in the PCG office without someone asking you to review one. “Go on. Just this once. It claims to be slightly different from all the others in a non-specified way.” In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that WW2 RTS games are a strain of virus, seeping into other genres and parasitically taking over their host code. At one point, developer’s release schedules were probably full of fresh and innovative ideas, maybe games involving Lunar Golf or Mole Burrowing Simulations. But they are quickly ravished by the endless onslaught of this insipid contagion, preventing anything interesting from reaching Alpha.

Maybe War Commander is the source, the original disease. Lazily thrown together, it fails to get any element of the RTS correct, with terrible AI, cheesy design, and a difficulty curve drawn on a bouncy castle. The only sensible solution is to ensure that no copies are bought whatsoever, to prevent it spreading any further. Lockdown.


Past Masters
Duke Nukem 3D
UK Gold
3D Realms
PCG 25, 91%

So as the countdown toward Duke Nukem Forever now enters its final stages, with only several years to go, it seems an opportune moment to look back and wonder what on earth it was that convinced us that we were once excited about waiting.

Duke 3D understood how to play a game for laughs. Throwing a few gags around has never been good enough – before a game can be accepted as funny, it first has to be damned good, at least as good as the straight-faced fighters in its field. And when that field was FPS, it had to measure up against the likes of Doom 2 and Dark Forces.

Duke Nukem introduced destructible scenery, flying and swimming, beautiful multi-levelled levels, and clouds of dollar bills when you blew up a dancing girl. You sicko. And it was on top of this that it threw in the one-liners and ludicrous alien enemies. It was time to kick ass and chew gum. And he was all out of gum.