John Walker's Electronic House

TB 144

They’re Back 144

John Walker gets back. Back to where he once belonged.

Impossible Creatures
PCG 119, 82%
PIII 733, 256Mb RAM

Many animals were unnecessarily harmed in the making of this review.

Animal testing certainly is a contentious area, without a simplistic solution that can appease the opposing factions. To take either extreme in the debate is to demonstrate a lack of understanding of the deeper complexities of each side of the argument. However, we here at the They’re Back Laboratories suggest a simple, unifying solution: make animal testing really cool.

While our scientists recognise the difficulties with accepting dripping noxious liquids into the wide, brown eyes of a new-born puppy just for the sake of some posh lady wearing unpleasant perfume, we believe it to be far more widely appreciated if you graft the head of a new-born puppy onto the body of chicken, with an iguana’s tail. No one could possibly object to that.

It’s a glorious idea, beautifully executed by Impossible Creatures’ animal labs, in what is undeniably an original approach to RTS. 51 species of animal are available for your genetic splicing needs, combined to create a remarkable 2,550 different units, each with a unique balance of skills based upon the particular species’ strengths and weaknesses. Of course, this is also very dependant upon which bits of each animal is present – an rhino’s horn-nosed damage won’t shine through if all it’s presenting are some impressive back legs, with the front end played by an eagle. And you really can work such ridiculous combinations, and they fit together nicely, almost convincingly.

The troubles sneak in when it comes to the down-and-dirty of the combat. So much effort appears to have gone into creating the elaborate perfection of finely balanced creatures that the fighting suffers from a lack of attention. With little battle strategy to employ, such attacks tend to be based upon the specialist (impressively animated) skills of your beasties meeting in the middle, with little room for improvisation.

Resource management is also similarly simplistic, only needing to worry about coal and electricity (both necessary for creature creation). For those who hate faffing with such boring rubbish, this is obviously a good thing, but it still reduces the complexity of play significantly.

However, more importantly, you can graft lobster’s claws onto the body of a gorilla. Or a shark’s head onto the legs of a giraffe. So there’s little cause for complaint.


All the fun of genetic manipulation, without the fear of being bombed by insane fanatics.

Starsky And Hutch
PCG 135, 63%
1GHz CPU, 256Mb RAM

Two incredible facts are learned upon discovering the information that the script for the Starsky And Hutch game was written by Matt Costello, the script writer for 7th Guest: 1) The Starsky And Hutch game has a script! 2) 7th Guest had a script!

Who would ever have believed either? Not me, that’s for sure as custard. Thankfully, S&H bears little in common with the glossy-o-rendered puzzle book from the Olden Days, being a driving game, rather than a series of tedious challenges involving slicing cakes and moving chess pieces while FMV ‘actors’ shout their lines like scared children in a nativity play. Unfortunately, despite being strikingly different, it’s still rubbish.

Everybody wants to be GTA, but really, stop. Just stop. It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing like when a rubbish aunt decides to buy her nephew a favourite toy for Christmas, but thinks, “these Tweenage Mutant Ninja Tortoises are just as good”. Drawing a big city is not just as good. Combining the mystics of cars and guns does not magically create the successor to Rockstar. And taking a license of a rubbish TV programme only liked by the repulsive “ooh, I’m so crazy-retro that I only watch Starsky & Hutch and Bagpus!!! I’m wacky! Old things are better because I faintly remember them!” idiot cretins is not a surefire route to critical success.

Badly handled cars, boring, repetitive missions, and lame voice acting (with a whole one original cast member – Antonio ‘Huggy Bear’ Fargas – making an appearance) are all unsupported by poorly crafted cut-scenes telling out a story you don’t care about. Retro: Not clever.


Neverwinter Nights
Best Of Atari
PCG 112, 94%
PII 450, 96Mb RAM

I once had a go at a pen and paper based role playing game. We were in Scotland, hiking, and each night in the youth hostel we would play a bit more of the game. Tom Clements, with his head for numbers (6 As at A Level, that boy) was in charge of the books, and the most strenuous part was having to roll a big dice. Most impressive was the volume of content carried out exclusively in our heads. So much so that one night Mike Smith woke up everyone in the hostel room shouting how THE SKELETONS ARE GOING TO GET THE BOX! THEY’LL GET THE BOX! He’s an accountant now. But at least we tried.

And this is why Neverwinter Nights stands out as such an important title. Not because of Mike, though that remains significant. But that freedom to allow your head to play such a huge part of the deployment of the game. While it contains a 60 – 120 hour single player storyline, written by Bioware (something that can’t really be quickly dismissed!), where it really stands out is in its malleability. This same campaign can be approached as a multiplayer, with you and up to eight chums rolling characters and taking on a scaled version of the events. But then comes in the Aurora Toolset, allowing you to craft your own D&D experience from scratch – the authentic experience.

It’s pretty old now, but that means there’s impossibly large amounts of material out there on the net to keep you going forever. And awake at night.


RalliSport Challenge
PCG 118, 71%
PIII 733, 128Mb RAM

It’s hard to put into text how much the word “RalliSport” annoys me. My Word dictionary is a fairly weird place, having been taught many a nonsense word, like “Obscura” or “Xplosiv” thanks to this job, but rest assured that “Rallisport” shall remain red-wiggly-underlined for ever more.

Originally an X-Box launch title, forgotten amidst jubilation more richly deserved by Project Gotham Racing, RC at least didn’t face the indignity of being lazily ported across. Instead the behemothic Microsoft (which, if you stop and think of a moment, is also a /terrible/ name for a company – really tiny, and soft and squidgy – not something most would want to become associated with) ensured that it received a proper redressing for our sorts.

Unfortunately, this didn’t include adding in some realistic physics, balanced AI or a decent camera. And no matter how pretty you are, quite how many cars and tracks you cram in (22 events, a dizzying 48 tracks, and a good selection of 25 licensed cars) these are the measures by which you will be judged, rally driving game readers.

At the time of its release, two years ago, the above-average 71% score was bolstered by a lack of comparisons. Colin McRae 3 had been delayed, and there was little else happening at the time. We all need a rally game at one time or another, and hey, it was there. But now, now things have changed. We’ve got rally games spilling over in high towers (well, two – Colin McRae 4 and Richard Burns), and it leaves little room for this also ran with a stupid name.


Mechwarrior 4: Black Knight
PCG 106, 77%
P300, 64Mb RAM

If we’re honest, it’s not a hugely inspiring month in They’re Back. But then, it’s time for the annual moan at budget labels, who refuse to release over Christmas, maintaining the argument, “No one buys budget games at Christmas,” and offering little in response to the reply, “Yes, but that’s because there aren’t any to buy.” Thank goodness for Xplosiv this year, who have seen fit to let forth a middling batch, of which Mechwarrior 4 feels right at home.

Five pounds does a lot for Black Knight. You’ll need the original Mechwarrior 4 for it to work (also available from Xplosiv, for £10, and mega-reviewed in PCG 118 and 83%), but when compared to its original price of twenty quid, this expansion pack (despite being nearly three years old) feels a lot more justifiable.

Of course, there’s no deviation from the Mechwarrior experience: you play the role of a giant hulk of metal, stomping around and blowing shit up, in the name of some confused notion of avenging betrayal. Other people try to shoot at you, including other large robots, and much fun is had by all. Making this different is a new single player campaign, and a selection of new robots to stamp around in, including the eponymous Black Knight. And potentially more interestingly, there are five new multiplayer modes. Potentially because, well, is there anyone still out there? The answer is, yes! Loads of them. Various fan sites linked from are still alive and well.


Past Masters
Another World
Delphine Software International
Older than even us.

The lasting effect of Eric Chahi’s hand-crafted world is quite astonishing. Just a glance of those black, hump-backed beasts with their glowing eyes – the hairs on your neck clamour for attention. The polygonal 2D graphics, unlike anything else at the time and still deeply evocative, were brought to life with a graceful fluidity of movement for which only Sands of Time feels appropriate to bear the weight of comparison.

Young physics professor Lester wass transported to an alien world after a freak accident, leaving him at the mercy of a peculiar, lovingly painted landscape, and exquisite beasts bent on his demise. Ostensibly it was a platform game, but it very quickly revealed itself to contain much greater depth. An adventure game feel was bolstered by the initial, hugely challenging sequences leaving you unarmed for an agonising length of time, having to use ingenuity to survive, rather than the more usual holding down the spacebar and hoping.

It possessed an elegance that is rarely surpassed, and despite being possible to complete in less than an hour, one that still manages to excite these weary eyes.