John Walker's Electronic House

TB 150

They’re Back 150

It’s all just a little bit of history repeating. John Walker dons his feather boa.

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
PCG 130, 89%

Blinx the Cat strings the bow that plays this violin.

I remember the first time. I was running along a high platform, having made my way up the complicated series of poles and ladders that allowed me this vertigo-inducing vantage point. There was a big gap in front of me, and I was going to have to reach a trapeze that hung dangerously far away. But not so big a gap that I thought it would need a wall run and bounce – it should be fine to just clip the edge and spring with my usual agility. I was wrong. I was plummetting toward the ground, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. And it felt fairly typical – how many times, in how many circumstances, have I tumbled from an edge due to a mistimed leap or awkward landing? I would have to do it all again… But the dagger! Sheath-pulled and invoked, time recoils, my descent respells itself, and in a Vaseline blur I’m back on top, unscathed.

It’s a joy. Like the gravity gun, it’s the idea every similar game should copy, but few will ever get right. It’s what was absent from platform games, it’s the missing ingredient that results in Lara’s wilting petal-like ears in the face of ten thousand hateful swear words. Falling off ledges is rubbish. Rewinding time is awesome.

Sands of Time is a special game. And not just because it implements the most significant new idea in gaming for years. It’s special because it’s humble, silly even. Dressed in the drama of refined, serious graphics and astonishingly eloquent controls, its story is fluff, grinned at by the central characters as they verbally bitch-slap their way through a castle riddled with sand-filled zombies. And this humility extends to the controls. Console farmed, it reduces a remarkable number of complex moves down to about six buttons, and yet never leaves you feeling like you’re just hammering A until the fight is over. You’ll know the moment you fall in love – it’s when you run up a wall, jump backward to grab a trapeze, leap to the rope, slide down and wall run through the swinging blades, without thinking about where to put your fingers. It’s in your soul then.


Exquisite platforming joy that defies both time and space.

PCG 121, 90%

The realism is astonishing. You exist an enormous black void where almost nothing happens. Every now and then you can see a pin-prick of light in the distance that might represent the potential of getting some work done, some time soon. But you don’t have to go there straight away, there’s probably some CDs to put in alphabetical order… um, on your spaceship. It’s a joke based on the word “freelancer”, you see. Because, um, some journalists are “freelance”, and, oh you don’t care.

Unlike a freelancer like myself, the aim of Freelancer the game is to make money. You’re a will-explode-space-for-cash type worker, travelling the constellation in search of employers, odd jobs, and trading opportunities, with the overriding hope of finishing with more money in your space-pocket than you began with that morning.

However, it’s not all planet-based capitalism, oh no sirree space-bob, there’s an entire galaxy out there for you to shoot at. In fact, whether you’re following the game’s juicy plot, or just scampering about the big black in search of surprises, the sheer immensity of the explorable universe should take your breath away. Vacuums are good at that. And of course this comes accompanied by nefarious evil-dwellers who may as well have spent their afternoon painting targets on their fuel tanks for you. The pleasingly intuitive controls make for some excellent battling, despite it not managing to come close to the prettiness of games like Haegemonia or Homeworld.

Creating such a vast playpen, /and/ developing a cogent and engrossing single player story is a fine feat. It gives us freelancers something to live up to.


Trainz Railway Simulator 2004
PCG 130, 79%

It’s far too easy to make jokes about people who are interested in trains. Or indeed trainz. From here in our ivory tower of playing computer games on our PCs we are clearly of a superior genetic line, and the thought of encountering one who might be described as a “geek” is too abhorent to bear. But I want you to be strong, and just for the moment pretend that a minority hobby such as trainspotting doesn’t make you feel sick to the core of your entirely cool stomach. You can do it.

Since the original release of TRS2004 a patch has been released that will allow you to not only run a complete network of trains, issue orders to AI drivers, transport goods, and even design and build your own track routes via the editor, but now you can take passengers on board the things. But stop, don’t be too quick to criticise a game interested in the realism of running a train-based transport system for not bothering to think about the passengers until the last minute. If you’ve ever lived on a Virgin Trains route, you’ll know that /their/ fixing patch has still yet to be released.

It’s not nearly as well supported as the more famous MS Train Simulator, lacking the ludicrous numbers of downloads and add-ons, but despite this it manages to have a much more atmospheric and comfortable feel than the Beast of Redmond’s cold simulation. And hopefully the next patch will give the passengers their flasks of weak lemon drink.


American Conquest
PCG 120, 78%

The other day Mr Ross Atherton and myself had one of our intellectual conversations of the sort that leave the rest of the minions in the office quivering at the might of our cranial counterpoint. This particular discussion was exploring the matter of why there have been no decent cowboy games. Ross said something of little import, and then I insightfully observed that this could be a symptom of the rather unpleasant reality of the cowboy that our more enlightened times have recognised, decreasing the desire to wallow in such xenophobic mires that were once naively acceptable. Ross stared up at me, a look of sheer admiration filling his eyes.

American Conquest doesn’t do cowboys, but it does do Indians. Do them in, that is. And the same slightly uncomfortable niggling feeling arises. The invasion of America and the slaughter of the indigenous population isn’t exactly one of history’s proudest moments. It’s something Americans would obviously want to learn from and forget, and certainly not create an annual feast-day holiday to celebrate. Goodness me no. However, this latest in the Cossacks family of RTS games embraces such unpleasantness.

Of course, the joy is you can play the natives, and it’s here that Conquest demonstrates a glimmer of originality in the increasingly mundane series. And with them they bring the entertainment of a new fear factor, a morale system that can see your troops scarpering when too many of the tits have gone up. However, aside from this, it remains the same solid-enough, datingly isometric, and somewhat uninspiring middleground that developers GSC seem to know and love.


Conflict: Vietnam
PCG 140, 48%

You weren’t there maaaaan. You weren’t in Naaaaaaam. And nor indeed were any of us. Although it’s beginning to feel as though it might have been more fun.

Right – that’s it – I didn’t think I was going to do this, but I’m instigating a THEY’RE BACK RULING. Fancy calligraphy pens at the ready, we’re adding a new rule to the list: “#87 – NO MORE VIETNAM GAMES”. That should fit neatly between “#86 – NO MORE PLAYER CHARACTERS WHO HAVE MYSTERIOUSLY LOST THEIR MEMORIES” and “#88 – CRATE PUZZLES WILL NOW REMOVE TEN PERCENT FROM YOUR SCORE”.

I’m drafting something about squad based games for a future amendment. They are on thin ice. Single player is safe – you can pretend it’s you, and that’s fine. Remote strategy is equally secure – you can pretend you are some distant general issueing orders, or even better, God. But squads? What is my role? I can only be the result of some hideous quad-polar disorder, dividing my identity into extreme characters with particular specialist interests. That’s how you were meant to leave the Vietnam war, not arrive like it.

Conflict Vietnam is a war too far for the Conflict series. Its reasonable controls for squad confusion are wasted in the claustrophobic jungles of the World’s Most Embarrassing Conflict, reducing this whole thing down into a clumsy, unpleasant and frustrating exercise, hopelessly scampering around in the trees, confused and slightly bored. A lot like paintballing now I think about it.


Past Masters
Spycraft: The Great Game
PCG 29, 79%

They didn’t get the title wrong. Not many games can claim to have been developed with the aid of form CIA Directors and KGB Major Generals. And not many games can be so po-faced and yet still be fondly remembered by those wise enough to ignore the woefully poor reviews it received at the time.

You played Thorn, a new CIA recruit, finishing off his final exams as a cunning excuse for some training levels. After that, you’re in the field, getting involved in balancing international relations between the US and Russia in the wake of the assassination of a Russian presidential candidate. In a way that the current dreadful TV tie-in investigative games can only stare at uselessly, it gave you access to a stupid amount of really cool spy gadgets, improbable but straight-faced, allowing you to piece together your understanding of the complex, worldwide crime.

Sadly Activision still sit tightly on the copyright, despite not making it commercially available anywhere. If you can track down a copy (perhaps using a magnifying glass), this is well worth a nostalgic viewing.