Grand Theft Auto IV

A few first impressions, and also my viewpoint on the series as a non-fan.

The GTA games are of a type that generally appeals to me in concept as far as gameplay goes, but I've always found something of a turn-off when it came to characters and controls. The 3D ones so far I felt were particularly clunky, and I could never get past that. As for the characters, well, this may sound a bit wet but I do have a genuine problem playing criminally-inclined bad guys in games. I did the Light Side in KotOR, the Paragon path in Mass Effect. Unprovoked viciousness doesn't appeal to me, so a lot of the guilty pleasure in GTA is lost.

This one seems to have fixed a lot of the things I had problems with before. The setting appeals to me (it's essentially New York) and the player character is more of a guy in a tough situation trying to get by. He has a weariness about him, and he certainly doesn't seem to take much pleasure in the dirty business he has to get up to. Not so far, anyway. I'd love for Rockstar to have pulled off a game where the player is confronted harshly with the kind of actions they've traditionally pursued with glee. I have a feeling it won't go that far, but it does certainly appear to be more grounded in reality than previous efforts.

The city is magnificent, and frequently breathtaking in its vistas. The weather plays a large part in that. Golden sunsets are aplenty, and frosty mornings almost chill the screen. The density of detail is amazing. Look closely enough and you'll see plenty of repetition in environments and NPC behaviour, but you do have to be searching for it to notice.

As usual with these kind of 'sandbox' games, I'm more inclined to just exist in the world than get on with progressing the storyline. There's plenty of time-wasting to do, from hanging out with friends to going on dates (and the various activities you can choose to do there), to simply sitting in and soaking up the staggering array of parody TV shows and internet sites. It's very funny as well. Sometimes completely crass and sometimes very subtle and clever. Just aimlessly driving around to listen to the radio is a pleasure that can soak up entire sessions.

Early days in and Nico is just a small fry, with limited access to the city. Considering how impressed I've been with the area I've been given run of so far, the prospect of what opens up later on is very tantalising indeed. It's not perfect by any means, and thematically it doesn't appeal nearly as strongly as other types of adventures, but I am having a lot of fun with it.

Law returned to the Lands of Lore

I just finished Lands of Lore. Really, really enjoyable game, if a little combat-heavy for the most part. Going into these things is always coloured by my experience with Dungeon Master, and the vast majority don't hold up well. This one deserves a high spot for sure though. Visually it's superb throughout with nicely animated creatures and a broad range of environments. The interface is simple and fast (though I often found myself struggling with the spellcasting in the heat of battle, wasting valuable magic points on the wrong thing because I forgot to switch).

Like I said though, it is very much centered around combat and a couple of the areas were something of a pain. The respawn rate is incredible, and when you've got enemies that can kill or stun your characters in one or two hits you're facing an uphill struggle. And my word - there are few things more annoying than dropping your weapons and shields every time a monster hits you hard. Also, your champions don't seem all that handy with their weapons of choice, and you can happily hack away a couple of dozen times without landing a single hit.

Criticism also falls on the structure of the game. This may have been just me but there were a few occasions where I simply didn't know what I was supposed to be doing. Some very obscure puzzles dogged me for a long time and I'd regularly find myself backtracking through nearly the entire game looking for solutions or things I'd missed. Mostly they were right in front of my nose, which suggests it's just me being a doofus. This is never entirely out of the question.

A repeated playthrough is most definitely on the cards, especially since I picked up the CD 'talkie' version while in progress on this standard one. I think next time it will be a more specialized character rather than the all-rounder as well.

I wonder if I should give the sequel a proper go. It is full 3D so motion sickness rears its ugly head, but perhaps running it windowed in DOSbox will help. For now though I'm pondering my next quest, which will either be the first SSI 'Gold Box' game Pool of Radiance, Ultima 1, Wizardry 1 or Might and Magic 1.

Do you see a pattern there?

Stone Soup Tiles

Well whaddaya know... Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup has got itself a tiles version which completely flew under my radar. I've been playing the old, very outdated tiles version of Crawl all this time and here's this spangly new one with all the up to date features intact:


It's a well-known problem with emulation that you have a strong 'embarrassment of riches' factor, and this prevents you from really playing anything properly. You tend to scan the list of games, play something half-heartedly for five minutes, then move onto the next. For me it's partly down to the transitory feeling of emulated games. They don't feel like they're there. Which is odd, because they're just as much there as a genuine copy - when all is said and done it's just data in a system. Still, the psychological effect contributes to that feeling of not really wanting to devote large amounts of time to anything. Also, it has to be said that many times I've played several hours of a big game on an emulator, only to return at a later date and have the save state and file simply not work any more.

I'm a bit of an archivist when it comes to computer games, keeping complete romsets from a variety of systems. 99% of which I'll never even load, but I feel that as many people as possible ought to be keeping this stuff safe, what with the lamentable attitude of the industry towards its own heritage. I can fully imagine a situation akin to the one the film world is in now, with so many early works lost forever due to bad storage or neglect. Mainly I'm talking about early computer games here rather than console efforts. Consoles always have enjoyed a more widespread appeal and distribution in terms of games, and of course the media tends to be a lot more durable. I'm more about preserving the old Spectrum games, the PC games with the booklets, maps and various trinkets, the lavish and attractive packaging and so on.

This all ties into the playing aspect. I realise that I dabble too much and I don't get much genuine satisfaction from many games. Finishing Mass Effect and the two Tomb Raider games recently brought back memories of getting a new game and completely devoting myself to finishing it, before the days of easy access to everything. Revelling in the gameworld, making maps and keeping notes. My recent foray into DOS gaming brought this into full perspective in that so much abandonware is available it's hard to know where to start. So I made a decision... I would only play the games I own a physical, legitimate copy of.

Immediately the desired effect took place. I found myself sitting down with a game purchased from ebay (in this case Lands of Lore), and playing it properly. Another important factor is having the manuals and references to hand. I know you can download this stuff in text format or even a PDF, but nothing beats having the original documentation to flick through. It adds a surprising amount to the experience. That, and many times I've loaded up some RPG with only the basic grasp of the controls and what's required of me, walked around a bit and talked to some NPCs, then gone off and gotten killed. No matter, I just moved onto the next game that took my fancy rather than learning what I had to do.

This isn't an argument against emulation - indeed, the vast majority of these games I will be playing through emulation, on DOSBox, or WinUAE, or Spectaculator, etc. Just for the hardware convenience. It is however a solution I've settled on to get me playing older games properly again. Now instead of scanning through thousands of files on the PC I just scan through my shelves for something to play.