Tag Archives: Games

I may not be OCD, but I play one in real life

Ever played the game Stratego?

It’s kind of like chess combined with capture the flag (and maybe some minesweeper as well). I was doing my usual thrift store run on Friday and came across a set for $2.00. Stratego has a lot of pieces (80 in the version I found), and with thrift stores you can never quite be sure if you’ve got everything you need, but it looked close enough so for $2.00 what the hell?

Each player has 40 pieces each of which has a numeric value associated with it, as well as some with special functions (bombs, spies, miners, etc.). Your opponent can’t see what the value of your piece is (they just see a bunch of generic looking pieces), so all of your pieces need to look the same on one side, and to play a good game you need to have all, or at least the same types of units on the other.

Well, after sorting each piece into the slots the game provided I came up five short. Because of the values of the pieces in order to have a fair game I’d need to take the corresponding pieces away from the other side so I’d have a 35X35 match instead of 40×40.

But hey this was from a thrift store so I thought, what if I just find another one and combine the two games into one. Now because the pieces need to look the same I’d need to find the same edition, but I was feeling lucky.

I first went back to the same thrift store and by some chance they had another Stratego set, but this was the one from 50 years ago, and had even less pieces than the set I had (the pieces were radically different in design and much smaller).  Some later online research uncovered that there was someone on Amazon selling pieces of this older set for $3.00 a piece. If I’d wanted to I could have picked up the set for $2.00 and sold the 60 or so pieces for $3.00 a pop (or better yet $2.50 cause it’s kinda slimy to sell individual game pieces for $3.00 a pop and I wouldn’t mind annoying whoever’s doing it).

Anyway, no luck on Friday, so I’m running some errands on Saturday and decide to hit up Half Price Books (Lane, Bethel and Graceland) as well as the VOA (Volunteers of America). No joy. And online for the same edition is $100+ since it’s maybe 8 years old and there have been several others. Seems kinda ridiculous to pay that much for something I initially payed $2.00 for. Even $3.00 a piece guy would cost $15.00 and that’s if he had my pieces.

So I’d been pursuing this for a while, and I thought, well, I want to play this game so I ought to just buy it new. Kroger and Target both had it ($17 and $15 respectively , but it was a new retooled edition. Instead of Napoleonic era pieces, it was in space and was now a 30×30 match instead of 40×40. I hate rule changers, be it prices in Monopoly, or things to make it easier or more streamlined. Strategy games are supposed to take a while, and frankly even $15 is a lot of money to spend on something that is less than the thing I paid $2.00 for.

This search for the pieces was followed by an evening of trying to get my Win 95/98 computer version of the game running in a modern system. I tried it on my XP netbook, Win 7, virtual win 98 and virtual win XP before getting it to work in the VM XP. And even that copy will only play once per VM boot. I have to restart it if I want to play again.

So if you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering why go to all this trouble?

Well I’m a sentimental kind of guy, and seeing Stratego in that thrift store reminded me of when my friend Chris first bought me the computer version almost 15 years ago. Also, my wife and I also play a lot of Risk and I thought it might be nice to find something a little shorter to play that still had some of the same kind of thinking. But no small part of this was the fact that something was incomplete, and I needed to finish it. You wouldn’t know it from the clutter I’m sitting in, but I like order, and it bothers me when things are missing, even if I didn’t lose them.

This is something I probably need to loosen up on. I’m sure my wife and I can enjoy this game even with a few pieces missing, and if I had complete sets of everything I just have pieces of I’d be buried.

I do find it interesting how one little discovery can lead to childhood memories, new technological discoveries, and finally the satisfaction of playing something that works. And I am very thankful that I have a wife who understands these compulsions and still wants to play with me.

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System Shock 2 (13 Years Not Too Late)

It may seem strange to review a game from 13 years ago, but just because it isn’t the latest and greatest doesn’t mean you should ignore an old game. These underrated gems still offer unique gameplay, and System Shock 2 shaped FPSs and RPGs for years to come.

Level Design: I’ve played a number of sci-fi shooters before, but none with such a clearly laid out ship design. Instead of being shepherded down a single path, each deck is arranged functionally, with many different paths and countless nooks and crannies. This is one thing I love about game engines from this period, big open spaces with admittedly less detail but greater scope and less load screens. Authenticity of experience is more important than intricate detail in my view. And the environment changes around you, it really is a living ship (at least in one sense of the word). There’s a nice nod to the first game in the last level which shows the love the game designers had for this material.

Levels

Enemies: There’s a nice mix of biological and technological opponents as well as things in between. The game has been criticized for the hokeyness of some enemies, including psi-monkeys and cyborg ninjas, but I don’t think this takes away from gameplay. Rather I think it adds a little humor to what is otherwise a serious story. Difficulty rises nicely with ability, but even grunts are not routine (those monkeys can be hard to hit)!

Story: This is by far one if the most unique features of the game. Rather than telling the story in cutscenes, bits and pieces are revealed through log entries, commuications with unseen helpers, scripted events and ghostly encounters. The logs especially add to the feeling of a living ship, portraying more than a dozen perspectives on the grizzly events. The story itself is pretty straightforward, a ship is in deep space when they are hailed by a nearby planet. Those that land bring back a hostile alien lifeform which infects the crew, turning some into zombie hybrids and others into far worse. But something else came onboard, a hostile AI with delusions of Godhood. She created the aliens and she wants you to destroy her rebellious children.

SHODAN: Easily one of the best villains of all time, with a creepy distorted voice, and no desire to hide her disgust for a worthless bag of meat such as you. And yet she needs you, at least for now. Her reveal in the middle of the game is a great twist and makes you see the game you’ve been playing in a whole new light. She’s not just evil, but lacks moral constraints of any kind, and has a great and terrible vision for humanity.

Shodan

Content: Shock is gory at times but not to the degree of one of its contemporaries, Half Life. It’s more scary than gross, but the second to last level is disturbing, you enter “the belly of the beast” literally. Fortunately this section is short, though I wish they had called doors something besides sphincters.

RPG:A good blend of skills and weapons. It emphascizes hackers and psi-ops but that’s better than plain soldiers anyway.  Weapons degrade when used but I think maintenance is a better skill to emphasize than repair. Psi abilities are the most stable and have more ammo. You can change your strategy without restarting the game, which is more flexible than the upgrades in Deus Ex.

Overall a game you should definitely get your hands on, even at closer to a premium price. If you do get a copy you can use my guide to getting it up and running and enhanced. This is one I’ll probably be replaying in the near future (okay already am).

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AGFV: Shock to the System

“Look at you hacker. A pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you run through my corridors. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal machine?” ~SHODAN

And so begins one of the most legendary sequels of all time. Unfortunately, due to the copyright hell of law firms buying up expired contracts from defunct gaming companies, just getting a copy of this game is more than half the battle in getting it running in Windows 7. To those of you who were fortunate enough to buy a copy back in the day (or those willing to shell out beaucoup dollars for it later), these tips and tricks should not only help you enjoy your investment for years to come, but experience it in a new light.

Step One Install the Game: Hey, for once this actually works in a fairly conventional manner! Since this is a 16-bit installer, you’d expect it to have trouble in a 64-bit operating system, but fortunately compatibility mode for XP seems to solve this problem. (Alternatively you can just copy the contents of the “Shock” folder on the CD, but why not enjoy antiquated Win 98 style install screens!)

AfterInstallScreen

Choose the FULL install, as we’ll eventually be running this program without the CD (wouldn’t want to damage it J). Don’t install DirectX or register the game. The version of DirectX you have is far better, and no one’s at home to take your registration anymore L. For now hit quit on the front screen (I promise you’ll be playing soon enough)!

Step Two Download SS2Tool_v3.6: Fortunately, in the 13 years since this game was first released, a dedicated community of fans has worked on a number of tools that fix bugs, and help System Shock live on modern systems and resolutions. This patch also prepares Shock for the mods we’ll be installing to bring the game up to 2003-2004 quality! You can download this patch from here.

 

Step Three Install the SS2Tool: Copy the tool into your game directory and double-click to launch it. The default component options should be fine, though you can always uncheck undesired capabilities. If you copied the tool into your System Shock directory, it should recognize the correct location of “shock2.exe”. If this location is correct click “Install”.

SSToolInstall

BeforeDirectoryStructure

You’re going to see a lot of quick pop-ups. DO NOT BE ALARMED. Most of these are scripts to move files into the modded configuration. You may get an access error on some files including the EXE. Retrying seems to get past this problem. When installation is complete your folder structure will have significantly changed.

Step Four – Check your resolution: The cam.cfg file contains resolution properties of the game. These should have copied correctly, but if not you can change them by adjusting the “game_screen_size” line. Width is first, then height.

Step Five – Set compatibility mode to XP for “shock.exe” and check “Run as Administrator”: Right click at choose “PropertiesàCompatibility”. At this point the game is playable in all its 1999 glory, but there are some things we can do to further enhance its appearance. When you play the game for the first time it may take a while to load (don’t be alarmed!).

CompMode

Upgrade your textures: All mods for the game are placed in your “DataPermanentMods” folder. Typically these come in zip files which you can extract the contents into this folder. The first we’ll apply is SHTUP, short for Shock Texture Upgrade. You can download it from here. Full details on this mod can be found here. To install the mod, copy the zip file into your “DataPermanentMods” folder and “Extract All”. Select “Yes” for any overwrites. Once the zip file is unpacked, you can delete or archive this file. After SHTUP is installed you’ll have a folder structure like this:

ModDir

Upgrade your character models: SS2_rebirth_v02, or System Shock Rebirth, upgrades the character models with smoother curves, and modified character designs. Some of the designs suffer a bit from typical male tendencies (over accentuated proportions), but on the whole this model is true to the original. Of particular quality are the horrified expressions on the model’s faces *shiver*. You can download this mod from here, and install in the same fashion as SHTUP, copying the zip file to “DataPermanentModes” and extracting the contents.

Upgrade your music: The sound and music are pretty high-quality in the original, but you can always have higher fidelity. Download SHMUP from here, and install like the other mods. If you just want to download the soundtrack for your non-gaming listening pleasure, try this link.

These three are the mods I have installed on my current game. All three are compatible with each other. Not all mods will be cross compatible so be sure to check and save backups of desired configurations. You can download these and other mods from here.

This is one you may want to start on easy. With a variety of different skills and tactics, this is one you’ll be playing for another 13 years (now if you’ll excuse me…)

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By Gamers, For Gamers?

The Smithsonian recently opened an exhibit devoted to the art of video games. The featured games were chosen by popular vote from a list of 240 and narrowed down to 80. The final list demonstrates some of the problems with a popular vote when trying to determine what is “good” art.

Some Odd Choices

  • Earthworm Jim was selected for Era 3 “Bitwars!” as one of the platform alternatives to obvious choices like Super Mario. Earthworm Jim is a good game, but I think Rayman would have been a much better choice. Rayman spawned many successful titles including the retro style Rayman: Origins, as well as spinning off the Rabbids series. It’s a rough contemperary of “Jim”, but with a much broader mass market appeal (not really violent, and downright silly). Both have a very quirky artistic style to their main characters and level design, but again I think Rayman’s legacy had a much more significant impact.
  • Doom was put up against games like Deus Ex and Unreal. I’m curious as to how many of the people who voted for Doom actually have played it. I’m not saying it’s a bad game, and it did revolutionize FPS gaming (though I think Quake had a much bigger and more lasting impact), but it’s a weird line-up. There is a 7 year gap between Deus Ex and Doom (which in the gaming world is gaping). Deus Ex is a complex FPS RPG with moral choices set in a Blade Runner / Matrix / Ghost In The Shell style future. Doom involves battling demons from hell. Maybe both should be in the exhibit, but they never should be lumped into the same class of games. And if I had to pick one, it would be Deus Ex, not only because of the reasons previously stated, but also its incorporation of literature and complex writing.
  • Halo 2. Yes it’s better technically than Halo but it doesn’t take place on Halo! Why show the sequel when the original is a classic!
  • SimCity and SimCity 2000. Personally I think these games are like economics homework, but even if you like them, pick one!

My Picks

I think the problem with the popular vote is it completely neglected “cult” or critically acclaimed games. Just as in movies, what is popular and makes a lot of money is not always the best. But even some very popular choices don’t seem to have even been considered.

  • American McGee’s Alice – Yes he’s already in the exhibit for Doom, but Alice is a fascinating and somewhat twisted take on Alice In Wonderland. Alice has been in a mental hospital for years after her parents die in a fire, then returns to Wonderland as a teenager to attempt to regain her sanity. Wonderland has been twisted to reflect her own inner turmoil and I think provides a much deeper interpretation of the story than the Disney version. Some of the level design is outright spooky or bizarre (and it’s a tough game even on easy), but it’s a wild ride.
  • Anachronox – I’ve been playing this one a lot recently and while I don’t think it stacks up to Deus Ex, this is a very under-appreciated title. Despite it’s age the levels are engrossing, creating a world on the inside of a sphere where people walk on the walls and the ceilings. And that’s just the first planet. I like games of this era because they create massive levels rather than focusing just on how detailed each area is. The years following saw levels shrinking, and it would take another couple of years to get back to the expansive spaces. The humor, the level design, and the intricate plot, make this a game worth more study (and HD remake?).
  • Max Payne – Despite the horrible movie of the same title, the game is like playing a classic action movie, complete with bullet time and pithy one-liners. What really sets this game apart is the tone, taking place on a cold winter’s night, haunting music in the background, and cut-scenes told in graphic novel fashion. The sequel is equally fascinating and only expands on the first (haven’t played the 3rd game but a little dubious). I also enjoy some of the meta humor, the stories within the game that parallel the action, and the occassional asides to the video game form.

What I Liked

I am pleased to see MYST and Monkey Island as two of the playable games (not selected by populat vote). I also like that the exhibit did span the history of gaming and not just the modern era of better graphics (though I think they may have over emphasized the past). Fallout and Starcraft are obvious but excellent choices, as is Final Fantasy VII (terrible 3D but wonderful matte paintings in the background).

How about you? What games or line-ups do you think were odd choices? What would you add to the list?

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