Pity poor Dimitry Shalinakov. He was a unit artist in the RTS department of Ukrainian developer GSC Game World. For five solid years he did nothing but draw men with muskets. French chasseurs for Cossacks: European Wars, Swiss harquebusiers for Cossacks: Back to War, British redcoats for American Conquest, Dutch musketeers for American Conquest: Fight Back, Mexican cazadores for American Conquest: Divided Nation, French chasseurs (again) for Cossacks 2... the monotony drove him to the brink of madness. Then in the summer of 2005 he heard the wonderful news that the company were finally ditching historical strategy in favour of fantasy. His spirits soared, his imagination gamboled like a wild Don pony. He waited excitedly for his first job on the new project. When his boss came over with concept art for a Dwarven musket trooper, Dimitry rushed screaming from the office straight into the path of a passing tram.
WINGS OVER EUROPE KEY COMMANDS
Would every games reviewer that has ever started a review of a WW2 RTS with a sentence along the lines of "Oh God, not another WW2 RTS!" please go and stand next to that precipice over there.
"You've been playing for two hours without a break. Don't you want to stretch your legs for a bit?"
FSX is far too big and far too detailed a game to be reviewed by just one person so, with the help of EG's resident medium (Madame Muerto) I've enlisted the assistance of some famous dead aviators. Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic, is going to be covering fixed-wing aircraft for me. Amy 'Sweetcheeks' Johnson, Britain's most important aviatrix, will be looking at scenery. Manfred von Richthofen, the infamous Red Baron, has kindly agreed to cast his expert monocle over missions, and Stringfellow Hawke, that bloke out of crap eighties chopper show Blue Thunder, will be analysing helicopters and everything else. Me? I might insert the odd ill-informed observation now and again, and add a trite summing-up paragraph at the end. Possibly. If I can be arsed. Right, let's get going. Stringfellow, give the good readers a little FS background.
Scary. At 6.30 yesterday evening I fired-up GTR2 intending to grab a few swift screenshots, then quit and begin this review. Around seven that sensible plan somehow morphed into the much less wise 'Let's see how low I can get my TVR lap-times at Magny Cours, Monza, and Donigton Park'. In the end it was gone one by the time I finally managed to drag myself away to bed.
Right, that's it, no more game-playing for me. From now on I'm just going to read optimistic previews and get my pleasure from anticipation. If I'd done this with Night Watch then the following paragraphs would have been blissfully free of nasty, soul-rotting whinge-words; no 'ill-conceived', no 'woeful', no 'disappointing', no 'hopeless', no 'dire'. The sum-total of Global Negativity wouldn't have been increased by 0.00000000000026%; right now I'd be a fractionally less cynical, less suspicious gamer.
Britain is heading for a serious engineer shortage according to CBI Director-general Richard Lambert. He reckons the reason so few UK students take physics at A-Level then go on to do engineering degrees is the evil combined science GCSE and the lack of inspirational secondary school science teachers. Personally I put it down to the fact that Armadillo Run isn't part of the national curriculum.
The Battle of Waterloo has been reproduced in videogame form on more than a dozen occasions and yet so far no-one has got round to modelling one of the most important factors in the French defeat - Napoleon's colossal haemorrhoids. (It's said that chronic piles limited the Little Corporal's mobility during the battle by keeping him out of the saddle). Developers GSC had the opportunity to rectumify this grievous situation with this standalone expansion for Cossacks II, but - criminally - they've parsed it up.
The summer of 1999 was an exciting time to be a WW2 flight simulation fan. Dynamix, the makers of the iconic Red Baron, were beavering away on Desert Fighters. At Looking Glass Studios, the talented Flight Unlimited team were busy with Flight Combat: Thunder Over Europe. Microsoft were in the midst of a Pacific theatre Combat Flight Simulator sequel. Oh yes, there was also a small Russian outfit with no sim track-record whatsoever, working on a game about an obscure Soviet ground-attack aircraft.
Read this short fairy-tale then tell me if it makes any sense:
I'd be as pleased as Punch if my three-year-old son Randolph grew up to be a games designer. To help him on his way I'm already employing a special Hungarian education technique called Realignment Through Play (RTP). It works like this: let's say he's playing with his Lego and builds a neat little model of our house or our car; on such occasions I reward him with affection and words of praise. If, on the other hand, he brings me a model of a huge blue horse drinking from a volcano, or a peacock with rockets instead of feathers, I smash it to bits in front of him and rage until he blubs.
If you ever want to learn the meaning of the old adage 'Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind' read a good history of the Third Reich. In 1945, the tide of evil that Hitler had unleashed on the Soviet Union in '41 rolled back into the Fatherland like a karmic tsunami. The unstoppable Red Army, taught to look upon Germany as the lair of the beast, stormed through neat and prosperous Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia, destroying, looting and raping as it went. Insane orders from Berlin forced tens of thousands of Axis soldiers and Volkssturm (a civil defence force of old men and boys) to stand in its path and perish. The horror and the suffering was unimaginable...
Going on the evidence of recent RTS hits like Age of Empires III and Battle for Middle-Earth II, to get a job as an AI general in a modern strategy game, all you need to do is demonstrate that you know how to recruit a few different types of troops from your barracks, have them wait around until a decent-sized mob forms, then send them off in the general direction of the enemy. Subtle tactics like flanking, feints, and encirclements? Forget it - developers seem far more interested in balancing their forces for multiplay or crafting lavish stories for their campaigns than they do in creating cunning artificial opponents.
Can I ask a favour? Before we get started could everyone that's reading this sort themselves into one of three groups? Over there by the bust of Winston Churchill, I'd like those of you that are already familiar with this games predecessor, Hearts of Iron II. Beside that bust of Mussolini, I'd like the people that have never played a Paradox game before but have dabbled with middleweight strategy greats like Civilization 4 and Rome: Total War. Lastly, next to the bust of George W. Bush I'd like to see the novices - those gamers whose strategy experience is limited to base-building RTS like Warcraft 3 or Age of Empires 3.
A new couple have just moved-in a few doors down from me. The bloke is some big wheel in the city. He wears handmade suits and drives an Aston Martin Vantage. The woman manages an art gallery, and spends her spare time meditating and taking photographs of picturesque beggars. Tonight, me and few of my working-class mates are going to go round to their house and welcome them to the neighbourhood in the traditional manner, i.e. batter them with baseball bats then set fire to their dog...
Fire! Fire! Fire the developers responsible for taking such a promising premise (firefighting RTS) and turning it into such a mediocre game. Perhaps sacking is a bit harsh; Fire Department 3 does have its moments, but the problem is you are usually far too busy to enjoy them.
I'm thinking about developing my own military action game but I can't decide which of these two concepts I should go with:
On arriving in the Berkshire town of Windsor, make your way to the castle's Cambridge Gate. From there it's a short walk west down Victoria Street to the inn called 'Take Two'. Enter this establishment taking care to sheath all weapons first. Within seconds of crossing the threshold you should be accosted by the cheerful wench behind the bar. She always asks strangers for their names and enquires as to the nature of their business. Be honest in your replies. Explain that you've come to gaze upon Oblivion; divulge that you seek the one known as Lawton. Hearing this she will nod knowingly and send for him.
Heard the one about the new Italian tank? It has six gears: five reverse and one forward just in case it gets attacked from behind. How about the one about the new Italian flag? It's a white cross on a white background. Dubious jokes like these have been circulating in Britain for more than sixty years. Though inspired by real events (the mass Italian surrenders in North Africa in 1941) they perpetuate a myth uncorroborated by the history books. In reality the failure of Mussolini's men at battles like Tobruk and Beda Fomm owed more to poor leadership and inferior equipment than cowardice.
When was the last time you bought an isometric RTS and what was the game?
Game reviewers aren't the first breed of critics to grumble about difficulty. Back in the mid 1920's book reviewers laid into Agatha Christie for creating a detective novel (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) in which, unforeseeably, the killer turned out to be the narrator. This trick broke one of the most revered conventions of the genre and was regarded as a twist too far by many readers and commentators. Christie was unrepentant and went on to create murder-mysteries that bent the rules in even more dramatic and devious ways.
I've got a few ideas for PC games that I'd like to run past you. They are all conversions of classic board-game favourites with an added twist. The first concept is a streamlined software version of Monopoly in which all the properties on the board cost the same amount to buy, and generate exactly the same amount of rent. Sound tempting? Okay, how about a PC incarnation of Chess without those fiddly pawns? No? A slimmed-down virtual Cluedo with only two suspects and two weapons? Surely you'd buy that?
Prepare to be astounded. This reviewer is one of the fabled 'UK Dozen' - the remaining twelve British citizens that still haven't read a Harry Potter book. This either makes me a fantastic choice for this review or an atrocious one (make your views known through the usual channels). On the positive side I'll be able to give you an assessment completely free from Potter-love or Potter-loathing. On the negative side, diehard Potterites will have to put up with me using ignorant terminology like 'Potterites' now and again. Swings and roundabouts...
Ask me about Knights of the Temple 2 in a year's time and I may well respond with a blank 'Never-heard-of-it' stare. This is one of those titles that fills a cold wet winter weekend pleasantly enough but then fades from the memory faster than a Murder She Wrote plot or a Daniel O'Donnell ditty.
Ah, the games industry, such a sweet, mad, baffling creature. Big complicated space sims obviously need to ship with fat manuals or loads of in-game tutorials so what do Deep Silver and Egosoft include with theirs? A 350-page sci-fi novel and no tutorials whatsoever. Nice one, guys.
There's something rather childish, cynical even, about Age of Empires III. Playing it I'm reminded of a girl at school that started giving me presents (chocolate mainly) on a daily basis. She was, I guess, trying to win my affection. Being confused (it was the first time I'd ever been actively pursued) and being greedy I took the bars for a couple of weeks before guiltily asking her to stop. Right now I feel like I want to say to AoE3 "Stop with the gifts! To win my heart you don't need to sprinkle every map with silly treasure troves. You don't need to let me flick to a 'home city' screen every few minutes so that I can select a free unit or resource windfall. I'm not some spoilt toddler that needs to be bribed with endless sweeties."
In the summer of 1940 if you were in the German army there was a good chance you were sat in NW France waiting to go on a short boat trip. The reason that boat trip (codenamed Operation Sealion) never happened is the subject of this potentially excellent flight simulation.
Most of us that love videogames will have found ourselves defending them at some point with the old "they teach valuable problem-solving skills" line. "Kids aren't stuck inside gloomy bedrooms wallowing in meaningless and mechanical slaughter; they are learning the lateral thinking and logical rigour that will equip them for the arduous odyssey that is Life!" Normally you trot this argument out and frailer, less confident opponents wilt or begin to back-pedal. Few debaters are actually sufficiently well-informed to point-out that most game brainteasers wouldn't trouble an unusually dense baboon.