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Starship Troopers

Review - join the mobile infantry in this real-time strategy game based on the hit sci-fi movie and novel of the same name

Bluetongue Publisher Microprose System Requirements   Pentium II 233 or equivalent   64Mb RAM   300Mb hard drive space Your Planet Needs YOU! Scenes of graphic violence and gut wrenching horror were witnessed by millions when Paul Verhoeven's gore splattered sci-fi fest exploded onto the cinema screens a couple of years ago, which was received with a great sigh of relief from the masses. The film industry was becoming too clever by far, it would seem. A film, it was said, was not a film unless it had 18 different plots all running simultaneously, and more twists and turns than you could shake a stick at. So it was with great pleasure that we all sat and watched arms, legs and heads being ripped asunder by nasty special effects without having to spark up a braincell. This is a far cry from the controversial book of the same name, of which the film covers about 10 chapters. First published in 1959 and written by the man many claim to be the Godfather of Sci-Fi, Robert A. Heinlein (Asimov being the God of Sci-Fi, of course), it was a thinly disguised damning of the American political system and it's irrational paranoia regarding communism, the great evil of the East. So it was with some surprise that I noticed a development team from Australia, Bluetongue, was charged with making the game of the film of the book, especially considering the fact that their previous form involved an 'Australian Football' game that never made it past the shores of Sydney and a horse riding game specifically aimed towards the young females of the gaming community. Would they be inclined to go for an out and out action blastathon, or are they more likely to try to emulate the thought provoking ideals of the book? Well, the answer is a mixture of both, because 'Starship Troopers' is the first game of many purporting to mix role-playing and real-time strategy elements with anything approaching success. Would you like to know more? Join the Mobile Infantry For those of you who have been hibernating for the last couple of years, the main crux of the story is that a race of alien creatures known as Arachnids, or simply 'bugs', has declared war on Earth, which is now essentially all one state in which voting is a privilege allowed only to those who have performed their civic duty by joining the armed forces. Which is where you come in. You have joined the Mobile Infantry (MI) and, having taken the officer's training course, are deemed suitable to take command of a Strike-Force, made up of raw recruits from boot-camp. This team is then sent on varied missions in enemy controlled areas, from seek-and-destroy to capturing alien specimens to rescuing stranded troopers deep in enemy territory. They are all pretty difficult, with a steep learning curve which quickly levels out. As far as the strategy element of the game goes, you move your troops (there are usually between 12 and 18 of them in a given mission) across the maps, desperately trying to survive against the many types of Arachnid, from the common soldier, with its razor sharp beak and legs like a camel in a blender, to harmless workers, 'tanks' (the ones that spew flame and blast energy into space) and the vicious flying Hoppers. The animation of the enemy is second to none, with realistic movements and frightening effects - there is nothing quite as horrifying as having one of your troops shout 'Tank!' as the earth erupts, revealing a towering behemoth which quickly lays waste to all around it. Unfortunately the AI isn't particularly brilliant, and you quickly learn how close you can go without triggering a reaction from an enemy, meaning that you can stand on a flat piece of ground reasonably close to a bug and it will completely ignore you. Even worse perhaps, you begin to feel that there is absolutely no randomness to anything. It's all scripted, and this is used to good effect, but a surprise every now and then would have been nice. You can arrange your troops into any one of a number of formations, but you generally find that you will stick to one, because there doesn't seem to be any point in changing it. You can also adjust, individually or as a group, the troops' aggressiveness, from Stealthy through Normal to Aggressive, when your soldiers will shoot anything that moves, and rapidly run out of ammo. Finally there is a Berserk setting, or Suicidal as I called it, whereby your troops will scatter in all directions actively seeking out their deaths. Service Guarantees Citizenship The role-playing element is reflected by your troops' stats, and you build your squads with this in mind. Stronger? Faster? Do they have the potential to become 'Specials'? These questions, and others, should be considered, as well as remembering that once a trooper is dead they are gone for good. After a mission each trooper gains experience, and therefore their abilities go up. But what if, after a particularly heavy mission, most of your veterans are bug food? You are back to the equivalent of a 'bug kit-kat', novices who can't hit a barn wall from the inside. Best to train them all, rather than sticking with the few. As they gain experience, soldiers can rise in rank and suddenly realise that they remember how to use different weapons and armour. You can also train certain members to become medics, who can heal the injured and call for emergency medical ships to evacuate the more terminal. There are also engineers who can lay mines and repair armour, MISt Troopers who carry sniper rifles, and even Specials, psychics with a range of powers including the ability to take control of enemy units. The weaponry is diverse and loyal to the film, from chainguns and rifles to heavy weapons like the grenade launcher and the ultimate Nuke Launcher, and there are plenty of other gadgets to enable your crew to target better or carry an extra weapon. Armour comes in several forms, depending on the rank of the individual unit, and each comes with its own special abilities, such as Marauder Suits which can fire off a volley of mini-rockets, and Command suits which emit a protective shield around the strike-force. With a multitude of options available to you before you send your troops into battle, it's great fun trying to balance the group so you have enough heavy weaponry to take out the critters at a distance, but still have enough close range weaponry for any nasties that rush you. Another cool effect that should be mentioned is how the troops, as in the film, will back up and cover each other when attacked, blasting like mad whilst trying to avoid those claws. Play Until You're Dead .. Or We Find Someone Better! But as good as it all sounds on paper, there are several problems that arise which, to be honest, completely ruin a game that could have been so much better. Perhaps the biggest problem is the third person camera that follows the troops. By holding the right mouse button down you can swing the camera around in an ellipse centered on the group, but if you split the group up the camera stays focused on a spot roughly in the middle of the troops, which effectively forces you to keep your troops bunched together. The real cruncher is that when a unit dies the camera still recognises it as a part of the group. The maps are quite large, and when you send the rest of the group on you suddenly find yourself looking at dots in the distance, your view of the proceedings being blocked by mountains, and generally causing you to reach for the 'restart mission' button. Because of this problem you cannot afford to have a unit die until the final objective is nearly complete, which makes an already difficult game quite impossible. Additionally some missions require certain weapons to be carried, but if any unit dies, even if it is not the one holding the required weapon, the game claims that he is the one that died. And you only have three chances to get it right because there is no 'savegame' within the missions. When you have been playing a mission for over an hour and three different units have copped it, you will have to play it all over again from the start! Transmission cancelled. Conclusion Here is a game that has all the right atmosphere and, for once, really comes across as how a game of a film should look and feel, and it's just the game to successfully bridge the gap between role-playing and strategy. Admittedly it loses many of the elements of each genre in the process, but manages to pull it off all the same. It's just the annoying 'bugs' that should have been spotted as problems when the game was tested that completely ruin it, with the 3D camera making life almost impossible if you let any of your squad die. Should Bluetongue release a patch that fixes these difficulties I would happily give the game a score of 8/10, but in its present form it is just plain frustrating. 6

Baldur's Gate II : Shadows of Amn

Review - kiss your family and friends goodbye, and say hello to Baldur's Gate II

Bioware Publisher Interplay System Requirements   Pentium 266 or equivalent   64Mb RAM   1.5GB hard drive space The Evil Awakens The original "Baldur's Gate", which introduced us all to the now infamous Infinity engine, was in a class of its own as far as PC role-playing games went. Die hard fans of the "Eye Of The Beholder" series had waited years for another game to hold their attention, and when the original blasted onto the scene like a fireball amongst a group of goblins, it was like a breath of fresh air in the midst of a cloudkill spell. With an epic story, great characters, cool graphics and an excellent and inventive combat system, it was just what the genre needed to swat away the tedious 'hack and slash' affairs which had become the norm. Although it did have its problems - moving from village to village became a monotonous affair, subquests mostly amounted to little more than "get this and take it here", and the pathfinding AI could be rather frustrating - these were generally overlooked, and the game was enjoyed by all. At the end of the original Baldur's Gate the main protagonist discovers that he or she is in fact a child of Bhaal, God of Murder (now deceased), who sired any number of children during the Time of Troubles when the Gods were forced to walk the earth in mortal form. I won't bore you with the extensive history of Faerun, but needless to say this would cause a bit of sibling rivalry, and the final enemy turned out to be your own brother, also now deceased .. assuming you actually finished the first game. The new adventure starts with your character - either new, pregenerated, or imported from the original - the prisoner of some mad mage whose stronghold is attacked, and the fun soon begins, unfolding into a story that far outdoes the original and just seems to grow and grow, twisting and turning into epic proportions, pushing you to go just that little bit further. To give you some indication of how big this game is, after 25 hours play I had still only managed about half of the quests in the second of seven chapters, and more quests were popping up all the time! Where Do We Go From Here? As with all role-playing games, the storyline and subplots are all important to the overall experience, and this game has them in abundance. As per the original, the main plot is well written and quite daunting, as the significance of certain events build layer upon layer until you're not sure who is friend or foe, or where it will end. The second chapter deals mainly with subplots and experience gathering, but there are none of those boring "fetch and return" missions this time. Hunting murderers, rescuing kidnapees, liberating villages from marauding monsters, even returning a favourite teddy bear to the ghost of a halfling child who, I am reliably informed, will turn into a Revenant and hunt you down should you find the bear and then not return it! Large quests, small quests, there are absolutely tons of things to do, many of which will subtly influence your main quest without your knowledge. Then you have character quests. Your companions, either well known from the original or new faces you meet in your travels, all have a history and a background, and sometimes this spills into the game. Old foes appear, family members are murdered, and what sort of friend would you be if you didn't help them out in times of crisis? Just when you think you are getting a hold on the numerous missions you have accepted, just when you know what you are doing and where you are going next .. BAM! An old aquaintance puts a curse on your friend, or you find someone who has been poisoned, or any number of other things, and off you go again to the rescue. Far from being a nuisance, it adds a new dimension to the characters, giving them a life of their own rather than merely being a puppet for you to control. In fact, if you fail to help they may leave to sort problems out for themselves, never to return. And a particular delight for fans of the original pen and paper "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" role-playing game on which Baldur's Gate is based is the addition of strongholds. Depending on your character class and the missions you accept, you will get the chance to become the leader of a stronghold - a thief will run a Thieves Guild, a warrior will take control of a Keep, a druid can take responsibility for a Grove, and so on. This creates a regular income for your character, assuming you run things to a good standard, returning often to hear the problems of your followers and advising them in the correct fashion. The strongholds do not affect the main plot in any way, but again it adds a depth that is rarely seen in a computer role-playing game. To Infinity, And Beyond! Of course, a great story is nothing without gameplay behind it, and although the Infinity engine could now be considered old, the small tweaks Bioware have incorporated have ensured that the engine has life in it yet. A 3D graphics card is not essential to play, but with added spell effects and better combat and movement animations, most people would consider it an enhancement they could not do without. A plethora of options also enable you to have the best experience possible. Auto-pause functions can be controlled easily, ensuring you are never caught unawares, and pathfinding abilities can be raised or lowered to your hearts content. You can now even visit the inventory screen and move things about whilst paused - in the original the game would automatically unpause. As far as control of the six characters go, it couldn't really be easier. The interface is incredibly easy to use, nothing is difficult, and it's all right there in front of you. Want to Hide in Shadows, click the button. Find Traps, search for Secret Doors, click the right button. Special abilities are also employed in this fashion, and are extremely useful. In fact, I don't think there was one ability or spell that I didn't find helpful at one time or another. Character creation is a doddle too, granting you the opportunity to fine-tune your character until it is perfect. You can further specialise by choosing a number of 'kits' - a thief can specialise as a Bounty Hunter or Assassin, a cleric as a Priest of a particular faith, all with specialist abilities but often also with serious principals. Another enjoyable factor is that your characters all start at level six to eight, depending on class. This may not sound particularly special, but it does mean that your mages and clerics will start out with a good choice of spells, rather than wandering around for the first five hours of the game with a single, powerless Magic Missile. The addition of new rules into the AD&D universe also adds a sense of strategy when you create a character. Bonuses can be gained by selecting a 'weapon style', so when you find that Two Handed Sword +2 Fireball Thrower, your character may still be better off sticking to their sword and shield combination, because that's what they're good at! Travel! See The World! Travel between areas has also been improved, and there's no more trudging through endless screens to get where you want to go, just an indication on the map of how long it will take you to get there. The longer it takes, of course, the more chance you have of a random encounter, but as an extra bonus, some of these 'random' encounters lead to yet more quests! Most areas only become available to you upon acceptance of a quest, and each area is clearly marked in the map screen with areas of importance, some of which are again only added as you move through the missions. A handy tool is the ability to add notes to maps yourself, allowing you to send hidden scouts through an area, noting where the enemies are before steaming in. Travelling also allows you to see as much of the simply stunning artwork as possible. Several times you find yourself just staring at a building or a statue, stunned into silence at the artist's grasp of how something would look in this fantasy world. Talking of statues, if you complete a certain mission, the townsfolk are so happy they will build statues of your characters! If you prefer real humans as your companions, the game features a multiplayer mode which follows the same storyline as the single player game, although obviously with several other people each in control of their own characters. There is no multiplayer search engine though, and getting into a game can be quite difficult, but if you have friends who all play then meeting up regularly can be a blast. Conclusion What we have here is a role-playing game in which little could be improved - the story and quests are captivating, the gameplay tried and tested, and the overall feel is professional and entertaining. The only caution I could give is that it's all going to feel a little overwhelming and complex to a novice. If you're a hardened role player though, you can't go far wrong, even if you grew tired with the original. Nominations for the best RPG of the year may as well close now, and you can probably blame Bioware for many player/partner rows over the next few weeks. 9

Star Trek : New Worlds

Review - Interplay boldly take the Star Trek franchise where no game has gone before, with a ground-based strategy game

- 14 Degrees East / Binary Asylum UK Publisher - Virgin InteractiveUS Publisher - InterplaySystem Requirements -   Pentium 266 or equivalent   32Mb RAM   195Mb hard drive space   3D graphics card The Space-Time Continuum Way back in the last millennium our very own Gestalt ventured into the dank, dark depths of Virgin's stand at ECTS 1999, and to his delight was shown a Star Trek game with some serious potential - a 3D real time strategy game set just before the events of "Star Trek VI", and coded by British developers Binary Asylum. It almost sounded too good to be true... Well, for Binary Asylum it was, as they ceased trading due to financial difficulties after being taken off the project by American publisher Interplay due to "creative differences". Not to be discouraged, Interplay handed the game to in-house team 14 Degrees East, who could be considered Star Trek experts after their work on the Starfleet and Klingon Academy games. Flash forward to September 2000, and after the drama and delays of its interrupted development cycle, the game has finally been released. The game starts when a Romulan experiment goes drastically wrong due to the interference of those meddlesome Klingons, resulting in a whole system of new planets getting dragged through some kind of temporal rift. Suddenly there are several new mineral-rich planets floating around in an area that used to be nothing but empty space. Cue escalating battles between the Klingons ("Ah .. new planets - let's kill everyone and take them for ourselves!"), the Romulans ("It was our experiment that brought them here, they are obviously ours!") and the Federation ("Ah .. strange new worlds - let's integrate the locals into our dreary existence"), as well as the added complication of three new races introduced in the game ("Ah .. erm .. we live here!"). The idea sounds fine in theory, and the game should have appealed to both Star Trek fans and real-time strategy players alike. But does the execution of the idea live up to expectations? I'm A Happy Trekkie The first thing you will notice on starting the game is that it looks wonderful - the HUD changes according to race, the terrain feels authentic, and the skies are a mash of glorious hues. Even the buildings look how you would expect a Star Trek building to look. And all of this is in lustrous 3D, with a flexible camera system which can do almost anything you would want it to - zooming and tilting, with everything from a bird's eye view to first person and chase cams. Sadly though you will spend almost all of your time in the overhead view, zoomed out as far as possible to get a wider view of the action. Once in a while, you may think "Oh, let's look at a different view", but then it's a case of "Oh dear, I can't see what's happening .. are those my units? No, don't go over there! Oh hell, are those explosions? Where's everyone gone?". Unlike Battlezone II, which balanced the different viewpoints successfully, you get the sense that the various camera options in New Worlds were just put there to show off the 3D engine. The missions are suitably complex though, from out and out fighting to search and rescue, and from scanning ancient crashed ships to finding a cure for a deadly virus, with all of the appropriate vehicles to go with it. You even have officers who you can place within ships to make their scanners, shields or weapons more efficient, and training these officers in their respective fields makes them more effective, adding an RPG element to the game. When you do get into battle the explosions are fantastic, and photon torpedoes veritably glower as they fly through the sky. Vessels with cloaking capabilities waver as they disappear, and all the while typically Trekkish sounds gush forth from your speakers. It all looks, sounds and feels like a Trek game should. It's An RTS Jim, But Not As We Know It! So, that pretty much covers the Trekkies - good looks, great story and interesting missions will have them grinning inanely and telling each other to 'live long and prosper', or some such. Real-time strategy fans, on the other hand, will have a harder time of it... With the recent influx of innovative and original strategy games - such as Shogun, Ground Control and Homeworld - the RTS fan really expects something special if their attention is to be held for any length of time, and unfortunately I found New Worlds to be lacking in many of the basics. For example, there is no research tree. Yes, you can only construct certain buildings when others are already present, and certain vehicles cannot be created until the science block has researched a disruptor field or some such, but this isn't strictly a research tree. Instead what tends to happen is that at the beginning of each mission you spend the first ten minutes upgrading and researching all of the same things that you already did in the previous mission, until there is nothing left to do. The problem is that you have to research lots of different technologies even to create the most basic of vehicles, so in the end it becomes less of a research tree and more of a monotonous bush. Resource collecting is a hassle too - other than a scanner mode which tells you where certain minerals are residing, there is nothing to indicate where to build a mine. You can spend many minutes with the template of a mine, sweeping across the terrain waiting for it to turn green, indicating that this is a good spot to build one. And while I'm at it, how come Kirk can find a lone person hidden in a cave on a huge world, but I can't scan the planet for the enemy, or even build some kind of radar? Instead you have to rely on short range scanner vehicles. To find the enemy you usually have to wait for them to come to you, and then head off in the direction they came from. You Cannae Change The Laws Of Physics More problems could be caused by the interface. Building is something of a chore, clicking backwards and forwards between screens, and having to click on each building to see if it can be upgraded yet. Getting your vehicles to actually do what they are told to is a mission of its own too. If you single click with your mouse the units will travel to that point, but it's anybody's guess what they will do when they get there. You can double-click an area, which brings up a mini-menu of icons, allowing you to order them to fire at will, protect the area, or even not to fire, but they rarely seem to take any notice of this, and just merrily blast away at anything they happen to see. But then sometimes they let enemy ships wander past and attack the building next to them without even batting an eyelid! It's also extremely difficult to double-click an enemy vehice when it is moving, which can get extremely frustrating. Most missions seem to degenerate into creating a ton of tanks and raiding the enemy base, a tactic I thought had finally vanished from the RTS scene. But probably the most irritating aspect of the whole thing is the speed - it's so slow! Everything seems to take an absolute age, which is compounded by the fact that you can't save the game in the middle of a mission. Conclusion If the fact that it is a Star Trek game is enough to sway you to its cause, then you will no doubt put up with New Worlds' inadequacies and thoroughly enjoy it. But if you want a serious real-time strategy game you may want to look elsewhere - the beautiful graphics and authentic Trek feel aren't enough to overcome the confused AI, awkward interface and glacially slow pace in what is ultimately a disappointing game. 5