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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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PSN Roundup

PSone releases: Motorhead, Fade to Black, Theme Hospital.

Like an enormous bag of anvils sliding down a hill, the PlayStation Store is starting to gather momentum - well, at least as far as retro downloads are concerned. After a sporadic few months of drip-drip PSone offerings, things seem to be settling into something resembling a regular service, with another trio of worthy games showing their adorable faces this week, all at GBP 3.49.


Overlooked by many when it was released in 1998, this semi-futuristic racer from Digital Illusions (them what did Pinball Dreams and Battlefield) is actually something of an unsung classic. Inevitably overshadowed by the more hyped blockbuster racers of the time, you'd be wise to splash a few quid in its direction while you wait for Rage Racer or Gran Turismo to show up on the Store.

Ten cars and eight tracks await you, all carrying a rather downbeat dystopian flavour. This isn't futuristic racing a la Wipeout or Rollcage, but more like a traditional racing game set in a Robocop-style near-future. The cars are sporty, but not ludicrously sci-fi in appearance. Tracks, meanwhile, make cunning use of real world features like bridges and tight tollbooth bottlenecks to spice things up rather than corkscrews and silly ramps.

It's fast and amazingly smooth for a 32-bit game, with very little pop-up and some night time lighting effects that could actually be called subtle. The handling is arcadey, but with just enough realism to convince you that tyres are spinning on tarmac as you screech round the bends. Compared to the rather insipid Hardcore 4x4, Zoo Digital's last trinket from the old Gremlin treasure chest, this is a vast improvement.

Motorhead could have vanished without trace into the murky sludge of gaming history, and if digital distribution means that a few more deserving games get a second chance, I'm all for it.

Please can I make an Ace of Spades reference now? [No - Ed] I hate you.


Fade to Black

Of course, just as another turn in the spotlight can remind us of great games we never knew existed, so it can reveal the blotchy skin and acne scars of games we held dear. All of which is a rather stupid way of saying that Fade to Black, the Flashback sequel that many gamers hold up as one of the great 3D adventures, looks a bit wonky in 2008.

Don't worry, Delphine fans, I'm not about to slag the game off for its clunky visuals - pioneering games always tend to suffer by comparison once we've moved on and take their innovations for granted - but for anyone harbouring rose-tinted memories of an unassailable classic, the experience can be jarring.

Unlike its prequel, Fade to Black is a full 3D over-the-shoulder action-adventure set in a ruthless space prison. Released on the PC in 1995, and ported to the PlayStation in 1996, there's no faulting the ambition. Sadly, while many of the things the game attempts are now commonplace, these early attempts to grasp the potential of 3D action come hampered with overly complicated interaction options and awkward control. Targeting is fussy, while the camera suffers from all the issues you'd expect from this vintage.

Scrape away that fossil layer though, and you find an epic adventure that is still fantastically rich in atmosphere and story. A prototype of sorts for games like Mass Effect, if you like. In that regard, Fade to Black really is as good as you remember and, if you can forget all you've learned about third-person gaming over the last decade, it's certainly worth making the effort to explore it.


Theme Hospital

Sticking with the "great game, shame about the hardware" motif, here's another title where some fantastic gameplay is obscured by unfortunate technical grumbles. Although, in this case, they're the same grumbles we made in 1997.

Bullfrog's devilishly daft medical management game was always a wobbly fit on the PlayStation, and the intervening years have done little to change this. In fact, given that this sort of game now sits just as happily on a joypad as a mouse, the stiff controls here are even more obvious than ever.

As the name suggests, it's very much Theme Park with sick people, as you buy new facilities and slot them into your available space in the most efficient manner possible. It's here that the restrictions of the hardware come into play, since the rigid viewpoints and unclear angles can make precise placement a right old fumble. And since precision is vital in designing an effective hospital, you'll always be battling against the game just to get things done.

But again, as with Fade to Black, there's a pretty wonderful game hiding behind the hiccups. Rather than take a literal blood-and-bandages approach, the game plays for laughs, with a variety of comedy ailments - such as Bloaty Head - waiting to be cured. In Theme Park the aim was to entice as many people through the gate as possible, but that dynamic is reversed here - you're getting floods of "customers" whether you like it or not. Making space for them to wait, and curing them quickly, is the goal and this can't help but make the game skew more towards a frantic puzzle vibe the longer you play. There really isn't much time to ponder the price of the vending machines when you have fifteen patients with The Squits clogging up the corridors.

As fun as it is, Theme Hospital was always a tough nut to crack and the awkward joypad controls compound that problem. I absolutely applaud the way that Sony are uploading games outside of the expected racing/fighting/shooting genres, but buyer beware - this one can be a frustrating experience.