Retro Sample Week: X-Com UFO Defense

(This is part of my a special week in which I sampled several smaller or more niche retro games from my GOG library. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Ah, X-Com. Also known as “the game my friends and I played nonstop during our junior year of college.” And I’m not really exaggerating here; it was not infrequent for me to wake up during the night to see my roommate Bob wasting aliens in the glow of the computer screen. It was just a well-polished, fun, and very replayable package.

The idea behind the original is that aliens are real, they’re starting to invade all over earth, and you’ve been put in charge of a special task force to fight the aliens while stealing their tech. There was a base building/research/economy portion of the game that took place between missions, but the bulk was spent in fighting turn-based battles against the bad guys.

I don’t have a lot of patience for turn-based anything these days, so as much as I am fond of this game, I thought it would be best suited to a quick sampling for this retro game week!

A major part of the appeal of this game was its persistence — you create a base, grew it, recruited teams, and had to deal with your successes and losses as they came.

On beginner mode, you start out with a pretty decked-out base and a lot of cash (you get an allowance from world governments based on your performance and also if they are not aligned with the aliens, which is totally something that can happen.

There’s almost an overwhelming number of options right off the bat, although this isn’t that complex when you go through a few games. You can create multiple bases — and probably should, in case your main base is invaded (which is also totally something that can happen) and destroyed or conquered.

Here’s how it all goes down, usually. You’ll scan the globe and then be informed that there’s a UFO incursion somewhere on the globe. You send out interceptor planes to shoot it down, then a crew to go handle the hand-to-hand combat and see if they can salvage anything. The interceptor part is pretty boring and wasn’t given nearly the attention that the ground portion was.

And here we go! The ground portion is all about moving and using your troops one at a time as you gradually explore the map, root out the aliens, and look for their crashed ship. Since there’s so many unknown factors on the map (and aliens can kill quickly), it’s important to keep troops moving together instead of splitting up like horror movie victims.

Oh no! It’s… that… alien guy! I love pixel art as much as anyone else, but sometimes it’s so hard to make out what you’re supposed to be seeing.

Mr. Purple Alien, meet my mosh pit of party platooners!

Spoiler alert: He has a very bad day.

There are different sizes and types of UFOs that you can intercept. This one is quite tiny but cozy, I think. The mission ends when either the aliens kill all of my guys, I evacuate, or I kill all of the aliens.

Let me say in conclusion that I was right — I have very little patience for this slow turn-by-turn-by-turn gameplay. Individually moving each soldier gets really old after a while, and a single small map like this could take as long as 20 minutes. The whole game is riddled with such encounters, so it’s terribly lengthy.

My biggest wish was for a context mouse for controls. You can click on the ground to move, but any other action (such as shooting, going prone, dashing, etc.) requires the additional click of a specific button. This was the sort of old-school mouse gameplay that started to change in the mid-90s. I do not miss it.

Retro Sample Week: Duke Nukem 2

(This is part of my a special week in which I sampled several smaller or more niche retro games from my GOG library. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Welcome to Retro Sample Week here at Bio Break! Sometimes even I need to take the titular break from my normal routine, so instead of chatting about MMOs and the like, all this week on the blog I’ll be sampling various retro games from my ever-growing GOG library. My library is up to 199 titles so far, thanks to various sales, giveaways, and personal weakness. And while I have been gamely (pun intended) working my way through many of them over the past few years, there’s just no way I’ll be ever able to do playthroughs on all of these. So I thought, why not do one week where I take on a game a day, dip into it, write up some impressions, share some screenshots, and move on? I might not get the full feast, but at least I’ll get the flavor of it.

First up on the docket is Duke Nukem 2 — yes, Duke Nukem 3D actually had two prequels in the early 1990s that are much lesser known today (although they were reasonably popular at the time). Following my series on DN3D, I thought it might be interesting to look at least one of these games. I even remember playing this a bit back in the day, because Apogee’s shareware marketing was all over the place.

As you can see, Duke Nukem originally was a 2D sidescrolling shooter. Nothing super-fancy, but there was a lot of action and some of the personality that 3D would take and run with. I always liked the attention to detail that Apogee put in its levels — it was on par with the SNES and often had delightful background bits if you slowed down to look.

Can I just say that I love that this game has this screen? It’s so nice to actually get a visual of all of the control keys and not merely a list.

Right away, I can identify a few pros and cons. On the plus side, the weapon feels really powerful (and you get to have a machine gun-like rapid fire right out of the gate), the music is tense and exciting, and things are blowing up left and right. On the minus side, you can’t aim diagonally and the screen is too small, with dangers and enemies just off screen that you have to deal with.

So the story, such as it is, is that Duke was captured on an alien world and put into a cell. Somehow he escaped and carnage ensued. The movie right have already been signed away, sorry!

It was definitely nice to get out of the prison area, since the overworld is less cluttered. Also, there’s steaming turkey, which is the universal video game symbol for health and afternoon naps.

You can see the DNA for Duke Nukem 3D here, particularly in all of the different weapons and gadgets. It’s definitely a run-and-gun experience that rewards the most trigger happy of individuals (and you don’t have to worry about running out of ammo). The first level was remarkably short, and other than finishing it and pursuing a high score, there aren’t any additional objectives or way to develop Duke. He’s pretty (pause for effect) two-dimensional as it is.

Will I ever go back to SWTOR, Guild Wars 2, WildStar, or FFXIV?

While I seem to have cultivated the impression that I play a thousand MMOs at once with my unlimited playtime, that’s all smoke and mirrors for the fact that I’ve been absolutely crunched for time this spring and have seen my play time cut down overall. Plus, I’ve been mostly focused on World of Warcraft and LOTRO, due to just being into these games right now and excited for the major upcoming patches.

There isn’t anything super-big on the immediate horizon (unfortunately) that has my excitement stirring. I keep tossing around Project Gorgon, Shroud of the Avatar, and Sea of Thieves as my next online adventures, but I’m still waiting on the first two to get to a more finished state, and who knows when SoT will come out.

So there is every chance in the world that some time this spring, my whims will turn back to old favorite MMOs, especially if I get into a content lull with one or both of my main games right now. The question that has been loosely bouncing around in my mind is, which game will I go back to? I’m quite disillusioned with RIFT right now, and there are several other fainter prospects (like DDO and Fallen Earth) that probably don’t stand a chance. Still, I think there are four titles that could be contenders as 2017 continues for a grand Syp return.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

While I did play a couple of sessions as of late, I still haven’t gotten back on board with this former favorite MMO. I would like to get through the story, to be sure, but it’s disheartening to hear about the current state of the endgame and game design as a whole, and if I’m going back to a game, I at least want the illusion that it’s going to be for a good long while instead of just to the end of a story and that’s it. I’d also have to pay for one month of subscription to unlock all of the expansions, which is a very minor concern.

Guild Wars 2

It’s been a long, long time since I played Guild Wars 2, and that might be a signal in and of itself that potential interest has been rejuvenated and I could enjoy the game once more “fresh.” There’s certainly a lot to do, although I think that if I went back, I really would want to reroll and bring up a new character from scratch to properly get into it. The announcement of a new expansion that sounds a lot more interesting than Heart of Thorns would go a long way to wooing me.

WildStar

Argh, you have no idea how much it hurts me that I’ve wandered away from this game. I still contend that it is an underrated piece of fine entertainment with so many good elements… but I cannot deny that I’m worried about the game’s future and hesitant to get back on board without seeing at least some minor sign of a renaissance. I do miss the housing, the races, the music, the visuals, and the design, so I could always find myself back on Nexus one day. Plus, I never did get to level that Esper!

Final Fantasy XIV

I’m iffy on this one. I definitely enjoyed my time with it for a few months a year ago, but it’s been a while and even back then I felt like I was playing the world’s longest game of catch-up. Good community. Some very annoying features and design (and the nodding, oh the nodding). There’s an expansion, and that’s always an event that draws attention… and that Red Mage looks pretty sweet. I’d have to really commit if I did return, subscribing up and giving it some of my time. I’m not saying no, I’m not saying yes, I’m just saying… check in with me in a month or so.

Wrapping your head around a mountain of MMO content

It seems to me that there’s a big difference when and how you come into an MMORPG. Do it at the beginning, then you’re among company that all shares the same common experience of feeling out a title from the get-go, writing up guides, and sharing advice. Do it later on, then you can feel a little behind but benefit from the experience and writings of others.

But what about when you come into the game many expansions into it, or return to it after a long break? It’s not as if the game waited around for you to join to start for real; it’s been growing and developing for months, the meta (or whatever you want to call it) has shaped and reformed numerous times, there are people who have theory-crafted it to death, and it can feel absolutely overwhelming when you try to get your head around the mountain of content that’s piling on more with every successive patch.

Several times, I’ve found myself in games like LOTRO and WoW, MMOs with a decade or more of growth behind it, and found myself flailing my psychological arms in frustration as I try to separate what I can do, what I should be doing, and what I don’t even know there is to be doing. It helps to listen to podcasts, find reputable sites with guides, and not be afraid to ask questions, but that only seems like it goes so far.

Generally, I try not to let this feeling bother me. I figure out what’s the most important things to be doing (and that I can do as a generally solo player) and focus on that. If a goal comes along that looks appealing and possible, I’m open to pursuing that. But I can’t lie and say that it doesn’t bother me to think that maybe there are things in the game that I would like to do (either for the experience or rewards) but am ignorant about because I’ve developed “tunnel” gameplay or just haven’t come across it yet. It’s a discouraging feeling to find out that there was Activity X you should have been doing for weeks now that could have benefited you, but you wasted that time because you didn’t know about it.

I don’t think there’s a silver bullet for absorbing and sorting through all of the content of games in their double digits. It’s a process that requires experience and the occasional bout of extracurricular research. I always wish that games had in-depth and clear catch-up guides available for players — new, returning, and experienced — that want to fill in holes in their knowledge. Maybe we call those “wikis” these days. Maybe that’s just too much to read at once.

Have you ever caught yourself in this situation? How do you deal with it?

City of Heroes returns! (totally not a clickbait headline)

“Hey guys and gals! Remember that awesome superhero MMO that ran for eight years? The one with that kick-butt character creator? All of the costume contests? The claw hands? Super-jumping? Badges and mission architect? The puking zombies and thinly disguised Nazis? The endless stream of pun-themed outfits? The mix-and-match powersets?

“Remember how wonderful it was? How it felt like home? How there was just no other MMORPG out there like it?

“Remember?

“Remember how it was still turning a profit, still doing decently, still bringing in the crowds? Remember how we stepped on it and killed it without a second thought? Remember all of the last-ditch vigils and letter-writing campaigns that we ignored? Remember how we laughed from across the ocean at any entreaties to cut the game and its studio loose?

“Remember how we kept that dead MMO and its IP as a trophy in our president’s cigar room as a conversation piece to show how powerful he was? Remember how we used to laugh at the buckets of tears that fans would FedEx us weekly? Remember how we launched Guild Wars 2 like a week later and expected all of those superhero players to migrate because one MMO is as good as another?

“Remember how we were making that MOBA that pulled from all of our properties and thought, hey, why not dig up the rotting corpse of that superhero game’s iconic character and shoehorn him into the new game? Oh man, that was good. It’ll go down as the Face Slap Heard ‘Round the World, and we’ll still make bank on these chumps.

“Good times. Good times.”

LOTRO: There’s a dead pig at the end of this post

Dang LOTRO, where do you get off looking so pretty a decade into your lifespan? I swear, Minas Tirith and it’s many interiors are the best-kept secret of MMO cities right now.

Anyway, before we get to the dead pig at the end of this post (steel yourself, mighty warrior), let me recount to you the crazy ride that I have been on this past weekend. Anticipating the drop of Update 20 this week — whether or not it actually happens — I bent my willpower to trying to finish up North Ithilien so that I could be fully ready to move on.

Of course, I find that whenever I’m focused on finishing up a zone or expansion or what have you (especially for the first time), the game seems to delight in unloading even more quests at me just when I thought I was all done. The good news is that I’m fully caught up in the epic book, but the bad news is that I kept discovering more and more and more quest chains as I scrambled to clear out my log.

And as pretty as North Ithilien is, getting around it is a major pain in the Hobbit butt. There are only two stable masters (three, if you’re being kind and include Osgiliath), it’s hard to ride directly to places when you go off-road (and there’s really just one main north-south road), and that milestone cooldown is still wildly too long. LOTRO devs, could you look at how short WoW’s hearthstone is and maybe consider bringing yours down a smidge?

Another drawback when you’re pressured for time and trying to get everything wrapped up is that there’s a good incentive to stop reading quest text just to get things done faster. I’m trying to absorb the information, but there are too many different chains and I missed a few of the boxes so that everything is jumbled up in my mind.

Hey you know what’s the best thing for you when you have a brain injury and migraines? To have a “nurse” play a shrill flute three feet from your ear. That’s what Middle-earth calls modern medicine.

I did get sucked into a lengthy quest line involving a healer who joins me for a road trip to get some bonus flowers and assemble the pages of a medical book. That was a scavenger hunt and a half, what with retracing steps all of the place and even being forced back into Osgiliath. Could’ve done without that.

Probably my favorite bit was from a quest that I had somehow overlooked early on that took me briefly into Mordor with Gandalf and Aragorn to destroy the bridge to Minas Morgul. It was such a terrific bit of staging, and seeing that city nearer than before gave me chills. Can’t wait to go there!

I love this girl. She might be a total bookworm — and even takes one with her into battle — but as a Lore-master, I approve. Plus, she’s pretty wicked with that sword!

Some of the mobs in the ruins and caves even approached kicking-my-butt levels of difficulty if I wasn’t paying attention. I got too used to my LM steamrolling over everything with my pet. Guess those days are gone?

I promised that there would be a dead pig at the end of this post, and I do not fail my promises. Actually, many dead pigs, here to remind you that LOTRO isn’t always scenic vistas of Rivendell and the Shire. It can be pretty gross too at times.

The Secret World: Follow that bird! (Besieged Farmlands #12)

(Join Syp as he attempts to document a complete playthrough of The Secret World from start to finish. What will The Secret Adventures discover next? Find out in this exciting installment! WARNING: Spoilers and stories ahead!)

Mortal Sins (main story mission)

Now that all of Besieged Farmlands’ missions are behind us — including, thank God, Cost of Magic — all that remains is to scoot through the main story mission. For the life of me, I have no idea what’s going on. I would assume that the devs figured that most players would weave the main story with all of the other missions, using that overarching storyline as a kind of breadcrumb prompt. Maybe some would do it first up and some wait like me to do it at the end, but there’s no one set way. I think it’s a lot easier to do these main story missions at the end of the zone because you already are intimately familiar with the terrain and people.

It all begins with a directive to find an owl — which I already know is Cucuvea — and follow her from the village to her treehouse. She yammers on again about how “Lilith’s children are gathering,” which I try to tell her happens every year at Burning Man, but she ain’t listening. I deeply appreciate how she picks a path that boldly plows through all manner of bad guys.

In fact, I had something humorous happen, which was that the moment I got to the tree, it triggered a cutscene… but my character was still under attack. So as the cutscene is progressing, I’m seeing my character flinch from phantom blows, blood spurting everywhere, and Cucuvea just going on with her monologue. Of course, I died (in a freaking cutscene), which is the fifth cheesiest way to die in an MMORPG.

Anyway, since I died, I missed the rest of the cutscene and there was no way to replay it. So I simply followed the next direction, which was to go look for the girl with the spyglass and the WORST QUEST EVER.

NOBODY LIKES YOU.

Anyway, after she talks a little bit about Transylvania, she breadcrumbs me right to the Shadowy Forest, which means that after this extremely brief bit of the main story, we’re done with the zone. Huh. Thought there was more to it then that. Let’s go meet Dracula, shall we?