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.

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?

4 games I desperately wish would come to mobile

Apart from MMOs, I would say that mobile (smartphone and tablet) consumes most of my gaming time, followed by a distant third at other PC games. It’s just nice and convenient to have these games at my fingertips when I’m in bed, waiting to pick up my kids from school, spending the night in the drunk tank after a hilarious misunderstanding, etc. There are a lot of great games for these, but every so often I see a game somewhere else and think, “I would play the CRUD out of that if it ever came to mobile!”

Here are four games that would be instant buys for me:

The Sims

I was watching a video last night on the original Sims and having all sorts of feels and nostalgia bursts, and then I once again got steamed that mobile has yet to deliver a regular Sims game for us. Oh, it’s done a weird timer F2P thing and some chopped-up, extremely limited versions of Sims 3 and Sims Medieval, but none of these really let you create your own house and Sims and see them go about their lives.

I loved The Sims so dang much back in the day, and I could totally envision spending some late nights in bed fiddling with a house and torturing watching my little Sims family go about their lives. This would be such a big money maker for EA if they could do it right and proper. Right and proper, mind you.

Stardew Valley

Now here’s a no-brainer for tablet adaptation. Stardew Valley looked and played just like a rock-solid tablet game from the get-go, but I didn’t really want to spend my time in it while at a PC. Give this farming/small town simulator to me on the go, and I will rush back to it with open arms and a goofy grin.

Runescape

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m still waiting for a really good MMORPG to come out for tablets. There are options, some decent, but none that have quite hit that sweet spot yet of having user friendly controls (a big failing in AQ3D), good camera controls, and a full-fledged MMO experience.

One could be made from scratch, but if we were to look at the field and consider adaptations, I’d nominate RuneScape as a perfect candidate. It has a good top-down(ish) perspective that would work best on tablets, it’s a huge game that has small requirements, and I think it’d be pretty fun to pick up now and then.

Nintendo virtual console

As we’re right now moving into month five of constant NES Classic shortages (because Nintendo is a poopyhead), I keep thinking of how terrific it would be to have a Nintendo virtual console on smartphones and tablets. None of this Super Mario Run crap; I’m talking old NES and SNES titles reworked for mobile and then sold at a decent price. A SNES on my tablet? I’d go broke — happily — within a month. And I wouldn’t be sitting here grinding my teeth at how dumb this whole NES Classic shortage thing is.

How MMORPGs have saved me thousands of dollars

Remember when PC games came in boxes large enough to safely house a small nuclear family? Or when they came in boxes at all instead of being handled by Valve gremlins? Good times.

MMORPGs want my money. I know they do. As is often said, these games aren’t charities, they’re business ventures designed to rake in money to sustain the operating costs and development costs that are incurred in running live titles. They have a variety of methods to try to get me to fork over cash, including subscriptions, microtransactions, and major product releases. Also, soundtracks, because I’m a sucker for soundtracks.

I don’t know what I spend on MMOs on a given year, but I’d estimate it’s probably something around $100. Maybe $150. That’s for the occasional subscription, the single box purchase that I’ll be making (such as last year’s RIFT: Starfall Prophecy), the odd microtransaction, and the occasional service. Not, you’ll note, lockboxes. Occasionally I’ll splurge, as with buying TSW’s grandmaster sub, but that’s a pretty rare occurrence. I don’t know if I’ve even spent any money in 2017 so far, come to think of it. WoW sub is paid via tokens through June, nothing in LOTRO (although I anticipate an expansion purchase), nothing in TSW or any of the other side games I’ve played, no Kickstarters or prepurchases. Yeah, so nothing thus far.

It’s weird to think about, but when I step back and trace my gaming history back the past two decades, my spending habits have changed dramatically. I’d wager that I spent far more money as a poor, broke college student, then intern, then in-debt bachelor than I do now as a more grounded adult. And it really is thanks to what MMOs offer and how they do it.

Flashback to 2000!

I’ve just moved to Michigan after a year internship in Colorado. I have a newish computer that I purchased with graduation gifts and an ageing PlayStation 1. Even with a new job, I have loads of time on my hands, thanks to no real responsibilities at home. I come home every day and spend the next eight hours or so kicking around my apartment. Mostly I do internet stuff (I was writing a lot even then, although mostly movie reviews) and game.

The gaming was my hobby, but it was an expensive one. The problem was that I went through games way too fast. Buying and playing them online wasn’t a thing (or at least it wasn’t that common or known to me), so I’d usually haul myself over to Media Play or Best Buy to prowl the shelves for an interesting-looking title. I kept avoiding online games, since I only had dial up, so my gaming diet was mostly RPGs, RTSes, and other simulation titles.

I’d drop $50 on a game, bring it home, and hope that it would hook me in and give me many hours of fun. Sometimes they did, like with KOTOR or Majesty. But more often than not, I’d get kind of bored with a title after 10 hours, and then I’d be back at the store, spending another $50 I didn’t really have to spare.

It got even worse when I picked up the PlayStation 2, hoping that it would be — right out of the gate — an equally good investment as the PS1. The launch lineup was pretty bad, but I bought most all of those games and kept buying console titles too to try to find something that would be long lasting. About a year or two into the PS2, I ended up realizing that I had moved on past consoles and that most of these games were mostly novelties to me and nothing more. Shallow. I needed meat, I needed depth, and most of all, I needed longevity.

I wish I could go back in time to tell myself about MUDs and the good MMOs and other options that were actually pretty decent back then. Some of that money might have gone to better use to a faster internet connection for starters. Oh well.

As I gradually eased into the MMORPG scene (which really took off for me with City of Heroes’ release), I found that my spending habits started to change radically. I not only had games that would deliver dozens upon dozens of hours of entertainment every month that I enjoyed, but the only cost I needed to spend on them (after the initial purchase) was a relatively small subscription. And that sub worked on me psychologically to convince me to “get my money’s worth” on the MMO versus those other games.

I still bought other PC games, of course, and I still do. No money spent on MMOs this year, but maybe $120 or so on some Steam and GOG titles like Torment. But by and large, my “hobby” started costing me a lot less while giving me enough hours of entertainment to fill whatever available free time I had for it. When I got married and my wife helped get our family on track with a strict budget, MMOs managed to fit in quite well into that while box purchases of games did not. Until the F2P revolution came along, I mostly focused on a single MMO at a time because I was only going to subscribe to one at a time. More started to feel wasteful.

Since 2003, MMORPGs have definitely saved me thousands that, assuming that I would have carried on with my splurge-happy and unsatisfied habits, I would have blown on regret elsewhere. I know we’ve all heard that these games are really a great deal for the money, but they truly, truly are. I never dreamed that I would still be playing the same game 10 or 12 years after it launched — and having a good time thanks to expansions, the social scene, and endless things to do. Kind of makes me wish I had started earlier, but oh well!

Early impressions of Torment: Tides of Numenera

torment

While everyone seems to be buzzing about Zelda and Andromeda and Horizons in the larger gaming world, I’ve been rejoicing the the spiritual successor to Planescape Torment is finally here. Torment: Tides of Numenera (I can never spell that last word correctly) launched on Tuesday and was an instant buy for me. It’s gotten really good reviews so far, although I’m trying not to read too many so as not to be spoiled.

I was hoping to be a lot further into the game by now, but it’s been a zany, busy sort of week, and early bedtimes, illness, and even a freak thunderstorm have conspired against it. So I’ve only gotten through the first two major areas, although that slow pace is partially due to my compulsive need to examine everything, talk to everyone, and make sure I’m picking up every available quest.

So far? It’s good. The graphics aren’t really the best — kind of a mixed bag — but they’re serviceable considering that the real strength with the game is its characterization, story, and writing. The setting so far isn’t quite as captivating as Planescape, but I’m warming up to this vision of a weird earth a billion years in the future. It’s strange but not so alien as to be incomprehensible. I love weird fantasy and speculative scifi, so this is right up my alley.

Torment makes it very clear from the get-go that it is a roleplaying game through-and-through, and even when I fail at tasks or make “bad” decisions, interesting things still happen. I’m simply picking what is interesting to me and feeling out the world without being concerned over pursuing, say, light side points. There’s a “tides” mechanic that hasn’t been explained yet, but I don’t really care since it’s not going to affect how I pick.

Two things that have bubbled up as great elements of the game. The first is that the RPG mechanics are clean and easy to understand. I really love how you have these three pools of points (intellect, speed, and might) that can be used to up your odds of success in encounters. Sometimes I’m not that concerned about winning, so I don’t spend any points, while other times I’ll invest two or three points to ensure a 100% success. Inventory is easy to manage and gear is clear about how it can be used. All of that is very appreciated.

The other thing is that as I’m taking the time to talk and talk and talk to all of these characters, it’s like a book is slowly unfolding in front of me. There are a lot of odd concepts and ideas at play here that need to be gradually understood, and some of them are downright fascinating. I found myself very captivated by the “Levies” — unquestioning guards that are formed by taking a year of someone’s life away to make a “person” that will only live for that year before falling apart. There was a hint of personality and memory in one of them that made me think that there’s more to these people than just a clever idea.

I’m in no rush to plow through the game and can see playing Torment in small chunks here and there. It’s far less combat intensive than most modern RPGs, and in fact I’m going to try to take the Planescape route by avoiding combat at all costs. Already my character is highly perceptive and an accomplished liar when it suits her purpose. It’s kind of like an adventure game with RPG elements than an RPG with lots of fighting. And I have no idea where it’s going or what tropes lay in wait. Right up my alley.

6 things MMOs should do to make a good first impression

valley

You’ll never get a second chance at a first impression, or so the saying sort of goes, so it’s vital to make that impression count. For players — seasoned and fresh meat — who venture into an MMO for the first time, that initial hour or so can be a vital make-or-break moment that will either keep a gamer playing… or send them packing out of frustration, boredom, or annoyance.

So how can an MMORPG make the best-possible first impression? How can it get off on the right foot and serve to suck players into the experience from the start? I have six suggestions from my journey through many games.

1. Have an in-depth character creation system

It’s mind-boggling to me how many MMOs put forth little more than the bare minimum into character creation: pick a class, pick a head, name your guy, let’s gogoGO. Tell me, what does that do to invest a player into his or her character? Nothing. Go out and watch YouTubers who try out different MMOs, and you’ll see sighs and groans when they get games with bare-bones character creation — and you’ll also witness excited squees when they find an MMO that gives you many options (visuals, background, choices) before you get into the game.

City of Heroes and Guild Wars 2 are two excellent examples of MMOs that worked hard to give you a lot of character choices during this stage so that by the time you logged into the game, you already knew a lot about who you were and were connected with that character.

2. Give you tutorial flexibility

Not every player going into your game is coming from the same place, so they don’t all need to be pigeon-holed into the same inflexible tutorial. WildStar had it right on with its tutorial revamp that allowed players a full-fledged “I don’t know anything about MMOs” approach, a “this is my first time in WildStar but I’ve played other MMOs before” path, and an option to skip the tutorial altogether. When I make my 16th alt, I don’t want to have to beat my head against the tutorial popups or be told how to move my character with the WASD keys.

3. Pace things right — not too fast, not too slow

I find that pacing is a big problem in the early stage of an MMO. I’ve seen games that are just pondorously slow, which is made worse when your character has like one attack skill and no ability to move faster than a casual jog. Even worse are those titles that seem worried that they’ll lose your interest and keep shoving cutscenes and inescapable actions at you instead of backing off and providing some breathing room for players to comprehend and absorb. Find a good middle ground here and test the crap out of this intro.

4. Let players explore off the rails

This is my big thing: I don’t want an MMO to be forcing me down a linear path for the first half-hour. It’s not immersive and it honestly makes me cranky. Let me wander around a little bit. Let me get a feel for combat on my own terms, not from carefully staged encounters. Let me have time to fiddle with the options and hotbars and everything else. Provide direction and then let players proceed at their own pace and in their own way.

5. Make low-level combat look and feel great

Just because a character at level 1 needs a lot of room to grow doesn’t mean that you need to punish a player for being at the start. There’s no excuse for making low-level combat as dull as possible. Give a couple skills that pack a visual and aural punch and have at least one ability that shows off the class’ signature approach. Oh, and keep it pretty fast (10 seconds or under) — a long time-to-kill is inexcusable for a level 1.

6. Provide social connections right off the bat

Players should be able to form guilds from minute one in MMOs. None of this needing to get a bunch of gold or gathering signatures crap. That’s antiquated and is absolutely stupid.

MMOs should be doing all they can from the very start to hook players up with old and new friends. Get those social connections going so that they don’t feel alone and so that they have an additional reason to log in. Does your game have robust player searching and friends lists? Do you have a chat channel devoted to newbie advice and help? Do you have any sort of auto-grouping for difficult encounters? In what way will you encourage — not force — your players to interact with each other in that starting area?

I would like to challenge the Guinness World Records, please

guinness1So it was brought to my attention that Final Fantasy XIV is the recipient of three recent Guinness World Records: most prolific game series (fair enough, there are a lot of FF titles to date to be sure), longest end credits (an hour and a half? did they thank the entire population of Japan?), and “most original pieces of music in a videogame (including expansions)” at 384 tracks.

Now I have no idea what goes into the selection process of picking a Guinness World Record, but often I get the impression that it’s more a thing where people and companies call up Guinness to submit an entry rather than  Guinness going out and doing the homework. Especially when it comes to video games, it seems as though the records took the first applicant who made a claim and could back it up without checking all of the competition to see if there were any others that actually deserved the record more.

Final Fantasy XIV has a terrific and diverse soundtrack, and obviously at 384 tracks, it is no slouch. But it’s also most definitely not the world record holder for most original pieces of music in an MMO, never mind video games at large. I’m not an expert, but I have dabbled in video game music (and MMO soundtracks in particular) over the past few years, and off the top of my head some challengers come to mind.

RuneScape, for instance, boasts a staggering 1,151 original soundtrack pieces, with more coming every month. My World of Warcraft music folder has 772 files, and even if some are variations or duplicates, I’m pretty sure that easily tops 384. Both of these titles have the advantage of having been out a lot longer than FFXIV too, so it’s not to diminish FFXIV’s musical accomplishment to date that I post this, but just that it would bug me if it went unsaid.

Any other challengers? I don’t have a definitive count on EverQuest II tracks, but I know that game’s been adding them since launch and there are quite a few. WildStar is about 280 tracks, and I have about as many for SWTOR, so they’re up there but not quite. Lineage II or Aion? Maybe but I’m not sure how much are in those games that haven’t been officially released. I have about 245 tracks for LOTRO, but I know that there are a lot of more ambient pieces I haven’t gotten yet. A weird challenger might be City of Heroes, which had around 370 mostly short pieces of original music (20-30 seconds apiece for the most part).