Review: “High Heels And Low Lifes” (Film)

Well, although I’m still gradually working my way through the next book I plan to review, I was in the mood for another film. So, I thought that I’d check out a rather interesting comedy heist/crime caper film from 2001 called “High Heels And Low Lifes”.

This was a film that I vaguely remembered seeing advertised in magazines at the time and since it’s been ages since I last watched a comedy heist film and because I was still in the mood for “feel good” films, I decided to look online for a second-hand DVD of it. To my delight, the old DVD also included a little booklet that extolled the cutting-edge wonders of “The DVD Experience”. Oh my god, the nostalgia!

So, let’s take a look at “High Heels And Low Lifes”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS.

The film begins in London with a group of rough Cockney gangsters carrying out an elaborate and painstaking heist on a safety deposit facility. In another part of the city, a man listens in to random phone calls and edits them together into some kind of mixtape. In a nearby hospital, a nurse called Shannon (Minnie Driver) finishes her shift and goes home to celebrate her birthday with her boyfriend, Ray. However, he’s too busy with his experimental phone call-based music project to go out to dinner with her. Furious, she storms out of the house.

Meanwhile, a down-on-her-luck American actor called Frances (Mary McCormack) is performing in a bizarre avant-garde play in a small theatre. When she returns to the dressing room, her friend Shannon is already there and is still angry about Ray. Frances decides that the solution is to go out clubbing and get absolutely hammered.

When they get back to Shannon’s house, Ray is gone. However, he has left his computer and phone scanner on. Frances listens in to a random mobile phone call and, after hearing something about a bank job, she scribbles the phone number on her hand before eventually falling asleep. The next day, Frances tries to do some voice-acting for a cartoon whilst extremely hungover and Shannon breaks up with Ray. Then, both of them happen to spot a TV news report about the robbery.

Frances rushes to the hospital to talk to Shannon. The phone number on her hand is still just about legible and she’s got a plan to solve both her financial worries and get some new equipment for Shannon’s under-funded hospital by blackmailing the bank robbers. What could possibly go wrong?

I’m sure that giant wall of guns in the criminals’ mansion is just there for show.

One of the first things that I will say about this film was that it was a lot of fun to watch 🙂 Yes, the plot is more than a little bit silly if you actually think about it but, if you just want to relax with a funny “feel good” crime caper film or you suddenly find yourself struck by rose-tinted early 2000s nostalgia, then this one is well worth a watch 🙂

So, I should probably start with the film’s hilarious comedy elements. In addition to a few well-placed and well-choreographed moments of farce and slapstick comedy (featuring some gloriously pyrotechnic special effects), this film is not only a good parody of the “Cockney gangster” genre, but it is also filled with lots of amusing characters and dialogue too. Yes, a few brief moments may seem dated, but – overall – this film was even funnier than I’d expected.

Such as when Frances does a hilariously inept impression of a Cockney gangster.

Or the many amusing conversations between the two main characters.

The core of the film’s comedy comes from the friendship between Frances and Shannon. Not only are they amusing characters in their own right, but they are also different enough to allow for lots of amusing arguments, irreverent moments and dialogue exchanges. Of course, this is to be expected in a comedy. However, this film excels itself with the way that the dynamic between them changes as the film progresses – with Frances going from being the impulsive one to being a bit more cautious and Shannon doing the exact opposite. This allows for some brilliantly funny moments in the later parts of the film – which I won’t spoil.

In contrast to Frances’ optimism and hilarious impressions of a rough Cockney gangster (including confusion about US and UK slang), Shannon also brings some much-needed cynicism to the film too. Not only that, the instantly likeable dynamic between the two main characters is also complemented with an excellent supporting cast, including Mark Williams as a world-weary detective (if you’ve watched “Father Brown“, then seeing him play a more “realistic” detective is even funnier) and Danny Dyer playing… well… Danny Dyer.

Although he plays the role vaguely “seriously” here, it’s always fun to see Mark Williams playing a detective.

This is such a Danny Dyer role that his character is even called “Danny”. Such imagination!

As for the film’s crime thriller elements, they’re fairly well-edited and the story flows well, but it is important to remember that this film is a comedy. In other words, these elements of the film are very much on the stylised side of things and often include all sorts of contrived coincidences, farcical moments and blatantly unrealistic events. But, although the plot certainly has it’s fair share of holes, the film still gives the impression of a well-plotted heist thriller. Still, don’t expect a “realistic” story here:

Take a look this large billboard – in Comic Sans, no less – that is somehow discreetly printed and posted in the space of about a day or so, and which the gang boss just happens to see before it is removed.

The fact that it’s so funny and the characters are so likeable means that it’s easy to overlook all of this stuff and just get caught up in the mindless fun of it all. It’s a parody of “tough” 1990s gangster films (like “Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels”) that is also well-written, edited and acted enough to stand on it’s own two feet even if you aren’t that familiar with the genre.

On an interesting side-note, the heist at the beginning of the film also seems eerily prescient when watched these days, given that it is vaguely similar to the notorious real one in Hatton Garden in 2015.

I also really loved the stylised early 2000s atmosphere of the film 🙂 This is a time period that is just slightly too recent for popular nostalgia to have caught up with yet, and it is so interesting to see. The film is just about modern enough to still feel fresh today (aside from a couple of fairly “politically incorrect” lines of dialogue from the villains) whilst also being a fascinating glimpse into a lost world very different to our own.

Whether it is the slightly more hedonistic atmosphere of the time (which is a joy to see in this miserable age), the fashions of the time, the cynical/irreverent attitude, the old mobile phones, the remnants of the “Cool Britannia” thing from the 1990s, actual telephone boxes (complete with dodgy postcards), pre-9/11 optimism etc… this film is a really fun glance into the better parts of a world that has disappeared. So, if you want to take a very rose-tinted glance back in time, then this film is worth watching for this alone.

Remember when mobile phones looked like this and were actual phones?

And does anyone else remember when this style of bandanna was popular?

In terms of lighting and set design, this film is fairly good. Yes, the film mostly takes place in fairly “realistic” locations, but the addition of a few well-chosen exterior locations (eg: a large rooftop garden, a scrapyard etc..), the fact that Shannon’s house reminds me a bit of the set of the old TV show “Bits” and the sumptuous homes of the film’s gangsters help to add some distinctiveness to the film. Likewise, although a good part of the film takes place during the day (so the lighting isn’t always as noticeable as it is in films from the 1980s/90s), I love the fact that this film comes from a time when films weren’t as de-saturated as they often are today.

It’s probably the clutter, empty bottles and retro computer, but this scene reminds me a little of an awesome early 2000s videogame-themed TV show called “Bits”.

All in all, this is a funny “feel good” crime caper film that was an absolute joy to watch and is also an interesting piece of rose-tinted early 2000s nostalgia too. Yes, the plot is more than a little bit silly if you actually think about it too much, but this is all part of the fun of the film. So, if you want a rather amusing farce with fairly likeable main characters, lots of funny dialogue and a mildly “retro” atmosphere, then this one is well worth a watch.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Review: “Area 7” By Matthew Reilly (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for another thriller. And, after enjoying Matthew Reilly’s “Ice Station” a few weeks ago, I thought that I’d take a look at the other Reilly novel I happened to spot in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield last year. I am, of course talking about Reilly’s 2001 thriller novel “Area 7”.

Although this novel is technically a sequel to “Ice Station”, it’s a fairly self-contained novel that can be enjoyed without reading “Ice Station” first. But, if you’ve read “Ice Station” first, then you’ll see a few familiar faces again and get slightly more out of a couple of moments and small sub-plots.

So, let’s take a look at “Area 7”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2002 Pan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Area 7” that I read.

The novel begins with a lecture transcript that discusses the role and history of the office of the US president, before showing an extract from a conspiracy theory magazine about the mysterious death of a US senator called Jerry Woolf.

Then, the story jumps over to Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas. A former general called “Caesar” Russell is due to be executed for murder and treason. His last request is to watch the inauguration of the new president on TV and whilst he watches it, he muses about a scheme to secretly implant microchips into the hearts of important people. After this, he is taken to another prison and executed via lethal injection. However, a few minutes after his body is taken away, he is secretly revived using a defribrillator and hyper-oxygenated blood.

A few months later, several experimental plasma warheads are found hidden and fully armed in several major airports. Meanwhile, in the Utah desert, Marine Captain Shane “Scarecrow” Schofield is accompanying the president on a helicopter tour of several secret underground military bases in the desert. When the group arrive at Area 7, they are greeted by the elite masked commandos of the Air Force’s 7th Special Operations Squadron.

As the President descends into the base, Schofield and the other marines wait around in the hangar above. Schofield then notices that the troops from the 7th have suddenly taken up offensive – rather than defensive- positions around all exits from the hangar. Seconds later, they open fire on the marines and a battle ensues. Meanwhile, the President watches a demonstration of a new vaccine designed to protect against a bio-weapon. But the demonstration is suddenly interrupted by a video broadcast by Caesar, saying that he has taken command of the base…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a hell of a lot of fun to read 🙂 Yes, it is little slower to really get started than “Ice Station” was but – after about the first 80-90 pages or so – it’s nothing but grippingly thrilling non-stop spectacular ultra-fast paced action 🙂 Like with Clive Cussler & Graham Brown’s “Zero Hour“, this novel is one of the best action movies that you’ll ever read 🙂 Yes, it probably isn’t going to win any literary awards, but if you want a book that is like an incredibly fun 1980s-90s action movie “turned up to eleven”, then this one is well worth reading 🙂

As action-thriller novels go, this one is really well-constructed – with a brilliant mixture of suspenseful mini-cliffhangers, cool gadgets, tense time-limits, claustrophobic underground scenes, several competing groups of villains, multiple plot threads, acrobatic stunts, large and small-scale drama, spectacular open-air chase scenes, numerous fast-paced combat sequences (including gladiatorial combat, helicopter duels etc… in addition to the usual gun and fist fights), spectacular set pieces and one of the best uses of Chekhov’s Gun that I’ve seen in a while too (seriously, when you see everything on the fourth floor of the facility, you’ll know what I mean).

Thanks to this immense variety of thriller elements, this is one of those rare thriller novels that can function at full intensity for most of the story without ever getting dull. And, in classic Reilly fashion, this novel is ludicrously and gloriously “over the top” in so many ways 🙂 The best way to describe this is to imagine a Michael Bay movie with absolutely no budgetary or practical limits whatsoever. Leaving aside the numerous spectacular explosions and gunfights, this also includes brilliantly clever location designs and numerous awesome set pieces that take place on land, air, water and… well, I won’t spoil it.

Whether you enjoy all of this or not will depend on how much you can suspend your disbelief. If you take a more “rational” or “realistic” view of this story, then it will seem extremely silly. But, if you can suspend your disbelief, then you’ll be rewarded with the kind of amazingly spectacular action-fest that, even almost two decades after it was written, can still easily surpass even the highest-budget Hollywood films. Seriously, if you want to see an example of how books can be better than films, then read this one!

And, continuing with the action movie theme, one of the cool things about this novel is that – although it was published in 2001 – it is actually more like a gloriously fun 1980s-90s action movie (think “Broken Arrow” meets “Die Hard”, but on steroids) than a more serious, topical and gritty 2000s one. A lot of this has to do with the fact that it was clearly written (and is set) before 9/11 happened.

Not only does this mean that there are a lot of spectacular aircraft-based scenes that would have probably been considered “too soon” if the novel was written a bit later that year, but the novel also deals with the topic of terrorism in a very pre-9/11 kind of way too – with the villains being various evil secret societies, fanatical right-wing groups etc… (with incredibly contrived evil schemes) rather than the religious extremist villains that would become more common in the genre later in the decade.

So, this novel is also a glimpse into the later parts of the more innocent age between the end of the cold war and 9/11 – where thriller writers couldn’t just use the news for inspiration and, instead, had to come up with unpredictable and creative plots for their stories. All of this results in a much more fun and “feel-good” thriller story than the gloomier, grittier and more “topical” thrillers that would characterise most of the 2000s.

In terms of the characters, they are the kind of stylised characters you’d expect in a story like this. Although there is a bit of characterisation for a few main characters and some of the villains, this is more of a plot-focused novel than a character-based one. In fact, in the author interview at the end of the edition I read, Reilly actually states: “I want to write about action and thrills and adventure, and if developing characters slow down the action, then developing characters get the chop!

Still, there is just about enough characterisation here to make you care about what happens to the main characters. Plus, one amusing thing about this novel is that – although the US President is never explicitly named – from a couple of physical descriptions, the publication date and some references to the time period the story takes place in (eg: mention of a Playstation 2 and Jar Jar Binks, and the most recent other president mentioned in the opening segment being Bill Clinton), he is most likely based on G. W. Bush – which makes the parts of the novel where he gets to be a bit of an action hero absolutely hilarious to read in a cynically ironic way.

As for the writing, it is a Matthew Reilly novel from the 2000s. In other words, the third-person narration is written in a fairly informal and “matter of fact” style that – whilst it probably breaks numerous stylistic rules and is unlikely to win any literary awards – adds a lot of extra speed and intensity to the novel. Yes, if you’re new to this author, then you might find his writing style to be a bit corny, awkward and/or immature at times, but it works. Don’t ask me how, but it works! Like with Reilly’s later novel “Seven Ancient Wonders”, this novel is one of the most well-written “badly written” books that you’ll ever read.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good 🙂 Although it is a fairly hefty 565 pages in length, these pages flash past at incredible speed – meaning it’ll take you as long to read as a 250-300 page book usually would. And, although the story takes a little while longer to really pick up speed than “Ice Station” does, most of this book feels even faster-paced and more gripping than that novel did. Seriously, if you want a lesson in good, consistently fast action-thriller novel pacing, then read most of this one 🙂

All in all, this novel was a hell of a lot of fun to read 🙂 If you want to read something that is even more spectacular than even the highest-budget action movie, then you’ll enjoy “Area 7”. Yes, it takes a little longer to really get started than I’d expected (and the writing style may put some readers off) but, if you stick with it, then you’ll be rewarded with a gloriously intense and over-the-top 1990s-style action-fest of a story 🙂 Just remember to suspend your disbelief before reading it though.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.

Review: “Resident Evil: Code Veronica” By S. D. Perry (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for fast-paced horror fiction. So, I thought that I’d take the chance to re-read S.D.Perry’s 2001 novelisation of “Resident Evil: Code Veronica” since it was the next novel in the series that I hadn’t re-read yet (you can see my reviews of the previous books here, here, here, here and here ).

Although I first read this book and played the “Resident Evil: Code Veronica X” Playstation 2 port of the game it is based on when I was a teenager, I remember more about the game than I do about this adaptation. Still, since the game was probably the most modern “Resident Evil” game that I’ve completed and I have a lot of nostalgia about playing it, I was eager to see if the book would live up to this.

Even though it is possible to enjoy this novel as a stand-alone book, it is worth reading several of Perry’s previous “Resident Evil” novels and/or playing some of the older games in the series in order to get the most out of it. Even so, the novel contains a brief author’s note about continuity differences with previous books in the series.

So, let’s take a look at “Resident Evil: Code Veronica”. I should probably warn you that this review may contain some SPOILERS and some GRUESOME/ DISTURBING cover art (yes, fans of the series and/or the zombie genre won’t exactly be shocked by it – but I thought that I’d include a warning on the off-chance that anyone who isn’t a fan stumbles across this review).

This is the 2001 Pocket Books (US) paperback edition of “Resident Evil: Code Veronica” that I read.

The novel begins on a remote island called Rockfort, owned by the nefarious Umbrella Corporation. A guard on the island, Rodrigo Juan Raval, has just survived a ferocious air assault by unknown forces that has not only left parts of the island in ruins but also released several experimental bioweapons from the island’s labs. With many of his fellow guards turned into shambling zombies and a serious injury to his stomach, Rodrigo decides to limp back to the island’s jail and release a recent prisoner who has also survived the attack.

Claire Redfield – survivor of the zombie incident in Racoon City- dreams about her failed attempt at taking down one of Umbrella’s facilities in Paris before waking up in a cold, dark cell. To her surprise, a wounded guard shows up and lets her out before telling her to run for her life. Although she is initially wary about this, she takes the guard’s advice and leaves. Only to find herself in a graveyard filled with zombies….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a fairly fast-paced horror thriller novel that is also reasonably true to what I remember of the game (which is both a good and a bad thing). Whilst it probably isn’t my favourite one of Perry’s “Resident Evil” novels (the first and third ones are better), it is still a fairly entertaining novel.

Still, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s horror elements, which include a mixture of character-based horror, monster horror, body horror/scientific horror, cruel horror and gory horror. Although these elements are reasonably well-written, this novel’s horror often feels a little less intense than some previous novels in the series. Whilst the novel’s many scenes of gory horror are as splatterific as you’d expect from a S. D. Perry novel, they aren’t always as well-supported by the other types of horror as they could have been.

If anything, this novel is more of a gruesome, monster-filled action thriller story than a horror novel. And, in this regard, it works well. Not only is the novel written in the kind of fast-paced way that will allow you to blaze through it in a couple of hours, but the story also includes things like multiple plot threads (although not to the extent I’d expected), suspense and – of course- lots of dramatic set pieces and action sequences 🙂 These are all written in a way that is fast-paced and easy to read, giving this novel the kind of fun, cheesy “late-night B movie” atmosphere that you’d expect from the series 🙂

As for how well this novel adapts the source material, it seemed reasonably close to what I remembered of the game – albeit with some changes. In addition to adding a few references to previous books in the series (including the ones not based on the games), there’s also a brief cameo by a few familiar characters (eg: Barry and Leon), the puzzles have been streamlined a bit (if only it was possible to just shoot the metal detector in the actual game) and there’s a bit of extra backstory, dialogue and characterisation for some of the characters too. For the most part, this is an enhanced and streamlined adaptation of the original game. Plus if, like me, you’ve only played the later “Code Veronica X” version of the game, it’s also an interesting glimpse at an earlier version of the game too.

However, since it was published within a year or so of the original game, this adaptation also includes some brief and/or subtle moments from the original game that haven’t really aged well. The main antagonist, Alfred Ashford, is something of a “feminine villain” stereotype and one of the main characters also makes a rather derogatory comment about this aspect of him too (although, if my memory is correct, it is said by a different character at a different time in the game). Still, this is more of a criticism of the source material than this contemporaneous adaptation of it.

But, although Alfred isn’t really a well-written character (again, more the fault of the original game), the other characters are reasonably well-written. Whilst you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, the story adds a bit more personality, backstory and emotion to many of the game’s characters. This works best with Claire and Steve with, for example, the story focusing slightly more on Steve’s immature bravado, insecurities, inner conflicts etc… than the game does. Plus, of course, Claire is also a more confident character thanks to her experiences during the previous novels/games too.

As for the writing, it’s fairly good. As you’d expect from one of Perry’s “Resident Evil” novels, this story is written in a fairly informal, fast-paced and “matter of fact” way that goes really well with the thrilling events of the story. Plus, all of this fast-paced narration is also paired with some well-placed descriptive moments that add extra atmosphere and/or intensity to the story without breaking the flow of the narration too much.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent. At a gloriously efficient 241 pages in length, not a single page is wasted. Likewise, this novel also maintains a fairly consistent fast pace, with only a few brief moderately-paced moments to give the reader a slightly rest. In other words, this is one of those awesome thriller novels that – like a movie- can be enjoyed in just a couple of hours.

All in all, although this isn’t really my favourite “Resident Evil” novel, it is still a reasonably enjoyable fast-paced zombie/monster thriller novel. Yes, the horror elements could have been creepier and some moments will seem dated when read today – but, this aside, the novel was still reasonably fun to read and is a fairly good adaptation of the source material too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would probably just about get a four.

First Impressions: “Clive Barker’s Undying” (Retro Computer Game)

Well, with Halloween approaching, I thought that I’d take a look at an old horror game called “Clive Barker’s Undying” (which I bought for £1.19 during a sale on GOG last year).

Before I go any further, I should probably point out that this is more of a “first impressions” article than a full review. I’d planned to finish this game before I posted this review but, after getting somewhere between one-third and halfway through the game, I realised that I’d never finish it before Halloween without falling massively behind on my article schedule. Plus, I also found myself abandoning the game for other reasons that I’ll explain later.

I should probably also warn you that this review may contain a couple of (unrealistic) GRUESOME IMAGES. Likewise, the game itself contains FLICKERING lightning effects at the beginning.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Clive Barker’s Undying”:

“Clive Barker’s Undying” is a first-person shooter game from 2001. Set in the 1920s, you play as an occultist and ex- soldier called Patrick Galloway who has been living in exile from his native Ireland until he is summoned back by a letter from his old friend Jeremiah Covenant.

When he arrives at Jeremiah’s remote mansion, he finds that Jeremiah has been taken ill. Not only that, there seems to be some kind of family curse that has filled the creepy old mansion with ghosts and monsters…..

Well, it would be a very boring game if there weren’t ghosts and monsters….

My very first impressions of this game were extremely good. Even the main menu not only looked really cool, but also had ominously dramatic background music and some amazing flame animations for the mouse cursor.

Plus, for the elitists amongst you, there’s actually a framerate slider in the options menu. A framerate slider!

Not only was this a game that Clive Barker helped to make but it was also an EA game from the early 2000s. As much as EA deserve all of the criticism they get these days, there’s no denying that for a very brief period during the early 2000s they seemed to be the best for gothic horror games. I mean, they published the amazing “American McGee’s Alice” a year before this game! So, my expectations were sky-high.

And, for the early parts of the game, they were more than met. You begin the game by exploring a gloriously gloomy old mansion and it is still creepy to this day. Although there are a few scripted moments, a lot of the horror here comes from the frantic, claustrophobic combat and the general atmosphere of the place. Seriously, the early segments set in the mansion are how to make a horror game properly.

I LOVE the lighting here too 🙂

Seriously, I got a real “Silent Hill 3“/ “Realms Of The Haunting” vibe in this area!

Seriously, I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that this location is still creepy to this day

Everything here is designed to ramp up the suspense. Whether it’s the fact that the lighting is dark enough to be creepy, but not dark enough that you get totally lost (eg: usually there is at least one lit area visible at any one time) or the constant sense of ominous suspense that gradually builds as you creep around the gloomy corridors in fear of your next monster encounter, this part of the game is scary.

This constant fear is amplified by the fact that you are occasionally attacked by powerful fast-moving monsters who will leap at you furiously.

Usually, your best bet is to get a headshot with your revolver in the few seconds you have whilst they are scampering towards you. But, of course, there’s usually more than one of them around at any one moment and you only have six bullets in your gun (and not enough time to reload if you miss too often..). This is how to add tension to an action-horror game!

Of course, once you see THIS, it’s almost too late…

In addition to this, Patrick also has several magical abilities that he can use (which use a recharging “mana” counter). The one you will be using most often is the “Scrye” ability – not only does this highlight enemies and allow you to see in the dark for a short time (with cool purple-tinted night vision no less 🙂 ), but it will also allow you to see things that you can’t ordinarily see.

Often, you will hear an ominous whisper telling you to use the ability and then, for example, a nearby painting will be transformed into a grotesque vision of hell:

Well, the game does have the words “Clive Barker” in the title. What did you expect? Unicorns and puppies?

However, as utterly awesome as the earlier parts of the game are – it doesn’t stay this way for too long. Even though there are some really cool locations after you initially explore the mansion, don’t get too used to them…

Seriously, this ominous floating building reminded me a bit of “American McGee’s Alice” 🙂

And just take a look at this gloriously gothic mausoleum 🙂

After a while, you will find yourself beneath an old monastery, and this is where I started to lose interest in the game. Not only do you have to trudge through endless dark underground catacombs (using the scrye ability every twenty seconds or so is practically mandatory…), but the game’s difficulty level goes from “enjoyably challenging” to “keyboard-smashingly cheap“. On “normal” difficulty, no less!

I’ve got six health points and skeletons have started spawning from this pile of bones. Skeletons that require expert marksmanship to defeat…

Not only does the game get more and more stingy with health packs and ammunition, but it also has a habit of spawning in lots of powerful monsters too. Many of these monsters require lightning-fast reflexes and/or precision aiming. Now, this would be ok if the game had a fast iteration time. But it doesn’t.

Every time you are killed, and it will happen a lot, you often have to sit through an unskippable 10-15 second death animation. Needless to say, this gets very old very fast. Other retro games like “Blood” can get away with being ultra-challenging because you can be back in the action about 1-5 seconds after you’ve died. Not so with this game…

This is a death animation from earlier in the game. Yes, these unskippable animations are creepy when you see them for the first time. Less so when you see them for the thirtieth time…

Eventually, this cheap difficulty and the sheer boredom of dingy catacomb after dingy catacomb just got the better of me and, whilst I’d planned to play more of this game before writing this article, I found myself skiving off and re-playing part of “Doom: The Golden Souls” instead. It seemed fifty times more fun than spending another hour of frustration in the catacombs….

What can I say? Fun wins every time…

Anyway, one strange feature of “Clive Barker’s Undying” is that it was designed for a future console port that was never actually made.

What this means is that there are short “loading” screens between some areas, and there’s also a spell/weapon wheel feature, which is actually quicker than cycling through your weapons and spells using the keyboard. Although these things are a little bit annoying, they’re hardly game-breaking problems. However, I noticed a fair amount of screen tearing whilst playing some parts of the game, but this might just be my computer.

From what I’ve seen, the game’s weapons are actually fairly good. In addition to a revolver and double-barelled shotgun (both of which require frequent reloading, which ramps up the tension), you can also find a “Tibetan War Cannon” which serves as an infinite-ammo freeze gun. Plus, I found sticks of dynamite and molotov cocktails too.

Of course, having played “Left4Dead2” quite a bit during my early twenties, I kept expecting Patrick to shout “throwing a molotov!“.

The “Tibetan War Cannon” is a golden dragon that spits chunks of ice! Seriously, I love how creative FPS game weapons used to be 🙂

In addition to this, you can find alternate ammo types for the pistol and shotgun (eg: silver bullets and incendiary shells) which can be very useful. Plus, one of the game’s spells allows you to shoot energy from your palms, and there’s a green stone you can use to repeal monsters. Seriously, I love how creative FPS game weapon design used to be.

The game’s monster designs are surprisingly good, with many of the monsters presenting a formidable threat to the player.

There are fast-moving “Howlers”, teleporting Lovecraftian horrors, invisible guards, powerful skeletons etc… Many of these monsters are vulnerable to different tactics and/or weapons. If they were used more sparingly, these monsters would be brilliant! However, the game will occasionally just spam these monsters at you sometimes. And, given how challenging they are, this quickly borders on unfair.

Seriously, if there were one or two Howlers here, it would be really fun! But, there are at least four….

In terms of voice-acting and sound design, this game is variable. Whilst the game’s music is brilliantly suspensful, the voice-acting can vary in quality somewhat – although this just adds to the vintage charm of the game. Likewise, the sound effects are all reasonably ok too.

All in all, wait until this game is on sale and then play the earlier parts of it. This game has a timelessly brilliant beginning, which is still utterly creepy to this day. The earlier parts of this game are atmospheric, suspenseful and a perfect example of a horror game. However, as soon as you start finding yourself in dingy underground catacombs, then save yourself the frustration and play something else instead….

If I had to give what I’ve played so far a rating out of five, it would probably get a three.

Review: “X-COM: Enforcer” (Retro Computer Game)

Well, although I had planned to review one of the “The Incredible Machine” games, I ended up being distracted by various other things.

But, before I could resume playing that game, I noticed that a vaguely interesting-looking game called “X-COM: Enforcer” was on special offer on GOG. And, since it had been reduced to £1.19 at the time (and the download was just a little under 300Mb), I thought that I’d check it out.

However, I should point out that I haven’t played any of the other “X-COM” games – so, I can’t compare this one to them. Still, from what I’ve read, the other “X-COM” games are very different to this one. So, if you’re an “X-COM” fan, your experience of this game may differ from mine.

I should also point out that at least one part of the game contains FLICKERING LIGHTS, although I don’t know if they’re intense and/or fast enough to cause problems.

So, let’s take a look at “X-COM: Enforcer”:

“X-COM: Enforcer” is a sci-fi third-person shooter game from 2001 (wow, that’s… 17 years.. ago!). The game begins with a scientist building a combat robot, called “Enforcer”, to defend Earth. However, before he can finish testing the robot, an alien invasion begins…..

It literally happens just after the robot has been brought online. What perfect timing!

One of the very first things that I will say about this game is that, although it is nothing groundbreaking, it is fun! I talked about this yesterday, but the entire game is designed to keep you playing it.

Everything from the short levels (which encourage you to play “just one more level”) to the way that the game handles combat, difficulty and mission objectives are designed to make you want to play more. So, yes, this is the kind of game which you plan to play for ten minutes, but end up playing for three hours.

This game is a time bandit, but in the best possible way 🙂

Plus, despite being released in 2001, this game is very 1990s in terms of style and atmosphere. It isn’t a gritty, serious, realistic shooter or anything like that. It is a knowingly silly sci-fi action game about robots and aliens. It is bright, colourful, gameplay-focused and fun.

It also contains some vaguely imaginative weapons and some “Duke Nukem 3D“-style witty dialogue from the Enforcer too – mostly consisting of lines like “Don’t mess with Earth!” etc.. delivered in a Robocop-like voice. Which is hilarious!

It’s down to you and me, you one… oops! Wrong game!

As you would expect, the vast majority of the gameplay revolves around combat. In many ways, this game is slightly similar to games like “Alien Shooter” or “Serious Sam“. It is an intense and gloriously mindless “shoot-em-up” game with an emphasis on frantic, fast-paced combat against hordes of monsters.

The game’s combat is, in a word, streamlined. The aiming system has been simplified to a “Doom“-style horizontal-only aiming system, which reduces the need for accuracy. Your character can only hold one weapon at a time, which encourages you to search for better weapons and means that you don’t have to worry about choosing weapons in the middle of a fight. The monsters drop time-limited bonuses when defeated, which encourages you to play quickly and aggressively.

Yes, THIS is an action game!

This simplified and streamlined combat works surprisingly well, and it helps to make the experience of playing the game a lot more intense and thrilling. Like in several other third-person shooters, you can also upgrade your character and the game’s weapons between levels (using “data points” you find in-game).

Yes, you actually have to collect the points in-game. Since this game is from 2001, there are absolutely no annoying micro-transactions here 🙂

The only slight flaw with the game’s combat is that one of the weapons – the freeze gun – slows down the pace of the combat considerably, and trying to avoid picking it up can be a bit of an annoyance. Likewise, the camera angles in the game can sometimes be angled very slightly too steeply – most of the time, this isn’t an issue, but it can be annoying at times.

The game’s upgrade system is fairly good, and provides a great incentive for getting high scores in each level. However, new weapons and abilities are often only unlocked if you find “unresearched objects” scattered around certain levels. Whilst this (and another system that allows you to unlock bonus levels) provides an incentive for the player to look around and explore a bit, it also means that the player can finish the game without even seeing all of the weapons.

In terms of saving, this game uses the dreaded checkpoint saving. However, I can sort of understand this. Since it is mitigated somewhat by the short level length, the lack of a proper saving system lends each level an “all or nothing” quality which encourages you to play more and play in a more assertive fashion. However, this system annoyingly doesn’t let you revisit previous levels though.

Which is a shame since this is one of the few games where I’d actually want to revisit previous levels to grind for more points.

Thankfully, “X-COM: Enforcer” contains a proper health system – which helps to add suspense to each battle. However, a very slow and limited form of regenerating health can be unlocked as a special ability. Given the limits of this system and the fact that you actually have to earn it, it feels reasonably fair and can actually come in handy during some of the later levels.

The game’s difficulty is deliberately designed to make the player feel like an expert. Whilst I wouldn’t call this an “easy” game, I only died a few times when playing it (and at least half of those times involved accidentally falling off of ledges).

Although a couple of the boss battles are slightly challenging, the game’s difficulty curve is fairly gentle – and it is intense enough to make you feel like an expert player, whilst also being considerably more forgiving than a game like “Alien Shooter” or “Serious Sam”. Basically, this game contains the illusion of challenging difficulty – but this is done really well (eg: I really wouldn’t be surprised if the game spawned in extra health power-ups when your health is running low etc..)

Even so, the final boss battle is at least somewhat challenging 🙂

Generally, most of the game’s mission objectives revolve around destroying a certain number of alien teleporters and/or rescuing a certain number of civilians. Occasionally, the game shakes things up by including a wave shooter-style level, a boss battle or a level where you have to protect a group of trapped civilians for a certain amount of time. Surprisingly though, these simplistic objectives work really well, since they keep the emphasis firmly on the thrilling fast-paced action.

Although the game contains a few non-linear levels, many of the levels are fairly linear. This actually works quite well in this context since, again, it keeps the action fairly streamlined. Plus, there’s even an optional hint function that helps to ensure that you don’t get stuck. If this was an FPS game, I’d consider the linear levels and hint function to be a major flaw. But, since it’s an arcade-like third-person shooter, then it actually fits in with the game surprisingly well.

Yes, this feature is actually useful rather than patronising.

In terms of visual design, this game has some reasonably good moments. Although a fair number of the levels consist of very slightly generic outdoor and urban areas, there are some visually-interesting and creative levels on offer here too. And, even the more visually-boring levels aren’t that much of a problem – since they just serve as a blank canvas for the much more exciting action within each level.

I absolutely love the architecture in this level 🙂

Plus, there’s a very vaguely “Blade Runner”-style cyberpunk level too 🙂

Then there’s this shopping centre that reminds me of “Silent Hill 3”.

In terms of length, this game took me about 6-8 hours to complete. But, thanks to the fact that it consists of lots of shorter levels, the game feels a lot more substantial when you are actually playing it. Still, given how compelling this game becomes, it’s the sort of game that would still feel “too short” even if it was twice as long.

Plus, thanks to being very gameplay-focused (rather than story or puzzle-based), this game has a lot of replay value. However, your only reward for completing the game seems to be a few extra unlockable skins for the Enforcer. Still, things like finding bonus levels etc.. help to increase the replay value too.

Early in the game, the bonus levels are very generic. But, later, you can find bonus levels like this “Pac Man”-style one…

The game’s sound design is reasonably good, with the best sound effects being the satisfying drilling sound when you pick up some health or the crunchy ice sound that accompanies the freeze gun. Likewise, the music is fast repetitive electronic music, which goes reasonably well with the style of the game. One stand-out musical moment is that one piece of background music features a sample of the famous “Houston, we have a problem” recording.

The voice acting, on the other hand, is “so bad that it’s good”. Throughout the game, there are voice-overs from the scientist who built the Enforcer. He sounds endearingly annoying – that’s the best way I can think to describe his dialogue. The Enforcer’s dialogue is.. well… robotic. Still, this adds a lot of comedy value to the game – since he delivers “badass” witticisms in a Robocop-style way.

Seriously, I miss the days when action games had sarcastic protagonists…

The voice acting for the final boss is hilariously terrible though. Seriously, the voice acting in this game is quite literally “so bad that it’s good”.

All in all, although this game isn’t perfect, it’s an overlooked gem. Yes, it’s a gleefully mindless shoot-em-up game that is relatively short and not too difficult – but it is fun. It is designed to be thrilling and to make you want to play more. If you’ve played “Alien Shooter”, “Alien Shooter 2”, “Zombie Shooter”, “Painkiller” and both classic “Serious Sam” games, and you want something vaguely similar (but a bit easier), then this game is worth playing.

Most of the game’s design decisions work really well and, although it doesn’t sound like much on paper, the actual experience of playing this game is highly enjoyable. It is a thrilling, streamlined action game that will entertain you with robotic efficiency.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just about get a four.

Today’s Art (23rd September 2016)

Well, I’m still making 1980s-style cyberpunk paintings of real places. Today’s painting is a cyberpunk painting of the shopping centre in Milton Keynes, based on my memories of it from sometime around 2001. Long-term readers of this blog might also notice that this painting is at least a partial remake of this old painting from last April.

Although today’s painting is probably the most detailed painting in the series, it required quite a bit of digital editing after I scanned it.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Cyberpunk 2001 (Milton Keynes)" By C. A. Brown

“Cyberpunk 2001 (Milton Keynes)” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (23rd April 2015)

Well, today’s painting is based on a random vivid memory that I suddenly had a couple of hours before I made this painting. It was a memory of visiting Milton Keynes in 2001. Interestingly, I only know the exact year because I still have the “Sum 41” CD single [anyone remember those?] of this song that I bought that day.

Anyway, when I was leaving the town’s surprisingly large shopping centre, I saw a red-haired woman standing in a water fountain and splashing someone.

This was completely random and – to my (surprisingly stuffy and conservative, despite my tastes in music) teenage self – almost unimaginably free-spirited.

(As a blog exclusive, I’ll also provide a copy of the “work in progress” lineart for this painting.)

As usual, the two pictures in this post are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Circa 2001 (Milton Keynes)" By C. A. Brown

“Circa 2001 (Milton Keynes)” By C. A. Brown

And here’s the lineart:

"Circa 2001 (Milton Keynes) - Lineart" By C. A. Brown

“Circa 2001 (Milton Keynes) – Lineart” By C. A. Brown