Review: “Minion (Special Edition)” By L. A. Banks (Novel)

A while before writing this review, I was in the mood for some vampire fiction (what can I say? I’ve been looking for something as awesome as Jocelynn Drake’s “Dark Days” novels ever since I finished reading them). And, after looking online, I discovered an author I hadn’t heard of before called L. A. Banks. So, I decided to order a second-hand copy of the first novel in her “Vampire Huntress” series – a novel from 2003/4 called “Minion”.

However, I should probably point out that this novel seems to be the first part of a continuous series and it isn’t a self-contained novel. I was forewarned about this by a few reviews I saw, but don’t go into this novel expecting a full story. Likewise, the edition of “Minion” that I read is a “special edition” version, which apparently contains some extra scenes that aren’t in older editions of the novel.

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

This is the 2004 St. Martin’s Paperbacks (US) special edition paperback of “Minion” that I read.

The novel begins in New Orleans in the 1980s, when the wife of a preacher believes that her husband is having an affair with a mysterious handsome man that he’s met. Filled with jealousy, she ends up consulting a local magician for some kind of spell in order to exact revenge. However, this spell doesn’t exactly work as intended….

Flash forward to the mid-late 1990s and two people called Marlene and Shabazz are in a nightclub, searching for someone called Damali. When the band appears on stage, Marlene realises that the teenage lead singer is none other than Damali. After the concert, Marlene approaches Damali and offers to sign her to her record label – which is, of course, a cover for a group of vampire hunters. Since, although she doesn’t know it, Damali is the Neteru- some kind of mythical chosen one.

A few years later, in 2003, Damali is twenty and she is a well-trained member of the vampire hunting team. The team have travelled to Philadelphia to fight some vampires, but they find themselves in an alleyway where everything is mysteriously silent. Something is wrong. Of course, it doesn’t take long before the vampires attack. However, these vampires are different. They’re more powerful, more ferocious and are nothing like anything Damali has ever seen before….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, during it’s best moments, it’s kind of like a cooler and more badass version of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer“. Yes, it isn’t a self-contained story and it certainly has a few flaws but, when this story is at it’s best, it’s kind of like watching a really cool late 1990s/early 2000s urban fantasy TV show 🙂 Plus, it’s one of the few novels about vampire hunters that I’ve read which still manage to include a lot of the edginess of a good vampire novel 🙂

Interestingly, this novel is more of a thriller/drama novel than a horror novel. Sure, there are a few moments of gruesome horror, a suspenseful atmosphere and some fairly cool moments of paranormal horror too. But, for the most part, this is more of an urban fantasy drama novel with a few sizzlingly sensual moments and some well-placed action scenes. Surprisingly, this works really well.

In addition to some detective/crime thriller elements, a lot of the story also focuses on the lives of the vampire hunters, their plans, their conflicts and Damali grappling with her fate as a Neteru (which is presented as something of a second adolescence).

Although this novel is one of those stories where the main characters argue with each other quite a bit, this actually works quite well thanks to the general atmosphere of the story and the way that the characters are written. In other words, the conflicts between the characters emerge from their different perspectives, personalities and worldviews rather than just being there for the sake of drama. Likewise, the Los Angeles setting of most of the story is reminiscent of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, whilst also allowing for a lot more atmosphere and grittiness too.

Even though the story could have done with more action scenes, this is compensated for via a reasonably compelling plot and a suspenseful atmosphere in many scenes. Likewise, many of the story’s more action-packed moments are pretty cool too – with the highlights including a fight involving a three-sided sword and a rather cool chase scene that not only includes some beautiful descriptions of Chinatown, but also includes some fairly suspenseful combat scenes too.

Plus, even though this story contains a clear “good vs. evil” conflict, it is thankfully a little bit more sophisticated than this. In other words, most of the “good” characters aren’t joyless, self-righteous bores and some of the story’s villains are a little bit more ambiguous too.

Even the novel’s most puritanical character, Marlene, is given enough characterisation for her more self-righteous moments to make sense in the context of the story. Best of all, Damali is actually a fairly realistic twentysomething main character who (unlike many thriller novel protagonists) actually wants to enjoy life – much to Marlene’s prim consternation.

Plus, one of the characters (Carlos) is initially presented as a villainous drug baron, but he gains a bit more depth (and even some reader sympathy) as the story progresses. In other words, this novel contains a bit more nuance and humanity than “good vs. evil” vampire stories focusing on vampire hunters usually do. This really helps to add atmosphere to the story too 🙂

Still, this isn’t to say that the story doesn’t have some hilariously cheesy elements too. Whether it’s a rival music label who are quite literally run by demons and vampires (and, in true 1980s/90s moral panic fashion, promote goth music and drug-fuelled rock music) or a scene involving an alliance between crime gangs, this story can be a little bit silly. Likewise, one scene involving a vampiric council who reside in the depths of hell is straight out of a cheesy horror movie. Still, these elements help to add some cheesy, light-hearted fun to the story and provide a bit of balance to the grittier and more serious aspects of the story.

But, although this story is reasonably atmospheric and fairly cool, it isn’t without flaws. Most of these happen near the beginning and ending of the novel, which are literally the last places where a writer should make mistakes.

After the prologues, the novel begins with what should be a suspenseful and gripping action scene – but it is bogged down by the fact that this scene introduces quite a few characters very quickly, which can get confusing. Likewise, the climactic moments of the story are basically a long-winded exposition-filled data dump about the series’ backstory. Yes, this segment does also serve as a cliffhanger ending, but it’s a fairly boring way to include one.

In terms of the writing, Banks’ third-person narration is somewhat on the informal side of things, whilst also being reasonably descriptive too (and fairly “matter of fact” during more thrilling moments). Although it took me a little while to get used to Banks’ writing style (probably because I read a slightly more formal novel directly beforehand), it works reasonably well – with the informal elements also helping to reinforce the story’s atmosphere too.

As for length and pacing, this novel is an efficient 286 pages in length – however, this isn’t a self-contained story (so, it’s more like the first part of a longer novel). Likewise, as mentioned earlier, chapter one overloads the reader with characters and the cliffhanger ending is far too slow-paced. However, the pacing throughout the rest of the story is reasonably good.

All in all, whilst this novel isn’t without flaws, it is still fairly interesting. When it is at it’s best, this novel is as fun as watching a really cool TV show. The middle parts of this novel are dramatic, atmospheric and compelling. Yes, both the beginning and the ending are a bit weak – and the story isn’t even vaguely self-contained. But, these flaws aside, this novel still has some really good moments.

If I had to give “Minion” a rating out of five, it would just about get a four (even though, in some parts, it’s a solid four and a half and in other parts is more of a three and a half).

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Review: “Silent Hill 3” (PC Version) (Computer Game)

A few days before I originally wrote this review, I was in a nostalgic mood. In particular, I was nostalgic about a game that I played on the Playstation 2 when I was about sixteen – the one and only “Silent Hill 3”. But, since my PS2 sadly no longer works, I realised that it would be best to re-play this game on the PC.

But, although I’d found a demo of the PC version of this game on the internet a few years ago, copies of the full version were slightly on the pricey side of things. Not only that, at the time of writing, the game seems to be on neither GOG nor Steam. The only way to get this game is on DVD.

This DVD to be precise. Still, it’s good not to have to wait ages to download game data.

So, when I noticed that a second-hand copy of the game was going for about £13 (plus postage) on Amazon, I decided to splash out on it. So, let’s take a look at the PC port of “Silent Hill 3”:

Before I go any further, I should warn you that this review may contain some mild SPOILERS and GRUESOME/DISTURBING IMAGES.

Even the game itself warns you about this!

“Silent Hill 3” is a survival horror game from 2003. Although it can theoretically be played on it’s own, it is a direct sequel to the first “Silent Hill” game and the game’s story will make more sense if you’ve played that game.

Anyway, “Silent Hill 3” begins with a teenage girl called Heather finding herself trapped inside a rusty old fairground filled with nightmarish monsters. As she tries to escape the fairground by climbing a rollercoaster track, she is promptly run over by a carriage.

Waking up in a cafe in her local shopping centre, Heather is relieved to discover that it was nothing more than a nightmare. But, since it is getting late, she calls her father and begins to walk home – when she is startled by a rather dishevelled and dodgy-looking man who wants to talk to her.

After running away and hiding in the bathroom, she climbs through a window into a nearby alleyway and prepares to go home – only to discover that the alleyway has been blocked!

Luckily, a backdoor to the shopping centre is still open. So, she goes through it – only to notice that the centre is completely deserted and slightly gloomier than usual. Still, after a bit of searching, she finds a shop that is still open.

Well, that was lucky! I’m sure there’s nothing horrible in HERE!

When Heather enters the shop, she finds an unearthly monster feasting upon a mysterious corpse. Shocked and horrified, she looks around for a weapon and finds a mysterious pistol lying on the floor. Picking it up, she kills the creature and begins to explore the rest of the shopping centre. But, something isn’t right….

Oh right! This is a “Silent Hill” game! How could I forget?

One of the first things that I will say about “Silent Hill 3” is that it is a lot scarier than I remember! It could be because I’m less familiar with the horror genre than I used to be, or because I was playing it on the PC with headphones (rather than on a tiny TV screen) or even because I’m not comparing it to “Silent Hill 2“. But, this game is scary! It is a game that will make your heart pound at a hundred miles an hour and it will make you feel slightly jumpy for a while after you’ve finished playing.

The game’s horror works on so many levels. Not only is Heather a somewhat vulnerable character who has limited weapons, but the game has a uniquely dark and creepy atmosphere.

And this is one of the “safer” areas in the game!

Add to this all of the symbolism inherent in the monster design (more on that later), the game’s pacing, the sheer sense of bleakness throughout the game, the claustrophobic camera angles, an utterly terrifying soundtrack, some grisly location designs, some disturbing set pieces and a few well-placed jump scares and this is the kind of game that will leave you feeling at least mildly traumatised after you’ve played it.

But, the game’s main source of horror is probably suspense. A lot of the game will be spent nervously exploring dark buildings (and methodically checking everything in sight), with the camera carefully positioned to ensure that you never quite see everything around you at any one moment.

Not only that, when there’s a monster in the general vicinity, the game’s soundtrack changes slightly (with the creepy music varying depending on the monsters). So, you know that something is there, but you don’t know where.

So, there’s a lot of suspenseful running and/or nervously waiting for monsters to appear.

The game’s monsters are all suitably disturbing too. A lot of this has to do with the symbolism inherent in the monster design. Many of the monster designs revolve around the theme of disease – such as undead nurses, mosquito-like creatures, bandage-covered zombie dogs, giant tumour monsters etc..

This is pretty creepy in and of itself. But, more than this, at least a couple of the monsters in the game also have a somewhat phallic appearance – which adds an extra level of disturbing symbolism to the game.

Another thing that makes the monsters scarier is that you can’t fight them all. Not only does the game carefully ration the amount of ammunition it gives you, but even the game’s array of melee weapons aren’t that powerful (and you’ll probably end up getting hurt if you use them).

Since Heather isn’t a soldier or an action hero, the combat in the game reflects this fact by deliberately being slightly clunky and imprecise. So, expect to flee in terror more often than you draw your gun.

And, this emphasis on fleeing in terror is one reason why the classic “Silent Hill” games are scarier than the classic “Resident Evil” games are.

Unlike the open-world design of the previous two “Silent Hill” games, Silent Hill 3 has more of a level-based structure. However, since the levels themselves are non-linear areas that require exploration and puzzle-solving, this change doesn’t feel too limiting.

Not only that, this structure also helps to keep the game slightly more focused too. Even so, you do get to explore the town of Silent Hill a little bit in one later part of the game.

Ah, ominous fog! I’ve missed you! 🙂

The game’s puzzles are also reasonably sensible too – and they never quite reach “point and click game” levels of randomness (although they occasionally come close).

Best of all – if, like me, you’re terrible at puzzles – then the game even has separate difficulty settings for combat and puzzles. For the most part, I was able to solve the puzzles on my own – although I had to consult a walkthrough about five times whilst playing.

In terms of the lighting and location design, this game is magnificent! In addition to wonderfully gloomy lighting that is shadowy enough to be ominous, without being too dark to see anything – the game’s location designs are exquisitely creepy. As you would expect from a “Silent Hill” game, many of the locations appear in both a “normal” form and a dark, rusty, nightmarish, diseased and grisly “otherworld” form.

This is probably one of the least disturbing parts of the “otherworld”.

Plus, in addition to lots of nightmarish interior design, there are beautiful paintings too!

As always, this is absolutely terrifying. Not only that, like in previous “Silent Hill” games, even the “normal” versions of various locations will still feature creepy background details in order to ensure that there is little respite from the game’s unnerving terror.

For example, this place has seen better days!

One particularly outstanding location in this game is the “Boreley Haunted Mansion”. This is a carnival ghost house with a bit of a macabre twist to it, and a Vincent Price-style narrator who manages to be both hilarious and terrifying at the same time. Seriously, this small segment of the game is a perfect blend of old-school horror and more modern horror. However, it is followed by a somewhat frustrating running-based segment (but, more on that later).

Seriously, it’s only a small part of the game but it is brilliant! It’s classic 1950s-style horror with a grisly modern twist!

Although I don’t want to spoil the game’s story too much, I will point out that this game is a direct sequel to the original “Silent Hill”. But, the themes from that game are explored in a slightly different – and creepier way – with more emphasis on the horrors of religious fanaticism, more emphasis on the series’ backstory and a darkly memorable scene featuring a character from the first game.

On the plus side, there are some cool little references to the first two games, like this “Silent Hill 1”-style notebook.

The game’s writing and voice-acting is fairly good. Although some of the dialogue is a little bit on the melodramatic side, this works well with some of the game’s creepier characters (Vincent and Claudia spring to mind). However, some of the in-game text is slightly clunky – but in an endearing way. The voice-acting is surprisingly good too, with no glaring examples of “bad voice acting” or anything like that.

And, yes, the conversations with Claudia can be ridiculously melodramatic!

In terms of the controls, the PC port allows you to configure them to your own liking. Plus, it also contains two alternative movement schemes, with the “2D” option being very similar to the movement scheme in the classic “Resident Evil” games.

Yes, the movement in this game can take a bit of getting used to if you’ve never played a survival horror game before – but the slightly unwieldly controls and unusual camera angles are designed to impart a feeling of vulnerability and confusion. Most of the time, this works really well – although it is annoying as hell when you have to outrun a cloud of mist through a series of narrow corridors at one point in the game.

Seriously, it took me about seven attempts to get past this part of the game!

Best of all, the PC port of this game also includes a proper saving system. Although the save points from the original Playstation 2 version of the game are still there, the people behind this port have realised that this is a computer game and, in a good computer game, you can save (almost) anywhere. Seriously, this tiny change makes the game so much better!

Ha! I don’t need YOU any more, save point! You’re nothing more than a source of mood lighting now!

Another cool feature of this game is that, after you complete it, an “Extra New Game” mode is unlocked (which, depending on how well you play the game, can include extra weapons).

In addition to this, completing the game also unlocks an option to enter codes that allow you to unlock an array of alternate costumes – some of these codes can be found in-game, but there are also lists on the internet. Surprisingly though, some of the codes from the PS2 version (eg: the OPS2 magazine T-shirt code etc..) don’t seem to work in the PC version. Plus, you can also unlock an extra options menu that allows you to do things like change the blood colour, give yourself extra ammo etc.. So, this game has at least a slight amount of replay value.

Finally, I should probably mention the game’s amazing soundtrack. As I mentioned earlier, the game will play a different piece of disturbing music depending on which monsters happen to be nearby (eg: when zombie dogs are nearby, the music will include howling. When giant mosquitos are nearby, the music will include buzzing etc..).

This in-game music is, in a word, terrifying. It is also beautifully counterpointed with some hauntingly relaxing acoustic music during a number of cutscenes too. Seriously, the soundtrack in this game is an integral part of what makes “Silent Hill 3” so incredibly creepy!

All in all, this is pretty much a perfect horror game! Yes, there are a couple of slightly frustrating segments but the game is overwhelmingly brilliant. Best of all, the PC port is surprisingly well-made and runs really well on an ancient computer like mine, although I don’t know how it would handle on more modern PCs. Yes, this game is a little bit difficult to find these days – but it is well worth doing so! Just remember, don’t play it at night!

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get six hundred and sixty six.

Review: “Deus Ex: Invisible War [PC Version]” (Retro Computer Game)

Although the original “Deus Ex” is widely regarded as a masterpiece, it’s sequel from 2003 – “Deus Ex: Invisible War” – doesn’t seem to have gained this stellar reputation. So, when I saw that this game was on special offer on GoG last spring (it had been reduced to a little over £2), I just had to get a copy to see if it was really as bad as people have said that it is.

In short, it both is and isn’t a bad game. I’ll obviously go into more depth in the rest of the review. But, like with the original “Deus Ex”, it’s important to point out that you shouldn’t judge this game purely based on the early parts of it. However, unlike the first “Deus Ex” game, this sequel takes a lot longer to start turning into something a bit better.

That said, let’s take a look at “Deus Ex: Invisible War”. Needless to say, this review will contain some PLOT SPOILERS:

The events of “Deus Ex: Invisible War” take place two decades after the events of the first game. Regardless of the ending you chose in “Deus Ex”, a catastrophic event called “The Collapse” happens sometime between the ending of that game and the beginning of “Invisible War”.

This event sets technological progress further back, leading to the world becoming a less centralised place. Like in the original game, the world quickly ends up being run by a series of mysterious and secretive organisations (the WTO, the Order and the Templars).

The intro cinematic looks really cool, and wonderfully cyberpunk. The rest of the game, on the other hand…

The introduction to “Invisible War” begins with a nanotechnology-based terrorist attack that devastates Chicago. Luckily for you, you are many miles away in the Tarsus Academy training centre in Seattle.

You play as a nanotechnology-enhanced soldier called Alex D (you can choose whether you are male or female) who has been in training for years. However, the centre is soon attacked by armed terrorists and you have to escape….

Unfortunately, some of your fellow recruits don’t seem to have enhanced intelligence. Seriously, “more demolition”?

Once you escape the academy, you find yourself on the (mostly) grey and boring streets of Seattle, bombarded by messages from several competing organisations, all wanting you to do stuff for them….

And, yes, these messages can get in the way of the gameplay! Likewise, this is pretty much the only vaguely cyberpunk-looking area in the whole of the Seattle segment of the game.

Before I really get into all of the technical details of the game, I want to talk more about the story and the atmosphere. When you start playing this game, you’ll probably be wondering how this is a “Deus Ex” game.

Apart from the occasional info-dump in the dialogue, a few background details, a greasel or two, and several amusing pieces of wooden voice-acting, there seem to be barely any connections between this game and it’s predecessor. Don’t let this put you off!

This might look more like a low-budget episode of “Star Trek”, but keep playing and it will turn into a “Deus Ex” game… eventually.

Yes, you’ll have to wait a while, but I can assure you that this is very much a “Deus Ex” game when it comes to the story!

Even though the earlier and middle parts of the game often seem like a totally different game altogether, you’ll eventually start to see a few familiar faces and locations again. These are – by far- the best parts of the game! Yet, you’ll only see them for a few hours at most. Seriously, this game would have been so much better if the rest of it was more like those parts.

Yes, JC Denton is back! But, only after you’ve played several hours of what can sometimes seem like a totally different game!

Still, the new stuff isn’t entirely bad. Yes, the fictional world of the game is less expansive and atmospheric than the original “Deus Ex”, but there’s still a fair amount of complexity and detail here. Suddenly being thrown into a confusing web of clandestine politics near the beginning of the game helps to give the game a conspiratorial cyberpunk atmosphere in a much more vivid way than in in the original “Deus Ex”.

Likewise, the game still includes a lot of interesting background details. Yes, the in-game documents are a lot shorter and the locations are often smaller or simpler, but there’s still a lot of background stuff. There are two competing coffee chains (who turn out to be run by the same company), there’s a famous pop star called NG Resonance who also exists as a friendly AI construct who will reward you for giving information to the authorities (although, if you meet her later in the game, the actual NG Resonance acts exactly like you’d expect a rich pop star to – which is hilarious!) etc…

Interestingly, if you don’t explore, you can go through the whole game thinking that NG Resonance is just a friendly hologram..

Rather than a thoroughly annoying celebrity.

Still, at the beginning, it’s a game that will barely feel like a “proper” cyberpunk game, let alone a “Deus Ex” game. But, as it goes on, it gradually becomes more like the cyberpunk “Deus Ex” game that it should have been from the very beginning.

Anyway, onto the technical details and the gameplay…

One of the very first things that I should say about this game is that it was primarily designed for consoles. What this means is that certain aspects of the gameplay have been simplified slightly (which is both a good and a bad thing) and that the various areas of the game are split up into smaller segments that cause a loading screen to appear between them.

Whilst these segments aren’t quite as tiny as some reviewers might have you believe (and some of them are relatively large), they’re a far cry from the vast expansive levels of the original “Deus Ex”.

From what I’ve read on Wikipedia, this is mostly because the designers created artificial parity between the Xbox and PC versions of this game – so, the game is coded to only use 64mb of RAM. There don’t seem to be any mods on the internet that can correct this defect either. So, the loading screens can take longer than you expect:

Yes, you’ll get used to THESE after a while. But, they can be frustrating at first, especially if you’ve played the original game.

Likewise, one thing that I noticed when I started playing “Invisible War” is that it’s surprisingly demanding for a game from 2003. After all, the vintage mid-2000s computer (1.8ghz single core, 2gb RAM, GeForce 6100) I played this game on can run games like “Doom 3”, “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines“, “Far Cry”, “Red Faction II“, “Quake 4”, “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey” and “Half Life 2” on low graphics settings perfectly well. Yet, even with the settings turned down to minimum, this game ran slightly sluggishly during quite a few parts. However, it was still just about playable.

Anyway, in terms of the gameplay, it’s relatively close to the original “Deus Ex”. In other words, it’s an action/role-playing game that is played from a first-person perspective. But, whilst the gameplay is strongly reminiscent of the original “Deus Ex”, there’s less versatility in many areas. It’s kind of like “Deus Ex lite”, which is cool – but it might temporarily annoy you if you are a fan of the original game.

On the plus side, the multi-tools now have a vaguely “Harry Potter”-like animation. Expelliarmus!

For example, whilst there are sometimes multiple ways of doing the same thing (eg: bypassing a door by using a multi-tool, climbing through a vent or finding a key etc..), there don’t seem to be as many as there were in “Deus Ex”.

You also still have nanotechnolgy-based abilities that can be upgraded and chosen (plus, unlike in “Deus Ex”, the repair bots/medical bots have no recharge time). Likewise, although you can still find hidden stuff by exploring – there aren’t as many places to explore.

Still, you can sometimes find interesting places if you explore, like this dubious underground greasel fighting arena.

Plus, although you often get coflicting objectives (in addition to a fair number of optional side-quests), you can switch your allegiances fairly often during the game and, until the later parts of the game, there isn’t really a sense that you have to follow one path.

In some ways, this is actually a good thing though – since the predominant emotion in the early parts of the game is a confused sense of not knowing who to trust. So, the lack of a firm allegiance system is a forgiving way to let players make their own decisions. Plus, of course, it adds replay value to the game too.

However, the game will sometimes channel you along a particular path. For example, I’d originally planned to ignore the WTO chairman’s orders. But, you have to follow them here in order to progress easily.

The most significant gameplay change is probably to the ammunition system. Basically, all of your weapons share a single pool of universal ammunition. This is both a good and a bad thing.

On the one hand, it can easily result in you running out of ammo in the middle of a fight. However, when you get your hands on the more powerful weapons (eg: the sniper rifle and/or rocket launcher), it also means that ammo is a lot more plentiful. But, fallen enemies have a habit of falling on top of any ammunition that they drop – which means that picking up extra ammo in during or after a battle can be a little bit annoying.

Even so, if you use the sniper rifle, then you’ll be able to fight from a distance – especially since, if you aim it properly, it will one-shot most enemies who aren’t wearing heavy armour.

In addition to this, one good gameplay change is the fact that – when someone gives you a passcode – the game stores and uses it automatically. One of the frustrating things about the original “Deus Ex” was having to physically write down lots of 3-5 digit passcodes (or trawl through in-game menus to find records of them). So, this change is extremely welcome 🙂

Plus, although this game was originally designed for consoles, it has a proper saving system too … and none of that modern “checkpoint saving” rubbish 🙂 Plus, even more joyously, the only “regenerating health” you get in this game is an upgradable special ability that costs resources every time you use it.

However, the combat in this game can be clunky at times. Although this is something that you’ll probably get used to after playing for a while, don’t expect this to be a slick, intuitive FPS game with totally accurate aiming and perfect AI.

Still, you CAN use this to your advantage sometimes. If you climb a ladder, not only will any pursuing foes not follow you, but they also won’t think to shoot upwards at you either.

Whilst the original “Deus Ex” excused the few deficiencies of it’s combat system by occasionally encouraging the player to take a pacifist path, there isn’t really much of this in “Invisible War” (you get a few non-lethal weapons and there are some basic stealth mechanics, but that’s about it). The only example I can think of is possibly one part of the game which seems like a stealth segment at first, but the objective requires you to “neutralise” some troops guarding a plane.

Still, if like me, you loathe and despise stealth segments in games, the fact that this area is more “use tactics” than “use stealth” is wonderful 🙂

In terms of the graphics, this game is fairly decent for something from the early-mid 2000s. But, the improved graphics aren’t taken advantage of as often as they should be. What I mean by this is that although “Invisible War” contains some really cool lighting and a few awesome-looking cyberpunk areas, these are relatively few and far between. A lot of the game takes place in generic buildings, city streets etc… Likewise, thanks to the limitations of the level size and level complexity, don’t expect to see anything too expansive or dramatic.

Yes, there’s a very short Hong Kong-based segment. But, looking at the city through a window is as close as you’re going to get to it.

And, sometimes, the game looks as cool as THIS 🙂

But, the locations willl also sometimes look as dull as THIS too 😦

In terms of the voice acting and music, this game is acceptable. The game’s soundtrack is nowhere near as distinctive or memorable as the soundtrack from the original “Deus Ex”, but it isn’t exactly bad either. The voice-acting varies a bit and can sometimes be a little bit wooden, although this is part of the charm of the classic “Deus Ex” games.

All in all, this is one of those games that is something of an acquired taste. No, it isn’t as good as “Deus Ex”. But, the fact that they tried to make a “lite” version of the game that will run on early 2000s consoles is absolutely adorable. So, I have to applaud the effort, even though the PC version should have received more love (eg: resolving the RAM allocation limit problem I mentioned earlier)

Yes, there are a lot of clunky elements to this game. But, no, you shouldn’t judge it by the first few hours. The later parts of this game are actually good, even if you have to trawl through a fair amount of the game to get to them. Even so, if you can get used to this game’s many flaws, then there is a good game lurking in there. Or at least a “so bad that it’s good” game. So, it’s probably worth waiting until it goes on special offer before buying it.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.

Partial Review: “Alien Shooter: Complete Pack” (Computer Game)

2017-artwork-alien-shooter-review-sketch

A while ago, I reviewed a game called “Zombie Shooter“. This game made me curious about a similar game called “Alien Shooter” – so, I decided to check that out too.

Like with “Zombie Shooter” (and a few other games I may review in the future), this game was on sale on GOG at the time of originally writing this review. So, it only cost me 99p. I think that it’s about five quid at full price.

As the title suggests, this is only a partial review. Basically, I’ve played this game for a couple of days and am completely stuck still grappling with a particularly challenging level.

Yes, this really ISN’T one of those easy modern games…

So, this is more than just a “first impressions” article and less than a full review, if that makes sense.

Like with my “Zombie Shooter” review, I should probably warn you that this review contains (unrealistic) GRUESOME IMAGES/ BLOODY IMAGES. But, if you think that the game looks too gory, then it apparently also contains a “green blood” option too.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Alien Shooter”:
alien-shooter-logo

“Alien Shooter” is a 1990s-style third-person action game from 2003. The story behind the game is pretty simple, a facility has been overrun with alien creatures and it is up to you to shoot them all. Like all great retro action games, the gameplay matters a lot more than the story.

Before I shower effusive praise on the gameplay, I should probably preface this with the caveat that I started playing this game shortly after completing “Zombie Shooter”. In other words, I’d already had a lot of practice with the controls and was totally used to the slightly strange isometric perspective that the game uses. Because of this previous practice, playing “Alien Shooter” was almost intuitive to me.

However, if you’re new to this game, then the controls and the perspective can take a bit of getting used to. It’s worth getting used to them, but it can be a little annoying at first.

That said, this game is the perfect example of how to make an action game! After the eerily empty first level, the aliens come at you thick and fast, the weapons pack a mighty punch and – once you get the minigun – you’ll feel like you’re Ripley from “Aliens”!

Seriously, a game hasn't made me feel THIS badass in ages!

Seriously, a game hasn’t made me feel THIS badass in ages!

If you want to feel like a badass, play this game! Seriously, despite being older than “Zombie Shooter”, it surpasses that game in so many ways.

For example, it also includes a turret section. However, instead of just remotely controlling the turret from a distance, you actually get to sit inside it. Plus, if I remember rightly, the screen actually judders dramatically whenever you fire the turret.

YES!! Why wasn't this in "Zombie Shooter"? It would have been even MORE epic!

YES!! Why wasn’t this in “Zombie Shooter”? It would have been even MORE epic!

Since it is a slightly older game, “Alien Shooter” contains fewer RPG elements than “Zombie Shooter” does. Whilst you can still choose from two characters at the start of the game, there’s no weapon upgrade system and your character’s stats can’t be upgraded as many times. However, this actually works really well. Because the weapons can’t be upgraded, they have to be more powerful from the moment you get them.

Plus, the novelty weapon in this game is a Duke 3D-style freeze gun. It looks cool, but it isn't worth wasting credits on.

Plus, the novelty weapon in this game is a “Duke 3D”-style freeze gun. It looks cool, but it isn’t worth wasting credits on.

Yes, there’s still resource management between missions, which adds some strategy to the game. But, unfortunately, this game still uses the dreaded checkpoint saving (and lives system). However, since there are fewer options available between missions, you have to be a lot more careful with your choice of weapons and items. This is both good and bad.

Yes, like in "Zombie Shooter", what you do on this screen can make the difference between success and failure.

Yes, like in “Zombie Shooter”, what you do on this screen can make the difference between success and failure.

For example, at the time of writing, I’m stuck on a level because I only found about 30,000 credits during the previous level (and, thanks to the saving system, there’s no quick way to go back and replay it).

This means that, every time I start the level, I have to choose between giving my character the most powerful weapon in the game (but less armour, running speed, accuracy and lives), or giving my character a lot more armour and better stats, albeit with weaker weapons.

Since this level is crammed with powerful monsters, it’s the kind of level where having any kind of weakness will doom you to almost certain failure.

Yes, this level may actually cross the line from "enjoyably challenging" to "borderline unfair"!

Yes, this level may actually cross the line from “enjoyably challenging” to “borderline unfair”!

This brings me on to the difficulty – this game is even more challenging than “Zombie Shooter”. But, it contains a better difficulty curve. Even so, the better variety of monster types means that the combat in “Alien Shooter” is a lot less repetitive and monotonous than it was in “Zombie Shooter”.

For example, in one of the earlier levels, you run into various types of palette-swapped alien insects. The green ones are just generic cannon fodder monsters. However, the yellow ones will quickly cover the ground in pools of radioactive acid. They’re kind of like the “Spitter” monsters from a game that came out six years after this one called “Left 4 Dead 2“.

This might not seem like a powerful attack but, since you’ll be fighting large numbers of these monsters, it’s often easy to forget that you’re standing in an acid pool if you try to fight them in the same way as you would fight the green ones. So, you actually have to use different tactics (eg: running backwards whilst firing the grenade launcher, rather than just standing in the middle of a group of monsters and using the minigun).

In terms of length, this game seems to be better than “Zombie Shooter”. Since at least one level is ultra-difficult, even by the standards of an experienced gamer like myself, you’re likely to be spending a lot more time with this game. Plus, the version available on GOG also features two expansion packs too (“Fight For Life” and “Experiment”).

I’ve only had a brief chance to check these out but, although they have cool-looking text-based introductory cutscenes, they both seem to be slightly flawed.

Yes, the intro to "Experiment" might look cool, but...

Yes, the intro to “Experiment” might look cool, but…

I got stuck on the second level of “Fight For Life” because there seemed to be nowhere to place the dynamite you find in an early part of the level. Likewise, the first level of “Experiment” throws too many monsters at you when you are armed with nothing more than a pistol and a shotgun.

 I got stuck on this level in "Fight For Life" because of a possibly missing dynamite point, rather than because of the combat. I'm not sure if this was just a glitch or not though.

I got stuck on this level in “Fight For Life” because of a possibly missing dynamite point, rather than because of the combat. I’m not sure if this was just a glitch or not though.

In terms of music, this game has a fairly good soundtrack, mostly consisting of the kind of heavy and fast-paced metal and/or synth music you would expect in a sci-fi action game. Plus, if you get the game on GOG, you’ll also get a MP3 copy of the soundtrack (which also includes the menu theme to “Zombie Shooter” as a bonus).

However, and this might just be my old computer, but the MP3 tracks refused to play on my old version of Windows Media Player (although they played perfectly in VLC Media Player). This could just be a technical issue, or it could be a DRM issue of some kind.

This game’s code also seems to be more stable than “Zombie Shooter” too. In other words, I was able to minimise the game (whilst it was running/paused) quite a few times, without my computer freezing up.

All in all, this game is almost a perfect action game. Yet, even experienced gamers are likely to get stuck on the more difficult later levels. Plus, the controls/perspective can take a bit of getting used to too.

But, these problems aside, this is what an action game should be. It’s the kind of game that makes you feel like a badass when you’re playing it. It’s the kind of game that forces you to play strategically. It’s an almost perfect action game, which comes close to the high standard set by the classic “Doom” games.

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

Review: “Red Faction II [PC Version]” (Retro Computer Game)

2016 Artwork Red Faction II Review sketch

Although I have very fond memories of playing the Playstation 2 version of “Red Faction II” when I was a teenager, I’d almost forgotten about this game until earlier this year when I saw that the PC version of this game was on special offer on GOG. Out of sheer nostalgia, I bought a copy within an hour of seeing it.

During the sale, the game cost about two quid and this is probably what I’d recommend paying for this game (for reasons I’ll explain at the end of this review). So, it’s probably a good idea to wait until it goes on offer again. At the time of writing, this game also seems to be available on Steam for a slightly lower price than the full-price GOG version, however it also comes with all of Steam’s DRM too.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Red Faction II”:

2016 Red Faction II Main menu with bot match

“Red Faction II” is a dystopian science fiction FPS game that was originally released for the Playstation 2 in 2002 (with the PC port being released in 2003). Although it is supposedly a sequel to “Red Faction“, you don’t need to have played that game first since it’s almost a completely different game.

In “Red Faction II”, you play as Alias, a demolitions expert in a team of nanotechnology-enhanced super soldiers that serve under the command of a Stalin-like dictator called Sopot. However, after a few years, Sopot becomes suspicious of the super soldiers and orders them killed.

Fortunately, Alias and the rest of the team are able to escape execution and they decide to ally themselves with the Red Faction, a group of rebels who are waging a civil war against Sopot’s government….

Although the premise of the game sounds slightly generic, there’s a surprising amount of complexity in the game’s story. Yes, it can’t exactly be compared to a novel – or even a TV show – but, for a FPS game from the early 2000s, the story is slightly more complex than you might think. However, I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers.

I have a lot to say about this game, so I’ll start by talking about the things I loved about this game and then I’ll talk about all of it’s flaws. There are a lot of things in each category, so I’ll split this review into two segments.

The Good Things About “Red Faction II”:

One thing that I really love about this game is it’s atmosphere. Although there are at least few generic “military base”/ “dreary factory” levels, some of the levels have a very distinctive cyberpunk aesthetic to them that reminded me of a cross between “Tron” and “Blade Runner”:

Yay! An ominous-looking laboratory :)

Yay! An ominous-looking laboratory 🙂

It may be a brutal dictatorship, but it also looks like "Blade Runner". Every cloud DOES have a silver lining, I guess.

It may be a brutal dictatorship, but it also looks like “Blade Runner”. Every cloud DOES have a silver lining, I guess.

The range of weapons in “Red Faction II” is surprisingly good too. Although this game includes a few boringly “realistic” guns, many of the weapons on offer here are of the futuristic variety and they all look, sound and feel really great.

The weapon that you’ll probably be using the most is the “NICW” – a futuristic assault rifle that also contains a powerful grenade launcher. Since it’s extremely useful at both short and long ranges, you’ll probably just end up ignoring all of the other weapons once you find it.

Not only is the NICW useful during normal gameplay, but it's secondary fire can also come in handy during boss battles too.

Not only is the NICW useful during normal gameplay, but it’s secondary fire can also come in handy during boss battles too.

Plus, unlike many other FPS games, “Red Faction II” contains a ridiculous number of weapons. One of the advantages of playing classic FPS games on the PC is that you can use the number keys to switch between weapons. Well, in “Red Faction II”, you’ll also have to use several punctuation keys to select weapons too. And that’s not even including the 4-5 types of grenades that you’ll find throughout the game. Seriously, I cannot fault the weapons in this game.

As for the enemies, they’re moderately interesting. Since this game came from the tail end of the time when FPS games were at their best, there is some actual creativity here. Although you’ll spend the first few levels fighting generic “enemy soldier” enemies, you’ll soon also be facing robots (large and small), evil “nano elite” super-soldiers and two types of zombies.

Yes, they’re technically nanotechnology-enhanced corpses but, well, zombies!:

Yay! It's a known fact that the presence of the undead automatically makes any FPS game about ten times as fun :)

Yay! It’s a known fact that the presence of the undead automatically makes any FPS game about ten times as fun 🙂

In addition to this, the game also contains several challenging boss battles too. Does anyone else remember when FPS games used to include these? Although these battles can occasionally become frustrating due to some poor elements of the game’s design (which I’ll discuss later), they mostly provide an enjoyable challenge where you’ll have to think carefully about the tactics that you use.

This game also includes several vehicle segments too. Although I’m normally opposed to vehicle segments in FPS games, most of these segments are fairly good (especially those where you get to use a giant suit of battle armour). However, the segment where you control a gun on an aircraft plays like an on-rails shooter rather than a FPS game, which can be confusing at first. However, as I’ll explain in the other half of this review, one of the game’s other vehicle sections isn’t so good.

Another good thing about this game is the excellent voice acting. A few seconds after you see the main menu, you will be greeted by a thunderous speech from Sopot which really sets the tone for the game. Seriously, it’s something that you won’t forget – and will probably be able to recite parts from memory after listening to it a few times. Not only that, there are also a couple of famous names amongst the voice cast too:

Lance Henriksen AND Jason Statham :)

Lance Henriksen AND Jason Statham 🙂

Plus, as a single-player gamer, one thing I loved about the PC port of this game is that fact that instead of a multiplayer mode (that I’ll never use), the game only includes a “bot match” mode, where you can play deathmatch, capture the flag etc… games against the computer 🙂

The bot match system includes a classic-style health system and several unlockable levels. However, those expecting an online or local  multiplayer mode will be disappointed.

The bot match system includes a classic-style health system and several unlockable levels. However, those expecting an online or local multiplayer mode will be disappointed.

Since you’ll unlock extra content for it (as well as several movie/ model/ concept art galleries) as you progress through the main game, it has even more replay value than you might expect. However, if you’re a multiplayer gamer, the lack of local or online multiplayer will probably be a critical flaw rather than an awesome feature.

The Bad Things About “Red Faction II”:

Despite all of my praise for this game, it is not without a litany of serious flaws. Most of these problems stem from the fact that this game is very obviously primarily designed for consoles. These are things that I didn’t notice much when I was a naive PS2 (and PC) playing teenager but, as a more seasoned retro FPS PC gamer, they stand out from a mile away.

The first of these problems is that this game uses the dreaded checkpoint saving. Yes, I can see why this was done for practical reasons on consoles, but there’s no excuse whatsoever for it in PC games. And, as if to taunt you further, the game contains a “save game” option in the in-game menu, which only allows you to re-save your latest checkpoint.

This problem is compounded by the fact that many of the boss battles are preceded by unskippable cutscenes which you’ll have to re-watch every time that you die. And, this will probably happen again and again and again….. Seriously, I pretty much memorised the dialogue in the cutscene before the final boss battle.

This (approximately one minute-long) cutscene is permanently seared into my brain, thanks to a combination of checkpoint saving and the fact that it is totally unskippable!

This (approximately one minute-long) cutscene is permanently seared into my brain, thanks to a combination of checkpoint saving and the fact that it is totally unskippable!

In addition to checkpoint saving, this game also includes a limited form of *ugh* regenerating health. Since the original version of this game was released in 2002, the rot hadn’t fully set in yet, so you’ll still be able to collect health power-ups. However, these serve as more of a “lives” system and you lose one of them whenever your short regenerating health bar runs out.

Ironically, the “bot match” mode includes a proper non-regenerating health system, so I don’t see why this couldn’t have been added to the main game as well.

Plus, despite carrying the “Red Faction” name, this game has barely any links to the previous game. In fact, even the really cool “geo mod” system in the first game (that allowed you to destroy almost everything in the game) has been reduced to a few specific pre-determined desctructible items, walls and areas. I really don’t understand why this unique and distinctive feature was mostly removed in the second game. I mean, it was one of the things that made the original “Red Faction” stand out so much.

Not only that, there are only a few very easily-missed token references to the first game here:

Wow, I never that that I'd actually be happy to see the logo of the nefarious Ultor Mining Corporation....

Wow, I never that that I’d actually be happy to see the logo of the nefarious Ultor Mining Corporation….

The level design in “Red Faction II” is also more “modern” than classic too. What I mean by this is that many of the levels are of the highly linear variety. Yes, there are a few non-linear parts and a few cool hidden areas to find but – for the most part – there isn’t really much room for exploration. You just carry on walking along the one fixed path that the game designers have told you to follow.

This bridge may look cool, but it also sums up the design of a lot of the levels.

This bridge may look cool, but it also sums up the design of a lot of the levels.

This level is quite literally just a shooting gallery.

This level is quite literally just a shooting gallery.

Even though I’m not really much of an options nerd, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that, apart from re-bindable keys and a few gameplay options, the “options” menu is fairly limited. You can’t change the screen resolution or do many of the things that you would expect in a PC game. Still, since it’s from 2002-3, this game will run smoothly on even fairly old PCs (like mine).

Although the game’s progamming is fairly stable and reliable, I had one “shout at the screen in frustration” moment when a glitch prevented me from completing a particularly difficult boss battle. After several attempts, I’d finally completed the first half of the battle and I was moving to the second half when….

 ... I got stuck in a door. I'd just spent the past five minutes fighting a difficult boss... Oh well, back to the last checkpoint to do it all over again !!!

… I got stuck in a door. I’d just spent the past five minutes fighting a difficult boss… Oh well, back to the last checkpoint to do it all over again !!!

The absolute worst part of the game by far is, of course, the submarine section.

Many of the vehicle segments in this game are fast-paced and thrilling… and then you have to spend some time aboard a … well, I can’t think of an insult strong enough to describe it … submarine. Not only does this decrepit rust-bucket handle like a slow-moving brick (unlike the enemy submarines that will be shooting you and the homing mines scattered on the ground below you), but it’s weapons are slow-firing and inaccurate too.

 I'm not a religious person but, in the very unlikely event that hell exists, all of the computer games there probably look like this one level!

I’m not a religious person but, in the very unlikely event that hell exists, all of the computer games there probably look like this one level!

As if that wasn’t bad enough, you’ll be spending these parts of the game navigating murky underwater caverns. In fact, once you’ve completed the objective in the last part of the submarine level, you then have the fun task of finding the submarine bay that will allow you to finally leave this despicable crime against gaming behind you. Forever.

Of course, the submarine bay doors are not clearly lit or clearly marked. In fact, they’re hidden in a part of the level that doesn’t even obey the laws of physics! In one part of the level, there are several thin metal platforms (that are thinner than the submarine) protruding from a rock. If you try to land on top of them, as any sensible person would, nothing will happen. Instead, you have to go underneath one of these thin platforms… to surface inside a large indoor facility that is obviously directly above the thin metal platform that you just landed on top of twenty minutes ago! AAAARGH!!!!

Conclusion:

All in all, this game is a real mixed bag. For every wonderfully cool thing about it, there is also something absolutely terrible. Although I miss the days when I could be naively nostalgic about this game, re-playing it wasn’t an entirely bad experience. As such, I’d recommend waiting until this game goes on sale before you buy it (or, even better, buying the first “Red Faction” game instead).

Even so, there’s a lot of fun to be had here, if you’re willing to put up with some extremely frustrating moments and console-centric PC game design.

If I had to give this game a rating out of five, it would maybe get a three.