Thursday 8 November 2012

Innovation is the whim of an elite

You wait all day for a Kickstarter revival of a classic space combat franchise, and then two come along at the same time… Though Egosoft’s X series has been manfully plugging away at galaxy-spanning trade and combat with regular releases since 1999 it never seems to have caught the imagination quite like Elite, so it’ll be interesting to see what Braben & co. come up with. I haven’t chipped in myself yet, as I have to admit to being a touch skeptical after the problems with the two Frontier games and lengthy gestation period of Elite IV (and I’m not sure about Dangerous as a subtitle; I would’ve gone for Elite: Competent, or Elite: Mostly Harmless for preference). Still, fingers crossed they pull it off.

Perhaps inspired by all the space-combat-ness, when I noticed had bunch of EA games on sale I bought Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom. Despite the first two being formative PC gaming experiences I’d never played the latter games in the series, so I thought I’d rememdy that, especially as the price of freedom turned out to be $2.39 in the sale. The FMV sequences haven’t aged too badly; sure they’re a bit blocky and low resolution, but in this age of YouTube, mobile phone camera footage and streaming video over not-terribly-fast broadband that’s not terribly jarring. The opening goes on a bit when you’re itching to get into the cockpit and fly (yada yada, retired, farming, bar-room thug, get on with it) but eventually you get into space, and at that point the graphics do rather show their age. Not just the graphics; spoiled by the ubiquity of tutorials in modern games, I’d forgotten than back in Ye Olde Days of 1995 you had these strange artefacts, “manuals” I think they were called, that somehow offered guidance in the forms of “words” printed on “paper”. Course I hadn’t bothered downloading the PDF versions of the manuals, but not to worry, I remembered an ancient technique practised by those who may, entirely hypothetically, have swapped games on tapes or discs without accompanying documentation: the art of pressing every key on the keyboard to see if something happened. And that, as I told the board of enquiry, is why, at the time of the attack by enemy fighters, I was looking out of the left window of the ship with the engines set to 25% power, the windscreen wipers going furiously, and the on-board drinks dispenser midway through producing a cup of synth-Bovril.

Eventually quitting the game (in prehistoric times the convention of pressing ‘Escape’ to bring up a menu hadn’t been standardised) I went off and downloaded the supporting bits and pieces from, but I’m not sure I’ll be rushing back. Despite the moment of madness in buying WCIV (at least I managed to resist getting the complete Ultima series at the same time) I’ve got a pile of games of more modern vintage to work through; British tanks in World of Tanks (a weekend of x5 XP and some bonus Premium time catapulted me through to Tier IV and a Matilda and Covenanter), Unity of Command (a well-reviewed operational level wargame that was recently added to Steam), Mass Effect 3 multiplayer challenges, Civilisation 5… Having finished one complete play-through of Borderlands 2 (and started a “True Vault Hunter” second run, plus a couple of other characters) I’ve decided to park it up and perhaps return to it once a few DLC packs are out, so I finally got around to the new XCOM game. In contrast to WCIV there is an extensive tutorial, taking you through just about every aspect of both the strategic and tactical game. It’s hardly “dumbing down”, though, the original UFO: Enemy Unknown had a step-by-step introduction in the manual that I can still (very dimly) remember, XCOM just integrates it into the game itself, and adds characters like your Chief Scientist and Engineer to present the information in-universe. Incidentally, with graphics technology coming on in leaps and bounds from the weird triangular people of the early 90s such that the visuals of cut-scenes no longer need the talents of Mark “Voice of “Luke “Christopher “Maverick” Blair” Skywalker” the Joker” Hamill and Thomas F. “Biff from Back “Todd “Maniac” Marshall” to the Future” Wilson, it seems a touch odd that computer-generated voices haven’t made a similar level of progress from the text-to-speech software that was so much fun with the original SoundBlaster; is it a much more difficult field, or just less costly to get someone in a booth recording dialogue so less impetus to the research?

XCOM seems thoroughly splendid, as most reviews have suggested a worthy update of a classic, and leaving it a while may have been a good idea as I haven’t hit any major bugs yet, possibly thanks to a couple of patches since release. Half the fun is always naming your squad after friends, family, bloggers, film stars etc.; so far I’ve gone with Ramsay “Chopper” MacDonald leading his cabinet from the Second National Ministry, 1st “Viscount” Hailsham proving a dab hand with a sniper rifle, and Philip “RightHon” Cunliffe-Lister extending his brief to specialise in live alien capture. I’m just hoping their rearmament policy isn’t too late…

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