Archive for the 'Shooter' Category

Gromada: Crash Investigation

OK, I’m having technical problems with Gromada. There’s one level that consistently crashes to the desktop. It doesn’t do it immediately, and it doesn’t do it at a consistent time, but I can’t get through the level without a crash, regardless of what I do. The level does do some peculiar things that I haven’t seen happen on other maps — specifically, it involves a bunch of pre-damaged enemy tanks, and a repair center that will eventually give one of them a key as it repairs it. I can believe that this construct somehow gets into an untenable state when multiple tanks try to access it at once, or something like that. But this speculation doesn’t help me much. I don’t have a fix or a workaround.

I do, however, have an error log. It isn’t terribly informative about the problem, though. It mainly just seems to be a bunch of diagnostic print statements that got left in the release, lots of “sprite free” and “Beginner curclock=27106024” and the like. There’s one line that gives me pause, though: “SND::Can’t control CdAudio volume”. CDAudio? Is this game supposed to be playing CD music? There’s some evidence to support this. I hadn’t been getting any kind of background music during the missions; the only music I had heard in the game was a jolly jingle on winning levels. And yet, the options menu contains a music volume slider, which doesn’t seem to affect that jingle at all.

Well. I tried playing the disc in Windows Media Player, but it didn’t recognize it as having audio tracks. Perhaps my current system just doesn’t recognize audio CDs at all? It’s been quite a while since I last used one. But no, I tried one out and it worked fine. Perhaps it’s just hybrid audio/CD-ROM discs that give it trouble? It took me a while to locate a disc in my collection that I knew to be a hybrid — I know I have several, but I’ve forgotten which ones they are. The only one I could think of was Spirit of Excalibur, a game which uses CD-audio tracks for NPC speech and rather memorably starts the speech tracks with every insult to the player character in the game. Yes, a memorable game, but not a memorable name, so it still took me a while to find it. Anyway, the system handled it just fine. So unless Gromada uses some weird audio format that later operating systems don’t recognize, it looks like there aren’t any audio tracks on the disc. Perhaps the original Russian version was different. At any rate, I’m going to assume that this isn’t actually the cause of the crash.

The crash doesn’t actually stop my progress entirely. After you’re a few levels in, Gromada makes two levels available at once, and after that, three. This doesn’t seem to be a branching structure, but rather just a choice of ordering. Still, this means I could keep on playing other levels. But I’m discouraged now, and I don’t want to bother finishing any more levels until my problems are resolved. Which may never happen: this is a game with basically no web presence, and nary a patch. I’ve found a few cheat codes, but those seem to be the only words anyone has to say about it. Bethesda customer support acknowledges its existence, but only just barely.


Somehow, this didn't look quite so brown in the actual game.As with every post these days, I’m posting this a few days late. It was when I was playing the Lexaloffle retro-styled games that I started thinking about playing something from the stack that came by that style more sincerely. I’m not sure why Gromada is the one that stuck in my head. Heck, I’m not sure why I even own it. Probably because it was cheap and in an eye-catching, colorful package. At least it still installs and runs without problems.

Gromada is an isometric sci-fi tank game from Russia. It seems to go out of its way to emphasize its nation of origin, in fact, as if to appeal to all those Red Alert fans who instinctively associate Russia with massive supertanks. (And yes, it was released at about the right time for this to be a plausible factor.) I’m not sure this is the case, though. The two chief things that suggest conscious russification are the way that the opening animation displays the logo as “Громада” at first, and the way that the mission briefings are often awkwardly translated, with not enough articles. But the former could just be a matter of Bethesda (who published the game in America) not wanting to spend the money to redo the animation from the beginning, and the latter could just be plain ordinary cheap-videogame bad translation.

Everything, including vegetation, is rendered with a plasticky Gouraud-shaded sheen, as if it’s all toys — and the canary yellow paint favored by the enemy emphasizes this more. I’ll say this: the vehicles rotate remarkably smoothly for a sprite-based game. Presumably a lot of time and effort was devoted to this, an effect that we get trivially in the age of 3D.

Your supertank can be controlled from either mouse or keyboard. The keyboard controls are avatar-relative — “tank controls”, as they’re sometimes called. This is at least appropriate to the context, but I much prefer the mouse, which is a simple click-to-go-here system, complemented by click-to-fire-here on the other mouse button. (This is the sort of tank game that lets you rotate your turret independently of your direction of movement.) This still has its problems, mind. You can hold down the fire button to keep on continuously firing at a single point (as long as your ammo holds out, anyway), but, inconsistently, you can’t hold down the go button to continuously update where you’re moving. Also, tanks need to move in a circle in order to turn, and the mouse doesn’t give you direct control over which direction you’re circling in; for small turns, it’ll choose the most direct way, but if you suddenly have to go back the way you just came, you can wind up bumping into perfectly avoidable walls. Still, the click-to-move system lets you essentially set your tank on autopilot so that it doesn’t stay still while you concentrate on shooting at things, and that’s pretty nice.

It strikes me that it’s been a while since I played a game with printed documentation. The manual for this game, while pamphlet-sized, is surprisingly thick, given the game’s fundamental simplicity, but it turns out to be mostly occupied with an illustrated backstory. The portion devoted to the game basically just summarizes the menus and the controls, not even giving the rundown of enemies and pickups that, say, its fellow tank game Combat (2001) does. Note that Combat was released a mere two years after Gromada, and furthermore is deliberately retro, even to the point of containing limited lives, but it seems ages closer to modern design sensibilities all the same.

Orcs Must Die!: Story and Character

Just as the UI in Orcs Must Die! manages to get along without a lot of explanation, so too does the story. You start off in the middle of an emergency that doesn’t require world-building to be intelligible, and most of what you learn about your situation later on comes from offhand comments rather than cutscenes and similar infodumps. The story’s major turn, the revelation that the orcs are being organized by some external force, is foreshadowed by some of the orcs’ random shouts: in addition to expected cries of “Kill the humans!” and such, they occasionally say things like “Yes, mistress!” and “Get out of my head!”. Just as well — when the game does finally does start to provide exposition in the form of psychic dialogue between the PC and the sorceress who’s driving the horde, it’s often drowned out by the background music and the clamor of battle.

Now, the game’s formal properties impose certain things on the story. You’re playing a character who physically exists in the gameworld, who has a location and and has to run around tending to emergencies wherever they crop up. At the same time, you’re basically acting alone. There are guardians and weavers, sure, but you’re the only war mage, and that means you have to both set up and execute the defense of every route to the rift in each and every fortress, even the ones that are clearly set up to be optimally guarded by teams of two or four people. Why it is like this? Because, we learn, all the other war mages who would normally be helping out are already dead at the hands of the orcs. There are a few different ways you could take this story. The creators of this game decided to make it a comedy.

The main way it does this is by making the PC into the war mage least suited for this challenge: young, brash, wisecracking, disrespectful about his recently-dead mentor, and above all, conceited. The sort of person who says “Booyah!” after a kill. It’s the sort of character Nolan North is known for, with a little more fratboy mixed in. In short, he’s a jerk, and the story is the story of a jerk justifying his jerkitude by triumphing where no one else expected he could. Given this, I suppose it’s fitting that the true antagonist is a controlling, manipulative woman. It’s all part of the PC’s world view. We never encounter the sorceress directly — in the end, you defeat her simply by closing the rifts and trapping her in the orcs’ homeworld — but we see her in cutscenes, and she’s exactly the sort of hooker-booted hottie that the PC would go for were she not so haughty and domineering. The orcs who do her bidding are of course exclusively male, the mind control magic being a metaphor for feminine wiles. The PC is of course immune to this magic, being too full of himself to let anyone else in. No woman can tame him. He isn’t just the jerk triumphant, he’s triumphant because he’s a jerk.

I feel like this is a sort of hero that’s been becoming more popular in games lately, which makes me a little worried about the zeitgeist. Games are really good at provoking identification with the protagonist. Is this really the sort of person we want to identify with?

Orcs Must Die

The first round of holiday sales is underway, leaving me scrambling to finish up some games to make room on the Stack for new stuff. Orcs Must Die is in fact among my new acquisitions, but looked like it would probably be quick to finish, due to its structural resemblance to Plants vs Zombies: not only is it essentially a tower defense game, it pulls the same trick of introducing one new game element per level, which means the game ends once it’s reached maximal complexity. And indeed, in a single day of obsessive play, I’m managed to complete every level but the last. So expect a second and final post tomorrow.

I say it’s essentially a tower defense, but it’s really a hybrid of tower defense and shooter. The whole idea is that in each level you’re trying to prevent hordes of orcs and related monsters (kobolds as swarmers, ogres as bosses) from reaching a dimensional rift, which is in the middle of a fortress presumably built around it for the specific purpose of keeping the orcs away. This is a fully 3D structure, and you have an avatar inside it. You can place various sorts of traps on the walls, floors, and ceiling, as well as summon “guardians” who fight with sword or bow, but you can also fight the orcs directly, with a repeating crossbow, bladestaff, and various spells that you acquire over the course of the game. And in fact you pretty much have to do both, picking off orcs manually when they survive the traps. Starting at level 11, you can buy enhancements of various sorts from “weavers”, but you have to choose between “steel weavers”, who enhance your traps and guardians (for example, making the traps reset faster or giving the archers flaming arrows), or “elemental weavers”, who enhance your personal combat abilities (increasing your health, making spells do more damage). I personally want to play this more as a tower defense game than as a shooter, so I’ve pretty much always taken the steel weaver — at least, until the knowledge weavers became available at level 19, with their tempting treats like making the rift itself produce lightning bolts, or occasionally reanimating dead orcs to fight on your side.

But even treating the game as a tower defense, it’s a peculiar tower defense, due to the fact that you’re seeing the whole thing from inside. (Shades of Intelligent Qube!) The game helps minimize this limitation by granting you a great deal of mobility: your traps don’t affect you at all, you can jump off balconies and over any barricades you’ve placed, and there are often teleport gates joining distant parts of the stronghold. (It took me a while to realize that the orcs couldn’t go through the gates. I wasted some cash in the early levels barricading them.) But it offsets this by making you vulnerable. There are types of occasional enemy that ignore the rift, choosing instead to attack you and any guardians you’ve summoned — and for that reason alone, it’s important to have a few guardians around as distractions. For that matter, ordinary orcs will sometimes decide to chase you if you’re close enough, which means that by your presence you can distract them from the rift.

In short, for all its focus on a single sort of dungeon encounter, this is a pretty rich game. The thing that really impresses me, though, is the UI design. Placing objects in three dimensions is a nontrivial task, and there’s basically no explanation, documentation, or tutorial here, other than a few on-screen prompts, such as “Press R to rotate”. And yet it all just works. You choose a trap to place in the same way as you choose a weapon, and you also aim it like a weapon at the surfaces that can support it. When you’re aiming at a valid spot, the trap appears as a transparent model, with, if relevant, another transparency indicating its area of effect, so you know if that arrow trap reaches all the way across the hallway or not. Outside of trap placement, there are a number of little touches like the targeting reticule for the crossbow that widens if you fire rapidly, clearly indicating without words that your aim is becoming less accurate. Perhaps this is stuff that you need to already be familiar with games to understand, but it works for me.

Voxatron Alpha

Block that attack!So, here I’ve been giving so much play to the Lexaloffle mini-games that were included as a bonus with the latest Humble bundle (or “debut”) that I haven’t got around to playing the one game that it was supposedly about. Just as well: for all that the bonus items are described as “mini”, the Voxatron alpha is a much shorter experience. It’s essentially a Robotron-like shooter in 3D, with jumping added. But it’s the sort of Robotron-like shooter with awkward controls that link movement direction to firing direction more than I’d like. That is, you can move in a different direction than you’re shooting, but you have to be facing a direction to start shooting that way, and that gets in the way of the classic circle-and-shoot-inward approach. Well, it’s still an alpha, I suppose. One can hope that it changes.

Which brings us to the weird fact that the alpha of this game was included — indeed, was the focus of — a Humble Bundle that people were expected to pay money for. I guess that’s the Minecraft influence. After all, it’s hard to imagine this game existing without Minecraft paving the way. Its chief appeal is in the aesthetic of blocky voxels. Even the text at the top of the screen showing your score and current weapon and so forth is made of voxels. It has an effect reminiscent of claymation, due to both the deliberate crudity and the way that the voxel grid quantizes movement. It’s strange how voxel tech seems to have passed directly from futuristic to retro without passing through the present.

But I suppose that’s only true of consipcuous voxels. Inconspicuous voxels are out there, in games with destructible environments. So too is it here: the environment is fully destructible. Every shot that doesn’t hit a monster is liable to knock a chunk out of a wall or something. There’s one boss that fires a sort of sweeping laser beam (which looks extremely strange made of solid blocks) that can only be effectively avoided by hiding behind cover, but it also eats away at your cover. Some of the monsters can even be tricked into smashing things that you want smashed, such as a pillar with goodies on top. I’d like to see more of that sort of thing in the final version, although I’m not really sure what more can be done.

Bullet Candy

Bullet Candy snuck onto the Stack through a bundle some time ago. I was reminded of it by something called “Bullet Candy Perfect” in the latest Indie Royale bundle; I’m not clear on its relationship to the earlier game, whether it’s an enhanced version or a remake or a sequel or what, but I’m tentatively counting them as separate titles. Come to think of it, those various descriptors might be hard to tell apart, given how abstract and plotless the game is.

It’s a 2D “bullet hell” shooter set in space, with an overall design geared mainly towards filling the screen with sparklies and particle effects. (Even the power-ups that some enemies drop have particle effects, which to my mind makes them look like projectiles. I was several levels in before I even realized they were power-ups, because I kept dodging them.) I recall that it was compared to Geometry Wars a lot, but since I haven’t played that either, the main thing it reminds me of is Robotron. Seriously, the feel is so similar that it’s got to be homage. It even has indestructible enemies that jerk backward a little when hit with your bullets, just like the hulk robotrons. The one really big difference in feel is that you can shoot in arbitrary directions, rather than just eight.

Also, you can play with mouse and keyboard, and that changes the dynamics considerably. With mouse control, you shoot toward the cursor. That means that the classic Robotron maneuver of sweeping the entire screen by skirting the edges and firing constantly inward doesn’t work quite as well, because unless you’re moving the cursor in parallel with your ship (which would be tricky), your direction of fire will keep changing. On the other hand, it also means that you can often park the cursor on top of an enemy in order to keep firing at it regardless of where you move. But that’s less useful than it sounds, because such purposeful use of the cursor would require taking your eyes off your ship for a moment, and that’s a quick way to die. I’m thinking gamepad has the advantage here.

The main game mode has 50 levels, all of Robotron-like brevity, and every fifth level is a continue point, a place you can start over from when you run out of lives if you don’t care about your score. Through copious use of continues, it’s possible to play the game from start to finish in a single session. Thus, off the Stack it goes. I guess you’re intended to try harder difficulty settings at this point, or other gameplay modes, like survival mode or asteroids mode. And actually, I’m finding asteroids mode pretty engaging. It’s the same basic mechanic as the classic Asteroids, but easier to control and much faster-moving.

The Binding of Isaac

In Ultima IV, the is a dungeon room where a mob of children attacks you. To most players, this was just an interesting repurposing of a tile not normally used for monsters to produce a things-are-different-here vibe. (The previous game in the series famously has floor tiles attack you toward the end.) But some found it upsetting, and at least one even claimed that it promoted child abuse. Richard Garriott, Ultima‘s auteur, had intended this scene as a kind of ethical challenge, and has pointed out various solutions that don’t involve killing children in self-defense, such as using charm or sleep spells. 1One of his proposed non-lethal solutions was to unwield your sword and punch them with your bare hands until they run away, but that doesn’t really help much with the child abuse allegation. But players tend to be in kill-everything-that-moves mode at that point in the game, and forget about these options, and feel like they have no choices but atrocity or quitting in disgust.

Garriott considered this little controversy to be one of the game’s biggest successes, and he included a “child room” somewhere in every subsequent Ultima. But he had better taste than to push the idea further, to take it to its logical extreme. Enter Edmud McMillen and Florian Himsl, of Meat Boy fame. This pair once created a shooter about fighting diseased vaginas. Taste is no obstacle to these guys. Their latest work, The Binding of Isaac, is the story of a horrifically abused little boy trapped alone in a basement, naked and with no weapons other than his tears, forced to fight grotesque abominations. And he really is forced: unlike the child rooms in Ultima, the game doesn’t let you leave a room until Isaac is the only thing alive. 2Actually, there are exceptions to this. There are certain items that let you teleport away, and an explosion in the right place will reveal a secret passage regardless of whether the the room is in lockdown. But these are just exceptions. Many of the enemies, particularly the early ones, appear to be deformed children, variations on Isaac’s character design. There’s one sort that doesn’t even attack you, but just runs away, sobbing piteously. You still have to kill it to continue.

In a sense, though, that one type does attack you: it occasionally emits hostile flies, like guided missiles that you have to shoot down. Monsters that flee from direct confrontation and birth more monsters are not without precedent — see the Roach Queens in DROD, for example — but the way it’s presented here makes it seem like the guy you’re trying to kill is even more a victim of the flies than Isaac: his face is a mass of lumps presumably full of insect eggs. More advanced versions of this creature are only recognizable as once-human because of the legs supporting the bulging fleshy mass.

Yes, this is a truly repulsive game. There’s blood and feces all over the place, a synergetic combination that’s far grosser than the sum of its parts, and the monsters all look like things you really, really don’t want to touch. And to survive in this world, Isaac has to make himself as monstrous and grotesque as the things he fights. There are a great many upgrades to be found (a random assortment available in any session), and most of them physically alter Isaac in some way, usually for the worse: a permanent snarl, a bent coathanger through the head, a third eye. They stack, too, which can look ridiculous even when the components aren’t ridiculous individually (which many are). All this is overlaid on a style of exaggerated simplicity and sarcastic neoteny, like the Powerpuff Girls. It’s a dead-baby-joke-like juxtaposition that’s at times troubling and at times merely puerile. And sometimes it pulls out a bit of Satanic imagery for cheap shock value.

So I really can’t blame anyone for simply being turned off by the style and unwilling to play it. The problem is, such people will miss out on a really good game based on the gradual mastery of a complex system and the endless variability provided by combinations of randomly-selected game-changers.

The gameplay is a surprisingly harmonious combination of blatantly swiped elements. The basic design of the dungeon, the use of bombs to open secret passages, the appearance of the shopkeeper rooms, and the way that bosses show up later as ordinary encounters all hail from The Legend of Zelda. The horrific imagery owes a little to Silent Hill, as does the questionable reality of the whole experience, which is implied to be all a dream or hallucination that Isaac experiences while locked in his room waiting to be murdered; the cutscene after you win the game the first time shows a much more prosaic ending than the boss battle you just endured. The shooting mechanic, with its dual eight-direction controls for shooting and moving in independent directions 3Accomplished here entirely through the keyboard, WASD for movement and arrow keys for shooting, which is a curious choice for the people who were so adamant that you use a gamepad in Super Meat Boy. The fact that the entire game is in Flash might have something to do with this., are pure Robotron, down to the effectiveness of circling around the edges of the room while shooting inward, although with the twist that your movement affects the trajectory of your bullet/tears, making most of your shots somewhat diagonal. And there are sundry minor references, like a miniboss based on Bomberman.

And then there’s the rougelike elements. Other commenters seem to have mostly focused on this, and on debates over whether it really qualifies as a roguelike; the comment threads at rockpapershotgun coined the term “roguelike-like” to describe it. It seems to me that it’s got a better claim to the genre than some other things that have been described as roguelikes, such as Spelunky, whose only roguelike attributes as far as I can tell are randomly-generated levels and inability to go back to earlier saves. Isaac has these attributes too, but it also has other pointed rogueisms like randomized items: where Rogue randomly assigned colors to different potion types, expecting you to learn what each color does by drinking it, Isaac does the same with scavenging Mom’s pills, putting the mechanic in a new perspective that makes you realize just how awful it is underneath.

For that matter, the whole setting is something of a subversion of the dungeons-of-doom cliché, or perhaps a reinforcement of it, giving the idea some of the power it loses by being set in a pure fantasy environment. I’ve seen it argued that the intrinsic unfairness of the luck factor in roguelikes, where your ability to win is largely determined by what items the random number generator picks, complements the utter unfairness of the underlying story, of a little boy unfortunate to be under the power of a psycho who thinks God talks to her. For these and similar reasons, I think it would actually be a worse game if you reskinned it to be less horrible.

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1. One of his proposed non-lethal solutions was to unwield your sword and punch them with your bare hands until they run away, but that doesn’t really help much with the child abuse allegation.
2. Actually, there are exceptions to this. There are certain items that let you teleport away, and an explosion in the right place will reveal a secret passage regardless of whether the the room is in lockdown. But these are just exceptions.
3. Accomplished here entirely through the keyboard, WASD for movement and arrow keys for shooting, which is a curious choice for the people who were so adamant that you use a gamepad in Super Meat Boy. The fact that the entire game is in Flash might have something to do with this.

A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda

Once more, a recent indie title can be played to the point of rolling the credits in under six hours (and that includes one particularly hard jumping sequence that probably took me a half an hour all by itself). It apparently expects you to play it through multiple times, trying to better your performance ratings. Is this the general trend these days? It seems like not long ago that Portal‘s length was a cause of widespread complaint. I suppose this is something that ebbs and flows. You certainly didn’t find 40-hour epics in the arcades of old. When I first tried MAME, I was shocked at just how short those games became when you have infinite quarters. But that’s what fit the arcade machine model, and I suppose the current trend towards many short cheap titles reflects the market of XBLA and its ilk.

A.R.E.S. is a 2D (with 3D graphics) platformer/shooter in which you play an advanced humanoid robot fighting hordes of less-advanced evil robots. In other words, it’s the same story as Megaman, and to a large degree the same gameplay as well. But where Megaman has cartoony, round-featured art that indicates a target audience of children, A.R.E.S. has a shiny mecha anime look aimed at slightly older children. The game supports both gamepad and mouse/keyboard controls; in the latter, the keyboard moves your avatar around while the mouse cursor aims your gun. I’ve encountered such schemes before — I think Crack dot Com’s Abuse was the first. I found it extremely awkward in Abuse, but it feels pretty natural to me here. I’m not sure if this is more due to the game or to my improved skills as a player. Probably the game. You throw a lot of bullets around here, and the targets tend to be fairly big, so it’s not like you need to aim all that precisely.

Dead robots turn into scraps that you can collect and “recycle” to purchase health packs, grenades, and, most importantly, upgrades for your various weapons. I found that a single pass through the game wasn’t enough to get me enough scrap for everything I needed to take out the end boss — I got the upgrades I wanted, but only by spending so much that I couldn’t afford enough health packs. The game encourages you to go back and replay earlier chapters in situations like this. In other words, it’s got grinding. The unusual thing about this is how non-diegetic it is. Not only does the plot not allow for the possibility of taking a break from the immediate crisis to go level up your gear (a dissonance that’s pretty common in CRPGs), the mechanics don’t allow for it either. This is a game that keeps locking doors behind you. The only way to access earlier areas is through a menu, and when you do, you effectively go back in time, but with cooler stuff. I recall commenting about similar things going on in Lego Star Wars, but it seemed more like a tool for completists there, and less like a necessary part of one’s first pass through the game.

Cyberia: Aerial Combat

So, my latest session was all about the Rebel Assault-style FMV swoop-and-shoot. For a lengthy portion of the game, that’s all you get, just one air-combat mission after another. It makes me think of how the vehicle sections of Half-Life 2 were broken up with obstacles that you could only clear by getting out the the vehicle and pressing a switch or something in a guarded building nearby, a fragment of ordinary FPS gameplay inserted to make the whole thing less monotonous. Nothing of that kind happens here.

I have a couple more big complaints about the way air combat is handled here. One is that the underlying movie clip sometimes cuts away to show a third-person shot of a particularly dramatic explosion or your plane noninteractively executing a sweet maneuver, and that’s pretty much always a mistake in the middle of an action scene, particularly if there are still targets on the screen that the mini-cutscene is keeping the player from blowing up. Even worse, because some of these cutscenes show things that you can shoot at blowing up, there is no way to destroy those things before the video playback reaches the cutscene. You’ll be shooting at a plane over and over for a couple of seconds with no effect, and that’s frustrating.

Also, I can’t help but feel that this sort of fast-paced first-person air combat really needs a resolution higher than 320×200. Enemies often spend most of their time onscreen as one or two pixels, too small to identify even on the level of “is it a plane or a tank”, and thus too small for the player to anticipate their behavior or prioritize their destruction. Instead, we’re given the opportunity to learn what’s going to happen and how to react to it by means of exact repetition.

To be honest, there is a pleasure to be found in this: the pleasure of finally overcoming a challenge that you’ve failed many times, a mix of triumph and relief. But I’m impatient with this game, and want it off my Stack, and some of the levels just seem insanely difficult. And so I’ve dropped the difficulty down to Easy for action sequences (the game has separate difficulty settings for action and puzzles), despite the implication in the docs that this setting is for babies and grandmothers. Even on Easy, I had some difficulty with the later shooty levels, but the overall experience was an improvement, replacing the pleasure of overcoming a challenge failed repeatedly with that of getting it right on the first try. 

There was just one problem: the game doesn’t support switching difficulty settings on the fly. To drop down to Easy, you have to create a new profile and start over from the beginning. But I didn’t have a whole lot of ground to re-cover, and it goes a lot faster when you know what you’re doing. Also, I decided to take advantage of this discontinuity by switching to a different machine, and found that on the other one I could play full-screen without problems. I’m finding this much nicer, even if it does expose the pixelation more. Well, it’s not like the graphics were all that good anyway, right?

Anyway, I seem to be done with this stuff, at least for now. Last night, after something resembling a boss fight (involving a large aircraft with three weapons that had to be destroyed individually), I reached my destination, the compound housing the Cyberia project (which is something to do with nanotechnology), and that seemed like a good stopping-point for the session. It remains to be seen if I’ll need to do more dogfighting as I make my escape.

Combat: End Boss

The level 30 boss turns out to be a sort of flying saucer deal, a big rotating octagon that rises up from a pit in the center of a large room, then sinks again. It alternates between doing two things when it rises: spawning a bunch of assorted tanks and autobombs, and firing those big sweeping lasers from four guns on its periphery — and reversing its direction of rotation while it’s firing them, to make things more difficult. You can destroy the lasers with a great deal of effort, and on one try I even managed to destroy two, but, interestingly, doing so is actually counterproductive. The same lasers destroy any enemy tanks they hit, so disabling them means more tanks hanging around through a complete cycle. You have a lot more to fear from the tanks than from the regular and predictable lasers, so the lasers are really your friends — just the sort of friend you don’t want to hug. And ultimately, all you really have to destroy is the saucer’s central dome, which is briefly level with your guns on its way up and down. The best way to deal with this whole thing, I found, was to basically ignore the tanks and just keep circle-strafing around the pit as fast as you can to make it hard for anything to hit you.

I had to play through this bit several times before I got it right, and every time I did so, I had to play the preceding nine levels first. As usual, I could only bring myself to play one session at a time, rather than start from level 21 again immediately, but being so close to finishing the game off made me keep coming back. You get good at the levels with a little practice; you start to remember the layouts and anticipate what you need to do, and so you rush about with efficiency and confidence. On my final attempt, I even got the Iron Man bonus on level 21 — a score bonus, of enough points for me to snag an extra life, for passing a level without getting hit even once.

Similarly, each pass at level 30 taught me a little more about how to go about it. In fact, only the very first time I reached level 30, with too few lives and no idea of what to expect, did I actually run out of lives and end the game there. On subsequent tries, I managed to slog through it with heavy losses, finishing the level and reaching the real end boss, which was a bit of surprise the first time it happened.

Your final foe is small and agile — well, still about twice the size of your own tank, but small for a boss. It’s hard to aim at, because it does the same thing I was doing on the previous level: circling around quickly, making it difficult to know how much to lead it with your aim, occasionally getting behind the camera so you don’t know which way to turn. It would probably still be a pretty easy fight, though, if it weren’t for one thing: the time limit. You have 60 seconds to beat it or lose. In effect, the game has given up trying to kill you. By getting this far, you’ve proved that you know how to play carefully and conserve your health, and so it throws a different limitation at you. Moreover, it’s a limitation that requires a more or less opposite approach. Where the correct approach for most bosses is caution, this one requires courage. You need to take it down as quickly as possible, and that means getting right up close to it and blasting it as much as you can, heedless of the damage it’s doing to you. Your biggest advantage over it is that you can only lose one hit point at a time, and go through a brief period of flashing invulnerability every time you do.

Combat got poor reviews when it came out, but, while it isn’t the best of the around-the-year-2000 classic-game remakes — that would be Frogger — I found it to be a fairly satisfying experience. It is, in a way, retro-futuristic. Usually that term means the sci-fi visions of the future from the 1950s or earlier, but what I mean here is that it’s the sort of videogame envisioned in 80s sci-fi, from Tron to Zot!. As such, it’s appropriate that it uses so many elements from 80s scrolling shooters: bosses with destructible weapons, power-ups that spread your fire in three directions, etc. Translating stuff like that into 3D was always a challenge, and Combat handles it better than a lot of games of the period — mainly by keeping the action mostly bound to a plane.

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