Archive for June, 2022

Iron Storm: Reichstag

Once in Berlin, you make your way through underground tunnels to the Reichstag building, to steal the final macguffin (the magnetic keys for your stolen sample case) from the quarters of Baron Ugenberg himself, and ideally also assassinate him while you happen to be in the area. Presumably the Reichstag fire never happened in this alternate timeline, but the building is in very poor condition anyway, with the kind of dingy decrepitude you mostly see in horror games. Lots of boarded-up windows and doors to constrain your movement. Outside, it’s surrounded by tanks and barbed wire. Even at the highest levels of government, the neverending war consumes everything.

The building is divided into five floors, with a solitary elevator as your main way of traveling between them. On most floors, the elevator area is quite firmly defended by turrets. A roomful of electrical boxes on the second floor 1The floors are numbered in the traditional European way: floor 1 is the one above the ground floor. lets you turn off the power to any floor (except for floor 3, because its switch handle is broken). This deactivates the turrets on that floor, but also deactivates the elevator doors, forcing you to find a different entry point.

My first assumption was that this was going to be a straightforward floor-by-floor ascent, sweeping through each floor to find the stairs to the next. I had, after all, entered through the basement, and had to explore pretty thoroughly to find the stairs up to the ground floor. But instead, it turns out to involve a lot of going up and down. That basement, for example, had a severe problem with electrical leakage into standing water, making portions of it inaccessible until I went up to floor 2 and turned off the electricity. From the newly-accessible part of the basement, I can reach a new part of the ground floor, from which I can get outside and climb a ladder up to a howitzer in a second-story window that lets me take out the tanks preventing me from using a different exterior door. I spend a lot of time running through hallways I’ve already cleared of enemies, now eerily quiet, trying to remember where things are and how to reach them. In fact, I’m spending a lot of time stuck, not really clear on what my next goal is or how the last thing I did helps me reach it.

In short, this chapter plays a lot like an adventure game. Just an adventure game where you sometimes have to shoot people.

1 The floors are numbered in the traditional European way: floor 1 is the one above the ground floor.

Iron Storm: Sneak Train

Iron Storm level 5 takes place entirely on a train — a huge and fantastical Snowpiercer-style one, which you traverse back to front, making you way through cars devoted to different purposes, like a barracks car and a hospital car and a chapel car. We’re well out of the realm of the real now and barreling towards Berlin.

It’s another stealth level, or semi-stealth, anyway. You have a silenced pistol this time, letting you pick off soldiers unseen, one by one, and take their stuff. There are automated turrets linked to an alarm system, and if you can get through a car without anyone triggering the alarm, that’s great. But there’s also the (frequently unwise) option of just going in guns blazing and turning the alarm off when you can — or even just bolting for the next car, as the alarm systems aren’t linked. I tried to stealth it as much as I could, but wound up in a lot of pitched firefights anyway. I strongly suspect there are tricks I simply missed.

Of course, sometimes you have to climb out of the train and onto the roof, because how can you have a train sequence in a war story where that doesn’t happen, although various things prevent you from just running all the way to the locomotive that way. The exterior nighttime scenery rushing by is pretty nice. Eventually you also have to backtrack a bit, going through cars you’ve already cleared, which, on your return, now have newly-erected barricades, forcing you to take alternate routes over the roof or through vents or something. This strengthens my impression that there were additional stealth routes I could have taken all along, if I had noticed them.

You ultimate goal here is a special high-security room containing a case with samples from the lab in level 4. So secure is it, I had to hit up a walkthrough. There are these two turrets pointing right at the case, and there’s no cover on the way there, and try as I might, I couldn’t find the off switch. Well, it turns out that, despite the failure of my earlier attempts at destroying turrets (which occurred as early as the trenches), turrets aren’t completely indestructible, just highly damage-resistant. If you can get into its blind spot and pump a few dozen rounds into it, it goes limp. I feel like I might have done some things differently if I had known, but when I think about it, I honestly can’t think of another place where it really would have made a difference.

Iron Storm: Leaving Weapons Behind

In level four, Iron Storm takes you inside a secret underground weapons research complex, a place of white corridors, automated security systems, and men in lab coats speaking German. It’s a little bit Wolfenstein here, but even more Half-Life, albeit kind of in reverse. Remember how in Half-Life at a certain point soldiers arrive to kill everything in the facility, scientists included? That’s kind of what happens here, except you’re the soldier mercilessly slaughtering the scientists. Slaughtering scientists isn’t your mission, exactly — your mission is to blow up the entire facility — but you do it because if you don’t kill them, they can raise the alarm and get actual soldiers involved. And facing soldiers is a bad idea, at least at first, because at the beginning of the level you’re captured and forced to relinquish your weapons.

You also have to get rid of weapons at the end of level 2, when you sneak onto a POW transport and one of your confederates advises you that “the weapons on your back are too obvious” — and sure enough, when I zoomed out to 3rd-person mode to check, I’m visibly carrying a small arsenal back there. I wondered about this at first: If I’m on a prisoner transport, and I’m unarmed, how am I better off than any of the other prisoners? What’s the point of sending me on a secret mission to just throw myself helplessly into the arms of the enemy? But in fact the qualifier “on your back” was important there; I could keep a few less-conspicuous items, like the knife (sabre? machete?) that I had previously mainly used for slashing boxes open to get health pick-ups.

Level 4 doesn’t even let you keep the knife, although you can find a new one before long. However, that is the only weapon you have for most of the level, which means it’s mainly a stealth mission. I suppose it’s theoretically possible to let an alarm go off, kill one of the resulting soldiers, and take his gun, but as they respond to alarms in pairs, it would take an extremely skilled berserker swordsman. Much better to wait until you find an isolated soldier who isn’t aware of your presence.

It’s not at all uncommon for a FPS to take all your weapons away once in a while, as a way of extending gameplay by resetting your collection progress. Daikatana took your weapons away so it could give you a different set. Serious Sam took your weapons away so it could give the same ones back in a different order. But there’s one thing that Iron Storm does that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else: It makes you discard your weapons yourself. Dropping weapons has been a part of the game’s mechanics from the beginning, motivated by opportunities to replace them with better weapons, or at least other weapons — you have one “heavy weapon” slot, which can hold either an assault rifle or a rocket launcher, either of which can be situationally superior. But in the end of level 2 and the beginning of level 4, you’re forced to manually drop weapons without replacement. It comes off as a gesture of submission. Like a child sent out to cut the switch that will be used to spank him, you’re not just being disempowered, you’re being required to actively participate in your own disempowerment — a sadistic touch surely designed to make you hate your captors even more.

Iron Storm: Some Boss Fights

Level 3 of Iron Storm throws us into our first urban environment, the German town of Wolfenburg, a very old-world place that was probably picturesque before the shelling started. Even though it’s still grey and dismal, it feels good to get out of the trenches for a while. Setting has always been the most important feature of the single-player FPS genre; the shooting just gives us an excuse to run around in a big 3D sculpture and engage with it in novel ways.

Although the game has only 6 levels, they’re on the long side, each effectively being a series of levels stuck together, separated by boss fights. The first real boss fight, back in level 2, involved using a rocket launcher to down a helicopter, which then conveniently crashes in just the right position to plug a gap in a bridge and allow you forward. Wolfenburg has a couple of tanks, the first tanks you see that aren’t broken and abandoned, one in the town plaza and one roaming the streets. To beat either one, you have to first go searching for anti-tank mines — which can only be found on the other side of the plaza where one of the tanks is, making it an encounter similar to the Asylum Demon in Dark Souls, where you have to run away first and come back better-equipped.

Past Wolfenburg, there’s a sequence that I quite liked, largely due to its atmosphere: a sniper fight, in the rain, which interferes with visibility. Distant guard towers are just barely visible as grey shadows against a grey sky. It’s the sort of slow, methodical gameplay that I’m enjoying the most here, and it’s followed by a boss fight that’s the exact opposite: running around on catwalks above a factory floor, dodging rockets. The source of the rockets is one of the few non-mechanical bosses I’ve encountered, the third of three extra-tough brothers from Siberia, seen earlier in propaganda videos and encountered individually. The first one, I don’t even remember fighting. The second found me in the tunnels under Wolfenburg, and was furious at me for killing his brother. The third willingly let me into that factory once I made it to the door, treating me as an honorable adversary. It was a frustratingly tough fight, restarted many times; I was unable to do it in a single session.

But of course I was able to restart it, right? That is the only reason the third brother is dead. He is a vastly superior warrior. He killed me many times, and I only killed him once. That’s the pattern for most of the game outside of boss fights as well.

Iron Storm: Lore

Now, I wouldn’t call Iron Storm lore-heavy. What lore it has mainly seems like a way to add an off-kilter tone to its tense and bleak vibe: This is World War I, but it isn’t quite right. It’s 1964. There are wrecks of WWI-era tanks, with the big lozenge-shaped treads the height of the entire body, but there are also helicopters. The armies of the world are in some way financed by a stock market; soldiers can be overheard discussing their portfolios, and every propaganda video about developments in the war includes a mention of the impact those developments have had on futures prices.

By 1964, the war has simplified into two sides: the United States of Western Europe and the Russo-Mongolian Empire. This is a world where the Bolshevik revolution was defeated, mainly through the efforts of one Baron Ugenberg, whose banners you can see at enemy camps. (Possibly this was the point of divergence.) Enemies mutter and bark in either Russian or German — the intro tells us that Germany is split down the middle between the two sides, just like in our timeline in 1964, but every German I’ve met has been a bad guy. Perhaps the idea of a split Germany was added to mollify German players. It’s worth noting that the game was developed by a French studio.

I’m mainly going to hang this on the same peg as Command & Conquer: Red Alert: it wants to use historical stylings to evoke certain feelings, but it wants to avoid the complications of actual fairly-recent history. And so it simplifies, turning the most complex of wars into an easily-digestible good-guys-vs-bad-guys story (and, to an extent, shifts the bad-guy status from Germany to Russia, but not as hard as Red Alert did). But it wouldn’t really feel like World War I without a sense of moral unease about the whole thing. And so it adds that back in fictional form with financial speculation on solders’ lives.

Iron Storm

Still in the mood to get some twenty-year-old first-person shooters off the Stack, I pull up Iron Storm (Wanadoo, 2002). 1It is possible that my choice here was influenced by the title’s similarity to the name of the studio that developed the last game I blogged here. I picked this out of the bargain bin back in the day because the premise sounded interesting: it’s set in an alternate history where World War I dragged on for fifty years. “Alternate history sci-fi? That sounds cool!” I said, failing to realize how little it would mean in the context of a shooter, that the premise is just an excuse to play soldiers without an obligation to history. I had basically tricked myself into buying Call of Duty without even the pretense of realism. And then I found it excessively difficult to survive the very beginning — it throws you in at the deep end, asking you to pick off some snipers that you can’t even tell what direction they’re killing you from for the first half-dozen tries or so. So I shelved it, and am only getting back to it now. At some point I seem to have picked up the Steam version in a bundle, so I’m playing that instead of installing from disc.

It’s not quite the FPS I remembered — it’s a hybrid that lets you switch freely between first-person and third-person perspective, and defaults to third-person. The designers probably expected that you’d stay in third-person most of the time, but I find myself preferring first, because there’s fewer things on the screen to keep track of that way: instead of your character and an aiming reticle, it’s just the reticle. As befits a game set in a war, there are NPCs on your side, creating some slight sense of comradery as you engage the enemy together, but you leave them behind before long: you’re a solitary commando on a special mission behind enemy lines. The environment is heavily based around trenches — trench networks that branch off to places irrelevant to your mission, that you can easily believe go on for miles and miles, surrounded by nothing but ash and ruins.

Having played through the first level and some ways into the second (out of a mere 6, apparently), I’d say the overall feel is mainly characterized by tension. You can be killed so easily, and the enemies are prepared. They don’t have to run around dodging your attacks when they’re already in a secure machine gun nest with good cover. Sure, sometimes they do just mindlessly run into your fire anyway, but I’ve also had the experience of seeing a soldier escape around a bend and just wait there, aiming at where he knows I’ll be, because I need to keep going forward and all he needs to do is keep me from doing that. In an excellent bit of genre-appropriate interaction design, you can crouch and even crawl on your belly to take better advantage of cover. The ending of level 1 had me crawling around an open area, badly wounded, hearing the impact of bullets on earth around me, unable to return fire effectively because the sun was behind them.

1 It is possible that my choice here was influenced by the title’s similarity to the name of the studio that developed the last game I blogged here.

Daikatana: The Final Chapter

I wound up taking the entirety of the final episode in a single bound. The setting for this part is San Francisco in the year 2030, so it’s the future again, but it’s not as the future as Episode 1’s 25th century. This is the point where Kage Mishima started messing with history, so this is where you can undo it.

There’s a good variety of environments here, starting with an earthquake-damaged Alcatraz, which apparently got converted back into a prison at some point, albeit one run along the lines of Arkham City or Escape from New York. There’s a mission that’s all about running up stairs in a dilapidated and gang-infested tower block, which echoes the ascent of a castle tower in the previous episode. There’s a gleaming marble-and-glass corporate HQ, an opulent antique-Japanese-styled mansion with rock gardens and the like that sends you hunting for hidden buttons, and finally a series of deadly, abstractified obstacle courses with a half-hearted attempt at justifying them as a Navy SEAL training course. By this point, the player knows better than to ask for sensible justifications. It’s not that kind of game. If the first episode had had this kind of variety of style, maybe it wouldn’t have made quite so bad a first impression.

But at the same time, variety is dialed down drastically in other respects. After one episode of robots and mutated animals and two episodes of fantastic and legendary creatures, we’re down to mainly just humans as enemies. (Plus the occasional rat, and sharks in the underwater bits.) Some of the humans have jetpacks, but that’s basically it for fantastical elements, at least until the boss fight with Mishima, who dresses like a feudal warlord and shoots ghosts at you.

The final boss fight is a surprise double: after you kill Mishima, there’s an overlong cutscene, followed by Mikiko suddenly turning heel, taking the Daikatana, and using it to kill Mr. Johnson and then attack Hiro. She’s pretty good with it, too, if you let her get in range — honestly, that sword is a lot more effective in anyone’s hands but mine. When fully powered up, it can destroy just about anything with a single blow, but landing that blow can take a lot more time than just using a gun. If I had to play the game again, I’d use it a lot less. Mikiko’s betrayal doesn’t completely come out of nowhere, but the fight is another one like the king in Episode 3: over quickly, one way or the other. Mishima is a much more satisfying fight, both plotwise and mechanically, and would have been a better ending. Especially since the death of both companions is literally inconsequential: after it’s over, Hiro rewrites history in such a way that it never happens.

Now that I’ve been through the whole game, what are my impressions? I still maintain that it’s better than its reputation, at least with unofficial patch 1.3 installed. I did have occasional problems with the sidekicks getting stuck, mostly concentrated in E1M6 and E4M4, but my biggest complaint with the gameplay isn’t with the NPC behavior at all, but that the switches and levers that open doors and stuff are frequently insufficiently visible and hard to find. The level design is nicely varied and inventive, and changing the weapon roster from episode to episode does a lot to keep the action interesting. The plot is goofy and you just have to be willing to accept that. The expository cutscenes are terrible, and would have to be completely rewritten by someone with an ear for dialogue to be tolerable. But for the most part, it’s a pretty enjoyable old-school FPS, maybe not as cool as it thinks it is, but definitely not worth the hyperbolic scorn it received from disappointed gamers who had their hearts set on becoming John Romero’s bitch.

Daikatana: Episode 3 Summary

Episode 3 of Daikatana is set in a quasi-medieval-Europe of castles and half-timbered villages. (I see some sources saying it’s Norway, but the only indication of this in the game is snow.) It starts with a “plague village” where the plague is one that turns people into zombies, although this doesn’t faze our heroes at all. Mikiko falls ill early on, and loses consciousness; from that point on, Mr. Johnson carries her, and can’t fight, making you basically go it solo (although you’re still not allowed to leave them behind). I recall that the introductory infodump mentioned a pandemic back in the future, with the Mishimas maintaining their power by controlling access to the cure. I wonder if there’s a connection? If there is, it would at least somewhat justify telling us about the future plague in the first place. (Worldbuilding tip: You don’t actually have to tell us everything. Exposition is just one reason to invent backstory. Just as visual artists sketch out things that will be in darkness or otherwise hidden from view in order to keep things consistent and therefore comprehensible, so too does working out the backstory help keep your narrative believable even if that backstory is never communicated to the audience directly.)

Anyway, just as the ancient Greece of Episode 2 was one of legendary weapons and mythical creatures, so too is the medieval Europe of Episode 3 distinctly D&D-ish. To charge the Daikatana up for another time jump, you have to face dragons, werewolves that can only be killed permanently with a silver melee weapon, and muttering, axe-throwing dwarves. The bosses in this section are three evil sorcerers, encountered one by one, and each sorcerer uses a wand that you scavenge from their corpse and can use as a weapon yourself afterward.

I honestly found the wands less useful than the episode’s mundane weapons, a fast-firing pistol crossbow and a slower, more powerful ballista. 1“A ballista?” you cry. “But that’s not a handheld weapon!” Neither is a chain gun, but Doom let you run around firing one. Just about the only FPS to ever treat these things realistically was Outlaws (Lucasarts, 1997), in which your authentic 19th-century gatling gun had to be set up on a tripod before you could fire it. Which makes sense — after all, when I fought the sorcerer, he had the wand and I didn’t, and I won! But also, the wands have effects that are powerful but slow, which means they’re not much use against a sudden werewolf ambush. As well, ammo for them is scarce, and they’re prone to backfire. The first wand is essentially a rocket launcher, prone to catching you in its splash if it hits a too-close wall, and the third summons a large beastie that attacks you if it doesn’t see anything else, which is a real possibility, because it takes so long to do the summoning. That last point is one that the game kind of warns you about; Mr. Johnson says that it has an evil feeling and advises you not to use it. I kind of wonder if you could take advantage of it to grind XP, but I didn’t try.

Still, the second wand, which fires slow-moving hovering orbs that emit lightning, was pretty useful against the episode’s final boss (an insane king with absurd muscles), finishing him off practically without effort. Which is pretty unsatisfying, and clearly not the experience that the designers wanted — there’s health pickups across the room, something you’d expect to need in a protracted battle. But even on my losing tries, when I hadn’t found the dominant strategy yet, the fight always ended very quickly. Defeating the king gives you an opportunity to cure him of his madness with a magical “purifier” sword, at which point he instantly becomes your friend and helps you cure Mikiko and recharge the time sword. Contrived as this development is, it strikes me as actually being appropriately contrived; knights going mad and then being suddenly brought back to their senses by magic is something with precedent in chivalric literature.

One last thing of note: In this episode, there’s a substantial luck factor. The guaranteed infinite healing devices of the first two episodes are gone, and in their place we get metal-bound treasure chests with randomized contents. When you open one, maybe it’ll be a powerful healing, maybe it’ll be a random armor item, maybe it’ll just explode. Even when it’s not an explosion, it might or might not be what you need at that moment. I’m dubious whether this mechanic was a good one even in the original version of the game, but it particularly makes no sense when you have unlimited saves and can just roll the dice until you get what you want.

1 “A ballista?” you cry. “But that’s not a handheld weapon!” Neither is a chain gun, but Doom let you run around firing one. Just about the only FPS to ever treat these things realistically was Outlaws (Lucasarts, 1997), in which your authentic 19th-century gatling gun had to be set up on a tripod before you could fire it.

Daikatana: Unlimited Saves

Like most first-person shooters for PC, Daikatana lets you save anywhere with the press of a button. This was not always the case. Originally, it had a complicated system of “save gems”, which you had to collect, and could only carry in limited quantities, and even then could only be applied in certain places. Unlimited saves got added in one of the official patches. It’s still optional, but at this point it’s turned on by default.

While I’m generally keen about experiencing games As The Creators Intended, this change is one that the creators at least signed off on. Still, now that I’m in the “Hey this actually isn’t bad” phase of the game, I found myself wondering if something had been lost here, if the levels had been designed in a way to benefit from restricted saves. So I chose to play through a level with save restriction as a Nethack-style voluntary conduct challenge.

My conclusion: It definitely did affect how I played somewhat, making me a little more careful about managing my health and ammo levels. (With unlimited saves, my habit was to simply quicksave after every encounter if I was still in good shape.) But it affects things less than you’d expect. That’s because even if you never save manually, the game does an automatic save every time you move between zones of the map. So unless something happens that prevents you from backtracking (such as falling down a cliff), you can still save whenever you want — just not wherever you want. The map I chose for this experiment — E3M1, “Plague Village” — may have made this unusually convenient by doubling back a lot, sending you to fetch items and return rather than pressing forward all the time. Still, it means that unlimited saves are in this game basically a convenience rather than a game-changer, sparing you from sprinting back to the zone boundary periodically. Which makes me think that the whole business with the save gems was something of a design failure, and they were right to patch it out.

Daikatana: The Big Sword

At the beginning of the Greece chapter, and of the chapter that follows it, the Daikatana is your only weapon. Maybe we’re in a situation like Time Zone where time travel destroys any technology that would be anachronistic in the destination period. And it is, as I said, a difficult weapon to use. Pressing the fire button swings the sword, but it’s still not quite clear to me what this means. I spent some time in the beginning trying to figure out how to control the swings, make it swing left or right or thrust forward by various combinations of movement and button presses, but I’ve more or less convinced myself that this is pointless, that I’m better off ignoring the swipe animations and treating the sword as a kind of short-range gun that just does some damage somewhere in front of it whenever it fires. It’s hard to figure out just what its range is, but it’s definitely longer than I expected. Judging relative distances from a first-person camera is nontrivial. (Maybe I should do some experiments with swinging it at walls? It leaves glowing blue scars on any wall it hits.) So mainly you don’t try to be a master swordsman. You just wave it around and every once in a while something near you dies.

In contrast, the second weapon you acquire, the homing discus, is much easier to use, and has a much longer range, and what it’s doing is highly visible. And because it returns to your hand, you don’t have to worry about ammo. And yet I used the Daikatana preferentially for most of Greece. That’s because I wanted to power it up.

See, when you get the Daikatana, a new stat gets added to the summary that comes up when you press TAB, alongside the “Monsters: 37/63” and “Secrets: 0/4” or whatever. It simply says “Daikatana: 0.00/5.00”. This is not documented in the game or its manual, but from observation, it increases a little every time you kill something with the Daikatana, and every time it reaches an integer value, the sword’s flickering blue glow gets stronger and its ominous hum gets a little louder. (Killing things with the Daikatana also produces a swirling particle effect not seen in other kills. Perhaps this represents the sword devouring its victim’s soul.) But again, the exact effects are unclear, apart from a general “it’s gotten easier to kill things”. I’m pretty sure it’s firing its damage more frequently, but I’m mostly deriving that from the animations, which I’ve already decided not to trust.

I haven’t quite gotten the sword’s stat up to 5.0 yet. I was actually a little worried that it might get reset on episode transition, especially when the start-of-new-episode cutscene had Hiro talking about how the sword had been drained of energy, but it turns out the time-travel energy is orthogonal to the sword XP. What happens when the Daikatana stat fills up? I don’t know. Again, it’s not documented. Maybe it finally turns into the unstoppable history-altering superweapon I was promised. The irony is that even if it does, I’ll probably start using it less.

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