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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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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Daikatana: To Greece!

At the end of Episode 1, you finally get your hands on the game’s titular weapon, the Daikatana (Japanese for “big sword”), which is suspended in a force field apparently generated by a bunch of brains in vats. The Mishima regime has it locked away because they fear its power — the very power they used to achieve world domination. It’s not just a big sword. It’s also a time machine. When you get it, Mishima-san himself shows up with his own time-displaced Daikatana to pull a reverse Samurai Jack, expelling Hiro and his droogs from the future that is Mishima and into the legendary past.

And by “legendary” I mean Greek. It’s a very videogamey, cobbled-together-without-reference sort of ancient Greece, too, the sort you’d see in Tomb Raider or Serious Sam. By leaving behind the sci-fi environments of Episode 1 (and Quake and Doom before it), we’re into the realm of not just the fanciful but the unrealistic and inconsistent. Not that I care much! The sudden environmental shift from dystopian gloom to bright sunlight and wide-open spaces and Heroic Fantasy music has been quite enjoyable.

It’s also done a lot to clarify the intent of Episode 1. It wasn’t just a continuation of the style of Doom and Quake, but an exaggeration of it, even a parody. Where Quake had the Strogg chopping human bodies up to make cyborgs, Daikatana has similar machines processing corpses into hamburgers. Where Doom gave us a chainsaw and a double-barreled shotgun, Daikatana gives us a chainsaw-fist-glove that takes a moment to rev up and a sort of shotgun-revolver capable of firing six shells in rapid succession. These things are jokes. And the only thing that kept me from understanding this was the complaints from gamers who desperately wanted to take it all seriously.

And because those jokes only make sense in the context of an exaggeratedly brutal future, Episode 2 replaces everything. Some things are merely reskinned: instead of medical machines, for example, there healing fountains that do the same thing. But also, you face completely different monsters, replacing the various robots, mutants, and security guards with sword-wielding skeletons, giant spiders, griffins, and the occasional shuriken-throwing ninja because Mishima still wants you dead. And you face them with a new assortment of thematic weapons, like discuses that act like the frisbees from Tron and a lightning-blasting trident. But at first, the only weapon you have is the Daikatana itself. And for all that you’ve been told about its incredible power, it’s really hard to get used to. I’ll go into more detail about it in another post, but it suddenly requires you to fight in a completely different way, getting close up and dodging back in something like the Underworld Shuffle instead of the FPS-standard constant backpedaling.

Anyway, the main surprise is that at at this point I am just unreservedly enjoying the game. Switching up the mood and gameplay helps it enormously — It may not be the underappreciated masterpiece Romero has claimed, but it’s a better sequel to Doom and Quake than Unreal II was to Unreal.

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Daikatana: Mikiko

Towards the end of Episode 1, you finally rescue Mikiko, a sexy rebel woman who sought to use the power of the Daikatana against the Mishimas, from the deepest cell under their fortress. She joins you as a sidekick, completing the trio seen posing on the CD case like an excessively earnest 80s pop band. These last two missions of the episode are also when the sidekicks suddenly come down with a case of the stupids and spend a lot of their time running in place, held back by slight irregularities in the ground, or repeatedly jumping up and down at the foot of a staircase. “Ah yes”, I think, “This is what I was promised. I should not have doubted that this game would deliver.” Although it’s strange that this is so variable. Maybe these levels are harder for the AI to navigate because they have more moving parts? Or maybe the makers of patch 1.3 just never got around to them?

Mikiko’s design looks a bit strange to me. I suppose that’s mainly because she’s a Japanese woman who, in contrast to the vast majority of Japanese women in videogames, isn’t drawn anime-style. But there’s the thing: Anime and manga often looks to white westerners like depictions of white westerners. That’s because it isn’t really a photorealistic depiction of anyone. It’s stylized in a way that says “This is someone like you”. Whereas Mikiko is clearly foreign, exotic. Once again, this is the outsider’s view, Japanophile rather than Japanese, and not even the sort of Japanophile who watches anime. But what makes it feel really strange is that it doesn’t give this treatment to the player character, Hiro Miyamoto, who’s just as Japanese as she is and even more enthusiastic about it. Hiro has a face that, to me, reads as not just white but space marine. He even has a space marine voice, a little growly and gravely and with an American accent. Mikiko speaks with a Japanese accent. I think all the characters other than Hiro and Superfly do.

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Daikatana: Superfly

Another couple of levels in. I’ve hit the episode’s major plot revelation: that the world-dominating Mishima Corporation is using their prisons as a source of meat for their fast-food restaurants, in a process you get to witness over the course of multiple rooms of conveyor belts and automated butchering machines. 1There is a real Mishima Foods, Inc. They manufacture various Asian sauces and soup mixes sold in grocery stores. I wonder if they reacted to this? And as juvenile-gross as it is — or attempts to be, anyway, as there’s only so much you can do in this engine — I have to admit that it’s more integration of plot and gameplay than I was expecting. Heck, it’s more plot than Doom or Quake ever had.

Probably in part because the in-game models don’t make it sufficiently clear what the machines are doing, the game provides some running commentary from the player’s sidekick, a large black man named Superfly Johnson. (He also sometimes spontaneously says things like “Suck it down!”, which is a little embarrassing.) I rescued him from the prison’s torture rooms a couple of levels ago and he’s been tagging along ever since — the game doesn’t let you leave him behind. Mr. Johnson helps you out in fights, and, while he doesn’t always act in the ways I wish, sometimes getting in the way of my shots or whatever, it’s well within the range of behavior you’d expect from a human teammate. I was expecting a lot worse. Back in the day, the NPC behavior was often cited as the worst, jankiest part of the game. He’s supposed to be always getting stuck on level geometry and firing rockets at my back and so forth. What happened?

What happened is that I installed the latest patch. And to be clear, Patch 1.3 is an unofficial patch, created by fans of the game rather than by its creators or publisher. I installed it mainly because I wanted to play in widescreen, but “updated and greatly improved AI paths and nodes” is part of the package. And that raises a question: Should I be playing the best version of this game? If I’m playing it mainly to see what everyone found so disappointing, shouldn’t I be experiencing it at its worst?

I don’t think so. Any flaw that can be fixed in a fan patch is a superficial flaw, not worth commenting on. I’d be more concerned if it made major changes to content — but even there, I willingly installed a patch that added some encounters to Temple of Elemental Evil. And anyway, I think for now I’ll trust the game’s fans to tell me what is and isn’t true to the spirit of the thing. They approve of this patch — they made it. I should trust it too.

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1. There is a real Mishima Foods, Inc. They manufacture various Asian sauces and soup mixes sold in grocery stores. I wonder if they reacted to this?
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Daikatana: Skills

A couple more levels in now. So far, it’s still basically just a glorified Quake WAD punctuated by occasional amateurish in-engine cutscenes. But I just acquired my first NPC sidekick, so we’ll see how that goes.

I’ll say this: It’s behind its time, design-wise. It was released in 2000, two years after both Unreal and Half-Life. Did it learn anything from either of them? Not really, or at least not at the level of interaction. I keep trying to use alt-fire, or reload my weapon, and am frustrated in the attempt. I’m pretty sure I didn’t care for the idea of manually reloading when games first started experimenting with it, but it’s come to fill a psychological need: the urge, during moments of downtime, to do something to prepare for the next encounter, however small.

But it has added one thing that wasn’t in Quake: a leveling and skill point system. Not a very large one, mind you. Just five skills: Power (how hard you hit), Attack (how fast you hit), Speed (how fast you move), Acro (how high you jump), and Vitality (max health). So it’s all very closely tied to the FPS gameplay. My first inclination was to sink as many points as I could into Acro, the better to access secrets and shortcuts, but frankly, even after maxing it out, it doesn’t seem to have a very large effect. Once you’ve upgraded Acro at all, any jump you make plays the Six Million Dollar Man bionic jump sound effect, but I’m not jumping anywhere near as high as Steve Austin. I’m hoping that the upgrade cap will get raised at some point.

The weirdest thing about upgrading skills is that, as far as I can tell, you can’t do it with the default controls. You have to go into the options menu and bind keys to “upgrade power”, “upgrade attack”, etc.

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