Game notes and reviews

Updated: 2006-07-29
Created: 2004-11-20

This document is an incomplete draft.

Computer game reviews

These reviews are very personal impressions, and are not meant to be in-depth.

Sniper Elite

It is with some embarassment that I am talking about Sniper Elite because I used to work next to the producer and designer for this game, which may prejudice my opinion.

In particular as my opinion is rather positive, because this is a game that stands out from a field crowded with games that are mindless, sequels or clones. Most notable recent example is Titan Quest that a review lauds as:

But despite this, Titan Quest remains the most successful Diablo clone of recent years. While it's a little dispiriting that the game has no higher ambition than sitting in the throne while Blizzard's king is engaged in important business elsewhere, it's still a highly capable custodian of the genre.

Of course Sniper Elite is not wholly original, and it may be described as Thief set in Battlefield 1942, but not quite of course.

The PR for the game makes a greatl deal of the accurate simulation of the sniper gun and action, including gravity drop, breathing and heatbeat, but these are mere details, even if they fulfil the unique selling point goal marketing people are fond of (misunderstanding that it should be a specific feature).

But really, the major elements are:

The combination is really fun, in the sense of being engaging. The player is engaged because outcomes are not obvious, and different approaches yield different situations that require different solutions; for example since the environment is active and firefights go on around you, different timing results in different outcomes. For example firing while artillery rounds are falling masks the noise of the shot and leads to a lower chance of detection.

In other words, there are tactical problems to solve, and there is even some element of strategy.

Many other games turn the player into a level janitor that just has to kill all the enemies in a level, tediously, corridor by corridor or into a platform jumper, or both, like the vastly overrated Half Life 2.

Because of the stealth element Sniper Elite might seem similar to Thief, but while Thief bored me, Sniper Elite does not, because the balance between stealth and action is much better (more action) in Sniper Elite.

Sniper Elite reminds me a lot as to engagement of the Apache Havoc masterpiece, with a sniper gun instead of an helicopter. Approaching under cover an enemy sniper, crouching, and taking him out with a rifle shot has the same tactical and tension elements as flying low behind hills to within range of enemy AA site and popping up and taking it out with an air-to-ground missile, something that one often wants to replay from a different angle, in both games.

Sniper Elite's active environment provides it with a sense of immersion and with much the same tactical elements as online play. It also an online play mode, which is to me a little less satisfying because while there is a rather active community of online players, online games don't quite have the same numbers of actors as offline ones.

Sniper Elite has only a few and minor weak points:

Quake 4

Well, Quake 4 is not too bad, and I like it better than Doom 3, both the gameplay (but then my favourite ID game is Quake 2) and the multiplayer aspect is rather better, but it requires even more memory and CPU power than Doom 3: at least 768MiB, and my Athlon XP 2000+ is not quite fast enough.


Half-Life 2

I have only seen the first two-three hours of gameplay, and finished the full Ravenholme demo level, and it is very disappointing as a game. The major two elements of gameplay are platforms and a bit of physics. Basically a mix of Donkey Kong, rolling barrels included, and Trespasser, with some occasional Mario Kart style vehicle runs.

The major positive element of gameplay so far is that it is the only major game I have seen so far with pallets among the profusion of crates. This is highly significant! The legendary game site Old Man Murray argued quite correctly that a strong indicator of game quality is the how soon and how many crates one finds, and that a profusion of crates was just a sign of lazy gameplay design, and in any case with all the crates that litter many games, there are no pallets around. Well, in Half-Life 2 there are lots and lots of crates, all obviously there as a filler, but at least finally there are also lots and lots of pallets!

Another positive element is the technology, as the graphics and the physics (the Ipion engine) are actually pretty good, and produce good looking scenery and interactions. But the extremely linear, platform style nature of the gameplay means that at least in the first 2-3 hours, and in Ravenholme, the player actually goes through endless corridors, even if the outside scenery is very open.

The plot is also interesting and there is are good characters, but they are not supported by interesting gameplay, which deadens the impact. admits that:

At first, Half-Life 2 feels a bit like a tired, old shooter in a very beautiful world. It seems like you're going to be falling into a long series of scripted sequences, led through the nose into one identical shootout after another.

Buth then argues that it grows on you:

But after a few hours, you'll start noticing that the physics-oriented gameplay, fantastic environments, and puzzles really turn this game into something far more than just an exquisite-looking, brainless action game.

which so far has not happened to me, as I am perhaps too weary of the worn out gaming cliches which the gameplay amounts to: the player ends up being both a level janitor and a platform jumper. The best bits are some of the occasional set pieces that offer some points of interest.

Tribes 2

Tribes 2 is a classic, a kind of expanded and deeper version of Team Fortress, another classic.

Tribes 2 is one of my favourite games for quite a number of reasons:

There are unfortunately some limitations and infelicities, that only detract slightly from the overall satisfaction:

My overall rating is that it is probably still the best and deepest online multiplayer game, rather better than pretty but shallow corridor shooters like Quake 3 or cruder team play forerunners like team Fortress or Counterstrike.

Doom 3


Unreal Tournament 2004

Pretty good technology, unfortunately always limited to a box (even if sometimes a large box) environment.

The vehicles add to the gameplay, especially a 3D element (elevation!), even if not quite as entertaining as the vehicles in Tribes 2.

There are several very irritating elements: the boundaries of the environment are not marked or otherwise visible, and it is easy to bump into them accidentally; players can jump around too much on foot, and are too fast; there are no jetpacks or energy or deployables.

So, it looks better than Tribes 2, but the gameplay is too much like Quake 3, or Quake 3 Fortress, and thus rather more shallow. No surprise that by far the most popular game type is Onslaught which involves some elements of tactical depth and some deployable like features.

One of the major pluses is that there is a set of ports and patches for GNU/Linux of the full 3D client, which is high quality and well maintained.

The UTXMP mod is far more like what UT2004 should have been, but practically nobody plays it (it is also a very large download).

Ah, and relatively few people play UT2004 anyhow, and then often on odd maps. I guess that most anybody is playing World of Warcraft instead. Too bad.


Apache Havoc

One of the more impressive, extraordinary games that I have played. The depth provided by a vast environment and the ongoing battle among AI driven units is absorbing and entertaining. Sometimes I have spent quite a bit of time just following the action, jumping into my virtual helicopter only occasionally to fight an engemement.

Also, flying a slow, low flying, stealthy helicopter with rockets is a lot more fun than most other flight simulations, especially fighter simulations:

Helicopters instead fly close enough to the ground, and slowly enough, that one can appreciate it (and the game renders the ground, even close up, pretty well, and the cities are especially amazing), and there are considerable tactical elements in positioning the helicopter, a game of stealth and cunning, painting targets and launching short range missiles.

There are technicalities involved in flying an helicopter too, but given its nature they are far less complicated than for warplanes. This game can deliver the full complexity, and one finds himself switching fairly often between the various sensors, but the basic flying is fairly easy, and one can delegate quite a bit of the avionics to the NPC copilot, and the degree of delegation has been wisely chosen.

Considering how quickly and cheaply it was developed, it is an inspired work, of amazing depth and balance. It did not sell well, mostly because of a dire lack of promotion, but those people who have discovered it have usually been awed.

In particular one can download several user contributed manuals, extensions, modifications and tools, which attest the passion of those that have discovered this accidental masterpiece.


Comanche Hokum

Extraordinarily absorbing, deep and entertaining, it improves (slightly) on the already awesome Apache Havoc with better graphics and richer environments, but mostly with better and more advanced helicopters which are more enjoyable to fly, because of improved avionics, which allow real or virtual pilots to concentrate more on exploring the battlefield and figthing than just running the vehicle.

I especially like the russian Hokum, a heavy tanklike helicopter, because of the counterrotating blades, which give it better handling; also the Comanche is mostly a reconnaisance helicopter, and the deepest engagements are instead those against anti aircraft batteries, and for those the Hokum is especially suited, given the long range of its missiles. Too bad that they are not fire-and-forget, but that adds to the excitement.

There are some excellent reports of what it is like to play this game, with good screenshots, on the main game site, for example this one. Even if I think that they play it wrong though, flying too high and too aggressively, as if it were a fast plane, where helicopter flying is all about moving slowly hiding at 10 meters above ground and attacking from cover.

An added bonus is the ability to integrate with an existing Apache Havoc setup and to fly the earlier helicopter and use the earlier maps too.

In part because while the Comanche Hokum are less gigantic and thus more focused than the ones for Apache Havoc, they are also sometimes less interesting: in particular the Yemen map is fairly boring.