Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Police Quest: in Pursuit of the Death Angel

Out of all the old Sierra Quest titles Police Quest has always been the most peculiar one. It's not because the Police Quest titles are particularly well designed games, but because they are designed by a real, retired police officer with an intention of showing what being a police really is like. And what being a police really is like isn't always very exiting: you cruise the city with your squad car, looking for things to do, you are stickler for details, no matter how boring they'd be and most of the time you just write speeding tickets or arrest drunk drivers. In a word, Police Quest is everything but an action oriented story movies or other police themed games usually end up as.

In Police Quest you enter in the shoes of Sonny Bonds, a regular cop in the little city of Lytton. First things you learn are, that you'll die if you don't go to the morning briefing or if you fail to perform a vehicle security test by physically walking around it. Then you'll learn, that a good portion of the game is spent by cruising around the city on a overhead map of Lytton, looking for perps. There's a plot of drug trafficking that's is going on in the city, but the first part of the game has Sonny just on the beat, stumbling upon stuff that relates to the actual plot, while a good part is just regular policing.

And I mean regular. There's speeder, traffic light violation, drunk driver and a disturbance caused by biker gang at a local watering hole. None of these are plot essential, they're just things that a police officer has to handle and they're an excuse to see how well you can perform REAL police procedures. And in a sense these things are what make the game stand out despite it's not necessarily the best game around. Especially the VGA remake is strict with these procedures to the point of that during booking you need to give out the codes of every violation if you want to have a full score, where as in the EGA original you can get away by giving the reason as "drunk driving" or "drugs".

Lytton PD looks a bit different in the VGA version.
Those cases really make Police Quest feel more unique in comparison to other games. I've even read, that at some police stations Police Quest was used as a real rehearsal tool because of how strict it is with the procedure. The overall drug plot does go into relatively cliched cop show direction, with all the back room gambling and all, but even that has a air of real police work if not all that realistic feeling time scale. In it Sonny isn't the action hero either, but a cop that needs to trust his backup.

Make no mistake about it though, Police Quest is an old school adventure game in all good and bad. The game itself is filled with dead ends and sudden deaths. You can miss an important item and are forced to restore a previous game because of that. You can mess up in a crime scene and suffer because of that.  But in  a sense all that just feels fitting to a police game, as the things you do are fairly logical and the puzzles very often are about police work and being a detective, not trying to solve some arbitrary, moon logic dilemmas.  In a way Police Quest is more of a narrative driven game than any other Sierra Quest title.

The most annoying part of the game, both the original EGA and the VGA remake, is  cruising around the city. In the original it's more of a pixel perfect arcade trial and in a VGA remake it's just annoyingly executed  sequence with too small driving map. And then there's the poker game at the end. For some reason Sierra designers loved adding gambling bits to their games.

Pixel precise arcade or a bit more boring hit a correct arrow model of driving
Surprisingly enough I actually do prefer the driving from the original version. The VGA remake turns the driving just boring, where as the original feels more fun with the AI cars driving around Lytton, causing you to crash with them on an occasion. On the long run neither of them is great, but at least original has an element of joy after you've mastered it. If you like that kind of arcade action that is. Other wise it's a choice between challenging arcade driving and boring "press arrow to turn and wait" driving. 

But in any case, what is evident from Police Quest: in Pursuit of the Death Angel is, that it was designed by a former police. While Jim Walls never did became more than a competent (and some might consider even that a stretch) game designer, he knew what being a police was about and that he brought in to the game.  Only other game that lets you to do actual police work in a similar scale is the 1950's themed L.A. Noire, where you can actually investigate the scenes and even interrogate people. Not many games have dared to tackle being a police in a similar manner and even L.A. Noire has a quite a bit of action scenes in it, which Police Quest almost completely lacks, as cops do try to subdue  suspects, not kill them.

Out of the two versions, I'd recommend the VGA remake. The mouse driven UI makes the game more playable, especially for modern gamers. Also it adds music to the game, which is nice and the story is beefed up a bit. For an example the original EGA game had a small sub plot of "the Gremlin", who does practical pranks to the captain. In the VGA version the identity of "the Gremlin" is dwelled further.

Lytton city courthouse
VGA remake also makes the end game a bit easier by giving you a choice of playing the poker. You can still play the poker games if you want, but you can also just jump over them to a next plot point.
So in conclusion, is Police Quest a good game? I'd say yes, but it certainly isn't a great game. The way it handles the subject matter is what makes it shine, despite all the game elements don't necessarily work as well as intended. It's also a frustrating game, which requires you to read the manual if you want to know the actual procedures and in what order to do them in, so it certainly isn't a game for everyone.

Every time I play Police Quest, it makes me hope, that more games in the similar vein would be released. Not simulators, but story driven games where you can actually be a cop. Not a superhero cop, nor an angsty or depressed TV cop, but a regular cop, doing what cops do. No huge shoot outs, just trying to process a crime scene, finding evidence or trying to get out of potentially violent situations without need of killing everyone.

Police Quest games are available as a collection through GOG.

As you might guess from my score, it's pretty easy to miss points if you don't follow the procedures to a T.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan the Barbarian (1982), directed by John Milius, written by John Milius, Oliver Stone, based upon characters created by Robert E. Howard, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez

Conan the Barbarian can be seen as a lot of things. It can be seen as a silly comic book adaptation or as an adaptation of Robert E. Howard's original stories which misses the character of Conan but gets the feeling right. Some even might consider it a campy b-flick or a take on the directors own right wing world view. Or you just might think it's an okay fantasy adventure movie.   

But of one thing there's no doubt in my mind, Conan the Barbarian directed by John Milius, still is one of the greatest fantasy movies ever made, even post Lord of the Rings. It's one of those rare movies, where almost everything lines up correctly. And it's not really campy at all, that's more on the sequel Conan the Destroyer. I wouldn't even consider it a b-flick either.

Most movies tend to age, and they do that badly. A lot of movie made in the 1980's or 1990's feel and look like it, more often than not to a degree which makes them unintentionally funny or just otherwise dated. Some movies just don't manage to stand on their own when taken out from the era and context they were made in. But Conan the Barbarian isn't one of those movies. To elaborate, CtB belongs into the rare breed of movies, which have certain air of timelessness about them.

There's a spark in CtB than can't be denied. Sure, it's not necessarily the worlds best acted movie at times. Especially Arnold had very little experience as an actor and that shows when he is uttering his lines. But here's where Milius's genius comes in, as he has limited the amount Arnold actually does speak. A lot of his scenes, even those with Sandahl Bergman (who's pretty great) are done in a manner where the wonderful music of Basil Poledouris sweeps over it all, making the movie feel like an opera. And then there's those great actors, who do the talking, like Max von Sydow and James Earl Jones, who both are giving far better performances than you'd expect to see in a movie like this.

Thulsa Doom isn't a particulary nice guy.
While the character of Conan isn't necessarily very close to the original Conan Robert E. Howard created in his pulp stories, Milius does nail the world view of Conan stories very nicely.  There's a relentless quality about the character, in how he acts and what he does and why he does what he does.

another aspect of the world that just works is how it looks. The hyperborean age Conan lives in just looks right, like it could have existed. It looks like an ancient world, which was old already when the story begins. It's a worn out world, which is just waiting to collapse under its own weight as the structures have gotten so old and tired. It shows in the cities, the buildings, the people and the clothes and the locations.

I already mentioned the music, but I do think I need to mention it again, as the soundtrack of Conan the Barbarian is one the best ever done for any movie. It really just is the icing on the cake, which makes a movie based upon a pulp hero so much more credible.

At the core of the story of Conan the Barbarian is Conan's quest for revenge. As a young boy his whole villager was raided by Thulsa Doom (played fantastically by James Earl Jones) and Conan himself was sold to slavery. As he grew he became a gladiator and later on, when he was released, he became a wandering sword man. But he always was seeking sign of two snakes becoming one, the sign of Thulsa Doom.

Valeria, Conan and Subotai. Unlike in many other incarnations of Conan, he actually is wearing more than just a loin cloth in Milius's vision.
We see Conan travel the fabled hyperborean age with his friends Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). It's a world that is worn and old and fantastic. Filled with awe and wonder. It feels alive and real in a manner not many movies, including the sequel, don't manage to feel and in such the world becomes just as big of a character than the characters themselves. It has always saddened me, that Milius wasn't allowed to continue with the Conan saga and it was practically destroyed with a hamfisted sequel.

As I said, I don't think Conan the Barbarian has really aged at all. Unlike many other movies in the sword and sorcery genre, it hasn't turned into an unintentionally campy comedy.  No, I think it has fared time better than a lot of other movies, even those which in their time were considered superior and were even awarded with Oscar's and other awards.

As a movie Conan the Barbarian stands tall. It's still the best take on the character as well as it is the best adaptation of the material written by Robert E. Howard. And that, I think, simply is because Milius just seemed to understand the mind of that alcoholic schizophrenic better than any other director out there.

Had there been justice in the world, we would have gotten two more Conan movies by Milius, ending with the teased King Conan (which might pan out in some form in the future, if not with Milius directing, then at least from his script).

Monday, August 15, 2016

Mars Attacks Popeye (written by Powell, M, art by Beatty, T., 2013)

Do you remember Mars Attacks!? That Tim Burton helmed movie from the mid 90's, where a martian race that had huge, bulging brains attacked the Earth and in which Jack Nicholson had a dual role and ended up being killed twice in one movie? If you don't, maybe this will kindle some kind of a spark:
Handsome fella, ain't he?
I've thought that was the last of it: a silly sci-fi flick with a strong strain of dark humour. I was wrong, the series, that started up as a collectible card thingy in the 1960's has lasted to this day in form of comics, especially crossover comics. One of which is Popeye. Yes, that same sailor man, who likes his spinach:

Now here's a man who knows that violence is the answer to a lot of problems.
So, yeah. While I wasn't really expecting to see more of Mars Attacks!, I was less expecting to see a crossover comic with Popeye. World is a funny place like that. IDW comics has also done other crossovers with Mars Attacks!, like with Ghostbusters, Judge Dredd and Transformers. So, again, yeah, why not Mars Attacks! Popeye.

I do think the whole Popeye/Mars Attacks! is an interesting little mix. It does feel very much like a Popeye comic (or at least what I recall of them, as it has been time since I've read any) and the style of comedy it has going on seems fitting in tone. It's not a complicated nor an extremely well though out of a story, but then again, that's not really what Popeye is known for, I believe. The attack of the martians is just an excuse to let Popeye dunk a tin of spinach and let it loose.

I didn't find the comic itself laugh out funny. It's more of an amusing little idea, that carries to the end more or less the way I'd imagine a typical Popeye comic would, but instead of handing it to Bluto, Popeye teaches the Martians a thing or two. Unlike in the movie, we don't see any humans dying, so there's no surprise deaths around. No reason to fret about seeing Olive or Alice the Goon getting fried. Also, the style of violence that is shown feels very much in par what the Popeye comics have always had.

And that, I think is the most interesting aspect about this whole thing: how much it looks and feels like a genuine Popeye tale. It isn't re-inventing Popeye nor is it trying to make something of Popeye he's not, despite the Martians probably are more violent than any other being in the original world of Popeye. The whole thing ends up with a smack down and a hardy laugh and I guess, with Popeye in mind, that's enough.

As I said, I never did imagine I'd be seeing a crossover story with Popeye and Mars Attacks! Martians, but none the less, here it is. I don't think it's the greatest thing I've seen in my life, but it is amusing enough for what it is, if not very enduring piece of entertainment.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary

I've never been a huge Trek man myself. Out of the series I've seen only the original series in its entirety and that happened only a couple of years ago. I'm also fairly certain I've seen, if not all, at least most of the movies. The Next Generation and the others are mostly familiar to me only through Picard face palm memes and what not. As far games go, I'm almost at loss, if not counting the adventure titles Interplay did in the early 90's, 25th Anniversary and Judgment Rites. Today I'm going to review the first of the two.

What I recall of the original series, 25th Anniversary does manage to capture the feeling of the show pretty nicely. As an adventure game it manages to convey more of the story aspect of the series, leaving the action as a secondary matter. Sure enough, there is action in the game in the form of a couple of shoot outs and even space battles where you get to steer the Enterprise itself in a bit of a clunky space sim. Out of this comes the biggest minus of the game itself, as the ending battle against 3 Elasi ships is such a cruel task, that instead of playing the game fully through, I just watched the ending through YouTube. And in the end, the finale was a bit of an anticlimax, so I didn't really feel that I had missed anything great.

I'm not entirely sure flying a space ship requires goggles, but that's pirates for you.
Another minus is the UI. 25th Anniversary is fully mouse driven, but at the same time it's not really comfortable UI to use. With the right mouse button you'll get a menu giving you different options, after which you can either interact on the screen or go to inventory. This whole thing has been executed in such a poor manner, that it just feels overly cumbersome especially in comparison to Lucasarts or Sierra titles of the time. The way the UI works is the most cumbersome on when you need to combine inventory items, as the game doesn't really give any feedback on wrong combinations. This makes some puzzles a bit more harder than they really are, especially when you need to jump back in the inventory each time you try a combination.

As far the story goes, 25th Anniversary works like the TV series. Instead of one, long story, the game is segmented into 7 smaller episodes, which take the crew of the Enterprise in different areas of the federation space, figuring out how to solve issues in a best possible way. Every mission is evaluated and scored. What kind of a speech you get from the Starfleet at the end depends on the score, as if you do well, you are applauded, if not, then reprehended. As you can do things differently, by brawn or brains, there's also some amount of replay value, especially if you want to do everything just right.

I assume Mudd is a fan favourite, so I'll just say that the stories include fan favourites like Mudd.
As stories, the episodes aren't anything really spectacular. You'll solve conflicts and try to further peace in the galaxy, but nothing about it is really stand out material. They're not bad, mind you, and as far I can tell, they're very Star Trek appropriate.

Graphically Star Trek looks okay. It's not as great looking, nor nicely animated, title as what the big dogs of the genre, Sierra and Lucasarts, were pushing out at the time, but it looks decent enough. Music is okay, but the proof of the pudding comes in the form of the original cast, which reprises their roles here, making the 25th Anniversary feel more than a bit like an official season of the original series. But, as I said, I've never been a huge Trek man myself, so I wouldn't know how the fans really do feel about it.

With the annoyances in mind, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary is a relatively fun game. There's room for improvement in it, and I'd actually love to see the UI fully revamped as it really is bringing the game down, as well as the clunky space battle bits. Still,  if you are looking for a good Star Trek game it still is a pretty good choice, all things considered.

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary is available through GOG and Steam. And it's not terribly expensive either.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Witcher 3: DLC expansions and my final conclusion

 I think it's fair to call the DLC offerings of the Witcher 3 expansions more than anything else: they add around 30-40 hours of new game content all in all. The first one,  Heart of Stone, adds more story to the original game regions, where as Blood and Wine adds brand new area of Toussaint, where the main story takes Geralt to do some more monster hunting as well as poking around more points of interest.

Heart of Stone adds a nice, little tale of mystery to the game. It begins when Geralt finds a notice about a monster that needs to be slain, but after accepting it he finds himself falling pretty deep into the rabbit hole before he manages to come out from the other side. Besides the main story, HoS has also some side quests as well as new rune smith, who can create more powerful enchantments on weapons and armor. The official addition to the game is around 10 hours of game play, but in general it might depend more on how wealthy you are on the moment you start the expansion (which you can do either from the game itself or from a menu with a character created solely for the purpose), as collecting enough money for the rune smith quest might be more laborious of the tasks at hand.

The story content itself is pretty solid little horror mystery, but I must confess I didn't really use the services of the rune smith that much. I did unlock his traits, as to that point I was already quite wealthy, so it was just a question of giving him what he needed, but in the end, I didn't utilize his services.

Geralt's own vineyard at Toussaint.
Blood and Wine on the other hand plays out as an entirely new game area. Toussaint has some picturesque landscapes, big cities and smaller towns, caves and monster dens and abandoned sites. In short, all you'll find from the other larger areas of the DLC free W3. Officially it's stated to be around 30 hours more of content and it probably is, if you'll rummage through all the points of interest from the map as well as do all the missions you can.

Again the main story begins as a monster hunt, and it does stay that way to the end, it just is that the case at hand has more shades of gray in it and you can, if you want, try to make the ending at least seemingly happy one, despite there's ton of crap that flies the fan before the ending point. Blood and Wine also acts as a final chapter of of sorts in the tale of Geralt and Yennefer, though you can still continue completing the unfinished business after the end if you so choose.

Yennefer taking some much needed R&R
As far the game itself goes, the DLC packages offer more of the same. It's safe to assume, that if you liked the original game, you'll like the DLC packages as well, so that in mind, I'd recommend buying them. If you didn't like the main game itself, I doubt the DLC content will make you like the world of Witcher, so draw your conclusions from that.

Even without the DLC, The Witcher 3 is among the best open world games out there. It has very unique feel about it and the world feels genuine with its folk lore laced atmosphere. Unlike many other RPG's out there, the world of Witcher isn't trying to ape up Tolkien, but is more content on trying to create something different. And what's it worth, I think it works extremely well.

The DLC content for the Witcher 3 is available through GOG and Steam either as individual packages or as a single season pass. The main game is available from same sites. Go get.