Project Warlock Review

It seems that when I said “I’ll have to try it some time” I was referred to literally ten minutes after posting that update. I’ve now finished Project Warlock, currently a timed exclusive on GoG but soon to be available on Steam.

tl;dr I like it and I had fun playing it. It’s a great game although it isn’t a game-changer. It’s not an evolution on the formula or a brilliant return to form, it doesn’t blow me away, it’s just a solid game. For the price you pay for it it’s worth getting.

I settled into a rhythm and didn’t stop till I was finished, running from room to room killing everything that moved. It wasn’t very difficult, and I found myself enjoying it, but not getting immersed in it like I did with DUSK or Ion Maiden. A lot more thinking is required to play through those two, compared to Project Warlock.

Project Warlock uses low-res textures and chunky, cartoony sprites. The artwork is retro-inspired, not retro. Monsters are chunky cartoon-styled sprites that are about as detailed as you’d see in the 32 bit era. The textures are low-res, and give the world a weird almost GameBoy style feeling (there’s even a filter in the menu that can give all the colours a GameBoy filter).

Project Warlock uses pre-built levels that tend to be flat and grid based like Wolfenstein 3D. The engine can clearly do more, as room over room, platforms, elevators, and slopes appear at various points in the game, so this appears to be a stylistic choice. The levels flow well and don’t feel limited, like Chasm The Rift (a game that shares a lot of thematic similarities with Project Warlock).

After finding enough treasure and killing enough monsters, you level up and can spend upgrade points on increasing Strength (more melee damage), Life (more health), Spirit (more magic power) and Carry (hold more ammo). The spells are not actually very useful (except for ammo generation). You’re far better off sticking to guns, which are for the most part very satisfying to use. There’s a nice feeling of progression to the guns as well, and you can also upgrade them at your character’s workshop in-between missions.

Generally the graphic design in the game is good. The final episode has a particularly evil and oppressive feel, where you journey through strange corruptions of previous episodes, it almost felt like a ‘corrupted game’ creepypasta at first. Episode 1 is a slow burn as you gradually take over a medieval fortress. Episode 2 is much more enjoyable, and is a great homage to The Thing. Episode 3 is a little dull, taking place inside endless underground tombs in Ancient Egypt, while Episode 4 a frenetic battle in a dystopian city against increasingly powerful enemies in Appleseed inspired power suits and mecha.

Balance is an issue, with the game becoming significantly easier as you upgrade your high-tier weapons (even with the final episodes significant bump in enemy power). The bosses are impressively sized and look great, but are unfortunately too easy. The first boss of the game is the hardest by far; everything after that pales in comparison as by the time you reach the end of Episode 2 you’ve gathered enough upgrades to handle most challenges. The boss of Episode 4 was an absolute joke; dead before he could attack me once, and the final boss feels like he should have about twice as much health. [Edit: The latest patch has updated the final boss and made them significantly harder, although the Episode 3 boss is still a complete joke]

The final gun, a BFG homage, isn’t even that useful. If you have a hyper-sonic rocket launcher and the ‘Sammunor’ ammo generation spell, you won’t need to fear enemies again. This was part of the reason I was able to turn off my brain and play; I never really felt like I was in danger. After completing Episode 2 I only really remember my health dropping below 50 once, and I didn’t even notice it until the end of the level (where I escaped with 2hp remaining) – I think it needs to be more obvious when you take damage.

So that’s my impression of Project Warlock. The shooting is fun, the levels mostly flow well, the secrets are satisfying to find. Some of my critiques may get fixed by the devs soon, as they seem to be quite active fixing the game. They’ve already altered light levels by the looks of things, which a lot of other reviewers have mentioned, and a huge optimization patch is coming out very  soon too.

The Verdict

Project Warlock has clearly been made by people with a lot of love for the game. Sneaky references abound. It’s something that deserves a look if you’re a fan of the genre. It’s a competently made and interesting game. It won’t change your life, and it doesn’t redefine the genre, but you’ll enjoy playing it.

Worth the price of admission.

Quake: Dissolution of Eternity (Revisit)

1,000,000 hours in MS Paint

It’s time to play Quake’s second expansion.

It dives into the action faster than Scourge. There’s no warm-up techbase to get you started. You’re thrown straight into one of two episodes: a mainly medieval fortress, or a time travel themed episode. Episode 2 is the more interesting of the two, with a much greater diversity of levels offered by its’ theme.

Monster placement is suspect: shamblers in clear rooms, fiends in tight corridors, and ‘let’s spawn a scrag in front of that wind tunnel just as you jump in, so you fall into the lava and die’). The new weapons are minimum effort re-skins and lack oomph but they do make combat feel faster and more exciting.

The new monsters are introduced slowly. Some of the design choices strike me as baffling.

Who thought it was a good idea to make a Spawn the same colour as the wall textures?

I wish I could just click my fingers…

Dissolution is marred by designs like that. Slip ups that make some sections far more frustrating than they should be.

Quake: Scourge of Armagon (Revisit)

Well-coordinated and heavily armed group of eldritch abominations beaten by a ranger with the genre’s weakest shotgun and a grenade launcher with 14 foot max range.

This morning I finished my Scourge of Armagon run.

Scourge of Armagon is good fun and worth playing after finishing the ‘main’ campaign of Quake, but I don’t think it was worth full asking price. The new ideas are forgettable and (most) of the levels indistinct. I like the idea of Ranger (and possibly his homeworld?) continuing the war against ‘Quake’ which now seems to be the codename for all the Lovecraftian entities that want to attack Earth.

Scourge doesn’t seem to have had a lasting impact on Quake multiplayer, and its’ new features and weapons aren’t found in later Quake mods. It has this feeling of not being ‘canon’ as it introduced nothing iconic, and I doubt Id Software will ever care to reference it.

It’s just a new set of levels with a couple of new weapons, some new power-ups and a very small amount of new enemies. The new laser gun is great, and much preferred over the charge-eating lightning gun, while mjölnir went largely unused.

It starts fairly strong but the levels started to feel bland by the halfway point. They’re all fairly well put together but progression feels disjointed, even for Quake. Armagon having 0 personality and impact certainly doesn’t help things. He’s just an enemy fought in the last level (even Shub had some text at the end of each episode). There’s no sense of an evil plan, no feeling that you’ve invaded his home. The boss fight against Armagon himself is pretty lame; I had him dead in about half a minute.

The later levels feel samey. There is a noticeable overuse of Vores – while it is nice that the designers wanted to escalate Quake’s challenge, the lack of a new high-tier monster on the level of the Shambler / Vore hurts the encounters.

Scourge of Armagon is a competently put together expansion pack, but it is just a retreading. Good but forgettable. More Quake is always nice though.

Time for Dissolution of Eternity. Widely said to be the inferior expansion but which seems to get remembered more.

STRAFE: Millennium Edition

I knew how Strafe was going to turn out. I read the dev updates. I saw it coming. Strafe was more or less unplayable on my laptop but even then I knew I didn’t miss anything. What a waste.

The devs have since given it a massive much needed overhaul called ‘Millennium Edition’ and I gave it a go.

What is new? New room layouts (especially for the first zone, which is the blandest and worst designed environment in the game), loads of new monsters, new gun sounds, and performance optimization.

I had fun.

This might be because I’ve been cleaning black mold from a dank cellar all day.

There’s still balance issues. The AI still doesn’t feel quite right. The shotgun’s grenade upgrade is still a straight downgrade. Loot still feels too expensive. Armour is far too expensive for what you get. The jellyfish vents are still shit. It takes too long to get back into the game after dying.

I played it for half an hour, which is longer than I could stand to play the original. I enjoyed it and I’m going to play it again. I like the new layouts, monsters and weapon tweaks. If you’ve already bought Strafe you should try it.

I can’t recommend it to new players though. Maybe after the next overhaul.

Shadow Warrior (1997) Review

Who wants some Wang?
Over the summer I played through Shadow Warrior and all of its’ expansions using the Shadow Warrior Redux port available on Steam. It’s finally time to write about that experience.

Shadow Warrior was 3D Realms’ successor to Duke Nukem 3D. While Duke was a Hollywood badass, Shadow Warrior’s hero is an over-the-top Asian badass with callbacks to Hong Kong action films and Japanese ninja shows.

Shadow Warrior was less successful than Duke 3D, probably due to releasing so close to Quake which made it appear dated by comparison.

The Introduction
I first purchased Shadow Warrior Redux last year, but I struggled to get into it. Duke Nukem is eminently accessible. Hardcore, but accessible. I’m going to spoil things now and say that I ended up loving Shadow Warrior. It’s Duke Nukem dialed up. Less accessible, more hardcore, and in the end satisfying as hell.

My first attempt at Shadow Warrior left a mixed impression. The standard shuriken weapon felt under-powered, it was hard to melee the enemies. I stuck with it; learning to use the basic weapons, find new weapons, and how beat the elite ninja with the instant death attack. The game made me git gud and after that things started to get pretty damn enjoyable.

But after that I got stuck looking for a switch. So the first impression was a mixed bag. I stopped playing and took a long break from it.

As I wrote earlier, I finished Shadow Warrior and every expansion over the summer. After a few months hiatus I started a new game, stuck with it and had a blast. It takes longer to get into then Duke or Doom but it is great.

The Levels
Shadow Warrior has a lot of content to get through. Levels are themed around Asian city streets, rural valleys, mountain tops, temples, and isolated bases. Most levels are highly complex and key hunting is a major feature. Duke Nukem’s abstract realism is kicked up a notch, giving the sprawling levels a strange and almost dream-like quality to progression. The juxtaposition between urban realism, abstract countryside, ancient temples, high tech bases, and mystical weirdness works to create the feeling of a pleasantly bizarre adventure. It’s like stumbling through a shifting dreamworld. Sometimes levels appear to be linked with a strong connecting storyline, and other times you’ll find yourself catapulted into a bizarre new environment with no idea how you got there. Again, a strange but pleasant experience.

The levels are complex and lots of fun, but you need to keep your eyes open. There were perhaps three or four moments in the game where I felt completely lost and play ground to halt for five to ten minutes.

Gameplay
I mentioned the shuriken felt under-powered earlier. That’s because the shuriken is not Shadow Warrior’s iconic weapon. High level play depends on the rocket launcher and grenade launcher. Both are satisfying and dangerous. The grenade launcher has a massive blast radius that you’ll need to get used to, and is used for clearing out rooms. The rocket launcher is for dealing large amounts of damage to single enemies.

Perhaps appropriately, Shadow Warrior will put you into a kind of zen state where you end up leaping across the level blazing away with machine guns and bombs, clearing out unexplored chambers with high powered grenade launchers, blowing up tankier monsters with rockets, and finishing off the stragglers with shotguns and railgun blasts.

Generally the weapons are a lot of fun to use and when you’re in that zen state you’re in one of the best shooting experiences in FPS gaming.

Story and World
Shadow Warrior (1997) rides the early 80s to mid-90s wave of badly dubbed kung fu parodies and ninja shows, which were the only thing most westerners knew about China and Japan at the time. It was accused of racism when it came out and it can be hard to argue against that; but despite the puerile parodies Shadow Warriors’ approach to Asian culture at least seems to come from a place of love, even if not one of respect. The developers were clearly fans of anime and Asian action cinema, they just weren’t interested in making a serious or sensitive story line. Nor does Shadow Warrior need a serious storyline or a deep look into a new culture – it’s pure gameplay with a paper thin plot and a massive amount of penis jokes. Everyone’s mileage may vary, but I’d advise any shooter fan not to miss out on Shadow Warrior because they don’t like the faux Asian styling.

The plot is simple: you are Lo Wang, kung fu badass and former bodyguard to of the head of Zilla Corporation. Lo Wang is betrayed by Zilla. Lo Wang embarks on a quest for vengeance. Body parts fly and anime babes who don’t fit the art style respond to Lo Wang’s clumsy pick-up lines with automatic gunfire.

Sometimes Shadow Warrior slips from silliness into cringey childishness, but it’s mostly silly fun. Lo Wang is a dumb character but he’s also a really distinct character. It’s like the game as a whole.

There’s something oddly mischievous about him. He giggles with glee when the explosions start. He’s a complete wise-ass who’s having so much fun that in the end I found it hard not to get attached to him. As downright stupid as Shadow Warrior is sometimes, I couldn’t help crack a smile when using a phone caused Lo Wang to make a silly prank call.

Hello, is Big Bottom there? First name Iva. Iva Big Bottom? Heeeheeeheee!

Conclusion
Shadow Warrior is an ultra-violent, grossly offensive and ridiculous load of nonsense – and I loved it.

Shadow Warrior doesn’t give a damn what you think about it. It is what it is; a hardcore experience designed by a team of weirdos with a lot of experience making FPS games. It was made in 1997 for experienced first-person shooter fans, mixing late 90s architecture with early 90s design sensibilities.

I felt genuinely sad when I finished it and all the expansions. Someday I’ll return to Shadow Warrior and re-join Lo Wang the giggling idiot ninja.

I recommend Shadow Warrior.

EDIT: I did encounter a rare but recurring bug in Shadow Warrior Redux where the mouse stopped responding. The first expansion pack also has some glitchy sky textures near the end (although this might not be the port’s fault). Neither were deal breakers.

DUSK Preview

I’ve been playing DUSK

I’m 90 minutes in and I feel compelled to make a blog post about it. Here’s my thoughts on Dusk.

Dusk is a retro inspired first person shooter game that I’ve linked to previously. It doesn’t pretend to be a Quake-like 90s shooter while really being a procedurally generated rogue-lite. No. It really is a retro-inspired FPS. It has actual levels designed by an actual person, that offer variety, good map flow, carefully crafted challenge, and a sense of progression.

It’s good is what I’m getting at.

It’s amazing how much secrets they manage to cram into each level; I actually feel like I’ve learned something about level design from playing Dusk. Each level is full of secrets, some quite fiendish but virtually all of them signposted and dangled in front of you in some way.

The gameplay feels really smooth but took some getting used to. When I started I was surprised by the sheer speed at which everything moves. It took some getting used to; I initially thought it was too fast, with my character shooting across whole rooms and colliding with walls, but after taking a break and getting back to it, I didn’t have any issues with it at all. In fact the movement is responsive, precise, fluid, and just all around satisfying. Is it because I’d just come out of an extended map testing session using a keyboard only Chocolate Doom setup? Or has it really been too long since I last played Quake? Whatever the case, I jumped back in and had an absolute blast.

Did you know the best way to avoid a scarecrow’s shotgun blast is to sideways power slide while you blast him away with the double barrelled shotgun? Combat feels really awesome.

Levels feel Duke 3D influenced, semi-linear environments made with ‘abstract realism’. They all look like real places but not at the expense of gameplay. There are also some underground sections that feel very Quake-like.

Combat happens in encounters like in Doom or Duke, not in the arena style shooting of Painkiller, Serious Sam or Doom 4. While there are a few arena style challenges these are far from the norm. There are also some miniboss encounters which I found unusual for a Doom/Quake style game, but which are very welcome.

Difficulty and Accessibility

Let’s talk about challenge. I played the game on Ciro Miede (hard mode, basically) and following the Gggmanlives review I expected it to be similar to Doom’s ultra-violence. Well, it wasn’t – it offered up a hell of a lot of challenge, but there are other difficulties too.

Difficulty doesn’t seem to affect the numbers of monsters, it alters their AI and other variables. Lower difficulty enemies move slower and take a bit longer to react. You also start with more health and your armour (actually called morale) is a lot more effective. I really like this kind of difficulty. I intentionally played a lower difficulty setting in a ‘tanky’, non-exploratory style, and did very well. While experimenting with lower difficulties, I felt pleased with the range of abilities it could cater to.

Difficulty levels vary from Accessible (for people with reduced mobility) to Ciro Miede (true hard mode) and Duskmare (a one shot kills novelty hard mode). I really think that the different difficulty levels will accommodate any gamer, and Dusk is probably the most disability friendly FPS game I’ve seen.

I find that interesting that Dusk is so inclusionary since most faux-retro indie games try to market themselves as exclusionary – things for high skill people who remember the Good Old Times and not filthy casuals. Dusk though, seems to be made by people who really love 90s FPS games and who want everyone to try 90s FPS games because they’re great fun. It really says a lot about them and their game, which seems to be a true passion project.

There’s a wider lesson there I’m sure. When the big AAA games companies try to make games “accessible” they alter gameplay according to narrow focus groups and strip out or water down core features for a (possibly imaginary) ‘casual’ audience. With Dusk, New Blood have made a game able to challenge ‘hardcore’ FPS veterans while also accommodating ‘casual’ newbies without sacrificing the complexity of their design.

Story

You wake up hanging on a meat hook underground. A disembodied voice calls out “Kill the intruder” and three huge guys step out of the darkness with chainsaws. You pull yourself off the hook and grab two sickles. It seems the whole town of Dusk has been overrun by a mysterious cult, so you’d better kill everything.

That is quite literally the entire plot, but I look forward to over-examining the level visuals and announcing that Dusk has the ‘deepest lore’.

The atmosphere really is something special. It’s horrifying. Despite being a game about over the top running and gunning, Dusk exudes a bleak, oppressive horror atmosphere. It’s scary.

Dusk is separated into three story episodes. Only episode 1 is available at the time of writing, but buying Dusk gives you access to all three just like the Dooms and Dukes of old. Episode 1 (“The Foothills”) is the protagonist escaping the farms and entering the town of Dusk. It shows influence from Redneck Rampage, Blood, and every kind of hillbilly-themed horror film. Episodes 2 will supposedly have more of a military base or Half-Life theme, while episode 3 will be heavily Lovecraftian and probably Quake-inspired.

The protagonist is mute, but communicates via text pop-ups. Everything about them is up to you to decide, but do note that there is a dedicated button for doing tricks with you gun and a secret ‘smoke cigar’ option. The disembodied voice talks to you a few times in episode 1, sounding exactly like I imagine all 90s heavy metal band members to sound like, and he may or may not be the mind-destroying Great Old One waiting for you at the end of episode 3.

Conclusion

To summarize, I’m really pumped about Dusk. The devs have made all the right noises and, even better, they’ve actually followed up on that with decent gameplay and strong map design. It’s clear there’s a lot of love gone into development.

Dusk really is a return to form for the FPS genre.

Revisit: Chasm the Rift

I replayed this today for the first time in easily 18 years.

Chasm the Rift is an ‘also ran’ from the late 90s. It came out after Quake and just a few months before Quake 2. It looked dated when it arrived but the models have a lot of detail (for the time) and the textures are interesting enough that the graphics have aged surprisingly well. It’s a good first impression and I like this game a lot but no make mistake, Chasm is not an unfairly ignored cult classic.

Chasm plays like a cross between Wolfenstein 3D and Quake. If you’d thought that would be Doom, you were wrong. It’s Chasm. Polygonal mutants stalk  dark industrial outposts, ancient tombs, and medieval castles… most of which are flat and maze-like like Wolfenstein 3D. It has a 2.5D engine like Doom but with 3D models are used for items, enemies, and decoration.

For the most part, Chasm feels good to play. Enemies take a few shots to kill like in Quake, but they’re not bullet sponges and they’re decently designed even if few of them actually stand out. The guns aren’t original but they feel good to use and the game has a satisfying dismemberment system that was (at the time) revolutionary. Popping off a joker’s head with a well-placed laser bolt feels great.

What doesn’t feel great are at times cheap monster placements (episode 3 is quite bad for this, with poorly placed ambushes and cramped ‘arena’ fights) and confusing level layouts. While episode 1 and episode 4 have an OK flow, episodes 2 and 3 can be very confusing, with almost non-functional platforming thrown in for good measure.

The levels are also really cramped, which limits your weapon choice and makes some fights very frustrating. In episode 4 the hallways widen and there are even some open areas, which hugely improves the gameplay. These sections are great and it’s a shame that as it is, you rarely feel like you can let loose.

Not only are the levels sometimes confusing, they’re also unambitious. This is downright infuriating because the game shows that it’s capable of much more. The game plays with heights in places but for the most part everything is flat like in Wolfenstein 3D. Similarly, lighting effects are used well in some places while other areas stick to a dull default lighting level.

Chasm is extremely short. It is 16 levels long, split into 4 episodes with 4 levels each. It feels like the team ran out of time as some gameplay elements are under utilized. One cutscene mentions an advanced security network with cameras and gun turrets, but I only encountered a single gun turret enemy in the entire game. In the second to last level you’re introduced to an explosive barrel – they’re sitting by a corridor corner and they are never seen again after that (note: some barrels are seen in level 1, but I don’t recall them being destructible). Episode 1 starts with some interesting weather and wind effects, with a flapping window and paper on a desk – very impressive for the time. I didn’t see that flapping paper effect anywhere else.

The ending also leaves a lot to be desired. The final boss is boring, anticlimatic, and gives no closure to the story. It’s straight out of the Quake play book, but at least Shub-Niggurath’s Pit was large enough to walk around.

Chasm does a lot of things right as well. It’s a fun game (mostly). Most enemies are easy to tell apart and are nicely detailed. I’d even say that they look better than the monsters in Quake. The levels are also grouped into distinctive themes, helped by the time travel plot, and the game uses these themes to deliver solid concepts for it’s levels. You feel like you’re making progress. Sound design is also quite decent, the ambient music works well and gives the game a nice creepy atmosphere.

To conclude: I had a blast playing it. I just wish it lasted longer and let itself flex it’s muscles. It’s a shame the devs never made a sequel – with more confidence with their engine and increases in computer power, they could have cut loose a little and made something really awesome. It’s too bad that could never have happened in the post-Quake 2 arms race.

Honestly I had a blast playing Chasm, but it was three hours long and left me feeling like it could have been a lot more.

The game has never been re-released or remade, which is a shame. The company has also disbanded, so there’s no moral dilemma in looking for a download. I recommend the one linked at the bottom, which has all the patches needed to get it running on modern systems already applied.

Wins:
Satisfying combat, varied enemy design, clear themes for each episode, generally good art design, and good ambient sound.

Sins:
Poor level design, poor monster placement, very short length, underwhelming puzzle bosses.

Conclusion:
Decent but flawed shooter.If you are a retro FPS fan, give it a try. If you’re not that invested in the genre, don’t rush to it.

Get it here:
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B29kL7cygjVuTWh0LW9XX2xLTlE/view