1654: Pay Attention, Bon– Err, Remington

I felt like trying something new today, so after toying with the idea of downloading legendary military sandbox Arma III (and eventually resisting — its £35.99 price point is a little too high for me to consider taking a risk on it at the moment) I wandered over to GOG.com and took a look at a game that has caught my interest several times over the years: Sid Meier’s Covert Action.

I remember first seeing adverts for Covert Action back in multi-format games magazine Advanced Computer Entertainment (aka ACE) way back around 1990, when the game first came out. I recall being intrigued by the prospect of what looked like a fairly convincing “spy game” — something that hadn’t really been done at the time, and certainly not in the way that Covert Action chooses to do things.

Covert Action is, unlike other espionage-themed games on the market, very much a “spy simulator”. Straddling a line somewhere between a surprisingly huge number of different genres, Covert Action casts you in the role of superspy Max (or Maxine) Remington as he (or she) attempts to foil the devious plots of various bands of criminals around the world. These plots range from simple thefts all the way up to the construction of doomsday devices, but the execution remains the same: gather evidence, infiltrate facilities, intercept communications and eventually — hopefully — bring the perpetrators to justice. Or, if you’re as incompetent as me, arrest a few of them and allow the remaining criminals to happily get away with what they were planning.

Covert Action is split into a number of different components. The “main” part of the game, if you can call it that, involves moving from location to location both within cities and around the world, and choosing the best course of action. Actions always take varying amounts of time, so if you spend too long dilly-dallying around, you’ll find the criminals get one, two, three steps ahead of you before you know it. This is a game about preventing a crime before it happens rather than solving a crime that has already happened, and as such you have to go about things a little differently to how you might do in other games; you have to anticipate what your opponents’ moves might be, then react accordingly, ideally to catch them in the act and be able to arrest them in such a manner that causes the remainder of their plot to fall to pieces.

Choosing to perform various actions in the game’s locations triggers minigames. Choose to wiretap a building’s phones, for example, and you’ll be confronted with a challenging PipeMania-esque puzzle where you must reroute power away from both the phones and the alarm systems of the building. Choose to decrypt an intercepted communication from one of the perps and you’ll actually have to crack the code using your own brainpower. Opt to tail a suspect and see if they lead you anywhere interesting, and you’ll find yourself playing an oddly strategic driving game in which you order two cars around in an attempt to follow the suspect without arousing their suspicions. And choose to break in to a facility and you’ll have to actually infiltrate it yourself.

It’s this latter part of the game that tends to form the meat of most investigations — and it’s also an aspect that Meier himself was somewhat dissatisfied with, feeling that the game’s minigames weren’t tied together in a coherent enough manner. Break-ins are not the only option for gathering information, but they’re by far the most efficient and as such you’ll spend quite a lot of time doing them.

They take the form of an interesting pre-Metal Gear stealth action game in which you control Max as s/he explores a randomly generated building, opening filing cabinets and drawers and photographing all the files s/he can. You’ll also have to deploy bugs in various items of furniture in order to raise your ability to perform remote surveillance on the building, and recover incriminating evidence from safes if you want to “turn” your opponents over to your side rather than simply arresting them. Some interesting, rudimentary AI sees guards patrolling the building and looking out for unusual things — containers you neglected to close, for example. You can also trick them somewhat by knocking one of them out and then disguising yourself in their uniforms — in a nice touch, your disguise will only continue to work if you don’t allow them to look at your front or side for any length of time, leading to some comic situations as Max stares at a wall, hoping that the guard who just opened the door behind him/her doesn’t decide to come in and check the room more thoroughly.

All the while you’re investigating, the criminals are working on their plot in the background, and if you’re not quick or careful enough, they will succeed. Regardless of whether you “win” or “lose” a case, however, the game continues, and you’re evaluated on your performance, with a certain number of points being available for each mission according to who you managed to arrest, what key items you managed to confiscate and whether you actually managed to foil the plot at all.

It’s a difficult, challenging, ambitious and somewhat flawed game, but it’s a magnificent example of the creativity of game developers in the early ’90s — particularly MicroProse, who were well-known for this sort of game around that time. It’s also a game absolutely crying out for a remake — with today’s technology, it’s more than possible for someone to do the game’s grand vision even more justice than the hardware and software of 1990 would allow.

That said, Covert Action still stands up remarkably well even today, despite its dodgy AdLib sound effects and horrid 16-colour EGA graphics. If you’re looking for something a little bit different to entertain you for a while, I’d urge you to check it out.

1653: Impromptu Vacation

Whew.

Now that our international visitors have departed, it is time to collapse into a heap and fall asleep — and indeed, that is what I did for much of this afternoon, and that is what I’m probably going to do shortly after I hit the “Publish” button on this post.

It’s been a great few days, though, and Mark and Lynette appeared to have an enjoyable time. We didn’t have nearly enough time to do all the things we might have wanted to do — such is inevitably the way when you have just a few days to spend with people you don’t get to see in person very often — but we got a decent amount of things in, including a wander around Southampton (including the waterfront and the “old bits” at the far end of town), a visit to the stately home and grounds at Mottisfont, and a trip to Oxford for two room escape games, a wander around two of the colleges and finally an evening of gaming at the UK’s first (only?) board game café Thirsty Meeples.

Doing so much in such a short space of time has reminded me that our lifestyle on “normal” days is rather more sedate. I feel genuinely exhausted right now, though not at all sorry that we got to do as many things as we did. Whenever I host visitors — even if it’s just for a couple of hours — I often find myself worrying that I’m not entertaining them enough, or not being a good enough host or whatever. This time around, I feel like we did a decent job: a bit of downtime to relax and play things like ZombiU and Towerfall, trips out to see interesting things near and far, and a few “quintessentially British” things just to make them feel like they’ve had an experience that they can’t have anywhere else — even if that experience is just, I don’t know, eating a Jaffa Cake or something.

But anyway. Now they have departed and I am about to collapse, it’s time for a sort-of holiday before my new job starts at the end of August. I’m not quite sure what to expect from the job as yet, but I’m quite looking forward to it, for a number of reasons: chiefly, the fact that I’ll have reliable money coming in every month, but also the fact that it’s something I’ll be able to show up to, do, clock out at the end of the day and not have to worry about in the evenings. (Hopefully, anyway.) This will allow me to kick back of an evening and enjoy myself with some games or some TV or some anime without feeling like I “should” be doing something specific — a common issue that will be familiar to anyone who has ever written about games for a living. While I still fully intend to write about a variety of subjects for my own site MoeGamer, I’m not planning on putting any undue pressure on myself to romp through games as quickly as possible; I’m not working to a review schedule, nor do I have to worry about the “glut” of games coming later in the year. I can simply write about games as and when I feel like it, as often as I feel like it, and in as much detail as I feel like. It’s refreshing, and I can’t help thinking it will be a fine way to dispel some of the cynicism I’ve built up over the last few years. (Shitty free-to-play mobile games can still eat a dick, though, as can pretty much anything from EA.)

Anyway. I can feel my writing descending into rambling stream-of-consciousness, so rather than inflicting that on you, I will simply say good night for now, and hopefully be a little more alert tomorrow!

1652: A Grand Day Out

We took our visitors up to Oxford today, for several reasons — to have a look at some genuinely Old Stuff, to play a couple of Zero Escape-style “room escape” games, and to visit Oxford’s answer to Toronto’s board game cafe Snakes and Lattes, Thirsty Meeples.

It was a great day out, though the amount of walking reminded me that I don’t do nearly enough just walking around these days.

The early part of the day consisted of the aforementioned “room escape” games courtesy of Ex(c)iting Game, a modest operation that offers two different interactive experiences in which you’re given an hour to solve a particular task. In the first room, we were challenged to break into a computer to recover a piece of information about someone who was going to be assassinated; in the second, we were tasked with locating a USB stick containing sensitive information before it was auctioned off.

In both cases, the games were fairly low-rent, consisting of straightforward and simple props with a few fun gadgets. The two games were markedly distinct from one another, too; the Stop the Assassin game was much more gadget-heavy, seeing us cracking a safe, using a blacklight and eventually cracking the code that led us to the computer password; conversely, second game The Auction was much more focused on deducing the answers to various riddles in order to solve combination locks and get them open.

Both games also featured a number of red herrings that had little to do with the games themselves, and both were reasonably challenging, taking our group of four a decent amount of time to crack in both cases. We completed the first game with just six minutes to spare; the second game we solved a little more quickly, with around twenty minutes left on the clock.

The setup, although simple, was effective. The staffer — whom I felt rather sorry for, since she clearly spent an awful lot of time twiddling her thumbs between appointments — observed our efforts to solve each room via webcam, and subsequently offered real-time hints through the monitor that otherwise displayed our time limit. Rather than these hints being predefined, she was able to highlight particular things in the room or type messages to us to ensure we could normally be nudged back onto the right track. In the case of both games, we would have probably found the answers ourselves eventually, but the hints were timed nicely so it didn’t feel like our intelligence was being insulted.

All in all, the game experience was fun. It would be neat to see the idea implemented with a somewhat bigger budget — perhaps some more special effects, more high-quality props and a little more effort to make the games more strongly thematic — but for today, it made an enjoyable and memorable day out.

We then took a bus into the city centre of Oxford, where we had a wander around a couple of the colleges, which was a fairly humbling experience when I think back on the places I stayed and studied when I was at university in Southampton. The dining hall in one of the colleges in particular was a real Hogwarts-style affair that impressed me and Andie almost as much as it did our visitors.

Following some wandering around — and a break for a drink in an incredibly old pub — we made it to Thirsty Meeples, where we had coffee, snacks and some gaming. We played the cooperative game Robinson Crusoe, which I’ve been curious to try for a while, and Boss Monster, which I’ve likewise heard of previously and have been keen to give a shot.

Robinson Crusoe is a very cool and strongly thematic cooperative game, though for those who enjoy the more Euro end of the spectrum, there’s plenty of worker placement and resource management involving shifting little wooden discs and cubes around the place. There’s also a number of different scenarios that I can see would likely change the way you play significantly — it’d be a game you could get a decent amount of replay value out of, due to the randomised elements. It was initially a little difficult to grasp, but after a turn or two all becomes clear and highly enjoyable — likely a game I’ll try and score a copy of for myself in the near future.

Boss Monster, meanwhile, is a short and simple card game in which you play a 16-bit era video game boss and have to build a dungeon to fend off the never-ending hordes of incoming heroes. It’s a simple, easy-to-understand game that I think will be a lot of fun with various groups — I ended up picking up a copy of it along with Avalon before we left.

We also gave Concept a go, which is, along the lines of Dixit, more of a fun group activity than a “game” per se. Like Dixit, it involves a certain amount of creativity — meaning Andie wasn’t a huge fan of it, but she soldiered on regardless — but handles things very differently. Rather than attempting to describe pictures on cards, Concept challenges you to get, well, concepts across by placing markers on various icons. It’s kind of Charades-ish, only you don’t do any actions — you place markers to describe the main concept of the word, phrase, title, whatever it is, and its “subconcepts”. You can then use smaller markers to elaborate on these a bit, but the only thing you can say during this whole process — which is surprisingly frustrating if your tablemates just won’t grasp something that seems obvious to you — is “yes” if they get something along the right lines.

So all in all, then, we had a great day. I’m pretty tired now, though, so I have a feeling I’ll sleep rather well this evening!

1651: British Things

When British people have visitors from overseas — such as we have at the moment — it is seemingly obligatory to do at least a few things that are as British as possible, just to clarify the fact that yes, it is the United Kingdom of etc. etc. that they are visiting and not just, say, the next town over to where they normally live. And in doing so, it can often be quite eye-opening to contemplate the quirks of one’s own culture when seen through the eyes of those from elsewhere — even those with some cultural crossover with Britain, such as our present visitors, whose cultural background includes both Ontario, Canada and Texas, USA.

For part of today, we took a trip out to a local National Trust site that I’ve forgotten the name of. It was about eight miles away from where Andie and I live, and featured a modestly sized stately home — “modest” being a relative term here, obviously — as well as some nice grounds and gardens. It’s the sort of place that Andie and I would probably never go to by ourselves, but since Mark and Lynette wanted to activate the National Trust passes they had for the remainder of their visit and this site was the nearest place that would allow them to do so, we figured we may as well pay it a visit.

It was enjoyable and impressive to see the house, which had been kept in very good condition and had an interesting history. The grounds, too were pleasant to look at, with a nice walled garden area and part of the River Test running through the grounds. There wasn’t too much to take in there, either; no feeling that you needed to spend the whole day there to get your money’s worth.

We followed the visit up with a trip to the Forte Tearooms in Winchester, one of the most British eating and drinking establishments I could think of that wasn’t a chip shop (that’s on the agenda for tomorrow) or a pub. Unfortunately we weren’t quite in time to enjoy a cream tea as well as our rather late lunch, but the food we did have time to enjoy was tasty enough.

After that we grabbed some food from Sainsbury’s — meat pie, chips, Mr Kipling fruit pies — and came home to eat, accompanied by the deliciously British sounds of classic Radio 4 show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

All in all it’s been a thoroughly British day, and surprisingly enjoyable. Tomorrow we’re going a little further afield to Oxford for a few different activities — two different “room escape” games a la Zero Escape, some authentic fish and chips and a visit to Oxford’s board game cafe The Thirsty Meeple. Should be a lot of fun, so expect a full (and likely exhausted!) report tomorrow.

1650: Ascension

You may recall a while back I talked a little about an indie game called Towerfalla game that was originally intended to be the poster child for the ill-conceived Android microconsole the Ouya, but which subsequently came to other platforms including PS4 and PC. When I originally talked about it, I’d only tried the Versus mode — the mode the game was originally built around — but today Mark and I gave the cooperative two-player Quest mode a shot.

It’s a hell of a lot of fun, maintaining much of the chaos of the competitive multiplayer mode while presenting its own challenges as you and a partner work together to fend off increasingly difficult waves of enemies.

As Mark pointed out while we were playing, the closest comparison is probably Bubble Bobble, but with Towerfall being a modern game, it does all manner of things that the technology of Bubble Bobble’s era simply wouldn’t have been able to manage. Things like lighting and distortion effects on the screen; slow-motion sections; complex enemy waves; physics effects; and all manner of other things.

The genius of Towerfall – and presumably the reason it’s so well regarded as a top-tier indie title — is because it doesn’t try to do too much. It’s a series of single-screen arenas — a la Bubble Bobble – in which all you have to do is defeat all the enemies in a series of waves in order to proceed. But it’s the design of these waves — and the enemies themselves — that makes the game so good.

Each individual enemy’s behaviour is relatively simple, and it’s straightforward to figure out how to deal with most of them without any prompting from the game whatsoever — this is a game that is well and truly of the old school, eschewing unnecessarily long and tedious tutorial sequences and instead throwing the player(s) straight into the action at the earliest possible opportunity. You learn through discovery rather than through being told — and in doing so, you can feel yourself getting better and better each time you play. And you’ll need to — because this game is hard.

Yes, the pixel-art aesthetic isn’t the only old-school thing about Towerfall; it also has the difficulty level of an old-school arcade machine. The first couple of levels are deceptively straightforward, then the difficulty starts to ramp up pretty quickly, culminating in some extremely challenging battles later in the game. Never do things become overly complicated, though; you’re always dealing with the same types of enemies, with the same attack patterns, just in varying combinations. And it’s the good design and pacing of each of these levels that makes the game so enjoyable and satisfying to play.

Well, that and the ability to fire an arrow at particularly troublesome enemies and pin them to the wall with it. Who hasn’t wanted to do that to an army of slimes and grim reapers?

1649: UUUUURGH

Been showing off the Wii U today, and as part of this process I decided to pick up a game I’ve been meaning to give a shot for a while — Ubisoft’s ZombiU. So far it seems to be an interesting game, for sure, albeit not one without a few glaring problems, not least of which is a game-breaking bug relatively early in to the whole experience.

For those who have never encountered this Wii U exclusive, the best means of describing it is probably to use that tired old analogy: saying it’s “the Dark Souls of [x]“, where [x], in this case, is survival horror.

For once, though, that statement isn’t altogether inaccurate, since so far as I can make out from what I’ve played so far, ZombiU simply is Dark Souls, albeit presented from a first-person perspective and set in modern-day London rather than From Software’s dark fantasy classic. It has all the trappings of Dark Souls’ basic gameplay — combat that’s rather more methodical and careful than your typical action game, in which it’s easy to become overwhelmed if you try and face off against too many enemies at once; online connectivity allowing you to write messages on the walls for other players to find; and the fact that death is an inconvenience that you can overcome to a certain extent if you can only get back to the point you died — and, in this case, defeat your former self, who has, naturally, become a zombie in the intervening period. (That is, unless you’re playing the rather brutal Survival mode, in which you only have a single life in which to get as far as you can.)

It’s an intriguing game, and an effective example of how the Wii U’s unique features can be used to enhance a game experience. While the majority of the action unfolds on the TV screen, things like looting bodies and searching containers is done on the GamePad screen, leaving you vulnerable to attack while you do so — just as you would be if you stopped to rifle through your own bag. Furthermore, you can use the GamePad as a means of scanning the area and marking points of interest, which subsequently show up on your main screen and map as markers.

It’s also a decent example of survival horror done well. By keeping the TV screen clutter to a minimum — there’s very little in the way of HUD, and you have to look down at the GamePad to check your ammo — it provides a nicely immersive experience, and allows for wonderful, authentic “horror” moments such as pointing your gun at an incoming zombie, pulling the trigger and hearing that awful sound: click. There are some nice touches with the various characters you play as, too, such as certain characters obviously being terrified of the situation in which they find themselves, while others appear to take it in their stride.

I’m not 100% sure on whether it’s quite my sort of game just yet, but I’m certainly willing to give it a go, and even if I end up not wanting to beat it I only paid £12.99 for it as a preowned copy, so I don’t mind too much. There’s also an intriguing-sounding multiplayer mode that I’d like to give a try.

So, game-breaking bugs aside — don’t die while escaping from the supermarket in the early stages of the game! — it appears to be a solid experience, and one of the more interesting Wii U exclusives available.

1648: Visiting Hours

Tomorrow, our friends Mark and Lynette — founding members of the Squadron of Shame — are paying us a visit from Canada. They’re not coming over just to see us (unlike the time we went to visit them a while back), but they are spending a few days with us. It has been a good excuse to get the last few bits of decorating done (except the dining room, which still needs repainting, but is fine for now) and to get the spare room into a state where people can actually, you know, stay in it.

It’s a pleasant novelty, having a house that can actually host guests without having to resort to couch cushions on the living room floor or sofa beds. It means we can do things like host international guests for a few days rather than — at best — allowing people to crash if they can’t quite make it home after a big night, and that’s kind of cool.

As for what we’ll be up to, I predict a mix of suitably nerdy things (video games, board games and quite possibly a one-shot roleplaying adventure) on the agenda, plus on Monday we’re going for a day out in Oxford for what sounds like an interesting experience — a couple of “escape the room” games, the concept of which several of us are very much into thanks to our enjoyment of the Zero Escape video games Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (or some combination of those three, better known as 999) and Virtue’s Last Reward, which you may recall me talking about a while back.

After that, we’ll be paying Oxford’s board game cafe The Thirsty Meeple a visit, as I’m certainly curious to see how it stacks up to Snakes and Lattes, the board game cafe Mark and Lynette took us to while we were visiting them in Toronto — and a type of establishment I’ve been wishing was more widespread ever since.

I’m looking forward to having visitors and having the opportunity to hang out with friends for a decent length of time. Having been working from home and subsequently unemployed for so long, there are many days when I’ve found myself feeling both somewhat stir-crazy and a bit lonesome. Mark and Lynette’s visit is well-timed; just as I get a new job and just as my divorce is finalised — yes, Andie and I have been living in sin for a while now — we get some visitors. It all adds up to a life that feels like it’s somewhat getting back on track. Normality? That remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.