When I heard on the grape vine Microsoft were going to compete for top spot against the mighty PlayStation 2, I just shrugged. I had spent time with a PC and although I enjoyed the experiences, there was nothing like switching on your console with your foot, picking up a pad, throwing one at your friend and having a split screen session. Despite all the efforts of PC purists steering me towards a console free existence in the past, they failed because unlike consoles PC’s have to deal with a great deal of shit, anything from the internet, retarded users, to foreign berks with a passion for leaving the equivalent of shit stains in your computer. A PC is forever in conflict with you, itself and other bellends thousands of miles from where you’re sitting.
Invariably they fall down, computers usually, through no fault of their own, decide that it no longer likes playing your favourite game and instead hands you various screens of errors and colours which are as much fun as a kick in the groin.
Thinking of Microsoft stepping up to the plate against Sony was like finding out your granddad was going to enter sports day. No doubt he’d give it a good go, his egg and spoon technique may still be something special but his enthusiasm to keep up with the kids would be short lived as he falls to his knees during the sack race coughing and spitting, whilst the kids ride on his back like a wheezy old donkey.
The Xbox surprisingly turned out to be a great gaming companion. A friend of mine came over to my place shortly after launch, with the his new Xbox to show me a couple of games. Unfortunately for him I lived in a third story apartment and from his description over the phone, we would have to construct some sort of winch from the ground floor as the machine sounded gargantuan.
I told him to stop being such a wimp and when he arrived I buzzed him into the building. The heavy breathing and stomping of feet should have been my signal to go meet him half way and help him out but I think my curious nature got the better of me and would rather watch on, as he rounded the corner of the stairs to my front door, all red in the face.
What a cruel joke Microsoft had played, it was almost as though they purposefully designed the Xbox to be this large, so that once installed, it became a permanent fixture in the home. If you thought the 16bit machines like the Megadrive were pretty robust, the Xbox could have been used to keep bailiffs out of your home by simply placing it behind your front door, tying a rope to it and abseiling from a window.
It happened to be bit of a ‘frankenbox’ constructed by some bored engineers at Microsoft from some old Dell machines *shudder*. Nevertheless, these tech’s knew what they were doing and shortly after the release of the Playstation 2, Microsoft hit Europe hard. The Japanese didn’t take to Bill Gates gaming box as well as us, but it certainly did enough for everyone to take notice.
I’ve never really been loyal to any brand that had launched consoles, but over the years Sega had served me well in the past. Games selection is generally what draws me to a console and the Playstation had held my interest since launch, games were slightly more focused and less gimmicky and the sound was also impressive when wired through my Hi-Fi.
On paper the Xbox was packing heat, clocked at 733MHz from its proven Intel chip and with more RAM than the PS2, word on the street was that the FPS was overall better. The name was derived from the developers use of the Direct X graphics system being ran on an impressive Nvidia card. It was going to come down to the games selection in the end and if I could afford it or not.
What really did grab my interest was seeing Need For Speed Hot Pursuit 2 running on the Xbox, I knew the game very well being that it was one of my favourite titles on the PS2. The game just ran better. Before the enthusiastic team at EA ruined the series by installing every high performance vehicle with nitrous, NFS was a very original, realistic-enuff racer with great tracks and innovation. I wasn’t all that fussed by the Underground series starting the boost craze because that is exactly what that scene is about, but I find that NOS element has hung around the more recent instalments like a fart under a blanket.
The original Xbox controller felt like you were holding a massive black Cornish pasty and probably made about as much sense to a Japanese person as a Cornish pasty, because of its size in proportion to their hands.
The staggered analogue sticks didn’t make much sense at first either. The slimmer more hand held shaped PlayStation controller did feel easier to use but one feature for me stood above the rest of all controllers thus far, the triggers. The Microsoft triggers just felt right, whether you were using them to accelerate into a crowd, or empty a magazine into a boss, the triggers gave you more precision and any gamer worth their salt would know that this counts for a lot.
Not so long after buying the box, Microsoft revised the UFO shaped peripheral for a smaller, more human proportioned version with a slight alteration in button layout. These weren’t cheap and so more often than not you’d visit a friend and be handed the big pasty because buying two new slimmer controllers was difficult. The black and white buttons were useful but I don’t think I ever quite got used to the layout of them, nevertheless this was another step in the right direction of the future of gaming precision.
Halo Combat Evolved really lead the way for Microsoft and it’s Xbox, it was certainly built for the machine and no doubt the controller design was in mind when in development. My first hands on experience of Halo was when I had eventually saved enough to allow me to buy an Xbox outright and therefore keep the PS2, as the on-going battle for ‘exclusive’ games did have a hold on me.
You play the game as a kind of cybernetically enhanced ‘Space Rambo’ who has to fight members of the Covenant, a bunch of alien creatures allied by belief in a common religion. When the humans try to run from a mad bombardment of aliens, they run into what looks like a huge doughnut in space, being American they couldn’t pass the opportunity to see if it was indeed the largest doughnut ever discovered and so they landed on the thing, also using it to try and escape their pursuers. It doesn’t work and so you have to almost single handily kill them all and escape the doughnut.
If one things for sure, pistol whipping, executing and blowing up an alien race has become a very popular genre of game, Halo sold over five million copies worldwide and has had almost as many sequels as American Pie. Over time my enthusiasm has waned for the Halo series, I really enjoyed the original, the multitude of weaponry both human and alien, the varied vehicles and the enemy AI traits made for a very satisfying shooter. The smoothness of the controls, aided by the presence of a more forgiving gravity to our own, meant that some real precision could be achieved when in combat. The look and feel of the game inspired most FPS from there on. Personally though I can’t stand shooting aliens that bleed green goo. Laser weapons and plasma pistols are just not my cup of tea, I prefer hardened shooters, I come from the era of DOOM, Duke Nukem, Quake and Soldier of Fortune, so I like my shooters with some metal.
Like a combination of Rambo, Matrix and Die Hard, Black was one of the most critically acclaimed shooters on the PS2 and Xbox. As a tactical espionage operative, you are fed information via the company network and sent to carry out top secret missions to ensure global security. This usually meant going to any given location, setting your weapon to fully auto and then decimating everything and everyone that stands in your way. The game play and world physics were phenomenal, gamers have since begged for a second installment but without much joy.
Back in the 90’s my best friend and I used to go behind the scenes of the Duke Nukem 3D files and replace the audio files of the weapons with our own recorded sounds. You don’t realise how important sound is in a game until you hear a 9mm pistol go “Blam” in your own dull monotone voice, or a machine gun go ‘DAH DA DAHDADAHDA!’. As hilarious as that was, it was such a relief to be able to revert back to the originals and makes you appreciate how much work is involved in getting it right.
Black sounded brilliant through a decent set of speakers, Criterions team wanted the game to sound reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster, the score of music and the weapons were all tailored to blend with each other when the shit went down. Sound engineers based weapon sounds from action movies like Die Hard and True lies to give each weapon its own ‘voice’ the effect was best experienced when in a gun battle between multiple enemies, the weapons literally harmonised with each other, creating a satisfying composition. Black received the ‘Best sound’ award at the 2006 BAFTA’s video games awards and so there was always a call for a sequel. Due to differences between Criterion and EA, it never happened. If you’re interested, the spiritual successor of Black was called Body Count and can be found on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it was never quite what the publishers/designers had hoped and sadly it meant that the Guildford branch of Codemasters shut down.
That’s it for this part, this was introduction of the original Xbox and I’ll go over some of the highlights for me in the next part. Also I’ll talk about how I became a criminal mastermind whilst stoned and how my friend unlocked a haven for nostalgia with a Splinter Cell save game file.
CLICK HERE FOR PART 16!
It was bank holiday Monday last week and so that meant wind and rain here, in the UK. A good friend of mine insisted we go to the local Racecourse (a place where small people smack horses and race them around a track) to see a stunt show.
The poster was defiantly eye catching, anyone from my generation knows how cool a Monster truck is from when we first caught a glimpse of American motor sport on SKY television back in the 80’s.
Obviously I was keen to see a real monster truck again, in a nation full of people obsessed with football and running…a fire breathing, 1000+ horse power, car crushing truck is hard to come by and even then you’re promptly disappointed due to our health and safety regulations requiring a noise reduction, no jumps that are too high and the crowd must be half a mile away wearing fire proof suits and ear plugs.
Quoted as ‘The greatest show on wheels’ I stuck on my all weather gear and met my friend at the show. The gravelly, uneven tarmac car park was the ‘arena’, surrounded by metal temporary fencing and the stunt crews caravans and trucks. The wind was blustery and unpredictable, the cold, biting, and the rain was the familiar British drizzle which is much like being stroked by a wet piece of ham. The commentator did his best throughout the show to rally some enthusiasm but trying to bring British spectators to clap and cheer in these conditions is like trying to teach a dog Spanish, whilst wearing a bacon jacket.
Before the big finale involving the monster truck trundling around the car park, crushing three already mangled vehicles, you were witness to the ‘greatest show on wheels’…a Ford Mondeo estate was one of the first highlights to perform a stunt. It was more of a crash really, with a set of ramps positioned in front of a smashed car that stood vertically. The exhausted Ford reached the ramps at about 30mph and pretty much fell into the target car, all topped off with some pyro effect which I suspect was a shotgun shell rigged onto a make-shift fuse. Watch a clip of the spectacle here…
Why am I telling you all of this? Well, simply because without standing outside in the cold and rain, watching people hurl themselves at burning wood strapped the front of a clapped out Ford…you can experience all sorts of dangerous looking activities from the comfort of your own warm, dry home.
After the plethora of 2D fighting games and the new breed of racing dynamics, came the next generation of shooters.
Now for anyone unfamiliar with what is now the biggest selling gaming genre right now, it’s quite simple to explain. FPS games or ‘First person shooters’ involve you looking through the eyes of the character, pointing a weapon at things. Boys and girls the world over had enjoyed playing bubble popping, coin collecting, secret finding, spinning jumping, colourfully musical delights but the games we enjoy more than anything else involves running around virtual worlds, brandishing anything that can wound, maim or kill.
My first experience of this new age of shooter was sat with an older friend of mine, who had acquired a copy of Wolfenstien on the PC. Looking through the first person perspective literally gave me Goosebumps, I didn’t even know what a Nazi was at the time. When I finally witnessed the showdown between my friend and an 8ft Hitler in a robotic suit with mini guns as arms, I was terrified and also quite surprised when later I came to know him in school as the evil German guy who wanted anyone who wore a star badge to die in an oven.
I had to get myself some of this terrifying action, thankfully at the time my old man required a PC for his personal use. With a little bit of my input we had a gaming rig for doing his word processing…handy for when you need to play Doom.
Doom was similar to Wolfenstien in many ways. The controls were simple, you could not look up or down, there was no jump, you simply looked at what you wanted to kill, select the appropriate weapon and shoot it until it stops moving. Doom was an instant classic, it is another game where references have been used in film, music and books since its creation.
Both Wolfenstien and Doom were created by ID software who had no problem in letting people share the games freely and this has resulted in the franchise having a long and prosperous life. There have been changes made to both games over the years, such as gore content, obvious references to shooting Germans in the face and having maps shaped like Swastikas.
In late 1995, Doom was estimated to be installed on more computers worldwide than Microsoft’s new operating system Windows 95, the ‘Doom style’ clones since the release have been relentless and a truck load of these games were complete pap.
It set the standard for the genre by including great game play, crazy satanic art work, totally immersive sound and hard hitting weapons. There is little more satisfying than the boom, click, click, of the pump action shotgun as a monster gargled it’s last breath.
The fantasy element in recent years has been seen less and less and replaced with total realism of combat, it can often feel like you’re training yourself mentally for some weird military recruitment frenzy in the near future where you have to fight the entire middle east with your five best friends. Typically all of the Doom style games from the past were based around the complete iraddication of everything in the level but as time progressed, so did the programming and the (Artificial Intelligence) AI. This opened up new opportunities for games designers to improve combat but it wasn’t without it’s turkeys.
You can pick up a copy of one of the many attempts at creating a ‘next gen’ shooter with basic AI in any PC retailer in a bargain basket, the consoles have also seen their fair share. It’s the simplest things, from how an enemy is alerted to your presence or how accurate they can be with a weapon. Games are so advanced now that a programmed AI can’t detect you through some foliage or in darkend corners…young gamers today never had to endure sniping levels were an enemy could spot you half a mile away hiding behind a bush and shoot you between the eyes with a pistol. Neither have they been pinned down by a dozen enemies who can shoot a single pologon of your character as you cautiously peek around a corner in a vain attempt to ambush them.
Not all games were as bloody and gore ridden as Doom, some games rolling out of the shops at this time were as dark as the Care Bears…the simplicity of gaming can always be sought out if need be, which is why I find the arguments against gaming / violence ridiculous.
There is something strangely satisfying and relaxing about dispatching hundreds monsters with a sawn off shotgun, if I could think of one game responsible for some anger issues as a kid, it would have been Code Masters, Micro machines.
Based on the tiny over priced toy vehicles, you raced from a top down perspective against the computer, or your friends around a race track. Friendships were pushed to their limits as your opponents were able to bump you off the track to meet certain doom, sometimes accidently, often intentionally.
Being constrained to a top down view and a single screen, did limit how much you could win or lose by, as the camera could only zoom out so much. Tracks were set in garages, gardens, kitchen tables, pool tables and bathrooms, each presenting their own dangers like moving platforms, sweets, holes in the ground and puddles. Circuits could be mastered by remembering every single object, turn and jump of the track, as it raced towards you from any direction but more often than not you are simple flying blind, knocking into things, occasionally shouting something vulgar at the TV.
The experts indeed have it all wrong. I would literally have to take myself outside and go play with some matches for awhile in the garden, all because of certain levels I was trying to complete, with curtains drawn and strict instructions to my mum that she better have a good excuse to enter my room.
In a similar vein, Disney’s Aladdin was a beautifully crafted film, with a star studded voice over cast and slick animation, it should have a place in anyone’s collection if you like that sort of thing. So in 1993 when a game was released on the Megadrive, my parents bought me the game as a birthday present as I enjoyed the film so much. The game played rather well, so well in fact it was pretty addictive and so I spent a few hours jumping around, throwing apples at beggars and slashing enemies with a scimitar. As platformers go Aladdin was good fun, with a dose of Disney’s very own humour and animation thrown in for good measure.
I was keen to complete the game as it was so good, to do this however you had to endure a level so infuriating, at one point I think I almost considered putting the cartridge in the gap between the edge of a door and the hinge to crush it into pieces. With no capacity to save the game you had to get this right and you quickly learnt that either these game developers are fucking with you, or they are just horrible people.
The flying carpet level begins with Aladdin flying through a cave slowly, you have a few seconds or less to figure out all of the controls because the carpet is speeding up and you need to avoid rocks. Behind you is a wave of lava in case you weren’t panicked enough. As a platformer your perspective was limited on a twenty something inch television, in reality, to avoid the obstacles and the tidal wave of molten lava, you had to rely on your psychic abilities or pure luck. With a finite amount of lives and a fair number of levels left to get through in the game, getting this right took patience and good memory skill. One technique used to complete this level was the use of the start, or pause button. Used continuously you could gauge how much you need to move up or down on the carpet, this required the concentration of a bomb disposal expert with Parkinson’s and a pillow to bite in case you fucked this up too.
I do apologise that every time I mention in a previous ‘Gaming history’ post, that I’m going to talk about a certain game, more often than not, I don’t. There is a lot of games to get through and hopefully I’ll get to mention the best ones.