Saturday, June 9, 2012

Project Nomads (2002)

I remember reading about Project Nomads when it first came out, and the concept of it made me very interested. The arcane steampunk setting seemed fantastic, the idea of the game impressed me, and it seemed like one of those crazy games that I just had to try. I picked it up a little while ago, and finally got around to playing it recently.

When Project Nomads gets it right, it gets it so damn right. At one point I found myself soaring through the air with just my jetpack, zooming towards the huge floating rock that was my enemy's base. Seeing some planes launch from within it, I dove down, flying underneath rock arches to avoid their fire, and then swooped back up, between a narrow gap in the walls of his stony fortress in the sky, placing explosives near two of his hangars and then launching back into the air as they exploded behind me. It was evocative, breathtaking and completely immersive.

Sadly, for 95% of the game, it's an exercise it tedious, akward frustration. The game starts out promisingly enough; full of all sorts of exciting opportunities. It's hard to describe the range of genres that the game incorporates, but there's base building, repair and management, on rails turrent based shooting, action adventure style exploration running around with magic based combat, combat flight simulation dogfights... it really throws a whole bunch of stuff into the mix and surprisingly enough none of it stands out as being *overly* bad. There's definitely weak points - in the sections where you're on foot especially - but for the most part it passes.

The parts that are issues - the button for shooting being different from one section to another, the fact that your character walks so incredibly slowly backwards, the terribly annoying amount of times you'll fall over for no decent reason - are so small and slight that they could have been tweaked so incredibly easily, which is why it's such a shame that they weren't. I have no doubt that testers would have flagged these things as issues, and it's very disappointing that they're still in the game.

The big issue, though, and the thing that holds Project Nomads back from being anything more than a frustrating glimpse at what could otherwise have been a great game, is the level design. The first level where you're sent off on your own once learning the basics consists of creeping your base forward a bit, stopping, shooting everything, repeat for about an hour. It's mind numbingly tedious. This would have been a fun section for 10-15 minutes, but beyond that it loses the intensity and drags.

Following this, you then find yourself running around and if you explore enough can find the beautiful, magical jetpack, which somehow makes all that tedium worthwhile... until several minutes later when you're thrown into another part almost as tedious as before. What it feels like is padding, and the most boring sort of padding you can imagine. Imagine Full Throttle, except with 10 sections where you need to ride your motorcycle around and 10 demolition derbies. That's a little like how Project Nomads feels to me. Rather than playing its strengths, it relies far too much on getting by on the same idea repeated over and over.

Presentation wise, this is a mixed bag. The graphics, while definitely showing their age, are unique, evocative and much prettier than other games of the same vintage. For a ten year old game, it's still quite pretty and the art design especially is quite inspiring... minus the strange spirit you meet at the start who simply looks like a children's tv show wizard. You can pick your character depending on how you like to play; you have a big hulking robot, a small, nimble lady and, quite naturally, the fellow in between, who was an obvious choice simply due to the simply marvellous mustache he sports. The environment is very unique, totally free of the generic action game settings that get overused and very bold with it's willingness to be different.

The sound is laughable at best. The music is some of the least consistent stuff I've come across in a game, the sound effects can be confusing, with my giant cannon going from enthusiastic booms one minute to strange clicks the next, and the voice acting is absolutely atrocious.

It's sad, then, to see a title holding such an amazing amount of promise fall so completely short of the mark simply because of these strange decisions. Perhaps they were trying to rush the game out, so they didn't have time to fix all the strange glitches? Maybe they had a publisher telling them the game had to run for X amount of hours and so they were forced to pad out each section to make it run for the required amount of time. I think if the game had cut all this tedious rubbish and just been a few hours long, it'd be a very fondly remembered game which is criticized for being too short - much like Beyond Good and Evil. Instead, it's forgotten and unloved, a victim of being bloated and underpolished. For the 5% of the game when you're soaring through the skies, weaving between, through and beneath the huge floating rocks and dodging enemy fire from all directions, Project Nomads is absolutely breathtaking, and beautifully memorable. For the rest of the time, it's utterly forgettable.

Sid Meier's SimGolf (2002)


Sid Meier's name is synonymous with some of the biggest, most well loved PC games from the last 25 years. Civilization, Colonization, Alpha Centauri, Railroad Tycoon and Pirates! have all stood the test of time and are considered classics - even if sometimes his name was sometimes added to a game's title despite him not being the lead designer. His legacy is deep rooted in the history of PC games, and in this title he joined heads with another hugely influential designer, Will Wright, to bring us a game about building your very own golf course. Somehow, though, this one is hardly remembered at all. I had played the demo years ago, but finding an actual copy for sale took some searching on ebay earlier this year. Having played the full game, I have to see I am glad I picked it up.

Sid Meier's SimGolf features two different styles of gameplay which manage to work perfectly together in a way one rarely sees in a game. When you start your new resort, you find that all you have is a clubhouse with not a single hole for players to try out. Immediately your task becomes build a fun golf course for your guests to play, which is handled with very simple, easy to use tools. It's just like building your house in The Sims - in fact, anybody who has played The Sims will instantly recognize where the interface for this game comes from.

This is all fairly standard stuff - building and managing a facility is the norm for many sim type games - but where this stands out is that you can grab your custom golf pro character and play a round on the course you just built. It's not a hugely detailed golf sim; in fact it's quite simple, but in a very clever way. The best way to figure out exactly how much fun the latest hole you designed is to play it yourself, and when you find yourself unable to make a shot, you can go and fix that - which not only makes it more fun for you to play next time, but also makes your guests like your course more, and therefore give you more money.

Completing various tasks gives you experience points to spend on your golf pro's stats, making him or her a better golfer, and therefore allowing you to play bigger and more precise shots, which opens up whole new design avenues for you to consider. You'll also earn the ability to challenge other pros to a round, earning money if you win, and eventually host various tournaments, which can earn you even more. All of this earns you more money so that you can go and add more to your course.


The graphics have the lovely colourful charm that was so iconic of the pre-rendered 3D of this time, and you have a choice of 4 different settings to build your dream golf course in. At first I was quite doubtful of how well a golf game would work from this viewpoint, and thought it might be a cheap minigolf style game, but it actually work surprisingly well with these graphics. The characters emote their feelings with cute animations, there are little animals that wander the course and get started, balloons fly overhead - considering its age, it still holds up pretty well despite the 800x600 resolution. Considering how badly some of the other games of this era have aged, SimGolf looks positively delightful.

On top of the course designing and golf playing, you have staff to keep the course neat and the guests happy, important golfers who will approve the purchase of land, donate a beneficial landmark or give you money if they have a good time at your course, golfers who will purchase housing blocks on your course for a fee, various buildings you can buy that will provide bonuses to your course, scenery you can decorate your course with, which will also keep golfers happy... there's plenty here to keep you busy between the meat and potatoes of designing new holes and playing your way through them.

The only real problem I have with Sid Meier's SimGolf is... well, it feels a little rushed in spots. Characters speak their thoughts, and some of them have very obvious typos in their lines. The graphics sometimes glitch a little, leaving you wondering why there's a black void where a cliff wall ought to be. Objects sometime get in the way of your ball despite being shorter than its trajectory, making it seem like your ball just bounced off air. Other than this, and the fact that the game will only run in 800x600, the engine runs perfectly even on Windows 7, meaning it's super easy to go back in time and sample this delightful old gem - provided you're willing to find a copy on ebay.

There's enough here to keep your attention for hours. Sid Meier's SimGolf may not have the superstar status of some of the other games that Sid Meier and Will Wright designed, but it's absolutely worth your time. It's clever, unique, addictive and charming, and mixes two styles of play so seamlessly that it really is a game of two different halves. I'd like more modern designers to take note from this and see that if done right, a game can span more than one style of gameplay without feeling cheap. It may be 10 years old, but this forgotten little gem still seems fresh today.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Abomination: The Nemesis Project (1999)

I have to confess a huge fondness for party based RPGs/Strategy games. Arcanum, Baldur's Gate, Fallout, Planescape: Torment and Jagged Alliance 2 are all games that I have very fond memories of, and when I came across Abomination while flicking through an old Eidos catalogue last year, I knew I had to have it. Since I managed to find a copy on ebay, it had been sitting on my shelf, begging me to play it until I finally made some time in the last couple of days to try it out.

The streets are littered with all sorts of carnage - here you can see some of the delightfully morbid setpieces.

The gameplay is reasonably simple. You take a squad of up to 4 characters into various sections of the city, complete the objectives in your mission briefing, and then return to the map of the city where you organize your troops, read intelligence data and await further missions. The combat runs in pausable real time, allowing you to stop the action to give orders to each unit, and then watch them play out. This is something I'm very fond of, and I feel it is just as effective as providing enjoyable gameplay as pure turn based or pure realtime games.

Futuristic combat goes together so well with large industrial settings, I find.

A small factor that disappointed me here, though, was how simple the combat can be. The tactics for fighting are quite basic, and I feel the different weapons and abilities weren't worked into the game as well as they could have been. On one hand, it's great fun to wait for an enemy to run past an explosive hazard and shoot it, killing him instantly, or pausing the game and quickly scrambling your troops when you see an enemy throw a grenade. On the other hand, it never gets much more complex than this, and there is plenty of missed opportunity for micromanagement here.

Some of the mission objectives can be quite enjoyable - from rescuing survivors, destroying supplies and uploading computer viruses to simple eliminating all of the hostiles on the map - but the objectives could have been more clearly marked, and at one point I spent twenty minutes wandering over a map trying to find a single crate to destroy in order to complete my mission. Other times they weren't very well explained, and I failed missions simply because I wasn't exactly sure what I had to do.

10 missions or so into the game and you find yourself facing strange energy-hurling creatures.

The hostiles themselves start off as gun wielding humans, but play for a couple of hours and you'll find yourself up against the Brood - the abominations in the game's title. Unlike the humans, who are all reasonably similar with different weapons, the Brood differ quite a bit visually, from shuffling melee weaklings, to energy launching mortar type units and eerie, agile creatures with a nasty explosive projectile attack. Among some of the areas you visit you'll find police officers and soldiers, who will follow your squad around and help in the fight, something I found very cute. My main disappointment is that you can't talk to any of the NPCs in the game, and so none of the enemies or friendlies have any character to speak of.
The scenery in this game invokes pure nostalgia in my gaming heart.

The game's presentation is, for the most part, absolutely lovely. Being a fan of this pre-rendered isometric style, the scenery was absolute ambrosia to my eyes, and the colour palettes are exactly what I look for in a game. The big city aesthetic mixed with the freakish abominations littered throughout it is used to great effect, and gives a very fun environment to play in.

Sadly, the characters are all modeled in real-time 3D, not pre-rendered as with other games of this genre around the time. Normally I don't mind low res 3D, but compared to the detail that would've been possible with pre-rendered characters these are slightly disappointing. The sound is also a little strange; while I found the music fitted in quite well with the setting, the voice acting is quite awful. Characters also have a strange habit of staying quiet through enemy encounters and serious injury, but when I press the hotkey to make them reload their weapons they suddenly come out with a panicked line such as "Oh shit!" This felt absolutely incongruous with the rest of the game, and the game would most likely have been better without any voice acting at all.

I always find exploding trucks to be an enjoyable feature in any game.

As a whole, it's not hard to tell why Abomination: The Nemesis Project never got the recognition of it's peers such as X-Com and Jagged Alliance 2. While it is certainly a rewarding game to play, it lacks the character and balance to outshine them. Once you get into the game, though, it proves itself as a decent piece of fun, and I'll absolutely be returning to it to enjoy it some more. I often wish there were more games of this style in my collection, and I'm delighted to have found this one! It lacks that certain something required to make a classic, but for those of us willing to overlook a few flaws, there are hours of post-apocalyptic goodness to be had here. My copy worked perfectly on Windows XP straight out of the original box, too!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


I have a rather decent collection of games on my shelves, for all sorts of platforms, in all sorts of genres. I've never been one to avoid games based on genre alone; usually I'll enjoy anything if it's done pretty well.

Something I noticed, however, is that there seems to be a gap in the coverage of games. A lot of the friends I talk to either like the really old stuff (pre 1995) or the quite modern stuff (post 2005), but don't care as much for the games in that decade between, and there's a lot of games in this time period in my collection that I feel deserve to be mentioned. I don't plan to stick to this era strictly, and I'll probably focus on stuff that is now rather obscure, because everybody has heard enough about those mega popular beasts like Diablo 2 and Half-Life, but hopefully some of these games may be of interest to somebody else out there!

I'll also try to make sure I keep the genres fairly well shuffled, so you don't get bored reading about the 20th city building sim in a row. Rather than doing contemporary reviews with scores, I merely wish to give a simple impression of the games I play. A lot of these I've never played before, and am only just playing for the first time as I write about them, so I've probably not played them all the way through. Hopefully it still provides a decent bit of insight!

Thanks for checking out Semi-Nostalgic, and I hope you'll enjoy the ride as I play my way through forgotten games that I always wanted to play as a teenager but never could afford to. I've got quite a few games I'd like to cover, and my collection is always growing, so stick around to see what I come up with next.