Self Similar self similar’s personal gaming nonsense blog

3Aug/180

Out of the Fire

I’ve been intrigued by Firewatch since it was first announced. Not only have I been a longtime fan of many of the the Idle Thumbs podcasts, of which three members are key Campo Santo employees, but I loved The Walking Dead, and two of those three employees were its project leads and writers. I've also enjoyed my few forays into the “walking simulator” genre thus far, and the previews of the game made the basic themes look appealing as well. Despite buying it on PC the first time it ever went on sale on Steam, I only finally got around to playing it last month, buying the Xbox One version so I could more easily share the experience with my girlfriend from the comfort of our living room couch.

Home sweet home.
"Home sweet home."

Right off the bat Firewatch hits you with a bizarre “choose your own adventure” like interactive story about your character Henry’s backstory. A bit jarring, it feels a little low budget and isn’t anything like the experience I was gearing myself up for. Still, it has an interesting function – you immediately start the game with a good idea of who your character is, what he’s gone through, and having customized his backstory a little in the process, even a bit of a connection to him.

Once in the game proper, you find Henry in the beautiful Wyoming wilderness where he’ll be manning a fire tower for the season. We have fire lookout towers not too dissimilar to the ones featured in Firewatch out here in and around the southern Appalachian Mountains and, having had the opportunity to climb several of them over the years, I’ve always been fascinated by what manning one of them must have been like back when they were in full-use. The Campo Santo team did a fabulous job bringing those towers and the surrounding wilderness to life. The stylized art and the engine’s lighting system steal the show, but it all comes together just perfectly, producing beautiful vistas filled with swaying trees and grass among rolling hills and rocky peaks. Combined with the forced first-person perspective and minimalist, mostly in-game-world UI, I quickly found myself totally immersed in the setting.

The lighting really brings the whole presentation together.
"The lighting really brings the whole presentation together."

Firewatch’s world is fairly open, and while there is some gating and the occasional invisible wall, I never found them to take me too far out of the experience. This is likely because I was always too busy either checking out the amazing views, looking for the next interesting detail, or looking at my map and compass to try to figure out where in the hell I was. On top of that, I often felt a sense of urgency to try to complete my objectives before the sun went down and I’d be forced to wander my way back to my tower in near pitch-black darkness. Those objectives felt important to me most of the time too, so going off and exploring far beyond where I needed to be never made a lot of sense to me.

A lot of the user reviews I glanced at while writing this seemed to mention bugs and performance issues but for me the fact that the game ran so smoothly with such a degree of polish was absolutely a part of why I was able to really get into the experience. Maybe the Xbox One port is better than some of the others or perhaps I’m benefiting from being a late adopter here, but in any case, I think it bears mentioning that I didn’t have any such issues.

I hope you like looking at maps!
"I hope you like looking at maps!"

Anyway, so far, I’ve just described a game about a guy wandering around in the woods. Obviously, I’m leaving out a massive part of the game here: Delilah. Your character has a nearly-constant companion over the radio, something along the lines of Atlas helping you out in Bioshock, though a little less manipulative. The conversations between Henry and Delilah, both in terms of writing and voice acting, are what really push Firewatch into excellence. These chats are unusually funny, heartwarming, realistically written, and full of character. The dialog system has both the urgency of a Telltale adventure game, in which you might have a limited time to respond and your lack of a response is, in and of itself, interpreted as a response, and unlike most modern games with dialog systems, isn’t tied to story decisions or moral choices but mostly just serves to further develop your own personalization of the characterization of Henry. I can only guess that how well this all came together must have surprised even the developers themselves.

I was more than a little disappointed about not having the option to order prints of my pictures in the Xbox One version.
"I was more than a little disappointed about not having the option to order prints of my pictures in the Xbox One version."

Through the friendship that grows between Henry and Delilah, the mysteries they unravel and personal baggage they unpack together, we eventually reach a conclusion that is, as with the dialog, rather realistic. I won’t spoil it or go into any in-depth analysis of the ending, despite how desperate I was to discuss it when first finishing the game, but I will say that like so many others I was a bit disappointed in the ending. At the same time, I felt like I understood, at some very deep emotional level, what Campo Santo was aiming to achieve, and I got it. I got it. I didn’t like it, maybe because it was a bit too real, but in some way, it made me respect the entire experience all the more for it. What a fantastic game.

One player distracts the guard, the other unclogs the toilet.
"One player distracts the guard, the other unclogs the toilet."

At some point while playing Firewatch we stumbled upon A Way Out in the Microsoft Store. From watching trailers and listening to some podcast banter about it, all I really knew was that it was a game about two convicts working together to escape a prison, and that the whole game was based around being a two-person co-op experience. I could also see that the game looked fantastic, with a simplified but realistic art style, and a lot of interesting, very cinematic camera work. Overall the art and presentation is somewhat reminiscent of the last couple of Grand Theft Auto titles, which is a good thing.

Starting the game, we found ourselves quickly engaged, as we had to decide which of the two distinct characters we’d want to play and then, after a brief cutscene, were set off on two different paths. The fact the game starts off with your two characters not even knowing each other was unexpected, and despite the beginning being a little slow, made for some interesting development as the two characters met and the story progressed.

Wandering the yard.
"Wandering the yard."

Having each player working on separate goals via split-screen, interspersed by the occasional use of clever timing to trigger cutscenes and events involving both characters together is the game’s central novelty, in fact. Sometimes these events are little mini-games meant to allow the players to interact and the characters to bond a bit, and other times they’re simple cooperative puzzles, like needing both players’ input to lift a heavy object or to climb up an otherwise unreachable ledge. Occasionally the players must decide between two different approaches to solving a situation, which was kind of cool. I do wish there was a little more depth to these mechanics, as your interactions with NPCs are short and mostly only serve as fluff, the exploration is very limited, and the cooperative puzzles are almost all exceedingly basic. I suppose the simplicity is in service of being an approachable co-op experience, so I can largely overlook that. Besides, early on, it was mainly the story and the characters that had me hooked.

You can choose to handle a lot of situation Leo's way, or Vincent's way. You'll figure out what that means quite quickly.
"You can choose to handle a lot of situation Leo's way, or Vincent's way. You'll figure out what that means quite quickly."

Unfortunately, the story is really nothing too special. The fact that almost every aspect of it was swiped from genre tropes is a common complaint but I personally didn’t really find that to be distracting or problematic. Instead, my main problem is that while the game does a good job at giving you a sense of who both characters are, in fact watching them interact as the story unfolded really seemed like it was going to be something very special, it ends up squandering the opportunity for some real character development and an impactful story. This is especially true when the plot takes a sharp turn from being about our characters escaping prison and reuniting with their families to being about them seeking revenge on the person who put them there. It just goes a bit off the rails.

Revenge certainly could have been an interesting angle, of course, but when the game suddenly devolved from what felt more like a narrative heavy adventure game, not completely dissimilar to the aforementioned Firewatch, into a mediocre third person shooter, it kind of lost me. By this point in the story we had learned that neither one of our two characters were what you’d call "violent criminals" yet they suddenly engage in the wanton slaughter that makes up this next to last scene of the game without batting an eye. Talk about ludonarrative dissonance! That, and the twist at the end, while mechanically kind of cool, just wasn’t at all where I felt like the story was taking me early on.

There's always time for Connect 4!
"There's always time for Connect 4!"

Despite the disappointing finale, I liked A Way Out overall. The presentation, the characters, and the co-op centric gameplay really impressed, even if my great early impressions didn’t quite last throughout the game. There aren’t a lot of games out there that rely on cooperative gameplay, especially split-screen cooperative gameplay, and A Way Out even lets a second person play online without owning the game, which is awesome! If the negatives in this little review here don’t sound like they’d outweigh the positives for you then it is probably easily worth your money. At the very least, Hazelight Studios’ next project will have my full attention. I hope it’s not something entirely different as I really do see a lot of potential in A Way Out’s style of gameplay.

As usual, I've stolen my Xbox One screenshots from aimlessly scouring the Internet for decent ones. Apologies for not having individual credits for each of them!

11Mar/180

Neuromancer Review

Note: The screenshots posted on this page have been scaled up a little from their tiny native resolutions as well as had their aspect ratios corrected to proper 4:3 dimensions as they should have looked on CRT monitors originally. For posterity's sake you can also click them to view the "pixel perfect" originals.

Introduction

Neuromancer!
"Neuromancer!"

One of the best part of being into retro gaming and, indeed, doing these reviews, is exploring all manner of interesting and bizarre games that I’ve never played and in many cases had never even heard of before. 1988’s Neuromancer is a standout example of this. Containing so many individual elements that I’m particularly drawn to, from its dark cyberpunk setting to its late 80s adventure game trappings, never mind that William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy are some of my favorite books, on paper, this is my dream game. Yet, it’s a game that I nor practically anyone I know had played, despite being based on a hugely influential novel, being somewhat innovative for its time, and even being considered a bona fide classic in certain circles.

The story goes that at some point in the mid 80s, counterculture LSD fanatic Timothy Leary read William Gibson’s Neuromancer and it changed his life. Not too much earlier, he had also discovered the captivating world of interactive fiction games, which had also changed his life. At some point the potential intersection became obvious, and Leary obtained the rights to make a game based on Neuromancer, eventually partnering up with Brian Fargo at Interplay, who ultimately designed, developed, and published the game. Unfortunately Interplay had just released cult-classic Wasteland under Electronic Arts, and were soon to release an absolute must-have at the time, Battle Chess, sandwiching Neuromancer into relative obscurity.

A robot? What game is this again?
"A robot? What game is this again?"

Adding to that obscurity, Neuromancer’s release fell in what was an extremely awkward period for PC gaming; a transitional time between the end of the 8 bit personal computer era and the beginning of the popularity of the new 16 bit computers like the Amiga and the Atari ST, and of course, the rise of the IBM PC as a popular gaming platform. IBM PCs took a little bit of time to catch up, however; low color but higher resolution EGA was still in vogue, and add-on sound and music cards such as the Adlib and Roland’s MT32 hadn’t begun to see widespread use yet. On the other hand, Neuromancer was somewhat of a tour de force on squeezing content into and power out of its lead platform, the aging Commodore 64.

For this review I’m playing through the inferior IBM PC version, but honestly, this lackluster port probably only adds to the quirkiness of this already unique game.

Gameplay

Another side effect of this awkward, transitional period of gaming, is the gameplay itself. By the late 80s a lot of PC games were extremely creative affairs, including all kinds of new and experimental gameplay concepts, often forced together in unusual ways, and many of the genre tropes we take for granted today hadn’t quite been established. Unfortunately that meant that when those genres did get more established, some of these transitional, experimental games became evolutionary dead-ends, as it were. In my King’s Quest review I talked about the design and even UI differences between King’s Quest’s AGI and SCI versions. Neuromancer takes a lot of adventure game ideas from old AGI games and their contemporaries, but also tosses in a huge helping of roleplay, and then throws in this massive twist of online interfaces including exploring cyberspace itself. You could easily argue that Neuromancer has more akin to classic graphical RPGs than run-of-the-mill adventure games like King’s Quest. That doesn’t make it a bad game by most standards, but it does make it a weird one.

The end of the book would have been a lot shorter if Neuromancer was just chilling in the lobby.
"The end of the book would have been a lot shorter if Neuromancer was just chilling in the lobby."

Neuromancer is split into several different, distinct gameplay systems, but for the sake of simplification, let’s reduce this down to two halves, which roughly represent the two halves of the game (though it is a semi-nonlinear game, so it’s definitely possible that you won’t have anything even close to a 50/50 split.) First, there’s the offline adventure section.

Neuromancer starts with your character standing on a screen representing a bar, where you’ve apparently just woken up after a rough evening of drinking and eating pasta. A text box describes the scene for you, and the bartender barks at you. From here, the game looks like a traditional adventure game, albeit an archaic, odd twist on some of the more conventional tropes of the genre. You can walk around these screens, navigating the city, and talking to various characters along your way, but that’s about the extent of it. Talking to people can get you some useful information, but it mostly serves as a way to upgrade your skills and equipment. In other words, almost every character is a traditional RPG shopkeeper NPC.

Your other options in the overworld are more interesting - you can access PAX terminals, which let you access basic banking functions, and read message boards, which work a bit like old school BBSes. The messages mostly contain background fluff but sometimes contain useful information too. You can even send messages, which is used once or twice as a solution to a puzzle, as it were.

You'll be entering a ton of linkcodes and passwords early in the game.
"You'll be entering a ton of linkcodes and passwords early in the game."

Finally, there are access ports, which is where things really start to get interesting. By using your cyberdeck in an area with a port, you can use a software application called “Comlink” to connect to various databases, or "bases." Comlink is something akin to a terminal program, and bases are similar to old dial up BBSes: Small, closed off systems that consist of memos, files you can download, more message boards, and sometimes other special functions. As a BBS junkie from way back, it’s pretty fascinating to see a view of what the Internet might be like in the future looking through the contemporary lens of dial-up BBSes and mainframe systems. It’s also interesting to note just how much the users of these apparently futuristic online systems resemble those of the underground BBS scene of the 80s and 90s. This was an unexpected shot of nostalgia for me!

Anyway, to connect to a base you need to know its linkcode, which is something like an AOL keyword, if anyone remembers those. Once connected, you’ll then need a password to get access. Bases have multiple levels, each with its own password. Once you’re on, the main function of these “bases” is essentially to provide more linkcodes and passwords to other bases, or hints to find and figure new ones out, as well as downloads for improved software, to progress, with higher levels usually having some additional, previously inaccessible messages, downloads, or other functions.

In retrospect I'm not sure why I thought online banking would make a good screenshot.
"In retrospect I'm not sure why I thought online banking would make a good screenshot."

Hints are important in Neuromancer, because, despite being fairly non-linear in terms of structure, progression is generally guided by a series of gates: Do you know a linkcode to connect to a base? Do you know the access code to get into the base? Do you have a high enough version of Comlink to work with a base? Do you have some other required software or know the appropriate level of skill to “solve” a puzzle? These questions are answered one by one in a fairly orderly way. The biggest challenge, generally speaking, is trying to keep track of the vast amount of information you’re given. You may have half a dozen or more of these micro puzzles progressing at any one time. This is a game that requires taking notes if I’ve ever played one. By the time I was halfway through I had a notebook that looked like the scribblings of a madman, filled with linkcodes, encrypted and unencrypted passwords, names, places, account numbers, etc.

Surprisingly, this stage in the game isn’t quite as tedious as it sounds. You don’t have to do too much walking around, the fluff is interesting and even a little funny when it works, and the act of juggling all of this information, manipulating people and systems, connecting to a base, snooping around in it, taking what you’ve learned to connect to the next one, etc. actually starts to feel a lot like something resembling legitimate, largely social engineering powered, hacking. In fact, at this point Neuromancer feels more like some odd twist on a hacking simulator than any sort of adventure game.

Welcome to cyberspace!
"Welcome to cyberspace!"

That, and the puzzles aren’t as frustrating as vintage PC gaming veterans are probably imaging from a 80s game where information gathering and solving puzzles is the order of the day. The fact is, for the most part, the different puzzles and their solutions are strung together fairly well, and there are never too many of these little mysteries sitting there, unsolved, at any one time. That might not sound like a big deal, but it’s far easier to figure out your next move based on a few distinct clues than it is to figure it out when you have 10s of them pointing you in every possible direction.

Eventually with all of the skills you’ve learned and software you’ve gathered, you’ll manage to make some extra cash from all of your hacking exploits, and can upgrade your deck to something “cyberspace capable”. Once you have one of these decks, not only can you use Comlink to connect to bases, but you can enter the Matrix, and thus begins the second half of the game.

Cyberspace is essentially a graphical representation of the back-end infrastructure of the aforementioned individual bases. As you move through the Matrix you can connect to the same databases in virtual space, but this time you can access them through their back doors. People aren’t complete morons in this imaginary future, however: all of these back doors are protected by ICE, or Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics, which means you need to perform some hacking to get in. Hacking ICE requires using a rotation of programs on your deck to damage or otherwise weaken the ICE, as well as occasionally repair your own systems. You select one of your available programs and wait for it to affect the ICE. Meanwhile, the ICE is firing back with its own damaging hacks. It’s honestly not incredibly thrilling, but you still need to be on your toes. Once the ICE is defeated, you have maximum access to the base. Sometimes this means newer information and software than you previously discovered access to, sometimes not, but generally speaking completing these hacks helps you progress your character’s ability to move deeper into cyberspace.

Attempting to defeat an AI.
"Attempting to defeat an AI."

Sometimes when you defeat a base’s ICE you wind up not in the database, but staring down an AI. Unlike the Sprawl Trilogy this game was based on, their seems to be quite a few AIs running around the Matrix. Each AI has its own personality and take on and involvement in the overarching plot of the game. To defeat an AI you use your various skills in much the same way as you used your deck’s software; rotating through different skills to cause damage and healing yourself when required while the AI takes turns pummeling you back. A lot of these fights can be pretty close, but if you’ve been keeping your skills and warez up, you should beat any AI the game intends for you to be able to beat.

As to that intention, the different areas or “zones” of cyberspace, and to a lesser degree individual instances of ICE and AI, are gated by your level skills and software, which is essentially the gameplay loop of this last section of the game: access an area of cyberspace, hack all of the bases and defeat all of the AIs to upgrade your software and upgrade your skills, respectively, and then move on to the next area. Again, very RPG-like. There are some minor diversions along the way, but at this point the game turns into a bit of a slog until you eventually go head to head with the titular AI, Neuromancer, in one last, climatic battle.

Story

Sadly, despite being based on a celebrated novel, Neuromancer’s story is not one of its strong points.

For one, there’s barely any narrative to speak of. Instead, the game is a bit of a hamfisted execerise in “environmental storytelling”; it seems that you’re supposed to take a lot of context out of the presentation of the world itself, with what isn’t inferred from the setting found in text stashed on PAX and database message boards, crushed between various pieces of fun but perhaps ultimately distracting fluff. In fact, there’s so much of this other stuff that it can be hard to identify what is and isn’t actually supposed to be relevant to the plot. Honestly, I can easily imagine someone who hadn't read the book being completely lost by this method of delivery.

Maelcum's cringeworthy faux-Jamaica is lovingly recreated. Yay.
"Maelcum's cringeworthy faux-Jamaica is lovingly recreated. Yay."

Hopefully you'll eventually piece together that many of your fellow “console cowboys” have gone missing or have been “flatlined” in what sniffs of conspiracy. You then discover that a group of rogue AIs are responsible and defeat them one by one, leading to a confrontation with Neuromancer. Neuromancer then brags about having manipulated you the entire time into doing its bidding, including taking out the other AIs so that it could assume control of the Matrix. As reductive as that sounds, that’s the plot.

Fans will note the obvious departures from the plot of the novel. While sure, along with Wintermute, Neuromancer, is an AI who manipulates a hacker into serving its cause, there’s quite a bit more nuisance in the original story that is simply left out of the game. While there are quite a few details from the book mentioned in the game, including numerous references to characters, events, companies, technologies, and places, they mostly feel like very surface-level references, or even homages to the original story, than anything resembling an adaptation.

Dixie Flatline's ROM-construct also makes an appearance... for some reason.
"Dixie Flatline's ROM-construct also makes an appearance... for some reason."

Here's my personal “headcanon” take on how the game’s story relates to that of the novel. First, if it's not obvious, you're not supposed to be playing Case, the main protagonist of the book, but a different character that just so happens to also be a down on his luck hacker living in Chiba City. Running in the same circles as Case, your character just so happens to interact with some of the same people and somehow wind up in some of the same places as he does. This character’s manipulation by Neuromancer, however, takes place before the events in the book, with Neuromancer attempting to level the playing field for itself before its more existential endgame in the novel. I think that works?

That all said, the story is presented as such an afterthought, that while it may disappoint those looking for a faithful adaptation of the plot of the novel, it didn’t have a major impact on my enjoyment of the game. It succeeds in giving us an interesting setting, at least.

Controls

In the more traditional offline “meatspace” adventure sections of the game, you’re presented with the typical third person view of your character in the immediate area you’re in. Navigating here is fairly rudimentary, with most screens only representing a single room with no scrolling or scaling as you move around. Moving is really only useful for navigating to an exit, as your character’s position is not typically a factor in being able to interact with people or objects. Similarly unsophisticated, each room tends to only have a single exit per side of the screen. Compared to most graphical adventure games, even much older ones, all of this might sound depressingly limited, but it somehow works just fine in practice.

Being able to sell your organs for cash should be a standard feature in games.
"Being able to sell your organs for cash should be a standard feature in games."

Your ability to move around in the UI tends to be more important, as you’ll be spending much more of your time interacting with it than the world around you, especially as the game progresses and you spend the majority of your time face down in your cyberdeck. There are a handful of menus available at almost any time, most notably your skill and item inventories where the bulk of your actions derive from, as well as dedicated conversation and PAX access options that’ll you’ll be using a lot in the early game while still navigating the world. Anyone who is used to working in command line environments or other text based, hotkey driven programs should be able to pick up on it right away. While it’s a little archaic, the menu-heavy interface probably works better in the context of Neuromancer than other games from that era, and I found that it actually lead to feeling like I was really hacking around in these computer systems, adding greatly to my immersion in the gameworld.

Curiously enough for a game from 1986, I suppose as a nod to the newer, more mouse orientated 16 bit PCs, Neuromancer also includes fairly comprehensive mouse support. Along with performing some extremely basic “click to move” movement in the adventure sections, you can click menu and action buttons in the main UI overlay and most of the hotkey text options in the menus. Between typing in linkcodes and passwords and using the “Tell me about...” conversation option, which requires typing nouns into a simple text parser, I found it to be a lot more efficient just to get used to navigating the UI as well as moving my character strictly via keyboard so I wouldn’t need to keep switching back and forth between keyboard and mouse. Still, even if I didn’t use it, it’s neat that they decided to include it.

Graphics

Neuromancer’s graphics are a mixed bag. While it makes full use of EGA’s 320x200 resolution, packing a fair amount of detail into the world in addition to the descriptive text in the UI, and enough lines of text in the various interfaces to not feel too cramped, it’s default 16 color palette gives the graphics a harsh and primitive look that I, personally, don’t love. If you look carefully at the sprites and backgrounds, Interplay’s artists actually made damn fine use of the very limited palette, but that doesn’t stop the world from feeling drowned in otherworldly hues of cyan, purple, and green as typical of most EGA graphics. I admit, this is mostly a personal preference thing. While the animations aren't anything to write home about either, the general art style and design of the world, despite not at all what I might have imagined when I read the book, have a distinct and enjoyable character for sure.

Waking up in Chatsubo bar: Commodore 64.
"Waking up in Chatsubo bar: Commodore 64."

Waking up in Chatsubo bar: IBM PC.
"Waking up in Chatsubo bar: IBM PC."

Waking up in Chatsubo bar: Amiga.
"Waking up in Chatsubo bar: Amiga."

Obviously rendered at a lower resolution than its IBM and Amiga counterparts, the stylization in the Commodore 64 version is totally different and, in my opinion, actually superior. Your character has a different hairstyle, resembling the character in the title screen rather than sporting a bizarre flattop. In fact, everything is different, with the amount of detail they managed to squeeze into its few pixels of backgrounds and sprites, including more variety into the otherwise plain PAX and base menus, it’s so much more charming. In comparison to the IBM PC version, the addition of more suitable colors is a vast improvement over characters’ ghoulish white skin and the stark EGA neons on display throughout. The Amiga version rectifies the IBM PC version’s weird color palette, looking more akin to a 90s VGA game, yet the stylization issues remain. While many people probably consider the Amiga port the definitive version, I’d definitely cast my vote for the C64.

Sound

Speaking of the Commodore 64, by 1988 it was a mature machine; developers had figured out ways to squeeze every ounce of potential out of it, including its legendary SID sound chip. Neuromancer is a great example of this all around, but it’s sound is a real head turner. For a C64 game it’s quite technologically impressive, featuring probably the first licensed, digitized soundtrack in a game. Devo’s “Some Things Never Change” provides the opening theme music, and a reworking of it provides occasional loops of in-game music. Of course, it mostly sounds like trash by today’s standards, but compared to the IBM PC version’s (admittedly catchy) blip-bloppy PC speaker rendition, it’s a huge step above. Even the Amiga version’s chiptune composition of the track, while definitely an upgrade, is still a pale imitation of the C64 version.

A rare, not-so-subtle hint... for dumb wilsons.
"A rare, not-so-subtle hint... for dumb wilsons."

On the other hand, despite each port of the game having some version of this track, it’s rarely played in-game and the rest of the sound effects are almost non-existent. Simple blips and blops for only a very few actions, and the rest of the time… total silence. Great!

Old Age

As usual, I played through the entirety of Neuromancer on my dedicated gaming 486, usually with my internal cache disabled to slow the processor down to 386-like speeds. There weren’t any major speed related issues I ran into with the game. Most noticeably, the scrolling text that appears in various menu interfaces throughout the game scrolls a little quicker than it should. I also ran into a problem where, with my cache enabled, my mouse clicks were often detected twice. This was an easy problem to work around by simply moving my cursor to a non-clickable part of the screen immediately after clicking a menu option, but it could still be annoying if you intend to use the mouse. Given those issues, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn of other speed related issues.

Beyond playing it on the real thing, it appears that the last couple of versions of DOSBox fully support Neuromancer, listing 100% compatibility with it. I never got around to trying it personally, but given its age and relatively simplicity, I’d certainly guess it would run absolutely perfect in DOSBox.

Honesty is the best policy.
"Honesty is the best policy."

Obtaining Neuromancer is another matter, however. Neuromancer exists firmly in the realm of abandonware these days. I know of absolutely no way to acquire it legally without finding a second hand copy of the physical release, and last time I checked eBay, prices were fairly outrageous. Fortunately, you can find the game on various shady abandonware sites quite easily. The more popular versions, like the Commodore 64 and Amiga ports, tend to be even more widespread, showing up on various enthusiast sites. I should point out that the game does include copy protection, originally coming with one of those annoying “code wheels” that you'd need to use to look up a keyword any time you access a PAX terminal. Of course, just about any version you download these days will already be cracked.

I’ve already talked quite a bit about some of the other versions of the game, but in addition to the awesome Commodore 64 version there is an Apple II port which has the same graphical style though, running at a lower resolution, looks a lot worse. Of course, it doesn’t include the digitized music either. Unusually, there's also an Apple IIGS port. Very similar to the Amiga version, this one has the same graphical style including the higher color graphics, and similar chiptune music and sound effects.

It's all just a game, after all...
"It's all just a game, after all..."

Scans of Neuromancer’s documentation are fairly widely available. Reading the manual isn't necessarily required, but I’d recommend it due to it providing a good introduction to the story and overview of most of the game’s various systems. As usual, ReplacementDocs and Archive.org are places to start. There are also scans of the official hint book floating around. It’s kind of neat, written entirely as an in-character narrative, but I can’t recommend it as more than an interesting artifact since it’s an extremely linear walkthrough that removes any and all challenge from playing the game. I'd recommend at least trying to solve some of these puzzles yourself.

Sequels and Related Games

For what seems like the first time in one of these retro reviews, there are absolutely none. There were no sequels, and to my knowledge there are no other games based on Neuromancer. While you could possibly point to some of Interplay’s other games from around this time as related games, to my knowledge, none of them are directly related to Neuromancer’s engine or play anything like Neuromancer. Yet again, living up to my statement about it being unique.

Closing

Since, as mentioned, Neuromancer and its sequels are some of my favorite books and the game itself is a potent mix of a lot of my favorite elements, I’m definitely glad I played through this. On the other hand, unless you find yourself as similarly drawn to it as I was, it’s hard to recommend. The game is definitely interesting, with its unique mix of adventure, roleplaying, and hacking gameplay, and I haven’t played too many games that feel intimidatingly large and open, yet progress in such a fairly logical and linear way. Yet, the actual mechanics, from the simple implementation of the adventure game sections, to the repetitive and not particularly deep cyberspace ICE and AI battles, don’t quite stand out enough. Even though the Commodore 64 version in particular was technically impressive at the time, the game isn’t particularly historically significant either. If it’s simply the cyberpunk setting you’re after, there are games that pull off the atmosphere better, or you perhaps you could just cut out the middleman and check out the book!

I don’t usually cite sources when putting together these reviews due to the sheer amount of reviews, articles, walkthroughs, and other material that I read while working on them. That said, this awesome article about the history of Neuromancer’s development is just too fascinating not to share.

21Feb/180

Grubbin Cold War

I’m a little bit behind with my normal game log updates so this is a bit of a catch up session.

Around Halloween last year I decided to grab Double Fine’s Costume Quest 2 off of XBLA. As a side note, I don’t think they call it Xbox Live Arcade anymore, do they? Whatever man, I’m a die hard! Anyway, I gushed quite a bit about the first one on here, so I felt pretty confident about grabbing the second one.

Dentists should be portrayed as villains far more often.
"Dentists should be portrayed as villains far more often."

Gameplay hasn’t shifted significantly in the sequel. It’s still basically a simplified take on classic JRPGs, with the game divided into wandering an “overworld” exploring, looting a little and talking to the odd NPC, and then moving into turn based, party versus party battles when you encounter enemies. The overworld is mostly the same, though some costumes have special abilities which are used to solve simple puzzles while navigating. Really, they’re more about gating you based on whether you have the costume or not than presenting any sort of challenging puzzle to solve though. The combat system itself a bit different, with a greater focus on timed attacks and blocks and the addition of special ability cards, but it all still feels very JRPG-inspired, and while you may prefer one system over the other, the difference isn't all too compelling to me.

The real appeal of Costume Quest is its quaint charm and humor. Unfortunately, while the overall plot might be better realized this time around, the writing struck me as far drier. I didn’t get nearly as strong of a genuine sibling vibe from the main characters, for one, and it’s hard to put my finger on why, but I also didn’t think the game was quite as funny as the first one. Maybe I’m just in a drastically different headspace than I was a few years back, or perhaps the formula has just worn out its welcome. The gameplay also started to wear out its welcome though. In the end, the repetition of exploring the overworld and getting pounded with so many random battles really took a toll on me, and I had to drag myself to the finish line. For a game that’s only 8 or 9 hours long, that’s definitely not a great thing.

Dream
"Dream team: Gandalf, Thomas Jefferson, and a fucking pterodactyl!"

I hear a Costume Quest 3 is in development now but unless they make some major changes to the basic formula I may give that one a pass.

I started a second game from the dusty corners of XBLA at around the same time as I started Costume Quest 2; the sequel to another game that I absolutely loved, Toy Soldiers. I was actually a lot less confident about Toy Soldiers: Cold War because of what seemed like a new focus on special “barrage” attacks, especially the new Rambo inspired playable commando, who was featured constantly in all of the media surrounding the game. I’m happy to report that I was wrong, and Toy Soldiers: Cold War is about as direct a sequel as you could ever want while still allowing for some tweaks to the formula.

Sometimes it's just too easy...
"Sometimes it's just too easy..."

So about the game. Well, I’m just going to steal, almost verbatim, what I said about the original Toy Soldiers here. Toy Soldiers: Cold War takes the classic, simple tower defense gameplay, gives it an awesome Cold War/Vietnam era meets kid’s toy box theme, and adds in the ability to control towers and other special units (tanks, helicopters, and jets) by hand to up their effectiveness and/or your score. It's a very simple concept but executed almost perfectly with an awesome presentation and a healthy layer of polish.

As with the first game’s World War I theme, the cold war era doesn’t get used too often in video games, and the variety and selection units is even cooler and funner to play with in my opinion. The fact that these are toys means how “realistic” it might be for a Huey gunship to duel a MIG-23, for example, is almost entirely irrelevant. That said, like the first game, everything being a “toy” of some sort, and the fact that you’re fighting in some kid’s bedroom, hardly detracts from the gritty war experience. I quickly forgot that my M1 Abrams tank had an radio control antenna sticking out of it, or that the mass of troops I was brutally gunning down were supposed to be toy soldiers at all.

These (toy) BMP-1s don't stand a chance against my (toy) Abrams.
"These (toy) BMP-1s don't stand a chance against my (toy) Abrams."

The aforementioned barrages, which are awarded for certain conditions, actually rarely come into play, though I suppose you could optimize your play to get awarded them more frequently than I did. Besides the commando unit I mentioned, most of these are powerful air strikes, some controllable and some not, and can really help turn the tide during a particularly nasty wave. The special controllable units, tanks, helicopters, and the occasional jet, feel more powerful in Cold War, but now have batteries, effectively meaning you can only use them for a short durations, having to wait for them to recharge between uses. Timing your use of these units can make or break your success in certain waves, and can greatly make up for a lack of certain turrets or upgrades.

I completed the entire campaign on the default difficulty, and also ran though both DLC campaigns. The DLC campaigns are short and sweet and seemed more focused on adding more maps rather than changing up the gameplay too much, despite one of the campaigns letting you play as the USSR, but if you really like the base game, perhaps more maps to play is incentive enough to pick them.

I'm ashamed to say that, like the first game, I still didn’t end up trying the multiplayer modes. One of these days. They look awesome, feature glorious split screen, and you can even play through the entire campaign co-op.

The Commando doing what he does best, which is apparently effortlessly shooting down Mi24 Hinds!
"The Commando doing what he does best, which is apparently effortlessly shooting down Mi24 Hinds!"

Signal Studios keeps knocking these games out of the park for me, and I’m already planning on picking up the latest game in the series, Toy Soldiers: War Chest. War Chest looks to really push the fun toys angle of the series over the edge, and even includes licensed toys like He-Man and G.I. Joe this time around. Seriously? Dude.

Last, and least, I’ve been playing Bungie’s Destiny 2 here and there. I know it’s been out for months already, but I’m going to hold off on talking about it until I play through the campaign a second time and can put together some more coherent conclusions on it, but I’ve definitely enjoyed my time with it so far. Stay tuned for that!

As usual, the screenshots here are mostly stolen from other places. Despite scouring Steam Community for what felt like hours, I'm not too satisfied with the Cold War screenshots. Sure, they're cool, but they don't represent that game's core tower defense gameplay too well. What can I say? The flashier action stuff just makes for better pictures.