A postcard from Middle-earth

Mmm. Rivendell.

So I haven’t been around Sure as Shiretalk the last week or two, and I’ll tell you why: over the weekend of March 27-28, The Lord of the Rings Online offered a $9.99 deal for the Mines of Moria and Siege of Mirkwood expansions plus 30 days of free play. So I’ve returned to Middle-earth in the guise of Haldaran Casarmacil, Protector of the Shire (I love the title system in LotRO). You’ll be happy to know I’ve leveled up four times since then; I’m currently sitting about halfway to level 43.

What I love most about this game is how incredibly true to the novel it feels. I’ve played most of the LotR-based games out there, and most of them are forced to sacrifice much of the subtlety and restraint employed by Tolkien — espeically regarding the use of “magic” — in favor of, presumably, attracting and entertaining a wider audience than die-hard Tolkien fans (why this “wider audience” requires all that flashy Magic Missile bullshit to be adequately entertained is entirely beyond me). But if not for Gandalf very occasionally creating fire or lighting his staff up like a lamp, The Lord of the Rings would be basically devoid of overt displays of supernatural power. Most of Middle-earth’s magic is in the land, in the creatures that inhabit it, and in the interactions between good and evil intentions — most emphatically not at the end of a wand or the tip of somebody’s fingers.

Unlike titles such as The Third Age (a Final Fantasy clone with flashy spells for every class) or The Two Towers/The Return of the King (aka Dynasty Warriors in Middle-earth), LotRO keeps the offensive magic and flashy sword-and-sorcery nonsense to the minimum necessary, and finds ways to work it into the game that effectively maintain Tolkien’s vision. Players have Morale rather than Health; you retreat to a rally point rather than die and get resurrected. Consequently, your hitpoints are affected by abstract stimuli, most notably fear, as well as the common orc-sword. For example, should you encounter a great source of terror like a Ringwraith or a dragon, you take a noticeable hit to your total number of HP (which is then removed when you either defeat that enemy or remove yourself from its presence; there are of course many ways to partially/completely counteract these fear effects). Accordingly, then, the “healer” class is a Minstrel who keeps his/her allies in the fight by inspiring them instead of performing on-the-spot surgery and blood transfusions.

Beyond that, the storytelling also feels very Tolkienesque; although I’m sure his perfectionism would’ve found countless things to disagree with, the quests and “Epic” plotline feel close enough to his style and sensibilities that a Tolkien fanatic/purist like myself can really enjoy the feeling of (near) total immersion in Middle-earth and its cultures.

One final comment: I cannot express how beautiful and how detailed this game is. When I first started playing, I wandered off to Weathertop to check out the scenery, and when I got to the top, I checked for the rock with Gandalf’s runes written on it. It’s there. Even locations that Tolkien left with almost no descriptions are startlingly, awesomely depicted. My jaw dropped when I first set eyes on the massive tower of AnnĂºminas on the shores of Lake Evendim; Rivendell nearly broke my heart with its autumnal splendor; the Shire is every bit as charming and peaceful as you’d expect it to be.

In other words, I love this game. It’s a brilliant rendering of my favorite novel of all time.

Last comment: I’ve also loaded up the GoldenEye 007 again recently. God this game rocks my socks.

My Top Five Most Memorable Video Game Showdowns

Making a game that is entertaining in general is one thing, but creating really memorable confrontations between the player and their foes is quite another. There seem to be a handful of ways that game developers can rely on that will both depict the villain as powerful and difficult to overcome and allow the player to do it without too much frustration. It’s critical that both of these aspects are maintained, the first because you have to feel like you’re doing something important and hard, and the second because you don’t want the flow of the game interrupted.

One of the most common scenarios is the standard FPS approach, in which the player might have less innate power than their foe, but can sure as hell shoot bigger guns at them — seeDoom 3 or Return to Castle Wolfenstein. When that doesn’t work, perhaps because the enemy is invulnerable to normal attacks, you can let the player in on a secret weakness that they can then exploit (see any number of platformer games; check out Portal for a really unique FPS example). This last one seems more common to me, probably occurring more often for the sake of adding variety to a game. There are a few other possibilities for how we gamers can defeat the big bad bosses, but they usually fall into one (or both) of those general categories.

However, that’s not what I’m interested in right now. The confrontations I’m looking to record here are the ones that really stick with you for reasons other than their difficulty or originality. I’m looking for those showdowns that you’ll remember forever not only because of the showdown itself, but also for the build-up to it and the characters involved. My examples will be biased in favor of PC games since that’s what I play most; they’ll also likely not include anything from more strategy-based genres, because I want to focus more on the you-against-the-world/mano-a-mano sorts of battles. So, these are listed basically in the order that they occurred to me.

JC Denton vs. Walton Simons, Deus Ex

The world economy is falling apart around you. A man-made disease is killing off millions needlessly. You’re stuck in the bowels of a defunct deep-sea base, fighting off irritating little poison-spitting lizard-birds, the result of some mad scientist’s genetic experiments (“Green greasy greasels!”), and all the while some slimy-voiced douche-bag pipes his narcissistic plans for world domination straight into your brain. Where in god’s name is the fucking mute button on this InfoLink!? Well, you’re in luck, because said power-hungry creepo Walton Simons is coming to stop you escaping from the base, and his smug ass is definitely not armed well enough to handle JC Denton. At last, you get to reap your sweet revenge for all his angsty, meaningless rantings about you foiling his plans thus far. Generally, I find a good slice or two with the Dragon’s Tooth sword most satisfying.

Why is it memorable? Because Walton Simons is an affront to all that is good and noble in humanity, and you, a genetically-modified, nano-augmented superman, have the power to splash his guts all over the goddamn underwater cavern (or Area 51, depending on your choices), thus putting an end to the military head of one of the most dastardly plots ever devised to take over the world. I kid you not, the first time I killed him, I got up out of my chair, pointed viciously and shouted at my computer screen: “Eat shit and die, you smug. fucking. bastard.”

Death Egg Zone, Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Every now and then I bust out the old Sega Genesis and play through the favorites again, and Sonic 2 is always one of them. Some will tell you the original Sonic title is harder and therefore better, but my eight year-old self was probably better suited to the less frustrating sequel. It was still quite challenging, and didn’t feature any of the save-game nonsense of the third one (says the lifelong PC gamer). This meant that getting to Death Egg Zone was a real feat of patience and persistence, and all the more exciting because of it. I still get that tension in my gut when I run down that long hallway in outer space and start the face-off with the robot Sonic. Denying the player any rings at all for this level was a great move in that it means you can’t make a single mistake. Add to that a near-perfect soundtrack, and you’re in for an epic battle that’ll give you a lovely feeling of a job well done.

I particularly appreciate Sonic standing there all hands-on-his-hips glaring at a giant doomsday robot. Surely one of the eternal badasses of video gaming.

The Chaos Sanctuary, Diablo II

It’s a long haul to Hell, that’s for sure, and after chasing Big D across damn near the entire known world, all you want is his blood. But you can’t have it. At least, not right away. He’s still got minions a-plenty, and some of the most irritating kinds in the game. Heavy hitting physical/fire damage combos, mana-sucking casters that run away from you and cast again, and oh yeah — anybody like wielding melee weapons? Try it. I dare you.

Once you make it past the Iron Maiden-casting Oblivion Knights (or perhaps if; I’ve heard of people quitting the game because of those guys), you still have to deal with Diablo’s super uniques — the Grand Vizier of Chaos, Lord De Seis, and the Infector of Souls, plus their minions. Each is tuned slightly differently so as to offer challenges to various character types (the Infector generally proves hardest for me because he’s so obnoxiously fast). Then, at last, when the countless hordes lie dead about the Sanctuary, the ground shakes and Diablo at last shows himself, uttering possibly the most badass taunt ever thrown at PC gamers: Not even death can save you from me. After which, he proceeds to roast you alive with the dreaded Lightning Hose — the near-instantly lethal attack that has provoked an indignant “AWW, SHIT!!” from me more times than I can possibly count. Regarding town portals: cast early, cast often.

All in all, this battle with the Lord of Terror is one of the most memorable not only because of the skill, patience, and versatility required to get through it, but also because of the sheer build-up to this moment. A deliciously dark fantasy world complemented by great cutscenes and tense, addictive gameplay makes this showdown a satisfying (semi-)conclusion to one of the most popular RPGs of all time.

Batman vs. every last incarcerated criminal in Gotham City, Batman: Arkham Asylum

I have been waiting for a good Batman game since I was three years old, when I saw Tim Burton’s film with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson for the first time. And at last, we have a great Batman game. I can’t recall the last title I’ve played (if there is one) in which I had so much fun kicking the tar out of so many enemies all at once.

It’s on my Showdown list for a couple reasons. For one, the game does a fantastic job in making you feel utterly alone in the looniest loony bin on Earth, and that you are really, truly the only thing standing between Gotham and total chaos. And secondly, because every single encounter with the Joker’s thugs was so thrillingly, perfectly Batman, whether I swept through the shadows and hung them upside-down from gargoyles or just strolled right up and smashed all their faces into the pavement. No other game has made me feel so incredibly powerful, so (literally) able to take on dozens of foes at once and emerge the absolute, undisputed victor. Sometimes I sit up on a ledge someplace, look down at the oblivious goons wandering around below, and just enjoy the perfect satisfaction in knowing that every one of them will soon be beaten, broken, and unconscious, all because I am the goddamn BATMAN.

Beyond repeatedly exhibiting the Caped Crusader’s superior physical prowess, though, you can effectively plan out exactly how you want to engage your enemies — just like Batman would. Many of the combat sequences in Arkham reminded me of the finale of The Dark Knight in that they force you to flawlessly manage multiple enemies and situations at once. While the entire game is phenomenal, Arkham Asylum‘s combat is so finely, so impressively crafted that it turns me into a giggling mess every single time I snap some creep’s arm out of its socket. At long last, I am the goddamn BATMAN.

Sabotage at Soulforge, Thief II: The Metal Age

This one struck me as a strange addition to a list of memorable confrontations — I mean, unless you’re playing Normal difficulty (who does that, anyway?), deliberately fighting anybody in this game is usually a pretty convenient recipe for suicide. However, this level is such a great climax to a such a great game that I had to make the case.

So Karras, a thoroughly loony religious fanatic with a serious speech impediment, has decided all organic life in the City must die. You, as the master thief Garrett, are the only one sneaky enough to successfully navigate his massive, high-security cathedral/fortress, Soulforge, and turn his own maniacal plan against him. He’s got cameras, alarms and cartoon-bomb tossing robots a-plenty, and he knows you’re in there, too, so he’s put them all on high alert. And, like Walton Simons, he has an ego that seems to insist that he pester you constantly over his loudspeakers all throughout the cathedral. If I ever exhibit an unfair bias against persons with speech impediments, I blame Thief II.

Aside from being a very difficult, very long mission, full of not only Karras’s robots, but also plenty of tile and metal floors to be certain you make as much noise as possible, I chose this one because of all the weirdly ironic story elements that lead you up to this point. Garrett is the perfect anti-hero, yet here he is again saving the City from a maniac alongside an old enemy from the previous game. Though I despise Karras with every ounce of my nerdy being, he’s a fantastically written character — bizarre, exasperating and amusing all at once. His squeaking wail during the final cutscene is absolutely priceless, especially since it was you who forced it from him.

Well, there you have it. I have to give an honorable mention, though, to the sequence in No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way that has you battling ninjas in a trailer park near Akron, Ohio while a tornado rips the place apart. Eventually you end up battling the ninja leader inside a trailer that’s been picked up by the twister. Not something gamers are generally subjected to, and it was side-splittingly funny to boot.

Classic PC Game Reviews, Vol. I — Thief: The Dark Project

Appearing in 1998 was a tough business for any PC game if it wasn’t titled Half-Life, particularly for other first-person shooter types. Better just leave off the groundbreaking new genres until next year, lads.

But the folks at Looking Glass Studios didn’t, and aren’t we all glad. Thief: The Dark Project is the ancestor of all stealth-based games, period. It also happens to still be the most fun. No game before (or since) has so single-handedly created an entire sub-genre of first-person shooters (Thief is often called a “first-person looter” for obvious reasons).

The concept is straightforward (steal things and don’t get caught), but the execution is quite complex. Your character Garrett has plenty of tools at his disposal to deal with guards, locked doors, and inconveniently-placed light sources, but supplies are limited and many situations require you to rely on patience and three-dimensional thinking (the importance of “up” cannot be overstated) to get the loot you’re looking for. Imagine that — patience as a mandatory element in a first-person shooter. I cannot stress enough how refreshing that is in a gaming world that mostly has the FPS genre constantly shouting “OMFG TIME-TRAVELING KILLER ALIEN ROBOTS FROM OUTER SPACE GRAB YOUR BFG9000!!1!”

Further, in an era of gaming where detailed graphics and physics seem to take precedence over immersive storylines, Thief puts others to shame with its beautifully-crafted cutscenes and brilliantly-detailed fantasy world full of intrigue, revenge and the undead.

Speaking of which — Thief is also one of the most absolutely terrifying games I’ve ever played, surpassed in its cardiac-arresting potential only by Doom 3. To illustrate, I’ll relate an anecdote from the early days of my career in larceny and graverobbing: I was wandering through the bowels of an abandoned mine, trying to find my way up to the Hammerite prison above, when what should appear in the darkened hallway ahead but a corpse, rotting happily away in a forgotten mining tunnel.

“Gross,” thought I, as I stepped over it and headed on down the passage.

Suddenly a decidedly inhuman groan blasted out from my speakers (Thief is best played at high volumes to increase your sensitivity to loud or unnecessary noises). As unnerving as that was, I still had the presence of mind to spin my mouse in circles, frantically searching for the source of the sound. Nothing to be seen, so I just crouched down in the shadows and waited, which is generally the proper course of action until you know what you’re up against. Unfortunately for me, I was facing away from the corpse on the ground nearby, which as you’ve probably deduced by now, wasn’t really a corpse in the strictest sense.

Well, a few seconds later, I heard another unpleasant moaning sound, this time from away left. As I twisted to face the noise, a sickening *crack* took my health bar down to about two hit points, and I was staring in horror at a zombie looking to OM-NOM my brains. And he did. Oh, how he did.

My reaction? Near heart failure. This was the case for me on all four of the levels featuring undead foes, particularly “Return to the Cathedral,” which induced complete paralysis. I was literally incapable of moving Garrett through the level for several minutes for fear of disturbing the Cathedral’s ghastly residents. All of Thief‘s various elements — story, music, ambient noise, lighting — combine perfectly to completely immerse the player.

This is, usually, a certain road to death.

 

Other comments: Have you ever wanted to be Indiana Jones in a video game? Thief lets you do that in several levels, and far more satisfyingly than any of the actual Indy titles. Thief also accommodates many styles of play through three genuinely different difficulty settings and sheer open-ended level construction. It has also given way to an enormous fan-mission and fanfic following, which you can take part in at Thief: The Circle. Thief: The Dark Project certainly isn’t the most influential title of its time, but it was without doubt one of the most innovative. A must-play for anyone who prefers mind-over-matter gaming.

So — why is it underrated? Well, as mentioned before, coming out in close proximity to one of the best-selling and most critically-acclaimed games of all time is rough, especially when your game is drastically different from that particular title. But in my explorations into the demise of Looking Glass Studios in 2000, I’ve heard that Thief‘s unjustly low popularity-to-quality ratio was also due to a simple lack of effective marketing. The game does enjoy favorable opinions from pretty much everyone I talk to about it, but a strangely small number of those people have ever actually played it or its sequel, Thief II: The Metal Age.

So get out there a find yourself a copy. There’s a surprising number of supposedly brand-new copies on eBay at the moment, and the entire game consists of about 3 or 400 megabytes (insta-Torrent, anyone?), so you really have no excuse. With any luck, you’ll end up like me: aggressively shushing nearby friends who, with their noisy careless lifestyles, are sure to expose you to the heavily-armed guards around the corner.

5 stars of 5.