Category Archives: Games

Alpha Protocol

Obsidian Entertainment seem to have based their business model on producing reasonable sequels to Bioware games and their latest offering is more of the same. Alpha Protocol is an Action RPG that will feel very familiar if you’ve played Mass Effect 1 or 2, albeit in a current day Secret Agent format with your character trying to save the world in a cheesily single minded way.

The strapline “your weapon is choice” is appropriate, with well over half of the game being driven by dialogue and character interaction. The conversation trees are immense, each of your character’s responses can be either ‘Professional’ (think Jason Bourne), ‘Suave’ (James Bond), or ‘Aggressive’ (Jack Bauer). To spice things up, you generally get about two seconds to make a non-default response, which if you blink or pick the wrong option can lead to a very different outcome.

The action sequences are good and generally exciting, the graphics provided by the Unreal Engine are stunning and smooth and it plays like any cover-based first person shooter. There is some attention to detail, headshots notwithstanding you can make your enemies stumble or fall over by running into them quickly or shooting them in the leg. You have to pay attention to the sounds your character is making, if you run by mistake then you will be heard through walls and doors, gunshots are a real give away. I got very good at hacking control panels to shut off all the red alarts I triggered in the first few missions.

I found sneaking about the place to be the most exciting and satisfying approach, placing great importance on stealth, precision pistol shots (with tranq ammo I hasten to add) and a good old fashioned boot to the face. Others might prefer to go fully gadgeted up, or just wade in like Arnie with the assault rifle blazing. Once you’ve got the ‘awareness’ skill to a level that puts little arrows above each guard’s head, you can have great fun creeping in between guard’s patrol patterns to evade them completely.

Now would be a good time to mention that this is very much an Obsidian game. It’s not polished to perfection like an offering from the likes of Bioware or Valve or Blizzard, this game was written for the consoles and then ported to the PC. Most of the bugs, and there are many, are documented on the official forums, but there are many features that are clearly designed for the lowest common denominator.

The worst offender is the save game system, it’s checkpoint based and is designed to not let you go back and replay each sequence until you get the outcome you had in mind. This has the side effect of making you really value each conversation option, each bullet fired and consumable gadget used, as well as considering which path you’re going to take through each room to avoid the most patrolling guards. It adds about one part excitement and four parts facedesking fustration.

The console style UI makes things like skill and gadget selection harder than it needs to be, so I pretty much just didn’t bother with them apart from using the unbalanced combination of ‘Covert Operative’ and the pistol ‘Chain Shot’ to make boss fights easier than they need be. There are two or three independent menu systems that are easy to get stuck in, the mouse control of the UI is tentative at best and it’s far too easy to press the wrong button in the heat of the action.

It’s a very enjoyable way to spend 12-15 hours once you’ve learned how to play the game and can accept it as an imperfect gem. I’d give it a very solid 7/10 and a great way of passing a rainy week at home.

If you’ve got the patience to wait for the Royal Mail, then Amazon is a good value place to get it, otherwise Steam will save you the trouble. I tried to buy it in an actual shop, I figured a car and a DVD was quicker than my home internet connection, but apparently just about everywhere has stopped selling PC games.

Defense Grid: The Awakening

Another of the free online game genres that’s developed over recent times is that of Tower Defense.

I originally met the concept years ago with the seminal Real Time Strategy game Dune 2, from Westwood Studios when I discovered the strategy of defending my base from invading hordes by making walls out of rocket turrets.

Spinning forward from 1992 to 2007 and a flash game was released upon unsuspecting offices worldwide, Desktop Tower Defense. This started a trend of making free flash TD games, including the resource-capturing version Flash Element TD. There was clearly a niche to be carved out because the people behind this have formed the reasonably successful Casual Collective, with the flagship game, multiplayer Desktop TD. One of the winning gameplay elements is one of persistance, you get to have office leaderboards so you compare highscores between friends and refine maze design strategy.

Defense Grid: the Awakening is a 2009 version of the classic TD, but professionally developed and generally turned up to 11.

I discovered it after it got top marks in the January 2009 Indie game Round-up, andbeing distributed through Steam, the free demo was easy to get hold of.

If you haven’t played the genre before, Defense Grid’s first chapter walks you through the concepts and slowly ramps up the difficulty and complexity until you’ve got the hang of it. It was never easy, though, in the way that the free games can be once you’ve worked out a winning maze.

The graphics are 3D and well detailed, which does mean you need a reasonably recent computer to run it. The camera isn’t completely free form, limiting you to 3 isometric viewpoints, but it’s sufficient to let you get a good look at what you’ve constructed as it blows the alien robots to bits. The soundtrack is complete with a rich music layer and some full sound effects. It is fully voice acted with the computer sounding like it was educated at the BBC and it’s got a story overlain to give a bit more depth.


I was surprised by this one. I thought that it wouldn’t add anything more to the free flash versions and was going to be a waste of time, but the professional presentation really added to the immersion and made it a good entertaining addition to the collection. Well worth the £13.

World of Goo

World of Goo is the latest variant on the Crayon Physics game mechanic idea that’s been gaining momentum in the independant games sector for the past year and is a tremendous example of a good idea that’s been executed professionally and is cheap and easy to buy so that people actually will.

For me, at least, it started with the sandbox of Numpty Physics that goes well with a tablet or a touch screen. Then somebody spent some effort on the idea and turned the mechanic into Crayon Physics. Then stir in the game that laid waste to my team’s lunchtimes for over a week, Fantastic Contraption (particularly popular in the Academic Engineering community), sprinkle on some Lemmings (who on earth would write that in javascript!) and you’re left with Goo.

The game is essentially building lots of triangles out of rubber bands to try to cross obstacles. As you progress through the demo, you are gradually taught the various concepts needed to cope when the designers start throwing in complications like gravity and buoyancy. I played through the free demo chapter in about an hour or so and was impressed by both the presentation and the learning curve. Unlike some of the previous incarnations of the genre, where I was left wondering what to do for too long, this game gives you sufficient hints to generally get there in the end but without feeling like you’ve just clicked the i.w.i.n. button. The graphics are slick and attractive, the music is good and the sound effects are sufficiently cute as to give Worms a run for its money (although sadly you don’t get to change the voices to be 007 or Tykes).

Clearly I’m not alone with my opinion of the sound track, apparently enough people pestered the author to publish it and one crazy fan even transcribed it by ear!

World of Goo is available for more than just Windows PCs, presumably because the author didn’t want to restrict his sales, and it’s easy to download either as a one off, or through a framework such as Steam. One of the things I like most about independant games, apart from them actually having fun gameplay like games used to when aye wuz a lad, is that the successful ones spawn community interest. Just digging up the links for this post led me on a merry adventure across the internet.

Go download the demo, it won’t be time wasted.