Semper Bi | Games / Reviews | Coagulopath

A 1993 platform game programmed for DOS by Apogee’s Jim Norwood, who went on to develop Shadow Warriors, Heroes of Might and Magic V, and that cherished classic Third Example Goes Here. 

You play as a porn-mustachio’d spec forces operative called (I fear) Snake Logan, who has crash-landed in a mutant-infested city and has to etc.

Platform games usually belong to either the “jump around and collect stars” Mario school or the “shoot guns and blow shit up” Contra school. Bio Menace is unapologetically the latter: it’s among the most violent Apogee games, with monsters dying in explosions of blood and body parts. This clashes somewhat with the visual design of the monsters themselves, who look like Teletubbies.

Bio Menace feels older than it is. Slated for a 1991 release, it was delayed for two years due to engine modifications, and by 1993 it looked as dated as glam metal.

The graphics are 16-color EGA, and the backgrounds don’t parallax-scroll. At least it ran smoothly. I recall being able to play it on Windows XP, although I don’t think it works on any 64-bit operating system.

The game itself was a competent blend of “find the key to disable the laser forcefield” type puzzles, and hallways filled with angry monsters. It had a nice sense of place – the first level in particular is a realistic urban environment littered with bodies and wrecked cars. Completing levels means rescuing civilians. Reaching high places means finding a ladder or riding an elevator. Health powerups and keys are usually found in places that make logical sense, like lockers and cabinets.

In this sense, at least, Bio Menace anticipated the future. The arcades were going away. Gaming was ready to pupate into the next stage of its life: immersive experiences not unlike Hollywood movies. There’s even an effort made at storytelling. When you rescue a civilian, amazing dialog pops up on screen (“I’m gonna dust that little dweeb! He can’t do this and escape!”)…hey, at least it’s only the second worst-written videogame about a spec forces operative called Snake.

It exemplifies Apogee’s approach: funnel out cheap (and cheaply made) games under a “shareware” business model. You got to play the first 30% of the game for free, and since that 30% typically contained 80% of the game’s actual worthwhile content, this was a pretty good deal. But it did lend itself to disposable experiences, and games that were  copy-pastes of some other popular title.

Bio Menace is a minor game, without the arthouse pretensions of Eric Chahi’s Out of this World or the rotoscoped professionalism of Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia. It probably made some money, and even if it didn’t, it surely wasn’t a big red stain on Apogee’s balance sheets. Bio Menace is like throwing ten cents down on a roulette spin. Is it worth playing now? No, unless you’re a fan of “ARE YOU A BAD ENOUGH DUDE TO RESCUE THE PRESIDENT?”-style vidya cringe.

Good iddance | Games / Reviews | Coagulopath

Doom didn’t receive a proper retail release for a long time. For years, the correct way to get the game was still to log on to ftp.uwp.edu and spend all night downloading it on your 14.4k modem. This wedded the game to early internet culture: the idea of buying Doom in a store seems fundamentally wrong, like viewing a Pre-Raphaelite work of art on an iPhone.

Regardless, mission packs of varying quality and legality soon appeared on shelves. Many included a DOOM.EXE executable, and as such were a handy way to get the game if you weren’t on Al Gore’s information superhighway.

1997’s Depths of Doom was one of the last. It contains the original games (Doom + Thy Flesh Consumed + Doom II), plus DWANGO, plus Windows executables (playing at 640×480 was cool back in the day, although obsolete in an era of GZDoom). It also has Master Levels, a 21-level set that are generally superior to the originals in quality (aside from the shit joke level with fifty Cyberdemons shooting at you).

The second disc contains Maximum Doom, which was ~1800 fan-made levels downloaded from the internet. “Shovelware” is the term, I think. There’s no quality control: some levels crash, almost all suck, some are actually for different games like Heretic and Hexen, and some are graphical and audio mods containing content from the Simpsons or Monty Python, meaning the entire release is probably illegal.

But I still enjoy playing Doom wads. They’re historical documents from the pre-Google (<1995) internet…or the at least the part of it frequented by teenage boys. You see their fascinations spread out like a mandala: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Beavis and Butthead, porn stars who are now old enough to be grandmothers. If there’s a soundtrack, it’s probably a midi of Metallica or Pantera.

Some of them invite you into their lives in small but touching ways: designing levels based on their house or their mall or their school (that last one didn’t age well). I’m fascinated by how many of these uploaders include text files telling you how to contact them…including their real names, and phone numbers, and street addresses.

Was the internet less nasty in 1993? Or were kids stupider?

Val or Rant | Games / Reviews | Coagulopath

On Oct 15, 2019, a video was uploaded to Youtube. It did not set the internet on fire, because most of the internet is actually deep-sea cables that are underwater, but it did provoke discussion.

Riot Games, creators of League of Legends, was working on an FPS game. It was called Project A.

The video was stuffed with technical buzzwords (“server tickrate,” “peeker’s advantage”), and although the gameplay footage didn’t dazzle, the comp-gaming focus gained the attention of the coveted “20 gallon piss bottle” demographic. Could this finally be it? That mythical game with priorities beyond selling $20 character skins to Little Timmy No-Thumbs? A game that actually caters to hardcore, competitive players?

Project A was soon basking in (totally undeserved) kudos as the savior of the industry. Apparently claiming you’ve solved peeker’s advantage (the unintended consequence of internet lag that causes players making a move to have an advantage over defenders) is tantamount to actually solving peeker’s advantage, and numerous pro gamers publicly announced that they’d switch to a game they hadn’t played a single second of. References to the game became common in Twitch and Twitter profiles.

The feeling was that with the massive development firepower Riot Games possesses, Project A simply couldn’t fail.

Now the game is 1) released and 2) called Valorant. My feelings are mixed.

The game makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it’s a CS:GO clone. It’s five versus five – a team of attackers against a team of defenders. You buy guns with money you earn from killing people. A highly sophisticated user-interface streamlines the in-game economy, so that “rich” player can easily buy and drop gear for a poor teammate.

Valorant is class-based and character-driven, as is the trend these days. Sova wallhacks, and Viper does area denial. This isn’t as big a change from CS:GO as it might appear – although some characters (like Jett, who is highly mobile; or Raze, who brings some old-school Quake 3 nade jumping back into the mix) flip the gameplay in a new direction, for the most part it’s just a different way of having smokes, molotovs, and so on.

The gunplay works the way CS:GO‘s did, except more so. Moving is good. Shooting is good. Shooting while moving is bad. To hit shots in this game you have to be a turret, as any movement causes shots to wildly flick out ten feet from your crosshairs. Winning gunbattles in this game is less about where you’re shooting than where you’re shooting from: everyone’s jockeying for stable, defensible angles that provide maximal sightlines and minimal exposure. Valorant specialises in tense, white-knuckle moments where both you and the enemy are about to roll the dice and peek around a corner.

Unfortunately, “roll the dice” is indeed the operate phrase, as fights in Valorant have a heavy random element due to inconsistent recoil patterns. This screenshot (taken by Diegosaurs) reveals what you’re up against:

Look at how different the bursts are, and remember that this is a game where you two-tap people with virtually any weapon. Getting the first recoil pattern versus the third could mean the difference between life or death. FPS games should be “git gud, noob”. They should never be “git lucky, noob”. This is a huge issue. I couldn’t find a way to make my tapfires more reliable, no matter how much I tried.

Issues with recoil aside, the game also gets a lot of stuff right. Movement and “gunfeel” is excellent. I liked how you can move around while in the buy menu. CS:GO has a kind of stop-start rhythm. Action. Then downtime. Then action. Then downtime. Valorant’s gameplay feels more of a piece.

The weapons are also great: ranging from pistols to massive, Schwarzenegger-worthy LMGs for big spenders. Wall-penetration is a factor: sometimes it’s smart to forget about angles and just turn a wall into swiss cheese, and the game’s visuals are clear enough to know when you can do that.

Graphically, the game left me cold. As mentioned before it looks similar to Team Fortress 2, right down to its use of Gooch Shading (where models are shaded along a hot-colour/cold-colour axis instead of light-to-dark). Visually, this results in a game that’s colourful but cheap-looking. Arms wave like slabs of putrescent plastic.

…But perhaps in a competitive FPS you really want flat. Valorant is made for players who dial all their graphics settings to low anyway to squeeze out an extra 3 frames per second. Its playerbase would probably be satisfied if all the models were placeholder rigs from Blender, just so long as the hitboxes were balanced.  But if your selling point over CS:GO is style, Valorant needs more of it. Everything unrelated to gameplay is stunted and abstracted away. Here’s what trees look like in a triple-A game released in 2020, by the way.

As with much of Valorant’s design, it doesn’t make mistakes, it makes choices. Choices that will alienate many players, as they have me.

I sort of enjoy a focus on content, rather than an abstract skeleton of a game that will hopefully have flesh later. The character-based element draws comparisons to Overwatch, Apex Legends, and League of LegendsValorant is worse in that area than any of those: the content side of the game is so bland and threadbare that I wonder if F2P was the right business model. The game  hopes to support itself with cosmetics…for characters who look bland and who you don’t care about.

Whatever, though. The game’s boosters are probably correct. Valorant is the new paradigm and there is not a chance it will fail. I probably won’t play it again.