Category: Reviews

The various opinions I have of many different video games.

Darwinia: An early Steam darling.

I’ve had a Steam account for about 18 years. I got mine the day it was available to the public: September 12, 2003. More than half of my life has been giving money to Gabe Newell and the folks in Bellevue so I can play PC games. It’s kinda surreal when you think about it.

It took Valve several years to make Steam a reliable service. Those first few years of Steam were not very great: The always-online factor, an unreliable community service where alternatives like Xfire shined, having to get used to not being able to play games on day one due to server overloads, the works.

A handful of companies weren’t on board with Valve, one of them being 3DRealms, who opted to sell their gravity-defying shooter Prey on rival service Triton first. And that’s not even getting into the recent kerfuffle Epic Games has been doing by trying to posture themselves as the David to Valve’s Goliath.

Those early years were pretty much bolstered by Valve’s offerings and any small-time developer or publisher that was willing to support their endeavor. Stuff like Rag Doll Kung Fu and Shadowgrounds. But a small fledgling UK company by the name of Introversion Software, who self-proclaimed themselves as “the last of the bedroom programmers,” decided to try putting one of their games on Steam, and it was quite a game.

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One of the many intros the game will play after the initial launch. Others include a cracktro, a dedication to Cannon Fodder, and even a reference to the ZX Spectrum.

Darwinia is one of those early Steam darlings. Originally released in 2005, the game would be Introversion’s second game after Uplink, and featured a similar theme of computers. Though instead of being a hacker like in Uplink, you’re a user trying to stop an evil threat on a network.

Wow, a free keychain and poster? Sweet!

Back then I wasn’t 100% on-board with digital distribution – technically I’m still not on-board, but regardless –  thus I ended up getting this game not through Steam, but through a physical copy published by Cinemaware Marquee, a publishing label known for taking niche games and bringing them to US audiences. In essence, Cinemaware Marquee was the Limited Run Games of the 2000s.

It came with the game, a poster and a keychain of one of the little Darwinians. Funny enough, since the game is so tiny, the game comes with a 500MB video splash screen that is about 10 times more than the size of the game. While I still have that physical copy, I eventually grabbed Darwinia on Steam proper along with a bunch of other Introversion games years later.

They don’t take long to throw you into the fray.

Darwinia is a real-time strategy game with some action game elements. You play as the unseen, unnamed player who’s entered the world of Darwinia, a life simulator with little characters called Darwinians. Darwinia has been infected by a mysterious virus which is slowly corrupting the world, of which you join in just as it’s happening. After being briefly scolded by creator Dr. Sepulveda, he lets you learn the mechanics to hopefully stop the virus.

This is quite a simple start compared to other RTSes….
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Terrorist Takedown: More like Stereotype Shooter.

(content warning: Depictions of violence and war within.)

In 2021, it was announced that the previously canceled game Six Days in Fallujah was being brought back. With some of the original development team handling development, it naturally got a lot of backlash now just as it did back in 2009: by glorifying a specific military conflict as a good thing, and feeding into middle eastern stereotypes of them being nothing but terrorists. So much so that the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) asked for major publishers to drop support for the game. It will likely come out to poor reception, if it actually comes out this time.

A promotional screenshot from the original 2009 version of Six Days in Fallujah. Sure looks generic until you find out the game’s backstory.

Seeing this made me think a lot about the glut of military games made in a post-9/11 world. While war games existed before that tragedy – Novalogic’s Delta Force franchise was modestly popular around the late 1990s – they ballooned to being rather ubiquitous once the War on Terror started. We got games like SOCOM, Conflict, lots of Tom Clancy stuff, even Battlefield dipped its toes into modern warfare. There were so many that actual US military organizations started getting involved, with games like as America’s Army and PRISM: Guard Shield. Nowadays, the only franchise from that period still around making similar war games is Call of Duty, but that might be considered a stretch by some.

Why all this preamble? It’s so I can talk about one of those games made by a budget label that cashed in on the War on Terror, and is a bad game, not just on a technical level, but a moral one as well. One game I’ve had for several years, going back to 2013, and this has lately been a year of looking back, so let’s travel to 2003 and look at one of the more bad games.

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Yeah, this cover looks incredibly generic alright.

Terrorist Takedown is the first installment in a franchise made to capitalize on the war on terror. Developed by Polish developer City Interactive, this would be one of their early breakout hits. Nowadays they’re known as simply CI Games, but their overall message has been consistent: Make games based on war conflicts old and new, and sell them in bargain bins everywhere. For Terrorist Takedown however, City Interactive didn’t have much of a presence outside of Europe, so another budget publisher, Merscom, handled the release here in the United States. Merscom even touted that some of the profits of the game would be donated to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which I think is a conflict considering this game’s premise.

Probably the blandest menu screen I’ve ever seen.

There is no story to Terrorist Takedown. You play a bunch of no-name, faceless soldiers as you’re sent from one conflict zone to the next, taking down terrorists left and right by any means necessary. The “Terrorists” in this case are generic middle-eastern soldiers presumably meant to stand in for Al-Qaeda insurgents, but it’s kinda hard to tell in this game.

Charlie Don’t Surf this ain’t.

The missions themselves are rather varied: The first mission has you in a helicopter gunship mowing down anti-air emplacements and random soldiers. The second mission has you protect a convoy from enemy soldiers and RPGs. Each mission is similar in structure: Survive a conflict of terrorists while protecting objectives and not dying. At least it spices things up a bit, from using machine gun turrets to flying a helicopter, to controlling a targeting reticle on a surface-to-air-missile.

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Covering the end of Battleborn: A MOBA with an identity crisis.

I never thought I’d be starting 2021 with an article about a game that’s shutting down. While I’m often behind the curve and don’t play games until years after the fact – some of last year’s posts being about games that are 5-10 years old – this particular game is one of the rare times I was at least fairly current with.

When I’m reminded that a game that I paid money for is shutting down, I might as well give it one last hurrah. It’s a shame the game in question is a bizarre genre mashup, made by one of the more infamous game studios of the 2010s.

If only the game looked nearly as cool as this introductory cutscene.

We’re talking about Battleborn, a game by developer Gearbox Software. At the time, Gearbox was mostly known as the makers of the fairly popular Borderlands series of first-person Diablo-like looter shooters. Battleborn would end up being their first original franchise made by them in the 2010s.

This bundle was released around July of 2016, not long after the game’s release. Being part of the $15 tier, the highest one, was already a warning sign.

My experience with this game was getting this in a Humble Bundle. To be specific, the “Humble 2K Bundle 2,” a collection of games published by 2K, such as The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, NBA 2K16, Mafia II and Duke Nukem Forever. Battleborn was unlocked at the $15 or more tier — the highest tier, and a few friends of mine decided to chip in that $15 and give the game a try.

We eventually tried a bit of the game’s campaign mode, then we all dropped the game and moved on to other things. For me, I had forgotten about the game’s existence, even as recent as 2019 when I wrote about a Loot Crate featuring the infamous “Thanos Oven Mitt,” which featured a Battleborn pin as part of that month’s theme. The game just faded away into obscurity.

Honestly, I wouldn’t be writing about the game had the news not broke in 2020 that 2K was shutting the game down on January 31, 2021. In early 2020, they had already shut off purchases for premium currency in the game, and the announcement of the game servers shutting down seemed to feign as much interest as the game did when it was released.

So let’s take a look at the game touted as being “badass,” when in reality it was just bad and ass.

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A lot of action going on at once. Hope you can follow along.

Battleborn is a rather unusual game. It’s a first-person MOBA — think League of Legends or DOTA2 — with some elements of real time strategy and tower defense. 

The gameplay mostly involves killing enemy minion bots and protecting your own minion bots to destroy an enemy sentry drone. Throughout your journey, you’ll kill said enemy minion bots that’ll drop shards which you can use to build turrets or drones, or to upgrade gear to give you and your squad buffs. Defeating enough minions or other players will give you the chance to level up your character with passive buffs for your character’s abilities. Kill enemies without yourself getting killed. Fairly commonplace stuff for the MOBA genre.

These cutscenes really feel like concept art repurposed for the final game.

There is a story mode, split between eight episodes that last about 40-60 minutes apiece, which consist of a bunch of rag-tag soldiers trying to stop an evil villain from destroying a planet for materials. Or something like that, the plot is mostly doled out through an introductory cutscene before the episode starts, and a lot of the plot is told throughout the game, but I couldn’t really tell you what happens in it. All I know that there are multiple enemy types and a few warring factions, which probably remind me a lot of different factions from other games like Destiny 2 or Halo.

The MOBA elements still come in play in the story mode, as you can select a character, upgrade their abilities upon leveling up, and even purchasing a set of gear items with shards that can buff certain character and team abilities. Even the story missions are designed similar to the standard multiplayer, where players are basically defending minions or a boss to get to an objective while killing enemies throughout. 

Players share lives and accumulate points through random crates strewn around the game world, and the points seem to really only matter in giving experience for your character and your overall rank in the mission. Exclusive to the story missions are power-ups you can pick up that can lower your ability cooldowns, boost your overall speed and give you extra shields.

A bit of the “Meltdown” mode in action. Naturally played with bots since finding matches these days is impossible.

Since it’s a MOBA, the game has a versus mode that plays more like traditional MOBAs: Squads of five shepherding minions through enemy areas to destroy sentries, while trying to protect their own. There’s not a whole lot else to say about this, it’s no different than other games in the genre, but it has more of a shooter/slasher bend like Smite.

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Shellshock Nam ’67: A Vietnam War game from an unexpected developer.

There was a brief time around the 2000s where there were a bunch of shooters based on historic events. Medal of Honor in 1999 kick started the craze of World War II-themed shooters, which lasted well into the late-2000s. During this time period, there were a lot of games based on conflicts new and old, most of them shoved off into the annals of obscurity.

During this brief period, there was also an unusual spike in Vietnam War games. Despite the Vietnam War being one of those pointless wars in retrospect, there were games that covered the conflict, usually in a sanitized safe “Americans vs. the Bad People” form. Basically, less like Apocalypse Now, more like The Green Berets.

There were a fair share of these games around that time. Stuff like Battlefield Vietnam, the Vietcong games, and Men of Valor. I’m gonna cover one of those Vietnam War games, and it’s by a developer that you wouldn’t expect have made a game like that, especially considering their legacy.

This reminds me of something, but I can’t quite place what.

ShellShock: Nam ‘67 was one of the many Vietnam War-era games made during that brief period that kinda came and went. But it was one of the earliest games developed by Guerrilla Games, that Dutch studio that’s known for the Killzone series of games, and the critically acclaimed Horizon: Zero Dawn.

This was the only game released during that in-between phase in their career, after their brief Game Boy phase as Lost Boys Games, but before they were a cog in the PlayStation machine. In a sense, we’re going back to their humble beginnings with this one. I always like looking back at developers before they were well-known, and this one’s no exception.

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(Warning: Some plot spoilers follow.)

This would probably have more impact if this intro wasn’t narrated by Steve Blum.

You play as a nameless soldier as they rise up the ranks from rookie to special forces, as you find “King Cong,” a general by the name of Ngo Diem who leads the Vietcong. There really isn’t much else to the plot, you’re dropped in parts of Vietnam, you kill Vietcong, you destroy a few sampans and tunnels, rinse and repeat. In this case, the set pieces are what makes the game interesting, rather than the characters.

How the heck is this gunner hitting me? I’m behind a rock, for chrissakes.

Shellshock is a third-person shooter, which is unexpected considering Guerrilla’s pedigree for mostly making first-person shooters. Left click shoots, right click zooms in, Q to crouch, and there’s even leaning and diving to prone. You can hold a bunch of weapons, and you have a health bar that can be refilled by medkits. Shellshock does have a few tricks up its sleeve to make it stand out from its peers.

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Stacked with Daniel Negreanu: Poker without Guns.

There was a time around the 2000s where you just could not avoid poker on television. Thanks to Chris Moneymaker making a decent bank in an online poker tournament, Texas Hold’em Poker got real big and started being the next big TV filler. Every channel had a poker show, from Bravo’s fluff-driven Celebrity Poker Showdown to NBC having a late night poker show to fill in the gaps between Last Call with Carson Daly and Early Today. Even Game Show Network had not one, but two poker shows under its belt.

Then in 2011 there was a lawsuit involving some of the major poker websites possibly being involved in money laundering, and the poker boom was over. While there’s still mild demand for Texas Hold’em, it’s pretty much gone back to the pre-2000s era of popularity.

During this poker boom, there were poker video games being made left and right. Some based on existing poker brands like the World Poker Tour. In some of these games you got celebrity endorsements, or actual professional poker players. Today, we’re gonna cover one of the more notable poker video games that’s not something like Poker Night at the Inventory.

This title screen is preceded by a fancy animation involving poker chips flying everywhere. Clearly the budget was spent on this.

Stacked with Daniel Negreanu is a fairly unique poker game. It’s likely the first video game poker game featuring a notable poker player in the title, making it somewhat of an oddity in the sea of poker games around this time. Developed by 5000ft Inc, this is their final released game, and it’s amusing it had to be a licensed poker game. Considering their previous titles were stuff like Army Men: Green Rogue when 3DO were pumping out Army Men games like they were going out of style, this is likely a marked improvement.

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Kid Poker himself, in one of the tutorial videos you could watch to get tips from him about poker. Man, I’m getting Carol Vorderman’s Sudoku flashbacks…

For context, Daniel Negreanu is a famous poker player. Nickname “Kid Poker,” he’s won 6 World Series of Poker bracelets, 2 World Poker Tour titles, and a handful of other tournaments here and there. Often appeared in many of the TV poker shows, he’s probably one of the more charismatic personalities to endorse your poker game. Though, I would’ve killed for a poker game starring the infamous Phil Hellmuth.

Let’s see if this poker game stacks up to the competition, or if it should have folded its hand.

Hopefully this casino isn’t sponsored by Randy Pitchford.

Stacked starts by letting you either play random poker matches with changeable settings, or through the game’s long, challenging career mode. In Career Mode you’re given a stack of cash to start, and any tables to play to your liking, with limits/no limits in place. Some are cash games given to bolster your cash in game, but the others are standard table tournaments with buy-ins where you can win money if you reach a certain standing in the tournament.

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