Category: Reviews

The various opinions I have of many different video games.

Die Hard Vendetta: The Lost McClane.

It’s the holidays again – at least as of this writing – and naturally I thought about writing about a holiday themed game. Realizing that’s not a particularly big pool of games to choose from, I opted for games based on media franchises that took place during the holidays. Like Die Hard.

We could have the never-ending debate of whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but instead I’d rather talk about the strange resurgence of Die Hard video games throughout the late-90s to early-2000s. After the Lethal Weapon-like Die Hard With a Vengeance hit theaters, the fate of the franchise seemed to be in doubt, with whether or not a fourth film would even be made.

I… sorta miss these? Companies publishing their own video game adaptations is something solely lacking these days.

During this time, 20th Century Fox decided to get into the video game business, forming the short-lived Fox Interactive, licensing some of their film franchises for video games, with varying levels of success. The Alien vs. Predator games were fairly popular, with the original No One Lives Forever franchise also being one of the more critically positive ones. Also a bunch of terrible games based on The Simpsons, but the less said about those, the better.

The action-packed Die Hard Nakatomi Plaza. Surprisingly alright, in spite of budget game jank.

Naturally since 20th Century Fox produces and owns Die Hard, it too got a fair share of video games. There’s the notable Die Hard Trilogy which did three different gameplay styles in a single game, which was uncommon around that time. There’s that time Sega made a game inspired by the film called Dynamite Deka that got localized as Die Hard Arcade when it hit the States. There’s even the Lithtech-powered Die Hard Nakatomi Plaza which was originally meant to be a free mod until copyright lawyers came in, converting it became a full-fledged budget title. I wrote about that one back in 2015, of which you can read here.

But there was one more attempt at a big Die Hard game. But this time instead of adapting the original film, they wrote a story that could’ve been the plot for a fourth film. And it’s the kind of game that will make you wish blew up Die Hard like Nakatomi Plaza.

Wouldn’t be a Die Hard game without some explosions.

Die Hard Vendetta is a first-person shooter developed by Bits Studios and published by Sierra and Fox Interactive, released in 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube. Initially, this Die Hard video game project had its origins as a Nintendo 64 title, but once the popularity of the N64 waned, they pivoted hard to the newer consoles, thus the game was shifted over to the more powerful GameCube. There’s a lot of information on the Nintendo 64 iteration on Unseen64, of which it’s an interesting read.

At the time, critics were nonplussed by this edition of the franchise, with Jeff Gerstmann of GameSpot giving it a rather scathing review at the time. Other critics were about as critical, with this game being thrown to the pile of licensed video games that got mostly forgotten. I picked this up game several years ago when GameStop was slowly phasing out used GameCube games from their store. I remembered the GameSpot review for the game, and when I see a critic be rather harsh about a game, I kinda wanted to see for myself if it was truly that bad. Turns out they were right in this case.

Funny enough, I got Die Hard Vendetta around the same time I got swindled into trying StoneLoops! of Jurassica through GameStop’s short-lived Impulse digital distribution service. I wrote about StoneLoops! way back in 2012, one of the early posts on the blog. Funny little coincidence, there.

This is totally inaccurate to the movies. John McClane wouldn’t have hair nearly this good.

Taking place years after the events of Die Hard With a Vengeance, John McClane is a semi-retired NYPD police officer who moved to Los Angeles… sorry, Century City, who’s watching a news report from Dick Thornberg, the snarky news reporter from the first film, where he’s reporting at an art gallery where they’re announcing a piece of art being recovered from Piet Gruber, the son of Hans Gruber from the original film.

Guess getting William Atherton was a bit out of the budget for this game.

Eventually a massive shootout happens, leading to a hostage situation at the art gallery. Several people are at risk, including the art gallery owner and John’s daughter Lucy, who’s now grown up and followed the life of her dad by also being a police officer. Being the caring parent John McClane apparently has become now, he grabs his service revolver and heads down to the art gallery to find out what’s going on.

Bet that destructibility was pretty neat by 2002 standards.

Naturally, Die Hard Vendetta is a first-person shooter. Fairly straightforward shooter controls for the time in spite of the GameCube having fewer buttons than its contemporaries: The control stick moves, C-stick aims, L button does more refined aiming, R button fires, Z button reloads. Fairly easy to understand stuff.

Fumbling with an inventory system while in the midst of combat is not my idea of a good time.

D-pad up and down will switch items and weapons, and left and right can switch between John’s arsenal and items he’s acquired throughout the mission. X and Y are your jump and crouch buttons, hitting X twice will do a dive to prone, which is required to progress in some parts of the game. While the game does have a dedicated jump button, the game also unlocks an auto jump option where if you’re on a ledge, McClane will automatically try to jump across. It’s interesting and can be useful sometimes, but a lot of times McClane will either not jump far enough, or will jump when I don’t want him to. Worst off, the game has some rather nasty fall damage if you miss these jumps.

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Zaero for Quake II: Back to the land of unofficial expansion packs.

When I wrote about the previous Mods and Maps article about Soldier of Fortune, Inc., I honestly wasn’t expecting it to go beyond Quake. When I found it that there were new tie-in levels made for Quake II, it made me replay through Quake II and its expansions, something I hadn’t done in years. I was originally not so hot on it, and I thought maybe a replay would give me a fresh perspective on the game. Sadly, it didn’t.

Wouldn’t be an id software game without some classic monster infighting.

Quake II is… fine as a game, I guess. A solid shooter with lots of colored lighting, a derivative story, and a killer soundtrack by Sonic Mayhem – with contributions by Bill Brown, Jeremiah Sypult and Rob freakin’ Zombie of all people – that just lacked the sort of bizarre mish-mash that Quake did the year prior that I enjoyed thoroughly. It just felt rather derivative as a game. Considering how id software was in turmoil at the time, I’m not surprised it feels kinda boilerplate, because they knew anything with an id logo on it would sell gangbusters.

While playing those Quake II themed levels for that Soldier of Fortune, Inc article, it dawned on me that despite having written about all kinds of retro FPS stuff for Doom, Quake and Half-Life, I hadn’t written about anything related to Quake II. That changes today, as I look into one of the more deeper cuts of Quake II, released during that wild west period of the early-to-late ‘90s: unofficial expansion packs to games.

Good to know it’s not supported by id Software, I guess. Cover courtesy of Mobygames.

Zaero for Quake II is one of the aforementioned unofficial expansion packs. Developed by a group named Team Evolve, this expansion added new levels and weapons to the main Quake II arsenal. But how did this expansion come about? For those who weren’t really around when this was big – and admittedly, I was only tangentially aware of it back then – let’s give a quick refresher course on the shovelware compilation boom.

I get to use this cover again! It’s just as ridiculous as it was the first time.

For a period of time, a fair share of shovelware budget publishers such as Softkey, WizardWorks and others found a new way to make some easy cash: capitalizing on some of the biggest game franchises by releasing compilations of levels for these game, often downloaded off the still fresh-to-the-world internet, for $20-30 a pop. It was interesting to go to a store and find a compilation of new levels for Doom, which was becoming one of the biggest video game cultural touchstones of the 1990s.

Unfortunately this practice raised the ire of some developers, feeling that those publishers were profiting off the backs of independent hobbyists and budding game designers. At one point id Software themselves decided to respond with The Master Levels for Doom II, a small set of levels made by a handful of the notable members of the Doom community, which came with its own compilation of Doom levels compiled from the web called Maximum Doom.

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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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