The best games of the year come out in summertime. This must be by accident, because parents buy large amounts of games for their kids at Christmastime—parents don’t usually look at the boxes, so even crap games sell pretty well.
Game programmers cram to finish their games in time for the crucial Christmas sales season. Some of them barely make it, and release buggy, not-quite-there versions of their products. Others flat out miss the deadline, and because the big sales period has already passed, they take all the time they need to release a final, polished product. Welcome to summertime, when the good stuff comes out.
For instance, Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo II didn’t just miss the Christmas deadline, the game was supposed to be released more than a year ago. Blizzard is notorious for missing deadlines—it shouldn’t even bother announcing them. The other thing Blizzard is notorious for, however, is making popular, addictive games: Diablo II already has broken sales records.
The original Diablo was a role-playing game (RPG). The player is your typical dungeon-crawling hero who needs to vanquish the horrible demon, whose hordes of monsters are threatening a small town of about 15 people. So much for that relaxing Town & Country lifestyle.
Diablo II is a rehash of Diablo, but with better graphics, more weapons and a new, more engaging story—of course, that’s not saying much. Remember Gauntlet from the 1980s, in which players would hammer away mindlessly at fire buttons in a randomly created map? Diablo and Diablo II are just Gauntlet prettied up with modern graphics—all that’s missing is a booming voice announcing that “Red Warrior needs food. Badly!” Diablo’s saving grace is the massive on-line world where players can compete and even make names for themselves on the “ladder.” It’s addictive, mindless fun—emphasis on mindless.
Nihilistic Software’s Vampire: Redemption, another game that’s more than six months past due, promised to redefine the computer RPG, and in a lot of ways it succeeds where Diablo II falls short. For one thing, there’s the rich back-story: Redemption is about a 13th century Crusader who becomes a vampire, and is torn between his loyalties to the Roman Catholic church and his belief that his soul is doomed. There’s also a love affair that’s lifted from medieval romances—the dialogue is practically stolen from Tristan and Yseulte. The game spans 800 years into the present, where the game develops a sort of goth-cyberpunk feel.
The graphics are amazing. If you’ve just bought a new computer and are wondering exactly what a couple thousand dollars of new hardware can do, check it out. The walls flicker in candlelight, the outdoors are illuminated by a hazy blue moon; marble floors reflect the characters and ceilings above them; and the underground walls look like dirt and stone (which is harder to render than it sounds). The characters even cast perfect shadows of their forms.
Too bad the gameplay is so horrible—there’s no redeeming Redemption. Despite the great story and characters, I don’t recall ever having less fun playing a game. It’s like a chore, even with cheats and an invulnerable “god mode” turned on. Playing Redemption is like playing Diablo II, minus any sense of control over the characters. I know this is a cheap shot, but Vampire sucks. Still, Nihilistic should be successful enough to try again in another year with a better game based on the same technology.
Nihilistic could start by studying Ion Storm’s Deus Ex. The game is played from a first-person perspective, similar to Quake. It makes the game an RPG in the truest sense—the player is put in a role to play a Bladerunner-esque cyberpunk agent, and the gameplay is equally split between action and plot movement. It’s in the same vein as last year’s sleeper hit System Shock II, but the world is much more open; the character’s decisions can determine several different outcomes at the end of the game.
Deus Ex is a hard-core gamer’s title, though, not one I would suggest to somebody who just wants to kill a few hours with a game as an alternative to the boob tube. Casual gamers should run—don’t walk—to their local software shop and grab a copy of MDK 2. MDK 2 is pure run-around-and-shoot-stuff joy. It is, technically, pretty violent, but it’s silly Bugs-Bunny violence as opposed to the rated-R violence of Deus Ex.
One surprising thing about MDK 2 is how easily non-gamers jump into it. It isn’t an easy game by current standards; behind every court where the player needs to run out spraying bullets is a carefully crafted puzzle that requires some trick, some clever mode of thinking, to get through. MDK 2 is the best example ever of a “thinking person’s shooter,” yet newbies dive right into it. Plus, for some reason, this game is really cheap, and the graphics are even better than Vampire’s. Get it.