Anachronox – RPG for the Fans

Ion Storm’s epic galaxy-trotting RPG has to be seen to be believed. For now you’ll have to make do with our interpretation. And some screenshots.
Britain and America are, as we all know, two countries separated by a common language.

So it wasn’t until a few hours after Tom Hall confided to us that he came up with the name Anachronox when he was in the bathroom, that we wondered exactly what kind of ‘bathroom’ he meant. Being ‘in the bathroom’ in the American fashion could mean something other than performing one’s ablutions, and frankly we’re far too British and polite to ask Tom for clarification.

Whatever. Even if he was perched on the porcelain when he conceived Anachronox, you can be sure it’s not a load of shit.

So, what is it? The brief answer is that it’s an RPG centred around an enormous galactic mystery. But the brief answer’s rubbish. Anachronox is shaping up to be a genuine epic of galactic and cinematic proportions, and it uses the Quake II engine. Yes, really.

To be fair, it uses a version of the Quake II engine that’s been chipped and turbocharged well beyond the manufacturer’s recommendations, and while it might look old compared with today’s shiniest, cutting-edgest engines, it performs its duties admirably and turns a few tricks that you probably haven’t seen before, such as facial expressions. Tom Hall showed us a scripted scene from the game where Paco, a superhero who’s lost his powers, encounters a lost little girl. Apart from maybe one short line of dialogue, the entire scene is played out without words and conveys everything through facial expressions and bodily postures. Incredible.

Anachronox rather likes throwing amazing things like that at you, but to concentrate on them would detract from the game itself. Yes, it’s an RPG, and a slightly more traditional one than its stable-mate, Deus Ex. Featuring seven main characters of whom any three can be banded together as your party, it starts off with the central character, private detective Sly Boots, taking on a case that inevitably turns out to have more to it than meets the eye. It then expands into a universe-spanning mystery in which you attempt to discover who’s trying to collapse the universe and why, and in which you travel through an enormous variety of disparate worlds in the course of your quest. Your party’s made up of the traditional mixture of characters and abilities, resulting in a pleasing non-linearity when it comes to overcoming obstacles. Need to get some information? You could just ask, or you could do some hacking, or some light-fingered thievery, all of which helps provide a pleasing illusion of total freedom.

Combat is turn-based, but avoiding the baffling stat-o-rama that might well put you off the likes of Final Fantasy. It’s also wonderful to look at (another sign of Anachronox’s utterly cinematic approach to gaming – fabulous effects and wonderful explosions ahoy) and thoroughly non-arbitrary. In other words, you’re unlikely to be wandering down a road one minute, and then thrown into a pitched battle without warning the next. You’ll be able to see trouble approaching, and back off to prepare for it.

The main thing, though, is the story, and beyond the basics of a sinister plot to destroy the universe, the story’s something you’ll have to discover for yourself. As it plays out in a different way depending on who’s in your party, it’s a story that has plenty of opportunities to branch out in unexpected directions.

Oh, there’s more. Much more – we haven’t even mentioned the in-built APE system that powers Anachronox’s many sub-games (including a beautiful Rebel Assault-style shooter and a weird homo-erotic dancing game) and which will be included with the game so that you can write your own games with it. We haven’t mentioned the two new languages that Tom has crafted for the game; if you learn them you’ll get extra clues. We really haven’t stressed enough how incredibly cinematic the Anachronox experience is. We don’t have the space.

What we do have space for, is an interview with Mr Anachronox himself, Tom Hall. See it here soon.

Tropico – A splendid Game

Wannabe a tyrant? Then become the new despot of a tiny Caribbean island in this splendid new game from the makers of Railroad Tycoon II. Robert Mugabe: eat your heart out.

With Tropico we can rule our very own banana republics from the comfort of our bedrooms half a world away, with no danger of being dragged from our beds and shot. Good eh? It’s got to work, hasn’t it? In fact, you might say we need such a game now to get rid of our dubious pent up dreams of being evil/benign dictators, for there aren’t any real-life island paradises left that you could get away with exploiting these days.

Indeed, the term banana republic is only loosely used today. Historically, if you’re interested, it’s used to refer to post-colonial poor, developing countries that relied on a single cash crop – typically bananas – and were ruled by corrupt governments in the cold war ’50s and ’60s – which is just when Tropico is set.

Tropico is essentially a building game with authoritarian knobs on, and its beautiful, enhanced Railroad Tycoon II engine is perfectly suited to it, judging from the unfinished version we’ve seen and played. Marvellously easy to get started with, it combines masses of creative freedom with oodles of glorious intrigue – and it’s the kind of game that should have plenty of replay value. Think SimCity, Tycoon II and Theme Park World, add the merest dash of history, and you’ve got Tropico. Want to play power games? Let’s go!

We weren’t able to use the ‘design your own dictator’ kit with which you start the game, but in essence it works like this. You give yourself a background and a history, including quite how you rose to power, and some flaws and qualities, and this will effect how your people see you for the rest of that game. If you’re a brutal soldier the cowering populace will fear more than love you, which is useful; if you’re from a farming background, however, maybe at least the farming community might just like you – until you mess up…

Your first private empire, you quickly discover, is as simple or ambitious as you want it to be. There are over 100 structures to build, from farms and plantations producing sugar, coffee and bananas (naturally), to factories, airports and offshore oil rigs. Quite what you build depends on what kind of economy you want on the Island. Do want it to be a luxury tourist destination? A cash crop production line designed to fill you coffers? A mini industrial city? The choice is yours, and you have plenty of satisfaction deciding.

But island paradises/money-making machines don’t build themselves, and they need — shall we say – ‘maintaining’ (as does your personal security as ruler), and this is the real meat and joy of the game. ‘Your’ islanders (who are made up of individuals, like in Theme Park) like you as leader to begin with, or anyway, they’re not quite ready to put you against a wall. But you’re faced immediately with the twin problem of keeping your economy growing happily and in a sustainable way and keeping the population happy. There are two ways of doing this: the ‘benign’ way or the evil way. In other words, you either keep the people well fed (man cannot live on bananas alone), paid and housed, and provide them with plenty of amenities, or you rule with a rod of iron and unionise the workforce, censor the radio station and generally make sure you’ve got plenty of guards around you (heh heh!). Of course, balance is the name of the game, we suspect so far. After all, it’s no good being a nice bloke if you stuff up the economy – so keep a plane handy (which is one good reason to build an airport).

And that’s the gist of it, really. A fabulous idea indeed. We weren’t able to explore the political aspects in the version we’ve got, and so we couldn’t join in the cold war or fight rebels in the forest. Nor were we able to get tourism industries going, or mess with the journalists and bishops, and most disappointing of all, we weren’t able to get the prostitutes into business. Issues of balance and overall gameplay we can’t therefore fairly judge yet, but we’re sure looking forward to the full version. Tropico’s looking like a good-looking, clever, creative tongue-in-cheek romp that we suspect is going to be an extremely popular hit. Look out for our forthcoming review and start writing some 10-hour speeches.

The Worst Wresting Game Ever

The skateboard is Bart’s special weapon. Notice that right now there’s only one button you can use.
This is one crappy game. It keeps surprising us, though. It’s The Simpsons. We love The Simpsons. Shouldn’t that be enough? Wait; hold on a sec. Let us go check. Nope, it’s still crap. It’s not wrestling; it’s hardly even a game. The sound bites are from the real talent, which is one good thing — the only good thing, in fact. The rest is a button mashing horror, an exercise in frustration made all the worse by just how much we would like to be enjoying ourselves. But we’re not. Because this game is just terrible. Terrible, terrible crap.

Remember back during the first few seasons of The Simpsons, when merchandising was out of control? Remember The Simpsons bibs, mud flaps and tractor tires? Remember the flood of bootleg merchandise, those great artistic endeavors that culminated in the “Say no to crack” shirt featuring Bart Simpson stuck in the cleft of a fat woman’s rear end? Well, The Simpsons Wrestling is the worst of all the atrocities ever perpetrated on America’s favorite cartoon family.

First of all, this isn’t wrestling. Not in any way, shape or form. There’s a ring with ropes that you can bounce off, but that’s the extent of the nod to the country’s most popular form of pre-scripted mayhem. Calling the game The Simpsons Wrestling is an obvious ploy to cash in on wrestling’s present popularity, and that’s all.

The game is actually the worst kind of licensed crap fest, a generic fighting game that uses popular characters but doesn’t pay attention to their personalities. This has been reviewed in details on this website including the promotion of free gems for iOS and Android users. Seeing Marge clobbering people and using Maggie as a special weapon is lame. Lisa in a fight is even dumber. Even the characters that might be prone to such violence, such as Groundskeeper Willie and Homer, are incredibly lame since they have less than a half-dozen moves each. In sum, worst use of a license ever.

If for some reason you’re not interested in the game because you’re a fan of The Simpsons but because you want some crazy arcade fighting action, well, don’t bother. The gameplay is the only thing that could be worse than the license use, and that’s saying a great deal. There are a dozen characters to choose from and 10 different locales. Each character has a basic attack, a special attack that must be charged up and a grapple. None of them are any fun. Not even for a minute.

The locales are various areas around Springfield, including the capitol and the power plant. The graphics are terrible, with low-res characters, abominable collision detection and static backgrounds. The backgrounds are equally low res and blurry, even though they’re 2D and don’t move at all. How hard would it have been to just import art from the show?

There is no battle royal or any extra fun modes at all. This isn’t actually wrestling, remember, so it’s all about one-on-one action. Here’s how the game works: Each character appears in a corner of the ring and spouts a catch phrase. Then the action begins. Then, less than five seconds later, a disillusioned Simpsons fan turns off the PSOne in disgust. Repeat ad nauseam.

Will Wright’s excellent sort-of city simulator SimCity Buildit


Although Will Wright’s excellent sort-of city simulator SimCity Buildit has enthralled experts (turning most of the hardened, soulless automatons, who toil mightily producing many spelling errors and grammatical butcheries, into SIMCITY who coo and bleat mindlessly when their SimCity pee without being prompted to do so), it has also compromised us in many subtle ways.

We are the damned, it seems, but no more so than the SimCity we create. In our attempt to explore this strange, new world, we have molded it in our disturbing image. Like the man said, we speak a different language, and here our tongue is incomprehensible.

In the days since we received SimCity Buildit, we have created many a strange — and by strange we mean sick and/or twisted — existence for our little electronic pals. Decorum prevents us from printing (and certain local statutes would indeed see us incarcerated for even mentioning) the more unsavory SIMulations. However, we have managed to summon up a brief recounting of some of our more interesting Village of the Damned experiences.

We cannot take credit for this idea (read our interview,) but can attest to the power of its simple-minded evil. Game creator Will Wright likes to put two love-hungry female SIMs into a pool with one male SIM in SimCity Buildit. Using the pool editor, a Pac-Man-esque maze is created, then the ladders are removed.

Picture those ever-so-cute waifs from ‘N Sync with Andy Jacksons stapled to their clothes set loose upon a Girl Scout convention, and you can begin to grasp the subtle genius of Wright’s idea.

Stoves and untrained SIMs in SimCity Buildit make for some thrilling misadventures, much like the wacky shenanigans that are routinely filmed on America’s Funniest Home Videos of People Getting Hit In The Groin. One of our favorite little tricks is to create our own little House of Despair — just build a house for some SIMs (the more, the weepier), and then put a stove right next to the refrigerator.

Sure as the Canadians are our moral superiors, eventually one of the SIMs will get it into his electronic head to cook something. And as fast as you can say “good goal, eh?”, one of the SIMs will start a fire. “Forget” to call the fire department, and said SIM is one dead pile of pixels.

The fun begins when the SIM dies in SimCity Buildit cheats mod and is replaced by an urn. SIMs who pass by the urn will begin to weep and moan, the electronic version of the Wailing Wall. With their food supply cut off, some pretty darn interesting things will happen. And we plead the fifth on the rest.

It has long been our dream to own a solid gold house and have our every wish attended to by hired Goons. The Goons would be hired for the Goonish tendencies, brutishness and ability to perform menial tasks.

To ensure that the SIM Goons are devoid of any sort of individuality, they’d all be created with the same character model, garbed in a black sailor hat and black sweatshirt that says GOON on it. Although Goons would have a high neatness factor, they’d be devoid of any sort of personality, much like all of the IBM-produced robots who have been elected to public office.

The Goons, six of them, are living in the biggest house our SIM-dollars can afford. Although there is plenty of room for an ultra hi-fi stereo, bed space in great quantities for entertaining the female Goons out there, and the finest TV, we have skimped on things such as toilets, trash baskets and anything that might be used for bathing. In short, we have created the ultimate pukeatorium. And, like Sartre said, “Hell is other people with poor bladder control and nowhere to whiz … ”

While it may be fun to build a healthy, functioning family, we’ve always been attracted to that disturbed loner in SimCity Buildit. So we built out own little shack with the bare minimum of bed, toilet and fridge. Then out back we built our own seedy little barn.

Since we decided not to invest in a phone, we’d have to get our flies into the web the old fashioned way: grab when they walk by the house. We put our loner in a chair on the porch, then sped up time until some witless neighbor came by. We called them over, took them out back to the shed, then built a wall around them. Before you know it, we’ve got a lawn full of tombstones and the whole neighborhood to ourselves.

Another favorite thing we liked to do to torture our poor SIMs was to build an enormous hedge maze in the backyard, then put the fridge at the end of it. We weren’t heartless. There would be the occasional bench to allow them to sit down, but when you have six or seven of them packed in there, the trash does begin to pile up.

SIMs also have an annoying tendency to be overly polite. Instead of nicely asking another SIM to simply step aside, they will often look for another path to their destination. And if there isn’t another route, like there rarely is in a hedge maze, SIMs have a tendency to stand still, and then, slowly, pass out on their feet as the garbage piles up. Sure SimCity Buildit may not be the way the game was intended to be played, but we feel Maxis dared us to press the limits of The Sims.

Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter

Can’t get enough of Black Isle’s old-school RPG mayhem? Us neither. Good job the frosty adventuring just keeps on coming. Blimey. When will the isometric role-playing fun end?

No time soon, we hope. Although Heart of Winter is just an add-on for Icewind Dale, there are more hours of intense gaming here for your 20 quid than many full games. A whole new quest is on offer, separate to the main game’s story, plus the usual smattering of sub-quests we’ve grown to know, love and reap our lovely experience points from.

Waitasec. I’ve already finished Icewind Dale. Do I have to start all over again to play the new bits?
Nope. Install it, and it’ll take your characters from the end of the game, restore them to full health and transport them to the new area, far to the north of the main game’s setting. The expansion pack’s content is entirely separate, meaning you can’t nip back and forth, so if you’re half-way through Icewind Dale you can take up the challenge at any point you feel ready – although all your characters have to be level 9 or above, seeing as you’ll be facing new, far meaner beasties than before. You can even pile right in with pre-generated level 9 characters and skip the main game completely.

Excellent. Er – any kobolds?
Don’t be silly – it’s far too cold for kobolds. You see, with only a light covering of fur, the physiology of your average kobold…

All right, point taken. What do we get, then?
All manner of chilly monstrosities, including barbarians, trolls, golems, giants, huge polar worms and various powerful undead such as waterlogged drowned dead (a kind of zombie), barrow wights and wailing virgins…

Excuse me?
You heard. These poor lasses were apparently buried alive with dead kings to help them in the afterlife. The mind boggles. Anyway, to deal with all these there’s obviously a healthy smattering of new magical weapons and the ability for every class to reach level 30 – that’s far higher than Baldur’s Gate II allows. Of course, this means you’ll be levelling up at a slightly unrealistic rate, but exciting dungeon-bashing is what Icewind Dale was designed for.

Fair enough. What about technical gubbins? Baldur’s Gate 2 had higher resolutions, drop-away interface, better AI and loads of rule additions from 3rd Edition D&D. Icewind Dale didn’t. So?
Heart of Winter does. Almost all the improvements made to the Infinity Engine and rule-set for BG2 have been put into place for the expansion. Although you can’t choose kits for your characters, and there are no NPCs to meet, the expansion really brings Icewind Dale up to date. The artificial intelligence improvements in particular make a difference to combat. For example, now, if you’re hacking some poor creature to bits, it’ll call on its off-screen buddies to come and help. Your own characters get some new skills from 3rd Ed., too: thieves have access to Sneak Attack and Crippling Strike abilities, making them much better in combat. Expect handy new abilities for rangers and paladins too, while magic-users obviously get access to some fancy new spells – 50 entirely new ones, in fact.