Review: Thief II – The Metal Age

Again, I want to apologize for the long hiatus between game reviews, but I’m back now and continuing my “turn of the century” playthroughs. Today I give you my long-awaited review of Thief II: The Metal Age. I discussed the original Thief more than three years ago, in anticipation of the Square-Enix reboot. But it took me this long to catch up and play through the second entry in the original franchise. But finally, here we are.

For those unfamiliar with the original game, Thief took the concept of first-person PC games and turned it on it’s head. Instead of being a fast-paced shooter, this game required you to sneak around in the shadows and actually try to avoid killing enemies unless absolutely necessary. It was a smashing success and it was only a matter of time until it spawned a sequel. Thief II took everything that was great about the original game and cranked it up a notch. In fact, this sequel is a great example of developers actually listening to their customers. The folks behind the game took the feedback they received from the first title, and added more of what fans liked the most, and removed some of the concepts that seemed to garner the most complaints. The end result, is a game true to the original but largely superior.

This game takes place one year after the events of the original title. Garrett continues to make his living as a skilled catpurse, relying on no one other than himself. Since the events of the original game, a new faction has emerged in the city. One that believes in a future ruled by technology and machines.  As a result, the nature-worshiping Pagans have been driven out of town and into hiding.  None of this matters too much to Garrett, as he has other things to worry about. You see, there’s a new sheriff in town, literally – and he’s got his eye on putting an end to Garrett’s way of life. However, as one might expect, it’s not so easy to remain neutral. Before long, Garrett finds himself wrapped up in the middle of this conflict between the Mechanists and the Pagans. To save himself, he’s going to have to choose sides.

One thing to know before you decide to jump in to the world of Thief II; this is an older game and one designed for a different age of computing. However, just like the original – there’s a number of tweaks and unofficial patches available that will allow the game to run on modern hardware. I recommend something called “TafferPatcher”. This is a fan-made all-in-one patch that will both optimize the game for modern hardware, but retain the original look and feel of the title. Despite being unofficial, it’s widely respected and very much safe to install.

As I mentioned above, if you enjoyed the original game, Thief II is certainly worth your time. Every single thing that is great about the first title is expanded on here and there’s lots of it. To me, both the size of the levels and the number of mission objectives have increased and become much more engaging. There’s nothing better than sneaking around in the shadows right under the noses of the night watchmen and looting a place clean. The feel of the original game remains intact, but this time with a more engaging storyline.

From a technical standpoint, Thief II feels very much like it’s predecessor. I don’t really see a big difference in the bulk of the game engine. The environments look very similar to those founds in Thief. But, the character textures are greatly improved.  The enemy AI is also quite a bit better – in this game guards will notice more things that seem out-of-place. For example open doors or damaged environmental objects. So, tech-wise, Thief II does show signs of progression over the original.

To me, the Thief series represents a high point in PC gaming. It was a time where the industry was largely engaged in copy-cat behavior. But the Thief series took a bold step to stand apart from all the clones. It was a risk that paid off big. To me, Thief II represents the very best of the series. It’s a game that I recommend to retro PC gamers looking for a unique experience.

Difficulty: Variable–  Thief II offers several levels of difficulty. Increasing the difficulty level not only gives the player more objectives to accomplish during the game’s missions, but also going for Hard or Expert restricts you from being allowed to kill enemies. The game is certainly more rewarding on one of these two settings. But I recommend Normal for most players going on their first run.

Story: Thief II continues the lore and storyline established in the original game, and it’s quite well done. The game story develops a number of ways. First, there are cutscenes between levels. But, tidbits can also be picked up by eavesdropping on various NPC conversations or reading notes and journals that you encounter as you sneak your way through the areas of the game. Players who take their time and explore every nook and cranny will be rewarded with additional storyline elements.

Originality: The trail was certainly blazed with the original Thief. But the concepts laid out by it’s predecessor are highly refined and presented to players in this sequel.  Despite being a sequel, Thief II still manages to avoid feeling like a cheap retread of the original game.

Soundtrack: There not a lot here in terms of game music. But, that’s ok. This game is ALL about atmosphere. You have to listen for footsteps and other audible clues as you play. These sound effects are very well done. This is one of those games that still takes advantage of older surround sound technology – and it does it very well. Ambient noises aside, the voice acting in the game is also superb.

Fun: This kind of game may not appeal to all players. It requires patience and a willingness to learn from your mistakes. This will likely be a turn-off to some, but for those that enjoy stealth games, this one will provide hours of entertainment.

Graphics:  The first two entries in the Thief series are an odd mix of both really good 3D graphics and funky, blocky textures. However, Thief II does improve on the look and feel of NPC characters significantly. This entry also includes improved skybox and lighting effects. Regardless, it still looks very dated when compared to modern games. But it was quite top of the line for it’s time. 

Playcontrol:  No real issues here. The game runs on the standard WSAD keyboard layout for first-person PC games, with some modifications for the game’s unique features. Occasionally, climbing and jumping around on platforms can feel a bit awkward and cumbersome. But, it’s merely a minor annoyance at times.

Downloadable Content:  N/A. 

Mature Content: Mild language.

Value:  Thief II can be found on Steam for around $7.00. For that price, the game is well worth every penny. The amount of content in this game and the quality of this title overall makes it an absolute steal for that price.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Thief II, despite it’s age, still holds up as one of the definitive stealth-based first-person games of all time. Fans of the genre that have not yet experienced it, should not hesitate for a moment. This is one game worthy of your attentions. For players who are not sure if this type of game would appeal to them, the price tag alone makes it worth the gamble. You’ll never spend a better $7 on a PC title.

Available on: PC (Steam)

Original Trilogy:

Thief: The Dark Project  –  Thief 2: The Metal Age  – Thief: Deadly Shadows

Reboot:

Thief

Review: Dragonia

It is with both shame and amusement that I type this review… As it is my ritual every summer in the weeks leading up to the Steam Summer Sale, I always take a moment to browse through the store looking for games that interest me. When I find one, I will add it my wishlist to ensure that I receive a notification if it goes on sale. This year, while perusing the store I came upon an interesting trend – I found a number of anime style games, of various types that were selling for $1.50 or less. Due to the extremely low price, I snatched up as many of them as I could. One of them happened to be an anime-style shoot-em-up by the name of Dragonia. After scrolling through the store page for the game, it quickly became obvious that this was an adult title. But, the game play looked interesting and the reviews were great so I bit the bullet.

Now, even knowing that the game contained some adult themes, I had NO IDEA what I had got myself into… to say this is a “mature” game is an understatement. This game is downright pornographic. On top of that, there’s even an “uncensoring patch” available directly from the developer, just in case you need absolutely nothing left to the imagination. In fact, I debated even reviewing this game at all, considering the content. But, as you will see, it’s actually a somewhat intriguing title. So much so, I decided to review it regardless of it’s extremely adult nature.

Let me take a moment to explain what this game actually is. First off, in it’s heart and soul, Dragonia is a bullet-hell schmup. You play the character of Feeney, a half-human, half dragon. Feeney is summoned by an old witch to help purge the land from the grip of several Evil Dragons. As it turns out, only Feeney has the ability to defeat and “purify” these dragons. As might be able to guess, to “purify” them, Feeney has to resort to her… seductive skills and… well… you can guess the rest.

(Censored by Sensei)

The basic storyline outlined above is easy enough to decipher. However, that’s about all you’re going to get out of the storyline text in the game. The English translation in this game can only be described as horrendous. It seems to literally be a copy paste from Chinese to English via Google Translate… Which in some ways is actually a godsend, because the text likes to describe in detail every single thing Feeney has to do to “purify” her enemies.

All of the adult material in the game is limited to the cutscenes that play before and after each game level. The gameplay itself is pretty much family friendly. You control Feeney from a birds-eye-view as she flies around and blasts her opponents from the air.  Enemies approach from every angle. It’s a classic bullet-hell scenario.

As you play through each level, Feeney will collect “souls”. In between stages, souls can be exchanged for a variety of things. You can unlock new modes of attack, you can increase your damage level, health, etc.  So in some ways, this game has a very RPG-like progression element to it.  You complete a level by defeating a certain number of enemies. Once you reach this number, the level boss is spawned. Defeating the boss allows you to proceed to the next area.  At first, the game levels are fairly simple but eventually you will come across a boss that you just can’t take down. This is where you’ll want to grind up some more health of damage output. Some bosses are weak to certain attacks (lightning, fire, etc). So unlocking specific attack modes is also part of the strategy.

In this way, despite the extremely high levels of fan-service, the game actually has some redeeming value to it.  I personally found the gameplay to be engaging and overall very well done. There’s no shortage of upgrades to unlock. So, this game gets quite a few things right. It’s hard to argue that the gameplay itself is bad. And, depending on your viewpoint, the cutscenes are either going to be a big plus or a big turn off.

The down points to this title are without a doubt the terrible localization and the UI/playcontol. The in-game menus look like they were designed by rank amateurs. There’s no logic to them at all. But with a little diligence, you’ll be able to figure out their quirks and limp through the UI. The game itself can be played using a keyboard, but I don’t recommend this. These types of game just work best with a controller. Personally, I played Dragonia using my trusty USB Xbox 360 controller.  Even on a controller, the control-scheme makes little sense. But, it is accurate and responsive. Normally, these types of complaints would be a BIG DEAL, because when I say they are bad, I mean they are really REALLY terrible. But, when the game sells for $1.50, it’s very difficult to complain. Especially for all of the content you actually get with that $1.50. Dragonia is a short game, but it’s longer than others that I’ve paid premium prices for.

If you enjoy schmups and bullet hells, this is a game that might tickle your fancy. Just know going in, that it is filled with unapologetic hentai visuals.

Difficulty: Easy–  This game is a curious case in terms of difficulty simply because as a schmup, it is exactly what you’d expect: bullets flying everywhere, endless enemies pouring from all sides, etc. Each level gets harder and harder. But, as mentioned in the main review, you can upgrade your life meter and even the damage that you deal. So, if you find yourself stuck on a particular level, the only thing you really need to do is be patient and grind until you are overpowered enough to blast your way through whatever roadblock you encountered. This mechanic actually renders most of the challenges in the game meaningless.

Story: If we’re being honest, the storyline for this game is nothing more then a vehicle to deliver some heavy doses of fanservice. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that the game itself was developed separately from the dirty cutscenes and the two were cobbled together into the game that we see now. The in-game story is shallow and weird. But, admittedly mildly interesting. The translation is barely comprehendable.

Originality: Hentai games are nothing new. Neither are bullet-hells. But, I have to admit that this is the first time I’ve ever seen them lumped together in one title. Add in the the RP/progression element and you have a pretty original package.

Soundtrack: The game has a somewhat catchy soundtrack. But the sound effects can be a bit annoying at times. One weapon in particular sounds like high volume static. It is quite annoying. Overall, the audio in this title is pretty poor and unimaginative.

Fun: It’s hard to admit this. But, I had a pretty good time with the game. The gameplay kept me hooked. I enjoyed leveling and unlocking all of the weapons. The cutscenes are amusing, albeit shocking at times. A certain fraction of players will no doubt be able to have a really good time with the cutscenes.

Graphics:  The cutscenes are colorful, crisp and well rendered. Fans of anime-style art will be pleased. The game itself is actually quite-well rendered as well. The bullet effects are colorful and dynamic. Sadly, the UI is crudely chopped together and messy.

Playcontrol:  No matter what method you use, the playcontrol is rough and very non-intuitive. Playing with a controller is manageable, but it still just feels off.

Downloadable Content:  None. 

Mature Content: Pornographic content and extreme adult language.

Value:  Despite the many negative things about this game, it’s hard to argue with the price. Someone paying a little over a dollar for a game shouldn’t expect much. Considering the paltry cost for this title, you are getting your money’s worth ten times over.  Often, many adult-content games actually come with a premium price tag. It’s hard to go wrong here from a value standpoint.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – Content aside, a lot of aspects about this game are well done and interesting. There’s quite a bit of content for a very small price. On the other side of the coin, the game suffers from bad localization, terrible UI and playcontrol. It’s an interesting but largely mediocre title, but one that will appeal to certain gamers.

Available on: PC (Steam)

Thoughts On: Serena

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Well, it’s Halloween. While I didn’t get as many horror games finished before today as I had hoped. (Thanks in part to a one-week vacation). I did finish up the unusual game of Serena today. So as usual, I’m here to share my thoughts.

Serena is different kind of game. First of all, it’s free. So right away, it’s worth a look. This game was designed as both a game-engine demo as well as an homage to the old point-and-click adventure games of yesteryear. As a child, I played a number of these type of games on the old black and white Macintosh. Some of my favorites were, Enchanted Scepters and Transylvania. Serena is a bit like those in many ways, but also quite different.

 

This game takes in place entirely in a one-room log cabin. You play the role of a tormented man who is awaiting the return of his lover, Serena. Oddly, he cannot seem to remember her face or many of the details about her. The game consists of walking around the cabin and examining the various articles and furnishings that are laying about. As you do this, your memory slowly starts to return.

The gameplay is entirely restricted to this one room. Progress is measured by the hourly chime of a clock on the wall. Once the chime goes off, you will typically have to re-examine all of the various items around the cabin again. This time, a different narrative is provided, etc. This continues until you uncover the secret behind Serena’s disappearance and finally reach the conclusion of the game.

The game itself is very short and features a very basic interface. As I stated, the goal here is really to simply provide a demo for an adventure game-engine. In many ways, Serena is very similar to the games Gone Home or P.T., that I reviewed previously. Except it’s not nearly as advanced as either of those titles.

For this reason, I will not be giving Serena a full review. But, I will say that I found my playthrough of this title to be an interest change of pace and upon reaching the end, I consider it to be time well spent. The graphics are very well done for this type of game. The voice acting is superb and the game audio is engaging.

As far as including it in my Halloween playthrough… it fits. Just play it to the end and you’ll see what I mean. Very psychological. The ending is still hotly debated on the steam forums.

Serena is available for free on Steam.

Review: Slender – The Arrival

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Next up on the spooky game list is a title that I’ve had sitting in my Steam library for awhile. Slender – The Arrival. Now, before playing this game I actually knew very little about the “Slenderman” phenomena. I knew that the character of Slenderman was born from some creepy Internet meme,  but I was completely ignorant regarding the background story or mythology behind the character. I think my lack of knowledge actually made the game seem even weirder and creepier than it would have been otherwise.

First off, I should mention that the day before this review was posted, a major update to the game was released. This update is quite literally, a game changer. The 2.0 updated added new levels, better performance, and many needed quality of life improvements. I was almost done with my playthrough of this game when the patch hit and it actually made me start all over so that I could re-experience the game from the ground up.

So let’s get started. Slender – The Arrival is your typical survival horror game. In this game, you start off playing a girl named Lauren who is on her way to visit an old childhood friend at her home. On the way there, the road leading to her house is blocked by a fallen tree and you’re forced to walk the last mile or so on foot. As you approach her home, it suddenly grows unusually dark. Once entering the house, you are quick to realize that some strange has happened. The house is in shambles and there’s weird scribbles all over the wall. You find a flashlight and begin to search the house for clues. Eventually, you hear a scream from outside the window and proceed to investigate. This is where the game really begins.

Apparently, your friend Kate has become obsessed with a supernatural entity known as Slenderman. A faceless being that is rumored to chase and abduct children. Throughout your search for Kate, you are relentlessly pursued by Slenderman and some of his other creepy friends. For some reason, I never really understood, your character carries a video camera with her at all times. The game experienced through the eyes of the camera. The picture will jump or distort if Slender draws near. So it serves as a bit of a warning device. At the end of the game, it seems to become clear that you, the player, are watching the recorded footage – so there’s that. But again…. why is this girl video taping everything?

As you proceed through the game, more details regarding the backstory begin to emerge. Some levels are actually played through the perspective of other characters in the game. All in all, as the plot thickens, the game manages to actually get even creepier.

The gameplay itself is quite basic. There’s no combat. Most levels have a series of objectives that need to be completed to move on to the next stage. However, each time you complete an objective, Slenderman appears more often and begins to pursue you relentlessly. If you get caught by him, it is game over.

As far as games go, there’s not a lot of content here really. Even with the new levels brought in by the update, the game can easily be completed in a couple of hours if you’ve got the hang of things. To me, the experience provided by this game is more focused on scaring you than actually timesinking content. This game has moments that are downright chilling. Everything from the level design, to the atmosphere created within the game is frightening. There were times while playing, where I was so close to completing the level only to see the screen start to distort and hear the swelling of the background music – I’d get goosebumps knowing that just around the corner I was going to see that pale white face, in the dark suit staring blankly in my direction. Fantastic.

In a lot of way, the environments and atmosphere created by game designers are often freakier than the protagonists. If you’re looking for something to put a little fright into you on a dark night, this game is worth a look.

Difficulty: Moderate –  There are two difficulty settings. Normal and Hardcore. The later is only available after beating the game on the original difficulty setting. Overall, the game is pretty middle of the road. Early on, I died a lot. But once I got a feel for the game’s mechanics, it did become a little easier. Hardcore mode is just that. In this mode, there are often additional steps required to complete a level as well as a big increase in the aggression of Slender Man.
Story: For such an inexpensive title, there is a surprising amount of storyline here. However, it is not spoon-fed to you. The story behind the game is uncovered as you play. If you take the time to pay attention and actually read many of the news-clippings and notes that you find throughout the game, much of the background begins to become very clear.
Originality: These days, survival horror games are nothing new. But Slender manages to keep things unique with it’s unusual presentation and rich character-based storyline.
Soundtrack: The score for this game is subtle, but overall I found it to be well done. The music is dynamic and does a great job at setting the tone for the game as well as adding to the suspense.
Fun: If you enjoy horror/survival games this is certainly a title that worth your time. It’s spooky, anxiety-laden, and keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Graphics: The new “2.0” version of the game is a big improvement over the original edition. If you’re new to this title, this is version that is now available on Steam as well as PSN and Xbox Arcade. So no matter what platform, you’re sure to get the latest version. The graphics were always well rendered but now include motion blur effects, and better lighting enhancements as well. Not to mention the overall graphics performance has been tweaked big time.
Playcontrol: This title is playable both on the keyboard and with a gamepad. Either way seemed both fitting and natural.
Mature Content: YES- Gruesome violence. Language. Horror elements.
Value:  For $10, this game offers quite a bit of bang for your buck. It is somewhat short, yes. But I feel that it is very much worth the experience. — If you played this game when it first came out, the new version included new levels integrated into the game itself. So veterans might want to take a second look.
Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – This game may seem a little unusual to casual players. But fans of the survival horror genre have a lot to appreciate here. However, even for a casual gamer, the $10.00 pricetag certainly makes Slender a purchase to consider. This game offers a true horror experience at a budget price.
Currently available on: Steam, PSN, Xbox Arcade

Review: Gauntlet (2014)

Gauntlet-2014

If you’ve hung around on this blog awhile, you know that I love old games. The very first video game I ever played as a young child was an arcade version of Centipede. Back in those days, home consoles just didn’t have the technology to compete with a full sized arcade cabinet. Some games could only be experienced at an arcade room. Gauntlet was one of those games.

Gauntlet was a fantasy/dungeon themed multiplayer game. You could be a Warrior, Valkyrie, Wizard or Elf. Each character having slightly different attacks and playstyles. The object was to delve deep into a maze filled with endless hordes of monsters and earn as many points as possible. Aside from that, there really wasn’t much to it. The game was brutal and often times unfair. The ultimate goal was to get the highest score possible and earn your bragging rights.

To me, it always stood out as one of the first video games I ever played that could actually talk. “Your life force is running out!” The game would mumble those words as you neared death. Luckily, the reaper could be kept at bay if you were willing to sacrifice another quarter into the coinslot.

 

The original game is all of its glory

Over the years there have been sequels and remakes. Each game drifting further from the roots of the original. Many of them good games, but they didn’t seem to capture the magic of the original title.  Now, Arrowhead studios has brought us a modern take on the classic. A fresh look, simply named: Gauntlet.

Right off the bat, the new Gauntlet is very similar to the original. Overhead view, the same characters with the same general playstyle, waves and waves of enemies, and the snarky voice is back. There are of course, several changes. First of all, the game looks fantastic. Gone are the days of 8-bit pixels. Here we have beautiful accelerated graphics and dynamic lighting. Visually, the game is everything you could hope for when it comes to a modern version of the classic title.

 

Where the game differs is not so much in the way it is played, but rather with the addition of some much needed features. In this new version of Gauntlet, the gold you find while plundering the maze can be used to purchase new skills and upgrades for your character. Skills can be executed at will as long as your character has a potion to consume. The key to mastering the game is pairing specific skills with the different characters and leveling them up over time. For example, the Elf, a ranged fighter would not benefit very much from a skill that immobilizes nearby foes. It may come in handy from time to time, but not as much as it would if he were a Warrior, fighting in close quarters.

As characters take damage, their life force diminishes. This can be restored by eating plates of food that are found within the maze. Of course, like in the older games, it’s possible to accidentally strike the food and destroy it. So it is important to be mindful and not simply dash around swinging blindly.  If a character does die, they can be revived. Much like the arcade days, this is accomplished by spending a “coin”. However, you longer have to dig deep in your pockets to keep playing. In this version, coins are earned as you defeat enemies.

The purpose of the game is to work your way through the “gauntlet” and uncover three mysterious relics. The game is broken up into three, multi-level dungeons. Each dungeon has a special boss to defeat.

When it comes to progressing through the game, your progress is saved separately for each character. It can be fun to switch around, as each character controls and works completely differently. Ultimately, you’re likely to find a favorite. Gauntlet can be played single player, but to be honest this game is best played with others. Up to four players can team up (one of each class) to take on the dungeon.

For the Steam version of the game, multiplayer is as simple as either creating a new game and making it public or joining an existing game. Sadly, it seems that already even after a week or so since its release the number of players has dwindled a bit. But there’s still plenty of players to be found if you’re patient enough to wait a few minutes.

 

Difficulty: Variable –  The game offers a number of difficulty settings. Easy, Normal, Hard and Unfair. These are aptly named and quite accurate. For a new player, I would recommend starting on easy at first. Once you have a feel of things, Normal is the way to go. Hard mode and Unfair can only really be recommended for multiplayer games.

Story: The story here is pretty minimal. There’s a brief set up during the tutorial followed by some narratives as you progress through the game. Most of the meat of the story can be found in the digital comic book that was available to players who preordered the game.

Originality: Being a remake of a classic arcade title, there’s quite a bit of added content to keep the game interesting. Ironically, it’s the lack of new features that actually manages to keep this game feeling fresh. They don’t really make games like this anymore and playing Gauntlet was a really nice change of pace.

Soundtrack: Overall, the game soundtrack is very well done. The music is fitting and tends to ramp up at appropriate times. The voice narrative is excellent. All of the classic one-liners are present in this version.

Fun: Gauntlet is a bit of a niche game to be honest. I think it will appeal most to older gamers such as myself. That being said, the real fun here lies in the online play. Other players really add to the experience and as always, Gauntlet is best played with friends.

Graphics: The developers really seems to nail the graphics just right. The art direction, lighting and overall feel is spot on.

Playcontrol: Ok. Here we go. Gauntlet is a PC game and offers two options. Mouse/Keyboard or gamepad. That being said, this is “gamepad game”. I highly recommend playing with an Xbox 360 style controller. Playing with a keyboard is possible, but not very intuitive at all. I hated it.

Mature Content: Violence – Blood and gore.

Value:  At release, Gauntlet sells for $20. This is a fair price if you enjoy this type of game. If you’re not sure if this is the game for you, you may wish to wait until it goes on sale or the game sees a permanent price drop. The game itself is somewhat shorter than most modern games, but it is very replayable. The developers have hinted at future DLC content and additional levels coming down the pike. Time will tell.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – I enjoyed my time with the game and felt satisfied with the purchase. After completing it, I decided not to uninstall it. Every now and then I get an itch for some hack and slash casual gaming and Gauntlet seems to satisfy that need. Fans of the series will not be disappointed.

Currently available on: PC   (Steam, GOG, other digital stores)

Review: Gone Home

Well, despite my focus on classic Playstation titles, the Steam Summer sale did manage to snag my attention. This year I decided not to spend too much money and kept my purchases limited mostly to very inexpensive titles. One of the games that caught my eye this year was a small indie title called Gone Home. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this game when I purchased it. I knew from hearsay that it was a fairly short game, and also somewhat controversial. I purposefully made sure to keep away from reviews and discussions about the game because I did not want any spoilers to sneak through. Having now completed the game, I’m glad I didn’t.

Here’s what you need to know if you are interested in this title; it is very short. Played at a normal pace, the game is typically beaten in little over an hour. Second, it’s a very mellow title. There’s no combat, no death, etc. This game reminds me a lot of classic PC “point and click” adventures from the early 90s. Essentially, the set up for the game is this: It is 1995, you play the role of a college student named Kaitlin who has returned home after a year overseas. While away, Kaitlin’s family inherited a house from a rich and unusual uncle. Upon arriving at her family’s new home, it’s obvious that something is amiss. Mom and dad are gone, and there’s a strange note on the door from Kaitlin’s sister stating that she has gone away, and requests that Kaitlin does not attempt to discover her fate or whereabouts.

The goal of the game is to explore the house and uncover clues that unravel your sister’s fate. That’s all I can really say about the plot without giving too much away.

Graphically, the game is very attractive. Despite its casual design, the graphics are very well done. The lighting and texture effects impressed me quite a bit. I didn’t expect such good visuals from an inexpensive title. But that’s not all that impressed me. The game also features an excellent soundtrack. The ambient/mood music in the title are appropriate and compelling. Also, the game features a number of cassette tapes laying around the house. These feature mock 90’s style punk/grunge tunes that also stuck my fancy (although being a former 90s rocker myself, I may be a bit biased).

But what makes this game unique is not it’s soundtrack or visuals. The focus here is storyline. What starts out appearing to be somewhat of a horror game, slowly unravels into a dramatic tale. Without giving too much away, the finale of the game actually managed to touch me emotionally and caused me to give pause for a few moments to reflect on some rather personal ideals.

Critics of the game often refer to it as boring, or label it a “walking simulator”. But I think they are missing the point. The purpose of this game is atmosphere and emotion. The enjoyment comes from exploring and piecing together the backstory and scenario. It’s a title that is designed to tug at your heartstrings a bit. Essentially, you get out of it what you’re willing to put in.

Difficulty: Easy–  There’s really no challenge per-se to be found. It’s more of an interactive story than a game, I suppose. However, there are some areas and that are out of reach unless you’re really paying attention or take the time to thoroughly explore and seek out clues.

Story: The storyline is the focus of the game here. The game narrative is presented with an opening sequence but unfolds throughout the game as you read notes and clues scattered about the house. The main story is driven through entries in your sisters diary that are played back automatically as you progress. Initially, I started the game expecting it to be a dark mystery of some sort, but about halfway through the true nature of the game started to become clear. Despite having a different outcome than I originally expected, I was not disappointed.

Originality: While this type of game is not entirely a new concept, the presentation and ultimate outcome of the game is pretty unique. Some might even say risky. It was certainly a nice change of pace from other titles I’ve been playing recently.

Soundtrack: As I mentioned earlier, the soundtrack in this game is really really good. It fits perfectly with the atmosphere for the game. The rock tunes are novel, but very well done considering their role in the title.

Fun: I played through this game in about an hour but despite it’s short span, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It is certainly a niche game and might not appeal to everyone. But for those with a mind for slow-paced narratives, it’s quite good.

Graphics: The graphics are very well done. Especially considering the type of game we’re talking about. In some ways, I was left with the impression that visually, the game was designed to be artistic, and not so much on precise photorealism. But regardless, it’s pretty good looking.

Playcontrol: There’s not much to worry about here. The game controls as one would expect a standard First Person title to work.

Mature Content: Partially – The game does not exhibit any violence or nudity. But there are some mature themes that pop up from time to time such as occult imagery and homosexuality. Nothing graphic.

Value:  At the time of this review, the regular price for this game is $20. In my opinion, that’s a bit steep. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend paying anymore than $10 for the title, simply due to it’s length. Luckily, the game is on sale quite often. I think I got it for around 3-5 dollars.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – I enjoyed this title. It was a breath of fresh air compared to most things on the market these days. I enjoyed the ambient feel of the house, and trying to piece together the events leading up to the game itself. I saw the ending coming from a mile away, but still enjoyed to the little twist at the end. The main drawback to the game is the length of the game, but all in all even that is quite appropriate for the title.

Review: Wolfenstein – The New Order

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I don’t always get the chance to review games when they are brand new. But I knew that Wolfenstein would be an exception. After playing it, I’m glad that I put everything else on the back burner for a bit. The game was better than I expected.

The New Order continues the story that started with Return to Castle Wolfenstein. The war is coming to a close and BJ and his team are pushing deep into Nazi territory in attempts to raid Deathshead’s fortress and exterminate the Nazi leader. First part of the game focuses on this raid and also serves as a bit of a tutorial. However, things don’t go as planned and our hero suffers an injury that takes him out of commission for a quite a well. When he finally wakes up, he finds himself in an asylum. The world has gone to hell. The Nazi’s won WWII and control a world-wide police state. The focus of the game from this point is to locate the resistance movement and do whatever is possible to strike back at the Nazi regime in hopes of sparking a revolution.

It’s difficult for me to go into too much detail without spoiling a bit of the game. But from very early on in the title it’s obvious that this is not your typical FPS. The graphics are superb, the voice acting in the game is probably the best I’ve ever encountered, and the story is nothing short of fantastic. This game takes you on a journey from the trenches of WWII to a Nazi controlled dystopia that’s nothing short of terrifying. From prison camps to a Nazi Moon Base, this game is certainly a ride to hell and back.

In a lot of way this game does play like a typical FPS. You acquire, and can switch between, an arsenal of weapons; Handguns, Machine Guns, Sniper Rifles, Grenades, etc. These change over time and some can be upgraded throughout the game. There are alternate fire modes, and zoom-in options, etc. Pretty standard fare. A knife can also be used to sneak up behind enemies for stealthy take-downs. There’s also heavy weaponry that is available from time to time, such as mounted chain guns.  There’s a lot of duck and cover in this game as well. There’s actually a lot of variety when it comes to combat. Strategies range from trying to traverse the level without being seen, to all-out bullet hell.

Aside from being a simple shooter, this game is very story focused. There are a number of objectives presented during the course of the game. These help to drive the game scenario and break up the routine a bit. Throughout the game you will also come across collectible items. These are viewable in the main menu and some of them help to unlock additional modes of play. Also worthy of mention, early in the game you will be prompted to make a very important decision.  Your choice has a huge impact on the game going forward and you can’t take it back. So, to fully experience all the game has to offer, you have to play through it at lest twice. For me, this was not a problem. I enjoyed the title so much, that I was happy to do just that.

In a somewhat unusual move for a modern FPS, there is no multiplayer option. Wolfenstein: The New Order is strictly a single-player title. For me that is fine, but it does seem a little difficult to justify the premium price tag.

Graphically, the game is stellar. I was able to run it fine on my GeForce GTX 660 using medium to high settings. It does seem to be somewhat un-optimized and very fickle when it comes to some driver settings. I had to disable V-sync completely to avoid strange screen artifacts. If you’re unsure if your PC can handle the game, it may be better to go with one of the console versions that are available.

 

Difficulty: Variable–  There are multiple difficulty levels available to choose from. From my testing, these seem to be very well done and appropriate. I played the game on the default setting and found it to be very balanced.

Story: This game shines in term of storyline. The alternate 1960 presented here is both well done and horrifying. While there are some “occult tech” elements in the game, it’s not ridiculous like it was in the previous entry of the series. Almost everything here is quite believable. Everything from the plot, to character interaction is fantastic.

Originality: I found this title to be refreshing. And that’s something that’s often difficult for FPS games. The unique plot setting combined with excellent storytelling really made the game stand out to me. For once we get some deep insight into the main character of the series.

Soundtrack: The in-game soundtrack is unusual. Most of the music in the game comes in the form of ambient/distortion style mood music with a few exceptions. Among the collectable items in the game are record albums featuring songs by familiar real life bands, but done in a German style. (IE: What would the Beatles have sounded like if the Nazi’s won the war).  This is a really nice touch.

Fun: Despite some initial frustrations with graphical issues, and some minor annoyance with the default controls, I had a blast with this game. So much so that I immediately played through it second time to experience the alternate storyline. That’s a good sign!

Graphics: By today’s standards, the graphics are about as good as you can get. I played the game using less than maximum settings and I was still awed at how good things looked. Everything from the textures to motion/lighting effects are superb. — That being said, the game has been reported to have odd issues with some ATI hardware. So it may require some tweaking.

Playcontrol: The default PC controls are pretty standard. There’s a few combo moves, for sliding and running that seemed a bit difficult for me to master at first, and this cost me more than one death in the game. It kind of felt like my fingers were on a twister mat. But other than that, no real complaint. Plus, all the keys can be reassigned.

Mature Content: Yes – Extreme violence, gruesome imagery, language, sex and nudity.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – I purchased this game out my love for the Wolfenstein series and my curiosity to see a Nazi-controlled setting. I was very impressed with the game as a whole. I went with the PC version simply because, to me, Wolfenstein is a PC game. But I have heard feedback from others that the game is better experienced on the console. Regardless, I was blown away by the title and I recommend it almost anyone.

Currently available on: PC (Steam and Retail) , PS4, PS3,  Xbox 360 and Xbox One

 

 

Other Reviews In This Series: Wolf3DRtCW – Wolf ETWolfenstein New Order – The Old Blood

 

Review: Thief (2014)

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This review took a bit longer to put together than I anticipated. My total playtime through the newest entry in the Thief franchise was just over 35 hours. Despite many of the dismal reviews out there on the net, I am glad to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with the game.

As you may know, I enjoyed the original Thief back when it was released. I admittedly have not had any experience with either of the two original sequels (I plan on fixing that soon), so when I heard SE had purchased rights to the franchise and were rebooting the series I decided to go ahead and pre-order it and jump right in on day one. That’s exactly what I did.

Without spoiling anything, I do want to mention that after playing through this new game, the lines between reboot and sequel have become a bit blurred. It seems that this game does take place in the same universe as the original three Thief titles. Aside from several interesting similarities, in this game you play a different “Garrett”. Garrett still lives and operates in The City but it seems that several generations have passed since the original series and his connection to the original character, if any, are unclear.

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The game begins with Garrett and his companion Erin, sneaking about the town doing what they do best. The pair fall into a sticky situation and Erin seemingly falls to her death as Garrett passes out. When he awakens, he learns that he has been missing for nearly a year. During that time, A strange sickness has began to spread through The City and things are near boiling point among the local and various political factions. Garrett is determined to figure out what happened to his missing time and uncover and further details about the fate of Erin. This is where the game begins.

The main game is divided into 8 chapters. At the end of each chapter, Garrett returns to his hidden base in The City’s clocktower. In between the chapters Garrett has full roam of the city and can undertake various thievery jobs or sidequests. Once a chapter has been completed, it can also be repeated. The bulk of the story is unfolded by completing the main chapter scenarios, but there’s a ton of background lore and subplots that can be discovered by taking on sidequests and just exploring and looting various locations within The City. During my play, I complete the game and all of the sidequests, but fell short of finding all unique items and secrets. I plan to revisit the game later when the mood strikes me.

The focus of the game is to follow the story missions and help Garrett complete his objective. However, a big part of the game is finding and stealing various treasures and trinkets. Once an item is stolen, it’s value goes directly into Garrett’s pocket. This gold can be spent to purchase weapons and various thief tools. The game does not feature an experience point system, but throughout the game Garrett will earn Focus Points. These can be used to improve skills and unlock abilities.

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There’s a lot of similarities in this game to the original series. As Garrett sneaks about the city, shadows are your friend. You are virtually invisible when shrouded in darkness and motionless. Most enemies can detect you by both sight and sound. So staying out of sight is important, but so is treading lightly. Running and walking on uneven surfaces can alert others to your presence. Famous tools such as Water Arrows make a return in this game, enabling Garrett to extinguish torches from a distance. But even a suddenly extinguished torch can raise suspicions. The game also features a Focus Mode that Garrett can use to help detect lootable items or traps. Once activated, the focus meter will begin to drain. If empty, Focus Mode is no longer available to use. Focus can also slow time down to make pickpocketing and combat a bit easier, so use it wisely.

As I mentioned earlier, Garrett can also find and acquire unique items. Unique items are displayed at Garrett’s hideout in the clocktower. Aside from being a challenge to locate, looking pretty and unlocking achievements, unique loot has no other value in the game.

Graphically, the game looks amazing. Thief uses the Unreal engine and everything is very well designed. I was really impressed with the visuals of the game. But performance-wise, the game is hit or miss. At first, I thought maybe my machine was unable to handle the game on high settings – so I lowered things a bit and it only seemed to make them worse. This leads me to believe that the game is poorly optimized. About halfway through my time with the game, a patch was released, upping the game to version 1.2. This did seem to improve things a bit, but I still experienced some stuttering and other weird performance issues. I expect these to be addressed over time, but I was a little disappointed to see how glitchy the game seemed at launch.

Also, while large parts of the game play seamlessly, there are quite a number of load screens when navigating around The City. This can sometimes be a bit annoying when hunting down sidequests or simply trying to move between several areas. This is also a good place to note that there are no real shortcuts in Thief. No warps, no waypoints, nothing. If you want to get from the south side of the city to the north side. You’ll have to navigate it all on foot. You will likely spend about 10 minutes and encounter 3 or 4 loading screens in the process.

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Aside from some of these technical annoyances, I found the game to be superb. Atmospherically, the game is fantastic. The City is brought to life and really feels like a living, breathing location. Of course the more memorable locations are presented during the story missions. During the game you will explore a mansion, a brothel, and a haunted asylum to name a few. I should also note that this game has a Mature rating for a reason. There’s a some pretty rough language and even bits of nudity. Also, the asylum is not for the faint of heart. That level is probably one of the creepiest things I have ever seen in a video game. Hats off to the developers here. Fantastic job.

People who pre-ordered the game also have access to a special in-game mission called The Bank Heist. I expect this is be available to all as downloadable content in the near future. — Note: It is quite obvious that this mission was included as part of the normal design. It feels like it was simply locked out for all but those who preordered the title. This is a practice that I have come to despise in modern games. Boo.

Once you have completed the main scenario, you are able to explore the city and replay chapters as you wish in attempt to find any unique loot that you may have uncovered. There’s also a Challenge Mode, that allows you to revisit several locations from the game. Challenge mode pits you against a clock or gives you certain objectives to conquer. There is an online leaderboard for this mode of play, and it seems that future DLC will focus around the challenge mode and not the single player experience. I’m interested to see I’m wrong on this. Time will tell.

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Difficulty: Variable–  Thief offers three basic difficulty levels. I actually recommend playing on the middle (default) setting. The easy setting actually seems to be a bit too simple. While the hardest setting will feel a little more comfortable for players of the original franchise. There’s also a custom difficulty option that allows you to tweak almost every aspect of the game’s challenges. The game also analyzes your play-style and provides you with one of three styles of play at the end of each mission, so trying to complete the game in different ways also adds some additional fun.

Story: The story behind the game is very rich and well done. If you’re fan of the original series, you may actually take away a bit more from the plot than a new player. The ending of the game seems a bit lacking unless you pay really close attention… so keep that in mind. If you blink you’ll miss it.

Originality: The game borrows heavily from the original franchise, while also integrating several elements seen in other recent Square Enix titles (optional objectives like those in Sleeping Dogs, and Player Upgrades like those from Tomb Raider). I’ve also seen several comparisons to Dishonored, but this is a game I’ve never played, so I cannot speak on this.

Soundtrack: The game for the most part focuses on realistic ambient noise. Music only plays when Garrett is detected or during other high intensity places in the game. I found the use of the game music to be quite effective and appropriate. Excellent stuff here.

Fun: A lot of people on the net have had some pretty negative things to say about the game, but I had quite a bit of fun with this title. Despite putting in nearly 40 hours in a single playthrough, I found myself wanting a more. This is always a good sign.

Graphics: This game is a good example of what the modern Unreal engine is capable of. The game has a very gritty and dark feel to it, design-wise. I found it to be very well done. Lighting and fog effects are used appropriately and look really great. Thief is a shining example of what moderns games are capable of.

Playcontrol: I played the PC version of this game, and I feel the default PC controls were very well done. I ultimately decided to use an Xbox 360 controller because of the good experience I had with it during both Tomb Raider and Sleeping Dogs. The gamepad controls were intuitive and felt natural.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Thief is a really good game but it’s far from perfect. If you’re a fan of the series, I think it might be worth paying full price for it. If not, it may be better to wait a few months for the price to drop a bit. Even if you’ve never played any of the original titles in the series, this game is a starting point and is pretty accessible to nearly anyone. Fans of stealth and exploration game will really find it especially enjoyable. If you’re going to play it, go all out – turn off the lights, light a candle and wear a hoodie. Chapter 4 is one heck of a ride.

Currently Available: Steam, PS3, PS4, 360 and Xbox OneOther Reviews In This Series:

Original Trilogy:

Thief: The Dark Project  –  Thief 2: The Metal Age  – Thief: Deadly Shadows

Reboot:

Thief

Review: Half-Life (Collection)

 

  

This a review I’ve looked forward to for a while now. Half-Life is one of those types of games that doesn’t come along very often. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I decided to lump both the game and it’s many spin-offs together in one review. For this reason, the format of this review may differ a bit from some of the others.

Half-Life was a game originally released in 1998 by a then little-known company named Valve. The game received much hype in the months leading up to its release and for the most part lived up to the high expectations. The game was developed using a modified version of the original Quake engine and despite being released in the era of Quake II, Half-Life managed to hold its own in the ever growing arena of the FPS titles.

The game focuses on the story of a research scientist named Gordon Freeman. The game begins as Freeman is riding the employee tram into his workplace. Arriving a bit late, Freeman dons his hazmat suit and prepares for another regular day at the Black Mesa Research Facility. We soon learn that Freeman is a scientist working with anomalous materials, and when what should be a semi-routine experiment goes awry, Gordon finds himself temporarily teleported into a strange alien environment. After passing out briefly, we wake up back in lab only to find all hell breaking loose. It soon becomes obvious that there was more than meets the eye when it comes to the experiments conducted at his place of business. Alien entities are swarming the facility, equipment is malfunctioning and the sheer chaos has taken hold.

What begins as a plan to escape the facility, soon turns into a fight for survival as black-ops military show up and start slaughtering all survivors. You control Gordon Freeman in his quest to beat all odds against both alien forces and a hostile military. Together with other survivors consisting of security personnel and scientists, Gordon must fight for his life.

For the most part, the game plays very similar to most other FPS games of the era. There’s a wide variety of weapons to choose from, interactive environments, friendly NPCs, and puzzles to solve. However, unlike most other games Half-Life is more about survival than simply shooting your way through everything. Many of the big boss monsters in the game cannot be defeated with normal weapons, but instead are conquered using the environment in creative ways. NPC are needed to unlock checkpoints or to help access certain areas. This was also one of the first FPS games I played that features full voice acting incorporated into the game itself. What really makes this game unique is the way the story unfolds. There are no cutscenes per se, everything is experienced through the eyes of the player. It is the level design and environment that really makes Half-Life stand above the competition.

Aside from the single player campaign, there is a Multiplayer option included in the game. But these days, “vanilla” Half-Life multiplayer is nearly non-existent. Instead, there’s a plethora of mods and other multiplayer spin off games that take most of the attention. More on this later.

Opposing Force:

The first expansion to Half-Life came with the release of Opposing Force. Instead of being a continuation of the original story, this chapter is seen through the eyes of a soldier tasked with “cleaning up the mess” that is Black Mesa. However, when his own team becomes attacked by Black-Ops, his mission shifts from following orders, to survival. The add-on brings a few new weapons as well as some multiplayer modes. But it really stands out as a single player scenario.

I never played this add-on during it’s original release, so I’m experiencing it for the first time with this review. I have to say, I really enjoyed it. I felt it was right up there with the main game in terms of quality. The “boot camp” tutorial alone is worth the purchase.

Blue Shift:

The third and final add-on for the PC is Blue Shift. In this chapter, we experience the Black Mesa events through the eyes of one of the facility’s security personnel. Arguably the weakest of the expansions, this is the scenario that brought HD textures to the game. So for this feature alone, the pack was worth obtaining.

Like most other games of the time, Half-Life and its expansions were originally released on physical discs and were available at retail locations. These days, the games are available primarily through Valve’s digital content store known as Steam. Back the days, I owned physical copies of Both Half-Life and Blue-Shift. Shortly after the release of Steam, I was able to convert these retail copies to my Steam library using the CD Key included with the game. By doing so, I was given all of the official expansions as well as several popular mods. Today, the whole suite of Half-Life games are available for a very affordable price.

Included in the Half-Life game suite are the following games or multiplayer mods:

Deathmatch Classic, Team Fortress Classic, Day of Defeat, Ricochet, and Counter-Strike.

Each of these titles started out as a mod for either Quake or Half-Life, but received enough support to be considered separate titles. Each is now available for individual purchase on Steam and still receive plenty of support and activity.

My honorable mention here is Counter-Strike. While originally starting out as a simple multiplayer mod, CS quickly blossomed into it’s own game. One that really deserves its own post and review here, but I’ve ultimately decided to hold off and review a later release of the game instead.

Counter Strike is a team based multiplayer arena. In this game you choose between either terrorist or counter-terrorist forces. Each team has a goal that must be completed during the match. The winning team is awarded with virtual money that can be used for new weapons, etc. The game became so popular, that in many circles its almost considered a virtual sport. There have been several re-releases and enhancements of the game. These I will cover separately in later reviews.

I spent many hours and late nights of my youth playing Counter Strike and it was nice to revisit this game for the sake of my playthrough and review. However, during my stint through the game this time, I found most of the players to be foreign and difficult to communicate with. Also, I encountered quite a bit of online cheating. So unless you’re playing with friends, it may be better to stick with some of the newer versions of the game.

All in all, the Half-Life suite is well worth the time of any PC gamer. It’s important to note that the game was also released on the PS2, and even included an extra very short addon by the name of Half-life: Decay, but its safe to say that the general consensus is that the PC game is the definitive version. Half-Life alone is worth the price Steam charges, but if you’re frugal, you can often get the complete Half-Life 1 collection on sale. I definitely recommend taking advantage of such a deal if you do not already own all of  these titles.

For simplicity sake, the breakdown below focuses mainly on the main scenario. However, for most part, what applies to Half-Life easily applies to the expansions as well.

Difficulty: Variable–  Half-Life offers three levels of difficulty. The game also features a special tutorial level that helps even the novice gamer get familiar with the controls. Overall, I found the difficulty levels to be appropriate. However, if you plan on tackling hard mode, be prepared for lots of saving and restoring.

Story: The story behind Half-Life is really one of its stronger points. The way the scenario is presented, and the way it is told through the eyes of the character almost make the Black Mesa Incident believable. Half-Life really helped to pave the way for storytelling through play.

Originality: Despite being a Quake-based FPS, Half-Life was a breath of fresh air to the genre. The style of play, the storytelling, and even the seemingly open-ended support of the mod-community was really something almost unheard of at the time. The legacy continues to this day.

Soundtrack: The music in the game is sparse, but occasionally there is some event-prompted background music. For the most part, the audio is environmental and very well done.

Fun: I forgot how much I enjoyed this game. Despite being a behemoth of a playthrough, I enjoyed all of the titles discussed in the review above. Of everything I played over the past couple weeks, the main scenario and Opposing Force are must have for single player FPS fans, while Counter-Strike is my recommendation for those that prefer online play.

Graphics: Upon release, the game was mixed bag graphically. The Quake engine was beginning to show its age, but this largely rectified with the release of the HD Pack that was included with Blue-Shift. This brought better details for both the weapons in the game as well as the character models. These days, the HD pack comes built in regardless of version.

Playcontrol: Half-Life is the first FPS game I played that featured the now default WSAD keyboard + mouse control scheme. This is a setting that I find to be intuitive. Regardless, the controls are still customizable, so whatever you prefer, there is no real issue. My only gripe with the game is that some of the jumps and climbing feel a little inaccurate. However, this is easy to work around.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Even if we’re only talking about the core game, Half-Life is easily a 4 star title. This doesn’t change when combined with the add-ons or other scenarios. In my opinion, this game ranks right up there with Doom and Quake as an iconic PC title. It is a must have.

Currently Available on Steam  (Half-Life is typically available for $10 alone, or $15 for the full suite. — Counter Strike is available separately.)Other Reviews In This Series:Half-Life –  Half-Life 2