Mar 202011

A month or two ago, I had a feature telling you what games that you should play this year in case the world ends. It looks like there’s still time to do that, so you should hop to it. However, in retrospect, there are a couple of problems with the post. First of all, it was way too fun to do just once a year. Secondly, in a post describing eight different games, each game only got a couple of paragraphs, and I could write so much more. With that in mind, I’m starting a new, semi-regular (and of course, award-winning) series to talk about great games from the past. You’re welcome to disagree with these assessments if you like; that just means you’re completely wrong. But enough about your shortcomings; let’s move instead to our first game: the classic computer RPG Wasteland.

The world of Wasteland, aerial view. Note: Superman-crippling red sun not included.

One of the most awesome game covers in history. If they'd sold a poster of this, you had best believe it would be framed on my wall right now.

Maybe you’ve heard of Wasteland; maybe not. But if you’ve ever enjoyed a little game series known as Fallout (including the earlier PC games or modern incarnations like Fallout 3 or New Vegas), then you owe a thanks to its progenitor, this game. Released in 1988 for home computers by Interplay (who would go on to publish Fallout 1 and 2), Wasteland set the bar for radioactive apocalyptic RPGs, as well as establishing several conventions in the Fallout universe. Wasteland didn’t have the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats system, per se (though it came close.) However, let’s be clear: Wasteland doesn’t really play anything like Fallout and you’ll only see the barest of references to anything that would later appear in the Fallout series.

Wasteland puts you in the role of a unit of the group known as Desert Rangers, and your objective is to explore the areas of the southwest desert, particularly Nevada and Arizona. You’ll pass through a number of towns and cities, each containing different people to interact with and factions to aid or turn against. As expected in a post-nuclear world, there are plenty of hostiles to take on, from generally vicious people to mutated creatures and on to futuristic death machines. Achieve enough experience and you can radio in to Ranger Headquarters for a promotion up through a bevy of military ranks, each granting additional stats.

Yes, it's the future. With nuclear weapons, laser rifles and... Catapults.

Exploration in Wasteland takes place in a top-down perspective, although people are turned perpendicular as if they were lying on the ground. Veterans of earlier Ultima games will feel at home here, except that you don’t have to worry about pesky things like hunger and thirst. Your character is a badass ranger; you live off the land. That doesn’t mean you’re immune to the elements. You still need to carry around some basic equipment–every party member has to have a canteen or they’ll suffer heat damage when passing through harsh areas, and radioactive sections can be a death sentence if you cross them. There are two statuses for radiation poisoning in Wasteland: you’ve got it or you don’t, and you don’t want to have it, since your character stops healing wounds and won’t recover from being knocked unconscious. None of the increasing radiation you would see in Fallout.

The only way to get rid of radiation poisoning, or to recover from serious wounds that your team medic or doctor can’t handle, is to go to someplace where you can pay for, er, “professional” medical care.

Normally, you'd go to a doctor not covered in someone else's blood, but this is the Wasteland, son. You're a beggar, not a chooser.

Don’t want to have to enlist the help of  a back-alley doctor? Then stop getting your butt kicked in combat. For that, you’ll want to make sure your characters are leveled up in a variety of weapons–ranging from combat knives and 9mm pistols to high-end energy weapons like the mighty proton axe and meson cannon. You’ll wear armor to protect yourself, starting with leather jackets and working your way up to power armor (no need for special training like in Fallout, however.) Radiation suits provide decent combat protection, but take note that they actually provide no defense against radiation. If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter a semi-glitched loot bag in the game which contains game-breakingly powerful loot like the Red Ryder and “Name AC” armor.

If you’re not careful, however, you’ll end up with a character in bad shape, in the middle of the desert. When that happens, the best you can hope for is to try and make it to a friendly town before the worst happens. Wasteland’s manner of handling injuries and death is both interesting and harsh. Unless you’re radioactive, hit points slowly recover over time and short of paying up a doctor, there’s nothing that can speed it up. Any time your character drops to 0 hit points (or a little bit below), they’re simply unconscious; enemies will stop attacking them (even if the entire party is knocked out) and they’ll eventually wake up with 1 hp. If the attack that put them under is strong enough, however, it will knock them to the next condition down: serious. At this point, unless one of your team members can use a skill to stabilize them, the affected character will begin losing hit points as time goes on. Their condition will worsen unless you make it to a real doctor… and the desert can be a large place to try and cross. If you fail to get there in time, the character is gone, toast. But along the way, you’ll endure the traumatic experience of watching their condition degenerate from serious to critical, then to mortal and eventually comatose, before their condition just becomes a skull, indicating death.

If this happens to any characters, you can recreate them (starting at first level), but your entire party will be wiped out any time they’re all reduced to serious condition or less, or even just knocked out while radioactive. At that point, you get reclaimed by the Wasteland, and you’ll see this:

Oh, you thought you might get resurrected at a temple or something? Nope, you're dead. Game over, man.

About now, unless you’ve pulled your floppy disc out or made a backup file along the way, your game is finished. Yes, Wasteland was one of those games that operates off the “Ironman” gaming prinicple. There are no game saves here. You get one game (tracked manually on the copies of game discs you make when you first start playing) and if you blow it, that’s it. This adds to what makes Wasteland such a great game after all these years: atmosphere and environment. You feel the desolation of moving through a ruined world as you pass irradiated mountains and explore crumbling buildings, scavenging for ammunition or anything you can sell for money used in turn to buy things to help keep you alive. You’ll have to practice inventory management: just as you wouldn’t actually trek through the desert carrying five thousand mimigun rounds (sorry, Fallout 3, I love you, but you know it’s true), you can only carry a limited number of items here. And you never really make friends, just people who will choose not to attack you. NPCs, far from being the puppets in other games, may actually refuse orders, especially if you’re trying to strip them of equipment.

Recognizing that the system limits of the time made it difficult at best to deliver graphical gameplay and a gripping narrative, Wasteland came with a booklet that contained numerous paragraphs of text (more than the discs it shipped with could handle) which the game would reference occasionally. While this also served as a form of copy protection (some passwords needed to continue could only be found in the book), it ultimately allowed for deeper storytelling.

In the end, Wasteland delivers a compelling experience. The look of the game won’t blow you away and, at least on the C64 where I played it, there’s no music, but you’ll nevertheless find yourself sucked in for hours, sitting in the cold of your parent’s basement, hands numb, as you attempt to make it past that one group of Slicerdicers and Octotrons that appeared as you left the building, and… Well, while you likely won’t relive any of my socially-inept fourteen-hour playing sessions, you’ll likely leave fulfilled. Wasteland isn’t available for download through any legitimate source (Good Old Games doesn’t have it yet), but you can’t find it in lots of other places and you’ll only need to install an old-PC emulator like DOSBox to make it work.

Mar 172011

As any modern video gamer with a connection to the internet (which, I guess, would be just about all of them) can tell you, digital distribution is here to stay. A great deal of them would even say that it is inevitably the way of the future. But should it be? Today we’ll explore that in another installment of our award-winning series 64 Bits Good, 8 Bits Better.

Note: This post refers solely to pure digital distribution of games and game-modifying material; physically distributed games can still suffer from things such as digital rights management, which I’m not overlooking, but’s a post for another day.

The benefits of digital distribution [DD] are pretty apparent: easy access to games, demos, add-ons, patches and the like. Your disc can’t break or scratch because there’s no disc to break (also good for the environment.) Forgot to bring the game with you? You might be able to re-download it elsewhere. Stuff your computer to the gills with whatever your relevant gaming interest is and you might not even need to get up to change out whatever’s in the drive. When you take all these into consideration, it’s no wonder DD has become such a widely-adopted medium. It makes one wonder how we ever got along with floppy disks, cartridges and CDs.

But we did get by, and quite handily as a matter of fact, for more than two decades before DD achieved mainstream popularity. I’m not talking about shareware in the mid-90s that you could download and then activate fully for $10 or $15. I’m talking about what we see now: downloadable full-priced games (at least up to $40, which is the most I’ve seen but wouldn’t be surprised to find higher costs out there) and downloadable add-ons that in their totality can meet or exceed the cost of a $50 store-bought game. The gaming industry and we as gamers got by without these we had to. The quality of games had to be more robust as a result. In the days before you could patch games, they had to actually work as intended; you couldn’t afford to ship something that had critical, game-breaking (and sometimes system-breaking) bugs just knowing that you would push out a patch on release day. Mind you, some games did still release that way, but they were far fewer than what we see today. One can claim that the complexity of today’s games demand bugs and that may be true, but it’s also apparent that the ability to patch games is a de facto standard and crutch of the modern developer.

DD can also rob you of value in many cases. There have been multiple cases of companies who shipped a game  with extra content already included on the disc and just waiting to be activated with the purchase or application of a special code. This obviously would not have flown in the days where you couldn’t download a 50KB file that magically unlocks megabytes of gameplay. I totally disagree with this practice, myself; thankfully, I have yet to be burned by it. Likewise, it is not at all unusual now for companies to create a portion of the game during development and simply omit it from the final game, with the intention of putting it out as downloadable content [DLC] afterwards. To my way of thinking, if you make it in the course of developing the game, it should go with the game; only items created after the game’s development cycle go in an add-on or the sequel. That’s not to say I haven’t bought DLC that might have been made during a game’s development. I own all the expansion DLCs for Fallout 3, for instance, and there’s every possibility that one of them was completed during the game’s original development cycle. DLC can add a lot of value to games, but it’s also easily abused to squeeze a little more out of the consumer. True, games are certainly underpriced considering the nature of inflation, but if you’re going to set a price for games, set a price and be done with it, don’t try to surreptitiously eke out more from people.

However, despite these statements, my biggest problem with DD comes not from add-ons or decreased game-testing quality; it’s the matter of control. If you purchase a DD game, then it’s an automatic given that you have internet access; and companies can not only require you to keep that access, but they can use it against your games. Take this, one of many examples where Steam users’ entire accounts have been disabled over a single failed payment on the purchase of a new game. Let that sink in for a moment: an account full of legitimately purchased games (in this case, $500 worth, but I’ve seen up to $1000 claimed) can be disabled, cutting off access to all of those games, if you try to purchase a single new game and, say, a problem with PayPal causes a payment to reject. And it’s a common occurrence. Try a Google search for disabled steam account to see how common. Clearly it’s not enough of a headache to stop people from using Steam, but that doesn’t make it right.

In this well-publicized case, a user who made the disparaging remark of “Have you sold your souls to the EA devil?” on a Bioware forum got reported by someone. Bioware, acting under Electronic Arts’ terms of service, banned his forum/social account. This not only cut him off from DLC purchased legitimately in the past (which can, in turn, prevent games like the original Dragon Age from even playing), but it prevented him from installing and playing a brand new purchased copy of Dragon Age II.

In the interests of disclosure and avoiding sensationalism, this matter did ultimately get resolved according to EA and the person’s account has been reinstated, but just the ability to disable access to existing games over a forum infraction is control at some of its worst, and EA’s terms, which indicate they can rescind your license to play their games at any time for any reason are not unheard of elsewhere. Could you imagine if iTunes required you to log in every day before you could listen to music and they could use that connection time to revoke your right to listen to songs? That would be considered crazy behavior, and those songs cost only 99 cents, not upwards of $50. If Amazon could suddenly take books off of your Kindle, without a refund, just because, what do you think the reaction would be? (Hint: not good, even when the book’s cost is refunded.)

In addition, DD games are typically not transferrable. DLC that I buy on my 360 is tied to that console and my gamer ID; anyone can play it on that console or I can redownload it and play it elsewhere (as long as I’m online), but nothing more–and that’s pretty lenient terms in the industry. I often loan games to our friends Steve and Steph when they would otherwise be gathering dust on a shelf and this works out well. That won’t happen with digital games.

Part of non-transferrability is that you can’t re-sell DD games, either. That part doesn’t affect me because I don’t get rid of any games, ever, even terrible ones like Stretch Panic or games I’ll never play again like Final Fantasy XI Online, but there’s an entire used game industry out there for those who would like to get something back monetarily from their game purchases, as well as people who try to do it on the side. Your ability (I won’t go so far as to call it a right) to trade or sell them is annihilated. Don’t expect this to change, because eliminating used game sales is something that game developers have wanted to do for decades. Disabling basic features (such as online play) that can only be activated with new copies, but can be purchased for additional costs if your copy of a game is used, is one such method that makes their desire to see this through clear.

Finally, remember that any game which requires connection to a company for verification has a limited lifespan. It’s unlikely that Steam, a multi-billion-dollar company, is going away anytime soon. But if it did, so might your games. If you have to be authenticated on an Electronic Arts server to play a game, and that server gets disconnected, then your game isn’t playable; this is one way of ensuring you buy the next game they want sell instead of suffering a Starcraft-ism where one game gets played for a decade or more. It’s already done on a regular basis to discontinue the servers that support online play, rendering the most popular features of many games obsolete. I can pop in my cartridge of River City Ransom and do some team-up brawling any time, but you won’t be able to play Team Fortress 2 forever.

To be fair, DD isn’t evil–it’s a method of delivery and the restrictions and actions taken around it by companies are what can be unpalatable. For an example of how DD can be done well, check out GOG (Good Old Games), a site offering over 240 past games for download at a reasonable price without DRM or other arbitrary restrictions, and often with extras such as maps and soundtracks thrown in. Would that kind of treatment work for new games? Possibly not — certainly the lack of protection would make it easier to pirate games, but history has proven that anyone who really wants to pirate games is going to do so. Heck, I did it back in the day with Fast Hack’em on my Commodore, and that was before the internet told anyone how to get anything they wanted for free. But GOG shows that if you treat your customers with respect, you’ll get respect, and it shows that DD doesn’t have to stand for Draconian Downloading.

Make no bones, digital distribution isn’t going anywhere, but it doesn’t have to remain as it is right now. It likely will remain as it is or even get worse until gamers say otherwise, however. Until that day, I’ll continue to weigh up each transaction to determine if I’m really getting what I want to pay for–and I recommend that as consumers you do the same.