Category Archives: Patreon funded

Necrovision: A subgenre No Man’s Land

This post was made possible by my backers on Patreon. Thank you! Backers currently get access to all funded posts at least one week, but sometimes several months early. You can back me here.

Help me out here, readers. I’m not entirely sure what to say about the state of shooters today. There’s no feature or setting that really defines the era. What qualifies as old-fashioned (I’m not saying “skool”, hit me all you want) varies from person to person, and we’ve far too much history of games, even post-internet, to split any genre into such broad ages. Just look at the inevitable argument about RPGs on every forum in the world for proof.

I say this because Necrovision (2009) invites comparisons to Painkiller, a game long considered a celebration of The Old Ways, and now itself a pretty old game. But even aside from the disingenuity of cutting down history so, dismissing Necrovision as just another throwback FPS would be unfair. It’s more novel than that.

A solid kicking option is absent from too many shooters.

We “Be” American soldier Simon Bukner at the Battle of Verdun, where he immediately sees everyone (surprise) slaughtered , and must fight through “German” soldiers to safety. Note that this is no period drama – I enquoted above because those soldiers are absurdly Nazi-esque, uniformly evil sadists or at best violently insane. A few buck the trend, but are invariably killed off in scripted events. It’s basically too hammy and stupid to be offensive or insulting.

Things take a turn towards Deathwatch territory as undead monsters show up to shake their manky bits around and shriek – you know what monsters are like. Naturally, it falls to Simon to re-massacre them, then push on to fight phantoms, ogres, and eventually an underworld of warring vampires and demons. And that’s all very 90s FPS, right?

Not-nazi zombies. How novel.

But while it’s related to (and developed by The Farm 51, founding members of which worked on) Painkiller, it feels less… artificial. The initial historical setting lends it more weight and structure, so it’s less like being locked in a series of fake rooms to mechanically circle strafe around and herd nasties like bloodthirsty anti-sheep (though this does become necessary later, and immediately in the Challenge Room mode, where success at dispatching monsters in specific ways adds bonus weapons to the campaign). There’s some of that from the start, but it’s often about peering down rifle sights and taking cover between potshots. A curious bridge between two styles.

Most human guns disappear early on, disappointingly.

Though the core of Necrovision is absolutely about storming messily through swathes of enemies, it plays more like an experiment in taking some Medal of Honor eggs and breaking them into a drunken Serious Sam omelette. Soldiers use cover and careful aiming pays off, even as you’re encouraged to build up your “rage” by laying into enemies with combined shooting, booting, and uh… bayon-ooting attacks. There are bosses with big health bars and secret areas to ferret out, right alongside partially regenerating health, iron sights, and soldiers’ miserable, despairing letters to serve as audiologs. The opening third in particular could be mistaken for an early CoD campaign mixed with a fleshed out Nazi Zombie mode. But it’s never serious, and the methodical xenophobic Whack-a-Mole style (which is only systematic, with none of the military cheerleading) gradually gives way to gory, over the top hack and slash crowd management as your weapons are replaced by bladed gauntlets, fireballs, stakes, and freezing attacks, and chaining enough combinations regenerates health and energy to power them, turning you into a perpetual murder machine who gains bonuses for taunting enemies.

“Hello, sign my petition?”

What’s surprisingly apt is how the protagonist’s story mirrors what the player is doing. As Simon descends into the depths his outbursts become increasingly gutteral, sadistic, and inhuman. His horror and confusion in the opening give way to fatalistic wallowing in hatred and carnage as it becomes increasingly clear that he’s no mere man with a gun, but an unstoppable force of death. The narrative never soars, but it pulls the game along well. It feels more like a journey than being told outright that you’re special for no particular reason, or it never being clear why you, a regular human, are able to tirelessly rampage through hundreds of battles. You have to earn it, you know? Starting out as a regular guy makes the power you gain more appreciable, and to players who are otherwise left cold by games like Painkiller, serves as a comfortable introduction rather than dropping them in and just assuming constant carnage is enough of a draw on its own.

While it might prove unpopular to say it, that latter point has always stuck for me. I don’t like games based around combo attacks or building chains. I find it distracting and proscriptive. But with Necrovision, once I adjust to its strange pace and style, I find the combos coming naturally, because they tend to correspond with useful attacks anyway. Jabbing an enemy with the rifle’s bayonet, then papping a bullet in while they’re recoiling? That’s not just a fancy combo move; it’s a practical way to use the weapon.

Ooh, it’s a skaven! KILL IT WITHOUT MERCY.

That’s not to say it’s outstanding. There are rough edges and confusing plot points, and while Simon’s earnest, likable Southern delivery is fitting more often than not, much of the voice acting is poor (although in the case of the Not-zi soldiers, this works in its favour as they’re more cartoon villains than anything resembling real victims of war). Cut scenes have a bizarre habit of repeating a conversation with slight variation, sometimes not precisely reflecting events in-game, and worse, for a game dependent on melee attacks, there are collision detection issues with some enemy/attack pairings, and one or two misaligned sights.

“Okay girls, let’s really throw into that degagĂ©, and… er, FOOLISH MORTAL!”

This is hard to excuse, particularly in the Challenge Mode, as are the controls, which are a little uncomfortable, and at times reluctant to respond, an effect which is exacerbated by the way many weapons are grouped together under one button – switching from a shotgun to a flamethrower requires cycling through every weapon in between for no good reason. This becomes a major source of frustration late on, when most of the weapons look very similar.

But none of this is ever distracting enough to ruin the experience, and Simon’s oddly inconsistent attitude – one minute he’s recoiling at the horrors of war, the next he’s snarling “death and death and death and DEATH!” or flippantly mouthing off to immortal spirits – epitomises the reason Necrovision feels like more than either a themed, demi-realistic shooting gallery or a tongue-in-cheek arena shooter: its tone.

Cut scenes are narrated stills, not unlike the early Thief games.

In an age where neither po-faced military shooters nor campy arena larks, not to mention strongly themed genre pieces are particularly dominant, Necrovision bears the strange distinction of being very secure in its identity. It’s neither serious nor flippant, and it’s simultaneously grim and campy. Somehow, the devs captured a real sense of horror and doom without sacrificing the tongue-in-cheek humour or destructive goresplosion fun of yer Bullet Sams and yer Serious Storms. Tonally it should be a mess, but it’s dark enough to be atmospheric, and exactly silly enough to be fun. It’s all a bit nebulous, and purist fans of either subgenre may find that it flatters itself with contrarieties of pleasure, but Necrovision offers a valiant attempt at occupying a seldom-breached middle ground.

“High fi-oops! Shit, sorry. Are you alright?”

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I Shot the Sheriff: A Diary of Robin Hood

This post was made possible by my backers on Patreon. Thank you! Backers currently get access to all funded posts one week early. This is a first for me, so please bear with me while I figure out how it’s all going to work. You can back me here.

The Adventures of Robin Hood is a curious little open world adventure game from Millennium. Following my retrospective of it, I thought a diary would be in order. So, away we go!

Day One

Day was going well, until my peasants stopped merrily dancing for my amusement and fled as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham chucked me out of my own castle.

I immediately took drastic action.

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The Adventures of Robin Hood

This post was made possible by my backers on Patreon. Thank you! Backers currently get access to all funded posts one week early. This is a first for me, so please bear with me while I figure out how it’s all going to work. You can back me here.

Still less wooden than Costner.

“Explain why Robin Hood is one of the most enduring European legends, yet most of the Western world is vehemently opposed to communism.”

Thus asked a friend of me in school, and I reply: “Because Robin Hood was a bumbling cretin who robbed a minstrel, drank nine pints of ale, then accidentally shot Maid Marian and got built into a wall.”

Your confusion indicates that you have not played Millennium Interactive’s adventure game, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Exposition Jim had a problem, and everybody knew it.

Released in 1991 on the PC and Amiga (identical, but the latter version, as usual, has better sound. Less usually, the difference here isn’t vast), it was, like almost all games I played on the Amiga, pirated, and thus there was no manual. I’ve no idea to this day whether the manual gave much away. I hope it didn’t, because figuring out all the hidden secrets of this game was half the fun. The other half is, quite simply, playing with it, in the traditional, much-neglected sense of simply mucking around. It’s a non-linear adventure with RPG elements and AI teammates. That’s a hell of a lot of design to cram onto a single floppy disk.

You are Robin of Loxley castle, and you begin by cavorting with your happy people in a merry courtyard dance. No, really. It’s a nice little tune. Then the sheriff pops up, accompanied by armed guards, and introduces himself. He claims he’s the rightful owner of the castle, and demands that you leave. You refuse, of course, and in a genuinely funny moment, all your people abandon you. They just plain walk away. No conniving uprising while you’re away on a crusade here. No defiant, roaring Brian Blessed nor Alan Rickman drawling a sinister ultimatum. The great folk hero loses everything when some dude just strolls in and tells him to piss off. And he does.

True companions.

“Norman swine!”, shouts Robin, once the guards are safely out of earshot, “You’ve not seen the last of me!”. Then he walks out of the castle and sits on the grass. And that’s his plan. To sit there, in plain sight of his usurpers, moping.

This sets the tone, and reveals a defining feature of the game: its sense of humour. It’s a great aversion of the usual pattern, of the mewling, useless peasants waiting and begging for the Heroic Hero to save them. Here, Robin is a dumbass and the people are cowardly, venal, needlessly sarcastic gits. The only thing they do faster than fleeing or betraying you is slagging you off, shouting abuse at the very sight of you. It’s hard not to root for the Sheriff a little.

You control Robin directly by clicking on arrows (or keyboard shortcuts, which make it more natural and comfortable than you’d think) or directly on the map, and less directly via a string of icons, in typical adventure game fashion. Rather than a string of static screens, the world is cut up into more granular isometric squares that scroll relative to you, giving a stronger feeling of control. There are secret items too, which open up extra abilities ranging from convenient to game-altering, and you’d be ruining the fun if you used the internet to find them.

There’s room for 7 graves. It should be enough, but, well.

It’s pleasant on the senses, despite the jerky animations, with limited but satisfactory sound effects, and occasional event music, such as for the druid who tends a shrine to Herne the Hunter (which doubles as the place for NPCs to enter the world, replacing the dead) and gives out cryptic advice to a curiously disturbing tune. Character models are tiny but distinctive, and go about their routines in a way that puts many later games to shame. Even Robin himself might get into a micro-adventure all on his own if you sit back and relax.

Villagers hunt and forage, guards patrol and chase criminals. The sheriff will occasionally pop out to outlaw something, unless you’ve murdered the guards, at which point he’ll complain about how unreliable they are. The monks will gradually build an entire monastery, stopping only to collect and bury bodies, complete with a funeral service and hymn (“Ashes to ashes, mumble to mumble”). Once or twice, I’ve been captured by a Norman after a prolonged chase, only for him to lie down and die of exhaustion. Better still are the beggars (ordinary villagers with no money – possibly because you robbed them) who gladly accept your charity, then walk around in a circle, sit down, and continue begging. In another game I’d call this a bug.

Our hero.

So why should you help these jerks? Well, fine. Don’t, then. Become a villain instead, robbing and killing and harassing the villagers, guards, and clergy alike. There’s no reason you can’t suck up to the guards, or the sheriff – do it while he’s trying to issue a proclamation for maximum passive-aggressiveness. Or you could wander into the inn for a lovely pint, or try to befriend a deer and watch as Robin runs after them like an eejit, eager to be within earshot for any sign of a response. It could easily be retitled “Robin makes a complete div of himself”, and it pulls this off without raising ire – the people are too funny and Robin too lovably gormless. If he’s not being bullied by the Norman guards or shouting “There is a smell of burning in the air” while staring directly at a bonfire, he’s being threatened by his own merry men, or having robberies thwarted when a victim simply runs away.

The only villainous thing the Sheriff actually does.

Disappointingly, swordfights aren’t much use. The villains are at least as strong as you, so your health will usually give out first unless they’re already exhausted from other fights. That only happens if they’ve just killed one of your merry men, so your main option is to assassinate people with the bow and peg it. Your men can’t do that, so their excursions – you can order them to rob and kill and donate – will often end in either death or capture, which means swift execution unless you happen to be nearby. It means there’s not much use to the ‘attack’ icon, but it does, on balance, contribute to the sense that Robin is less a dashing hero than a bungling, faintly Clouseau-esque figure of fun.

Each season brings new graphics and minute changes to AI.

Naturally, your goal is to kill the sheriff and retake the castle, which it’s possible to do in about 5 minutes by shooting him and sprinting inside before the guards realise what’s happened (there’s often a deadpan pause for a moment when you do something unexpected. Considering how little is scripted, it has remarkable comic timing). Some might complain that they can “beat” the game (urgh, how have we allowed that dreadful phrase to take over?) so soon, but more fool them for trying to win at Lego.

Besides, there’s another step first, unless you want the bad ending, of which there are several. Or more precisely, multiple small variations on two endings, decided based on what friends you’ve made, and where you stand on one of three character scales the game tracks. The other two are mostly for flavour, such as Optimism v Pessimism determining whether an idling Robin will wander off for some target practice, or sit around wailing “Oh woe is me!”. NPCs also have stats, which determine how they treat you (near universal contempt to start with).

Aelfstan the druid is metal. He scared me as a child.

This isn’t a game for winning, it’s a game to be poked around with. It’s a sandbox, really, from long before the concept had a name. And a roguelike too, thanks to the PC version’s save system. It’s playable today via dosbox, although apparently not on sale. If there’s an obstacle it’s the simple animation and sometimes slow pace, and a lack of scripted events after the first few seasons, but those are petty complaints. The Adventures of Robin Hood is a small, simple game brimming with detail and lively, imaginative humour that’s aged far better than its humble production values suggest.

Smooth like brick.

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