Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
August 2006

Making the Game for the Game's Sake

It's pretty easy to see with some games that the only motivation for its existence is to ride the wave of popularity that has come with whatever movie, TV show, or athlete has reached teens' interest. With this motivation, it really shouldn't come as any surprise that the game is going to be cool only until you actually try to play it.

Really, who actually expected to take Shaq-Fu home to their SNES and have a quality interactive experience? Or more recently, what about Da Vinci Code, the game based on the movie based on the book? As fun as the book was, this reproduction process is like making a bad photocopy of a bad photocopy of your Mona Lisa postcard… it just isn't going to be pretty.

Yet these games continue to get made and somehow they make up a huge portion of the games that get produced and sold (though probably a much smaller proportion of the games that get used more than once). The reason isn't too difficult to figure out: it all comes down to the almighty dollar. Seeing the hordes of fans caught up in a frenzy over whatever hits the screens has publishers rushing into development to get something--anything--out there to the shelves.

Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that every game based on a popular movie, TV show or persona is going to be completely worthless. Just most of them. There are probably some decent games that come from this process and maybe even some downright good ones… though I really can't think of any. (OK, on further thought, LEGO Star Wars was embarrassingly awesome).

Even Amazing Books Don't Guarantee Gaming Goodness

So, with this sort of background, I think it was understandable that I picked up The Lord of The Rings: The Battle For Middle Earth 2 with some apprehension. This PC and Xbox fantasy-strategy title came out in the spring, but it took the summer gaming doldrums mixed with a bit of fan-based curiosity to bring me to the checkout counter with it. While I can't recount Dwarven genealogies and couldn't speak Elvish to save my life, I still loved the books and thoroughly enjoyed the movies. This love of the LOTR series combined with the good things I had heard about LOTRBME2 (Is an acronym with eight characters still an acronym?) was enough to get me to try it out.

The result? Well, if you haven't played any complex strategy games, you would probably think the tactics in BME2 were pretty good. If you've never played a game with an interesting story, you may think the plot strands in BME2 are pretty riveting. Sadly, I've played a lot of great strategy games and seen excellent storylines in all kinds of games, which left me feeling pretty bland about this Lord of the Rings product.

The Battle For Middle Earth 2 is arranged like just about every strategy game: you have resources to collect which allow you to build up buildings and units which you then send forth to crush your foes. My real frustration with the game comes from its hinting at greatness but falling short every time.

Idiotic AI will never break through Helm's Deep!
For example, take the War of the Rings mode. This option allows you to play on a Risk-like board where you spread out to control various regions of Middle Earth which give you resources and armies that you can then use in battle to defend or attack new provinces. Pretty cool, right? Almost. Unfortunately for the player, every time you ever go to a province you have to start just about from scratch. Even though you may have created an amazing army while defending Helms Deep, next time a battle is fought there you will be back to your couple of lowly peasants. The expansion pack due out for the holidays is apparently going to fix this, but it seems a pretty lazy, and perhaps even devious, omission.

War of the Rings: An endless ring of build, battle, repeat.
Another problem I had with the game was the lack of scale. Peter Jackson's movies did a great job of showing ridiculously huge battles with little hobbits, massive war elephants, and everything in between all on the battlefield at once. BME2 completely fails in this department, locking the player down with a narrow point of view (even at the maximum) and attempting to imitate scale by giving the player groups of units even though they are produced as and act as one. Middle Earth was not meant to be seen from a shallow perspective. Maybe the movies spoiled it for us, but I was disappointed by the Frodian scale.

Despite the shortcomings, the game turned out pretty well for a popularity milker. In the end, I got to reenact Helms Deep and even ransack the Shire, so it can't be all bad. If there would have been more emphasis on "How can we make a good game" and less on "How can we better incorporate our Orlando Bloom quotes," this could have been a winner.

One to Look Out For

For a complete change in direction, have a look at a lesser known release, Darkstar One. Darkstar One is a recently-released space combat/adventure game that has proven to be surprisingly enjoyable. Now, if you haven't seen this game on shelves, don't be surprised; just getting a hold of this game proved to be a challenge. The best way to get it is probably through someplace like Amazon. As a smaller PC-only release, it could be a while before it trickles down to EBGames and other game stores.

When I was a kid, we got a CD that contained Ultima VI and Wing Commander--my first "real" PC games. I have played a lot of Ultima products since those days but my days of dogfighting through space in Wing Commander were only fond memories… until Darkstar One.

Darkstar One has all of the Top-Gun dogfights, futuristic weapons and save humanity missions that Wing Commander did but adds a fresh variety of ship configurations and a decent story. This makes for a pretty complete and fun package that although a little repetitive, is extremely fun and addictive.

A typical day for you, Kayron Jarvis, entails escorting cargo ships, shipping goods between trade stations, or heating things up with bounty hunts. Fulfilling these side tasks will get you the resources to upgrade your ship, which is essential as you progress along the story to find out what happened to your late father.

You'll spend a lot of time checking in at trade stations like this.
It doesn't take much to dominate a genre that only gets notable releases every few years, but Darkstar One is easy enough to pick up that just about any gamer would enjoy the flight. There is a demo available for download, but if you really want to experience the full range of upgrades (including mountable automatic turrets), you'll have to get the full version.

Darkstar One doesn't have the hype and publicity that pop-licensed games get but it succeeds because it focuses on being enjoyable. It certainly has its faults and can get boring after a while (space tends to be a pretty lonely place), but it gave me the chance to relive my ace days in Wing Commander, for which I'm grateful.

Next time you are looking at games on the shelf, remember: just because you liked the book or think the celebrity endorser is cute doesn't mean the game is going to be worth playing. Do yourself a favor and do a bit of research first; with our powers combined perhaps we can save our planet from pop-inspired rubbish.

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