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Monday, August 8, 2022

Nox

Westwood Studios was a pretty big name in the late '80s and most of the '90s with several well-received PC titles to their name - Eye of the Beholder, Command & Conquer, Toonstruck and Blade Runner probably being their best-known ones.  Nox was their attempt at an isometric action-RPG in the vein of Diablo, and a pretty inventive one for its time.  Gameplay is relatively fast-paced as movement isn't rigidly restricted to a grid, you can push around objects to safely trigger traps or find hidden passages, some walls can be broken down with your weapons to reveal secrets, and you can even jump to make a quick escape from groups of enemies or avoid ground-based hazards.  The game sports a relatively innovative "truesight" mechanic which dynamically blacks out portions of the map that are out of the character's line of sight, requiring you to approach dangerous angles with a bit more caution.  You get a quickbar that can store several pages of five spells or items each, cutting down on cumbersome inventory management and spell preparation during tense moments.  You also get a choice of three classes - Warriors can wield almost any weapon and heavy armor, but no magic or bows, Wizards have comparatively limited equipment choices and low health but can use any spells, and conjurers fall somewhere in the middle, mostly focusing on summoning or subjugating monsters to aid them in battle.  Multiplayer is also more varied than Diablo's, and in fact has game modes more reminiscent of a first person shooter - deathmatch, capture the flag, king of the hill, and so forth.  All good stuff; however, Nox was released only a few months before Diablo II, which eclipsed it in popularity almost immediately and continues to have a strong following even today.  Nox's fame was very short-lived in comparison, but it still enjoyed a fair bit of fame in its time thanks to a promotional tour by Westwood, which allowed visitors to play the game before it launched and provide feedback, as well as a company-sanctioned post-launch competitive tournament that allowed players to compete against one another, with top prize being a new gaming computer.  Sadly, not long after its multiplayer-centered 1.2 patch launched, rights for the game were lost to Electronic Arts, who officially ended its support cycle, canceled a planned sequel and closed down the official multiplayer servers, effectively capping off its legacy for good.  A mostly forgotten game these days outside of its small but dedicated community, but if you enjoy isometric action-RPGs of this type, it's one that's worth a go.


Developer: Westwood Pacific
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform: PC
Released: 2000

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Wizards & Warriors

Not to be confused with the similarly-named trilogy of NES action-platformer games, Wizards & Warriors on PC is a game by David W. Bradley, who made his name working on Wizardry 5, 6 and 7.  During 8's protracted development, however, he had a falling out with Sir-Tech and left the company, enjoying a brief stint with Origin Systems (and releasing Cybermage: Darklight Awakening) before founding his own company, Heuristic Park.  Wizards & Warriors is seemingly his attempt to carry on in the tradition of the Wizardry series - a traditional dungeon crawling experience with multiple races, the four basic RPG job classes (Cleric, Wizard, Thief and Fighter) that can eventually upgrade into powerful 'prestige classes', and plenty of randomized loot and respawning monsters to fight, but gameplay-wise it's changed up a fair bit from its inspiration.  In fact, it actually plays a bit closer to Might and Magic 6-8 than any of the classic Wizardries, operating in real-time and with a first-person, full-3D viewpoint, though everything you do is still governed by dice rolls.  It's a very awkwardly balanced experience, too - enemy spawns seem to be highly random, often appearing only one or two at a time or dropping huge groups on you with no forewarning whatsoever, leveling takes ages as quests and monsters give a piddly amount of experience each, stat gains from levels are randomized (which can put you at a serious disadvantage later on), and ranged weapons and "diplomacy skills" have no practical use that I could find.  Seemingly taking some cues from Daggerfall, you can also undertake semi-randomized quests at pubs and guilds and purchase horses to ride for slightly more movement speed, though the latter is largely a waste of money - you don't go much faster than you do on foot, and you can easily outrun nearly every monster in the game without a horse anyway.  Basically, Wizards & Warriors is a game that might have garnered a bit of a following had it come out in the early '90s, but by the year 2000 its design sensibilities were looking seriously dated compared to the likes of competing franchises like Baldur's Gate, Might and Magic, Jagged Alliance, Deus Ex and Diablo.  Wizardry 8's release, despite being over a year after W&W's, only further doomed it to obscurity, as it married classic dungeon crawling and new elements together in a well-polished, immaculately executed conclusion to the series.  Heuristic Park would take one more crack at an old-style dungeon crawl with 2005's Dungeon Lords, but being released in a very rough, unfinished state led to their downfall and the closure of David W. Bradley's career as a game developer.


Developer: Heuristic Park
Publisher: Activision
Platform: PC
Released: 2000

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Mega Man Legends 2

The second entry in the Mega Man Legends series followed the series' usual trends, keeping the core gameplay relatively intact but adding some improvements and general polish to try and make a more balanced game overall.  But does Mega Man Legends 2 succeed in being a more satisfying game experience, or does it spoil the broth?

Mega Man Legends wasn't a success for Capcom, being met with relatively average reviews and mediocre sales, but it still found a following among enthusiasts of Zelda-likes as well as long-time Mega Man fans.  This prompted Capcom to try their luck at a spinoff game starring the series' breakout antihero, Tron Bonne, and later a followup to the first game.  While both games met with more positive reviews, they still didn't do particularly well in terms of sales, which ended up pushing the franchise into a long dormancy that continues today.

Something you'll notice right away is that Mega Man Legends 2 carries on the polished presentation of the original, with quite a lot of voice-acted cutscenes, expressive characters and an intriguing storyline building up to a large mystery.  The anime-like aesthetic returns, though now with more polished models and far less jagged edges and ugly, stretched textures.  Several music tracks return from the original game in addition to numerous new ones (replacing the conspicuous absent noise in most of the original game's dungeons), and all of them sound quite good; I especially like how each major area in the game has a leitmotif that carries between all the songs you'll hear there.  Even most of the same voice cast from the original game returns here, with the baffling exception of Mega Man having a new actor; he's not a bad actor or anything, but it's a bit jarring if you're coming straight in from the first game.  Load times have also been tightened up considerably, resulting in transitions between areas and save screens being much smoother than the original game. 

The gameplay remains mostly the same, retaining the same awkward "tank control" movement and rotation even if you use the analog stick, but some improvements are made nonetheless.  Mega Man's movement is a bit sharper now, with less noticeable delay between pressing a direction and moving, and you can actually move while locked on to enemies now, making combat more fluid (and your sub-weapons considerably more useful).  This does introduce a pretty well-known bug, though - if you lock on to an enemy, hold down the fire button and tap Up on the D-pad, you'll reset your gun's cooldown and fire again immediately as soon as your stepping animation stops, effectively letting you fire as quickly as you can tap the Up button and rendering the Rapid and Energy stats mostly irrelevant.  They've also done away with the redundant 'shield' system from the first game; you no longer have to worry about it breaking mid-fight and taking more damage from subsequent attacks until you get it repaired.

Special weapons have seen some significant overhaul too.  While you can still only equip one at a time, enemies will occasionally drop powerups that refill their energy, so you don't have to get through an entire dungeon on one bar.  Or rather, two bars, as the game implements a mechanic where you can only use a weapon so much at a time, draining the green bar on the left half of the gauge; once you stop firing, it will draw from the larger blue bar to refill it.  As mentioned above, most weapons now also work in tandem with the lock-on, making you less likely to waste shots, although many of the stronger ones still plant you in place when you fire them.  Fitting the larger scale of the game, weapons generally cost much more to upgrade now, with some reaching well into the millions.  On the other hand, you have the opportunity to take timed trials to upgrade your Digger License, which makes the enemies in the game tougher but also causes them to drop more Zenny, in effect letting you adjust the game's difficulty and risk/reward ratio to your liking.  

As mentioned above, Mega Man Legends is a considerably bigger game than its predecessor, having you explore numerous islands across the world, discover their secrets and undertake a number of optional side-quests throughout.  Dungeons are considerably more varied and hazardous too, with plenty of traps, more aggressive enemies and a couple of irritating 'status effects' you can be inflicted with; fire is a particularly bad one as it will continuously drain your health for upwards of thirty seconds, and there doesn't seem to be any way to put it out early (not even the otherwise-useless fire extinguisher weapon used to clear the intro mission, or taking a cue from Ocarina of Time and letting you roll to put the flames out).  You can also be 'paralyzed' by electrified floors, greatly slowing your movement speed and jump height and making it very difficult to avoid enemy attacks until it wears off (which also takes an irritatingly long time).  On the other hand, you do get a greater variety of armor pieces this time; some of which help with avoiding status effects like these (though in the case of fire, not until after you've gone through the game's first major dungeon and probably been ignited several times throughout).  Seemingly taking a cue from Zelda, you can access consoles in major ruins to fully reveal the area map and point out the location of treasures within it, which definitely helps keep you caught up on potential equipment upgrades; a good thing, as some fights are very difficult without the right special weapon at your disposal.

Seemingly acknowledging the repetitive nature of the first game's boss battles, Mega Man Legends 2's boss fights are considerably more involved.  Circle-strafing still works on occasion, though many bosses are now fought in trap-laden rooms, cramped quarters or on small platforms that make it implausible.  The first boss fight in particular is a good example - a frog-bot that hops between several elevated platforms above a floor with constantly-respawning grub robots, and there are also robotic flies in the room that it can eat to regain health - destroying those, staying out of reach of the grubs and avoiding the frog's attacks all have to be juggled to win.  Other missions have a bit more strategy, like having to defend an air-dock from attacking robots, with your own shots able to damage or destroy barriers that prevent them from getting in.  One fight is even a direct reference to The Misadventures of Tron Bonne, with Tron utilizing similar tactics to the ones the player uses in that game.

So, while Mega Man Legends 2 does have some irritations with its long-lasting status effects and being more grindy than the original in some ways, it is a substantial improvement in almost every other department.  It's bigger, longer, has more boss battles, polishes up a lot of the prominent shortcomings of the original game's design, and in general is just a high quality action-adventure-RPG experience.  It's a shame it never got much of a chance to shine, being released over a month after the debut of the Playstation 2 and the followup to an already relatively unpopular game, but it has quite a lot to offer any discerning fan of Zelda-likes.  It's gotten pretty scarce and expensive in recent years, but if you happen across a copy or are looking for some good PS1 classics to download to your Playstation 3, PSP or Vita, it's well worth picking up.

Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: Playstation 1, PC, PSP, PSN
Released: 2000, 2003, 2005, 2016
Recommended Version: I've only ever played the original PS1 version, both as a disc game and emulated on PSN, but from what I've read the PSP and PC ports are mostly identical (though the former was only released in Japan, and the latter only in Japan and Asia).