Controversy! That’s the way to get people to read stuff, right? Clickbait. But I do have a point to make.
The latest episodes of Star Wars are well on the way to being the most successful films of all time. Yes, it seems that the franchise has survived the serious physical and mental abuse inflicted upon it by its own father – a bit like Luke Skywalker.
Not including the five seconds of beard-in-a-hood footage at the end of The Force Awakens **BELATED SPOILER ALERT**, there’s been a big gap since we last saw Luke Skywalker himself, aka Mark Hamill, on our screens. Or has there? He’s been on my screen quite a lot through my life, and I’m not talking about a weird Google images search either.
As you may be aware, Mr Skywalker is also one of the most talented actors in videogames. He’s been the obese villain of beloved motorbike adventure Full Throttle, but he’s chiefly recognised for being everyone’s favourite Joker – in the recent Batman videogame revivals of Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Arkham Knight. His laugh, his mannerisms, his delight in others’ despair – yes, Heath Ledger got nothin’ on Mark.
But still, all of this is but a shadow to what Mark means to me in games. For he is the saviour of the galaxy in yet another of the greatest sci-fi space opera stories of all time: Wing Commander.
The Future of Entertainment
So what is a Wing Commander anyway? Back in 1990, a man named Chris Roberts had a glimpse of the future. He’s a bit like a gaming Yoda, but less old and less green.
He saw a way of telling a story like a film, but a film in which you played a part. Your decisions and actions would shape the course of history, would decide the fate of your friends, your enemies, and the whole galaxy.
Wing Commander is the story of a future human race fighting to defend the known universe against aggression. Over the course of many games (over ten now, including spinoffs) you fight intense dogfights in the vacuum of space to fight the good fight.
The first two games were very basic indeed – but 1994’s Wing Commander III was a breakthrough. Finally, Chris Roberts’ vision had been realised: it featured live-action cutscenes with actual movie stars, including Biff from Back to the Future (Tom Wilson), Gimli off Lord of the Rings (John Rhys-Davies), and the legendary Malcolm McDowell (a ‘British person’ off South Park). Roberts was director, and basic set designs were supplemented by green screen CGI – impressive for the time.
The story was shaped both through dialogue choices in these cutscenes, and in the in-game action: whether you decided to disagree with someone and pick a fight, or whether you failed objectives or destroyed your targets. The actors were bemused by Roberts’ ideas – the way they had film scenes multiple times, with different reactions, responses and emotions depending on what the player chose. It was hard work, and it was complicated at the time – but it works. It basically beat Mass Effect to the punch by years.
The main part of the game is space combat – and damn good that is too. The first two games are hard as nails, but as the series found its feet both commercially and artistically, so too the game improved. Wing Commander IV, in 1996, is almost perfection (and marks no.102 in the 1001 games to play before you die).
However, the most ambitious part of the whole franchise is the concept of a branching mission tree. It rarely works in practice, because if you fail you simply try again – but in theory, it’s an incredible idea. Should you fail a mission, or a objective doesn’t go your way – like when the giant space cats called the ‘Kilrathi’ fuck up your plans – the story takes a different route. You can sometimes correct your course with success in later missions, but sometimes you end up fighting to the bitter Game Over. The idea was to step up that feeling of immersion to the max, the idea that your efforts really were part of a greater whole.
So what about Mark Hamill?
The hero of the original Wing Commander never end had a name. I guess the idea was that had he been given one, the immersion breaks – they are no longer you. However, the developers had to call him something, and because of his slightly unusual colouration of Blue Hair, he became known as.. Blair.
The name stuck. By the time of Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, technology had moved on from sprite-based graphics, and Colonel Christopher “Maverick” Blair had now the face of Mark Hamill. Live action cutscenes may seem archaic in these times, but back then it was still revolutionary.
The game was a huge hit – and rightly so. The intricate plot draws you in, with twists and turns and betrayals – backed up by blitzing dogfights with intelligent AI. Two years later came Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom and, with a then-unheard-of budget of $12M, took it further. With the galaxy in turmoil in the aftermath of the war, some former allies turn renegade – the question of ‘do the ends justify the means?’ becomes a pivotal one.
Throughout these games, Mark Hamill’s presence grounds you with a believable character: a regular hero, whose struggles (despite being mostly against giant space cats) can relate to your own. Because you inhibit his story, and because your choices become his choices, it becomes a much more personal tale than sitting in a cinema – and this, really, is the joy of games. But it also makes Mark Hamill’s Wing Commander that much more relatable than the superhuman Skywalker.
And to the future…
What’s most exciting is that Chris Roberts continues to push gaming forward – with his long-awaited Star Citizen. With a crowdfunded budget of now well over $50 million, it’s certainly ambitious – and the single campaign, known as Squadron 42, stars a certain familiar face…
PC gaming’s come a long way in 20 years…
Here’s something to bring joy to the world, or at least our very small corner of it in the UCHG. The new remaster of Shadow Complex is currently free to download – which you should do immediately.
Sometimes the list of 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die brings interesting coincidences and occurrences. This is one of those times.
1001 No.101: Shadow Complex (2009)
Shadow Complex has been on my list for a while – it sounded ideal, a modern 2.5D shooter which harks back to Metroid days. I would’ve played it earlier, but for one problem – accessing it was a little troublesome, being an online XBOX360 marketplace-only download from 2009. I’ve been putting off any of these type from the 1001, being reluctant to give Microsoft A) any more money, and B) any more personal information than they’ve already acquired already.
So what could be more pleasing to see than the announcement that not only has the game been remastered, but that it is now available on PC, not just XBOX, and that it is free to download until 2016? Grab it here >
It’s a simple game at heart, but is particularly glorious in its simplicity. Controls are fluid, action is constant, and it’s a joy to explore the sprawling, uh, ‘complex’ that contains the majority of the gameplay.
The narrative is silly, at best. You are ‘some guy’, who chases ‘some girl’ into a cave – but not in a Bill Cosby way or anything. What you accidentally stumble upon is perhaps the most ludicrous, implausible and essentially ill-thought out terrorist plot to take over America – which you must of course put a stop to. There is a twist at the end which particularly laughable, in that I actually laughed in its face.
But don’t let that put you off. Shadow Complex is a brilliantly executed platformer, with more than a touch of Super Metroid’s influence. The level of difficulty ramps up as you progress, making it a challenge but never a chore; and as you unlock more abilities, more of the titular complex becomes accessible to you – with each ability bringing more fun than the last.
I put a rocket in a guy’s face, then dropped kicked another off a cliff. What more do you need? It’s free. It’s fun. Go get it.
Game Over, Yeah! What a rebellious yell in the face of adversity.
So what if you didn’t yet reach the top? You keep on going. Really it is the perfect marker as we reach the first major milestone on this incredible journey of playing (and documenting) the entire list of the “1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die”.
1001 No.100: Sega Rally Championship (1994)
And what is this marker? Why, of course, it is Sega Rally on that most supreme of mid-90s era consoles, the Sega Saturn. Relive with us those memories of gloomy arcades, the ear-shattering tunes blasting from those racing chairs complete with dubiously-placed handbrakes – as we play it on our Sega Saturn version. Yes, the draw distance is awful, the graphics and sound a mere shadow of the arcade original – but the spirit is still pure Sega Rally.
So that’s 100 games down, many more to go. We’ve ran the gauntlet, twice; beat it all over the Gameboy Advance; smashed the Hanger of Tony Hawk’s 2 in 2 mins flat; had some very bad times with superweapons; splattered our house all over the place; said farewell to THQ and the genius of Tom Clancy; got Mashed; been generally shit at California Games and Theme Park; lost our heads at Micro Machines 2 (and Mario Kart); and so much more that the major server meltdown of 2012 has consigned to history.
But we still will not rest; we will not desist from buying random old games, consoles, plastic accessories and other dust-magnets. As Tony Hawk himself would say – time to do the 900(+1). Game Over, Yeah!
MORE COLOURS! MORE LEVELS! MORE MEN! MORE STEPHEN HAWKING VOICE!
After we took down the original Gauntlet of 1985 that we found in a café (which would be number 98 from the ongoing 1001 challenge), we just couldn’t wait for more.
That’s right, we’re throwing down for
1001 No.99: Gauntlet II (1986)
Released just one year after the original, Gauntlet II expanded on the joy of the original, with its ripoff ethic of unlimited levels vs. your limited pocket money. Yes, it’s dated, and yes, you will tire of it eventually, but 4-player simultaneous coop just makes this one of the funniest games you’ll ever play.
It’s basically as old as we are, but slightly more mature. We met many of its endless levels with countless knob jokes, much childishness ensued when a game of tag was discovered, and Ross shot so much food that going to the shops with him must be a nightmare. Will it ever end? No.
— UCHG (@UCHG2008) August 1, 2015
How do you truly celebrate a significant birthday of a UCHG member? By creating a LAN party of some of the best multiplayer games of all time, that’s how. And how to best run a LAN party in the summer? The answer is simple: you run it outside.
There’s a backstory to this. Between 2000-2007, we as a group of friends and like-minded gamers were in some kind of education system, and it was around this time that we discovered the joys of the LAN party. For the uninitiated, a LAN is essentially achieved by carting gaming machines into one location: resulting in a funnier, more personal version of online gaming. What began in internet cafés soon ventured into our own homes, but lack of space and rising heat from early Windows XP-era desktops (not to mention our teenage male selves) drove us to seek an alternative location.
A trip to Maplin and discovery of a 25m network cable produced an idea. After all, for years family members had been saying – “why don’t you stop sitting around indoors and go play outside?” – and, well, now was an opportunity to do just that.
The addition of a marquee provided essential protection from that old enemy sunlight, and we were good to go for many, many summers.
PC gaming, circa 2000-2005
This year, summer is not only a milestone for our valued member Ross, but marks the 10th anniversary of our very first outdoor LAN. As August 2015 comes to an end, we will be celebrating with a LAN reunion – we’ve of course been gaming together ever since, but this one is different.
Much has changed since the noughties – clunky CRT monitors now firmly a thing of the past – but will we be playing the latest installment of Call of Battlefield Honor Strike 4? Of course not. Across two days we’ll be digging out the games from the times we remember fondest – and here’s a brief rundown of what’ll be going down.
Counter Strike 1.6 (2000)
What hasn’t been said about this beloved ruiner of friendships and keyboards? In our minds, yes CS: Source is great (and we’ll certainly be returning to that too) – but nothing speaks of hilarious LAN moments more than those earlier pre-Steam Counter Strike versions. Truly legendary level design means de_dust, de_prodigy, cs_assault, cs_militia will never be forgotten. Mods that added bots and hilarious skins make this a LAN party classic.
1001 No.97: Serious Sam: The First Encounter (2001)
Who cares that it makes no sense? Seeing one of your friends fire a cannonball into a scorpion’s face, while another dressed as Santa Claus is thrown through the air by a bull, as a man with no head runs at you while going “aaaaahhhh” – there’s nothing else like it. Stupidly large numbers of enemies and a crazy sense of humour helped Serious Sam take the essence of Doom to another, and madder, level – and spawned many copycats that came after. 4 player coop through the whole campaign is a must.
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002)
The movie Saving Private Ryan had a massive impact on us back when we were in school, and MOHAA basically let us play it. With Spielberg as one of the writers, and an actual D-Day level, it’s just as lasting in our minds as the movie. In the early 2000s we stumbled across a coop mod – and we were pleased to discover it is still very much alive and working well to this day. Hilarity will ensue.
1001 No.95: Garry’s Mod (2004)
Before Minecraft, there was Garry’s Mod: the ultimate in sandbox games. What started as a modification of Half Life 2 has effectively over time become a game in it’s own right. The ability to take the resources from various Valve related games (including Half Life and Counter Strike) means you can pretty much create what you like – as long as your imagination is large enough.
The UCHG did various silly things with it, including a deadly game of cricket with an electrified rolling mine for a ball (and a shotgun of justice for cheaters); and contests to make cars, boats, and flying machines. Brad even made some particularly deadly traps for zombies…
1001 No.96: Battlefield 2 (2005)
Despite all the variants of the franchise that followed, Battlefield 2 still holds a special place in our hearts. Some of the level design is pure genius, evidenced by the fact that all these years later people are still playing Strike at Karkand and Gulf of Oman.
And while Battlefield 3 and 4 may have improved the graphics by a good mile, there’s something about the purity of the gameplay that makes BF2 so good. No unlocks, no grinding through the experience points, no being held to ransom over the best kit – strip away all the layers that have since been added, and you’re left with something much simpler, but somehow stronger.
Once you’re down to a more basic level of gameplay, it becomes like a game of paintball – the only real winners will be those taking risks. If you’ve got the guts, hell yeah you can jump in a jeep and careen it through to a position deep in enemy territory. Take that point, and you might just turn the tide.
Here’s a taste of what we used to get up to, and what we’ll be getting back to.
Happy Birthday Ross; Happy Birthday LAN; and happy 10 years of playing outside with your mates. It’ll certainly be a LAN to remember. And this won’t be the last!