Sunday, May 18, 2014

Post-mortem-review #2: Goldeneye

Let’s throw another classic game review on the table: Goldeneye. For the Nintendo64 that is, not the shitty remakes on other platforms. One of my all-time favourites... or is it?

Some games seem to be immortal and like the oldest trees on Earth, they're not impressed by modern times. Some other games just age. Although I must admit it was on a PC emulator, Goldeneye felt less fantastic last time I played it. Probably more than any other game genre, shooters are more sensitive for high-end graphics and turbulent hardware upgrades. But thinking again, I still do enjoy Doom or Duke Nukem a lot. Why does Goldeneye feels aged, while Doom or Duke –even older games!- don’t? Good question.

Anyhow, that’s not a reason to throw Goldeneye out of the Arc of Noah. Beautiful women turn into old, saggy witches too (men on the other hand only get cooler, like Alec Baldwin or Harrison Ford). Goldeneye was the Marylyn Monroe. A bit dead now, but hot coffee back then.

In my time, we bought games in a box. Having more boxes to show in your showcase made you a better person.

Now you’re playing with power. Crappy power.
Unlike the SNES, not everyone owned a Nintendo64. And probably not even all of you readers were even born when Goldeneye saw daylight, 1997. Late 1997 for Europe. So it’s probably worth to put the spotlights on this title, as it contained a lot of revolutionary shooter elements. Dude, even the commercial was revolutionary. First time I saw it was on a mega screen in the cinema. Almost pissed my pants. I knew what Santa Claus would bring that Christmas!

First, try to put things in the right context. 1997. The other shooter milestone Halflife wasn’t released yet, so the best thing since sliced shooter-game bread was probably Quake 2. And some other semi 2D/3D titles such as Blood or Redneck Rampage. The Nintendo didn’t bring steaming shooters yet (although I learned to appreciate Doom64 later on). For one thing, it seems Nintendo took the (wrong) turn into more “kiddy” games. NES and SNES had dirty pixel porn, but the 64 chose a more kosher menu from now on. But there were some full 3D first-person-shooters. You may remember “Turok the Dinosaur hunter” which was... different. Despite the handy analogue stick on the N64 joystick, they struggled with finding the right controls. How to walk and aim at the same time? Doom and Duke got away with auto-aiming (you couldn’t look up or down really), but when Quake showed full 3D capabilities, the mouse became the second best friend for PC gamers. And still. Shooters feel a bit awkward and slow on the PS3 or Xbox.

The Nintendo64 had yet another problem. If a game wasn’t 3D from now on, it sucked. But at the same moment, the hardware also sucked big time on rendering 3D graphics properly. The N64, but also the PSX, Sega Saturn and PC were on the tumbling point between solid proven 2D games, and poor 3D technology. 3D was still in its infancy. Very blurry textures, “balls” made out of 7 polygons, tedious controls, no real lighting, empty environments. And oh my Lord that darn fog… Except for Silent Hill, fog ruined the looks of quite some games.

Body Harvest was a pretty fun game, but the guys were made out of six cubes, the path texture was too blurry to follow, and it was permanently foggy, making it a bit spooky actually.

Well, the game developers didn’t make their games ugly on purpose of course. Looking at the hardware specs, it’s actually a miracle they managed to create a 3D game. PC’s had CD-ROMs now, but guess what the size of a N64 cartridge was? 64 MB. And they were 200 times more expensive than a CD btw (but they did a good job loading things quickly). Now 64 MB doesn’t sound THAT bad, but most games were actually crammed in about 10 Megabytes only! To compare: a single monster in Tower22 consumes almost more. Two times a 2048 x 1024 x RGBA8 (DXT compressed!) texture, plus a 10k triangle model eats about 5 megabytes already. And we didn’t mention the sound effects and additional pictures yet.

Besides the microscopic storage space, the N64 had a whopping 4 MB RAM (could be extended to 12 with a RAM pack in the joystick), and its processor ran on ~94 Megahertz. And yes, it was the most powerful console ever so far. Nowadays Nintendo doesn’t even try to compete with Sony or Microsoft, but the earlier Nintendo’s were real powerhouses. Shit, (N)64-bit was twice as much as the PSX, thus twice as good! Well, the bits didn’t quite work like that. This console was *capable* of doing 64 bit math operations. But unless you need GPS coordinates or super high precission math, I have no idea why one would need that. So, most games were just doing 32-bit operations, just like Tower22 still does in 2014.

The N64 was capable of rendering 150.000 polygons per second. Many games do that per frame now. All in all, developers had a very limited toolbox to make something good looking. No wonder that, when looking back now, games from the very early Jurassic 3D period look like triangular piles of blurry stool now. But we should embrace those pioneers. Without them kicking the hardware into the 21th century, we would still be playing Duck-Hunt as a FPS now.

A Christmas Carol
Double-O-Seven on the N64 was a pioneer. A true Marco Polo amongst First-Person-Shooter games. It was one of the first FPS games that did everything right. For one thing, it didn’t feel like a bad movie-cash-cow game. Times change, but quickly making horrible games, parasitizing on popular movie titles, happened all the time.

I’m not a very big James Bond fan. Enjoyed watching the movies together with my parents as a young kid, but being 13 years old, I found the old Bond a bit weak. No blood, no guts flying around, and Bond would always win. How predictable. So, as usual with my favourite games, I wasn’t sold straight away. When a 007 game was announced in the games-magazines, I was like “meh”. Found the upcoming Blast-Corps (another great job by Rare) more interesting. But the game scored sky high in the magazines, and the cinema commercial proved I was wrong. Some of the kids who claimed they played this game already, told me the wildest stories about climbing on tanks and throwing grenades in the hatch (which doesn’t work in the game btw, I tried it).

The greatest thing about Christmas was getting new games. And a great thing about being young, was that you had to wait patiently. You didn’t buy a game to entertain yourself for a few hours, you we’re about to get golden memories that would last for the rest of your life. I almost died waiting those weeks, scanning the TV channels for commercials. Huh? Yes, everyone hates commercials, but I had to see the Goldeneye game again. We still didn’t have Youtube dummy!

Christmas Eve. Of course my dad first had to go in bath for an hour, take a crap for another hour, get back in bath, fall asleep. Jesus Christ that day took forever. We rushed through the presents until we finally unwrapped the unmistakable rectangular N64 game-box. Still had to wait though. Eat your cake, unpack the other boxes, have some family time, BARHH!

The first man on the Moonraker
It was worth the waiting though. Sneaking towards the first guard tower (with a moving(!) truck in the background) would reveal that this game didn’t look like another foggy blurry empty blocky foggy faggy raggedy shaggy game. The fog would start 10 meters further away than normal, and the especially the effects and sounds made a violent, cinematic impression. The machine guns spew big flames, and counter-fire bullet tracers flew around my ears. Almost like a movie! And the explosions, they are still good. It didn’t help the framerate, but till this very day, Goldeneye is one of the few games that leaves an aftermath of smoke after an explosion. In many games, the red barrel says boom, big fireball, and then it’s gone as if nothing happened. Real explosions leave smoke, dust, damage, and a charred floor.

Goldeneye understood the importance of that. When I shoot something, it has to break, bleed, or at least leave a big bullet hole. I can understand older games didn’t have resources to do so, but even modern titles sometimes forget this. Bullets disappear in a metal box, leaving no trace as if it was sucked in a black hole. And did you see any bloody wounds on the Crysis 2 foes? Shooting an unmounted .50 or not, it degrades the impact. Unacceptable. Big boom and no flying ragdolls? Grrrrr.

Goldeneye had big explosions, smoke clouds, (vague) bloody wounds, bullet holes, breakable furniture, orange fire tracers, flying bullet cases, and of course soldiers doing acrobatic summersaults, backflips and head-rolls when being hit by an explosion. And the list doesn’t end there. You couldn’t throw grenades in tank hatches, but you could drive them! And how about sniping? Believe it or not, but there weren’t much precision rifles out there yet. Quake nor Doom nor Duke showed us a scope before. It actually took some time before I figured what the black horn-thing on top of the rifle was; you could zoom in and shoot an unwary soldier! In the face! How freak’n handy is that? Maybe they should use that in the army.

Photorealistic! In Goldeneye’s follow-up, Perfect Dark, you were actually able to take a photo of your own mug and wrap it on your character. The idea was banned though. Murdering your friends wasn’t very Nintendo-like…

There were many reasons to like Goldeneye. One important one were your enemy soldiers. Their heads looked very real(…), and they actually behaved a bit like human. Well, sort of. Again, keep in mind we were mostly murdering aliens, demons, monsters, knights, goblins and other fictional scum. But now we were dealing with real human soldiers. So they had to act somewhat reasonable too. The Bond baddies didn’t yell “take cover!” and didn’t cooperate as a team either. Nevertheless, they looked pretty real thanks to their wide variety of animations. Most enemies so far could walk, fire, and die. But these guys could throw grenades, reload a gun, kneel, or take a Rambo side-roll to “surprise” you.

Even better were the hit- and dead animations. Shoot a foe in his left hand, and he will shake his left hand in pain and agony. Shoot a foe in the butt crack, and he’ll jump up like a little girly that was stung by a bee, in the ass. Shoot a foe in the head and… he just drops dead. Trying out all the hitzones was a joy on itself, but also had a tactical element. Obviously headshots are effective, but hard to make. Shooting a guy in a more easy but painful area, would slow him down for some seconds. And these little bits of extra time are crucial, but often forgotten in console shooter games. With analogue sticks on your controller, you just can’t aim that fast. The badguys in 007 are relative slow, they take some time to aim and fire. Not because they are stupid, but otherwise the game would simply be unfair. And believe me, many console games made or still make the mistake of bad pacing.

I must tell the enemies in Perfect Dark, the other Rare shooter on the N64, were even more “realistic”. They could kick you, run to an alarm or call for help. You could shoot the weapon out of their hands, and some would surrender. All kinds of tricks to make you believe you’re dealing with humans instead of robots. Quite funny that the foes in many modern games still aren’t that far. They never surrender, they don’t care about their mates, and even after a head- and kneeshot they still keep charging. You see, Rare was making big steps with their shooter games, as well as other great titles they did. Too bad Microsoft lured Rare to the Xbox, let them made a fool of themselves with the Perfect Dark sequel fuck-up, and threw them back on the streets like a raped whore. So much creative potential wasted. Nintendo and Rare were born for each other. Donkey Kong, Goldeneye, Blastcrops, Banjo Kazooie…

The facility

Anyway, my name is Bond. James Bond. Explosions check. Badguys check. But how about the other typical James Bond things? You know, babes, Q gadgets, secret bases, a story line? I didn’t see the Goldeneye movie with Pierce Brosnan when I started the game, so I had no reference. But at least the game felt like a Bond movie. And judging after seeing the movie, it actually stays pretty close to the movie. Same main characters, and same main locations such as the (nerve gas?) facility + runaway airport, the frigate, Siberia satellite base, Soviet statue graveyard, st. Petersburg, secret jungle base, and of course the flying cradle where main villain Trevelyan comes to his end.

Bond himself didn’t visit all these locations in the movie, but for a game it’s fun to blow them all up of course, so they did tweak and mangle the script. There are twenty levels, plus two more bonus stages. That doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but each level is unique and hard to beat. Whereas most shooters would still drag you through one corridor after another, Goldeneye had more open area’s and allowed you to try multiple approaches. Sneak enemies from behind and keep a low profile, or sound the alarm, place trip mines, and mow down everything that moves?

Also pretty new were its objectives. It sounds silly now, but in a shooter the goal was usually just to find the exit, killing everything on your path, and eventually find some keys to unlock doors. In Goldeneye, you would have to do “Bond” things, like placing a tracker unit on a helicopter, hack a mainframe, escort women, or find a suitcase. It’s up to you to decide in which order, but Goldeneye is also a difficult game. Choosing the right routing, weapons and moments are crucial for winning the levels.

And that made Goldeneye an addictive and lengthy game. Beating it on Easy was well, pretty Easy. But doing the same on Medium or Hard was another story. Not only did the enemies get tougher, there were also more objectives to accomplish. Normally I wouldn’t bother doing a game all over again, but the levels were so much fun, plus the game smartly rewarded you. Beating levels on hard would give all kinds of cool cheats. Paintball mode, DK (big head) mode, infinite ammo, all weapons, et cetera. The dessert would be unlocking two secret levels when accomplishing all levels on the highest difficulty. Which was almost impossible, I spend many hours and days trying to do that. But leaving the game behind, knowing you didn’t see all 22 levels was not an option.

Still remember all 22 levels?

The man with multiple Golden guns
Another reward for finishing levels, were extra characters and levels in the Multiplayer mode… Yes, Multiplayer mode. Again you kids probably scratch your head, but in 1997 this wasn’t all too common. Certainly not on a game console. Yes games like Doom and Duke already offered Deathmatch. But unless you were a lucky bastard playing with lazy colleagues in the office, no one had a (proper working) IPX network. Quake went a step further, but again, Internet was still something most parents considered as a not so necessary funny feature. Plus, like an old telephone, it would cost you for each minute you were playing.

In other words, asides from some half failed attempts with Doom, GTA and Red Alert, I never really played a Multiplayer game. But now Goldeneye would offer you a split screen modus. And, the N64 didn’t have 2 but 4(!) connectors. I don’t have to explain you how Deathmatch works, but it was all fresh and new. Whenever a friend came by, doing some Goldeneye Deathmatch was part of the visit. And my little brother was also forced to join, although we gave the little fucker special “anti-spy” toilet roll goggles. Odd but true, somehow that asshole always knew our secret hiding positions… So had to wear the goggles and sit 40 cm away from the TV, so he could only see his own quarter of the screen.

The funny thing is, except for Goldeneye and Unreal Tournament, I never liked Deathmatch games. I can see the potential of working as a team, defeating another intelligent enemy. But the fact is, no one works as a team. Because you don’t know each other, and a virtual life is worth absolutely nothing. You’ll respawn in 4 seconds anyway. In a game like Battlefield, I see one idiot after another running into the most nearby chopper, take off, launch a few missiles, and get blown up again. In theory you would cautiously approach the enemy with your buddies. In practice people run circles around each other firing missiles. Realism.

Then again, you don’t have to take a game very seriously of course. In that case, what is better than grabbing chips and beer, and have fun with friends? Goldeneye had some options to make teams, and mess around with the available weapons and health. So for example, you could make your own challenge, 3 tiny “Oddjob’s” trying to kill a gigantic max health Jaws. Or let one player hide proximity mines everywhere, and then let the others try to disarm all bombs without getting killed.

I’d like to use this opportunity to explain one more “only once, never seen again” multiplayer feature Rare made for Perfect Dark. Besides Deathmatch, Perfect Dark also offered a lovely cooperative modus, which means you play the main story campaign as usual, but with the help of a friend. I’m a fan of co√∂perative gameplay. Too bad that many classic games such as Halflife didn’t involve an integrated coop. It’s more common now, but now I lack friends coming over here to play a game. And doing Resident Evil 5 together with little Julia is… not yet.

Anyhow, Perfect Dark had yet another mode called “Counter-Operative”. Again, the player would do a normal level, against the computer. But instead of helping you, player #2 would take control over a random computer foe. This allowed to put yourself in the shoes of the CPU, seeing the levels from another perspective. Patrolling a bit around as a soldier, hiding yourself in the toilet, slap other soldiers. Wouldn’t it be cool to chill a bit with the Combine in Halflife2, waiting for Gordon to show up? Once again Rare showed its creative capabilities, but for some reason (PC) games never copied this feature. The only game I know which has something similar, is Left 4 Dead. Opponents can take control of zombies and assault the survivors.

The key question
As said, Goldeneye was a pioneer for its time. Spectacular graphics and sounds, new elements such as objective based levels and Deathmatch, well thought level design, addictive gameplay, tons and tons of weapons. This was a reason to buy a Nintendo64, and a shooter milestone in general. Then why does Goldeneye feels aged more than Doom for example?

Hard to answer, but I think Goldeneye looks too much like a (dated) modern shooter, whilst Doom or Duke are distinctive different games than, for example Crysis. Goldeneye tried to look realistic (and did for its time), Doom or Duke while look like cartoons. They still look somewhat good, because they didn’t have to look realistic in the first place. You don’t say The Simpsons or Southpark look dated and unrealistic either. Pretty much any modern shooter has tons of machine guns, destructible environments, smart soldier opponents, open worlds with objectives, and multiplayer. And clearly in a more mature stadium than Goldeneye or Perfect Dark. You can’t play Goldeneye without comparing the level size with modern game worlds, and no matter how cool the hit- and dead animations were back then, they can’t beat ragdoll physics. Doom or Duke on the other hand are brainless arcade action games, where you would blow up as many monsters as possible. Quite different than most modern “serious” games, and therefore refreshing and still fun to play once in a while.

Doom and Duke are timeless ancient artifacts, Goldeneye was a beautiful woman from the past. Aged now, but the pleasure was all mine when I met her.

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