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3 D   G A M E S

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3-D 1st-Person
Wolfenstein 3-D (id / Apogee)
Boundary-Pushing: High Wolf-3D was unique in two particular ways: it was the closest thing to a three-dimensional "you are there" game when it was introduced, and it had a "mission"-based design which allowed the first of three complete missions to be distributed as shareware (which insured lots of gamers would try it). The latter proved to be a huge business success, but that wouldn't have happened if the game itself hadn't been something new. The programmers at id managed to devise a highly-optimized version of raytracing known as "raycasting"; with the addition of equally speedy texture mapping and opponent sprites which could be viewed from multiple angles (further creating the illusion of 3-D), Wolf-3D was an important step in popularizing 3-D 1st-person games. Although no one knew it at the time, it would also become the first major force in the eventual development of consumer-priced 3-D graphics hardware accelerators.
Addictiveness: High What's behind that door? That was the eternal question of this game. You always found yourself wondering what strange new walls or maze layout or guards would be behind any door; there was a constant pressure to keep moving, to keep opening the next door. What nasty traps have the level designers set for the unwary player? Open the door and find out.
Replayability: Low Once you'd finished a level (including its secrets), there was no reason or incentive to go back. Likewise, once you'd killed off a mission's "boss" there wasn't anything else to do or to see. On the other hand, once the information on how to construct levels found its way to the public, new levels began to appear on bulletin board systems and on-line services, leading to something of a renaissance in playing this game.
General Although you could find yourself wishing for more kinds of bad guys and more variety in the landscape, Wolf-3D was enormously fun. There was just something very satisfying about mowing down bad guys without having to worry about ethical consequences; it was simple "kill-or-be-killed." id's concept of a pure action game was gleefully accepted by thousands of gamers. Not only was it popular because it generally didn't require you to think, focusing like a laser on action made the game a lot easier to write. There were no secondary weapon effects (like ricocheting shots or damage to doors or walls); nothing about the environment ever changed; and the bad guys would always come straight at you if they "heard" or "saw" you. Wolf-3D was a pure shoot-em-up. It focused exclusively on what most action gamers wanted, and its developers reaped the rewards of understanding the market.
System Shock (Looking Glass / Origin / Eidos)
Boundary-Pushing: Medium By the time System Shock was released, Looking Glass (in its earlier incarnation as "Blue Sky") had already released the ground-breaking "true" 3-D games, Ultima Underworld I and II, and id had released the extremely successful Doom. But while the software technology might no longer have been amazing (despite the realistic physics model used), Looking Glass nevertheless did manage to create a playing environment that was more detailed, more graphically diverse, and which offered more ways to interact with the numerous game objects than any game before and very few since. One feature worthy of special note: Each game allowed the player to configure System Shock's four aspects: number and strength of enemies, difficulty of puzzles, difficulty of the "cyberspace" environment, and depth of plot. All these aspects had four levels of control, ranging from easy to hard. Thus, a devotee of the "Doom" school (more action than thinking) could opt for a game with lots of strong enemies but minimal puzzles and plot, while someone more comfortable with graphical adventures could choose to play a game with a few weak enemies but difficult puzzles and a rich plot. To my knowledge, this level of game customization remains unique.
Addictiveness: High Visually, System Shock featured strong colors, which set it apart from the drab Doom. Also unlike Doom, the environment of System Shock was more consistent from level to level, so that the player felt part of a larger "universe." These elements, along with the expressive audio cues and sound effects, generated a very high level of addictiveness. There was a constant interest in seeing what lay around the next corner--perhaps strange new vistas, or more dangerous new enemies... or a more powerful new weapon. The most addictive element, however, may have been the plot. Dropped throughout each level were data disks which contained the message logs of the doomed workers aboard the Trioptimum space station. Further enhancing the plot were email messages sent to the player in "real time" by various off-stage actors, including the insane station computer, SHODAN. Each action completed by the player led to a new revelation about SHODAN and its creator, as well as new goals for the player to pursue. Following the threads of this plot made System Shock almost a graphical adventure in itself, combining the best of that genre with the best in 3-D 1st-person shooters.
Replayability: Medium The difficulty of the game (particularly in the "cyberspace" end sequence) and the sheer depth of exploration required both tend to minimize replayability. It's just too much, especially when there are so many other games hitting store shelves. Furthermore, once the game is won, it does not change in any significant way from previous runs. Enemy locations and possessions are randomized, as is one important code sequence, but individual puzzles, maps, and the "email"-based game plot elements remain constant. And yet... the environment is so immersive, so rich and interesting, that replaying this game is like revisiting a favorite place. You just want to go hang out for a while.
General The one word heard most often in reference to System Shock is "immersive." Not every gamer enjoys depth of interaction in a game--the designers at id, for example, deliberately kept their games simple to concentrate on maximum action. For other gamers, who prefer to exercise their minds as well as their reflexes, System Shock is often named as the single most memorable gaming experience they have ever had. Artwork and audio, enemies and puzzles, level design and plot line; all these things came together seamlessly in System Shock. The designers at Looking Glass have said that one of their goals with their earlier 1st-person "Underworld" games was to offer many different ways for the player to interact with game objects. In this way, different players could respond to game challenges in different ways--even in ways that the designers themselves didn't anticipate. System Shock carried on this tradition, and in so doing led the player to accept the "reality" of the System Shock world to a degree that few other games have ever equaled.

And now from E3 comes word that the good people at Looking Glass/Eidos have announced plans to develop System Shock II! As more information on this becomes available, I'll try to post it here. For now, though, this looks like the Next Great Thing to look forward to once Looking Glass completes Thief: The Dark Project, their current game.

New System Shock II info (1998/08/08): Most of the design work on System Shock II is being done by a new company, Irrational Games, which was founded by several Looking Glass alumni. For updates on this and other Looking Glass projects, you definitely want to bookmark Saam Tariverdi's Through The Looking Glass site.

Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight (Lucasarts Entertainment Corp.)
Boundary-Pushing: Medium Neither Dark Forces nor its sequel, Jedi Knight, did much to push the envelope of 3-D 1st-person action games. There was no revolutionary technology. But what Lucasarts did with these games was to take proven technologies, clean them off, and put them together in a game in a way that, while it might not have been revolutionary, represented the pinnacle of evolution at the time of its introduction. While the graphics of Dark Forces weren't at any incredibly high resolution, they were used well. Sound effects weren't of particularly high quality (including the synthesized "Star Wars" theme during the game's introductory sequence), but they too were used appropriately to add to the "you are there" feel. Jedi Knight improved on these things to meet current expectations, but again, not in any extreme way. All in all, Jedi Knight doesn't do anything revolutionary. But it does do all the things a modern 3-D 1st-person action game is expected these days to do, and does all of them extremely well. Thus it acquires the quality of strong immersiveness that separates the truly great 3-D 1st-person action games from the merely good.
Addictiveness: High Especially for those of us who were around for the original premiere of Star Wars, Dark Forces and Jedi Knight give us a wonderful opportunity to play around in that universe. They look like the movies; they sound like the movies; the puzzles are diabolically clever--it's all too easy to find yourself still blasting away at stormtroopers well past midnight.
Replayability: Low Three levels of difficulty allow for some replayability, assuming the player went through the levels in Easy or Medium mode. Other than that, playing through the strong plot elements and solving the very difficult puzzles mean that, once played, very little will change in subsequent games.
General Both the original Dark Forces and its sequel, Jedi Knight, were highly playable. They looked good, they sounded good, and they played well. Unlike some sequels, Jedi Knight took the things that Dark Forces did well and improved on them, while adding new features to make the game even more fun. For example, Dark Forces offered very large vistas, giving a much greater feeling of openness than that of Doom. It also required the player to solve puzzles that were more difficult than Doom's. Finally, Dark Forces gave the player the chance to play in the Star Wars universe; sounds, artwork, weapons and enemies all contributed to giving Dark Forces a more distinctive feel than other 3-D games which were essentially Doom with different texture maps.

Jedi Knight did all these things even better. Levels became still more wide-open, to the point that this player found himself hugging the walls in some places, nervous about moving. The number of video resolutions at which the game could be run were increased, so that the game looked much sharper. The puzzles became more fiendish, especially one in which the player has only a minute or three to escape from a spaceship which is falling to the ground. As the bulkheads groan and klaxons blare in the player's ear, and the deck heaves and pitches at crazy angles, the player is forced to scramble frantically from one part of the doomed ship to another in search of a way out. It is incredibly frustrating... but incredibly immersive. (And incredibly satisfying when finally completed!)

Best of all, the player is pulled even further into the Star Wars universe by the introduction of "the Force." These are various abilities, such as jumping like Luke out of the carbon-freeze pit in The Empire Strikes Back or (if one gives in to the Dark Side) to damage enemies with the "Force grip" (which Darth Vader used in the original Star Wars on the Admiral whose lack of faith was so disturbing). Another very nice touch in Jedi Knight is the addition of the lightsaber as a weapon. Not only does this add yet again to the "Star Wars" feel, it's a clever way to adapt an old gaming technology ("hand-to-hand combat") to a new purpose with a meaningful function. An available "companion mission" (in other words, a set of additional levels) even includes a deathmatch level which mimics the interior of Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke and Vader fight--if you break open the large circular window, you get sucked out and must try to land on the narrow ledge below. You can even damage the railing with your lightsaber just like Vader did after Luke injures Vader in his shoulder.

With their X-Wing and Tie Fighter space combat games, Lucasarts earned a good reputation with both gamers and game industry observers for games that leverage the "Star Wars" franchise and are still incredibly fun to play. Dark Forces and Jedi Knight demonstrate that this reputation continues to be deserved (despite the poor showing of Star Wars: Rebellion due to its complicated user interface).

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