Ben There, Dan That! and Time Gentlemen, Please! (Review)

Another review, this time of two games. As the first paragraph says, I was craving more adventure-game goodness after the slight disappointment of The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition (which, again, was severly hampered by the poor control scheme), and I somehow stumbled upon Ben There, Dan That!, which I loved.

As the games
are made by a small indie developer, they ask people to spread the word. I decided to do so by writing a review which I submitted to be a featured review on The Escapist. I haven't heard back, so I don't think it'll actually amount to anything, but the Ben from 'Dan and Ben' was thankful nonetheless. Nice to be appreciated, even if it's just for praising something awesome.

I first heard about Ben There, Done That in an article in PCGamer UK, where one of the game's authors wrote an interesting article about its creation. I never bothered to actually try the game, but after playing the recent Monkey Island remake, I developed a taste for classic adventure gaming, and during my searches for good free games, stumbled upon Zombie Cow Studios and their two adventure titles, Ben There, Done That and it's sequel, Time Gentlemen, Please!

The games follow the escapades of two characters, paradoxically called Ben and Dan after the pair primarily responsible for making the games, and details their various misadventures through time, space and parallel dimensions, all with a very twisted sense of style and humour along the way. Not only do they alter the very fabric of reality, they also reboot a robot, stuff a kitten down an exhaust tube, cause a miniature Death Star to fry a dinosaur, help a videogame Hitler to escape a prison cell, travel through the rear end of a cow and cause a man to be repeatedly shot... in the cock.

If any of this sounds offensive to you, chances are that these games are not for you. Which is a real shame, as they're brilliant. The sheer amount of charm the central characters exude more then compensates for any distasteful actions they, and by extension you, take. These may be some of the most offensive adult games you'll have played, but they're also absolutely hilarious, far more so then many other so-called 'comedy' titles released in the last few years.

One of the major factors crucial to this is the writing. Having to get past a Priest by killing him would seem cruel, even offensive if taken straight. Doing so by not only whacking him over the head with his own bible, but then expressing a forlorn hope that he's just sleeping (when really, you're not fooling anyone, not even yourself), and then developing that action even further by turning the act of inadvertently killing people while trying to get things from them into a running joke takes a LOT of balls. Thankfully the writers manage it with aplomb, and that's not even the worst they have to throw at us. The darkest side of humour is evident throughout the game, but because everything is played for laughs, it's actually surprisingly difficult to become offended at the actions taken by Ben and Dan. The cheeky grins and dry comments offered by the two really endear them to you, and it's hard to hate a pair of lovable scamps, even if they do swear a tad too often.

Also taking a large amount of the edge off of things are the graphics. While the two leads both starts as something seeming incredibly basic, they very quickly grow on you, and you'll find that their oddly distinct animations make them hard to hate, even as they inadvertently poison someone via the gift of toilet cakes. While the characters may look basic though, the backgrounds are almost works of art, featuring the most insane images being lovingly rendered at jaded angles and straight lines. It's a wonderful throwback to games such as Day of the Tentacle, though with the additional of new-fangled flashy effects, TGP! frequently manages to look even better. A great example of this is the opening sequence - the rain coming down over a now devastated London (accidentally brought about by the lead character's actions, naturally) looks absolutely stunning, and really push the AGS engine used by both games to new limits.

One of the other aspects of the games is the puzzles, often the make-or-break factor of adventure games. Fortunately they have a twisted sense of logic behind them, even if they are deliciously freakish at times. BTDT is a tad hard in places, but given enough time, even the most obscure barriers can be overcome, if only through the time old method of 'pick up everything not bolted down and combine it all with everything else'. TGP! features similar puzzles, but the dialogue from the lead characters will often nudge you in the right direction, drawing your attention to items that can be picked up or nudging you about certain things you should try. It's a sort of in-game hint system that you can't turn off, and though you'll occasionally know that you should do something, more often then not you'll appreciate being told to try a different inventory item instead of the one you're currently attempting to use, or that the other character is capable of doing something that the current one is not.

Musically the games both feature a surprisingly rich score, featuring an appropriately rocking theme tune. The majority of the music is upbeat and, while not exactly memorably, certainly fitting with the locations. Again, it's better in the second game then the first, but only just. Both titles have an impressive amount of mileage to them, which is especially surprising given that most AGS games are relatively simple, featuring rather basic tunes or stuff ripped from different sources. The music here is all new, all fresh and all awesome.

These games really do push the boundaries of adventure games, both in content and in style. They're ludicrously adult, frequently absurd and gleefully over-the-top. And they're both some of the best games I've played in years. I cannot recommend them enough. Go and play them, you simple-minded fools. Where else will you see a battle-mech striding Hitler in command of an army of cloned dinosaurs? Nowhere, that's where.

The first game, Been There, Dan That, is absolutely free, so you've got no excuses WHATSOEVER. The second game, Time Gentlemen, Please!, is not, but it's only £2.99 (£3.35 including VAT, which the boys shockingly didn't mention you'd need to pay..!), which is around $5ish. If you do the math, that's WAY less then the Monkey Island remake, and at about 3-5 hours each, they'll last you as long, if not longer then LucasArt's effort. Go and get them already, I want to see a third one.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition (Review)

I'd really hoped that this review would get more attention then it actually did. It's one of the few negative ones out there, as I mention at the end of it. Stupid nostalgia, clouding everyone's judgement...

One note - I was playing the PC version of the game, and it was £6.99 on Steam. It also represented the first time I'd paid money for a brand-new game in quite some time. What can I say? I'm a massive cheapskate.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

And so LucasArts goes full circle. Having been reduced from a once well known and respected company to becoming second only to EA for franchise-murdering, they've decided to try their hand at starting over and remaking one of their most beloved classics. Only they haven't, really. Just splashed a bunch of paint over it and hoped we wouldn't notice.

I'm going to mention the positives first, because they're what I paid my £6.99 for. The most impressive feature, right from the off, is the new graphics, which look stunning. The backgrounds are nothing short of beautiful, and the character redesigns all fit the characters perfectly. The music is also fantastic, and the tunes have never sounded better. Having the game being fully voiced is also a major boon, and the characters really do benefit from this, making the dialogue come alive in places. Finally, it's quite possibly the most faithful remake anyone has ever made, with absolutely no changes to the script or story whatsoever. For better or worse, this is exactly the same game people first played back in 1990.

Right. That's that over with - let's start nit-picking.

One of the major problems I have with the game is the fact that, aside from the voices, it doesn't make use of any of the advances made in adventure games over the 20-odd years since the original was released. This was presumably a concious decision to make the game as faithful as possible, but in the end the stupid idea to create the Special Edition on top of the original creates more problems then nostalgia can overcome.

As a result of the game essentially being built upon the old SCUMM engine, the characters which looked so good in screenshots fall apart whenever they move, because they all have a limited number of frames for each particular action. As a result, their movements all look stiff and unrealistic, making the game seem like a particularly well-made fan game. You'll adjust to Guybrush's movements pretty quickly since they're the best ones, but it's the other characters that cause concern. Take the pirate swinging from the chandelier at the SCUMM bar. A few more frames would have made the animation look much better, but instead the whole thing just feels flat and rushed.

The dialogue also suffers from a similar problem - while the lines are all well delivered, there can be a brief pause between lines lasting anything up to two seconds. The dialogue's simply being delivered faster then the game thinks it should be, much like games translated from other languages. And, rather stupidly, you cannot skip lines of dialogue in the new version, despite it being an option in the original. This is an utterly inexcusable omission, particularly since the target audience of the game will be people who have played the original and may want to skip certain sections of dialogue. This will likely become a problem as you learn the art of sword-fighting, and get tired of hearing the same lines over and over - the only way to skip them is to switch to the classic view and then press the period button. If they could include the option in the old version of the game, why not the new one?

The most shocking oversight though is that the new interface, where you have to press different keyboard buttons to bring up both command or inventory screens, is incredibly fiddly to use. If you want to use an item in your inventory with someone or something, you have to press a button to bring up the command menu, press another button to select give/use, then a third button to bring up the inventory, a fourth button to select an item, and then a fifth button to actually use the item. While this may work well for the XBox version of the game, when it comes to the PC version, this is a ludicrously tedious way of doing things, and compared to most other adventure games these days, it just seems overtly complicated.

A good example of this is freeing Otis from jail at the end of the first act, where you transfer grog between gradually melting mugs. Because you have to keep bringing up different screens, you end up going through the above-mentioned process several times in quick succession, making the whole process even more convoluted then it was originally, which even the most ardent fan of the series will find hard to overlook. While it helps having the same keyboard shortcuts as the original (S for Push and Y for Pull*, for example), it's not an acceptable replacement for a flawed control scheme.

While being able to flip between old and new editions of the game is a nice idea, I can almost guarantee that the feature will hardly ever be used, and even when it is, it'll mostly be to compare the two versions. If the developers hadn't included this feature and instead just created a new engine for the remake, a huge number of the problems I have with the game could have been avoided.

Sadly, this is a textbook case of how not to do a remake. Other such games, like Bionic Commando: Rearmed, only changed the basics such as graphics, leaving the core gameplay aspects untouched. With this title, they've updated things that didn't need to be altered, and they did so in such a way as to make the game more complicated as a result. All of which means, as much as I want to, I simply can't recommend this.

Addendum: Out of curiosity, I figured I'd have a look at other reviews to see what others thought of this. Amazingly, I could only find one other review that mentioned the awkward control scheme, along with the other problems I picked up on. Nostalgia really is more powerful then I thought.

*S for Shove and Y for Yank. I'm really showing my age by knowing that.

MySims Racing (Review)

Yep, it's another review. This one starts the trend of me writing shorter reviews, though it sure as hell didn't feel short at the time. But then again, they never do, do they?

Minor note - this is a review of the Wii game. I don't technically own a DS, so haven't been able to try that version. Not that I'd want to - I don't think the DS does racing games very well. Adventures or RPGs though...

MySims Racing

The first and most important thing to remember about the MySims series is that it's made by EA, which explains a great deal. Taking an idea and running it into the ground is hardly a fresh concept with the company, after all. But they seemed to have grasped that just releasing the same thing a hundred times over isn't winning them many friends, so the MySims series features different types of games that happen to use the same cutesy graphics and oddly likeable characters.

The MySims series has been going for a few years now, and it's changed from its original design of 'The Sims, but cuter' to being 'Every other game, but cuter'. MySims Kingdom was a RTS with no battles, MySims Party was a minigame collection, and now we have MySims Racing, which doesn't even try to disguise the fact that it desperately wants to be Mario Kart with a plot.

Right from the off, the first hurdle any racing game has to overcome is the gameplay one. There's a lot of kart-based racing games out there, only most of which are trying to be Mario Kart. MySims Racing actually manages to pull off the hard feat of being almost, if not as much fun as Nintendo's premier multiplayer series. The primary aspect of the game, the titular 'racing' part, is honed down to a fine tee, with power-ups not dissimilar to Mario Kart (although much more fair - there's no Blue Shell equivalent, so you'll rarely be punished for daring to be in first place), vehicles which handle extremely well and a series of tracks complete with shortcuts and boost pads, just like every other kart game ever.

The actual physics of the cars is surprisingly tight, with unlockable parts for your vehicles, which let you customize it's handling, top speed, acceleration and weight. All these factors play a key part in gameplay - having a heavier car will means you can steer better and bash into others, while being smaller means you can zip ahead much quicker and maintain a faster pace. As you unlock newer parts, you'll be able to improve some of your vehicle's stats, but will have to lower others. It's a fine balancing act, and it adds a bit of tactical depth to the game.

That said, customization is the norm in these sort of games, so rather then getting genuinely useful parts for your cars, you generally unlock extras instead, such as different types of headlamps, or oddly random items that go on your bonnet (and completely block your view). While some of these items are quite fun, the majority are twee and will never be used, rendering them pointless. Having choice is all well and good, but what's the point if most of the choices are rubbish?

One of the other major features of the game, and the one that'll decide whether you win races or lose them, is the boost system that lets you grab air, collect jewels or just drift round corners to build up a boost bar. It'll take you a while to get used to it, but once you do, you'll find the majority of the game doesn't pose you with any major challenges, and you'll be getting gold medals with only two or three attempts.

For single players, there's actually a pretty well thought out campaign, which has you racing around tracks trying to collect a certain number of items or pass through a series of gates within a time limit, as well as the standard races and time trials. The plot, which is entirely forgettable, will barely cross your mind as you skim across the town map, accepting missions from the townsfolk and try to get gold medals on each one. Compared to Mario Kart's 'here's all the tracks we've made, go race around them a bunch' style of play, MySims is definitely the better game for solo players.

Multiplayer wise, the game is also great fun. There's a wide variety of characters to choose from, each having their own vehicle (Fire Chief Ginny, for example, has a Fire Truck, while the King has a very regal-looking car), the tracks are nicely varied and there's no cheap attacks - winning is mostly down to skill, no luck. If you have your own character on a different machine, you can store it in the remote and bring it over to another Wii, which is a nice touch, but it doesn't excuse the biggest failing - there's no online aspect to the game at all. Considering how much fun online play is in Mario Kart, it's disappointing that MySims Racing doesn't even try anything similar.

Overall, this is actually a pretty solid title, and though I'm a little loathe to admit it, I prefer it to Mario Kart - in the single player aspect of things. The lack on online multiplayer really does hinder the game, but if you've got some friends who don't mind coming over, you'll have a lot of fun with this title.

Opposing Force and Blue Shift (Review)

And on our left, we have another review. Well, technically reviews, but hush. This is probably the most altered review I have, since it received a fair few comments pointing out potential improvements I could make. The original review had a few awkward starts to paragraphs ('As well as', for example) and also included me essentially rephrasing the quote from the Blue Shift Unlocked team right after the quote itself. Oops. I also included a few more paragraphs, giving a bit more back-story to Half-Life and expanding on the new allies in OpForce, and finally the addendum at the end of the whole thing.

It's much better as a result. Honest.

Back in 1998, Valve released what is considered by many as the greatest game ever. Half-Life was, and indeed still is, an impressive title that featured an excellently realized story, friendly characters you actually cared about, a variety of challenging enemies and an interesting mixture of weapons. Valve's decision to never leave the First Person perspective meant that you literally controlled the protagonist, Gordon Freeman, all the way through the game, which in hindsight is a decision that would change the way games were played.

While in previous titles games would often use cutscenes to convey the story, here you didn't have that luxury, instead living through the events as they happened, barely able to pause for breath. As a result, you not only felt a surprisingly deep connection with the lead character, you really felt for the other characters who were caught up in the desperate struggle to survive as well. The game revolutionised the FPS genre, and had many fans desperate for more. Fortunately, more was exactly what they got.

Opposing Force

Opposing Force is one of three official add-ons for Half-Life (the others being Blue Shift and Decay, the latter of which was never officially released on the PC, though did make it eventually in the form of a fan-made port), all of which were made by Gearbox Software. They were also responsible for a significant amount of work on Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, though their name doesn't actually appear on the box. Opposing Force was their first release though, and while their subsequent work may have varied in quality somewhat, it's particularly impressive how they echoed Valve by making their début title an excellent one.

Rather then follow the established tradition of continuing the adventures of the lead character from the original game, as most other game expansions of the time did, OpForce instead focuses on a different character entirely, one Corporal Adrian Shepard, who would be considered one of the bad guys in the first game. The other twist is that is takes place at the same time as the original game, and you can even catch a glimpse of Gordon Freeman at times.

While playing through as a US Marine killing scientists and guards may be fun, it'd also be very easy, given your arsenal, which has been expanded to include several new military weapons, such as a Sniper Rifle and a SAW. So as well as a new alien race, Race X, there are also new human enemies, the Black Ops, who are there to clean up the Marines, who have failed themselves to clean up the original Xen aliens. Told in this summarised format it may seem a little complicated, but in the context of the game it's told well and makes sense.

The gameplay is essentially the same as Half-Life, but since HL was one of the best games of its kind, it's hard to fault the expansion for being more of the same with a few minor improvements, which is what its target audience wanted. There are a few new features, such as the ability to climb ropes and use other soldiers for different purposes, but for the most part it's still the same old game - the majority of the models are the same and the voice actors from the original are all dragged back to record new lines, so it really does feel like you're back in Black Mesa.

Since you're a Corporal now, it'd only make sense that you have others under your command. While in the original Half-Life you could only have the one security guard tag along with you on occasion, here you can command squads of up to four other soldiers, each of whom have their uses. The medic can be used to heal you or other squad members, the engineer can cut through doors and everyone can shoot at the bad guys, though with varying levels of success depending on which weapon they carry. Keeping these guys alive isn't as much of a trial as it was in the original game, as they can better look after themselves, allowing you to focus on the enemy rather then keeping them safe. It adds a more tactical feel to fights whenever you encounter them, and helps to make the game feel more fresh.

It's not just the soldiers who have variety - there's also Otis, a new addition to the Black Mesa Security Team. Essentially a more entertaining version of the already existing security guards, Otis is shorter, fatter and more amusing then normal, and packs a Desert Eagle as opposed to his colleagues simple pistol. While his presence is certainly appreciated, mostly thanks to his improved fire-power, it's also a curiosity, as almost all the lines he has are just sillier versions of what his partner says. Essentially, he's a comical character in an otherwise serious game, which is just as bizarre as it sounds. You could almost imagine his team-mate actually existing, but Otis seems more a cliché then anything else, and doesn't quite work as well as he could have. A more serious character would have been more appropriate, but it's a small flaw in an otherwise impressive diamond.

With hindsight, it's not too much a leap of the imagination to say that Race X is an advanced invasion force for the Combine, but at the time no-one at Gearbox knew what Valve had planned, and it's a shame that Valve have subsequently claimed that the two (or three) mods that Gearbox produced are not canon, as this really is an excellent piece of work that raises the bar on what an expansion should be, and it's one that every Half-Life fan should try.

Blue Shift

Blue Shift is the second add-on for Half-Life produced by Gearbox Software, and was originally intended to accompany the Dreamcast port of Half-Life. In the end though, that port was cancelled (even though it was essentially finished, as a leaked version of the game revealed), and Blue Shift was eventually given a stand-alone release for reasons of laziness.

As the developers of the Blue Shift Unlocked mod would later say: The BSP map file format was a little different than the standard PC format. Gearbox never converted it back to the PC format, instead opting to use their modified version of the Half-Life engine when they released it for the PC. This meant that the Blue Shift maps were not compatible with the normal Half-Life engine.

As a result of this, the whole package feels like it deserves more respect then it's actually earned. If Blue Shift had been released as a mod, this might have been more favourably received and looked at in a better light, but instead it was a stand-alone title, and so falls short on several counts.

One of the main reasons is the fact that it does little new from the original Half-Life. While a change to the armour system is interesting, it amounts to little more then a return to the old 'collecting armour shards' system that Half-Life had moved beyond. The only other real change is the fact that you now have to escort a scientist, Doctor Rosenburg, through the last third of the game, which is handled as well as it could be within the limits of the engine. But escort quests have never been appreciated by players, and this is no exception.

The rest of the game essentially plays out like the original Half-Life, only in new locations. While there's nothing technically wrong with this, it's literally more of the same, and having been spoiled by Opposing Force, players had come to expect more. While the levels are designed well (with the exception of a sole misaligned texture), there's nothing special or particularly unique about them, and they could have come from almost any well-made fan mod. There's no new weapons this time round, for example, and after being spoiled with the increased armoury in OpForce, this came as something of a let-down, though it's easily explained - you're a security guard, you've no need for anything more advanced then a pistol. There's no mention of the Race X enemies either, and this can't really be explained, except to say that Blue Shift was developed for a medium that didn't include OpForce (the Dreamcast port of Half-Life), and there was no need to include anything from it. While it makes sense from a technical point of view, it definitely left fans feeling cold.

The voice actors return once again, but there's something slightly off about them, as if they're almost being dragged back and forced to do their lines. They're recognisably the same people, but there's a certain something in their voice that means they don't quite match up to the extremely high quality of the original Half-Life, which is a shame. The new security guard lines make the character sound bored (which, given the situation in which they're used, may actually be appropriate), the typical scientists just sound condescending and the man playing Rosenburg is the only one who seems to put any energy into his lines, but unfortunately you'll get tired of his constant 'let's go!' tone rather quickly.

The main draw of the game, ironically, isn't the add-on itself but the HD pack included, which updates the majority of the models from the original Half-Life, Opposing Force and Blue Shift to the higher definition versions made for the Dreamcast port. The change really is impressive, and though it's rendered obsolete by fan-made models being even better, at the time is was a massive step up in quality and I'm sure tempted many a player to replay the games. For me the most impressive change was the shotgun, which also had the sounds for it changed - it went from a lousy 'pew' to a massive 'BOOM!' making it incredibly satisfying.

While there's nothing technically wrong with Blue Shift, it was simply marketed wrong. If it had been properly converted into a standard mod rather then a stand-alone title I'm sure more people would have looked on it favourably. Ultimately though, it wasn't, and people didn't.


I chose to review these two mods because I started a thread in another forum* asking for games to review. Someone suggested Opposing Force, so I said 'How about I do that and Blue Shift?', and then promptly did so without even waiting for an answer. As mentioned, Gearbox did make a third add-on for Half-Life. entitled Decay, though given that it was a co-op mod developed for the PS2 version of Half-Life, this was never officially released for the PC. Never underestimate the fans though - they eventually ported it themselves.

The style of add-on that Gearbox perfected led to some impressive fan mods following a similar story-telling technique - allowing the player to take control of another character who has to survive the events of the whole Black Mesa disaster. A few of these that I would recommend are Case Closed, Cleaner's Adventures (which I'm working on an English patch for), Escape (Part 1, Part 2), Operation: Nova, Residual Point, Visitors and HL Zombie Edition.

*Yep, the same small-knit forum I mention in my other posts.

Sam & Max - Insolence and Paranoia (Comic)

Been a while since I last posted. Not for lack of writing stuff, though. Just plain ol' idleness. I've written a bunch of reviews, not all of which are positive, but before I get to those, I thought I'd share this Sam & Max comic I made using the Telltale comic maker, which is still available at their website here. I basically made about seven different parts, copy=pasted them into Paint Shop Pro and then saved the resulting image. If I wasn't afraid of sounding like a self-important philistine, I'd say it was way better then most of the crap everyone else makes (it totally is though). Enjoy.

Sam and Max - Insolence and Paranoia