Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Inhabited Island-Prisoner of Power (PC, 2005/7, Russia): Second-Rate Apocalypse Proves Mildly Satisfying
January 26, 2011, 3:26 am
Filed under: Inhabited Island - Prisoner of Power (PC, 2005/7, Russia)

I never planned on becoming a connoisseur of half-baked sci-fi videogame dreck from eastern Europe, but we all have our burdens to bear. That and I love spending time tromping around in an apocalypse, even if it is a second-rate one on the planet Saraksh.

When I finally acquired and installed “Inhabited Island: Prisoner of Power,” I couldn’t play it; it was in Russian-only. Of course, I had been in this position before. After spending significantly more time translating all the dialogue subtitles and menu items in the previous Russian-only game “Neuro” (PC, 2006) than actually playing it (see the appropriate blog post for the full, embarrassing disclosure), I swore I’d never do that again. Don’t get me wrong; it was totally worth it. I absolutely loved that game, its look, the narrative, the world it created. And I especially liked the idea that I was playing a game that, unless I had dumped a week and half into translating, I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise understand it.  But translating a game, massaging the prose to normalize it, and then having to fiddle with the text files while trying to make the program work properly without crashing (let alone the fact that I don’t speak, read, or write a nick of Russian and had to trust Google translator with every Cyrillic character and punctuation mark)—well, it’s the kind of activity that could be seen as…Avoidance behavior? A colossal time-waster? Obsessive-compulsive? Just too nerdy for words?

Well, surprise! Like most of my resolutions, my vow lasted precisely ten minutes—which is when I began dumping yet another 20 hours into translating this Akella Games blockbuster (ahem). [Trivia time: The game was also released in French-localization under the title “Inhabited Island: La Genese des Stalkers”—the use of that last word is a questionable attempt to sucker fans of “Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl” (2007) into buying this illustrious product. Also worth noting, there are several other, more popular games using similar monikers and source material (some by the same developer and publisher)—for example, the strategy game “Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power” (2007) and the adventure game “Inhabited Island: The Earthling” (2006). The game I am discussing here, however, is probably the least known of the bunch and is a first-person shooter.]

The game’s development apparently coincided with a 2008/2009 big budget film based on a 1971 novel written by the famous Russian sci-fi/social commentary duo, the Strugatsky brothers. Due to the sheer amount of material that was filmed (this is Russian storytelling after all), the movie was actually released as two separate full-length flicks. (As far as I can tell, they have never been officially released with translated subtitles.) So, in essence, the “Inhabited Island: Prisoner of Power” PC shooter game is a Russian version of a movie tie-in game. And we all know that movie tie-in games are notoriously horrendous (though I rather liked playing “Terminator: Salvation” regardless of its brevity). So why in the hell would I even bother spending upwards of 20 hours translating some crappy movie tie-in game that, in fact, the one living Strutgatsky brother has publicly disowned? (This is hearsay, but it rings true—reviews of the films were so-so at best, and this spinoff game was clearly buried under the floorboards rather quickly.) Was it all worth it?

Yes and no. Like so many of these games, the story behind it—a story that is not really present in the game at all, as usual—is the most interesting thing about it. To save myself a bit of time writing this post, I’ll paste an actual slice of text I translated for one of the loading screens early on in the game that summarizes the narrative and setting well enough: The 1971 novel “The Inhabited Island” by the Strutgatsky brothers chronicles the adventures of Max Kammerer, an amateur space explorer. Young and inexperienced, Max crashes on an uncharted planet he later learns is called Saraksh. At first, Max does not take his situation seriously. He imagines himself a kind of Robinson Crusoe stranded on an island inhabited by primitive but friendly natives. But reality is much more grim. His ship is mistaken as a weapon and it is destroyed. Maxim is eventually imprisoned in a work camp and is forced to travel the landscape deactivating dangerous automatic defenses, remnants of a long nuclear war. The population is governed by an oligarchy, the Unknown Fathers, through military repression and mind control. Cities are polluted and wrecked, and people live a life of privation and misery. Coming from a planet whose society is free from war and crime, Max is confused by what he sees around him. So, he vows to help a loosely organized underground movement, led by fellow work camp prisoner and once-respected psychologist Zeph, free its people from the control of the perpetually warring rulers.

So, onto the game itself: I can say I don’t think I’ve ever really played a game like this before, in some respects; yet in other ways, there’s nothing new here (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Early on, the gameplay has a singular focus—and most of the time that focus (I mean literally where you focus the crosshairs of your multi-function gun [an all-in-one rifle/grenade thrower/ rocket launcher/ incinerator] is squarely ON THE GROUND. Yeah, sightseeing and stargazing on this world has to be done carefully if you want to stay alive. Often, your primary function is to slowly make your way through the irradiated countryside and pixel-hunt among poorly drawn tufts of tri-colored alien grass for mines (both stationary and mobile) and shoot them from a safe distance before activating them with your big foot, while also sidestepping pools of irradiated water and green noxious gas produced by pretty yellow flowers. Sound like fun? Well, it is kind of fun. (I know—what a rousing endorsement!) In later missions, the scenarios become more complex, requiring a slightly more strategic approach. But the core gameplay doesn’t change throughout the game—once you learn the basics, you’ve experienced all this game has to offer. Repetitive—really repetitive. This of course has the added effect of eventually making you feel like you really know what you are doing by being able to traverse the maps expertly. All of this ultimately leads to a hasty and uninspired ending that only barely manages to wrap things up. Eh.

Here’s how it plays out in realtime: An early mission has you escorting a mute, expressionless geologist across the rural landscape so she can take some irradiated soil samples. Your job is to clear a path for her, deactivating any automatic turrets and detonating mines (of course, usually by stepping on them). While she hunkers down, you shoot at mines (some of which flip up in the air and blow up in your face or trundle menacingly along the ground toward you). When you are tired of being mine-fodder, you run up to a flame-spewing automatic turret and deactivate it (with a semi-satisfying explosion you have to run away from), then shoot at some of the bizarre, mask-wearing irradiated freaks that live in the wrecked countryside (all of whom sound strangely like squealing pigs when they die—kind of creepy). Then, after you step on a few more mines, the nameless geologist lady gets up and walks 20 paces and hunkers down again—rinse and repeat. Alternatively, a mission near the end of the game takes you into a decrepit (but still booby-trapped) underground missile defense complex (full of the requisite rusting computers, falling ceiling tiles, and mask-wearing freaks around every other corner) to hunt for a mechanism to deactivate all the above ground defenses (saving yourself a lot of mine-stepping in the long run). The dark, dusty, cramped quarters are much creepier, and the attacks require faster thinking. It is in these later missions that the actual storyline involving your comrades picks up, and your missions begin to have a larger goal of putting the various puzzle pieces together to help the oppressed inmates escape the work camp (and, potentially, overthrow the overlords). In between each mission, you return to the work camp where a few other inmates shuffle about (including your nemesis Porcupine, a foil who is never really developed properly), sell any items you have found during the mission away from the camp, upgrade your equipment, and of course go to bed—always to rest up for the next fetch quest. It’s completely linear, of course.

In the long run, some of these missions play out in a semi-interesting way. Considering that all these defenses have been left on “automatic,” you can enter an area to find an entirely unmanned war being waged amongst the various machines—mortars will fall that trigger the mines, which begin roaming across the ground in some cases, which set the turrets spinning away, which pummel the automatic tanks that begin hunting down the attacking turrets. I don’t know if this was a deliberate design choice, but it is kind of unique in that accidental-feeling way. And, of course, it all means immediate death if you wander into the middle of it. The point in many of these maps is to find the one right path through it all—with safe retreats somewhere along the way. Although it is quite blatantly trial and error gameplay (read: irritating), some of the pacing works well. For example, in an effort to dodge turret fire (and as the mortars whistle their way in), you quickly turn a corner only to find yourself standing 10 feet away from one of those damn mask-wearing geeks who shoots you right good. Death #32; here we go again. Most of the time though, the living enemies are braindead. They may effectively bum-rush you here and there, but they classically stand around in open view and allow themselves to be shot (squealing the entire time). The automatic defenses you come into contact with pose a much more lethal hazard.

Speaking of the environments, the maps try hard to suggest some kind of draw distance with a vast, multicolored sky that zips by overhead (the Strugatsky brothers’ novel apparently spends a considerable amount of time discussing the strange look of the sky due to the composition of the atmosphere), the dark mountains in the background, and a few “vista moments” that take you from cramped corridors into rolling brown fields that stretch to the horizon. But when it comes down to it, the biggest areas you play in are only really medium-sized. Atmospherically (the misleading marketing of the French release of the game previously mentioned notwithstanding), the world you traverse is clearly Chernobyl-inspired. A strange sounding wind blows across the abandoned post-war landscape (well, abandoned other than the mask-wearing, pig squealing, irradiated aliens lurking about), and every corner is littered with some rusty, peeling, cracked, industrial whatzit…massive husks of concrete buildings, toppled radio towers, big vents and pipes protruding from the ground, dilapidated work-camp housing with grass growing on the roof and weeds coming up through the floorboards, a defunct nuclear tower, bent chain link fencing, rusty metal bunkers, decaying iron gridwork…all of it poking through overgrown grass. My run-of-the-mill rig could play the game with graphics settings on maximum, and it didn’t look too shabby for an eastern European game from 2005 (or maybe 2007—the marketing materials say 2007, but the in-game credits claim 2005, so take your pick). However, a caveat is in order: If my Stalker-like description makes you want to rush out and attempt to find this title and play it, make sure to pull your expectations back—way back. Rather than the grandeur of a wrecked Capital Wasteland a la Falllout 3 or The Zone from that better-known Ukrainian game, what you get here is more like a series of wrecked rural power stations and nuclear plants hemmed in by barbed wire fence, with an unpopulated countryside that stretches beyond your reach on the other side of concrete barriers. Having framed it thusly, let me also say that it totally works. The allure of the apocalypse is there, no question; many of the depressing environments are haunting and evoke a disabused, forgotten technologically advanced civilization that killed itself off. Ultimately, it is one of those games that if you willingly relinquish yourself to it (and it seriously does improve as it progresses, which is so often the case with these titles—my advice is to try and ignore your first impressions for the first two chapters of gameplay, as well as the bits that take place in the prison camp in between missions), you’ll find yourself immersed enough to want to finish it. Maybe.

Postscript: Other than the time I spent translating the dialogue and GUI (English translation patches that are available at 3D Shooter Legends—Google it), there were some other “enhancements” I undertook to make the game a wee bit more playable. Some tweaks were small, like changing the color of the reticle to neon green so I could see it on screen (the default brown disappeared entirely amidst the rusty environs). But other changes were more significant: In what I consider a super-annoying design boo-boo, everywhere you go, there are bright orange leaves (as well as a thick dust) generated from nowhere, all of it blowing in your face constantly. It obscures absolutely everything, which I guess was the intent—to make the oncoming dangers harder to detect. But to me, all it managed to do was get in the way of me enjoying the wrecked landscape, such as it is. It took me a while to find the offending graphics file, but I did, and in the trash it went, and the game still ran fine. All this is just to say, in some respects, the title has some serious rough edges that need you’ll need to either endure or alter (if you are adventurous and have enough free time). Definitely another title for the “glad I pursued this and stuck with it” file.


Damnation (PC, 2009): The Saving Grace of Cooperative Play
January 10, 2011, 2:48 am
Filed under: Damnation (PC, 2009, US)

I spend a good deal of time on this blog defending crap. I guess that’s because I always found the potential for greatness, especially in games, more alluring than actual greatness. Bizarre? Sure. Or maybe I find that the dramatic story of a game gone awry—as long as it has some redeeming qualities—is much more intriguing than the story behind a triple-A game with God-given talent that is easy to love. Of course sometimes, amidst my machinations and justifications, I realize my loyalties are misplaced, and I’ll begrudgingly admit that a game is an undeniable piece of flotsam and there is no way to reasonably champion it.

Damnation skirts that line like few other games for me. But in the end, it avoids eternal hellfire (err…) because of one simple facet: the non-split-screen cooperative story campaign that allows two players to make their way through the crappy story on two  big, beautiful flat screen TVs. There are tons of biting reviews of Damnation across the net, and they are all deserved. The game is subpar on many counts. But few of these reviews discuss how the game functions as a cooperative experience. Before sitting down to endure Damnation with my LAN-partner, I had one question on my mind: Does playing this generally crappy game in co-op mode increase its fun factor, or do you just end up with double the crap? Fortunately, I found the former was true.

In the Civil War-era steampunk alt-history setting that is Damnation, you play as Hamilton Rourke (in third-person perspective), leader of (yet another) ragtag group of freedom fighters. Your partner plays as several different sidekicks that shift during the game. In this alternative chronology, steam power was discovered during the Civil War in America (a war which lasted several decades), and this new power source was used by PSI (Prescott Standard Industries) to create all sorts of high-tech stuff, including robots and fully steampowered canons, guns—and even some ability-altering drugs to make soldiers on the battlefield into fighting machines. The CEO of PSI (Prescott himself, a very bad man) is hell-bent on world (or at least American) domination, and our hero and his band of fighters (including a native American chick, Yakecan, with most of her boobs showing, naturally) exist solely to take him down. There ensues a series of missions, including rescuing scientists, infiltrating enemy lines, and even attempting to locate our hero’s long-lost love, presumably a prisoner of war. The atmosphere in the game is promising—one reviewer said it feels like Half-Life 2’s City 17 meets The Wild West, and that’s just about right. Throughout some of the levels, you can hear Prescott broadcasting his dystopian monologue, saying that no cities are left—Chicago, Baltimore, New York have all been lost in flames over the decades-long war—and that submitting to his will is the only way for us to regain our humanity. As I’ve said many times before, I’m a sucker for this type of thing, regardless of how rehashed it is.

But the story is so barely fleshed out, you’ll forget about most of it immediately—which is only one of the many critiques reviewers have leveled at this game, and rightly so. And if there’s one element that is even less developed, that is the characters. These are caricatures only, folks, no getting around it. These two shortcomings make it extremely difficult for me to recommend this game. But hang on a second.

The short lore of the game goes thusly: It was originally developed as an entry into the well-known Make Something Unreal contest where aspiring developers submit their creations using Epic Game’s Unreal Tournament 4 engine. Damnation won second place in the Total Conversion category, was picked up for full development, and was slated for a fall 2008 release. Several missed release dates later, it finally shipped in 2009. And then the trouncing began. The game is pretty much universally despised. Why? Pick a reason: Choppy framerates, intermittently clunky graphics, really rough cutscenes (this is especially true in my opinion), awful voice acting, truly irritating weapon sounds, dull shooting action—the usual suspects. While playing the game, it occurred to me that it does in many ways feel unfinished (a quality that fortunately, over the course of the game, improves considerably), or as if the developers couldn’t quite pull off the level of professionalism you find in other games from 2009 (I mean, not even close).

The game’s unique hook, pre-release, was that it was bringing “verticality” to the shooter genre. And it does that. The game’s maps are not so much expansive to the horizon a la Fallout 3’s capital wasteland, but the maps extend to dizzying heights and depths, which is pretty cool (although sometimes nonsensical, but hey). Deep caverns that must be traversed, impossibly constructed skyscrapers to be climbed, that sort of thing. With a free-roaming camera, it is fun to climb a flagpole atop a 40-story building and survey the tiny town below from a variety of angles (though this level of scale does bring a kind of fakey, dollhouse-like quality to the environments of the game, a strange phenomenon I have experienced with other titles (see “Scorpion: Disfigured” on this blog for example). Of course, high and low maps like this require a lot of Laura Craftian jumping, hanging, ledge-climbing, and zipline zipping. Then, right when you least suspect it (yeah, right), a group of enemy soldiers/robots/armaments will stop your progress and you must hunker down, or hang off the ledge, and use your sad little peashooter to clear the area.

For all its shortcomings (there’s lots), the game does have cooperative story mode, which is how I played it. And in my experience, if you enjoy cooperative gaming and the camaraderie (and frustrations) it can bring, it’s difficult to find a game to hate (even games with very few redeeming qualities). At the very least, while gaming side-by-side with someone to cooperatively complete all the missions that comprise the game’s narrative, you can at least marvel together at how awful something is. And that in itself can be fun. My partner and I scaled heights together, made acrobatic leaps together, got shot in the butt together (and also healed one another), climbed aboard a lightening speed tandem steampowered motorcycle that can scale canyon walls together—you get the picture. It was a casual kind of fun; like the title of this post says—cooperative play was this game’s saving grace. Some of the “look at us on our summer vacation!” shots here are evidence of that.

Visually, the game is a mixed bag. Generally, the textures are really sharp and vivid, which provides a hyper-realistic feel at times, and, as mentioned, the graphics engine has considerable draw distance. It’s a colorful game too, and it ran smoothly on a mid-line laptop. But then there are some surprisingly ugly, low-rez textures thrown in haphazardly as well, and there’s the bizarre dollhouse-like quality to many of the environments when taking the extreme draw distance into account. My coop partner and I also kept noticing “seams” where the various texture planes did not meet properly, leaving tiny bright “cracks” in the universe here and there—clearly a quality control issue. The camera control and character control are smooth, and while some reviewers have groused about difficulty with aiming and a convoluted control scheme, I really had no such issues. Reloading—simultaneously squeezing the left “aim” trigger and pushing downward on the left thumbstick—was kind of a stupid decision, but it was the only control combo that I considered awkward. In addition, your character is vested early on in the game with the ability to see enemies through walls (during a brief, but painfully clichéd, powwow with a native American seer). Gameplay wise, this provides you with the ability to alter your tactics and make the game more fun, but plot-wise…huh? It is one of the most “tacked on” abilities I’ve ever seen; it comes completely out of left field and seems disconnected from the rest of the game’s world.  The AI is unintelligent, and the too-small (in my opinion) third-person perspective shrinks everyone down in size to the point where your enemies (of which there are 4 or 5 varieties?) really have no characteristics—they all look generally like cookie-cutter stickmen in the distance standing around waiting to be shot.

But most of these concerns disappear when you have fun goofing around, casually making your way through the cardboard-thin storyline with a friend on the couch, each with his own huge plasma screen TV side-by-side on the wall. Actually, massive plasma screens make everything better. Anyway, my advice: Just don’t play it alone.