Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Neuro (PC, Russia, 2006): The Greatest Game You Never Played
October 19, 2010, 3:56 am
Filed under: Neuro (PC, 2006, Russia)

Admittedly, the title of this post is an overstatement—calling it “the greatest” is evidence that I have an extremely soft spot in my heart for “Neuro.”  Probably more accurate would be this: “A Damn Fine Game You Never Played (if you’re a westerner, that is)” but that’s not the accepted cliché, and it’s too clunky for a title.

My relationship to this game, at present, is totally unique. It may not be an interesting story, but it might be an interesting study in borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder. I am always trawling the back pages of gaming sites to discover the lowdown on titles that have become vaporware, or were barely released, or were released but widely dismissed—I mean, that’s sorta the point of this half-baked blog, to provide some coverage to (and moderately friendly discussion of) modern games that, for some reason, just didn’t float in the public sphere (at least in the west) but may nevertheless have some modicum of originality or inventiveness (or even just plain old fun gameplay) hidden somewhere amidst all the general crappiness of them. (Geez that was a bad sentence.) Moving on.

In my research (see how serious I take all this?), I came across a dude (Marphitimus Blackimus) on YouTube playing a game called “Neuro” on his “Obscure First Person Shooters” channel he created. He covered quite a number of games I had never seen before, many of them from countries other than the U.S. But none of them caught my eye quite as much as “Neuro.” Maybe it was the artwork in the vaguely sci-fi-ish short clip he showed, or maybe it was the title, but something about it intrigued me—a lot. Even Marphitimus didn’t have a whole lot to say about it, other than it was in Russian and he didn’t understand what was happening exactly. So, I began my hunt for it (happening upon the similarly titled but unrelated game “Neuro Hunter,” which seemed sorta blah to me in comparison). Long story short, after a month of trying to find it (legally and illegally), and only digging up some outdated Gamespot and IGN links with what were clearly permanent “TBA release dates,” I gave up. If the game had actually ever been released way back in 2006, it had either never been released in the west, or it had sold 10 copies and long ago disappeared without a trace (which only made the entire affair more intriguing to me).

Another month passed, and a thought from the blue struck me: Why not ask Marphitimus where the hell he got it from? So I did, not expecting a response. But within one unbelievably short hour, this kind soul had written me back with the URL of an encyclopedic site called 3D Shooter Legends. The site was a trove of information about all shooter games from the early 90s to now—the site itself is dedicated to keeping alive the memories of past shooters from all over the world. I went crazy for about 30 hours straight combing the entire thing. I found at least 10 intriguing, bottom-shelf, nonwestern games I had never seen nor heard of before. Heaven.

Eventually, following a number of links and purchasing a membership to a different for-pay site, I located Neuro, downloaded it, and all giddy, finally got to lay my eyes on—wait, the entire thing was in Russian. I couldn’t even read the introductory menu. People on screen were speaking in Russian. But lucky for me, there were at least subtitles on screen—oh, all in Russian too. Fail, fail, fail. And it all looked so cool, for an eastern European sci-fi game from 2006 (so that automatically means the graphics were Doom III-era 2004, but I love that stuff). But I didn’t even know where to go or what to do in the game, what was happening, or who the people were. I guess I could have stumbled my way through it, but wouldn’t it have been more fun if I could actually understand it? After 10 minutes I turned it off, disappointed, but not beaten yet.

Cracking open the game files on my hard drive, I found the subtitle text files—the actual subtitles flashing on screen during gameplay when characters spoke. Hmmmm. But it was all in Cyrillic characters. I do not know Russian. I know English fairly well though (I’m a tenured Associate Professor of English at Penn State after all). With a few online clicks, I found a “type Russian on your own keyboard” website, and with the help of the Google Translator Kit, I was starting to translate the subtitles….line by line (or more accurately, character by character). Due to technical difficulties I won’t bore you with here, I had to translate the game pretty much one letter at a time. Not thinking at all about how long this would take me, I forged ahead.

Confession time: It took me about 60 hours. If you call me obsessive-compulsive, I wouldn’t contradict you. But 60 hours later, I had translated the game in its entirety (absolutely something I had never done before), as well as fiddled with some of the graphics files for the game’s menus so they could be read as well). When I first tried it out with the new English wording, it crashed, and crashed again. I fiddled some more, figured out some problems, and got it working, finally (but it was terribly finicky). The odd thing is, of course, having translated all the text files, I knew the story in its entirety and what the folks on screen were discussing. This, you might surmise, would take a wee bit of fun out of actually playing the game, knowing the narrative (with all its twists and turns) ahead of time. True. However, I knew it all completely out of context with the on-screen action. It put me in a strange kind of position when actually playing the game—having spent 60 hours with the game and not yet having played it. Odd, yes, but it did not ruin my experience of the game at all. I’d say I felt closer, and more forgiving of, the game than I would otherwise. Anyway, as you can see, this is the reason why I have such a soft spot for this title. Whew! OK, onto the game itself.

Less than a high-flying space opera, the narrative in “Neuro” is best described as a low-key crime drama with a futuristic backdrop that (in a typical Russian way) takes plenty of time to philosophize on the devolution of humankind. Its general premise is this: Even though we have spread ourselves out amongst the stars and developed technology to improve and enrich our lives, we’re still a bunch of low-brow, childlike monkeys who threaten and exploit each other whenever possible. Our hero—often called foolish by other characters—is James Gravesen, a law officer who is attempting to nab a smuggler, Ramon, who is dealing in “Purple Death,” a highly dangerous weaponized substance that can “blow a hole through a planet three times the size of Sorghum” (yes, I really did translate this thing). While James tries to take the legal and fair route to his objective, it turns out that Ramon is highly connected within the government and is able to slip out of James’ grasp. Slowly, the idealistic James becomes embittered, loses a girlfriend amidst the chaos, is possibly betrayed by a close comrade and fellow law enforcer, and hooks up with some questionable characters to help him kill Ramon (which he finally does, even though it sends him into a depression). Generally, everything works out in the end though.

Doesn’t seem like much of an adventure story, but there’s a lot of first-person shooting amidst all the philosophizing, of course. (I removed the traditional-lower-right-hand-corner-fps-gun-view in most of the screenshots here just because I love the environments so much and want to show them off—that, and the skins on the weapons are only so-so, nothing to write home about.) More cool is the “Neuro” part of “Neuro”—and that are the psi-abilities. As a policeman of sorts, James has biotechnology implanted in his brain that gives him a handful of pretty fun psi-weapons: From 30 feet away and only using his mind, he can light enemies on fire (very fun to watch them flare up, scream, and run frantically about as they die); blow them off their feet and crush them (when hit, enemies leap backwards into the air and wheeze like they’ve been punched in the chest, funny sounding); and make them go berserk and kill their allies (or bum rush you, which is no fun). He can also see through walls to identify where enemies lurk, and he can heal himself. All of this takes a psi-energy which depletes with each use but resets over time. The enemies, by the way, are mostly crooks trying to stop you from completing your various missions, and I was generally impressed with the AI. For a 4-year old game when I played it, the AI would do all the requisite hiding, rushing at you, dodging attacks. Enemy NPCs in today’s games are clearly much more sophisticated, but these dudes were surprisingly intelligent, and I enjoyed sparring with them—and lighting them on fire.

I love the art work in “Neuro.” Again, this is a game from 2006, and I’d say the graphics hover somewhere around the 2004 Doom III timeline (eastern European after all), but perhaps spiffed up a bit. Unlike Doom III though, “Neuro” is a well-lit game that presents you with a generally slick, clean, future-like design, with smooth lines and curved surfaces. Details, such as they are, abound—floors are made of interlocking metal plates rather than monolithic plain surfaces, doorways have strings of lights surrounding them, lots of sci-fi machinery and computer screens everywhere as you’d expect. The use of color is outstanding and bold—gray metal walls with stripes of scratched burnt orange or bright yellow banners. You do not spend much time in this game crawling around dark spaceships. I appreciated that, and it was a nice change of pace. Many of the spaces are quite large, and while the entire game pretty much takes place indoors, the game never feels claustrophobic. A great example is the “city” where one battle takes places (and where your girlfriend blows up real good): It gives a very distinct feeling of a city built indoors, lots of chain link fencing and metal tracks where cars ride and catwalks where people stroll, but tons of bright, flashing neon signs, and interlocking buildings stretching up to the enclosed ceiling. Just really neat. I kept thinking about “Bladerunner” or something, but that’s perhaps a bit too generous of a comparison.

One weakness of the game: Much of the dialogue (that I spent 60 hours translating, just wanted to get that in there again), takes place on a static screen (it’s actually your PDA screen where your objectives are listed) with the two heads of characters chattering away, both facing you, but talking to each other. Talking heads, you might say. This feels old-school and makes it seem as though the characters in the game are not actually interacting with one another. A lot is said during these exchanges, much of it to drive the narrative forward, so paying attention matters. I realize that this sort of organization allowed for the next chapter to load, but it took me out of the game-space. Of course, facial animations are super-basic, and in general facial rendering is cartoonish—again 2006-cum-2004—instead of realistic, but the game tries. One other super-irritating aspect of the game had to do with the game’s memory cache (I say that like I know what I’m talking about, but I don’t). The upshot was that game saves could very easily be corrupted; if I exclusively used the quicksave function for an hour while playing, and then made a proper save, that save could not be loaded—game crash. Errrr. Similarly, if I left James standing in a safe place for a while as I went to go get a sandwich or something, I would come back to a jittery game that would crash. I don’t know why this would happen, but I imagine it had something to do with the game’s memory. I got through the game by not using the quicksave function, and just making proper game saves whenever needed. It was an irritant, but I managed.

Whenever I come across one of these not-so-well-known-in-the-west games, I assume it was never released here because it was considered to be junk, or there simply was no potential western audience. Sometimes that’s true. But in this case, I am quite baffled why “Neuro” was not picked up by a western publisher, even in some limited way. The game is clearly very carefully crafted, thoughtfully written, and the gameplay works really well, with some nice set pieces, some cool environments, and some high-tension moments (escaping a space station as it slowly burns and loses its orbit—real fun, almost on a Half-life 2 scale). I read a 2005 interview with the producer of the game where he was expressing his hopes that when they showed the game at E3 that year, they would find a western publisher. It didn’t happen. That’s a real shame because unless you’re OCD like I am, you are unlikely to be able to play this gem.