Saturday, 30 July 2011

Liero (1998/PC)

Liero is something of a recursive spin-off by proxy. It takes its name, basic concept and characters from Worms, released a few years prior, but is actually a rewrite of MoleZ, also made in Finland, which was the original Worms-in-real time game. My experience with MoleZ is limited, but from what I can gather, there are reasons that Liero became the international cult hit, other than it instantly being released as freeware (MoleZ wasn’t relinquished as freeware until late 1999).

Between a rock and a hard place:
Strategy and discretion play a
bigger role with more terrain
The sheer technical control you have over this game is awesome. While you don’t have things like setting off grenades after X seconds, you do get a ton of goodies. Loading times adjustable as a percentage from the standard, any integer from 0 (instant madness) to 9999 (excruciating), a limit to the number of bonus health and weapon drops, whether the weapon drops tell you what they carry or not, the amount of blood, whether the miniature overview map is present, if you want a fresh map or the previous wrecked one, whether you can load weapons you aren’t carrying, and a whole host of weapon constrictions.

In no-man's land:
In open territory, anything goes
Liero has a phenomenal arsenal for you to choose from, from the powerful, to the weak, to the ones more likely to damage you than your opponent. The chiquita bomb (a stark ripoff of the banana bomb) is among the most powerful cluster grenade explosive types, which also includes big and small nukes. There’s a slew of projectile weapons from rifles and shotguns to machine guns and guided missiles. Even more explosive weapons are available that don’t act as grenades, such as canisters of napalm, and the mysterious grasshopper that explodes and bounces around and explodes again a few times. A plethora of more tactical kit is available, from spikeballs, mines (earth-coloured ground ones, floating ones, and bouncing ones) and booby traps (disguised as health and weapon drops) to terraforming tools and even a fan that can blow weapons away or back where they came from. Not in the weapons section is the inbuilt ninja rope that comes from trying to change weapons and jump at the same time, crucial for navigating open spaces and clearing out of blast zones pronto.

Some weapons eject massive cartridges,
leaving you buried Rambo-style
Moreover, adjusting the fire rates shuffles the pecking order. With much lower times, the laser becomes a much more effective life-sapper in earth-heavy terrain, and the gun types become much more effective. At slower rates, a cluster grenade is the ideal weapon to pack a big punch and wipe out an opponent's health before they can scavenge for health restoration. At a loading rate of zero, most weapons are amusingly destructive and chaotic, and the frame speed will diminish rapidly, but this is a manically fun affair. You can adjust every weapon the game has to be banned from the game, available from the menu, or only available in weapons crates. So if you wanted to challenge someone to a game fighting only with the almighty “zimm”, you can. Why you would do such a thing is questionable, this ludicrous weapon is a projectile that bounces off a wall and comes back to where it came from, the midriff of your worm.

The AI doesn't really respond to any changes you make. If you set the loading times to 1000%, it will sit there happily waiting for its weapon of choice to recharge, in which time you can easily select a weapon you've allowed to remain loaded, mosey on up and take it out. Changing the game itself doesn't even have an effect. "Capture the Flag" and "Simple CtF" saw the opponent gunning for me just as much as the deathmatch "Kill'em All" mode. The implied advanced Capture the Flag does require a kill before being able to pick up a flag, but this changes nothing. In the simple version, where kill counts are meaningless, I lured it across my flag, and it jumped over it as if it were a landmine. Not only does it fail to tell the difference between a flagpole and an explosive, but it also fails to recognise its own weapons. After attempting to kill me with a dirtball salvo (I'm aware that there's a legitimate tactic of preempting a shot of mine with this ground-creating device), it switched to a small nuke, and fired it straight into the wall it just created, killing it. This is an annoying feature indeed, and slower players may find it more challenging to kill the AI before it finds a way to commit suicide than to win. "Game of Tag" is winnable purely by evasion, waiting for the computerised opponent to start its own clock. One thing the AI is occasionally pretty good at is using its grappling hook on you so you can’t get away, but overall, this is definitely best played by two humans sharing a keyboard (or two equally moronic AI worms, if you’re feeling particularly pacifistic).

Computer AI guide to success. Step 1: Enter catacomb. Step 2: Convert catacomb into valley using greenball tool. Step 3: Fire innumerable spikeballs, which are affected by gravity, vertically
Of course I’m being unfair on the AI. While commercial game output decrees that Liero’s AI isn’t up to scratch for 1998, the fact that this was done by a man in Finland makes the AI above acceptable. I’m not suggesting that Finnish nationality is inhibitory in any way, merely contrasting him against the hives of programmers in the major game creation powerhouses. The sound and graphics of course fall into the same department. No music is present, and sound effects are limited to muted beeps for menu movement, weapon firing and impact, a squelch of worm death, fart sounds on the structure-building dirtball and greenball weapons, and what sounds like Barry White vomiting when a worm is taking damage or low on health and spouting blood at a rate of its own volume every five seconds. The setting is just earth and a few rocks, but the hue blends are palatable, lumps and bones further break up the monotony, and you can decide if there should be showers or not. In the player options, you can even fine tune your worm to one of over 260000 colours for Rolls-Royce level individuality.

Victory is... mine
I'm a huge... fan
While Liero lacks the overt sense of humour of Worms (only the farting dirtball and the Barry White impressions come close to humour) and doesn’t have everything that MoleZ had, it’s an impressive little game that deserves its cult following. In a world of gaudy games where even online Flash games are more advanced and pretty, Liero retains the charm of a low-tech relic played through DOSBox (to my knowledge, you need DOSBox v0.7 or later to get sound out of Liero v1.33), whilst retaining a status as a great two-player-one-computer game that plays well to this day.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Dizzy: Prince Of The Yolkfolk (1991/Amiga)

For the most part, the Dizzy games are too long and large for what they are. 1987’s Treasure Island Dizzy sprawled over multiple islands, over which you were expected to solve map-wide puzzles with just three item slots, and one mistake was game over. Furthermore, the upbeat music loop was short, jarring and enough to drive anyone insane. You can argue that carrying items over frustratingly long distances is a feature of many games. Indeed, The Secret Of Monkey Island has a fair share of it, but it and a lot of that sort of game give you the ability to look at, combine, and commit various other unspeakable verbs to much of the scenery. Shifting an unstable egg with boxing gloves around two dozen screens is much more of a chore, especially as you feel that you’re playing something more akin to a platformer.

Fast forward a few years, past a bunch of sequels, and the decision to outsource Dizzy: Prince Of The Yolkfolk, released at the back end of 1991. What improvements are there? Some were already in place by Dizzy: Magicland. The music is characteristically Dizzy (characteristically annoying), but has more depth, variation and length to stave off the men in white coats. Dizzy doesn’t always die now, although he is still susceptible to drowning. He even has a handful of lives if you mess up, and you can pick a spare up on the way. You can control what you drop, which is also handy. The experience of constantly having to drop and shuffle your items in Treasure Island so that the rubber snorkel was always in the bottom spot whenever you went into the water is a timeless frustration. While Dizzy’s post-jump egg roll is as ludicrous and out of control as ever, you can control Dizzy’s descent if he walks off an edge, which, while not pivotal to success, provides a modicum of sense of control. The graphic interface retains the cheap and cheerful feel but is appreciably touched up.

A tough puzzle indeed
The puzzles are fairly easy here, which does leave the game ending a little bit too soon. The biggest difficulty lies in mounting the boat from the left, where you have to hop the inexplicable moat that’s six pixels west of the river, onto a small rock. This is still better than Magicland, where you’re expected to land a rolling egg onto the rim of a well, if you have the audacity to go east, which is, unsurprisingly, a requirement. The monkeys in the treetops with their neverending pile of pebbles being tossed randomly are kind enough to not show up. Rather than being snared by cages from above in ghost towns operated by no one, there’s only one real trap in Prince Of The Yolkfolk, and it’s more of a mental trap than a physical one.

A violent cockney troll blocks the
path to an extra life in sunglasses
Another yob from east London, an
armed hoodie with phat dance moves
So you’ve broken free, solved all the puzzles, paid the ferryman, danced with a doppelganger, flirted shamelessly with the princess, saved the kingdom from an arbitrary troll, scored a promotion to princehood after an altercation with the king, and snogged your hairy egg dame and woken her up from the plot-inducing spell of sleep. Fanfare! Nope, there’s a decent chance that she has the temerity to nag you at this point, and don’t come back until you’ve got it sorted. Why? As in previous titles, you have to do a complete “collect all of the thing” (cherries this time) sweep of the map, because the ultimate goal is in fact to get her the ingredients for a pie. On the plus side, there are less of them, they’re not so hidden, certainly very few actually need to be dug out from the scenery, and most of the ones that are hidden become revealed with quest progress.

The improved inventory
The inexplicable moat

You have won a hairy egg dame, a
pie that you won't eat, and the
helmet from the front cover!
The amazing ability of clouds to act as hard platforms has been curtailed, and there is some timed jumping required (you can jump onto the boat, but you’ve still got to walk along it as if it were a disintegrating bridge for some bizarre reason), which, along with other touches, adds to the arcade aspect of Prince Of The Yolkfolk. The initial scenario of you being locked in a mud cavern behind a door with some equipment acts effectively as a tutorial, one of several examples of things that make the game feel like a more secure adventure puzzle game. The reduced size and decreased ferreting for goodies in bushes and huts allow the game (and the player) to breathe freely, and the ease of the game notwithstanding, the ingredients make for what is arguably the best title in the series, faring better in both aspects of what it is trying to achieve.