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The Essential Dinosaurs In Gaming Discussion Thread

by Alex Connolly » Wed Feb 25, 2015 9:41 pm

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No more timely a thread hath been writ. The titans of yore, now nothing more but fragile bone upon which we hang our dreams and delights, have been done certain justice in the gaming world. But is it enough? And why was Dino Crisis III set in space? Why did we never receive a sequel to ParaWorld? Is it time to revisit Site B's very own Trespasser? Was B.C. cancelled due to Peter Molyneux characteristically promising the moon, or a secret cabal of anti-Saurian bigots pulling strings at Lionhead?

These questions, and more, will be discussed here. Screenshots, thoughts, ideas, restrospectives. All things scaly, Pangolins -- as cute as they are -- notwithstanding.

Now is the time. The land before time.

*cue JP theme and/or Kenneth Branagh's VO for Walking With Dinosaurs*
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Re: The Essential Dinosaurs In Gaming Discussion Thread

by Alex Connolly » Thu Feb 26, 2015 5:01 am

Here's one I submitted to the old GamesAreEvil stomping ground when Pete was editor. Grand days indeed. The skinny of it? Strategy games have some of the very best art direction, and some of the most staid. Dinosaurs, the argument goes, do wonders when injected anywhere.

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While we toot the horn of genre aloofness here at Tactical Tuesday — and, to quote one Troy Goodfellow, “strategy gamers like to think they’re more intelligent than they really are” — you’ve got to face facts: sometimes, it just calls for dinosaurs. (At LAST! — Pete.)

The terrifically-named German studio Spieleentwicklungskombinat, conveniently shorted to SEK, released a delightful dino-themed real-time strategy game in 2006 called ParaWorld. While a mechanically conventional game, this remains to this day one of those lavish and unsung strategy games that don’t so much tax the mind as they do tickle the fancy of anyone who grew up with a love of our extinct reptilian forebears.

I’ve always gravitated to these types of games — ones where the mindshare odds are heavily stacked against them. While I enjoyed Warcraft 3 to a certain extent, Liquid Entertainment’s Battle Realms was more my bag. Such is the same here. While it’s harder to find something to cast a shadow over ParaWorld in the RTS doldrums of the mid 2000s, the small innovations of SEK’s fantastical title coupled with the gorgeous art and saurian fan service never quite got the traction it deserved. However, since the game goes for a song these days, I figure it’d be worth a shot massaging ParaWorld into the brainpan of anyone walking by and hope they make a cursory investigation for the cost of a Hadrosaur foot-long.

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There’s also another reason why ParaWorld should be played, which you’ll find wedged in the spiked reptilian tail of this column.
Perhaps there’s some comfort to be taken in ParaWorld‘s conventional approach to the RTS genre. This is no great evolution, but then again, Blizzard seem to have been running on incremental changes to their established franchises for years to little detriment. In ParaWorld, we have a tri-factional approach, and factional differentiation that is actually quite distinct in detail. We have base-building, we have resource collection and management. ParaWorld is a comfortable fit for anyone who grew up playing strategy games. If you know Warcraft, you know ParaWorld.

But that said, and before we get into the mechanical nuances, I just want to adulate the aesthetic merits of this game. Drawing from elements of Victorian steampunk, the pulpier side of 20th century adventure fiction and undoubtedly two and a half cups of James Gurney, the ParaWorld experience is a richer one that most. I’m perhaps biased, because while Blizzard and company have been proffering the same old tired fantasy clichés for years, this one presents both saurian player and free range units but also the curious megafauna of the Pleistocene. Incidentally, there are around forty species of dinosaur and mammal that roam about the various maps of ParaWorld — not counting the ones under a player’s command. Forty-odd magnificent species, ranging from the submerged Bothriolepsis and Kronosaurus to the airborne Quetzalcoatlus and Sordes, with a land contingent featuring Smilodons and Baryonyx and all manner of beast; theropod, sauropod and beyond. Each is wonderfully rendered in the plucky custom engine cooked up in Berlin eight years ago.

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Herbivore herds move about verdant plains, with lithe meat eaters stalking the thick, misty jungles. Prehistoric sharks and other marine life patrol the brackish rivers and shallow estuaries. This is further invigorated with a real-time day and night cycle; the ancient Lilliputian landscape soaked in the light from a blazing sun turns gold at sunset and a chilled nocturnal blue as night takes hold. Many strategy games have their mechanics scrutinized, lauded or maligned before all else, but scenes such as those within ParaWorld make me think that some of the best visual conceptions created in the medium have been in this particular genre.
To the game itself, ParaWorld‘s initial flaw is a unit cap of fifty. For a fellow spoiled on the outrageous unit numbers found in Supreme Commander or Sins of a Solar Empire, the comparatively minute force limit seems somewhat wasteful, given that worker units will further slim the offensive capabilities of a player’s army.

But, the subsequent intimacy granted by such a thin population is actually one of its stronger aspects. The emphasis on special attributes and skills that unlock for research purposes with each epoch — an approach akin to that seen in Age of Empires — has an almost RPG-like quality to it. There are the basic statistical buffs for both civil and martial capabilities, but then come hero units and their proximity abilities. Stacking also unit-specific skills and recoverable artifacts for army-wide bonuses; you’ve got quite an interesting array of tools at your disposal. While there isn’t so much a tech tree to climb — it’s all a very linear upward swing — the units themselves can be quite flexible once their capabilities are realized.

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Another intriguing aspect of ParaWorld relates that aforementioned mish-mash of styles. We have armored steampunk dreadnoughts plying the coastal waters, primitive jetpack troops arcing over the jungles, hulking exoskeletons amidst hordes of rampaging saurians and mammals. A veritable fever-dream of pulp. The most impressive part is that it all fits tactically. There are no egregious disparities within the combined forces, with a rivulet of strategic interconnectedness weaving a subtle yet effect web of player-created options. Archers or healers stowed aboard a transport dinosaur can create a mobile ranged weapon or support platform. Alternatively, fast-moving scouts can similarly be equipped and operate as a vanguard. Some wonderful unit combinations exist in ParaWorld and they’re all worth experimenting with.

The main campaign is mildly entertaining, but like most titles, I find myself gravitating to the skirmish side of things to simply have the full swathe of options at one’s fingertips. There’s simply too much to enjoy on a mechanical and aesthetic level to leash up the goodies behind the usual pedestrian mission-based progression. Why keep yourself from dinosaurs?! Why keep yourself from not only dinosaurs, but dinosaurs adorned with torsion siege engines and archers atop? Prehistoric boars and their lancers. Velociraptors and their handlers?

You can see why ParaWorld stands out, and it is this endearing feature of combining giddy fantasy with mechanical comfort that makes me wonder why there’s such little imagination in the fanciful strategy sphere. And this is the reason I had to bring ParaWorld to your attention.

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In the last few years, we’ve not really had visually creative titles — at least not on par with something like ParaWorld. We’ve had Universe At War, which would undoubtedly fall into the same mechanical efficacy as ParaWorld, but also sharing an aesthetic pomp and bombastic grandeur. Big alien striders stomping across the map, at scale. There was also the maligned Rise of Nations spin-off in Rise of Legends, seen below. Now, gameplay aside — which I actually quite enjoyed — it had magnificent unit and city design! The strange da Vincian machinery. Bizarre bronzed tanks and shimmering craft seemingly from the time of the Pharaohs. And the cities. Those gorgeous cities.

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In our chase of fantasy in the strategy genre, we’ve settled for weekday hamburger. You need only cast an eye over the MOBA games and their endless churn of tired old tropes and designs to literally wilt at the visual softballs being thrown. My beloved Endless Space was a shot in the arm from a visual standpoint when it came to fleet designs, and even then, it erred on the side of caution. If only the aesthetics and design of strategy gaming received the same exuberance as the mechanics they sit atop. Mentioning MOBA, DOTA and the rest of that markedly popular sub-genre makes me mourn for Gas Powered Games’ Demigod, pictured below.

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Demigod. Now there was a game with a sense of grandeur about it. Outrageously creative designs. Nothing plucked from the post-Tolkien book of snooze-inducing unit designs, no cheese fondue-dipped elves. Here, we had titans battling on celestial planes; ornate seraphs wheeling across the skies and thunderous armoured hordes trampling their way to the opposing citadel. We had units like the Unclean Beast and the Rook; both unsung hallmarks of semiotic conveyance. These are the stars we should be reaching for. Instead, I feel everything outside of military wargames — which should rightfully be as visually accurate as possible — has been focus-tested and beveled to an unacceptably banal level. A level devoid of character, where unit stylization, mere stylization, is seen as pressing the creative boundaries.

And I won’t protect my children, either. ParaWorld is a great example of the point I’m arguing, but it could be more. Here’s a secret. Lean close. If you want a true spectacle of magnificent visual design and animation, I implore you to investigate the maligned Supreme Commander 2, pictured below. The old strategy bores and grumbling veterans can whinge and pontificate on the simplification of the franchise in the second iteration, but what these insufferable people don’t understand or appreciate is the value and intricacy of flavor through animation. The experience emphasized through design. I’ll save Supreme Commander 2 for another time, but suffice to say, it is one of the shining examples of sheer visual enthusiasm. It knows it can play big and play boisterous.

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While this argument might seem superfluous and trite, especially considering the incredible popularity of the MOBA scene, I do believe strategy games can proffer some of the medium’s most creative and intricate in visual design. Why settle for just another comfortable been-there-done-that? Thus, ParaWorld is a beacon in the conceptual darkness of strategy game unit design, one of the very few who can confidently put themselves out there as something truly satisfying.

As a game, ParaWorld more than gets the job done. But as a piece of intricate ocular satisfaction? It blows a lot of the competition away from its quiet place in the shadows of the genre.

Did I mention dinosaurs?
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Re: The Essential Dinosaurs In Gaming Discussion Thread

by Alex Connolly » Thu Feb 26, 2015 5:09 am

I'm in the process of whittling down my personal pick of Jurassic Park games, from the obscure to the established. Some good, some tragic, some markedly interesting. We all know the story of Trespasser - where ambition broke the camarasaur's back - but the ones we often forget. The ultra-rare Lost World games on GameGear and Genesis were great, particularly the latter. Made by the devs behind Ecco The Dolphin! Also, the SEGA CD had the curious Jurassic Park point and click adventure game, with an eleven hour time limit. Curious game.
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Re: The Essential Dinosaurs In Gaming Discussion Thread

by RedSwirl » Thu Feb 26, 2015 6:29 pm

Pretty much just Turok for me man. Particularly Turok 2.

Though I heard somebody's trying to remake Trespasser in the CryEngine. Fitting, seeing as Trespasser basically tried to be Far Cry eight years before Far Cry.
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Re: The Essential Dinosaurs In Gaming Discussion Thread

by Bowley » Thu Feb 26, 2015 6:52 pm

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If we're talking about dinosaurs, we might as well get this one out of the way.

I vaguely remember playing a Blockbuster rented Turok: Dinosaur Hunter at my childhood friend's house, but Turok 2: Seeds of Evil was mine, and I played it in all its foggy, framey glory on my N64. I don't know who Turok is, or what is going on (and I really don't care), but it was a good looking sci-fi FPS for its time. Nowadays, if its remembered for anything, its most likely the difficulty and possibly the variety of weapons (google "Cerebral bore"). The uber weapon, which I never obtained without cheats, was a huge blue nuke laser that was fun to watch.

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Did you play this game? It's HARD. I struggle to remember exactly why, though. I remember ammo was sparse, health and save points were even moreso. You didn't have extra lives and you died fast. Enemies were quick, tough or both, and the N64 controller was not easy to wrangle with. The game never made any sense to me, I never knew where to go or what the fuck to do. The map was not good, the game had an open feel, but paid for that with fogginess. I never came anywhere even close to beating Turok 2, thankfully, cheat codes were there to help.

Ok, so what? Well, Turok 2 was a ball buster, but enemies were fun to fight. I don't think the glasses are too rose-colored when I say that the AI was somewhat intelligent. Of course, dinosaurs would just run and jump straight at you, but the humanoid enemies provided a challenge, often running and hiding when you had the upper hand, camping and waiting, and using cover well enough for even a game like Gears of War. The enemy animations were great also, especially the death throes, which differed from weapon to weapon and enemy to enemy, which made killing all the more rewarding. Oh yeah, and everything bled profusely, because 90's.

Anyway, dinosaurs, they're in this game. They start you against some pretty standard velociraptors, which were tough to fight with a pistol and a bow in the opening level. Soon after that, you encounter dinosaur people that get all jumpy and scratchy at you with their teeth and claws...and then they start using guns. At some point you switchover to aliens, but this isn't "The Essential Aliens In Gaming" thread.

As far as this thread is concerned, Turok 2: Seeds of Evil should be marked for the fact that you can ride a giant styracosaurus fitted with dual grenade launchers and machine guns.

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Re: The Essential Dinosaurs In Gaming Discussion Thread

by Alex Connolly » Thu Feb 26, 2015 7:03 pm

Turok 2. What a delight. Great contemporary to Quake 2, I felt. Big and chunky.

There's a series that needs to come back, even if it did briefly a few years ago (and hell, I even played Turok Evolution and...kinda enjoyed it?). But it shouldn't be space marines. It should be all bows and arrows and bolas and the insanity of the old weaponry.

I went back to Trespasser a few years ago after playing it ten years prior, and there's no mistaking it is still a malformed beast within the chrysalis of fine intentions. But that ambition. Unlike Elite, there really was no way to infer anything in Trespasser. Everything was on the table. The level design was akin to Shadow of Chernobyl's 'living paddocks', so while it wasn't as open-world as it wanted to be, they did furnish things rather wonderfully.

Shame about absolutely everything else. Still, I suffered Minnie Driver's hyper-extension because the game remains a wonderful, noble mess. May we one day see the Site B survival FPS revisited.
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Re: The Essential Dinosaurs In Gaming Discussion Thread

by Angry Jedi » Thu Feb 26, 2015 7:49 pm

Fun fact: one of my earliest paid writing gigs was writing a full walkthrough for Turok 2 for the Official Nintendo Magazine here in the UK. I ploughed through that game -- which, as has been previously noted, was fucking difficult -- and submitted my copy, then had to play through the whole damn thing again at the mag offices to take screenshots... and then the pre-release version had a bug just before the last boss which froze it up and wiped my save, so I had to play through the whole damn thing again on a retail version just to get screenshots of the last boss.

Consequently, I'm in no hurry to ever play that game ever again. It was pretty cool, though; I recall it had some great music, a batshit nonsensical plot and, of course, the Cerebral Bore. Multiplayer was pretty fun, too, albeit disappointingly dinosaur-free.
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Re: The Essential Dinosaurs In Gaming Discussion Thread

by Bowley » Thu Feb 26, 2015 8:11 pm

Angry Jedi wrote:Fun fact: one of my earliest paid writing gigs was writing a full walkthrough for Turok 2 for the Official Nintendo Magazine here in the UK. I ploughed through that game -- which, as has been previously noted, was fucking difficult -- and submitted my copy, then had to play through the whole damn thing again at the mag offices to take screenshots... and then the pre-release version had a bug just before the last boss which froze it up and wiped my save, so I had to play through the whole damn thing again on a retail version just to get screenshots of the last boss.

Consequently, I'm in no hurry to ever play that game ever again. It was pretty cool, though; I recall it had some great music, a batshit nonsensical plot and, of course, the Cerebral Bore.

That's the stuff of nightmares.

I can't imagine doing that, I just watched a youtube clip of the game, and I realized I left something important out of the post above; the game's small FOV was intensely nauseating to me.

Angry Jedi wrote:Multiplayer was pretty fun, too, albeit disappointingly dinosaur-free.

That's probably why they made Turok: Rage Wars, which definitely had a playable raptor. I remember liking that game a lot, but it came out on the tail-end of Goldeneye's 4 player splitscreen multiplayer days for anyone to really get into it.
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Re: The Essential Dinosaurs In Gaming Discussion Thread

by Bowley » Fri Feb 27, 2015 3:12 pm

More dinosaurs!

I did not play the original past the demo, but Tomb Raider: Anniversary has raptors and a good T-Rex boss sequence.

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Re: The Essential Dinosaurs In Gaming Discussion Thread

by RedSwirl » Fri Feb 27, 2015 3:53 pm

One main thing I remember about Turok 2 is the levels were fucking huge for the time. I don't know how they size up to today's levels, but in 1998 they were goddamn labrythine. I remember a guide saying one of the levels contained like four miles of terrain. Some levels could take hours, even with cheats. On top of that you had the exploratory nature of Turok 1 and 2 that actually involved revisiting levels from a hub world, though Turok 1 I think did it a lot more. I also remember Turok 2 having some of the most cinematic presentation on the N64. Turok 3 blew my mind be managing actual lip syncing on the N64.

Yeah, the games hint at some kind of deep lore. It's a comic that's been running since the 50's.
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