Expendable for PC review

DISCLAIMER: I’ve received a copy of this game through my Steam Curator page, so I won’t blame anyone if this review is taken with a pinch of salt. However, I promise to be as objective as possible.

There are some games that usually pass beneath the radar (or I’ve never heard of), but that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to be featured here on Retro Freak Reviews (and I’m sure you’ve read the disclaimer above). Anyway, today’s feature is Expendable.

Expendable (AKA Millenium Soldier: Expendable in some European countries) is a shoot’em up/action game made by Rage Software and originally released in 1998 for Windows and in 1999 for Dreamcast. It was ported the following year for Playstation and in 2016, it was re-released for Windows and Macintosh in GOG.com and in 2018, in Steam (but only the Windows version).

But, as always, let’s look at covers first:

407594-millennium-soldier-expendable-windows-front-coverThis is the PC cover featuring a bald soldier guy (with a wicked tattoo on the back of the head) standing with a weapon on his hand in front of a group of aliens. It’s not a bad cover and it shows exactly the type of game it is.

But the former wasn’t the only PC cover in existence:

191467-millennium-soldier-expendable-windows-front-coverI won’t deny that the X logo is cool and all that, but honestly, I hate covers just featuring logos or minimal design. It’s  not only impossible to tell the type of game it is, but in my opinion, logo covers are just lazy!

However, the console versions had their own cover:

5998-millennium-soldier-expendable-playstation-front-coverWell, it might not be as stylistic as the PC covers, but it’s without a doubt, more action-packed. It became the most famous cover of the game and it’s easy to see why and I’m kind of torn between this one and the original PC cover.

Anyway, it’s time to boot this sucker and mow down waves of aliens:

And as funny as the intro is, it doesn’t explain the backstory at all. But according to the manual, in the far future, mankind has taken to the stars and colonised several planets, but an hostile alien race started to attack and conquer said colonies. So, an army of clones is created and sent to liberate the colonies from the aliens. With one clone soldier at a time, apparently (or two, if you’re playing with a friend). So, everytime you lose a life, you don’t actually lose it, one of the clones dies and it’s substituted by another, hence the title (I think there would be more sense to just send all them at once or in large groups like, oh I don’t know, AN ACTUAL ARMY?!)

So around 15 levels (without counting the bonus levels), you go around several planets (depicted in the nice waiting screens), collecting several weapons and power-ups and shooting aliens in the face (and in other parts too) until they’re defeated. And that’s about everything you need to know about the game’s backstory. Then again, it’s a run and gun action style game, there isn’t much else needed. And that’s where the problems begin: from the generic looking clones and the equally generic looking aliens (that most of the time, look more like robots) to the level design (that’s not as generic as one would expect, especially in the later levels).

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But although all the weapons are cool (except for the grenade launcher), you can only carry three at a time, and the moment a particular weapon’s ammo ends , it reverts back to your initial weapon (that has infinite ammo but it’s also pretty week). But for me, there are two unforgivable sins that a game of this particular genre should avoid: first, it doesn’t matter how many extra weapons or power-ups you were able to collect, it’ll always revert back to the initial weapon at the beginning of each level without any power-ups; and second, the controls aren’t very good (which is essential in any action game). It doesn’t matter if you’re playing with a gamepad, a joystick or the keyboard; the controls will get from over-sensitive to non-responsive in a matter of seconds (really awful if it occurs during a boss battle). The best control combination is using a mouse along with a WASD keyboard scheme (like in a modern FPS), but it’s still far from perfect.

However, the game still has a few good points. Like I said before, the level design isn’t that bad, with some colors here and there and lot’s of secret areas to discover, the UI ingame is quite helpful, with the clone’s face in the corner changing to a skull as you lose health; the waiting screens look really nice, the weapons are almost all good, the sound effects (especially the explosions) are great and some of the bosses’ designs and battles are actually fun and challenging. The little humor there is, it’s actually funny and if there was more of it, the game might have stood out more instead of looking so generic and bland. The animation is okay as far as later-90s 3D games go, but the soundtrack is almost non-existent. And as far I liked the level design, the fixed camera sometimes changes perspective without notice, which can be a bit disorienting.

45894-millennium-soldier-expendable-windows-screenshot-surrounded

In overall, I consider Expendable a pretty average game and if you’re a fan of run-and-gun style shoot’em ups; like Contra, Cannon Fodder or Midnight Resistance, you might want to give it a shot but, otherwise, I can’t really recommend it. Like I said before, it’s too generic and bland. If it had better controls and more humor throughout the game, Rage could have a serious spiritual successor to Contra on their hands.

I haven’t played any of the console versions, so I can’t really compare them with the PC version. You can buy the PC version here at GOG.com or here at Steam. Around 2012, a port of the Dreamcast version called Expendable: Rearmed was released for Android, but it’s no longer available on Google Play.

I know this was a somewhat short review, but then again, there isn’t much to say about this game. But next time, I promise to avenge this with a better and bigger review. Until then, keep on shooting and playing.

 

Theme Park DOS review

Now, we’re just upping the ante, aren’t we? Still, it’s impossible to make a Bullfrog retrospective without mentioning another critical and commercial successful title, which is perhaps their most colorful game that also begun it’s own influential series. I’m talking about Theme Park.

Theme Park is a managerial strategy game developed by Bullfrog and published by Electronic Arts. It was originally released in 1994 for the 3DO, Commodore Amiga, DOS and Macintosh. The following year, it was ported to the Amiga CD32, FM Towns, Genesis/Megadrive, Jaguar, PC-98, Playstation, Sega Mega-CD, Sega Saturn and SNES/Super Nintendo. In 2007, it was remade for the Nintendo DS and in 2008, that remake was ported for the Playstation 3 and PSPand in 2012, it was ported for the PS Vita. In 2013, the original version was re-released for Windows and Macintosh. There’s also an iOS remake with microtransactions which was released in 2011, but it wasn’t as well received.

Whew, Theme Park might just be Bullfrog’s most ported title. But, like always, before we take a look at the game itself, let’s first look at the covers, shall we?

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This is perhaps the most famous cover and it’s quite adequate for this game. It could perhaps show more on the background, but you really don’t need anything else.

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If you saw my Populous review, this cover looks very familiar, doesn’t it? It’s a lot better than the original cover and it’s not only more colorful but also conveys better what the game’s about.

99813-theme-park-playstation-front-cover

Now I know this one’s just a image took from the CD intro but it’s better suited for the cartoony and comedic look of the game. It’s perhaps not as busy as the previous cover, but I like it.

195224-theme-park-nintendo-ds-front-cover

Meh! Although truth be told, the design isn’t that bad, but it could definitely use more colour.

And now, let’s boot this sucker into the roller coaster, shall we?

The intro is from the CD-ROM version of the game and between the eerie music and the Willy Wonka lookalike, it feels like the start of an horror movie. And that hole at the end of the roller coaster? Believe me, it goes straight to Hell! The menu screen could use a bit more work. It reminds me a bit of Syndicate‘s and it really shouldn’t. Perhaps a rounder font would be better suited.

When starting a new park (and game), you have quite a range of options to customise your gameplay: from the park’s name, to the difficulty levels and more. Your gameplay can be just focused to build and customise theme parks or it can have a lot more depth to it, in the several managerial options (like buying stock for your stores, negotiating your employees’ wages or researching new rides and attractions). The fact that you can make your gameplay more or less complex, just bring a whole new level to the game itself, as it caters to both casual and hardcore strategy players.

90399-theme-park-dos-screenshot-select-a-country-for-first-park

In building your first park, you have no other option than to start in the UK, because you don’t have any money to buy lands and in the UK, it’s free. So, you always start there. At the beginning, you only have a few rides and stores to build. You unlock the rest as you play along or research for it (depending on the type of gameplay you chose). You even have the option of a mini-tutorial which explains the basic game mechanics. But to properly understand the most complex mechanics, I recommend reading the manual first.

You also have to hire employees to manage the rides and stores, including handymen to fix broken rides, mascots to entertain the public and janitors to keep the parks clean, among others. Every now and then, a new screen pops up and you have to play a minigame in order to negotiate the employees’ wages with their representative. Also a small hint: make sure to program your janitors’ routes to make sure they actually clean the park.

89995-theme-park-dos-screenshot-empty-park

The very start of the game.

Not only do you build and decorate the park, but you also have to micromanage every little aspect, like the ride’s efficiency, the tickets’ prices, the shops’ stocks, service and prices; etc. And when building the big rides, like roller coasters, you can customise its length and altitude to your liking (even create unrealistic or rides that would be too dangerous in real life). The objective is to make sure that your park’s visitors always have a good time and leave satisfied (and hopefully, also with their wallets empty).

In case your park isn’t going well and the money is starting run low, you can always take a loan from the bank, but of course, you have to be aware of the interests and if your park still doesn’t have any success (and no money to pay the interests), the bank can always take it away from you as your debt payment. You also have to keep an eye in the stock market and make sure your stocks are high or olse, one of your competitors can make an hostile takeover of your park. But these options are only available in business mode.

67800-theme-park-dos-screenshot-new-batch-of-children-just-arrived

Now this is more like it!

And after a few years, you have the option to auction your park for a hefty sum of money (if the park was successful) and start in a different country, whose location and land price determine the difficulty in building and manage a new park.

This is just a light review of the game mechanics, because Theme Park in business mode, has a lot of depth and micromanagement to it, but because it also has the other two modes, it doesn’t scare away players who aren’t very good with this particular genre, making Theme Park a great entry for it.

Technically speaking, the game has good graphics and very colorful sprites and animation. You can even change the resolution ingame, but I don’t like the bigger resolution all that much (it makes the sprites very small). The music is very obviously upbeat and the sound effects are also very good (although you’ll get tired of a particular sound sample).

67801-theme-park-dos-screenshot-roller-coaster-is-a-great-and-popular

You can build your Roller Coaster any way you like.

So in general, I have to say that Theme Park is a very deep managerial game, but also very customisable, which is great for both beginners and veterans of the genre. If you want a fast and casual game, you have that option; but if you want a deep, slow micromanagement simulation, you also have that option. In other words, I highly recommend it, whether if you’re a fan of this genre or want an easy introduction to it.

Theme Park had an enormous success with both players and critics and spawned a successful series. Its direct sequel might have taken a different direction (Theme Hospital), but it came back to its original topic for the rest of the series. It also inspired the RollerCoaster Tycoon series.

You can find Theme Park here at GOG.com or at Origin (and again, I don’t recommend buying in Origin because I don’t want EA to win money, which is why I took the link down. If you’re keen on buying from Origin, go look for it).

So here ends our Bullfrog retrospective. I know some of you were expecting a Dungeon Keeper review, but like I said before, professional reasons took a lot of my free time. But don’t worry, I promise to review it this year still. Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this retrospective and hopefully, there’ll be more to come. See you guys around and until then, keep on playing.

Syndicate DOS review

Well, this retrospective sure is going slow, isn’t it? Sorry for taking so long, but because of recent work issues, I no longer have a lot of free time. And it happened all of a sudden, without notice, so I couldn’t cancel anything or plan around it.

Anyway, today’s review is probably of my favourite Bullfrog title (apart from Theme Hospital and the original Dungeon Keeper, that is): Syndicate.

Syndicate is an action/strategy game developed by Bullfrog and published by Electronic Arts. It was originally released in 1993 for Amiga and DOS. It was ported the next year for the Macintosh, Genesis/Megadrive, SNES/Super Nintendo, FM Towns and PC-98. In 1995, it was ported to the Sega CD, Super Famicom, 3DO, Amiga CD32 and the Jaguar. There was apparently an Acorn Arquimedes and a PSP port also, but I couldn’t find any information about them.

But before taking a look at the game, let’s look at the covers, shall we?

63231-syndicate-amiga-front-coverThis is the European cover and I have to say that it looks cool, with a green map (that kind of looks like a computer schematic at first glance) and a futuristic looking image of a trench coat ninja in a Blade Runner-esque city background. I simply wished that the left image was bigger, like in the Jaguar cover:

41449-syndicate-jaguar-front-cover

Apparently in the future, Youngblood’s Disease will become an epidemic!

Very nice, but the US cover is even better:

352-syndicate-dos-front-cover

This is definitely my favourite cover. It really conveys the cyberpunk ambience found in the game. And the back cover is equally awesome:

353-syndicate-dos-back-coverThis could perfectly be a comic book cover.

But it’s about time we boot this sucker, isn’t it?

The intro’s really stylish and it definitely looks like something out of Blade Runner, but it doesn’t explain well the game’s backstory: you play as an upstart executive of a multinational corporation in a dystopian, cyberpunk future; whose objective is basically to conquer the world through several missions, using cybernetic agents, which you’ll directly control on said missions.

The manual gives a more extensive background story, but basically what I just wrote in the previous paragraph is all the background you really need to know. Still, for those who like cyberpunk fiction, it isn’t a bad read.

You can start by customising your company by changing its name and logo (although the later doesn’t have many options) and then start your first mission in Western Europe. But before doing it, I suggest spending some of your initial money, either upgrading your agents with cybernetic body mods, buying them better weapons or invest on researching for better mods or weapons. You can even choose how much money you want to invest on research. The more money you invest, the quicker it’ll be finished.

main_001

Customising your agents.

When choosing a mission, you can even spend money to get more information about the objectives and/or a more detailed map, which can be helpful in the later and harder missions.

There are few types of missions, but the most common ones are: assassination (where your agents need to infiltrate a certain place to assassinate a target), urban assault (where basically your agents need to eliminate all the other companies’ agents in a certain map), persuasion (where at least one of your agents needs to equip a Persuadertron, use it on a specific target and bring the target unharmed to a certain location for safe extraction), among others. The later missions are not only harder, but some even have a time limit to finish them.

Every time you finish a mission, you end up conquering the region where said mission occurred and you can even raises the taxes on said region. But be careful, if the population of that region rebels against you due to high taxes, you have to repeat its mission (which can be a pain in the ass if it was a particular hard mission, but a blessing if it was an easy one).

1172-syndicate-dos-screenshot-evacuating-after-successful-mission

On the field.

For each mission, you can choose up to four agents to control out of an initial number of eight in your company’s cryo chamber. If you lose all your agents (including those in the cryo chamber), then it’s automatically game-over. But you can always recruit new agents using the Persuadertron during the missions.

While controlling the agents on the field, you can manipulate their IPA levels. IPA stands for Intelligence (green bar), Perception (blue bar) and Adrenaline (red bar). You can inject drugs through your agents’ cybernetic chip by moving said bars to the left or right. Each direction you move the bars has its benefits and disadvantages, e.g.: moving the red bar to the right will make your agents run faster (if they’re equipped with the legs mods, even faster), but at the expense of health regeneration; while moving it to the left will increase your agents’ health regeneration, but they’ll move and act slower. I highly recommend reading this part of the manual before playing because it can be the key to finish a hard mission successfully.

main_002

After winning a mission.

This is practically all you need to know about the core gameplay, which it’s more or less intuitive and easy to get into. But how about the technical aspects? Well, graphically the game looks awesome, with the initial menus looking like something out a 80s futuristic computer interface. But the missions’ graphics are even better. First, while playing the missions, the game changes to a better resolution with better graphics and colours, using an isometric view. The sprites, although being very small, are very well detailed in both the characters and the buildings. All the cities look like they were taken directly from Blade Runner with huge screens next to the square and oppressive buildings.

These visuals along with the soft techno music gives a proper cyberpunk atmosphere. Bullfrog’s developers really did their homework on this one and props must be given where it’s due. The aforementioned techno soundtrack is quite good with the slow beat speeding up everytime an enemy agent appears (which can be used as a warning sign). The sound effects are equally great, especially the voices, the sound of the weapons being fired and the explosions. The control scheme is exclusively through mouse-use (except in the console versions, of course) and with a good mouse at hand, you won’t have any problem playing the game.

1175-syndicate-dos-screenshot-mission-selection

“He’s got the whole world in his hands”.

The only drawbacks I can think up are really more nitpicking than anything else, but I don’t like the fact that you can’t see inside the buildings. Luckily your mini-map (and the scanner item) can be useful in that regard. And you can’t change the fixed camera’s position (which was solved in the sequel). Also once you deplete a weapon’s ammo, you might as well drop it and pick up another one because there are no ammo clips anywhere in this game (which I think it was also solved in the sequel). But despite all these small drawbacks, this game is lots of fun and still one of my favourite games and needless to say, I highly recommend it.

Apparently the Sega and Nintendo consoles’ ports have different levels with similar gameplay, but I never actually played those, so I can’t really judge for myself. If someone played them, feel free to post your opinions in the comments section.

If you want to buy a full-functioning copy of Syndicate now, you can buy it on GOG.com or on Origin (it’s called Syndicate Plus because it’s bundled with the expansion American Revolt). But you can also play FreeSynd, an open-source engine recreation, free of any charge.

1169-syndicate-dos-screenshot-killer-marketing-director

After killing a guard.

And talking about the expansion: American Revolt was released in 1993 only for the Amiga and DOS, and features new missions, weapons and even introduced multiplayer gameplay. But unfortunately due to the lack of time, I couldn’t play it and so, I’m forced to postpone its review to a later date. Maybe I’ll feature a month just to review expansions, who knows?

Syndicate gained a sequel, Syndicate Wars, a few years later (another review for another time) and a FPS reboot also called Syndicate in 2012 by Starbreeze Studios, which wasn’t well received by both the players and critics alike. But in 2013, a spiritual sequel called Satellite Reign was successfully crowdfunded through Kickstarter, which prompted its release in 2015 by 5 Lives Studios among several accolades by the critics.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the review and again I apologise for being late. Hopefully, this upcoming week, I’ll get less workload, which will free up some time for playing and reviewing. But since the month isn’t over yet, there’s still time for at least one more review for this retrospective. So stay tuned and until next time, keep on playing!