(Click on screenshots to open them up at their original resolution.)
Apparently one experiment will decide the fate of the war... Project: Snowblind! So now I have to keep playing long enough for the game to tell me what it is.
LEVEL 1: ARRIVAL.
I'm playing as 2nd Lt. Nathan Frost's floating assault rifle; he's a Coalition peacekeeper fresh off the helicopter on his first day here at this very picturesque military base in Kowloon, and he didn't even get a chance to stash his gear away before Republic troops began pouring in from across those walls in the background. They're actually flying in overhead in helicopters first and then abseiling down behind the walls, just so they can dramatically leap back over them at me.
The shooting is playing out pretty much as you'd expect from a post Half-Life, pre-Modern Warfare shooter, but I'm honestly struggling to tell who I should and shouldn't be shooting at. Seems that the invaders get their outfits from the same shop as my guys and grey is very much in fashion, but my crosshairs can tell them apart at least. If the circle turns red, I send three or four shots their way and move on to the next guy. The thing's even got an ammo counter on it, it's all very clever.
Eventually enemies got bored of jumping over the walls and I was allowed to exit to the next combat courtyard, but check out what I found along the way:
My initial gut response to this is that it's a terrible idea and I miss my quicksaves already, but it's a port of a PlayStation 2 game so it was always likely to be a bit more limited when it came to saves. I'll see how it plays out during gameplay and maybe whine about it later if it does turn out to be an issue.
Though now that I look at it closely, the shot seems a bit... faded, like there's a layer of fog in front of the screen. In fact I'm sure those black cutscene bars top and bottom are actually grey. Maybe the game's been configured for television output for some reason, instead of using the full PC monitor colour range. Whatever's causing it, I should be able to fix it easily enough by tweaking some settings...
And even doing that didn't fix it.
Of course I will have to go hunting for health kits once I'm done with this guy so I can glue my arm back on, but they're not exactly scarce in this base. There's supply crates scattered all over the place, which I can crack open with the application of the appropriate tool (in this case, my fist).
Nope, the helicopter explodes right in front of him and he escapes without so much as a tiny shrapnel wound.
Fortunately Nathan is as tough as he is stupid, so he manages to survive the explosion with all his limbs intact and nothing on fire. The blast wave merely lifts him skywards and sends him on a graceful arc through the air...
He may one day be able to walk again after this but I wouldn't be so sure about breathing.
No, wait, what's this? Oh shit, he's monologuing in his head! Nathan mate, no one wants to hear your utterly generic life story. The tale of why you joined the army has absolutely zero to do with anything I care about at this moment, it tells me nothing interesting about you as a person, and forcing me to listen to it is not endearing me to your character. You can get away with opening with backstory if you're Max Payne, but not if you're Grunt Shootbloke; it just comes off as cheesy and redundant.
You know I'm not usually all that bothered if a first person shooter has a mediocre story as long as it doesn't interrupt the shooty part, but the more a game forces me to pay attention to the plot, the more I'm going to complain about it if I find that it's crap. It won't even let me quit to the menu during this cutscene, never mind skip it!
LEVEL 2: REBIRTH.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution, they just couldn't resist turning him into a super-soldier while they're were at it.
But there's no time for tedious tests and calibrations, rest, or recovery! Instead they drag him out of bed and tell him that as of right now he's back on active duty. The doctor informs him that he's been implanted with a series of bleeding-edge bio-enhancements and... man I really hate the term 'bleeding-edge'. Who'd want to be on the bleeding edge anyway, especially when it's apparently in the middle of getting sliced up by the cutting edge? And since when was the cutting edge cutting through living FLESH anyway? Eww.
Anyway, the doctor informs him that he's been implanted with a series of augmentations, including (but not limited to) glowing arm tattoos, a HUD, and a radar that shows him where all his enemies be at. I haven't got the heart to tell them that we already had the radar and the HUD before the surgery. I haven't got the conversation option either, as walking up and talking to them only makes them recite their NPC dialogue.
Like the Deus Ex heroes I have to ability to pick up and throw objects with my hands, but sadly my hastily assembled wheelchair barricade proved entirely ineffective against an NPC with places to be. Meanwhile, as I've been busy rearranging the furniture, the characters around me have been carrying on with their conversations, discussing the downsides of augmentation and trying to pin down the difference between a peach and an apricot.
Deus Ex 3 would later tackle this subject in-depth (augmentation that is, not fruit), but these guys are mostly just worried about the fact that after paying so much cash for a cyborg super soldier, the military ain't ever going to let that operative go.
Hey, you don't suppose this is a homage to the 'orange/lemon lime' joke in the original Deus Ex? Yeah that would be a bit of a stretch. Damn, now I miss the UNATCO music.
This is the first time our characters have met, but he apparently hero worships Nathan for some reason or another and is suspiciously eager to give us the codes to break into the base's armoury so we can help ourselves to the best gear. "A soldier should be allowed to perform his duties with every means at his disposal" is the logic he's working off here, but I'm not sure it's occurred to him that there's a lot of other soldiers here besides me who all have to share those means. Not that I'm going to pass up his immoral offer, as I ain't one to turn down free firepower.
This guy is pretty much impossible to miss by the way, as he's standing in the corridor I have cross to complete my 'get gun, visit doctor, etc.' objectives. There's really not much scope for exploration or stumbling across people in this base, though it seems bigger than an Invisible War location at least.
Half-Life 2 but it's still managed to nick a few ideas from it.
I like the green computery looking diagram they've drawn for each of the weapons, and a bit of description is handy too if all the guns are going to have these secondary attacks. I've got secondary fire mapped to the right mouse button, but that's fine as the lack of a real iron sights option leaves the button free. I can zoom in a bit I suppose but it's not really the same. Oh, plus there's separate melee and grenade buttons, which is something the Snowblind actually does better than Half-Life 2.
I don't want to sound like I'm not giving the game a fair shot, but this entire HQ level has been about going from NPC to NPC to get talked at so far, so I'd started zoning out even before he began explaining every detail of my mission. Sure you could argue Deus Ex does the same, but in UNATCO HQ I was chatting to JC's old friend, running into the cyborg from the prison I just rescued, and finally meeting the voice I'd been hearing over the radio all through the first mission. Even JC's boss had been name dropped a few times before I got to meet him if I recall.
Shenmue quality but... oh hang on, it turns out that this game was actually released in early 2005.
Alright then, I'll grab a screenshot from my old Doom 3 article and see how Snowblind compares to a couple of its contemporaries:
|Dr Malcolm Betruger (Doom 3) | Dr Isaac Kleiner (Half-Life 2)|
Well I think it would be fair to say that Project: Snowblind clearly looks like the sixth gen PS2 game it is, despite being released at a time when we were a step away from seventh gen PS3 and Xbox 360 quality visuals. It's not a noteworthy milestone in the evolution of video game graphics, but I don't really see the point in complaining that one decade old game looks far more dated than another decade old game if its graphics are good enough to get the job done. It's not an ugly game, so I'm happy enough.
Though speaking of milestones in gaming history...
Soul Reaver and Tomb Raider eras as their last breath of fresh air before they were sealed inside Lara Croft's endless tombs. In fact it's the only game the company has made in the last ten years that doesn't involve a rich grave robber pulling backwards somersaults while gunning down wolves. Unless things get very weird later.
Still, looking at the games they made between Soul Reaver sequels, that might actually be a blessing. Not that I've played them myself... I mean for all I know maybe the console version of 102 Dalmations is actually really good!
Oh, here's a small piece of trivia for you that I just learned myself: the weird angular typeface used for menus and subtitles in the game is an OCR font designed in the 60s to be easily read by optical character recognition technology. So the game itself is cyborg friendly.
LEVEL 3: AMBUSH.
I think we're trying to make our way over to an enemy base to destroy some anti-air cannons. I've got some other soldiers with me, but it seems that they're too busy doing their own thing to follow me around, so I'm going to break from the group and see if I can duck into the front of one of these buildings where the guy on that turret up there can't see me. I don't expect them to actually lead anywhere, it doesn't seem like the kind of game that has alternate paths or decisions to make, I just want to keep my head behind cover.
Okay I stand corrected, maybe there is a bit of Deus Ex DNA in this simple shooter after all.
Never mind, I wasn't going to be able to hit them from here with a shotgun anyway. Up close though this'll send a man flying.
LEVEL 4: INTERFERENCE.
F.E.A.R. This is about as deep as the RPG elements get in this though; there's no stats to raise, no augmentation upgrades to choose. I can't even mod my guns, though I can sure carry a lot of them.
Snowblind definitely has a pre-Halo/Call of Duty 2 approach to its first person shooting. There's no regenerating health and no iron sights, but you can carry every gun at once, without being limited by weight or inventory size. In fact there's no inventory screen at all in this, just an ever-expanding list of guns and grenades.
The game's generosity with firearms has actually been a little awkward for me though, as it keeps handing me a new one before I've done trying out the last one I picked up. I haven't even tested most of the secondary attacks and I've forgotten what the shotgun's secondary even does! It's seems to be in a hurry to get them into my hands, like the developers were trying to pack them all in before running out of game.
Oh, it turns out that the shotgun's secondary is a sheet of sticky bombs. Well that's cool; probably burns through my shells like crazy, but somehow I think they'll run out of enemies before I run out of guns. This may have been a spin-off from Invisible War, but they scrapped the idea of universal ammo thankfully.
Sergeant Major Chung here is equipped with a personality and a sense of humour, which means I've got to award the game 150 bonus points just for having him in it (plus his face reminds me of TimeSplitters). Chung isn't the type to monologue about his sad backstory when life gives him lemons, nope he just grabs life by the arm and starts fiddling with the dipswitches to activate its latent ballistic shielding augmentation.
Like in the Deus Ex games, my augmentations run off bioelectric energy and this doesn't recharge, so I have to keep topping up my mana bar by finding batteries if I want to keep bringing out the cyborg magic. Though I haven't really seen a point so far to be honest, because I've never been in a situation where I felt my reflexes were too slow or health was too low. Combat just hasn't been all that much of challenge for me, and that's not a good sign for a game with no difficulty options.
So here it is, Project: Snowblind's hacking screen. No need for any minigame here, Lt. Frost handles all the technical work himself, leaving me with the task of choosing what cameras I want to disable, turrets I want to commandeer, or in this case, whether or not I want to open a hatch. Unfortunately the computer is being counter-hacked by someone else, so my hatch will remain closed until I get back out there and shoot them. Fortunately Frost ran a trace route so I know which way to go.
I can still hear Sergeant Chung and a tech specialist carry on their conversation from outside, with Chung pulling a Gunther Herman and complaining that nanotech operatives will make old school mechanical cyborgs like him obsolete:
SERGEANT CHUNG> The writing's on the wall son: I've been replaced. My days risking my butt for the Coalition are over.If the game sticks to this goofy tone and quits trying to make me take any of it seriously, I think the story might win me over yet.
SPECIALIST PITNEY> Affirmative, Sergeant Major.
SERGEANT CHUNG> Though so far I haven't seen any major improvements. Running a trace route's hardly the most tasking job. I can run a trace route.
SPECIALIST PITNEY> No doubt, Sergeant Major.
SERGEANT CHUNG> I'm running one right now.
SPECIALIST PITNEY> Of course you are, Sergeant Major.
This would probably be the point where I admit that the save game system hasn't been an issue at all so far, because the levels aren't all that long and I never need to reload anyway... but the bloody thing has just crashed on me! There's nothing more annoying that having to replay a whole level for reasons that aren't even your fault.
LEVEL 5: RAMPAGE.
Battlefield 3's wasn't so bad. I suppose it helps that they don't have any walls to leap over in here, and I haven't brought any of my own troops to get confused by. I'm free to creep around and engage enemies at my own pace, and... oh shit, is that guy standing next to a mech? I can't take down a bi-pedal battle tank with a rifle...
I love my icepick hacking gun; left click to shoot at a target, right click to dominate the device and bring it under my total control. I just wish I had more of the hacking darts so I could hack things more often (or ever, really). I'm going to enjoy stomping around in this thing while it lasts, because I doubt I'll be doing it again any time soon.
Not that we're actually in the thing; Nathan's body is actually hiding a few meters away, so I'm hoping that no one thinks to shoot the mindless super-soldier standing frozen in the corner with his hacking gun out. Everyone keep your attention firmly on the rogue mech if you please. Man, it's just occurred to me that I'm going to have a long walk ahead of me after I'm done shooting my way up through this car park, as I'll have to retrace all my giant mechanical steps on foot.
Vehicles in shooters was kind of a fad at the time, with Far Cry, Halo 2 and Half-Life 2 all finding reasons to put players behind a wheel, but there's one major difference here: I've finally found a car park level in a first person shooter that lets me drive the cars! +10,000 points to Project: Snowblind. The thing doesn't control badly either, even with dead guys getting caught on it.
LEVEL 6: DESTROY.
I realise that grey uniforms are the best camouflage on a series of grey levels, but in my opinion if I can't tell friend from foe at a glance then the developers have sacrificed gameplay for realism and that's not a smart choice when the game has a sci-fi future setting and they are inventing its reality themselves as they go. Though I suppose it is based on a true story, so what could they do?
Anyway on this level I have to deal with enemies triggering those alarm panels on the walls. If this happens I have to race over and shut them off again. Or not. Either's good.
Alarms haven't really a huge problem for me so far, aside from the times I've been facing down a pair of turrets that is, but if it happens again I'll likely be fine if I can remember what number key brings out my rocket launcher in time. I may not have a checkpoint safety net, but I just don't have the same fear in this that I had playing games like Star Wars: Dark Forces.
Hang on mate, you just keep on hovering out there a minute while I cycle through to my rocket launcher. Man I wish this would display my available arsenal on screen as I flip through them like in Half-Life 2 or Max Payne. Actually, this might be the perfect time to switch that ballistic shield aug... oh wait I've blown the helicopter up already. Well... uh, okay then. Moving on.
Well that's it, I've travelled the linear hallways around the base destroying all the anti-air guns along the way, and now I'm ready to get airlifted back to base. But Nathan has also found information about captured troopers being held a few miles away in Sai Kung, and is very keen to go off and rescue them, even if he has to do it alone.
His superiors are more concerned with safely finishing the job they're already doing though, and deny his request. So Nathan decides to disobey orders and go rogue!
I've been feeling like I'm missing something important here, so I checked the dialogue the two of them had back in the briefing room before the mission, and it turns out that I'd totally missed the part where his boss explains that they're evacuating from Hong Kong entirely. That's the reason I'm in this base on a mission to take down the anti-air guns in the first place, so that our troops can escape the country. So this really is Nathan's only chance to save these soldiers before he's evacuated to back to the Coalition fleet with the rest of the forces.
I think what we can learn from this is that if something is important to the plot, it might be worth mentioning more than once, especially if the first mention is at a point where the player isn't likely to give a damn about the story yet. They should have had Sergeant Chung on the radio saying stuff like "remember son, if you don't get those guns down, our boys will be stuck here in Kowloon facing overwhelming enemy forces" or something. Of course I can't rule out the possibility that they did have him say that, but I don't remember it.
Anyway, rescuing people, let's get on that.
LEVEL 8: RIOT.
I've been getting more use out of the marker on this level than most, as it's actually a little bit of a maze. It's a prison built out of crates stacked up inside an opera house, and I get to run around on top of them if I can find the right vents and ladders, sniping the prison guards from above (and sometimes the prisoners too!) In my defence they both wear greeny brown outfits, it's hard to tell them apart at a distance.
The way game referred to it in the intro made it sound like Snowblind was the super-soldier augmentation project, but that's actually called project Scarecrow. Project Snowblind on the other hand is a scheme to set off a massive EMP blast that will shut down all electronics across the planet permanently and bring us back to the stone age!!! Or the 19th century at least. Yes, we're up against an actual Bond villain here (either that or Snake Plissken), and as someone packed full of so much electronics that his veins glow blue, Nathan Frost has a very personal motivation to shut the guy down.
Though it'd be cool if he actually fails to stop the scheme in the end, because then Project: Snowblind 2 could be about the world's first steampunk super-soldier instead. Anyway I've shot some folks and learned the terrible secret of Snowblind, so that's enough for now.
I wasn't expecting much out of Project: Snowblind to be honest, because it's a PS2 era console FPS that no one ever remembers or talks about, but it kind of surprised me. Not because it does anything impressive or original, but because they've got the basics right and it's fundamentally very solid.
Shooting at an enemy stuns them and keeps them from firing back, they go down in a reasonable number of hits and aiming at their head kills them faster, there's a decent selection of weapons and you can carry them all at once... basically it's got the business of moving the cursor over an enemy and removing them from play functioning just fine, and it's not too much trouble to survive long enough to pull this off. It's been a very mild, comfortable shooter so far, with few frustrations but not much of interest going on either. The enemies aren't braindead and it's not wise to take the ones wielding rocket launchers on in an open space, but it's pretty tame compared to something like F.E.A.R. (released later the same year), and I never did find a reason to use my augmentations.
I've got cloaking powers, a mine launcher, a kinetic kicking gravity gun, deployable riot walls, robot hacking icepick darts, mind control sniper bullets, spiderbot grenades... but I mostly just alternated between rifle and shotgun, and threw the occasional frag grenade, because that's all I've needed. The single player campaign's not really set up for replaying encounters to try different tactics anyway, as failure kicks you back five entire minutes to the last save room. Retrying a difficult fight with this system would likely get old really fast as you'd spend most of your time just playing back up to it.
Plus it came as a surprise to me when I found out I was already halfway through the game after just 8 levels. It's nice that they decided not to drag the game out with padding, but this isn't going to take all that many hours to finish.
Would I voluntarily keep playing it though? Sure, okay, why not? So for that it gets a star.