Typically we here at Racketboy are known for retro console gaming. But what we rarely speak about is the extensive PC gaming that many of our staff and forum members take part in on a weekly basis. So we have decided to take a detour into PC gaming for our main page articles for a while.
I know what you are thinking, “There are way too many PC games to make an accurate list that is manageable.” You are correct. There are literally tens of thousands of PC games from the last forty years. From shareware to indies to expansion packs to free-to-play, the list will never end. After much debating we came to the conclusion to do a twist of our standard set of articles and personalize them.
This is the result, our first Hidden Gems of PC Gaming article, where we have taken several forum regulars: Ack, Bogusmeatfactory, fastbilly1, MrPopo, and noiseredux, and asked them to find their favorite Hidden Gem title in several different online services. We are starting with a local favorite, GOG. But don’t worry if we pass over one of your favorite titles, there will be more articles for other services and specific genres. Feel free to debate our choices with us on the forums.
From 2008 until 2012, GOG was known as Good Old Games, an offshoot of CD Projekt Red (know for the Witcher Series) based in Warsaw, Poland. Being that the first four years of life they only added old games, this was the obvious distribution platform for us to start with. GOG is unique in that every game it provides is DRM free. If you have never played a PC game before, DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. It is a fancy term for anti-piracy measures. In the past these were simple, like code wheels or the infamous Red Sheet of Sim City. Nowadays they are complicated bits of software that can sometimes make games unplayable for legitimate owners. GOG strips every bit of DRM out of the title, makes it work on Windows 7/8/10, and then releases it at a decent price around the world wherever it can. Many games come in multiple languages, some come with OSX or Linux support, and most come with additional bonuses like soundtracks and wallpapers. GOG has over 1000 titles in its library, making it one of the largest digital distribution companies around, and their catalog continues to grow by several titles a week.
Realms of the Haunting
presented by Ack
Realms of the Haunting is a First-Person Adventure/First-Person Shooter hybrid released by Gremlin Interactive at the very end of 1996 in the US and then in Europe in early 1997. A Director’s Cut version was released sometime later in the US. It utilizes the game engine of Gremlin’s previous game Normality but with modifications to enable combat and gunplay. The plot focuses on Adam Randall’s visit to a mansion to try and investigate his father’s mysterious death, only to discover what appears at first to be a Lovecraftian horror story which soon evolves into a tale of Judeo-Christian mysticism and mythology. As he traverses the realms between Heaven and Hell, Adam finds an array of weapons and hordes of monsters to face off against while navigating the political intrigues of men, angels, and demons who all seek to outdo each other in their quests to control or defeat the Power of Satan. Ultimately he must tangle with the anti-Christ, an old man with a penchant for playing cards and who dresses like a cowboy.
While it has its uplifting moments, RotH is ultimately a horror game and features a frequently dark and disquieting setting filled with creepy characters. The story exposition is done through live action actors in full-motion video cutscenes, but the quality of the acting and voicework is quite good for the medium. You are joined early on by a second character, but she only appears in video and audio work and never actually gets in your way during gameplay. The rest of the game is done entirely in first-person view, but with the mouse being used to interact with objects(including light switches) and also to aim the various weapons on the screen so you don’t have to worry about your often limited ammunition and the occasionally infinite enemies. The trade-off is a lack of mouselook in a post-Quake world, but the game makes up for this with navigation handled via the keyboard. It should be noted that the version on GOG is the UK release, which was never updated to the point of the US Director’s Cut. The Director’s Cut version included configurable controls, which are sorely lacking from previous builds. It will take a little detective work, but it is possible to patch the GOG release to include the Director’s Cut options, thus improving the playability immensely. The patch also adds the ability to select game difficulty.
presented by BogusMeatFactory
Set in 15th century medieval Europe, Darklands was a monumental undertaking in encapsulating the superstitious, political and social state of the time and bringing life into a modern computer role-playing game. Character creation offers a wide variety of backgrounds and careers you can give your team, fleshing out their history. By making characters older, they have more experience and have opportunities to grow in ways a younger adventurer does not, but they also run the risk of retiring earlier as all members of your party age within the game and must eventually pass the torch on to others. With your party in tow, you must begin to make a name for yourself in the world, but like with real adventuring, you are given little guidance on what you should do. Instead, you explore city streets and the wilderness for opportunity and adventure.
The beauty of the game plays out in mostly text, offering you options to various situations and gives you a feel of a real tabletop role-playing game experience, while combat is done in a real-time environment very similar to Baldur’s Gate. Based on your characters skills, you have a variety of ways to tackle obstacles, never limiting yourself to a single approach to a situation. What really makes the game so special though is the personification of superstition. Witches gather in sanctimonious rituals at night in worship of hellish spawn and saints sit high in heaven to be called upon to aid you in your quests. Even magic exists, albeit in the form of alchemical solutions and potions that bring down wrath. Everything you learn in this game comes from experimenting and learning how the game works. Alchemy requires you to study ancient texts and gather ingredients, while being a holy monk would require you to learn about the plethora of saints and call upon them at the right time in hopes that they will hear your prayers. This attention to detail is stunning for a game made in 1992 and there truly isn’t anything quite like it even in modern games.
With the rise in popularity of challenging, intelligent games like the Dark Souls series, Darklands is a welcome addition for those that want to use their wits in overcoming a harsh environment. This will require trial and error, but is worth everything as you craft a personalized and interesting story that is unique to you, the player. No two stories can really be the same and that is a part of the magic and majesty that is, Darklands.
Red Baron 3D
presented by fastbilly1
Those of you familiar with flight simulators need no introduction to the brilliant Red Baron series. The first Red Baron title was released in 1990 and instantly became the standard in WW1 flight simulators.
Seven years later, Red Baron II was released too much disappointment. After seven years of development and fan involvement, Sierra released a broken and buggy product with fewer options than the original. To make up for this, Sierra released Red Baron 3d a few months later, a free upgrade that fixed all of the problems and assuaged the complaints. Red Baron 3d featured a much more robust and now fully modable engine, and the mod community took hold and still has not let go.
Red Baron 3d features a thrilling set of campaign missions, a robust mission editor, fairly realistic flight physics, several multiplayer maps and gametypes, and a dozen aircraft from the western front between 1916 and 1918. This includes famous designs from the British, French, and German forces of the era, ranging from the Fokker E.III to the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 to the Sopwith Camel. And even today It is still considered one of the best WW1 flight simulators. Multiplayer is still available through direct connect, LAN, and private servers, but a flight stick is highly recommended.
If the base game wears thin for you, the aforementioned mod community is extensive. Full Canvas Jacket is a paid mod that changes every aspect of the game into a more realistic flight simulator. Kessler, the author of the mod, rebalanced and tweaked every single aspect of the game in a painstaking attempt to take the best WW1 flight simulator and make it better. It is viewed by many in the community as the spiritual successor and unsurpassed. Other notable mods are Hell’s Angels Superpatch and Revenge of the Jastas.
Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri
presented by MrPopo
Terra Nova is an FPS by Looking Glass Studios (Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief) that had the misfortune of being released in the same year as Quake, dooming it to obscurity even though it does a lot of things really well. The game is a squad based FPS where you and your team are equipped with advanced powered armor; if you’re familiar with Starship Troopers the novel this evokes the powered armor described in that book. To fit with this the game has a unique interface; rather than looking where you point your mouse like in most FPS’s you instead use your mouse cursor for two main functions. The first is to target and fire at enemies; you can fire at any point in your viewportal, rather than being locked to a crosshair in the center. The second function is to manipulate the multi-function displays of your suit. These displays include weapon selection, comms to teammates for orders, launching spy drones, and a tactical map. Because of how the mouse is used the keyboard is used for all player maneuverability, with both strafe and turn keys as part of a general suite of controls centered on WASD. This sort of control was also seen in Ultima Underworld and System Shock; it wasn’t until Quake that mouselook became the standard (Doom was frequently done with keyboard only controls), so it’s not surprising that early games like this were still going through growing pains.
The real strength of Terra Nova is how well the squad is integrated into the gameplay. Many games with AI partners tend to fall into one of two camps: either your partners are utterly useless if not a hindrance or they trivialize things by making the player character unnecessary. In Terra Nova neither is true; you will need the special skills of your teammates (such as demolitions) and they do a good job of keeping a portion of the enemies off of you. But if you try to leave everything up to them they will get killed, so you really do have to work together. This is the coupled with a wide variety of missions. Some will require teammates with specific skills, such as repairing an outpost or demolishing an enemy structure, while others are recon missions that put you on your own and you become aware of just how much you relied on your squad. The game is also not shy about changing objectives on you mid mission; the designers were committed to making it feel like you were involved in real military engagements, rather than the fantasy world where everything goes your way if you are a good enough player. All of this combines for some extremely fun and solid gameplay. Once you get used to the controls you will be able to zip through a busy battlefield while managing your squad. It’s just too bad that Quake came out at the same time; without the massive hype and eye candy of that to compete with Terra Nova would have been much better regarded, similar to how System Shock is today.
Street Fighter Alpha 2
presented by Noiseredux
The Street Fighter series certainly needs no introduction, though Alpha 2 may not be an entry that casual fans will be so familiar with. The Alpha series worked as a bridge between the original game and Street Fighter II. As such, the Alpha games actually bring back characters from the first Street Fighter and Final Fight and mesh them with favorites from Street Fighter II. The Alpha games are fast and flashy and have a wonderful anime influence. Yet they’ve never seemed to hit the same level of acclaim as Street Fighter II or III. So maybe it’s a bit odd to see this – the second of three Alpha installments on GOG and no other Street Fighter games, given that DOS versions of the original Street Fighter and various editions of its sequel were released. Maybe it’s even odder when you realize that this is the only Capcom game at all on GOG. And yet this is also part of GOG’s charm, you really never know what game will pop up next.
Looking at the product page and reading GOG’s forums, you’ll find a bevy of complaints thrown at this release. And in fairness, the fact that this is pretty much just the DOS game with no real improvements and minimal extras is a valid complaint. Strangely there’s no manual included (though the remixed soundtrack is nice). This edition is based on the PlayStation port, so it shares the same unlocked characters though omits the few from the Saturn release. It also has the same skipped frames that you’d find on the PlayStation release. The biggest complaint you’ll seen directed at this one though is that it can be a bit wonky with modern controllers. If you’re using say a 360 pad – pretty standard for PC gaming today – then you’ll need to go into the options and remap the buttons to make any real sense. And you’ll be bummed to realize that the game recognizes the left analog stick for movement rather than the dpad. And even worse, Pause is done by pressing the left analog stick in and cannot be remapped. Though if you happen to have a DirectInput controller, like the popular Logitech F310, which allows you to switch between the left analog stick and dpad.
But none of this seems to matter while I’m playing the game. Oh sure I can concede to these sticking points, but the truth is Alpha 2 is a heck of a lot of fun and somehow these quirks feel quaint in an odd way. Maybe it’s just that those of us who played ports of arcade (or NES or whatever) games in DOS back in the day are used to things not being quite right. Or maybe it’s just that there’s a good chance that I’d have skipped this entry altogether had it not been for GOG’s strange decision to bring it over. It’s an odd case where even while pointing out its flaws I find myself continuing to enjoy it.