Rich McCormick - Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
What is it?
Openworld first-person fantasy RPG set on a weird dark elf island. A blight is mutating the locals, and you've got to stop it.
Excuse for lateness:
I was between PCs when it was released, and the Elder Scrolls' ultra-traditional fantasy struck me as being a bit too twee.
I've been told so many stories of Morrowind's opening few hours that I catch myself expecting a consistent rain of falling mages and colourful giganto-bugs. I'm a little disappointed to find my first port of call – after waking up on a boat, as a prisoner – is a little muddy fishing village.
I'm invited into a house, where I'm given a pardon and pushed out into the wider world. Wait. There's no overarching threat here? Morrowind the continent seems to be ticking along nicely, so why thrust me into the middle of it to get all hero-ey?
For a while, I can't decide if this utter freedom is liberating or terrifying. As I pootle around the foothills surrounding the starting village of Seyda Neen, I get a secret third emotion: boredom. The world is expansive, but imagined by a person who counts 'beige' among their favourite colours. My character shuffles at a pace so gentle I develop a fear that he'll curl up and go to sleep. Morrowind's journal is horrible, the latest patches of info – however meaningless – taking the place of more pertinent stuff from a few hours ago. I begin writing things down on real paper. This is either the most engrossing RPG of all time, or just terrible design. Hint: it's the latter. After some successful perusal, it becomes clear the game sort of wouldn't mind if, maybe, I went to the town of Balmora. There's a giant flea monster that will take me there if I climb on its back, but it's a giant flea monster, so I don't want to climb on its back. Instead, I walk.
It's a slow and trudgy journey. The draw distance leaves me peering into soupy fog at medium range, and the only things to distract me are small doors set into hillsides. I wander through one and am met by a woman brandishing a dagger. “I'M GOING TO KILL YOU!” she screams. Help, I think she's trying to kill me. I spin on the spot and slam the door behind me. I open the game's menu – a series of windows that work with a pleasing simplicity – and arm myself with the best weapon I've got: a rusty dagger that I found next to some cheese.
I charge into the cavern and bring the tiny sword crashing down on her head. It passes straight through her. I try again. Another miss. I'm being perforated by a woman with a fervent desire to kill me for intruding on her cave-bound solitude, she's not moving – and I still can't hit her.
Quickly, I'm killed. Morrowind's save system is, I discover, unforgiving. I come to life back in Seyda Neen. This world is crueller and uglier than Oblivion's, the hard RPG under-skeleton showing through clearly. But it has the same kernel of directed freedom that drew me so deeply into that game, mixed with an implied weirdness that Oblivion lacked. Morrowind's too clunky and ugly to prefer over Cyrodiil, but having exhausted that world, I want to play more in this one. This time, I resolve to take the giant bug into town. But I've learnt now – better start small.
Owen Hill - League of Legends
What is it?
Free-to-play topdown competitive action RPG. You're a powerful champion, fighting other players amid a constant battle.
Excuse for lateness:
I was initially put off by the art style and learning curve. Over time, I've learnt to embrace bright colours and difficult things.
Exciting! League of Legends is patched and installed. Now, I sit in a queue of 'over 9,000' players with an estimated wait of 22 minutes.
After staring at the screen for eight minutes, I begin to overanalyse. The menu has the style of a sexed up World of Warcraft, which I don't find sexy. It doesn't help that the patch screen has already teased me with a bunch of Riot Points. I don't know what Riot Points are. No sale LoL. Lol.
Only 2 minutes, 50 seconds to go now and I'm 5,243rd in the queue. Coffee time. When I return, I'm going to kick a tutorial's ass. Finally, it's on. Colourful, responsive, fullscreen, native res in a free-to-play game, I didn't expect this level of polish. There's a gentle-voiced lady explaining what to do, too.
The devs have attempted to hide anything too confusing, but the greyed out features on the HUD make me suspicious that things are going to get very complex. I speed through the basics of movement and killing, while playing as an archer lady. I can heal, teleport back to my base and launch arrows. Eventually, I wade into battle behind a rabble of AI minions, push into my opponent's base and wail on a pink stone until it pops. 'Congrulations! Battle Training is available to guide you through Champion Selection and serve as an introduction to Summoner's Rift'.
Typo aside, lock and load Legends. I've got three champions to choose from this time. I go for Ryze, a snazzy-looking Mage, and select the noobest-sounding spells – Heal and Revive – before levelling them up with a tech tree. I click 'Lock In'.
Now this is proper. The other players are bots, but look real enough. I spend my starting gold and begin looking for stuff to blow up. How naive. The lady explains that before I kill other Legends or think about stones, I should explore the map for minions to kill to get extra XP. I beat up a few wolves and wraiths before downing a lizard monster. I've unlocked five skills, including Sithstyle electro bolts and a Half-Life 2-like balls of plasma. I catch glimpses of my fellow Legends taking a beating in the tug of war battle and decide now's the time… to shop.
I choose the recommended items – gem stones and new boots. I've killed bosses, levelled up, and restocked my inventory before it's even kicked off. I escort my minions down the central lane, blasting anything in my path. I'm a comparatively high level and I make a terrible mess of the enemy's base, Alt+Tab out and begin emailing friends the download link – if they get in the queue soon we'll be ganking noobs by midnight.
Tom Francis - System Shock 1
What is it?
Sci-fi first-person shooter and RPG. Rogue AI SHODAN has taken over a space station, and you're the cyborg hacker trying to stop her.
Excuse for lateness:
I played the demo a bit at the time, but the cursor-driven interface and awkward combat scared me off.
After a surprisingly decent intro cinematic, my mind is slightly blown by a feature I'd forgotten any game had. I don't have to choose a difficulty level: I can scale every element of the experience. Combat, Puzzles, Cyberspace and Mission each have four levels of challenge to choose from. I leave them all on normal, which is probably why no one has bothered with this system since.
In-game, I remember why I bounced off Shock 1 when it came out: it's ugly, complicated and fiddly to interact with. But now that I give it a proper chance, it's not hard to cut the interface clutter and enable the mouselook. Suddenly, it starts to feel like my kind of game. It's still weird; the interface has an extraordinary control panel thing that lets you position your body in any one of nine contorted leans and squats. It's awesome, and I'll never use it.
The early levels are about bashing mutants with a pipe until they split, then double clicking their corpses to drag drink cans and human skulls to your inventory. I'm fine with this.
48 sweet wrappers and beakers later, I find an actual gun. A dart gun! It has only five shots, so I'll never use it. Good find. That's when I meet my first real enemy: a cyborg assassin. I remember these guys from such games as the next one in this series! They're ninjas! They're horrible! It's killing me! I've changed my mind, I want to use the dart gun now! I have to bring up a 'General' menu to switch to it, and when I do, it still won't fire. Fire, dammit! I saved those five shots specifically for a situation like this!
I'm dead. There's a hilarious cutscene in which you're revived, your eyes roll back into your head, and you're dangled from a giant pair of robotic legs to serve the evil SHODAN AI – which frankly seems preferable. And that's when I remember it's right click to fire.
I'm a long way back when I load my last game, and every direction looks the same. I'm lost in the bewildering corridor spaghetti. That's when I find a Sparq gun. That's new. No ammo count? I will always use this. It has a whole control panel to configure its power level and monitor heat levels. I set it to maximum kill.
Suddenly, the game is easy. It's more about scouring the levels for ammo than combat skill: most guns fire as fast as you can click, which mows anything down in a second. The main challenge is that enemies frequently appear from confusing angles or hidden alcoves, which is weird for a game that makes looking up and down so awkward.
So I end up enjoying it, but it doesn't have the same magic that Shock 2 did for me. The best bit is the audio logs, which are the same as in the sequel. These garish, twisty corridors don't feel like a real place the way Shock 2's decks do, and I don't have the same sense of exciting possibilities to develop my character. It's a party I definitely should have showed up to at the time, but this late, after a better one, it's not essential.