Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/2608

Bargain Bin Games Revue - Round One

by Eddie Turner on September 1, 2008 12:00 AM EST

When big name titles on the horizon are few and far between, I have found that checking out some of the lesser known budget games can prove to be rewarding at times. While these games exist on the same shelves among the more expensive and more anticipated games, they're often described as being found in the bargain bin. Many bargain titles are easily dismissed as cheap in price and even cheaper in value, but you can sometimes find a diamond in the rough. In this series of articles, I'll explore the depths of the bargain bin and bring you the goods (and not-so-goods) on some of these underappreciated PC games.

With each round of games I present, I will have spent no more than twenty bucks per title, each one purchased blindly without having read any reviews prior. As I did with these first six games, I will simply march into my local retailer and make selections based on the appearance of the retail boxes and their descriptions of each game, all the while trying to provide a fair mix between genres. The games I choose must also have been released within the past twelve months, give or take a month or two. For my first round, I have selected a tactical first-person shooter, a straight up adventure title, a puzzler, an arcade style space combat sim, a survival horror game of sorts, and an off-the-wall shooter that we'll look at first. I won't be including any hardcore analyses as most of what I've found can be played on low to mid range machines. Instead, I'll focus on functionality, playability, and above all the fun factor. At the end of the article, I'll give you my pick of the litter. All set? Let's begin Round One.

What do giant mutant chickens, rabid firefighters, and the Third Reich have in common? Absolutely nothing, but that didn't stop the folks at the 1C Company from tossing them into the freak-fest that is You Are Empty. In this bizarre chronicle, you play as a wounded soldier who awakens inside a dilapidated German hospital that is overrun with flesh eating nurses and deranged mental patients. From there, you'll embark on a fairly linear journey that will have you shooting your way through the remains of a fallen German empire using signature WWII weaponry, along with a trusty nail gun and a few Molotov cocktails.

You Are Empty finds its footing somewhere between Half-Life and Resident... Weirdo. The game is completely void of any recognizable story and contains almost no narrative. Much like Half-Life, players will experience the occasional puzzle that can be solved by flipping switches and searching for items that will allow you to proceed into a new area. As for the Resident Evil similarity, the developers have created what many will call a marginal survival horror experience with its array of aggressive inhuman attackers. You'll also experience firefights against Nazis in the game's more rural settings, but those sequences are overshadowed by your dealings with an odd mix of character creations that suggest some level of pot smoking on behalf of the development team. But don't let my references to these two great series' fool you - the game is nowhere near as enjoyable and will leave you feeling, as the title suggests, empty.

This has to be the strangest game I have ever experienced. There is no plot, there is no objective, and there is ultimately no point to the game. You simply find your way through the game's dreary settings with no clue who you are or where you'll end up. At the same time, it has to be one of the worst games I have ever experienced. While the game has a unique old school presentation, it is certainly amateur hour as far as the game as a whole is concerned.

The one interesting element the game possesses is a series of black and white animated cutscenes that add a new element of darkness to this Nazi themed extravaganza. However eye-catching, each scene contains imagery that has nothing to do with what's going on in the game. While part of me says to steer clear of this ridiculous shooter, part of me wants you to check it out if for no other reason than to experience how weird the game is. However, the latter is a very small part, so I suggest you bypass it altogether. You Are Empty is as unfulfilling as they come.

Let's go ahead and knock out our next FPS. Enter Terror Strike: Close Quarters Combat. Terror Strike is a tactical shooter of sorts, and a very limited one at that. For a game that models itself after the Rainbow Six series, it only makes a passable attempt to attract its fans. Even so, the game manages to put forth a functional gaming experience closer to that of Lockdown than Vegas.

Terror Strike borrows its simplistic graphical style from early shooters like No One Lives Forever. In fact, those who don't know any better might guess that the game is part of that very series due to its uncanny similarity. Still, for a game released in 2007, this can be a big turn off. Instead of the usual story mode, the game consists of a number of stand-alone missions with fairly straightforward objectives. Enter an establishment, kill the terrorists, and spare the hostages. While this seems easy enough, there often isn't a whole lot that sets the captors apart from their captives as far as appearance is concerned. Instead of each member of the terrorist regime being dressed in similar garb, players will be taking out gang bangers, pimps, bank robbers, and the occasional foreigner that actually resembles a terrorist, all within the same compound. Basically, you look for whoever has a gun and shoot them. (Ed: That might seem more realistic, as I doubt actual terrorists try to draw attention to themselves by wearing some official uniform… but realism doesn't always make for a better game.)

Before beginning each section of the game, players must sit though an actual video featuring a Scotsman with bad teeth who sets the stage by telling you a quick story that surrounds the upcoming mission. After the video, players will be shown a map of the compound and briefed on what tactics should be used to insure success. The tactical aspect of Terror Strike is very simple. Instead of being able to order your team members to specific locations, your commands are limited to breaching doors and clearing rooms. Much like the more recent Rainbow Six games, there are often multiple entry points to a room. However, since the order to hold a position does not exist, players must order their team to enter one door whilst sprinting to the next door, hoping to enter before all the enemies are taken out. And since there are rarely more than two enemies in any given room, you're better off just following the team inside or taking point yourself.

Terror Strike offers a very shallow gaming experience with its mundane objectives and overly simplified tactical combat. Though I don't know if it was released with a $4.99 price tag originally, I'm hesitant to tell you that the game is worth much more. One thing I did like about the game was its vibrantly colorful indoor and outdoor environments. While a welcome change from the dark corridors and rusty catwalks shooter fans have been plagued with, it wasn't nearly enough to save this graphically challenged combat sim. Sure, I had a bit of fun with it, but only for a little while. In the end, Terror Strike simply provides too little enjoyment to hold players' interest beyond the first mission. For those of you interested in the game's multiplayer component, rest assured that there is one. However, as you might expect, no one was playing.

Remember when you were a kid and you set up some dominoes so that the last one to be knocked over would fall off the table? Remember taking it a step further and letting that domino fall in a bowl of water? This was fun, right? Sure it was. And you kept adding to your little experiment to achieve the ultimate outcome. Eventually, when the last domino fell, it landed on a see-saw made of tinker toys that launched an army man into the air, only to fall into your bowl of water now occupied by a rubber shark. Those were the days, weren't they? This next game will have you reliving those memories, this time with a much steeper learning curve.

Crazy Machines 2, the sequel to 2005's Crazy Machines: The Wacky Contraptions Game, is quite possibly the puzzler to end all puzzlers. (Ed: Those who remember The Incredible Machine fondly can skip to the end and go purchase the game - assuming you haven't already done so.) The game sets the stage for each level by giving players an overall objective, such as popping a balloon or launching a rocket. To achieve these goals, the game offers an array of different objects that you use and manipulate in order to complete each experiment successfully. The first levels in the game are fairly straightforward, consisting of minimal input on your behalf. For instance, players will learn to create their setup that will allow a ball to roll down a hill, knock over an object, and watch that object fall into a basket. From here, the rules of the game get progressively more complicated.

Once you get familiar with the basics, the difficulty level ramps up quite a bit as more and more elements come into play. For example, the falling domino must now land on a wind turbine that will spin, causing a set of gears to operate a conveyor belt whose passenger, a blow torch, must heat up a Bunsen burner, whose flame snaps a rubber band that was suspending a cannon ball that falls into a cannon that... doesn't go off. Wait a minute, what went wrong? Hmm, I placed everything where it should go. Oh, I see. I forgot to place the magnifying glass between the cannon and the table lamp, allowing for increased heat intensity that will light the fuse! These are the kind of things you'll run into while playing. Luckily, players have the ability to run through their little chain reactions repeatedly, adding, removing, and replacing different elements that will allow for the eventual completion of their objectives.

Crazy Machines 2 is a fun game, despite all the little annoyances and intricacies that will be present with each new attempt at an experiment. However, the games does feature a mode that lets you build your own experiments from the ground up, which can be as simple or complex as you want them to be. In that respect, the game caters to players of all mindsets. Another cool feature is the ability to download experiments that others have created for your own education and enjoyment. With these, you can view and manipulate the creations of others, thus offering tons of ideas to add to your own experiments.

Crazy Machines 2 is geekdom at its finest. There is a lot of fun to be had with the game, depending on one's patience and willingness to complete a fairly lengthy tutorial - which I strongly recommend doing before attempting the career mode... twice! While players with a tendency to get frustrated easily may spend little time with the game, those with a lust for complexity and heavy involvement can enjoy Crazy Machines 2 to their hearts' content. Those with a PhysX AGEIA card in their rig (Ed: Or the latest NVIDIA drivers, I'd assume?) can enjoy twenty additional levels designed specifically to take full advantage the hardware. Nice.

Now let's look at our adventure title. Overclocked: A History of Violence is a fairly recent contribution to the point-and-click adventure genre by developer House of Tales. While we use the term overclocked primarily to describe the ramping up of one's CPU/GPU/PC, another definition describes a person's tendency to get a little too wound up, mentally as well as emotionally. In the game, you'll be introduced to five individuals who match the latter description. (Ed: Drat! I was hoping to find a way to ramp up my reflexes….)

In Overclocked, the character you control is Dr. David McNamara, a clinical psychologist summoned by confidant and detective of the NYPD, Joe Moretti, to assist with an unusual case. Upon arrival, the doc checks into a nice hotel and refers to his handy PDA to obtain further instructions from Moretti. The case at hand involves five teenagers found committing acts of violence in various areas of New York City, all severely traumatized by unknown events. Is there a connection between these five individuals? Could it be that their conditions are related? That's what McNamara is hired to find out.

Once you reach Staten Island by means of the ferry, you'll make your way to the home of your new patients at a rundown asylum, whose last remaining staff members include a soon-to-be retired doctor and his head nurse, both who display little interest in diagnosing the five patients. Upon first contact with the residing doctor, McNamara learns that he'll receive little cooperation from the two. So it's his show. Your first task as a psychologist in the game is to meet the five patients, with demeanors that range from unresponsive to aggressive to full-blown catatonic. Your job is to get the patients to come to life and shed some light on what put them inside this hellhole of a psyche ward. This is where the meat of the game begins. Armed only with a pendulum used for hypnosis, McNamara is able to awaken each patient to a certain extent. When this happens, the scene changes to a series of flashback sequences where you'll take control of each individual and play out the events that led up to the craziness. As the game progresses, you will use your PDA to play back previous sessions to the various patients to unlock the next scene. Goodbye inventory manipulation, hello PDA audio files…. (Yes, that's as "exciting" as it sounds.)

If you're at all familiar with adventure games, you'll know that most revolve around stories, character interactions, and puzzle solving. Overclocked is no exception to the rule. However, it seems that a bit more time and attention on behalf of the development team in regards to these aspects might have made for a much more rich adventure experience. As it stands, the voice acting is just so-so, and there seems to be an overall lack of life to the game as a whole. Also, when it comes to entertaining your intellect instead of your gun-toting loins, it takes a great deal more than Overclocked offers to keep you playing. With a limited number of characters and environments that you'll visit over and over, the game becomes quite bland. In addition, the story though interesting never seems to take off. Instead, it keeps the same pace, offering little in the way of suspense. While this doesn't necessarily make it a bad game, some gamers may find themselves having to break away for some Call of Duty 4 action way too early into the game. Sadly, adventure fans may also find the game a bit underwhelming. With that in mind, Overclocked is a tough sell that I simply cannot wholeheartedly recommend.

As I informed you earlier, a survival horror game is included in this round of games, and Penumbra: Black Plague is it. (Ed: You Are Empty doesn't count, unless you consider the survival horror aspect of actually wading through the game.) However, this is not your typical horror title. Yes, the game is very scary, and yes, your goal is to get from a really bad situation to a more desirable one. So, what's different? Well, for starters, you don't have a gun at your disposal. In fact, there are almost no enemies or monsters to deal with throughout the game. I know what you're thinking: how can this be a survival horror game without the element of survival; without the horror? For those whose minds are bewildered at this point, rest assured that both elements are present in a big way.

Part Half-Life and part Silent Hill, Penumbra: Black Plague is the spawn of Penumbra: Overture, a game that made its debut as a free download just last year. The game takes place in an abandoned research facility whose halls and corridors are creepy enough to give Hannibal Lecter the willies. While the game's opening sequence does provide some back-story, your identity is unknown. What you do know is that you've awakened in a substation of this dark and musty lair with no clue what lies beyond the room in which you begin.

Black Plague, much like its predecessor, plays like a standard first person shooter, but with a style of gameplay that is deep-rooted in the adventure genre. You simply move about freely using the standard WASD control scheme along with the space bar to jump. However, your interactions in the game are all done with your mouse. As you move your cursor over objects that can be moved or manipulated, a little hand appears in its place. Instead of simply clicking on objects to move them, you'll actually interact with the environment with the movement of the hand icon. For instance, if you choose to open a drawer, you'll need to hold down your left mouse button and drag it open to see what's inside. If you come to a door, you might choose to just open it just enough to see what's inside before you bolt through it. How fast objects move is dependent upon how fast you choose to move them. This simple yet intuitive control scheme is implemented perfectly for a game that's heavy on these types on interactions.
As you take on the game's physics puzzles and brain teasers that enable you to progress from one area to the next, you'll collect various objects that are added to your inventory to use when the situation calls for them. You'll also come across bits of information made available to you via computer terminals that you'll hack. One of the things you'll learn is that the facility you're lost in suffered a viral outbreak that left many dead and others infected. I stated earlier that there are almost no monsters or deranged enemies in the game, and this is true. Still, I feel compelled to shed a bit more light on the subject.

(Ed: Spoiler Alert!)
While the vast majority of the game is void of any life other than your own, you will encounter a few of the infected aimlessly wondering the halls. However, you can simply walk around them as they don't seem to make much of an effort to attack you. Also, you do meet up with a single enemy in the game. His name is Clarence. However, Clarence does not take a physical form. Instead, your dealings with him consist of voices that appear to be inside your character's head. Early on in the game, you'll only hear Clarence moan and groan, adding a bit more eeriness to the atmosphere. As the game progresses, he begins to speak to you and even tries to manipulate your actions. While a clever addition to the game, Clarence's presence eventually goes from creepy to annoying as he simply will not shut up. Even with these elements thrown in, most of Black Plague's heart pounding moments are purely situational. Much like in F.E.A.R., the game keeps you jumping with little surprises rather than full-on assaults. This, along with heavy exploration even in the most confined of areas, provides a unique experience that you won't find in many other games.

Weighing in with merely four or five hours of gameplay, Penumbra: Black Plague can be completed in one or two sittings. While this might be a turnoff to some, the game is worth its weight in gold and is a lot of fun to play while it lasts. With a price tag of only ten bucks, the game is easily more enjoyable than many of the blockbuster titles out there that last twice as long at five times the price. Penumbra: Black Plague is truly in a league of its own and is a blast to play though. Save for the kiddies, I have no problem recommending the game to any gamers with a spare Hamilton.

The final game for this first article, Tarr Chronicles is an arcade style combat sim set in the realm of deep space. Unlike a lot of these types of sims, Tarr is a story-driven saga. Even so, the fact that your squadron of ships is out to destroy the opposing force known as the Mirk is all you really need to know. Before I go any further, let it be known that this game is beautiful. The graphics and overall design of your surroundings are top-notch and really give you the feeling of being a pilot as you cruise through the nebulas of space. (Ed: I thought space was mostly black?)

Once you get your wings, the opening sequence gives you tips on how to handle your ship. The controls are fairly simple get acquainted with, utilizing your mouse for the thick of your ship's movement. In addition, you'll use the A and D keys for barrel rolls to the left and right respectively. Machine gun fire is done with the left mouse button, missile fire with the right. Other keys will allow you to boost and strafe as needed during combat. Although your orders are to meet up with your squad mates post-haste, you may find it hard to follow them at first. Instead, you may feel compelled to just cruise around and fly through various corridors in the several nearby space stations for a while.

Once you've reached your first objective, you receive orders to protect another squad currently under attack by Mirk fighters. At this point, players may choose to either fight their battles in the standard third person view or from inside the cockpit of your ship. Once you've cleared the area of enemies, you'll be directed to another area to clear before you dock your fighter in one the bays of the mother ship. Depending on how well you completed the previous objectives, new parts and weapons will be available to add to your ship. While this may sound simple enough, there are a number of things to consider when modding your ship, including elements like weight and overall balance. New ships will also become available as you progress though the campaign.

Tarr Chronicles provides a decent yet shallow space combat experience. Players are limited to traveling from point A to point B and joining in dogfights before taking out larger ships that serve as bosses. Also, Tarr has no multiplayer element, which is a shame since the thought of battling against your friends in this manner could be extremely satisfying. That aspect, coupled with overly repetitive missions, greatly reduces any chance of a recommendation on my behalf. It certainly is a beautiful game, and if you pine for sequels to Freespace or Freelancer (or perhaps even Wing Commander), Tarr is certainly worth the price of admission; those who aren't fans of the genre will find nothing noteworthy here.

Despite having not played Overture, I was aware of its existence and how well the original game was received. Still, I was totally blindsided by Black Plague's awesome presentation. The puzzles in the game are smart with spine chilling moments throughout. For a short game that's almost completely comprised of atmospheric elements, it certainly holds its own among many of today's more prominent titles. For a measly ten bucks, Penumbra: Black Plague gets my full recommendation.

To conclude, I hope you've enjoyed the first round in this soon-to-be series of articles. As the holiday season approaches, there'll be no shortage of the more big name titles on the market. I anticipate the second round of bargain bin games to happen sometime next year when things calm down a bit - perhaps giving us all a chance to pick up some of the less-hyped games that slipped through the cracks during the mad holiday rush. In the meantime, if there's a particular game you'd like me to consider for the next article, please let me know. I'm just an email away!

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