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Back In The Box – Vangers

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The Eastern Bloc. When they’re not showing the rest of the world how to do rainsoaked post-apocalyptica, they’re leading the way with battlefield minutiae. And when they’re not doing that, our Slavic friends are crafting the weirdest of worlds.

VangersCover K-D Labs’ 1998 PC effort Vangers: One for the Road was indeed weird. I’ll let Mobygames describe what the blazes the scenario was:

You must drive your Mechos about and through the realms, fulfilling quests essentially in the name of curiosity; the more successful you are the more you discover about the world in which you live.

Specifically, you play a Lostie struggling within the World Chain to gain Dominance and knowledge under the concerned cynical eyes of your paternal wardens, the Eleepods. And so out you go racing in a Mecho, a Vanger warrior shuttling precious Phlegma, Nymbos, and Cirt from one forsaken corner of the realm to the next while gunning down the competition.

The box art itself? Much like the game, an enigmatic assemblage. Metal, chitin, lurid greens and slivers of scintillating red. The actual game feels quite far removed from the defined texture and tone of its box art, offering a strange digital plasticine topography in place of more traditional asset design. The insectoid construct dominating the centre of the piece does evoke Vangers’ microbiological ambience.

Certainly one of the more evasive of my favourite box arts, but like much from the Eastern Bloc, boxes are not often easy homes for efforts of the region. Vangers: One for the Road was an alien piece of work, and the above picture certainly states as much.

Iron In The Glove, So To Speak

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OPSTAN continues afoot. Above, the beginnings of one knuckle within the armoured planetary assault gauntlet belonging to the Rapax – currently a rough concept being sewn into a bigger picture. A brutal, sturdy piece of battlefield kit, this particular IFV variant marauds with a retinue of fast-moving and versatile Rapax soldiers.

“There is indeed strength in numbers, but then…sometimes there is only strength.”

- Argentian Campaign Recuerdo, VI.III

Back In The Box – Hardwar

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Another weekend, another session of quiet contemplation on the death of the PC game box. This particular slice of sentimentality is cemented not only because it was a damn fine game, but also because it was awarded to Yours Truly when I somehow took out the first prize for 1998’s Best Game Review in The Mercury. The game reviewed was Cryo Interactive’s wonky, obscure Dreams Into Reality, but that’s for another day.

The place? Titan. The time? The far-flung future. The game?

Hardwar: The Future Is Greedy.

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In a nutshell, The Software Refinery’s Hardwar was akin to Privateer or Elite, in that players could fly around the dystopian smog of Titan and smuggle, assassinate, salvage and build corporate cache in order to pay their way off Saturn’s moon. It was a moody, utterly 90s piece of gaming.

The box art itself was done by the techno-stalwarts of the era, The Designer’s Republic. Almost always associated with Psygnosis’ WipEout series, their constructivist-inspired corporate aesthetic remains as timeless as it is iconic. While I wouldn’t call the Hardwar box art as successful in their trademark maximum-minimalism – far too busy for that – the iconographic muted white-on-red atop austere in-game assets is effective.

The efficacy is amplified after you get to know the game, especially in conjunction with the soundtrack. A fine amalgam of Warp Records artists provided the dark electronic background to the furtive sandbox, and thus, The Designer’s Republic mesh of club/corporate inspiration feels legitimate.

Before The Software Refinery went bankrupt in 2002, a design document had been completed, replete with concept art, for Hardwar’s sequel – Hardwar: Legacy. It now sits in the drawer of former Gremlin QA Luke Warhurst, waiting overwhelmingly in vain. If you didn’t get a chance to play Hardwar, it’s worth digging up. If you did, you’d know that this box exemplifies everything about the game. The looming, toxic conurb. The freedom beneath the clouds. The grit. The tech. The rush.

Next Car Game [Fan]

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It was an impromptu and rather rainy Father-Daughter afternoon, and upon being asked what young Charlotte wanted to do, she requested – amid drawing and origami – the ‘driving game’. Of course, she and I are on the same page. There is only one driving game right now, and while I’m very keen to try out the new Carmageddon on the trustworthy recommendation of good friend Pete Davison, the carnage here is solely mechanical. And the young lass loves it to bits.

With the Logitech DFP’s force feedback ratcheted to ‘wrist-snapping’, we loaded up Bugbear’s current WIP Next Car Game. It’s a loud and raucous beast, sitting somewhere in the no-man’s land between sim and arcade racer, sporting the most impressive soft body local area damage yet seen in the genre. Charlotte always finds it a thrill to shunt and sideswipe her way around the track, and as her old man is an arcade racing fan, the thrill is shared.

Given the kinetic feedback the wheel calibration provides, and the bush-basher emphasis this game promotes, to merely drive conservatively is a feat unto itself. Jostling, bouncing, crashing, cartwheeling, smashing, dodging, grinding, sheering and crunching in the pack of twenty-three other junked-out V8 carnivores; we spent an hour making our way around various tracks and surviving the insanity of the arena, laughing the entire time.

As a geek, this is cool. As a dad, this is a precious thing.

You may as well check out this very fine fan-made Next Car Game trailer while you’re here. Top notch.

The Russian Man & Other Number Stations

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I tend to listen to a lot of soundscape and ambient fare, free from the trivialising effect of the human voice. It’s a passion. Blame must be placed upon a stereo my brother and I received as a Christmas present when we were young. Outside of the cassette slot, it had an AM/FM radio – but most importantly, it had settings to receive shortwave. I recall one evening just scrubbing across the bands, enjoying the dismal, crackly broadcasts it managed to suck down through a thin antenna and the surrounding brickwork.

I found a curious blipping, one that sounded like Morse code. While I was told it was ‘atmospherics’, whatever that meant, it might well have been one of the then-rare and now almost entirely non-existent Morse code number stations.

I listened to that weird blipping, phasing in and out through the fuzz and slush of transmission. And it triggered a love for noise. Odd noise. Not only the noise, but the atmospheric malleability mere noise can effect. Half-tuned radio on a lonely darkened road has been a favourite in recent years, the more schizophrenic the signal, the better. But the most magnificent and enigmatic of terrestrial radio is, without a doubt, the number stations.

If you’re not familiar with number stations, go and have a read. If you ARE familiar with titles like the Lincolnshire Poacher, Gong Station Chimes, Cherry Ripe, the Buzzer or a multitude of other strange recordings, go and get yourself the free Conet Project compendium. One hundred and fifty-odd captured broadcasts to slot into your meatus acusticus externus.

Food for the imagination. Who were the agencies responsible? The people or technology that synthesised the audible voices? Where did the recordings initially take place? The mind paints many pictures; some fanciful, others straight-faced. Always, though, eerie. A mesh of high espionage and low-technology. And it’s utterly intoxicating. Much like a personal love of listening to Air Traffic Control tower streams, number stations engage the brain on the currency of sheer enigmatic character.

Well worth inserting into the playlist.

Nobody Walks With A Rifle

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Saturday eve after a day at the coalface required a mighty salve. And there’s really only one balm that could cool a very specific itch. It’s Running With Rifles. I’ll write about it in-depth on Coffeebreak Gaming ASAP, but in short, it’s marvellous. It is deceptively tactical and immensely chaotic, capturing a sense of combat busyness that even the most expensive of triple A games cannot.

Running With Rifles is Killzone: Liberation meets Warhawk, with a twist of Cannon Fodder. The two former games are held dear to my heart, as they provided many hours of grand multiplayer in times gone by. This does them justice. And when you do ‘all in on Airfield’ justice, it’s a winner.

Running With Rifles is ten bucks on Steam and Desura. Go on. It’s classy. Super classy.

Back In The Box – Retribution

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Sentimentality has gotten the better of me of late, due to discussion elsewhere of media from ‘back in the day’. Movies, TV shows, games, toys; the gamut of youth being examined with forensic recollection and rose-coloured glasses.

It occurred to me just how much I miss those massive cardboard boxes PC games used to ship in. Half the reason I accrued so many was to build a personal post-modern gallery in my bedroom. From the dawn of gaming up until fairly recently, the box art was the most artistically-accomplished visuals you’d find associated with the game. And while appreciation gave way to space, logic and age, a few boxes stick in my memory. I may as well throw a few up here intermittently.

The first? Comic and illustration legend Kev Walker’s fantastic cover for Astros Productions’ 1994 Retribution. Retribution1994Cover01

I would love to one day see the original art, before it was shrunk and had the title slapped across it. But the remaining pre-loved scuffs from the scan coalesce with sentimentality. A classic early Nineties piece influenced by the post-Cyberpunk wave and Walker’s own work on the Warhammer license. There’s probably also a current of personal predilection after, around the same time, having seen Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Running Man. A shared compliment of over-rendered headgear and cramped cockpit inferences.

And that tiny oasis of flesh? Contrasted from the dark, cool and comparative enormity of its surroundings, a stark depression accentuated by colour and texture. This is expert fare and has made its indelible mark on my orbito-frontal cortex.

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