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The Golden Games

Well, it seems official. We’re in a global recession. From Europe to Asia to North America, country after country is reporting that people are spending less. The games industry seems to have weathered this well so far, but I still think its fair to say that gamers across the globe are starting to look at their hobby and wonder how they could spend less.

One obvious answer is to buy older games. Doing this means you can buy critically acclaimed titles at a fraction of the cost of brand-new blockbusters. But this obvious answer also presents an obvious problem. Games don’t always age well. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was an amazing game when it was released, and is in many ways still one of the best games ever made. But having tried to play it years after its release, I can’t say I could recommend the experience to anyone. The old N64 controller is absolutely horrible when compared to today’s console controls, and worse yet, the HDTV I bought a year or so back can’t deal with the super-low resolution video output of the N64, which means a game which looked okay at release is turned into a muddy mess.

Lucky for you, I’ve selected five of the best golden oldies from various platforms. They’re listed in no particular order, but all of them can be had for under ten dollars. The PC games listed function on my computer, which runs Windows Vista 64-bit, and the Xbox games run beautifully on my Xbox 360, which means they look quite nice on a 1080p HDTV.

Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn and Throne of Bhaal expansion
(PC)

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These days, it seems every mainstream game is desperate to portray itself as an epic. Remember, for example, the commercials for Gears of War, which featured the dramatic song Mad World and depicted Marcus Fenix as one of the last remaining survivors, hopelessly trying to find refuge from the Locust hoard. The finished game had little resembling a story, but there are some games that actually manage to capture the feel of an epic, and of those games (many of them older titles by Black Isle or Bioware), Baldur’s Gate II, paired with its expansion pack, Throne of Bhaal, is undoubtedly the king.

“Though released eight years ago, the game is still likely to stun you with its amazing voice acting and unmatched writing.”What Bioware achieved with Baldur’s Gate II was glorious. They created a game that both presented a well told story and lasted for anywhere between forty and eighty hours. Throw in the expansion pack, and you’re looking at over a hundred hours of gameplay. The story is as epic as the length, beginning where Baldur’s Gate left off. Your character is a child of Bhaal, the God of murder. This obviously makes you rather special, but it also attracts the attention of Jon Irenicus, a power-hungry mage who is easily one of the most well-written and brutal arch-enemies in gaming history. Over the course of Baldur’s Gate II and its expansion, you’ll cover approximately 32 levels, gain countless items, face various moral dilemmas, and conquer the best dungeons ever to be found in a role-playing game.

Though released eight years ago, the game is still likely to stun you with its amazing voice acting and unmatched writing. Playing through it today, one starts to feel that modern role-playing games have lost a bit of their magic over the years. Equally amazing are the graphics, which, thanks to a hack made available by the community, look good even on 22″ monitors.

Halo
(Xbox, Xbox 360, PC)

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The Halo series has come a long way since the original. The graphics of the newest incarnation are light-years ahead of the first, and the story of the Halo universe, which felt like a bit of an afterthought in the original, has now become important part of the series. Online multi-player has also become a central focus of Halo 2 and 3, so much so that Halo 3 sometimes feels like a multi-player game first, with the campaign taking a bit of a back seat.

While the original Halo lacks online multiplayer, features clean but unimpressive graphics, and has a stiff plot, the original also holds some unique charm. The single-player storyline provides at least twenty hours of entertainment, and with the exception of the seemingly endless Library, nearly every minute of the experience is top-notch. All the fundamentals are there. Level design is solid, the artificial intelligence is challenging, the weapons sound and feel solid, and the vehicle sections are just as good as those found in the later games. The lack of story isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either – I found the plot of both Halo 2 and 3 to be well polished but boring. Halo isn’t about the politics of the Covenant, it is about fun, interesting first-person combat.

Halo can be played on an Xbox, of course, but also can be played on any Xbox 360. The 360 experience is actually slightly better, because of the better controller and the ability to play on an HDTV without issue. There is a PC version, but the quality of the port is very poor.

Deus Ex
(PC)

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Nothing like Deus Ex had ever been made before it, and nothing quite like it has ever been made again. It is a singular experience, blending elements of first-person combat, role-playing character development, and Thief-style stealth into one intoxicating witch’s brew which remains as potent today as it ever was in the past. The plot is also a unique mix, combining an apocalyptic future with a liberal dose of conspiracy-theory cheese. The inclusion of numerous areas that aren’t essential to the plot also help keep the game from becoming too bleak for its own good, which is refreshing after playing today’s generally depressing titles. Sure, the world may be following apart. But if you’re feeling bad about things, you can always get drunk at the club, throw basketballs at your UNATCO buddies, or pig out on candy stolen from a nearby store.

“Nothing like Deus Ex had ever been made before it, and nothing quite like it has ever been made again.”The key to the whole experience, however, is the number of options the game gives you for completing an objective, and the way those options interact with the development of your character, JC Denton, a secret agent with super-powers provided by nanotechnology. While the story is mostly linear, there are a number of ways to progress through each level. If you are a kick-down-the-door type, then using rifles and the putting points into the appropriate nanotech augmentations will turn you into a fighting machine any Terminator could respect. But if you want to sneak around, stab folks in the back, and accomplish objectives by out-witting your enemies, that also is a valid option. And when I say valid, I do mean valid. Countless games have tried an open-ended approach to beating game objectives, but in many cases one way of proceeding ends up being obviously better than another. In Deus Ex, that isn’t the case. Sneak, kill, hack, steal – pick your poison, and go with it.

The graphics, voice acting, writing, and level design are all fine by today’s standards. But it is really the versatility of the gameplay that makes Deus Ex so much fun to pick up today. There is nothing available today that improves on, or even replicates this classic.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
(Xbox, Xbox 360, PC)

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After Bioware decided to move on from producing Infinity-engine based games, they hit the console scene. And they hit it hard. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was the best role-playing game to grace Microsoft’s Xbox, and even helped, along with Halo, to secure the console’s reputation as a player that had to be taken seriously. Five years later, the game remains as good as the day it was released.

KOTOR,‘s long life comes from the epic scale which it shares with many other Bioware games. Although shorter than the Baldur’s Gate series, KOTOR still clocks in at around thirty to forty hours. During that time span, your character transforms from a complete nobody into one of the most powerful Jedi (or Sith) in the galaxy. You gain numerous powers along the way, including proficiency with the iconic lightsaber. And like all Bioware games, KOTOR presents the player with numerous moral choices which affect your character’s reputation and ultimately the way the game ends.

The combat in KOTOR has remained fresh over the years, as well. Although designing the game for a console controller resulted in a feel that was more clumsy than previous Bioware games, tactical depth remains in-tact. Different skills, weapons, and abilities constantly come into play, giving you multiple choices on how to best conquer a foe. This is topped with some of the most satisfying lightsaber combat to ever be seen in a Star Wars title.Animations are smooth, the sounds are exactly as they should be, and you’re even given the ability to customize your lightsaber and your fighting style. Every Star Wars fan deserves the chance to play through KOTOR at least once – if only to holler in glee as your dual-lightsaber wielding badass wipes the floor with a room of wannabe Sith.

Half-Life
(PC)

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Half-Life is one of the most important games ever developed. It revolutionzed the way games presented themselves, including the areas of voice-acting, scripting, story, atmosphere, and artificial intelligence.

“In a way, it’s unfortunate that Half-Life has aged so well. There are still titles that come out today which completely fail to match the standard set by Half-Life, a game which is now over ten years old and is based on an engine even more ancient.”In a way, it’s unfortunate that Half-Life has aged so well. There are still titles that come out today which completely fail to match the standard set by Half-Life, a game which is now over ten years old and is based on an engine even more ancient. Then again, Half-Life is a difficult game to match, even with today’s better technology and massive development budgets. The game does almost everything right. On its surface, the voice-acting, the music, and the scripted encounters create an atmosphere of terror. Move beyond those details, however, and you also find a core game that nails down every element. The pacing is outstanding, creating a tension that rarely gives the player a moment to rest. The level design is wonderful, challenging the player constantly. And the artificial intelligence is still good enough to give modern games a run for their money, particularly when the player is faced with rare but extremely difficult opponents, such as the assassins.

The re-release of Half-Life as Half-Life: Source is also a serious boon to players, as it erases many of the compatibility issues that arise from trying to play a ten-year-old Quake-engine game on a modern PC. The update also adds some graphical and physics improvements which help insure that first-time players won’t be turned off by decade-old visuals.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in September 2008.

Gentle persuasion

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