It’s another double edition of this regular look back at the games I’ve played recently. This instalment covers both March and April of 2023, when I reviewed two new games - one of them in early access - and revisited another batch of older releases.
Those two releases cover both the sublime and the ridiculous. For the former, I got the chance to play the slender but stellar early access release of Supplice, the retro shooter made by Doom modding veterans. On the ridiculous front is Gun Jam, a bitterly disappointing and frankly unfinished rhythm shooter that adds nothing at all to that nascent sub-genre.
The older games covered this time are a varied lot; I replayed two of my personal favourites, in the form of third-person action games Oni (2001) and Urban Chaos (1999). I tackled the controversial but very well-made “stealth strategy” War Mongrels (2021), and finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011) for the third time. Possibly the highlight of these months, though, was playing the 2020 definitive editions of gangster sagas Mafia (2002) and Mafia II (2010).
Supplice (2023) [Early Access]
Developed by Mekworx, published by Hyperstrange
I can’t tell you how happy I am that the “boomer shooter” renaissance has reached the heights that it has. Supplice has been on my radar for some time, as I played the demo in October 2021 and it was on my most anticipated list for 2022. It has taken until now for the Early Access release, and it was worth the wait. A product of a team of Doom community veterans, Supplice looks set to join the top rank of retro-style shooters, up there with the likes of Dusk (2018), Ion Fury (2019), Amid Evil (2019), and Cultic (2022). Clearly it has some way to go, but the five-map Early Access episode is full of promise.
Supplice is to some extent a kind of reimagining of the original Doom, being set on a colony under siege by bloodthirsty invaders. Unusually, it has a significant story element which is delivered through text accessed via consoles scattered around the maps. Those maps are easily some of the most complex and ambitious that have ever been attempted in the Doom engine and they are a remarkable achievement. Texture work, geometry, and encounter design are all on point in Supplice’s first episode and the tremendous talent of the Mekworx team shines through. The game is possibly even more impressive for those who are familiar with mapping in the Doom engine, but even for those outside of the community this is shaping up to be something very special indeed.
Gun Jam (2023)
Developed by Jaw Drop Games, published by Raw Fury
While it impressed with its demo some time ago, in its final form Gun Jam is a desperately half-baked effort to replicate the success of recent rhythm shooters like Metal: Hellsinger and BPM: Bullets Per Minute. The shooting becomes boring almost immediately, the handling of custom songs is very poor, and the game shipped with just four boxy arena levels. I’ve said my piece about this deeply underwhelming game at Entertainium. Next!
Developed by Bungie West, published by Take Two Interactive
Oni is a game that is very close to my heart. I first played it over 20 years ago, when I picked up a slim budget copy in a PC World for £10. At the time, there were also original big box versions available for three times as much - in a way, I wish I’d bought one of those instead. It’s one of the game buying experiences I remember most vividly, alongside Populous: The Beginning (1998), Unreal Tournament (1999), and Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001).
What made Oni so special on PC at the time was that it is essentially a single-player, story-driven fighting game. That kind of thing was extremely rare on the PC in 2001, and ironically the PC version was far superior to the PlayStation 2 release, which was crudely ported by Rockstar. Oni is also notable as an anime-style game made in the West, influenced specifically by the cyberpunk setting Ghost in the Shell (1995). Today, those are ten a penny but it was quite novel at the time.
Oni was a flop on release, arguably due to long delays and poor marketing. It isn’t a perfect game, by any means, and the lack of multiplayer and uninspired visuals did not help it. Bungie West’s only game speaks to me, though, so strongly that even its evident flaws are part of its appeal for me now. Due to lingering rights issues, it can’t be bought today but remarkably a small community has kept it playable via the impressive Anniversary Edition. After this most recent playthrough, I tried to capture what I think makes Oni so special in an article. If you can seek it out, I strongly recommend that you give this unique and under-recognised game a try.
Urban Chaos (1999)
Developed by Mucky Foot Productions, published by Eidos Interactive
Over the years, it has often been the case that just after I finish replaying Oni, I feel compelled to replay Urban Chaos - or vice versa. It makes sense, because the two games are similar in many ways. They are both third-person action games with women cop protagonists, both mix hand-to-hand combat with gunplay, and sadly they were both notable commercial failures on release. My personal connection with Urban Chaos is just as strong as with Oni.
Mucky Foot Productions were founded by Mike Diskett and Gary Carr, both of whom had worked for the iconic British developer Bullfrog. Like Bullfrog, they were based in Guildford in Surrey - very much the home of the British games industry. To me, Urban Chaos is Mucky Foot’s magnum opus. It looks very rough around the edges these days, but it is one of many games from that era which is bursting with ideas, full of inventiveness and ambition which went unrewarded. It also has a good sense of humour, which was long the trademark of games made in the UK.
Playing as rookie cop D’Arci Stern - notably one of the very first fully-fledged black woman protagonists in a game - the player confronts the Wildcats, a malevolent gang seeking to control Union City. The story takes some genuinely unusual directions and the large city levels are surprisingly open and detailed. It makes sense that so many people now regard this game as a kind of precursor to Grand Theft Auto III (2001). Happily, Urban Chaos is available from GOG - I suggest you just try to look past the dated visuals and somewhat awkward controls, to see the great game underneath.
War Mongrels (2021)
Developed and published by Destructive Creations
If you know me, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of real-time stealth tactics games (or “stealth strategy”). For that reason, I just had to give War Mongrels a try despite my misgivings. You should know going in that this entry in the subgenre was made by the controversial Polish studio Destructive Creations. Set mainly on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1944, it has a sometimes very dark story - which includes a mission set in Chełmno extermination camp - and fairly dubious politics. Let’s leave it at that.
War Mongrels is very heavily inspired by Shadow Tactics (2016) and Desperados III (2020) and adds relatively little that is really new to the genre. Having said that, it is a very well made derivative of those games. The 12 missions are quite impressively varied, and the best ones are nearly as intricate as the ones designed by Mimimi Games, the clear leaders in this genre. The number of usable characters is unusually large - seven - although no more than four are ever available in the same mission. Interestingly, you will be less reliant on familiar stealth strategy items, especially the mantrap, than in other games.
Mafia: Definitive Edition (2020)
Developed by Hangar 13 (original version developed by Illusion Softworks), published by 2K
Originally released in 2002, Mafia is one of the more memorable products of a fertile time for third-person action games. Steeped in a heady 1930s atmosphere, its gripping story cribs from movies like The Godfather but is never overwhelmed by its cinematic influences. Cabbie turned gangster Tommy Angelo is a likeable lead, surrounded by believably flawed criminal associates and carried through a plot punctuated by big scores, brutality, and betrayal.
A few years ago, 2K decided to commission definitive editions of all three Mafia games, and in the case of the original this demanded a ground-up remake. Hangar 13, developers of Mafia III (2016), did a wonderful job with modernising this crime classic. The corrupt city of Lost Heaven looks spectacular, and the hugely improved character models, modernised facial animation, and rewritten script make a great narrative even more powerful. This remake throws the tight, straightforward gameplay of Mafia into stark relief. The 20 missions vary significantly in length and style, incorporating a mix of driving, stealth, and gunplay. Lost Heaven isn’t bloated by fetch quests and checklist gameplay; it is instead a living, breathing backdrop for the story. If you haven’t experienced this gangster gem, then the Definitive Edition is the perfect way to become a made man.
Mafia II: Definitive Edition (2020)
Developed by Hangar 13 (original version developed by 2K Czech), published by 2K
It took a long eight years for Mafia II to materialise, by which time Illusion Softworks had been reshaped into 2K Czech and Grand Theft Auto had taken over the world. If the developers felt pressured to copy Rockstar’s cash cow, the sequel barely shows it. The structure is slightly less rigid and there are stores and garages to visit, but these seem like only half-hearted efforts to amend the Mafia formula.
Mafia II is set partly in 1945 and mostly in 1951, and again the period detail is on point. The protagonist this time around is Vito Scaletta, decorated war veteran and the kind of impressionable, debt-ridden schnook who is easily drawn into the mafia’s embrace. Egged on by his oafish childhood friend Joe Barbaro, Vito becomes a pawn in the struggles between the Clemente, Falcone, and Vinci families in the city of Empire Bay, which is every bit as decadently corrupt as ‘30s Lost Heaven ever was. Mafia II takes longer than it should to really get going, but it eventually builds to a suitably bloody climax.
Hangar 13 did a modest remaster pass for the Definitive Edition, which updates the textures and adds the three mostly pointless DLC packs.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Director’s Cut] (2011)
Developed by Eidos Montreal, published by Square Enix
When Eidos Montreal were tasked with reinvigorating the revered but dormant Deus Ex-perience, they were taking on possibly the most noxiously poisoned chalice in gaming. Their trials, tribulations, and the frustratingly not-quite-brilliant end result were documented extensively in Hbomberguy’s three and a half hour examination. I can be much more efficient than him, as I’m about to demonstrate.
I’ve now finished Human Revolution three times and I still feel that Eidos Montreal did a surprisingly good job. For me, the open-world hub sections are the weakest part. These small and unconvincing locations are a thin setting for vapid side quests which involve too much tiresome backtracking. DX:HR comes alive in its more focused segments, like the FEMA facility under the streets of Detroit or the secret base in Singapore. Stealth was quite crude in the original Deus Ex, but it is a real strength of HR; sneaking around these locations is always satisfying.
Where Eidos Montreal really dropped the ball is with the ending. When our hero, augmented corporate cop Adam Jensen, reaches the Panchaea facility in the Arctic the game falls apart almost immediately. DX:HR simply abandons its own gameplay loop, and transforms into an incredibly lame zombie shooter, followed by an interminable boss fight and a choice of four woeful endings. At least I still have Mankind Divided took look forward to, which reportedly doesn’t really end at all…
That brings me to the end of this instalment; next time, I’ll be talking continuing my gangster odyssey with Mafia III: Definitive Edition (2020), and revisiting an Arkane classic with Dishonored (2012).
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.