No one was paying attention to the end of the decade that fateful 31st of December 1999. Hey, we had more important things on our hands. It was the end of the millennium! Perhaps, people were busy sending heaps of sms to their friends and family and trying to remember to turn off your pc before midnight, otherwise the Y2K bug would destroy their precious data.
Meanwhile, Playstation 2, announced in March, was on its way. Sony seemed like it would have no rival in market dominance, since Nintendo wasn’t really breaking new ground with the Gamecube.
On the other side of the pond, PC games enjoyed a pretty good year but signs of stagnation were becoming evident. 3D accelerated graphics had apparently reached their peak, while developers were still trying to catch on and use the technology to truly revolutionize gaming. At least for genres that weren’t first person shooters… 1999 for PC gaming was a year of sequels: Dungeon Keeper 2, Heroes of Might & Magic 3, Descent 3, etc. One noteworthy original franchise debuting in 1999 is Unreal Tournament. Counterstrike is also worth a mention, even though I’m not really sure I would call that a “series”. Many other important titles saw the light in those twelve months, here is my list, with the usual focus on design and development.
SimCity 3000 accomplished its main goal: forging a new title for modern audiences, while not substantially modifying the gameplay found in the “2000” title. For the sake of the artcle, I will focus on SC3000’s development.
In 1996, Maxis was struggling to find an identity, having released years of “Sim” games which, by then, were running out of steam. They tried to publish a Diablo-like action rpg, Crucible, through an external development studio, which never saw the light of day. They also tried to get into Full Motion Video technology, attempted a children’s line of software and launched a short lived sports brand. “Anything goes” sums up their overall strategy quite well. SimCity 3000 was originally planned to make use of a full 3D engine, pretty similar to the one we’ve laughed at in Streets of Simcity. Not to mention the engine used in the fun, but rather shoddy looking, SimCopter. The first alpha of Sim City 3000 was a disaster, but still Maxis’ management kept its course. Then EA happened.
While the acquisition of Maxis evokes rage and frustration from most players nowadays, at the time it was manna from heaven. EA brought in a new manager in charge of the development of SimCity 3000: Lucy Bradshaw. She pushed for the game to be designed in 2D, a decision which went against the “3D OR DEATH!” philisophy prevalent in 1999. It proved to be a most wise design choice. Bradshaw also saw that Will Wright had been working on a new game with no staff and plenty of managerial interference. She brought on new staff for him plus independency from management, so that he could work on what looked like a sort of “daily human life simulator”. Years later, that simulator would go on to become one of the most famous franchises of all time, The Sims.
Sid Meier had had enough. He had been wanting to make a sort of spiritual sequel to his immortal Civilization for years now. In the meantime, Microprose kept busy releasing spin offs and sequels to his game, Call to Power among others. In 1996 Microprose had started reassessing the company while cutting jobs left and right. Sid, Jeff Briggs and Civ 2 designer Brian Reynolds, unhappy with the decisions coming from above, left and went on to found the Firaxis studio. Subsequently they signed a distribution agreement with Electronic Arts for both Alpha Centauri and its future expansion, Alien Crossfire.
Their new focus was entirely science fiction, since human history had already been done to death with Civilization. Inspiration came from the likes of Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive and Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, among others. The resulting title was the best strategy game of 1999, a one-of-a-kind immersive experience like no others before. In all honesty, I had never played a Civ game when I fired up Alpha Centauri, hence had no idea what was waiting for me. I was blown away by its depth and gameplay nuances. There was tons of lore in the game, philosophical considerations on the value of life and human relationships, perfectly built into a game dripping with classical 4X strategy. I had never seen anything like this and, to this day, it is one of my favourite titles of all time. To be fair, I have seen people coming up with relatable criticisms in the last few years though. Many people have noted how the game’s rhythm is slow and relaxed, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
The sequel to the amply lauded Descent: FreeSpace has a very interesting development story. Interplay released the sequel with very little fanfare and barely any publicity, even though it later went on to win “sci-fi game of the year”. The company, apparently, never intended to support the Volition development team, even when they came up with plans for an expansion pack. This is the main reason why the series died right there and then, which was indeed a shame. Freespace II changes little in respect to its predecessor; as far as gameplay goes, it is basically the same tried and true “dogfight in space” that works best in first person view. Graphically it was revamped and highly enhanced, with support for 32bit and most 3d accelerators of the time (now required to run the game).
What is mostly notable about FS2 today, what I also loved back then, is that even though the entire story is set in space with the noted absence of cutscenes or actors interacting with one another, the plot is still fantastically written and acted. Wing Commander lost me when it started going down the FMV and famous actors route. I’ve never understood how the long drawn out cutscenes were supposed to combine with the dogfight gameplay; they felt separated, acting like a “bonus” for completing a level. Freespace II does away with all of that, delivering a very engaging plot that still leaves you in your pilot seat while things happen around you. You’re piloting your spaceship as the plot develops, making decisions to alter the story with your choices. Be warned, nothing is ever as it seems! Freespace 2 is as realistic as a simulator could get, very sci-fi in a non spectactular way, like a book from Arthur C. Clarke.
An open world 3d adventure game with no required graphical accelerator? Count me in! Outcast sounded pretty appealing from day one and I did try my best to get my hands on it as soon as it was sold in shops. I played it time and time again since its release, alone and with friends. To this day, I have never managed to have fun with it. The adventure , developed by Appeal and released by Infogrames, got a lot of things right and was very ambitious for its time. Really, I find entirelty reasonable to say that Outcast managed to reach most of its goals. Unfortunately, it was designed to be not only “open world” but also free roaming, which, for the time, meant that there was no sense of flow or rhythm to the gameplay.
Controlling the protagonist, Cutter Slade (…yeah), your task shall be to visit random waypoints while trying not to die. Naturally, as soon as you dare to walk in a direction other than the one required, it won’t be long before dozens of enemies will come shooting at you. The developers clearly do not inteded the player to enjoy exploring, so… why make it open world at all? Also the game world was, for obvious technical reasons, pretty devoid of interesting sights, hence there was not even any kind of reward in exploring. I also tried playing the remake, released in 2017, only to find the same set of problems so I guess the team was really fond of those design choices. Outcast was technologically successful, even though the Voxel engine went out of date pretty soon after 1999. Too bad it wasn’t designed to be fun to play or interesting to revisit.
I was a sucker for the “Madness” series by Microsoft and I still long for those long gone days when racing games were first and foremost about fun. Years before microtransactions and open world, developed only for the sake of claims like “three billion square meters of real terrain to explore!!11!!”. I played the heck out of Monster Truck Madness and Motocross Madness, therefore I was really excited when Midtown was announced. Then, somehow, I missed its release date and only managed to pick it up and play a couple of years later; I wasn’t really impressed. Still, today it is abundantly clear how much of an influence the title had on modern racing games.
Back then, the idea of “free driving” in a faithfully recreated city (Chicago) was unheard of, in any racing game. Need for Speed was on its third chapter, released in 1998, one of my favourite in the series, but still featuring only closed circuits. Test Drive 6 came out with little fanfare the same year as Midtown Madness, and also featured ordinary race tracks; it will be the last game in the series before the “reboot” in 2002. The only two titles who were first and foremost about fun were Destruction Derby, along with Carmageddon. Still, those were never really taken seriously by the public or the gaming press. Microsoft changed things, even though nobody jumped on the bandwagon right away. Midtown’s influence started to be felt after 2002 on games like the Burnout series and, of course, Need for Speed, which will pick up the open world idea years later, along with a bunch of other titles.
In that fateful day in the PC game shop, I honestly felt something about Planescape:Torment. To this day, I am still not able to explain exactly what that feelings was but as soon as I saw it and read the back of the box, I bought it straight away. I obviously knew nothing about the Planescape RPG series and the other Infinity engine powered game I knew was Baldur’s Gate, which I could never get into. I know I know, shame on me. Torment would swiftly become one of my favourite games of the year.
There’s plenty of articles around the internet which go at great length to explain what the game accomplished, so I won’t bore you with unncessary details and get straight to its relevancy. It was a perfect case of game design marrying the subject matter: the search for lost identity. Torment shifts and adapts the rules around the player, as the party members change, as the Nameless One gets new abilities forgetting old ones. It’s a game exploding with possibilities, interesting characters, depressing and funny scenarios. Naturally it is a text-heavy game, which makes it really hard to recommend in our current gaming market but, since Disco Elysium was one of the most lauded game of 2019, maybe things are changing…? Probably the best way to understand what Torment accomplished is by playing its spritual successor Tides of Numenera. While not a bad game by all means, that title struggles in ways I never thought possible to tell a similarly complex story, never reaching that sweet balance that Chris Avellone and Black Isle mastered.
One of the most despised release of that decade and with good reason. With any other name, Ascension would have still been a pretty forgettable RPG. Instead, by coming out under the beloved “Ultima” banner, as a conclusion to a series which was beloved by fans since 1981, meant that it was met with anger and disastrous sales. Buggy original release, outrageous technical requirements, nonsensical storyline which betrayed the Ultima lore and barely average gameplay. In this case, it’s safe to say that, while EA saved Maxis with some “unprofitable” decisions, it did the opposite with Origin Systems.
The development team had been mostly shifted to Ultima Online, deadlines were given a few months before shipping, the team’s protests that the game wasn’t ready for release were ignored. EA killed Origin definitely with a rushed release of a game which really needed to be scrapped. Along with the studio, the Ultima series also took an axe directly in the face, never to be brought to life again. A lesson in videogame ethics that, unfortunately, Electronic Arts didn’t really learn from. On the bright side, fans tried to salvage Ascension as best as they could with mods, basically rewriting the entire plot to fit into the Ultima canon and squashing most of its bugs. Is it worth it to revist Ultima IX today? It might not really be as bad as most people remember, but I would err on the safe side and say “don’t bother”. Still Ultima fans – which I am not – would have a more informed opinion.
There’s not much to say about the design of Soul Reaver. It is a rather competent 3D action adventure with vampires instead of a sexy archeologist with guns. It has more of a focus on puzzles, rather than pure combat, and I also remember it was a nightmare to make it run on any pc after 2002. If you decide to play it today, don’t expect a game that has aged well, cause I fear it is not. It is actually the design idea behind the development of Soul Reaver that I still find intriguing.
When they decided to develop a sequel to their 2D RPG, Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, which sold okay while not being really a masterpiece, Crystal Dynamic chose a rather unusual route. They took the protagonist of their last game and made him the bad guy for the sequel. Unfortunately, a legal dispute with Silicon Knights meant that they missed the 1998 release date and had to scrap lots of material in order to meet the release date. Because of this, they created enough lore for years of Soul Reaver games. The eternal struggle between the evil (or is he?) Kain and the good but tormented Raziel was one of the best of the era. The subsequent titles had varying degrees of quality, but the story always remained absorbing. As we all know, in later years Crystal Dynamics mastered the 3D action adventure genre so well that, years later, they became Tomb Raider’s development studio.
While talking about the supposed and “inevitable” death of the adventure game genre, Blood of the Sacred is often mentioned as that sweet moment when everything came crashing down. Jane Jensen’s game was heavily criticized for using 3D in all the wrong ways, apparently not having learned the right lessons from arguably imperfect but still playable Grim Fandango. The Sierra game stuttered and ran like molasses even on computers that exceeded the requirements. Also, the full freedom available to the player was used to bring pixel hunting to its extremes. The game’s interface was aggravating and puzzles were nonsensical like never before.
This was the result of a troubled development cycle; by 1999 Sierra was basically a non-entity, all the best programmers had already left. Still, GK3 is recognized as the last real “Sierra game” and, for years, stood as a cautionary tale for game developers. The story was pretty well written, as expected from Jane Jenser, anticipating Dan Brown’s series of books about the Carolingian and the “children of Jesus”. Unfortunately, it was wrapped in an ugly already “old” game that made it very hard, even for fans, to forgive its faults. Looking back today, the last title in the Gabriel Knight series can be recommended but with its caveats. With a bit of patience and a walkthrough on hand, I think it can still remunerate players looking for a strong story and characters. Also, did I mention the soundtrack by Robert Holmes is absolutely stunning?
Discworld noir – In the year where adventure games died, one of my favourite titles came out, as a European only release. While not having the best puzzles, Noir took the humour of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett and dipped in black ink. Fantastic voiceovers, great comedy and memorable characters.
Revenant – One of the last real Diablo clones of the era, also unfortunately the last game from Cinematix studio. It is still a rather imperfect experience but, somehow, one that still fascinates me after all these years, like playing a beta version of Sacred.
Silver – Infogrames’ answer to the lack of a great japanese style RPG on the pc. While totally forgotten today, it was a pretty competent Final Fantasy clone, one that I managed to enjoy playing. In 1999 I hated japanese RPGs with a vengeance, so make of that what you will…
The Longest Journey – While not a perfect adventure game by any stretch of the imagination, the sheer amount of lore created by Ragnar Tørnquist was astounding. The world and the characters were so memorable that the series still has many fans today and the conclusive chapter of the series was released recently, in 2014.