A lot of things go into a successful game. Most of the time, it has to be good (although not always), but that’s just the beginning. A game needs marketing, it needs exposure, it needs word of mouth, it needs the proper distribution and price point. The sale of games, and indeed anything, is complicated.
This means that there are a lot of real gems that just faded quietly into obscurity, without fanfare or acknowledgement from anyone; overshadowed by bigger marketing budgets or a more conventional premise.
In that spirit, I’m going to share some games that I think didn’t get the respect they deserved – be it by critics or consumers.
CODENAME EAGLE (1999)
Codename Eagle was, in my opinion, pretty far ahead of its time, particularly in multiplayer. The developer is the little known Refraction Games, a studio which was later absorbed by DICE to work on Battlefield 1942.
While the single-player mode was somewhat linear, the multiplayer experience was unlike anything I’d experienced before. It was much like Battlefield style games of today, except it was released three years before the original Battlefield.
At the time, the only real option (for South Africans, anyway) was to play over LAN, so me and my friends would usually be running four-player deathmatches across enormous maps. The game let you take control of a staggering amount of vehicles: tanks, APCs, ships, motorbikes, all kinds of World War I-era aircraft. The maps went on for miles, and it seemed everytime we played we uncovered some kind of hidden area we hadn’t found before; I remember fondly the day I stumbled upon an enormous blimp that the player could pilot.
It allowed you to do things that made you feel like a total badass, such as jump out of your fighter plane mid-air, deploy a parachute and shoot your friend out of the sky with a bazooka (or indeed, jump into his blimp with him).
It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in an FPS game, and I’ve never met a single person outside my friendship group that’s even heard of it.
SiN was, in most people’s eyes, a forgettable game published by Activision in the late ’90s. Let’s get the bad out of the way first: SiN was buggy. It wasn’t for everyone, but some people didn’t even have working sound in their game. This was quickly patched, but unfortunately a 30+MB patch was actually quite unacceptable in a time when people either had no Internet or dial-up. The problem was so bad Activision actually offered to send CDs with the patch on to people who couldn’t download it.
Unfortunately, even though the patches cleared up the problems, the damage was done. This, however, wasn’t even the worst of the game’s problems – it had the unfortunate fate of being released at the same time as Half-Life. You may know Half-Life as the best FPS (or indeed, game) ever made. Yeah… SiN is the game that had to directly compete with that. In fact, a lot of SiN’s bugginess was actually attributed to trying to beat Half-Life to the shelves.
SiN wasn’t the greatest game ever, but it was good. It was an easily-digestible FPS with tons of action and a storyline compelling enough to keep you interested. The multiplayer was pretty fantastic, even featuring a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-esque map where you leapt around on giant furniture and sniped people from behind books. If it wasn’t for Half-Life, SiN would be remembered fondly by many a nostalgic gamer, as opposed to basically no-one.
Wow, the late ’90s was a pretty good time to be a gamer. Redline is a lot like what I think Carmack’s RAGE was trying to be. Set in 2066, the world has been destroyed by the moon wandering a little too close on one of its orbits (it’s like, science). What’s left of the population is divided between The Outsiders, made up of roving groups of gangs that struggle to survive, and The Insiders, a wealthy minority who live under enormous protective domes with all of life’s luxuries.
Just like RAGE, it combined vehicle combat and FPS, except this game was actually fun. The multiplayer was a riot; the story was cool, and its developer Beyond Games’ only real game they ever made. It would actually make a pretty awesome movie – except someone already took the title and butchered it (fun fact: Redline was the working title of The Fast and the Furious). It was exciting, it was different and it was pretty original, it just suffered from the small problem that nobody played it.
BLACK MESA (2012)
Let’s bring this discussion into the new millennium. Black Mesa, if you haven’t heard of it, is an independent remake of the original Half-life game – new graphics, new sounds, and new physics; a whopping eight years of development. It’s also the best game I played last year.
Black Mesa certainly wasn’t underrated by critics (receiving a Metacritic score of 86), but despite it getting a lot of attention during development, I feel that it’s somehow slipped under the radar of a lot of gamers. Being an independent project, there was no mass marketing or ads during the Superbowl. It was also awkward to install, requiring you to first download Source SDK 2007. But it was so, so worth it.
Half-life shouldn’t exactly be a hard sell, since it’s kind of the best thing ever (spoiler: I’m a total fanboy). Getting to play through the original again but have it feel like an all-new game, like an all-new experience, is something pretty amazing. This isn’t just Half-life with a makeover, it’s something much, much more, and if you have access to a PC that can run it, I really can’t recommend enough that you do just that, especially since it’s now available directly through Steam Greenlight.
CLIVE BARKER’S UNDYING (2001)
I’m a sucker for a great storyline, and this one was a doozy. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since the plot was penned by horror legend Clive Barker.
The game is set just after World War I, when you’re called by an old friend on his death bed to come and investigate the curse that besieged his family. In a spooky mansion on the coast of Ireland, you begin to unravel the mystery of his possessed siblings and the demonic creature behind it all.
It was a standard FPS-style game with health bars and guns and ammo, but with a handful of magic thrown in. The best of these was the ability to “Scrye”, which would allow you to see things otherwise hidden from sight. Using this ability in the right places would reveal some of the mystery (and creepiness) hidden in the manor, and the story was slowly pieced together as you explored the manor and its surroundings. It was creepy, atmospheric and immersive, and it’s aged pretty well too. Give it a try if you can get your hands on it.
What are your most underrated games? Share with us in the comments, and be sure to come back next week, when I’ll be flipping the topic and jumping into five games that got tons of attention, but actually sucked.