Back in the early nineties, I spent many furtive hours fiddling with my Amiga 500 in the lonely depths of my house-share bedroom. A keen interest in video gaming was exactly the sort of thing you didn't want brought up in female company, not that there was much of that happening at the time. On one of the very few occasions that a young lady came back to my place and, omigod , wandered into my bedroom, she quickly saw the Amiga and a well-fondled copy of Cannon Fodder and declared, with palpable disappointment, "Oh. You're one of those." To which I could only mutter that, yes, I was one of those but that didn't mean I wasn't also fantastically interested in whatever she'd been banging on about all evening. Something about a band, maybe? Who knew. I'd tuned out hours before and had spent the evening a) trying to picture her with less clothes on and b) wondering how to get past the tenth level of Cannon Fodder. Not necessarily in that order.
(Sidenote: A couple of years later I had somehow managed to fluke my way into the affections of another girl. I came home one day to find her sitting at my computer, conquering the Russian Front in Panzer General. I married her, of course).
Anyway, even though video gaming has exploded into a lovely, pink, sticky mess all over the world, even though my Dad quite enjoyed playing Wii Sports golf the other day (and swore as much as when playing the real thing) and even though I make some handy pocket money by writing about games, I still have this lingering feeling of... being one of those. You know what I mean? Every time I wander into and out of a games shop, there's some part of my brain that expects one of my old school teachers to stride out of the crowd and ask what on earth I'm doing, still playing video games at my age. It's not quite as bad as stumbling into your mother-in-law outside the local adult emporium with an armful of scaldingly hot Dutch porn, but there's some kind of stubborn guilt that lurks on the fringes of middle-aged video gaming.
I should point out that there's no-one in my life of any importance who has the slightest problem with me playing games. In fact, I find it hard to think of a family member or close friend who isn't, in their own special way, equally geeky about something. So this discomfort isn't the result of being regularly frowned at by significant others. I think it comes from growing up as a super-keen gamer when games were just for kids, and simply never getting over it. I can clearly remember thinking, in my mid-twenties, that I'd probably only have a few more years of gaming before simply moving on to, I dunno, knowledgeable discussion about mortgages, interest rates and superannuation.
With hindsight, the odds of me getting over video gaming were about the same as suddenly deciding I no longer liked movies, music or oxygen. I mean, honestly, why the the heck would anyone get over video games? I wouldn't know where to start. The only time in living memory that I wasn't regularly playing video games was when the Amiga was in its declining years, and I just didn't have the money to make the to leap to a PC or a PlayStation. I was that guy up the back of the shop, shuffling through the increasingly aged collection of Amiga titles like a street kid looking for three day old bread in a dumpster. Dark days indeed.
For years, I thought of myself more as a Movie Guy than a Game Guy, but it doesn't hold true anymore. The general cinema experience of today tends to be a depressing gouge-fest, and much as I love snuggling up with a good DVD, more often than not I'll get to the end of a movie and think well, there's another two hours of Team Fortress 2 I'll never get to play. Being a Movie Guy is still, I think, a more widely accepted inclination, simply because movies are a more established, respected art form. After meeting new people and telling them that I write about video games, there's often a polite smile and an un-aired assumption that it's the equivalent of writing about (or playing with) cabbage patch kids and the latest range of Bratz dolls.
Both you and I know that's not even remotely true, though I'd hazard a guess that anyone who's reading this has probably been made to feel the same way at some point. I guess being geeky - or passionate, to put it in a more culturally sanctioned way - about anything will always attract a few disapproving glances from the unenlightened. I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me at all, that I don't care if video gaming is sniffed at in certain quarters. Of course I do. It'd be nice, however, if the non-gaming world would occasionally either shut up or get on-board.
Demo-cracy in action.
A few days ago, I downloaded the demos for Empire Earth III and Escape from Paradise City. I quite enjoyed the original Empire Earth back in the day. I have to admit, though, that I was completely unaware that there'd been a sequel to the game, let alone that the third iteration was on its way. So when it popped up on my Local Friendly Game Server, I grabbed it straight away. Escape from Paradise City was a complete unknown to me. I only got interested after noticing the only two reviews of the game on Metacritic had wildly differing scores - 92% and 50%. Anything that can polarise opinion like that had to be worth checking out.
I tried out EE3 first and, quite literally, fell asleep. Nodded off, right there at the keyboard. I wasn't particularly tired, it wasn't late, I wasn't under the influence. I barely made it through the brain-crushing tedium of the tutorial, then staggered into a skirmish and that was it - lights out. It's rare to find a demo so powerfully boring, seeing as the whole point of a demo is to persuade people to buy the game. And I'm exactly the kind of person who would, given the slightest excuse, go out and buy EE3 - I'm a out and proud strategy nerd and, if stuck with one game for the rest of my life, would almost certainly choose an RTS. Company of Heroes, probably. EE3? If the demo's any indication, not bloodly likely.
Not having played the full version of EE3, it's important to keep in mind that all these comments are applicable only to the demo. Maybe the retail version will be a staggering triumph of strategy gaming genius. I doubt it, though. It's difficult to nail down what really sapped the life out of me while playing the demo - the 'here we go again' feel of the Age of Empires-style gameplay, the awkwardly close perspective on the battlefield or the hideously chunky graphics with barely any discernible difference between high and low settings, other than a sudden drop in framerate. The EE3 demo feels heavy, laboured and dreadfully dull. And this is supposed to convince me to buy the game?
Paradise City, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. Again, this shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of the final product, because I haven't played it. I have a sneaking feeling that as much as I enjoyed the demo, the gameplay on offer might not sustain interest for an awfully long time. Having said that, the demo gave me a good couple of hours of free fun and I'd definitely pick it up if I found it at the right price. The demo just does a lot of things right - a snazzy intro, a smooth and impressive graphics engine and just enough gameplay to get you hooked and leave you wanting more. I liked the GTA meets RTS feel of the game, with a splash of stats-driven character development. It's derivative, sure, but it's fun.
While EE3 and Paradise City are different games with different ambitions, they're both trying to get at the same dusty notes in my moth-infested wallet. I am here to be wooed, flattered and charmed by their promises of endless hours of fun. Beguile me, gosh darn it! What the hell is the point in putting out a demo, only to see it plummet like a stone into the depths of internet indifference. The Paradise City demo strikes me as a great demo of a so-so game. I'm not sure that there's much good to be wrung out of EE3, but it can't be a fabulous idea to have such a lacklustre demo sitting out there, radiating waves of boredom out into the marketplace.
One other last thing - any demo that doesn't give me an easy uninstall option automatically goes in the sin bin. I'm not going to look kindly on any product that makes me open up the control panel, then add/remove programs, then hunt through a huge list of the accumulated crap on my PC before finding the demo I want to uninstall. And while you're at it, I don't have a PhysX card - nor does anyone else, for that matter - so stop installing the drivers along with your demo. Right? Done.