1998 – A great year for PC gaming!

Written by Julian Schoffel on . Posted in Features

1998 was a great year for pc gaming

Some years seem to be totally bereft of good games whereas some are absolutely chock full of AAA-grade gaming goodness. 1998 definitely fits into the latter category.

In that year game developers the world over appeared to have a collective bout of divine inspiration. The end result? A miraculous 12 month period that produced some of the greatest PC games ever made…

A short flashback

It’s hard to believe that well over a decade has come and gone since these games hit the shelves. If I remember rightly 1998 was the year Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about where he may have put his cigar… It was also the year that Titanic won 11 Oscars and radio stations the world over displayed an unhealthy obsession with cheesy power ballads by Aerosmith and the Goo Goo Dolls.

1998 PC games honour roll

Starcraft box cover

Starcraft
Released: April 1998
Genre: Real-time strategy
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment

In 1995 Warcraft II had been a huge success for Blizzard, so there was a keen sense of anticipation surrounding their next RTS offering: the long awaited sci-fi epic – Starcraft.

When Starcraft finally came out I remember being initially unimpressed: the game seemed to adhere too rigidly to the oft used resource-collecting/base-building RTS formula. 6 months earlier Total Annihilation had broken the RTS mould and I was hoping that Starcraft would follow suit. Admittedly, the game did have one compelling twist: three distinctly different races for players to choose from (Terran, Protoss and Zerg). But I still wasn’t sure that this would be enough to hook me in.

The longer I played Starcraft the more I liked it but the game’s true quality didn’t fully dawn on me until about a year after its release. I realised that after 12 months I was still playing Starcraft skirmish games every day and rather than diminishing, my enjoyment seemed to grow as I unlocked more of the game’s strategic intricacies.

The fact that millions are still playing Starcraft over a decade later is testament to the game’s greatness.

Starcraft II may finally be out but if you haven’t yet played the original you’re doing yourself a great disservice.

Unreal box cover

Unreal
Released: April 1998
Genre: First-person shooter
Publisher: GT Interactive

In the early 1990s “Epic” were in the business of making shareware games – stuff like “Jazz Jackrabbit” and “Jill of the Jungle.” Back then they weren’t known as Epic Games but as the more dramatic sounding “Epic MegaGames.” They have since dropped the “Mega” because, just quietly, it sounded a wee bit nerdy.

You can imagine everyone’s surprise when, in April 1998, this relatively small shareware company suddenly gave birth to a 3D shooter the calibre of Unreal! Ok admittedly it wasn’t a total shock because the gaming press (myself included) had been raving about Unreal for months.

Unreal was, by 1998 standards, the best-looking 3D shooter I’d ever seen! It’s worth noting that back then 3D accelerator cards were still relatively new and very few games fully exploited their potential. Unreal was one of the first games to take existing 3D technology and give it a really thorough bollocking.

Like Half-Life Unreal used scripted cut-sequences to great effect, drawing players into the storyline. And what a storyline it was: after escaping from a crashed prison ship your character had to negotiate the hazards of a strange planet known as “Na Pali,” all the while avoiding an evil race of aliens (the “Skaarj”).

Apart from the mind-blowing 3D visuals, Unreal also featured some truly diabolical (in a good way) AI. When I think of my stoushes with the dodging and weaving Skaarj one phrase still springs to mind: “Stand still you wankers!”

If Unreal had a weak point it would have to be the game’s lacklustre multiplayer component, of course Epic soon rectified this by releasing Unreal Tournament the following year.

Commandos Behind Enemy Lines box cover

Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines
Released: July 1998
Genre: Strategy/tactical combat
Publisher: Eidos Interactive

While it didn’t garner the accolades of some of the other titles mentioned here Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines is still worthy of a mention.

Set in WWII, Commandos incorporated elements of both real-time strategy and tactical combat. On top of this the game’s lavish attention to historical detail and beautifully rendered isometric mission maps made it feel like a grand adventure.

In the game players drew on the unique talents of 7 available commandos: the Green Beret, Marine, Sniper, Spy, Thief, Driver and Sapper.

Commandos was brutally challenging and this was a big turn-off for many players. But if you persevered the game rewarded you with intriguing storylines, endearing characters and loads of atmosphere.

For my money the game’s most appealing trait was that it made you feel as if you were slap bang in the middle of a classic war movie and I can’t help but suspect that Commandos may have been a source of inspiration when Infinity Ward created the Call of Duty games some years later.

Grim Fandango box cover

Grim Fandango
Released: September 1998
Genre: Adventure
Publisher: LucasArts

When I look back on the past 20 years of PC gaming, aside from realising that I’m turning into an old fart, I can’t help but ponder the decline of the once phenomenally popular genre of graphic adventures. King’s Quest, Space Quest, Gabriel Knight, Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Rex Nebular and the Gender Benders are just a few of the adventure classics which conjure up fond memories. So what happened? Hmm, maybe I’ll save that for another post…

In the meantime I’d like to draw your attention to Grim Fandango: one of the last great LucaArts adventure games to be released.

Combining elements of film noir and Aztec culture, Grim Fandango was a heavily stylised graphic adventure built using LucasArts new (in 1998) “GrimE” game-engine. While LucasArts’ older “SCUMM” engine (you gotta love their names) had been 2D only, GrimE supported 3D characters in 2D backgrounds. The end result was an absolutely stunning looking game!

In Grim Fandango players controlled the character of “Manny Calavera,” a travel agent with the “Department of Death.” Manny’s job was to escort recently deceased souls to the Underworld.

Aside from its amazing cast of quirky characters, Grim Fandango featured all the usual ingredients of classic graphic adventures: puzzles, interactive objects and loads of witty dialogue.

Since then LucasArts have pretty much given up on adventure games, although fans of the genre can still get some relief through Telltale Games’ fantastic episodic releases of Sam & Max games.

Update – Since I wrote this feature last year LucasArts have shown some promising signs indicating that they may be about to get back into the business of graphic adventures, along with rebooting some of their other classic PC games series.

Half-Life box cover

Half-Life
Released: October 1998
Genre: First-person shooter/adventure
Publisher: Sierra Entertainment

Built using a heavily modified version of the original “Quake” engine, Half-Life was an absolute revelation when it came out 14 years ago. Part 3D shooter, part adventure, Half-Life also featured an engaging cast of characters; many of which have subsequently attained cult status.

There was “Dr Kleiner:” a likeable, if absurdly absent-minded scientist. “Barney Calhoun:” a security guard who always managed to remain upbeat, no mater how dire the circumstances. The enigmatic and creepy “G-Man:” who appeared to be pulling all of the strings. And of course “Gordon Freeman:” the player’s character.

In a very smart move the game designers, Valve Software, gave Gordon Freeman absolutely no dialogue and he became a sort of empty vessel, awaiting habitation by the player. This innovative narrative dynamic really rammed home the feeling that the in-game events were happening to you and you alone.

Another clever narrative technique was Valve’s use of in-game cut-sequences. These gave meaning to all the mayhem taking place around Gordon Freeman, and further accentuated the feeling that the world was falling apart around you.

Of course the icing on the cake was the riveting and relentless plotline that saw you, Gordon Freeman, embroiled in a major inter-dimensional catastrophe at the Black Mesa research facility. Apart from having a hoard of slobbering creatures to contend with, you also had to avoid a team of very skilled government assassins sent in to clean up the mess.

In my 19 years of reviewing games the original Half-Life still stands out as an amazing accomplishment.

Thief The Dark Project box cover

Thief: The Dark Project
Released: November 1998
Genre: First-person sneaker/adventure
Publisher: Eidos Interactive

Thief: The Dark Project was an extremely innovative game which took archetypal 3D shooter conventions and turned them on their head. Instead of encouraging players to engage the enemy head-on, Thief did entirely the opposite. Thus the game is probably best described as a sort of “first-person sneaker.”

In Thief: The Dark Project, players controlled a master thief named “Garrett.” The action was centered on a fictitious Gothic metropolis known simply as the “City:” a shadowy, dangerous gameworld, perfect for a man like Garrett to ply his trade.

Thief’s missions always took place in the dark so players relied less on visual cues and more on the game’s amazing audio for sensory feedback.

Sadly, after creating one of the most atmospheric games ever released, Thief’s developers (Looking Glass Studios, who also created Ultima Underworld) went out of business 2 years later. While there were a couple of sequels, in my opinion they failed to match the standard of the original game.

Baldur's Gate box cover

Baldur’s Gate
Released: November 1998
Genre: AD&D role-playing
Publisher: Interplay

With titles like Ultima Underworld, Eye of the Beholder and Wizardry VII the early 1990s were a boom-time for computer role-playing games. But by 1998 the genre was languishing and in desperate need of a shot in the arm. Then along came Baldur’s Gate: the game that singlehandedly revitalized the waning RPG genre on PC.

The brainchild of Ray Muzyka, Baldur’s Gate was a single-player RPG set in the “Forgotten RealmsAD&D universe. Players viewed the action from a top-down, isometric perspective and the game’s fancy rendered visuals (by 1998 standards anyway) undoubtedly contributed to its amazing popularity.

Muzyka was a huge AD&D fan and it showed: every facet of Baldur’s Gate was imbued with layer upon layer of loving detail. The end result was an incredibly immersive and engaging single-player RPG.

Since Baldur’s Gate, Muzyka and his company Bioware have gone from strength to strength.

Starcraft Brood War box cover

Starcraft: Brood War
Released: November 1998
Genre: Real-time strategy
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard takes a notoriously long time to develop new titles so it came as a great surprise when they managed to ship the Starcraft add-on “Brood War” 6 months after the original game hit the shelves.

Brood War was a fantastic expansion and featured a number of new units (along with modifications to existing ones) which added another layer of depth and complexity to the game as a whole. Strangely in the 14 years since, no other Starcraft expansion packs have been forthcoming.

Myth II: Soulblighter box cover

Myth II: Soulblighter
Released: December 1998
Genre: Real-time strategy
Publisher: Bungie Software

Bungie Software’s Myth games really shook up the RTS genre for two main reasons: (1) they didn’t require players to harvest resources or build a base (2) they were powered by a snazzy looking 3D engine (which was something of a rarity in the RTS genre 14 years ago).

When it came out late in 1998 Myth II: Soulblighter built on all of its predecessor’s strengths while fixing many of its shortcomings. The resulting game is widely regarded as one the best RTS offerings of all time.

Unlike traditional RTS offerings (like Starcraft for example), Myth II did away with the standard resource-collecting/base-building gameplay mechanic. Instead players were given a set amount of units at the start of each mission. And because you couldn’t build or train any more units as a mission progressed you had to be very careful with them.

Some of Myth II’s other innovative gameplay elements included the ability to use sophisticated unit formations, environmental and weather effects which had a direct impact on unit behaviours and a robust underlying physics engine.

A couple of years after Myth II Bungie were bought out by Microsoft and sentenced to life imprisonment working the Halo money mines. Shame really.

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Julian Schoffel

From 1994 to 2007 Julian was a contributing editor for Australian PC User Magazine. He has also written for numerous publications which include Australian Personal Computer, PC PowerPlay, Hyper, Ralph, Megazone, The Disc, PlayNow, TechLife, The Sydney Morning Herald and IGN.

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