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Throwback Thursday - Die by the Sword (1998)
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 03:20pm 26/03/15 | Comments
Throwback Thursday is a weekly column here on Ausgamers where Kosta opens up the proverbial gaming industry attic, has a poke around, finds dusty copies of games from a different time – and plays them!

Watch Kosta "play" Die by the Sword

The Game: Die by the Sword
The Year: 1998
The Developer: Treyarch
The System: PC (Windows)

Motion control. If you cast your mind back a few years, not too many, you’ll remember a time when the future of gaming was being able to move a controller around in time with your limbs. As opposed to, you know, moving your fingers in time with a controller. And this promise of a motion-controlled game of video tennis, video bowling, or, err, video bowlennis (a combination of the two) seemed like a semi-futuristic dream come true. And in many ways it was, with Nintendo’s motion-control based Wii console selling in the tens of millions.

Pretty much everyone bought a Wii.

Around this time the prospect of playing a game where you physically took control of a sword, and through motion controls were able to hack and slash at your opponents, was not just a pipe dream, but a reality. Real Steel it was called, and the hype surrounding the game was pretty huge. The problem of course was that although the underlying technology behind motion control was pretty simple, but creating a game that felt like it was realistically translating movements into nuanced on-screen action was a pipe dream, and not reality. Not So-Real Steel. So even though pretty much everyone bought a Wii, in no time at all many people relegated the console to a nearby closet where it could sit alongside other fads, like Tamagotchis, Furbies, and copies of the hit 1992 VCR-based board game, Nightmare.

Okay, so that’s probably an overly harsh assessment of the Wii. Being a console from Nintendo, the Wii did feature some truly stellar games. But even they used motion controls sparingly, and more often than not were there to complement already well-established mechanics. Which brings us to roughly a decade earlier, the late ‘90s in fact. A time when a relatively new development studio came onto the scene, calling themselves Treyarch, and a game simply called Die by the Sword. The studio, which is now better known for answering a certain Call, a Call of Duty, were still a few years away from finding success with the Tony Hawk franchise.

It’s probably worth noting again that this is a long time before the Wii, so when Die by the Sword touted that players would be able to take full control of their character’s sword arm and through forces, directional controls, feedback, and physics, completely re-write what it meant to play an action game, people took notice. With its seemingly ground-breaking VSIM technology, Die by the Sword was touted as a true game changer. Which the readme file that shipped with the game attests to.

Die By The Sword is the beginning of a new generation of games and technology. Once you play and become accustomed to the greater control of your character, you will never be able to go back to the old technology that limits your control. The physics based modeling technology created by Treyarch called VSIM is a huge leap forward for games, bringing with it new techniques of gameplay that were not possible before. Imagine that someday hooking your whole body up to an input device and having the character in the game react exactly as you do. While it's been attempted before, it's never really been possible to do it as accurately as we can with VSIM. And while you may not want to play a game where you have to hook your body up to an input device, VSIM is not bound to any restrictions that would prevent this.

Now that last bit about how some people might not want to hook their bodies up to input devices may sound a little crazy, and it probably is, it makes sense in terms of the time when the game was released - 1998. When you factor in the dozen or so prominent movies throughout the ‘90s that decided to highlight the dangers of virtual reality and cyberspace, you can’t really blame Treyarch for going on a seemingly tin-foil-hat-wearing tangent when trying to explain their design choices. Well, maybe you can. The reality of surfing the web in the ‘90s meant that browsing technology was still years away from letting people stream video over a network, let alone serve as the gateway to a colourful world full of pixelated cyber-killers and the music of The Prodigy.

So how does it stack up today? Well, as you’ve probably guessed Die by the Sword didn’t really serve as the catalyst for a new generation of gaming and interface technology. Nor did it make players throw their hands up in disgust at traditional controls and the way in which they limited gaming. No, for the most part people played Die by the Sword, grew frustrated at the unwieldy and obtuse control-scheme and moved onto a game that provided them with a simpler approach. One that broke things down into actions like “Press ‘x’ to hit” and “Press ‘y’ to jump”.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Die by the Sword is how unapologetically difficult the game is. You could even say it’s kind of like the Dark Souls of its time. Except of course that the reason as to why the game becomes so hard so quick is due to the weird action-camera and never really figuring out what each movement of the mouse actually ends up doing. The camera which changes to an arena style viewpoint when you engage in battle confuses things more than anything else. The tank style controls used for turning and applying force to each strike, and the 2D plane of the mouse used to swing your sword arm results in a play experience destined to remain one of gaming’s weirdest experiments.

Also it just looks really goofy when you’re playing. Seriously, check out the video above. It’s hard to imagine a time when testing the game that Treyarch were stunned or proud of how realistic the action looked. Without pre-animated sword strikes the movements end up looking like a weird puppet show, where flailing arms sometimes decapitate an opponent’s head when they awkwardly come into contact with them. More often than not though, nothing happens at all. And your character’s sword arm ends up being the centre piece of a hilarious performance art piece, one deconstructing the entire notion of violence as a means to an end.

At the time of release Die by the Sword did receive critical acclaim, and probably from people who played the game using the more manageable keyboard control scheme. It remains a cult favourite to this day, with true fans of the game being those that spent the time to figure out exactly how the VSIM controls worked. But even that’s being generous. The VSIM controls don’t work. And in the end, that’s what makes Die by the Sword a lot of fun to play.

Throwback Rating:

Best Forgotten /A Trip Down Memory Lane / Timeless

Kosta Andreadis remembers a time when in order to get the best out of a console game you had to blow gently into it and whisper sweet nothings like "please work, I’m up to World 8-3, for fudgcicles sake". Situated in Melbourne, Kosta is a freelancer who enjoys playing RPGs, strategy, adventure, and action games. Apart from investing well over 200 hours into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim he’s also an electronic musician with an album recently released.

Recent articles by Kosta:Find him or follow him on Twitter - @toadovsky, Steam - toadovsky and Xbox Live - Toadovsky.

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Latest Comments
Posted 04:41pm 26/3/15
Oh you did it! Well played!

So now you know, the game that had controls that were so dodgy it was fun. It is kind of like QWOP, but with a sword, and a bit easier.
Tanaka Khan
Posted 05:47pm 26/3/15
Try not to sound to excited there Kosta.
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