You know, I really thought the days of pirated and hacked games were long over, well, at least in terms of console generations. I've come across some weird cartridges in my days, including a fighting game involving Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Cyclops from X-Men, but the key word there is cartridges. Even when scouring the internet, all the pirated ROMs and such are all NES or Sega Genesis at the latest, the only real exception I've seen being a Chinese rip-off of Super Mario Galaxy, but I digress. My point is it's rare to come across a pirated game for the current consoles these days, which is the Xbox 360 at the time of writing.
My account begins two months ago, when I was scrolling through the deep veins of the internet aimlessly, seeking out old nostalgic games to reignite the childhood in me that had become jaded to the point of withering. In the dead silent hours of the night, basking in the warm glow and gentle hum of my computer, I came across an eBay auction for game I had all but forgotten about, the classic X-COM games. Still, this wasn't what had caught my interest the most, but instead I saw a banner ad proclaiming a new X-COM game was released for the 360, and with the special offer, I could have it for a mere twenty seven dollars. I happily forked it over via my PayPal account and went to bed happy. That is, until I awoke this morning and found that the new X-COM game was far from its release date, meaning the money I just spent might as well have been flushed down the toilet directly from the bank vault for all the good it did me. Yes I am a fool. Realizing I just handed away my money idiotically, I just accepted the loss in a fit of…"quiet reflection", and went to work that day to unload my anger on the dipshit teens who think its funny to ask how much something costs at a dollar store.
I had forgotten all about my lost money soon after. That is, until about a week or so ago, when I came home to my apartment to find a delivery waiting for me by the door. The return address was written in God knows what language, but it was the size and shape of a DVD case. Curious, I brought it in, remembering that burnt cash and wondering if those asshole con artists actually sent me something of value. Inside the box was, to my surprise, a green Xbox360 game case, though it certainly was not X-COM. The cover art was an image of our Milky Way galaxy, pure white lettering atop spelling the game's title; Without the Stars. If you've never heard of this game, I don't blame you, but neither have I, nor do I think anyone has. Not a single mention of it in any gaming magazine, or product list, or even any results on various search engines.
Even the developer's name, "Nakimo", turned up anything. While fearful putting such a strange disk in my 360 would make it explode or die or the various other problems associated with shady software, the console read the disc just fine, the "Play: Without the Stars" icon appearing and everything. As I loaded the disc, I saw the game started mostly cold, no developer logos or ESRB warnings, or even an intro video. The only thing that came up with "The stories and characters in this game are" before immediately jumping to the title screen before the usual fiction warning (yes, we apparently need to be warned when stories are fictional nowadays) even finished appearing. The title screen was the same as the cover art, a beautifully rendered Milky Way slowly swirling in the vast expanse of space. Under the title, were the usual choices, "New Game", "Continue", and "Options", which contained nothing but key mapping and sound configuration. Intrigued, I started the game, the Milky Way spinning and growing until the screen faded to white. The first thing I saw, was a line of black blocks, which seemed to be calendar days in a line.
June 4, 2056/ 11:26 AM: Ashes
Right away the game started, giving me no real context or storyline, throwing me right into the action as I took control of a young man, whose vision was clearing, the sounds of screaming and explosions all around him. As the camera panned, I saw the scene appeared to be a suburb being completely demolished by an attacking alien force, the camera turning to a third person perspective of the man, couldn't be much older than twenty. He had long black hair and emerald eyes, completely covered in dirt and dust as an objective message popped up:
I always found it silly that tutorial levels had to be so…well obvious. The level was full of strange creatures and laser blasts coming my way, so of course I would run! Following the game's instructions, I learned the movement, techniques (a good amount of acrobatics), and systems, before ending in a gun fight with a small alien squad before being rescued by what appeared to be a U.S Army helicopter, which tore through the remaining aliens pursuers with a chain gun before lifting me out to safety. As the level ended, the calendar blocks returned, shooting ahead about a week.
June 13, 2056/ 2:47 PM: Draft Ceremony
For the first time, the game started to give me back story, the scene opening with commander giving a speech before an large group of new recruits. He went on about these aliens who were referred to as "Moccap"s. The speech went on about how the planet was in danger, and how we must defend it, yadda yadda yadda, the camera lazily panning about until it zoomed in on the young man I controlled before now decked out in army fatigues, a large rifle slung around his shoulder before he saluted commander, the scene fading out.
June 13, 2056/ 3:00 PM: Free Time
Of the two section names to come before it, I found "Free Time" to be rather odd as a name for a chapter, but had to smack myself when I realized it was no such thing. From here on, I was introduced to a major aspect of the game, which is exactly what it says, free time. I had control of the man as he exited the ceremony, free to wander the base and chat with other soldiers or personnel. Checking the pause menu, I saw my character was named "Leon Sterling", and I was right, he was only twenty years old. For a little while, I acclimated myself to the base, finding that time only really passed when certain events played out, and like most games with such mechanics, there were indeed multiple events that could occur, as I'd find out later. For now, I kept exploring until I found that I could end the day at any time by pausing and choosing "Sleep", which fast forwarded to the next day.
June 14 2056/ 9:00 AM: First Blood
This stage kicked off the real action, dropping me in the heart of a battle again, but this time, I was packing heat. For this stage, and all other action stages, the game was rather similar to the "cover based shooting" style kicked off by the Gears of War series. The aliens in this game however, were far more intimidating. Each one had to be about nine feet tall, had rather glossy shining armor, and firepower that far outmatched my own. They're legs were long, but thin, arms bulky yet somehow swift and agile. I never saw their faces, as even the grunts were smart enough to wear masks and helmets.
I also discovered about this time that the game to be brutally hard, even the weaker enemies could take three or four headshots before staying down, and after a few waves of grunts, in came beasts which my fellow soldiers appropriately dubbed "Maulers", the alien equivalent of attack dogs that could destroy concrete cover and rend me to shreds in a few bites. No matter, it only took me a few tries to complete the levels. The next three days were free time, though I didn't really get much accomplished besides completing some shooting gallery courses that let me equip better guns at the start of missions and cultivate a few character relationships, which seemed to make friendly A.I more cooperative in later missions. For the next few series of menial defense missions and free time days, the story started to ramp itself up again with the, if memory serves me right, fifth combat stage.
July 2 2056/ 11:34 PM: Digging Deep
This mission was an odd one, apparently the Moccaps were caught in the Nevada desert, setting up a mining operation that went straight on down. While the level began a good deal away from the actual mining site, it didn't take long to get to it, a massive alien ship taking off and disappearing into the night as we raided the mine. Following the objective to search for clues, Leon came across nothing, whatever the Moccaps were after, they had already found it.
From there, the story got quite a bit faster paced. There were far fewer free time days, the politics of the many countries of Earth going back and forth, discussing what the Moccap's goal could be. Oddly, the story seemed to suggest that despite the initial stage, the Moccaps seemed to have no desire to lay siege to the planet, despite more than capable of doing so. But being a mere grunt, sadly, Leon, and by transition myself, was mostly out of the loop on the more confidential aspects, but from the tone of the brief glimpses into war rooms and meetings, the leaders of the world were scared.
September 29 2056/ 4:47 PM: Bloodhounds
The last couple of combat levels had mostly been defensive, defending major cities and such, but this mission hit me fast and hard, clearly, we Earthlings were getting aggressive now. At the beginning of the mission, Leon and a large squad of other soldiers were ambushing a convey of Moccap ground vessels, similar to a train robbery if you wanted to get fancy.
Honestly, it was a really fun mission, infiltration, close quarters, narrow hallways and grenades! The main objective was to steal the cargo, whatever it was, but by the end of the level, the entire convey had crashed, killing most of the Moccaps and soldiers, yet somehow, Leon survived again. Through badly hazed and red tinted vision, I could only watch as more of those aliens came, putting a black tarp back over what, to Leon, could only be seen as a green blur, before a boot to the head knocked him out cold.
September 30, 2056/ 12:13 PM: Recovery
Never in my life did I think I'd ever play a game where an entire seven stages are devoted to a character being bed bound in a hospital, but here it was. For the next several days, it was all free time, and Leon couldn't leave the bed, only able to do menial things like change the TV channel or shift to look out a window. Once I attempted to have him get up, but despite doing all the button prompts correctly, every time he would die of the strain and I'd have to reload the game. It was a little disturbing though, watching his wounds reopen as he coughed blood and collapse on the bed as it slowly turned red each time I tried it. Finally though, I managed to kill the time through the recovery stages by skipping them with the "Sleep" option, I didn't really care what events I missed really. After the last "Recovery" stage, the calendar jumped quite a bit, I'm assuming to the point when Leon was fully back on his feet.
December 21 2056/ 12:32 AM: Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
This level just screamed "Final Mission!" from the get go. After a brief patriotism speech, the commander had dumped Leon and an entire army directly before a grounded vessel, that same massive one from way back at the mine level. The battles were horrible and fierce, it had to have taken me at least double-digits of continues to make it through, mostly due to this level having enemies that were dubbed "Martyrs", as they exploded a flurry flame when they died, or you got within ten feet of them, which made them shriek in a shrill voice akin to crows before blowing themselves, and any friends or foes in a fifteen foot radius, to hell. It was a long mission to say the least, the total time it took me to reach the end about three and a half hours, and that's when I kept track after dying several times.
By the end of the mission, only Leon was left, bursting through a door and encountering what looked to be a holy man of the Moccaps, dressed in long, flowing robes, unarmed, and speaking calmly, for the first time, I heard English out of these beings. "Stay your weapon child Yahweh, and tell your leaders to do the same. If you want it so bad, we will allow you to have it." I'm sure there must have been more to this creature's speech, but sadly, I couldn't tell you, for the commander had taken his head off with a fucking shotgun, before plugging Leon between the eyes with his side-arm. "Well, that's depressing." I thought, believing the game ended on the death of the protagonist as Leon's last moments of life faded with the screen. But that's where this game…took a turn. The calendar showed up again, but this time, it skipped tremendously, spinning faster than a roulette wheel before deciding its date.
?? ?? ????/ 3:33 PM ?
The screen slowly faded in to the last thing I expected, a convenience store. Not only that, I had no idea who I was controlling now, the camera was suddenly a first person view. I stumbled around this dingy, barely lit store for a little, but nothing really seemed interact able. Simple descriptions like: "It's bread." Or "Soda" would pop up when I pushed the A button in front of things. I just wandered til I found the front counter. Standing behind it was a cashier who looked…forlorn. I'm not talking just sad, or even depressed but…absolutely destroyed. He just stood there, swaying a little, his eyes empty on his deadpan face. It was the look of a living dead, someone standing before you flesh and blood, but with nothing in them, their breaths only fueling a gradual march to the grave where they belong. To his side, I could see out the glass door exits. Well actually, I couldn't. I couldn't see anything beyond that glass. Just black, pure, empty, void of black, silence broken only by my own footsteps. I figured it must have been late in the night or something odd, but a quick glance at the clock on the wall proved me wrong. It read 3:33 PM, mid-day, yet…no light at all.
As I turned back to the counter, there was a loud BANG! From beyond the doors, startling the shit out of my as the outside momentarily showed a small spear of light momentarily pierce the darkness before being swallowed again. That shock subsiding, I turned back to the clerk again, but noticed a newspaper rack beside him. The front page showed no words, just a very disturbing image. It was the Earth, the picture had to have been taken from a satellite or something. What's so off putting about this? Well, the lack of something very important for one, the lack of stars. There were no stars, there was no sun, no moon, nothing.
Only the Earth, and a massive, green glowing…thing beside it. I couldn't tell you what it was if I tried, but all I could see was it gave just enough light to see the Earth in the image, and nothing more. I couldn't take this little shithole store any longer, so I decided to try the door out. It opened easily enough, but once it did, I head another BANG!, from within the store this time. I turned, and the cashier was gone. From the camera angle, all I could see was a small bit of blood seeping out from behind the counter. This didn't even faze my character, he simply looked down, and flicked on an electric lamp he had hanging around his neck, before venturing out into the dark again towards a truck. The calendar returned, this time, rocketing forward again, and stopping on the last block.
The Final Day
I could barely see a thing. The camera was still in that first person perspective, but this time…where the hell was I? I was pitch black, but not so much as the darkness that had swallowed that store. It was that shade of black tint you see when your eyes have adjusted to the dark, just enough to see, just barely. I looked forward, a wall. To my left…a wall. To my right, a wall. Behind me, a wall! I was walled in! Trapped in a tiny, tiny room of nothing, no bigger than a kitchen! I hate to admit this, but I'm claustrophobic, and even if it was just a game, the side of this room, this god forsaken room of nothing, was scaring me to death!
I wanted out! I want out damn it! There was something though…in the center of that little square room, lay a revolver. A large, silver, Colt .45. It just sat there, begging me, calling me. I tried to stray away from it, moving against the walls in search of a hidden door or something, but the camera kept turning back to it, and eventually, my character would walk to it, and I'd have to yank him away. Eventually, the controller began to vibrate, but I fought it, pulling him away, but he got closer and closer to it. Soon, there started to be a rumbling behind the walls, which only made him go for the gun harder. I was going to find an escape damn it, and not the easy way out! The rumbling got louder and louder, the controller's vibration became a heartbeat pattern, and then it finally happened, a wall broke down!
I wish it hadn't, oh god I wish I took the easy way out. Behind the wall was a massive, horrifying vortex, the room flooding with a violent red light as my speakers screamed a horrible whirring noise. It was loud, so loud my TV will never be the same, but I didn't dare get close to it to turn it off. My character screamed, but that horrible blaring vortex drowned him out. He reached for the gun but it was long gone, and now I was fighting to escape its suction. Another wall broke down behind me, leading to a hallway, and I sprinted out of there, a sigh of relief escaping me. That sigh was short lived.
The next room was slightly bigger than this one, two men were inside, screaming as another wall broke free, those horrible red swirls sucking them in with a sound akin to a clogged garbage disposal. My character stopped, standing in the center of the room as all the walls broke away, left surrounded on a floating island of crumbling and splintering wood. He fell to his knees, gripping his head and letting out an agonized cry before collapsing face first, the vortex slowly sucking him off the platform. I got a terrifying view of the moment the platform left his feeble grasp before all went black, silent. The credits began to roll, but lord knows what language they were in. Russian, Japanese, German, you name it. I couldn't understand a word of it. The only thing I could read was an English message once all the names had scrolled past. --- "Created by SDB, in loving memory of SMR."
I have since sold this game to a Gamestop in the next town over, and I hope to never see it again.