Sunday, 24 November 2013
Fallout 3 had a thread of narrative woven through it. Identity established through statistic choices and facial feature sliders, you were set free to plod along through the ruins of Washington DC. Your main quest was to find your missing father, puzzling out his movements following an escape from an isolationist nuclear shelter. These breadcrumbs drove the game on, unlocking new areas and enemies. If you got pally with the locals, they'd offer distraction tasks that got you exploring. These missions taught you to be patient and methodical, instructing you in the basic tools of post-apocalyptic survival. Those avenues exhausted, it was up to you to create and discover your own adventure. Doggedly follow the father quest line and eventually it'd stall the title dead with a disappointing pay-off that had to be retconned through DLC.
That's Fallout 3's narrative, but it wasn't the story. It wasn't the game. Fallout was the land, and all the people in it. Fallout was wandering around a God forsaken rubble pit, stumbling across decrepit buildings and traumatised survivors. Although framed by a binary morality system, Fallout 3 frequently put the players in positions with no obvious solutions. If you found your way to the Tenpenny Tower luxury hotel you'd be confronted by a turf war between two equally unappealing factions. You couldn't do right for doing wrong. Throw in with the bigot who ran the place and he'd ask you to vaporise a thriving human settlement because he considered it an eyesore. Side with the gang of idealistic zombies and the tower's innocent human inhabitants would end up dead and stuffed into a cellar. This idea of moral uncertainty was the cornerstone of Fallout: New Vegas, a semi-sequel that relished compromise and missed opportunities.
The Fallout experience was rifling through pip-pip computer records, uncovering solemn accounts of post-war hardship. The sunken Vaults scattered about DC were an explorers paradise. Layers upon layers of burnt out living space, each housing secrets more terrible than the last. You could make allies out of dogs and mutants, and then be stuck trying to keep them out of trouble. Fallout 3 was wandering, plundering, discovering. The player as a cultural archaeologist, digging deep into the paranoid psychological state that facilitated the world's devastation. If you ever wanted to ride with The Road Warrior, or found the idea of investigating Los Angeles 2029 appealing, this was the game for you.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare ditched the moral certainty of World War II, taking the series forward several decades to arrive in the midst of a post-Cold War fog. The covert missions that formed the backbone of the campaign were nasty snatches of ruthless wet working. An assassination here. An ethnic cleanse intervention there. Infinity Ward drafted a muddled theoretical conflict, utilising hot potato concerns like break-away ex-Soviet nations and Islamic fundamentalism, to take the player somewhere other than the beaches of Normandy.
Despite this, one of Modern Warfare's most triumphant aspects was simply chatter. Your time with the 22nd SAS regiment was full of state sanctioned murder euphemisms. This pally back and forth registering as gallows humour, rather than tone-deaf posturing. A mission set aboard a Lockheed gunship had an alarming, almost documentary sense of reality about it. Modern Warfare was a rare game that seemed informed by solid research instead of just raking over the same old 1980s action films.
The real juice in Modern Warfare though was the multiplayer mode, an unending avalanche of feedback and positive reinforcement. Guns and loadout perks were rationed on a keen trickle, meaning there was always an interesting piece of kit to chase. Every conceivable action tallied towards some form of reward, from exciting new rifle sights to simple XP currency. There was an exhaustive list of conditions to be met, congratulating players for both the mundane and the superlative. In-game kills granted access to rewards that ran the gamut from an in-game radar sweep to a match shredding Hind attack helicopter. Modern Warfare gobbled time. There was always something new to learn, or something old to modify.
Saturday, 23 November 2013
Despite creating the excellent polygon scrapper Rival Schools, Capcom has always struggled to translate its premier fighter franchise into a viable 3D property. During the fifth and sixth generations the Street Fighter licence was farmed out to Arika, a dev studio full of ex-Capcom staff, for the short-lived Street Fighter EX series. EX was a love-it or loathe-it side-step, hobbled out the gate in Europe thanks to lousy 50Hz conversions. Regardless, even on 60Hz import the results never touched contemporary 2D instalments. After the wonderful, but undersubscribed, Street Fighter III series it seemed like Ryu and friends were being slowly relegated to nostalgia prompts in big-budget franchise clashes.
The Street Fighter series unexpectedly bounced back in summer 2008 with the arcade release of Street Fighter IV, spearheaded by Yoshinori Ono and The Rumble Fish developer Dimps. Street Fighter IV ditched the arena roaming of modern fighters, instead sticking to 2D planes with 3D assets. The vast cast were rendered as chunky, colourful, charm lumps, blessed with spectacular ultra move movies, and Looney Tunes injury faces. Everything old was new again. Since then the basic gameplay has been tugged and tweaked over five distinct iterations, each designed for utter scrutiny, and maximum replayability. At the beginning of this generation Street Fighter was washed up and bled dry. Likewise, the game's parent company Capcom has struggled since the departure of high-profile talents like Shinji Mikami and Hideki Kamiya. That the Street Fighter was resurrected so completely during this tumultuous period is nothing short of miraculous. Let's hope Capcom can eventually get their shit together long enough to do the same for the mouldering Resident Evil series.
BioShock offered players a one-way ticket to Rapture, an underwater utopia on the wane. Ayn Rand's Atlantis was built to house the great minds of the post-World War II world. Artists, industrialists and philosophers crammed in tight and unburdened by morality. Cast as an interloper, players got to poke around and investigate the aftermath. With minimal friendly faces around to tell the tale, a timeline is established through exploring and collecting the diary fragments scattered about the ruin. Rapture's citizens were promised paradise but reductive class systems still emerged, eventually prompting a popular revolution. There were less obvious examples though. Everything in Rapture told you a story.
Rapture was hermetically sealed by design. This was its flaw. A healthy culture is built out of mutations and alien invasion. Foreignness informs a fluid, growing intellectual consciousness. Rapture failed because it assumed it already had everything it needed. It could only build on the elements it already had, hence Rapture is monument to an incestuous obsession with early twentieth century art movements - Jazz, Deco, Futurism. With nowhere else to turn, the city turned inwards, consuming itself. BioShock offered the chance to sightsee around this cultural apocalypse. You took in the sights. Gauche bunny art built out of murdered people. Nannies with car wreck faces that whispered lullabies to sleeping pistols. Rivers of discarded refugee clothing, patrolled by pyromanic Policemen. It was like no place you'd ever seen before. Sadly, there's been nothing quite like it since.
Friday, 22 November 2013
Earth Defence Force 2017 was a crack compulsive shooter from budget developer Sandlot. You took control of a slender, androgynous suicide soldier, the only chap (or chapette) with chops enough to halt an avalanche of rampaging space aliens. All the atmoic age enemy archetypes were present and correct. Mutated insects, laser robots, hubcap spacecraft, and, most impressively, radioactive mecha kaiju. All massive. All aggressive.
Players got to trample the lot with a spiralling arms race facilitated by captured, flat, tech pick-ups. Weapons ran the gamut from small, useless welding torches to sub-nuclear screen wipers. The higher the difficulty, the better your technology seizure. Your hero was aided throughout by teams of endlessly enthusiastic CPU troopers that chanted slogans and died at a brush. Cities crumbled at the slightest barrage, nearly everything on-screen could be destroyed. Better still, you were never penalised for this collateral damage. As long as you made it, everything else was extraneous. EDF suffered no stealth interruptions or an enforced use of chugging, vulnerable vehicles. If allies fell, it was their hard cheese. Earth Defence Force 2017 was simply fifty odd levels of relentless enemy blasting. As pure as Space Invaders.
Thursday, 21 November 2013
Power fantasy video games broadly emphasise environmental and psychological disconnects. Players are typically cast as lone adventurers who relentlessly come into conflict with their surroundings. Sand box games exacerbate this feeling, it's just you against an entire city calibrated to your undoing. Crackdown started you out as an athletic human, tasked with droning about a city dispensing jack-boot justice. You had an assigned arsenal, bolstered by arms seizures, with a fleet of cars back at the base. All the better to battle entrenched gangsters. So far so street level. Take your time to explore though and you came into contact with a drip-feed of floating power-ups.
Snatch enough and eventually your abilities were raised far beyond the mortal realm. Max out your stats though, and you'd barely need equipment. You were now the weapon. At peak you could leap tens of feet vertically and horizontally, your territory now in the sky. This created an immediate disconnect. Your landscape was transformed from urban grime to an airy, skyscraping loneliness. Feuding with criminals began to seem less vital, maybe even trivial. They could be thwarted in brief, hopping blitzkriegs, your limits rarely tested. Interest shifted to exploring and testing the upper limits of your character's physicality. Could I make that jump? Is the top of that building within my reach? This agenda break also emphasised the condition of your avatar, a blank slate super-soldier, unwillingly locked into reward tasks and undaunted by morality. You didn't explore your super-identity by crushing inferiors, you deconstructed it through escape.
The two most engaging video game experiences I've had in the last twelve months were the HD re-release of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and Naughty Dog's critical darling The Last of Us. Despite some cosmetic differences, the two games have a lot in common. Both are third person action games with an emphasis on scavenging. Your primary means of propulsion in either was a hunched, reticent crawl. Impatience punished with a retry. Players should have been scouting ahead, logging patrol patterns and looking for holes. Lots of time to think then. Why did this feel so fresh?
The seventh generation was unusually long. Systems costs exorbitant 80s hi-fi prices out the gate, and everything remotely successful was iterated. Stagnation held sway. The visible video game mainstream became a yawning chasm of sequels, each propped up by poached mechanics and flavour of the month interaction. Everything resembled everything else. The Last of Us stuck out because it looked a little further back than rhythm action battle prompts. Most obviously, Resident Evil 4's upgrade system was smuggled in, forcing the player to deal with permanence. What's going to get me to the next checkpoint? Deeper pockets for bullets, or a holster that lets me hold another pistol? Who says I'm even going to find one? The Last of Us was also Hideo Kojima's basic sneak 'em up, bitten and infected. Melodrama dialled way back, replaced with a video game approximation of the paternal love story central to The Road. Horror pops on triumph.
Monday, 18 November 2013
Nestled in amongst three stellar Half-Life campaigns and Team Fortress 2's class clash was Portal, a short, sharp first-person puzzler. Ingenious teleportation guns aside, Portal lingers longest thanks to some genuinely good character-based writing - quite the coup considering the player controlled protagonist, Chell, was mute. Basically, Portal was Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream if the central hyper-computer was a malfunctioning incompetent. Like the Ellison overlord, Portal's AI GLaDOS had long since outgrown her pre-programmed parameters. She was stuck regurgitating basic sequences, going senile in the process. Instead of openly sadistic trials, GLaDOS strung Chell along through a rotting obstacle course with the strangely specific promise of cake. Sections of the testing area were missing, the gun turrets had developed empathy and any sense of meaning had long since evaporated. When Chell finally disobeyed, GLaDOS threatened her like an admonished child, desperate to cling onto her fading glimmer of half life.
Sunday, 17 November 2013
Aside from freeing Rockstar's free-roam template from dull health management, Red Dead Redemption excelled at providing an incentivised narrative. Although players likely didn't care too much about John Marston's imprisoned family, we were made to understand that our cowboy figure did. Marston yearned for their safe return. Balance for this single-minded questing was provided through the detailing of Marston as a character. He was a charming mix of grumpy, dead-pan mean and roughly hewn industrial gentry.
Marston's voice, provided by Rob Wiethoff, was a constant presence in Red Dead Redemption. He grumbled during fetch quests and yelped at danger. Success was often greeted with cheers. Rockstar San Diego crafted a hero you couldn't help but like. The studio also worked hard to make Marston's quest seem lightly absurd. There's a constant suggestion throughout that his efforts were in vain, and that his family were long gone. When an opportunity for contact finally did arise the player's feelings matched Marston's own. Both were tentative and fearful. This was Red Dead Redemption's greatest success - the player and avatar in emotionally alignment; desperate to get home, but terrified at what they might find when they get there.
iPhone games often struggled mapping the multiple inputs associated with modern video games. In poorer examples players wound up with confusing drag-tap gymnastics, or, even worse, a controller map stamped on the screen. Not so in Adam Saltsman and Eric Johnson's fantastic Canabalt. Tasked with making your escape from a fracturing city, players assisted a speeding pixel man with well timed jump taps. Your tiny suit man was always running full pelt, you never had to worry about directional control, player input was simply judging the best time for him to jump. Stress came in the form of an ever-changing course. Buildings cracked and sagged, sinking beneath you. Alien machinery crashed in your immediate path, and building tops frequently failed to sync up. Canabalt was designed to be played as a rolling series of attempts. Failure wasn't penalised with anything other than an instant restart, repetition was nixed thanks to random course generation. You never knew what was coming next.
Mushihime-sama Futari was the antithesis of mud brown 3D shooters that tracked sweaty muscles through Gothic ruins. Viewed top down and two dimensional, the game world was a pastel coloured fantasy zone, full of augmented dinosaurs and purple haired princesses that rode laser spewing stag beetles. Feedback was total - enemies disappeared in fiery turquoise clouds, their seizing bodies expelling amber gems to amp your score. Far less intimidating than its bullet hell peers, Mushihime-sama Futari was an arcade shooter that wasn't afraid to let players progress. Smart bombs could be stored as a kind of hit collateral, allowing players to take a few extra strikes before they lost a life. Bullet streams were rapid and taxing, but manageable. Mushihime-sama didn't force you to memorise a series of impenetrable attack patterns, instead it provided an immediate danger to the player, then armed them with enough speed to respond. Mushihime-sama was Capcom's 1942 filtered through magical princess anime OAVs, played at two hundred miles an hour to shrieking synth beats. Pure 16-bit gameplay.
Friday, 15 November 2013
The gamification of the single male dilemma. Aspiring assassin Travis Touchdown lived in a shitty apartment full of dust and wank prompts. The city around him was an anonymous jumble of brick warehouses, spotted with pop culture outlets that sold nothing but wrestling tapes and gaudy t-shirts. Unlike other video game cities, there wasn't very much to do in No More Heroes. Presumably this was because Travis' had an extremely narrow world view. He just wasn't interested in anything other than himself. Since our hero was a complete narcissist, there were a few token sops to self-improvement. There's a gym to improve stamina which, thanks to having to pump the Wii Remote like a dumbbell, inspired an actual sweat. Brand new special moves could also be learnt by visiting a bar and getting into fights with a drunken, surly Russian. Most open world games are stuffed full of distractions. Acres and acres of malfunctioning content, designed to actively waste the user's time. No More Heroes bucked this trend, narrowing its focus onto one sweeping hand gesture, the Wii Remote as lightsaber, and then working hard to make that as fun as possible through buzzing feedback and exploding enemies.
Even more addictive than Kairosoft's other iOS treat Game Dev Story, Hot Springs Story gave you a plot of land and asked you to maximise the monetary rinse of every square inch. This fleecing began by placing cold fizzy drink dispensers next to the blistering baths. Played at peak, visitors rooms were encircled by a maze of tempting amenities designed to mug them quick and bounce them home poor. Like Game Dev Story, which taught you to despise your indifferent audience, Hot Springs Story exposes another bleak truth at the heart of the capitalist experience. You erect a resplendent, luxurious palace not for any aesthetic or Godly concern, but simply as a means to swallow up as many people as possible and make their wealth yours.
Tuesday, 12 November 2013
Loosely patterned after Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, Batman: Arkham Asylum arms players with a Kevin Conroy voiced action figure stranded in the bowels of the titular madhouse. With umpteen hostages to rescue, players must creep and throttle their way to Mark Hamill's institute ruling Joker. Rocksteady's enterprising approach to licensed properties is best expressed in their playground. The environment bristles with a queasy duality. Victorian decadence, with rough utilitarian upgrades. A twilight world of cramped crawl spaces, and forgotten cave foundations. Rocksteady have built Arkham like a seizing mindscape - layers and layers of barely credible security actions papering over huge, alarming fissures. The asylum is total malfunction, a space scarred by the madmen it houses, and the spectral owners that haunt it. There's even a reptilian monster, prowling its deepest recesses.
Monday, 11 November 2013
The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai was like playing around with an interactive version of a school exercise book, its pages filled up with inky, lesson wasting, violence doodles. Stylistically, the artist is operating somewhere between Mirage Studio's Ninja Turtles comics and the grungy miserablism of James O'Barr. Characters are hunched and pained as the march towards their splotchy oblivion. Created by one-man dev team James Silva, Dishwasher would be notable on aesthetics alone. It genuinely feels like you're engaging with one person's imagination, all their favourite toys and tropes chucked into a meat grinder with themselves cast as the heroic kitchen staffer. What makes Dishwasher exceptional though is the Capcom fluid combat system. As well as layering in monochrome blitzing and crash-zoom reward prompts, Silva understood the importance of sound cues. As chaotic as the on-screen action got, the distinct, actionable noises ascribed to enemy attacks and player movement ensured you were never working with incomplete data.
Your very own Joseph Campbell space opera. Mass Effect 2 begins with the ludicrous, trillion dollar resurrection of series hero Commander Shepard - last seen transforming into charcoal in an alien planet's upper atmosphere. Messianic credentials firmly established, you're let off the leash to cad about the galaxy gathering together a motley crew of double hard space bastards for a suicide mission. Mass Effect 2 was Blake's 7 by way of Habitat furniture, a lovingly rendered homage to trashy 70s airport books in which humanity played the swinging dick bad boy to a stuffed shirt alien alliance. Mass Effect 2 remains the best in the series thanks to the extra credit missions that informed and enhanced the endgame charge. Didn't bother getting to the root of your gang's various personality disorders? Expect to be penalised with death and calamity. An unfussy cover shooter dressed up with hilariously callous mini-games, icy post-human electronica stuck ringing in your ears.
Sunday, 10 November 2013
Aside from a single player that failed to make much use of the engine's various strengths, the only thing that let the otherwise excellent Battlefield: Bad Company 2 down was the community. On release it was a struggle to find a squad that wasn't entirely concerned with pitching up tent on a hillside armed with a camouflaged Ghillie suit and a scoped rifle. To get the most out of Bad Company 2 you needed objective minded team mates willing to fill action dictated roles. Stumble onto just that, and Bad Company 2 distinguished itself admirably. Unlike Halo's shield heavy war of attrition or Call of Duty's micro-calculation bum rushing, Bad Company 2 cast you as a fragile component in a vast theatre of war. Players were tasked with finding their place in an ever-changing conflict. Is your team low on re-enforcements? Switch up and become a hyper-mobile medic and zap them back to life. Allies fond of junking valuable equipment? Ride shotgun as an engineer and fix their mistakes. Find your niche in a cohesive whole and any minor success could mangle the ambitions of team boring sniper.
Saddled with a story best described as disastrous, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots instead excelled through incident interaction. With his evil twin causing trouble in the Middle East, a prematurely decrepit Solid Snake eases his broken bones into a muscle suit to go off after him. Series director Hideo Kojima involves us with the character by inflicting a stress bar upon him that fills rapidly if he's left out in open conflict for too long. Fill the anxiety gauge and Snake must retreat to the shadows and smoke a cigarette, or slap an ice pack on his aching back. Kill too many PMC stooges and Snake will vomit his guts up, disgusted. Although nowhere near as involving as series highpoint Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, MGS4 is notable for its forward-thinking approach to difficulty scaling. Lower settings could be played as a Rambo sim, while the expert difficulties demanded a fractional pace with movement dictated through learnt enemy patterns and ballsy opportunism.
Mechanically stranded in the middle of 2001, players are led up and down a garden path throughout. Chance of environmental interaction? Nil. Invisible walls? Absolutely everywhere. The world of Devil May Cry 4 is nothing more than baroque set dressing, prettying up your smash, pow, thumps. Were DMC4 in any way about exploration this would be an unforgivable sin. Thankfully, it isn't. Although the game does have an element of treasure hunting, it's really only about pulverising enemies in an overwhelming mess of aerial rave assaults. Styles, guns and arms raced through in an unending succession of linkable jabs and thwacks. It's preying on every fractional weakness you're presented with. It's a throwing a sonic boom with Guile then rushing in for the tick-throw. It's taking out Resident Evil's Tyrant with only a knife. It's playing Virtua Cop with both guns. It's pure video games. It's all of these things, endlessly repeating minute after minute. It's Devil May Cry.
An obstinate zombie stomper that put you on a clock and demanded replays. Dead Rising's joy came in its tangents, mistakes, and wild tonal shifts. It presented itself as a game made specifically for American tastes, whilst taking endless pot-shots at the consumer culture that drives that country. Assigned a shlubby reporter and stranded in a mall seething with the undead, players were left to their own devices. This was a generation shift measured in volume. Dozens of on-screen characters and umpteen items scurried away to bash them with. Players could pursue a conspiracy, leading to an after-action mode, or dress themselves up as Mega Man whilst cracking zombies over the head with luminescent bowling balls. Your call.
With the Wii U already out and Microsoft and Sony's bruisers on the horizon, it's time to bid a fond farewell to the seventh console generation. To mark the occasion, 20XX's presents a wildly incomplete twenty game countdown featuring some of the games I've enjoyed playing these last few years. Heads up! Not to take the sheen off, but the list doesn't contain a few acknowledged classics I never quite got around to playing, most notably Demon's Souls and Super Mario Galaxy. I'm rubbish like that.
Saturday, 9 November 2013
The Wii U's big game this Christmas is the sublime looking Super Mario 3D World. Taking cues from the American version of Super Mario Bros 2, each of the four available characters (Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and Toad) has different strengths and abilities. The mushroom gulping gang can all be controlled simultaneously, sharing from a pool of lives. Stronger players are also able to pick up anyone struggling and carry them to safety.
Developed by Tribute Games, the team behind Scott Pilgrim vs the World: The Game, and featuring art design by Paul Robertson, Mercenary Kings is a Kickstarter backed side-scroller that takes the run and gun ethos of Metal Slug and marries it to the shoot looting of Borderlands. Due in the unhelpfully non-specific time frame of Winter 2013, Mercenary Kings is another PS4 console exclusive.
Speaking of next-gen fighting games, here's 2D brawler Legend of Raven from Nicalis, a team of ex-SNK devs. Set in 1926, Raven imagines a divergent Showa era in which fascism and political totalitarianism are traded out for scrappy, isolationist ninja cops. Legend of Raven features hand-animated characters by Kotani Tomoyuki, the resident King of Fighters artist during the NEST series.
This PS4 viral probably heralds an imminent Ultra Street Fighter IV announcement for Sony's new system. The console could do with a beefier fight game library - a tarted up Injustice: Gods Among Us just isn't cutting it. Wouldn't it be fun if it was something a little more left field though? The abundant 16-bit sound samples are probably for recognition'sake, but an upscaled HD Hyper Street Fighter II or the original 1987 Street Fighter rebuilt in the IV engine would be a tonic.