Saturday, 29 December 2018

Video Games 2018

Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII was begging to be skipped over. No campaign and a renewed focus on the wilfully obscure Nazi Zombies mode? No thanks. Even that new Battle Royale mode Raven Software were allegedly hurrying together reeked of desperation, a former champ remodelling itself to appeal to the kids (and their parent's credit cards). In-hand though it's difficult to decide which mode you want to play more. Multiplayer's refurbished, classic maps and handsome Specialist characters (Unreal clods with grumpy Street Fighter IV faces) are fun on fun. Easily able to gobble up entire evenings.

Blackout mode though is truly incredible. The series' core point-and-shoot gunplay may be exploded in terms of raw space and player count but second-to-second interaction stresses deconstruction, asking the player to instantly decode a constantly updating feed of tiny visual and audio cues. Several patches in, the sound mix is delightful, a clearly readable account of the unfolding battlefield. Played with a surround sound headset and enough trepidation to not fill your ears with your own thundering footsteps, Blackout is pure horror. An oppressive stream of the ambient and the actionable; anxiety-inducing information that demands either an instantaneous reaction or the nerve to stay still.

I missed out on Dark Souls first time around and, having played the third game and Bloodborne, I did wonder if the core joy of the game had been perfected elsewhere. This year's remaster was a revelation though, highlighting that iteration can often obscure more mercurial design choices. Dark Souls' world, the first half at least, is assembled like a vast, throbbing nexus. Levels upon levels built over each other, suggesting untold ages of rotting, dead-end progress. Withholding fast travel until quite far into the game ensures the player not only has to consider their destination but the journey that will return them to their deepest plunge. Shortcuts here, which in later games tend to allow quicker access to boss spawns, are instead organic, mysterious diversions, offering the player another level of interactive literacy.

Donut County puts players in control of a prowling hole. Hoover up enough knick-knacks and the pit expands, grower bigger and bigger until you're able to swallow up cars and even houses. The most obvious comparison to this mini-malevolence would be Katamari Damacy and, like Keita Takahashi's enduring masterpiece, Ben Esposito's game has charm to spare.

Book the damn territory with Fire Pro Wrestling World! I mean, of course, there's loads of fun to be had playing the Young Lion story mode or creating your own pastiche wrestlers. Gameplay is a fine-tuned dance that has you digitally dithering around the squared circle, sizing up your opponent, second-guessing their way out of a lock-up. The real juice though is a simulation mode that has you chasing Wrestling Observer Newsletter style star ratings, carefully modifying ring and match types to suit combatants, trying to capture the lightning in a bottle required for a full five stars. Or you could just stage Okada vs Omega V as a barbed-wire match.

Dialogue trees can make games feel like homework, forcing the player to scour verbose comebacks, searching for something that broadly aligns with what they actually want to say. Rather than try and simulate the text of conversations, Florence instead plays with rhythm and intent. The game follows a young woman through the lifetime of a relationship, capturing both the anxiety and elation of getting to know someone you like. In order to communicate to their would-be boyfriend, the player must assemble jigsaws that combine into pleasantly coloured word balloons.

Early interactions are nervy and awkward, hence the pieces are numerous and angular. As the couple settle into routine the assembly becomes less complicated, few pieces with rounded connections that easily fit together. The real brilliance of Florence comes when the couple argue. Balloons are still simple to construct but their colour has changed to red. Actual confrontations make multiple, successive demands on the player, the speed of your interaction picks up until you're pounding away at your opponent / partner. It's point scoring, recognisably the moment in a lover's quarrel where the original issue is forgotten and you're just hurting each other, trying to win.

428: Shibuya Scramble is a visual novel full of dead ends and digressions, a lively interactive story told with still images of live action actors posed like they're in a newspaper photo story. The game is very excited about pushing you off in the wrong directions, at times you feel like you're being deliberately prodded towards a never-ending succession of hilarious / horrifying Bad Endings.

An unbroken consideration of musculature and misfiring masculinity. God of War places the player a step behind ashen crank Kratos, party to both his body-shredding victories and his failure to sum up enough emotional courage to place his hand on his son's shoulder. There's a temptation to brand this kind of once-removed storytelling as 'cinematic' but that undersells the sheer proximity that God of War offers, a synthesis that arouses a sense of physical ownership in the player. Kratos as your favourite action figure. How dare anyone attempt to harm him or his child.

A love letter to Sega arcade games, particularly those made by Yu Suzuki, Horizon Chase Turbo recalls Outrun, Hang On and even Sonic the Hedgehog 2's blistering three-dimensional bonus stages. The player car blasts forward with very little sense of horizontal drift, inputs are strictly the digital taps of route correction. It's soothing, managerial.

A funny wibbly-wobbly man is trying to get places. You can help him by aiming his feet like a mortar, then firing them off towards dangerous new islands. That's it. If you mess this process up the man will cry and cry. So best if you just get your aim right every time. Kori Walk is bright, poppy and sickly sweet enough to register as acutely sinister.

If there was a better gaming experience this year than organising Tetris Effect's gently pearlescent shapes to Noboru Mutoh and Kate Brady's swirling, pounding Connected (Yours Forever), well, I didn't play it.

Also Liked:

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch // Monster Boy and The Cursed Kingdom // Monster Hunter: World // Pato Box // Riddled Corpses EX // Shadow of the Colossus // Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption // Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition // Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection // Strikers Edge // Super Destronaut DX // Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st]

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