Monthly Archives: October 2011

Shadow of the Colossus is Bloody Amazing

I think the title of this post pretty much sums it all up. If you’ve played Shadow of the Colossus, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, what the hell are you playing at? BUY THIS GAME NOW. (Or even better, get the shiny new HD remake for the PS3.)

While you’re busy ordering the game from your favourite internet retailer, I’ll give you a brief rundown of the plot. In a nutshell, you play a young chap by the name of Wander, who journeys to a forbidden land in an attempt to revive a dead girl by the name of Mono. There’s little explanation for who exactly Mono is, or indeed her relationship to Wander, but one of the game’s endearing strengths is its willingness to present only the barest amount of exposition and then let the player fill in the gaps for themselves. It makes for a refreshing change from the tedious “plot shotgun” approach taken by most games, wherein the gameplay is regularly interrupted by jarring cut scenes that attempt to gun as many plot details into you as possible before you go back to the usual running and gunning.

Anyway, Wander brings Mono to an enormous temple, and the god(?) of the temple instructs him to slay the 16 giants that inhabit the forbidden land if he wants to revive his beloved girlfriend/wife/princess/sister (in my head, I opted for princess).

And that’s pretty much it.

Apart from the colossi, there are no other enemies in this vast and empty land, and nothing to do except find them and kill them. It’s an incredibly brave departure from the usual expectations of video game, but it’s also a wonderful breath of fresh air when you realise that this time – for once – there will be no “collect 100 of X to unlock Y”, no pointless escort missions and definitely no repetitive slaying of lowly creatures in an attempt to gain “experience”: this time it’s just you versus the colossi.

And what amazing creatures they are. The first time I saw one in motion, my jaw practically hit the floor. Not only are they utterly enormous, they’re animated and designed with wonderfully creative attention to detail – I really did believe they were living, breathing creatures, which made it all the more difficult to kill them. In fact, slaying your first colossus feels like nothing short of murder.

The same scenario plays out for most of the confrontations in the game: the colossus is peacefully minding its own business, then you turn up with your glowy sword and start climbing all over it, stabbing it in its weak spots and watching as black blood sprays from the wound like a fountain. Every time I slew a colossus it was the same: there would be an initial feeling of elation after working out the secret to killing it, followed by a rush of adrenalin as the fight escalated, and ending with a feeling of euphoria as I finally triumphed over the beast.

Then immediately after would come the guilt.

Why have I killed this beautiful and unique creature? Is all of this killing really worth it to resurrect just one human life? Am I doing the right thing? It’s powerful stuff, and I can’t think of another game that dredges up so much emotion in the player (except perhaps the original Ico).

I can’t really say any more about the game without spoiling it, but before I finish, I have to mention Wander’s horse, Agro. Agro is your only companion in the vast and forbidding landscape, and I found myself quickly becoming attached to him – like the colossi, he feels like a living, breathing part of the world, a being with a personality of its own, despite his inability to speak. I think the EDGE review sums it up best:

He isn’t just a convincing portrayal of a horse, he’s a convincing portrayal of a specific horse: handsome, weighty and a little intimidating at close quarters. But as soon as you take the reins, it’s easy to be disappointed. Control – a basic point’n’squirt system – is clumsy, crude and unpredictable, and his majestic grace is undermined by being banged into cliff walls and tight corners with an ungainly thump. But, as the game’s first few hours slip by, something subtle and seductive happens. You learn that Agro isn’t badly implemented, just a little badly behaved: headstrong and independent, he isn’t always going to go where he’s led. You notice that, actually, he’s a rather bigger horse than the wanderer seems used to riding, causing him to shift a little side-saddle when left idle, to ease the ache in his hips. You notice that Agro is intelligent enough to manage simple pathfinding himself, taking responsibility for both of you across crumbling bridges. And since, by then, the game’s overpowering sense of solitude and emptiness has started to sink into your bones, his moments of spirited disobedience are as welcome as his screams of terror when he sees you thrown flying by a lazy swipe of a colossal hand.

Shadow of the Colossus is a truly wonderful experience, and a game that everyone should play at least once: I guarantee it will take your breath away.

[As dictated by Lucius Merriweather. See The Mantelpiece.]

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Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command: winning the battle

Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command was an isometric squad turn-based strategy game developed by RedLynx and published by THQ for the Playstation Portable and the Nintendo DS systems. 

In the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the Ultra Marines  are under no delusion that they are single-handidly saving the universe from the scourge of Chaos.  Everyone is expendible, and living to fight for the Emperor is a privilege worth dying for.  The Ultra Marines are considered the most noble of all Chapters of the Space Marines

What a thoroughly nerdy start to this post.  Despite how it may seem, I actually have almost ZERO exposure to the table top game in which the 40K universe comes based from.  I do however, have some degree of experience in playing as the hulking great big powerhouses that are the Space Marines albeit in videogame form.  From that experience there is no other way to describe the various chapters of the Space Marines than as utterly badass – and not just because they are hugely tall, powerful and can rip the head of an Ork with their bare hands.  But also because they command respect from the human race in general, viewed as almost gods by some (if you’re not familiar with Space Marines, think Gears without the general disdain toward them).  That feeling makes playing as one of these walking tanks an absolute pleasure, and the latest game based on the universe, creatively titled Space Marine is probably the best example of this.

What these game often don’t do, however, is convey the importance of the squad to the success against both the Orks and the forces of Chaos.  Yeah sure these guys have strength far in excess of anything a normal human could ever imagine, but that doesn’t mean they’re invincible.  Having guys around you that you can trust and have your back is important even to superhumans, and the failure of a team mate to do so is almost certain to lead to death.  Squad Command gets this right and has you thinking of not only your offence, but your defence.

Movement and actions in the game are governed by Action Points (AP), with both firing and movement being tied directly to this turn-based ‘currency’. At the beginning of each turn  Each squad member has a set number of APs based on its armoury and ammunition to use on movement or firing on enemies within that turn.  Obviously as logic would indicate, the closer you get to an enemy, the better chance you have of hitting them.  In the case where you want to strategically sit back to avoid situations whereby you move a squad member to certain death, you can increase the number of APs you assign to a shot to increase its accuracy.  It is this type of strategy (which I’m told is a pretty close replication of the table top game) that makes the game stand out from the usually Japanese turn based strategy games I’m used to.

Given that the whole premise of Squad Command is that you need to shoot dudes (cerebrally, of course) in order to save some other dudes from the dudes that you are shooting, getting your squad of Marines (and sometimes accompanying vehicles) is incredibly important.  But the depth of Squad Command for me comes at the end of each turn.  If you have AP left over at the end of any movement or direct firing your units have undertaken, it will go into ‘Overwatch’ mode which allows your squad to fire on any enemy entering a unit’s field of vision during the opposing side’s turn.  The addition of this incredibly inuitive  gameplay mechanic means that unlike the  grid turn-based strategy games I’m accustomed to, whereby the only form of defence is often either using a tank type character with high evade stats and a whole lotta HP to take the damange, and/or ensuring your characters are all facing in the direction your enemies are more likely to attack from to ensure your guys don’t take more damage than they need to.  The result of ‘Overwatch’ mode is that you are constantly balancing your strategy between keeping your squad alive and pushing forward through the enemy toward objectives; meaning that at the end of a turn it is not uncommon to have a whole lot of units who haven’t moved or fired in that turn in defensive positions waiting to fire on any attacking units.  Pulling out to the tactical map allows you to see exactly the defensive coverage from units that have enough remaining AP at the end of the turn.  Ensuring that you accomplish your mission is often a matter of identifying the corridors by which you are likely to be attacked and keep an ‘overwatch’ on them and getting ‘actively attacking’ units to safety behind vehicles, walls, or by ducking behind cover, and make.  It is often here where battles are won and loss – and as a result it is the part of the game that kept drawing me back to the game looking for that strategic fill that it provided.

It is incredibly refreshing of the Warhammer 40K games to often not put the player is this role as the messiah, the one guy or squad that in the actions it takes through the course of the game, turns the tide of the war or in the most ridiculous of cases, wins the war themselves.  I love the fact that you know that despite your best efforts the war will wage on and that the Space Marines are still the last bastion of human hope and survival in a war whereby the odds of victory seem almost insurmountable.  In the end you’re just a very small part waging a battle that may or may not have an impact on the overall war.  And any chance to be involved in a playable incarnation of the incredibly interesting and fleshed out universe of Warhammer 40K is something I certainly can’t turn down.

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The Best Video Game Endings… And The Worst

WARNING: Inevitably, being an article all about the endings of games, this article contains some spoilers. If there’s a game you don’t want to know the ending for, I’ll let you know when to look away.

Video game endings are notoriously bad, I reckon. In quite a lot of the games I’ve played, there’s a significant drop in quality over the last couple of levels, and the ending often feels like an afterthought. Psi-Ops: The Unnecessary Subtitle (which I recently reviewed) is a prime example of this – the last couple of levels felt rushed, and the denouement was a brief, by-the-numbers cliffhanger that left me cold. Then again, the plot for that game was absolutely dreadful anyway, so I didn’t really expect much more…

Anyway, the point is that whereas incredible importance is placed on the endings of most films and books, the same care and attention is rarely given to the endings of games. Considering that you’ll probably have spent a minimum of 8 hours playing through any given game, it seems almost criminal for the designers not to have bothered to provide a decent ending – it’s like a slap in the face to the player: “Thanks for the 40 quid, now clear off mate, nothing to see here.”

Of course, the usual reason for the archetypal tacked-on ending is that the designers simply ran out of time and money – hence why often highly polished early levels give way to buggy, unfinished final stages. In some ways this makes sense – many players will never get through to the final levels, let alone the ending, so it’s logical to focus on the early levels, which are the ones that most people will see. On the other hand, providing a shoddy ending is hardly the way to reward the most dedicated and persistent fans of your game, and is unlikely to entice them to purchase a sequel.

That said, there have been a few games where the ending was so brilliant, shocking or memorable that it’s stayed with me for a long time – I’ve picked my three favourites, but first it’s time to name and shame the worst video game ending I’ve ever experienced…

THE WORST VIDEO GAME ENDING

Grand Theft Auto 2 (PlayStation)

Without doubt, GTA2 takes the prize for the laziest ending I’ve ever witnessed. [NB, I’d mark this next bit as a SPOILER ALERT, but as you’ll see, there really is nothing to spoil…] Picture the scene: you’ve spent hours and hours working your way through all of the various missions on offer and you’re closing in on the big three crime bosses – take them down and you’ll be the ruler of the criminal underworld in Liberty City. After many frustrating attempts, you eventually complete the final mission, and you patiently await the fruits of your labour in the final cut scene… only to be presented with the following (skip to 2:50) :

I was absolutely stunned when I saw this. Not even a ‘Congratulations!’ or ‘Thanks For Playing!’ – just a dry recognition that there is no more game to play, nothing more for you to do here, i.e. “GAME COMPLETE” (note the lack of exclamation mark), followed by a link to the main menu. Not even a list of credits! Unbelieveable – definitely Rockstar’s darkest hour.

THE BEST VIDEO GAME ENDINGS

Prince of Persia (Xbox 360)

The 2008 version of Prince of Persia was a bit of an underrated classic in my opinion. After the ‘Sands of Time’ triology, it was an attempt to reboot the series with an entirely new storyline and graphical style, and I think it succeeded magnificently. Unfortunately, the game-playing public didn’t agree, and poor sales saw this reboot come to a dead end – a real shame, as I’d really love to see what happens to the Prince after the cataclysmic finale to the game.

To explain the brilliant ending, I have to explain the plot, so bear with me a bit. Basically, there’s a god of darkness (Ahriman) and a god of light (Ormazd), and at the start of the game the god of darkness has been imprisoned within a tree in a temple. Playing as the Prince, your first encounter is with Elika, a princess who becomes your companion and eventual love interest throughout the game. Soon after you meet Elika, her father chops down the tree in which Ahriman has been imprisoned and releases the god of darkness into the world, causing the entire kingdom to become corrupted. It transpires that he does this because of a deal he made with Ahriman – before the game bgean, Elika had died, but Ahriman agreed to resurrect her if the mourning king would free him from his prison.

Throughout the game, you’re seeking to put right the destruction Ahriman has caused, accompanying Elika as she heals each land in turn. It’s a really wonderful game, and one of the nice touches is that you’re able to speak to your companion Elika at any point by tapping the shoulder button, meaning it’s pretty much left up to you as to how much plot exposition you’d like. I took the opportunity to talk with Elika as much as I could, because not only was the acting fantastic, it also did a really good job of creating a believable, developing relationship between the two: a relationship founded in wisecracks and insults, but with an undercurrent of real affection. I can only think of a handful of games that have done such a good job of creating such a believable relationship (Enslaved is one of them), so huge kudos to the script writers and actors for this one.

[SPOILER ALERT – don’t read this next bit if you plan to play the game.] Because of this believable, blossoming relationship between the two protagonists, the ending has a huge impact. In the final battle with Ahriman, Elika sacrifices herself to reseal the god within the temple tree – her earlier remarks hinted she knew this would have to happen, but she kept it a secret from the Prince. The next bit is a truly wonderful sequence – the shocked and lovelorn Prince picks up the body of Elika, and control of the character is returned to you as you walk down the long corridor to the light of the temple entrance. The  credits roll on one side of the screen, and you eventually manoeuvre the Prince, still holding Elika’s body, into the sunlight outside, where you lay the corpse onto a dais. It’s a surprisingly moving sequence.

The credits finish rolling but, oddly, you’re still in control of the Prince. A sinister whispering begins on the wind – it’s the voice of Ahriman, telling you how you can save Elika. Four trees of light have grown outside the temple. Do you really want to undo all of your work by chopping them down and releasing Ahriman again? Still in control of the Prince, you hesitate, but then begin to hack down the trees anyway. Just as her father did before you, you release Ahriman to save Elika. As you carry the now stirring Elika away from the temple, the darkness once again sweeps across the land.

It’s a complex, powerful ending, and I love the way it emphasises human frailty and fallibility – we don’t always do the right thing. Or do we?

BioShock 2: Minerva’s Den (Xbox 360)

All of the BioShock games have pretty decent endings, but the one that really stayed with me was for Minerva’s Den, an extra downloadable episode for BioShock 2. As in the main game, you’re given control of a Big Daddy, but this time you’re in the giant shoes of Subject Sigma. You’ve been sent to investigate Rapture Central Computing, which leads to some wonderful imaginings of what an enormously powerful 1940s computer might look like (there’s even a hidden, Spacewar-like early video game).

You’re guided through the game by Charles Porter, who is co-creator of The Thinker, an all-powerful supercomputer at the heart of Rapture. Porter has revived you to help him fight Reed Wahl, an unhinged rival genius who also helped to design The Thinker, but who wants to use it to predict the future to give himself power.

[SPOILER ALERT – don’t read this next bit if you plan to play the game.] You become aware early on that The Thinker may have the power to flawlessly replicate the personality of human beings, and several audio diaries lead you to believe that a bereft Porter has used The Thinker to replicate the personality of his dead wife, Pearl. As you get nearer to The Thinker, you’re prepared for the machine to reveal itself as Pearl… but in actual fact it reveals itself to be Charles Porter. In a moving twist, it transpires that the machine has replicated its creator, seemingly in a bid to save itself from a doomed Rapture by facilitating its own rescue. But even more revelatory is the fact that Subject Sigma turns out to be… the actual Charles Porter. Porter was apparently double-crossed by Reed Wahl and sent by Andrew Ryan to be turned into a mindless Big Daddy with no memory of his former life, and The Thinker chooses to rescue its creator, along with itself, by directing Porter/Sigma throughout the game.

The final part sees you head towards a bathysphere and escape, but as you leave you pass by several photos of your long-lost wife. I found this bit surprisingly moving – perhaps because as an anonyomous player of the game, you find yourself in exactly the same position as the amnesiac Subject Sigma. Like the Charles Porter imprisoned in the diving suit of the Big Daddy, you suddenly become aware of a lost love and an entire previous life that you had no idea existed until a few moments previously, and so it’s easy to empathise with the character’s plight. It’s a very clever finale, and more proof that there are some things that can be achieved in games that simply can’t be done in any other medium.

The House of the Dead: Overkill (Wii)

The ending of House of the Dead: Overkill sticks in the mind for a somewhat different reason. I say “sticks in the mind”, but perhaps “burned onto my retinas” would be a more appropriate way to describe the shocking denouement. If you’re not familiar with this game, it’s basically an entry into the House of the Dead series that’s been done in the style of a grindhouse movie, complete with schlocky characters, generous gore, outrageous swearing and even continuity errors (apparently, the game designers were inspired by watching Planet Terror).

[SPOILER ALERT – don’t read this next bit if you plan to play the game.] At the very end, the main antagonist, Clement Darling, reveals that he has removed the brain of the woman you’re trying to rescue, Varla Guns, and has transplanted the brain of his dying mother into Varla’s body. We also become horribly aware of Clement’s incestuous relationship with his mother, but then Varla/Mother mutates into an enormous mutant hag thing. The main characters, G and Isaac, prepare to fight the beast, but we’re instead presented with a ‘MISSING REEL’ placeholder card, and the game cuts back in just after the pair have killed the monster using two miniguns that they conveniently found lying around (I love this gag). Then this happens…

Ewwwww. I’m definitely not going to forget THAT in a hurry…

So those are the best three video game endings in my opinion – does anyone know of any other that could beat this top three?

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