Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Medal of Honor is earned by only the best soldiers. Luckily this soldier is great.

Another one bites the dust.  Game off the mantelpiece that is.  I had to resist the temptation to spell honor correctly for this entire post. For the record, it is H.O.N.O.U.R.  

Back in 1999 I had my mind blown by a FPS on the Playstation.  That’s right, the Playstation.  Not the Nintendo 64. Not the XBOX.  And definitely not the PC.  The humble ‘bad for First Person Shooters’ Playstation 1.  That game was Medal of Honor, a World War II shooter full of nazis and guns and mission objectives, and it was fine.

Fast forward 13 years and World War II is old and boring and those new fan-dangled middle eastern wars are all the rage.  Convenient then, that EA decided to move the focus of its ‘becoming irrelevant’ series from the doldrums of ‘not exciting anymore World War II Europe’ to the ‘not at all overused middle east’.  If you sensed sarcasm in my written voice, then you’re absolutely right. I am not at all enamoured by the sand, stone villages and ice-capped rocky terrain of the games that are seeking to be topical by setting themselves in afghan/iraq type environments full of terrorists and soldiers with cloth headwear.

So imagine my surprise when I loved the reboot of Medal of Honor.

Shooting nondescript people spouting out an undistinguishable dialect was more fun than it has been in any other ‘modern warfare’ title I’ve played.  The feel of the weapons was great, the set pieces were breathtaking yet still grounded in some sort of realism, and the game had enough variety to keep it interesting enough despite the admittedly same-y locales.  It sounds like a modern Call of Duty game, right?

Wrong.  And it’s the differences that for mine made Medal of Honor a better, more well-rounded and more gritty experience than any of the recent Call of Duty games.  Unlike Call of Duty, Medal of Honor isn’t out to create a Michael Bay (Armageddon) moment, all explosions and guns and nukes and buildings toppling and cities falling.  That’s not to say that it’s trying to create Kathryn Bigelow (Hurt Locker) either.  The truth is it is striving to create something in the middle.  The explosions are as ferocious as those in Modern Warfare or Battlefield, but its the lulls between firefights that really make Medal of Honor an experience to remember.

One mission has you playing a downed and injured soldier trying to stay out of sight of the enemy long enough to rendezvous with your scattered team members after jumping out of a helicopter that came under heavy ground fire.  Sure, you’re still killing guys, but there is a sense of vulnerability that I haven’t seen in a game of this type outside of the infamous death scene in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.  As one of your squad mates asks you to decide late in the game “Bullets or broken bones?  Bones Heal.”  But this is exactly what I would imagine the sentiment of a soldier becomes when you’re facing death, and this is what Medal of Honor does better than most – create a sense of real and imminent danger.  From the realistic clouds of dust and rock that are thrown impressively into the air with every explosion to the whiz of bullets and grenades flying past your head, not a moment passes where you feel safe, comfortable.  It feels like an organic war zone where each and every soldier on both sides is willing to give his (and they’re all male) life for the cause, and for that reason it is a ferocious  and tense experience.

The developers have taken a ‘no holds barred’ approach to delivering a tale of modern soldiers in a modern guerrilla war.  Medal of Honor isn’t a simulation of war – it doesn’t set out to be.  But it certainly doesn’t glorify it either.  Medal of Honor is fun, sure, but it’s certainly not going to have potential soldiers lining up to go to the frontline.  Which to me, means developer Danger Close has achieved something special in a genre full of machismo-fuelled depictions of war zones.

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Broken Sword: Paragon of Point and Click

This isn’t the first time I’ve played Broken Sword, but it’s the first time I’ve finished it. I first played the game just before I went to university, as we had it for our family PC. However, I didn’t manage to finish it before I moved into halls, and while I was away the PC broke and the game went missing, so that was the end of that.

Playing through it again on the iPhone, I realised I’d actually completed about 70% of the game on that first aborted attempt, but I have to admit I didn’t remember most of the puzzles, and even some of the locations, so for most of the game it was like playing it for the first time. Except now it looks a bit prettier, of course.

Another improvement is the control system: the designers have obviously thought long and hard about how to get the most out of the iPhone touch screen, and the result is a really intuitive system. It just goes to show that point and click games are perfectly suited to iThings, and it’s great to see them getting a bit of a revival on the latest generation of technology. It certainly makes much more sense to port games like this to the iPhone rather than frenetic arcade games like the MegaDrive classic Gunstar Heroes, which I purchased recently and quickly abandoned. It’s official: ‘virtual’ touch-screen thumb sticks are THE DEVIL’S WORK and all games that use them should burn in hell for all eternity.

Anyway, back to Broken Sword: The Director’s Cut. You may remember I played the iPhone version of Monkey Island a few months ago (see ‘Monkey Island: Not As Good As I Remember‘), and I was disappointed by the childish humour and frustrating puzzles. I’m pleased to say that Broken Sword stands head and shoulders above the Lucasarts game in both of these respects, and there are some pretty funny one-liners scattered throughout. I’m not saying it’ll have you rolling in the aisles, but there’s some excellent wry humour in there (as well as a reference to Hemel Hempstead, which made me chuckle).

Puzzle-wise, there’s thankfully none of the frustrating jungle wandering of Monkey Island, although at some points I did find myself traipsing back and forth between locations, unsure of what to do next. Also, the game is somewhat afflicted by the curse of the point and click genre: the illogical puzzle. At several points I got so stuck I resorted to the ‘hint’ function (which is a very welcome and needed addition to the iPhone version), and I found myself rolling my eyes at the almost random combination of items I was supposed to have come up with. Generally though, the game flows along quite nicely and the story is intriguing enough to keep you interested. The Templar theme may seem a bit tired now, but as the game’s director points out in the afterword, the designers came up with the idea for Broken Sword several years before the ‘explosion’ of Templar-based entertainment in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

However, despite my delight at being able to play through this classic game again, I still have a few doubts about the point and click genre as a whole. I’ve recently been playing through Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, and I can’t help but feel that this game, along with the Phoenix Wright games and perhaps to a lesser extent the Professor Layton games, have taken the basic ideas behind point and clickers (story-driven gameplay, item-based puzzles) and taken them to the next level. I have to say I’m enjoying Ghost Trick a lot more than Broken Sword, mostly because of the amusingly bizarre characters and addictive puzzles. The key thing about these puzzles is that all of the elements are there in one place, it’s just up to you to work them in the right order. With traditional point and click games, however, you might find that the item you need to get through that door is something you missed 20 screens back, resulting in a lot of tedious plodding back and forth.

Having said that, Broken Sword was released about 16 years ago, so I’m sure that in the meantime designers of point and click adventure have learned some lessons: I’m intrigued to play some more recent point and click games to see how the genre has evolved since the days of the Amiga. Have the problems of random puzzles and tedious traipsing been solved? Or are these problems inherent to the genre?


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The End Of The GAME?

So, looks like GAME are in deep do-dos. Just a few days ago, GAME Group made the dramatic announcement that it’s up for sale, and their share price plunged to 0.83p (it was 296.75p in May 2008). I knew that GAME was in trouble, but it was shocking to read just how dire their financial straits really are. Over the last couple of months an extraordinary situation has developed where major games publishers have refused to supply GAME with new releases, basically because they’re worried they won’t get paid. In the words of Electronic Arts, “the financial condition of one of our major European retail partners … could lead to both increased bad debt and lost sales.”

So for the past few weeks, GAME hasn’t stocked any of the new releases from Nintendo, Capcom, Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, which leads to the question: what on earth are they selling? And how on earth could the management let the situation dissolve to the point where the major publishers don’t actually trust the store to sell their games? If anything, it seems like the sale notice has come way too late: who in their right mind would want to buy a company that can’t even afford to buy new stock?

I haven’t been to a GAME store for ages, as like pretty much everyone else I know, I started buying my games online some time ago and haven’t looked back. Why schlep all the way to a game store when you can buy the same game for a fraction of the price online? And trading in games is frankly a mug’s game – why flog your games for the absolute pittance they inevitably offer you in the shop when there’s the chance to cut out the middle man and sell them yourself on eBay?

For the first time in what seems like years, I went to check out my local GAME store to see what was going on. It seemed like business as usual at first, until I noticed that the newly released Mass Effect 3 was noticeable by its absence… as were pretty much all of the new games for the past couple of months. The front bay was taken up by Modern Warfare 3 (released last November), and I suddenly realised that there were hardly any new games at all in the store – almost every shelf was taken up with preowned games, all at huge discounts. As part of GAME’s ‘Spring Clean’ sales campaign, almost everything in the shop had been reduced, with some games down to just a couple of pounds. Considering the circumstances, it felt more like a fire sale than a sales promotion.

Sadly, I have no idea when I'll find the time to play this.

I have to admit I went a little crazy. Despite vowing to avoid buying any new games until I’ve finished the games already stacked up on The Mantelpiece, I ended up coming away with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Crysis 2, Vanquish, Trauma Center: New Blood, Child of Eden, L.A. Noire and Metro 2033. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a bargain. That little lot cost me just under £45 (including a brand new Child of Eden for the astonishing price of £2.98), so despite my considerable guilt at ‘falling off the wagon’ of games abstinence, I’m pretty damn pleased with my haul. OK, I have absolutely no idea when I’m going to find the time to play them, especially seeing as I’m playing fewer games these days to concentrate more on my writing, but hey, what the hell. Let’s just say I’m saving them for my retirement.

£2.98 you say? Don't mind if I do!

I’ve got mixed feelings about GAME’s current financial straits. I did my time as an employee during and just after university, and it was an enjoyable job for the most part. I particularly enjoyed helping out the many confused mothers who seemed to make up about half of the customers – usually they were looking for a birthday or Christmas present for their son or daughter, but they had absolutely no idea where to start, so it was a good feeling to be able to help them out. If GAME goes belly up, I can’t see those confused mothers getting much help from the checkout staff in Tesco, but without GAME, supermarkets will be pretty much the only place on the high street to buy video games (unless you count HMV, who also seem to be in pretty bad financial shape).

However, GAME’s main market is still the hardcore gamers, but it seems to have done everything it can to alienate them over the years. The switch to a bright, clean look no doubt appealed to confused mothers, but I’ve heard gamers describe it as ‘sterilised’ and ‘loveless’. Indeed, Sir Gaulian recently composed an ode to the wonders of cave-like, independent game stores, which are “dark, dank and chock-full of treasures and curios that are often shoved in a corner in no particular order”. I’m not so bothered about the bright layout of GAME stores myself, and indeed I much prefer them to the slightly seedy and indeed menacing appearance of ‘hardcore’ gamer shops like CEX, which seem to resemble pawn shops more than anything else. However, I hate the way that GAME dramatically reduced the back catalogue of games it stocks and instead focused almost solely on new releases, with the front half of the store often given over to just one or two titles. Like book shops, one of the joys of visiting game stores is thumbing through all of the older titles, hoping you’ll come across a real ‘find’, so if that’s taken away, the reason for visiting the store rather than buying online is gone.

GAME’s management practices leave a lot to be desired too. When I was there, there was huge pressure to drive up sales of loyalty cards and to pressure customers into using them as often as possible and, similarly, staff were coached into encouraging buyers to purchase as many games and accessories with their consoles as possible. I suppose this is fairly typical business strategy for a high street store, but towards the end it really felt like the whole idea of providing a service to customers was going out of the window in favour of just shaking them down for as much money as possible. The worst example of this was trading in preowned games – managers would often give a very low trade-in price for a game and then slap a huge mark-up on it, often well over 100%. At least now they’ve brought in standardised prices for trade-ins, but no doubt that lust for lucre drove away many core customers, myself included.

Will I miss GAME if it goes? Perhaps on the odd occasions when I find myself at a loose end in a shopping centre with nothing more pressing to do than browse the latest games. But when all’s said and done, what’s the point of shelling out full price for a game in a shop when you could get it for a massive discount online? And looking ahead, it seems the days of games existing as an actual physical product are numbered – in a few years time, the only game shops left will be those selling them as curios for retro collectors.

In the meantime though, as this article points out, the lack of competition from GAME means that game prices are set to skyrocket across the board. It seems there are dark days ahead for the games-buying public…


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Remembering Mass Effect 2: republishing an old love letter

Back at the start of 2011 I wrote what can only be described as a love letter to Mass Effect 2.  And what better way to celebrate the launch of Mass Effect 3 by republishing an abbreviated form of that original piece.

Originally Published March 1 2011. 

As a game, Mass Effect 2 just did everything right by simply iterating on the first game.  The shooting mechanic was better, the dialogue was better, it looked great, the world was as immersive as it was fantastic.  And I could go on.  But that’s not what makes Mass Effect 2 one of the greatest examples of interactive entertainment ever made.  What sticks with me the most about the game was its narrative, the way it develops and builds on characters in a way which makes you care genuinely care about them.  (If you haven’t played the game this may be a bit of a SPOILER): As much as the internet had a whole lot to say about the final boss, although it left a lot to be desired, the lead up to it was so great that it didn’t matter to me.  I’d already reached my climax.  The tension created by designating members of your teams to perform specific roles in order to keep the team alive through the self proclaimed suicide mission was real to the point where a sigh of relief would come when they survived, or in my case a real lament came when at one point made the wrong choice.  Why I chose Miranda instead of the Justicar can not be explained.  But the tension and the sense of panic made me make a decision that, in the heat of battle, led to Legion not returning to the Normandy.  It was a moment that replays in my head over and over as the Collectors took him as prey while he verbalised error messages.  I had made a mistake that had cost a life,  a decision that actually impacted me for the rest of the day, as I walked around with a deep sense of melancholy and regret in my own daily life, almost feeling as though I had let Legion down.  The worst part was it was hesitation that made me choose Miranda, a character for whom I had no affection for.  But I can’t pass the blame on her, as a leader I made the wrong decision and its something I’ll have to live with, and something that will no doubt impact Commander Shepard’s plight to save mankind in Mass Effect 3.

As the credits rolled and I thought back to the conversations I’d had with my crew, Mordin confiding in me that he’d designed the Genophage and felt that it was for the best of the Krogan species, Thane’s acceptance that he was dying of disease an honorable man despite living the life of a contract killer, and the story of the test tube Krogan Grunt’s coming of age as he discovered his place in the Krogan community as he is accepted into the Clan led by Urdnot Wrex all came flooding back to me.  These were friends that I was going to miss.  Unlike most videogames where its the kill count that matters, or saving the world, to me it was creating and nurturing a team where we could trust each other and if it came to it, be prepared to die together as we took  the fight to the Reapers in a mission that none of the crew thought they’d return from.

The thing is Mass Effect 2 transcends how I would normally critique a game to a point where its not the game mechanics or the graphics that matter, despite the game playing like a dream and the graphics being best in class.  Its the human connection, the stories of my journey to save mankind from the Collectors that I will tell people from years to come as if they were my own.  Its the human side that Bioware gets so right; their ability to touch parts of the human psyche that normally aren’t touched by videogames, thats what makes Mass Effect 2 a once in a lifetime experience.

Sir Gaulian

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Ghost Recon: The Best Game On The 3DS

Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars is easily my favourite game on the 3DS so far, and without doubt the best of the 3DS launch games. Rather than being a first person shooter in the vein of its console cousins, Ghost Recon on the 3DS takes the form of a turn-based tactical shooter, and is all the better for it. The genre is perfectly suited to gaming on the go: you can just take a few turns on the bus before picking up where you left off later on, and I’m really glad they didn’t just attempt to squeeze a cut down version of a Ghost Recon FPS onto a handheld. Well done to Ubisoft for thinking outside the box.

The game was produced by Julian Gollop of UFO: Enemy Unknown fame (although it’s better known as X-COM), so with pedigree like that, it’s no surprise the game is a cracker. It’s a little bit simpler than Gollop’s previous games in that there’s no between-stage research into alien technology and you only control six soldiers who you use all the way through the game, but it does get quite complex the further you go on. Each soldier has a unique weapon and stats, so it’s all about using them to their advantages. The roster is a fairly standard division of classes (sniper, engineer, machine gunner, etc.), but one soldier stands out from the rest: the stealth commando. Banshee has optical camouflage, giving you the satisfying ability to creep up on the bad guys and go for some sneaky one-hit kills. In some ways she’s so good she almost provides a game-breaking advantage, but her low hit points mean that if one of the enemy soldiers spots her, she can be finished off fairly quickly, so sometimes the gamble of sending her in doesn’t quite pay off.

And speaking of gambling, the whole game really hinges around weighing up the risks and working out which strategy will provide you with the best odds of taking down the enemy without taking too much damage. At its best, it’s like a game of chess – a case of carefully anticipating the enemy’s moves and planning your own accordingly, working out how to position your strongest troops in the firing line to protect your weaker ones from harm. And also like chess, it takes a while to play. Quite a long while in fact – many of the campaign levels take over an hour to finish, and with 37 levels in the campaign game, there’s plenty to get your teeth into. It took me over 40 hours to complete the main game, and I haven’t even touched the standalone ‘skirmish’ levels yet, or the multiplayer. Considering I picked it up for £15 in the January sales, it’s brilliant value for money.

In many ways it’s very similar to Fire Emblem on the GBA (which I loved), but I preferred Shadow Wars‘ focus on just six main characters. The huge number of characters in Fire Emblem meant that some characters inevitably got overlooked and became more of a liability, but Ghost Recon‘s focus on just six means you really get to know how to use each character well.

It’s not all perfect though. In particular, the game only lets you have one save slot per level, so if you end up saving when you’re in an unwinnable position (where you can’t avoid one of your soldiers getting killed on the next go), then you’re forced to start the level over again. After a while though I learned to only save in safe positions, so it’s not a game breaker, although some of the later levels are pretty gruelling, especially when they start throwing killer drones at you. It’s hugely addictive though – it has that “just one more go” factor in spades.

I really can’t recommend this game enough. If you have a 3DS, you MUST own this game.

[As dictated by Lucius Merriweather]


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