Monthly Archives: February 2013

Like a deer in headlights (why you should play Hitman: Blood Money)

Hitman: Blood Money [Source: wikipedia.org]It had all gone wrong.  After making my way through the cruise ship incognito, taking out my targets in silence in the process, I had finally reached the top deck where the remaining members of the Gator Gang, and their leader, were awaiting their execution.  Disguised as a waiter, I had made my way to the Captain’s quarters carrying a cake and placed it on the table and waited.  Shortly thereafter a blood bath ensued.  Caught strangling the Captain as he ate the cake-bait, I fired upon his entourage.  One by one they went down until four bodies were on the floor.  I had to cover my tracks, and one by one I dragged the dead bodies of three of the men to the rear of the boat and threw them overboard.  The end was in sight, but while dragging the body of the fourth and last man, an unsuspecting witness carrying refreshments emerged from the stairs.  I froze.  There was no darkness to run to, or flash bang to blind the man.  Like a deer in headlights I was faced with a choice – run and leave a witness, or end an innocent man’s life.

I dropped the body of my target, raised my gun and shot the man dead and threw his body into the river too.

Believe me when I say that wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.

Hitman:Blood Money is about amazing moments like these.  When things go right you feel like a god, able to take out any target no matter the level of security and walk away without witnesses and no trace of your kill.  There are no fancy gadgets to aid you, or darkness to hide in. But when things go wrong its about split second decisions to save your life, or the mission.  Because unlike the obvious comparisons in Sam Fisher or Solid Snake, if Agent 47 makes even the smallest mistake, it will likely be the last mistake he makes.  At least that is until you reload from your last save.

For a game that is ultimately about killing people, Hitman: Blood Money, like it’s predecessors has precious little killing in it.  Sure there is the occasional collateral damage, but that is a last resort rather than a premeditated plan.  Even incapacitation isn’t a viable way to make your life easy – unlike other stealth games where incapacitation essentially equates to death providing you are prudent in covering your tracks – with the game placing an effective restriction on the number of people you can stealthily incapacitate with sedative.  It is design decisions like this that make Hitman feel incredibly deliberate in its design, which in conjunction with the intel that can be purchased with Blood Money , are how the developers try and push the player toward a style of play that shows off the sheer creativity of the game’s level design.  And that’s when Hitman: Blood Money is at its best.

And because of all of these very deliberate decisions, Hitman: Blood Money feels like a simulation with an action game wrapping.  The gameplay is no-frills utilitarian video game design, which makes it unforgiving.  But it also encourages you to experiment, know the game’s rules, and solve the intricate assassination puzzles the developers have carefully laid out for you  Sure, you could play and finish the game by killing everything in sight. But you’d be missing out on what makes Hitman: Blood Money so spectacular.

Hitman: Blood Money [Source: mobygames.com]

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El Shaddai: Mad as a Bag of Frogs

El Shaddai Ascension of the Metatron box artI listed El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron at number two in the ‘games I would have played in 2011 if I’d had the time‘, and I’ve finally, FINALLY got round to finishing it. And it was… pretty good actually. Not quite as good as it could have been, but good nonetheless.

If you’ve never heard of it, El Shaddai is a fighting and platforming game based on an ancient Jewish text. Yes, you heard that right. It also has one of the most obtuse and bizarre titles I’ve ever heard. Next time one of your friends asks you what you’re playing at the moment, just reply “El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, it’s a game based on an ancient mystical text in which you play a holy scribe tasked with capturing fallen angels to prevent a great flood.” Then watch them back away from you slowly while shaking their head.

Blue blue jeeaaaaaans / I wear them every day / there's no par-tic-u-lar reason to change...

Blue blue jeeaaaaaans / I wear them every day / There’s no par-tic-u-lar reason to change…

Anyway, the Metatron of the title is Enoch, who you control for most of the game, and El Shaddai is one of the Judaic names of God. The story is based on the Book of Enoch, which is an ancient Jewish religious work detailing Enoch’s attempts to round up those naughty fallen angels and stop God from flooding the world to destroy them. You’re accompanied by Lucifel (Lucifer?), who bizarrely is always to be found chatting to God on his mobile phone – it appears Lucifel exists outside of time, so he has access to things like phones when he’s in the distant past. Presumably he also gave Enoch his blue jeans, which didn’t strike me as very 9th century BC.

The game itself doesn’t start particularly well: in fact, the first three chapters are pretty boring. Often you’ll find yourself running for long periods through an abstract landscape with nothing to fight and only the occasional platforms to hop across – not exactly gripping. The game’s religious iconography and fighting mechanic openly invites comparisons to Bayonetta, and all through the first hour I just found myself thinking “This isn’t as good as Bayonetta, this isn’t as good as Bayonetta…”

Ooooh, it is pretty though, isn't it?

Ooooh, it is pretty though, isn’t it?

Thankfully, things pick up at about the time you reach the war pigs. Good old war pigs. You see, it’s at this point that you get the final weapon of your triumvirate, and suddenly the game makes a bit more sense – there are three weapons with a scissors, paper, stone relationship, and from that point your success in battle is really determined by choosing the right weapon to use against the right enemy. It’s a clever mechanic that works really well, but it’s a shame it doesn’t get introduced until you’re over an hour in and bored stiff.

Still, from that point onwards the game gets a lot more interesting, and the levels get a whole lot fancier too. Then initial, fairly bland levels segway into fanciful depictions of hell, bizarre futuristic cities populated with fighting motorbikes, and even child-like, crayon-drawn levels filled with bouncing dildoes. Sorry, not dildoes, Nephalim – the offspring of angels and humans. Who just happen to look a bit penis-shaped for some reason.

These are the Nephalim. I'll let you make up your own mind.

These are the Nephalim. I’ll let you make up your own mind.

I loved all of the escalating craziness – it’s quite refreshing to find a game where you genuinely don’t know what’s coming next. However, I found the platform levels got a bit dull after a while, saved only by the fact that they were so visually arresting. Similarly, the fighting levels never really lived up to their promise – I was expecting to face more and more foes that would need more complex strategies to deal with them, but it never really happened. You never gain any more abilities after you retrieve your three weapons, so by the end it can feel a bit repetitive.

The game also feels a little rough around the edges, despite its wildly imaginative visuals. The front end is bland compared to the game itself, and some parts of the game just feel a bit empty, like there should have been more things to do but they just didn’t have the time or money to put them in. El Shaddai is just crying out for a few more gameplay features – extra abilities, more varied enemies, better structured levels – but it just falls short.

Despite its wonderful visuals and bonkers storyline, El Shaddai just can’t hold a candle to Bayonetta I’m afraid.

[As penned in praise by Lucius Merriweather.]

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Limbo is really reminiscent of a bad dream

Limbo Box Art [Source: wikipedia.org]Limbo will likely forever haunt some part of my being.  It may not come to the forefront and manifest in me wetting my bed, experiencing night terrors, or jumping off of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but somewhere in a dark, dank crevice of my mind Limbo is making me very, very uncomfortable.

And that’s because there is something incredibly uncomfortable about not really knowing what is going on.  Is your character dead?  Is he alive?  Is his sister dead?  Are those kids trying to kill you your siblings?  Is that spider based on anything that actually exists?  These are all questions that are never answered throughout the course of the game.  All you know is that you are thrust into a world that is terrifyingly vivid and that everything is trying to kill you.  That is exactly why it strikes at the core of human fear of the unknown.

But revelations or narrative are not what you will take from this game.  It is (as cliche as it sounds) the experience of overcoming the challenges the game presents and traversing a nightmarish land that is absolutely beautiful in its portrayal of a nightmare.  From the claustrophobic feel of the forest, to the surreal feel of the game’s ‘city’, they all are instantly recognisable as places we are familiar with, which makes you feel all the more uneasy to see them as deadly and foreboding places.

The brilliance of the game is that the game evokes the feeling that you are the character on screen.  Like you are that little boy lost in a terrifying world where everything is the monster under the bed.  Like a child, you never really understand why you fear these things – the children trying to kill you, the maggots that take control of your body, or the spinning blades waiting to dismember you – but you wish you could just close your eyes and they’d disappear.  And for a grown man, experiencing that irrational, youthful and primal fear at something on a television screen is priceless.

Lying somewhere beneath Limbo’s simplicity is a depth that most people will never discover.   Not a word is spoken through the course of the game, but the game likely says more about life and death than a game full of thousands of words of dialogue ever could.  Simply put – Limbo is a masterpiece – albeit one that I may never fully understand the full meaning of.

LimboSC

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Link’s Awakening Cruelly Curtailed

The Legend of Zelda Link's Awakening DX boxI underwent a somewhat traumatic experience last weekend: while I was on holiday in France, my Nintendo 3DS was stolen from my bag. It’s the first time I’ve ever had anything nicked, and I was pretty upset about it as you can imagine. However, luckily I had travel insurance, so hopefully I won’t lose out too much financially, but it’s a pretty heavy blow in terms of game hours lost.

There were three games taken with the 3DS – Apollo Justice, The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass and Ridge Racer 3D –  as well as all of the games I’d downloaded onto the console. I’d barely started the three cartridge games, but on the 3DS itself I was about five hours into Crimson Shroud, and I was only two chapters from the end in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. Now I face the prospect of having to start them all over again when I get my replacement console.

Bye bye baby, bye bye...

Bye bye baby, bye bye…

It’s frustrating more than anything else. On Nintendo’s part, I think it’s about time they introduced personal Nintendo IDs rather than tying all purchases to a specific console, as now I’m faced with the prospect of having to pay for all of those downloaded games again. Also, some sort of cloud back-up system for game saves would be a phenomenally good idea – Apple already do it for iPhone, so perhaps Nintendo should think about following suit. I’ll bet 3DS consoles get lost, broken or stolen all the time, so it would be a great service for customers.

I’m sure I’ll download Crimson Shroud again when I eventually get a new 3DS, but I’m not sure I can face replaying all of the many dungeons on Link’s Awakening just to see the last couple of levels. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great game, but it’s also pretty challenging and unforgiving.

Step wary traveller, for death lurks behind every corner.

Step wary traveller, for death lurks behind every corner.

In more recent Zelda games, death has all but been removed: losing a life as Link is a rare occurrence indeed, and even then death usually only provides a minor inconvenience. In Link’s Awakening, however, death comes swiftly and frequently – this is old-school gaming.

Every dungeon is packed with enemies that can kill you remarkably quickly, and life-replenishing hearts are scarce on the ground, in stark contrast to the showers of hearts to be found behind every boulder in later Zelda games. Even harsher, when you restart after dying you’re given a paltry three hearts to begin with, so each resurrection is accompanied by a careful hunt for extra health. It takes a while to get used to after the mollycoddling of modern Zelda, but ultimately it’s a lot more satisfying: completing a dungeon really feels like an achievement.

What I want to know is who's leaving all of these rupees and hearts in the grass. Careless elves?

What I want to know is who’s leaving all of these rupees and hearts in the grass? Careless elves?

The only real annoyance I found with the game is that the map is next to useless, and in-between dungeons I often found myself looking to a guide to find out what the hell I was meant to be doing. You may hear people moan about there being too much hand-holding and hint-giving in ‘soft’ modern games, but these people probably forget the hours and hours they spent in old-school games just wandering around with no clue as to where they should be going.

Overall though, Link’s Awakening is a great game, and its bite-sized dungeons are perfect for gaming on the go. It’s just a shame I’ll never get to finish it…

[Penned in melancholy by Lucius Merriweather.]

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I had a nightmare last night

I woke up screaming last night.  I was being chased by a horse with what seemed like a green mohawk and steam (or smoke, it was hard to tell) coming out of its nose.

Okay I’m lying, I just wanted an excuse to share my favourite video game box art of all time which you might remember from one of the first posts on this blog.  Feel free to share some of your favourite (sincerely or not) box art in the comments below.

And for the record horses are actually pretty scary.

DerbyJockey

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Zack and Wiki: Brilliant But Flawed

Zack_&_Wiki_-_Quest_for_Barbaros'_Treasure_CoverartZack and Wiki is a wonderful, funny, charming and compelling video game that’s hamstrung by a couple of flaws so enormous that eventually they ruin it completely. Seriously, I loved this game, but it really didn’t love me back. In fact, it took delight in slapping me round the face a couple of times before stealing my wallet and laughing at my tears.

Still, before I get onto its maddening problems, let’s look at the positive stuff. For a start, the main characters are great: in fact, the character design throughout is excellent. It’s a real shame the game sold so poorly (Capcom Director Chris Kramer described the game’s sales as “abysmal“), so there’s very little chance of them ever popping up in a sequel: who knows though, maybe they’ll crop up in Marvel Vs Capcom 4, if it ever gets made…

Zack and Wiki screenshot 1

As well as the character design, the graphics are excellent, with a great cartoony feel and superb animation. It’s funny too: in fact, I laughed out loud during the tutorial section, which isn’t something you can say about many games.

Gameplay-wise it’s a sort of evolution of the classic point-and-click adventure, a genre I love. Most of the puzzles are good fun, and in particular there’s a great level set in a laboratory where you have to mix potions to make yourself shrink or turn invisible. It’s a really great idea, and there are loads of similar flights of the imagination that made me smile.

Sadly though, the game carries on that notorious tradition of the point-and-clicker: the illogical puzzle. At a few points I became completely stuck and had to flee to Gamefaqs.com for help on a particular puzzle, only to let out a confused “Eh?” when I found out the bizarre solution. Even worse, there are a few points where the game’s internal logic is broken: for example, platforms that are fixed until you can manually move them on one level just move when you step on them on another level, and there are a few other points where the game seems to break its own rules.

Zack and Wiki screenshot 2

Worst of all though is the fact that the game stifles any sense of playfulness or experimentation by packing each level with various things that kill you with one hit. You might think “Oooh, I wonder what happens if I pull that lever?”, only to be plunged into a spike pit and have to start the level again from the beginning. Not fun.

Rather than start all over again, you have the option of “reviving” at a point just before you died, but to do this you have to use a platinum ticket, which you buy in-between levels. But get this: every time you revive, you lose all of the money you collected during that level. This means that if you die right near the end of a level, you either have to complete the whole level again or revive and finish the level without any money, which then means you can’t afford to buy any more platinum ticket “lives” for the next level.

Basically, it’s a system that punishes failure rather than rewards victory.

By the second to last level I’d completely run out of lives and money, so my only option was to complete the whole level in one go or go back and spend an hour or so replaying through the early levels just to get a bit of cash together. The latter option was in no way appealing, so I plunged into what turned out to be by far the hardest level of the game and died again and again and again, each time having to restart from the very beginning. Eventually I just resorted to using a guide in an attempt to get to the end, but even that proved fruitless, as the introduction of some insanely tricky sword-fighting meant I couldn’t get more than two-thirds of the way through without dying and being sent back to the start.

Zack and Wiki screenshot 4

As you can imagine, this was utterly infuriating, and it culminated in a spectacular rage quit accompanied by a few solemn and sweary oaths directed at the now-ejected game disc. Put it this way: I’m not going back to finish it.

Shame, despite its flaws, it’s still a great game – a few little tweaks and it would have been a classic.

[Penned in despair by Lucius Merriweather.]

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