Monthly Archives: February 2014

inFamous 2: I Walk The (electrified) Line

inFamous2boxartinFamous 2 is the best superhero game ever made.  It’s the best anti-hero game ever made.  And its one of the best open world games ever made.  I played the first inFamous close to launch and loved it to bits but years later just couldn’t get the enthusiasm up to take the plunge and play through the sequel.  And so it sat there gathering dust on my shelf.

The problem was I was never in the mood for what inFamous 2 advertised.  I didn’t feel like being an electric badass gliding and sliding my way around an open world shooting bolts of pure lightning from my hands at gangs of radicals and mutants, and I certainly didn’t feel like climbing buildings to find a seemingly endless number of collectibles.  It all just felt a bit ‘by the numbers’ after a generation of playing like-minded open world games that put you in the shoes of the one guy that can come up against innumerable odds and reign victorious.  And so main protagonist, social outcast and anti-hero Cole McGrath’s story of redemption and revenge went unfinished.

Until last weekend that is when I found myself grabbing the game and putting it in the PS3 randomly.  And I’m glad I did.  Putting the game on it all came flooding back.  So while for so long I delayed playing inFamous 2 because I didn’t feel like being an electric superhero pseudo jedi type, I was forgetting that the draw isn’t what the game does, but how it does it.  As proven by Sly Raccoon before, Developer Sucker Punch aren’t so much masters of concept than they are at execution and inFamous 2 is executed so well you won’t be able to put it down before you end the arc of the conduit Cole McGrath’s story.

Last(?) console generation saw the phrase ‘feel of the game’ creep into the vernacular of video game enthusiasts trying to describe that indescribable but very tangible feeling of having the controller in your hand.  inFamous 2 is for me the perfect example of how to use that phrase because everything just feels silky smooth.  Given how many options for approaching both combat and traversal at any one time it is a minor miracle that it never feels overwhelming.  When you watch someone else playing the game the barrier to enjoying the game seems insumrmountably high, as you watch them glide, slide, jump and climb, traversing the destroyed beauty that form the game’s urban areas.  Combine with that the fact that the game often requires combat to be managed simultaneously and you’re likely left wondering how many hands and/or fingers you’ll need to get through inFamous unscathed.  Once you’re in the game though all of that falls away and you’re left with a game that just feels right from the very beginning.  Even when things get more complicated by the additional traversal options given to you as you level Cole up, the developers doles out the new powers at such a pace that you’ll always be given the chance to learn your powers before new ones are handed to you.

And its not just the traversal that feels just right; combat too is equally as well designed and paced, giving you enough variety to keep you thinking about new and better ways to approach different combat combinations, while keeping it all balanced enough to make sure you never find a ‘killer combo’ approach to any given situation.  The result of all of this is a game that hits both combat and traversal for six – something many if not most sandbox games only dream of.

But what impressed me most about inFamous 2 was the twists and turns the story took, highlighted by the overused in recent times morality system the developers employed to give the player greater agency and choice throughout the course of the game’s narrative.  Like almost every other game that features some sort of binary morality system making decisions in either the good (blue) or bad (red) is tied directly to what character upgrades you’ll have access to – completing “red” missions will give you access to entirely different powers to if you played the goodie two-shoes “blue” path”.  It’s all a bit contrived, really, and a system that I’m not sure has meant terribly much outside of Bioware’s fare.  But inFamous 2, while definitely walking a path well-trodden, mixes things up while managing to not stray too far from the status quo by the writing and narrative that forms around it all.  The tale will take twists and turns as it progresses culminating in a few final decisions that won’t sit easy regardless of which path you’ve chosen.    It blurs that line between what is right for a few versus what is right for the many in such a way that is so well done that your loyalties will likely be tested.  As in the real world, good isn’t always good and bad isn’t always bad, something that I think Sucker Punch nails with its writing.  While the decisions don’t impact the way the narrative progress until the very end, it is the way they inactively affect your own relationship with the characters as the player that is where inFamous 2’s writing really stands out. It pulls at the player’s loyalties with characters that aren’t always what they appear to be by putting you in a position to really understand the plight of all of the parties you are forced to choose for.  Its clever writing more than clever mechanically absolutely; but it is pulled off so well that you’ll forget that the morality system is nothing but a different way to navigate a skill tree.

The thematically dark comic-book presentation highlights perfectly the tone and pitch Suckerpunch is going for with the series; and the anti-hero it creates is amongst the best in the medium.   Cole McGrath is a mildy interesting character but it is his interaction and contrast against the surrounding cast and their backstories that makes him so much more compelling than he appears on the surface.  On the surface inFamous 2 is about Government conspiracy, but look a bit deeper and you’ll see it is really a commentary on the social dynamics of an outcast.  Of course when all is said and done, inFamous 2 like its predecessor, is a well polished open world game that makes you feel like the all-powerful character it has you taking control of, and in some ways that’s all that matters.  But in other ways its nice to have a big dumb action game take a slightly more intelligent approach to how it frames that action within the context of its world and its characters.  Either way inFamous 2 certainly doesn’t disappoint.

infamous 2 screen

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Outland is the game I thought I’d be playing in the future in the past

OutlandBoxHow many times do you think the average video game enthusiast says “this is the game I dreamt of playing when I was a kid”.  I’d hazard a guess it is a hell of a lot.  But regardless of how many times I’ve thought it or written it (I did a search of the blog and I think I’m clean), Outland is actually the game I dreamt of playing as a kid.  The game design is straight from the nineties and is a beautiful rendition and revision of the types of games I lapped up in my younger years.  There is no way I could’ve known how prevelant 3D would become across the industry and looking at Outland it is almost the perfect evolution of old-school game design.  But it also adds a few new twists to the formula that makes it feel like a thoroughly modern title, successfully combining the best aspects of Mega Man or Castlevania with the more interesting aspects of shoot ’em ups like ‘polarity’ and ‘bullet-hell’ Ikaruga or DoDonPachi make Outland more puzzle oriented and complicated than your average run and jump platformer.  Basically Outland isn’t just a great throwback to simpler times, it is a crazy combination of two disparate genres that makes for one of the most compelling platformers of the last few years.  And I loved it.

Platformers are great for two reasons.  One, they often beg of the player a level of precision and skills that many modern games just don’t.  Two, they usually don’t require complicated control schemes to navigate in what is obstensibly an eight-way plane.  Outland takes these two great traits of the genre and runs with them, creating a game that is easily accessible by all but the most uncoordinated of players, and injecting with devious bouts of difficulty that make an otherwise pretty straightforward game design incredibly rewarding.  The game’s structure is vaguely similar to genre stalwarts like Metroid and Symphony of the Night, locking off areas and dolling out powers liberally to give you new ways to fight and traverse the world.  It’s an oldie-but-a-goodie and developer Housemarque has arguably implemented the system better than most, with powers being required to traverse upcoming levels, but only optionally for backtracking in pursuit of collectibles.  In this way, although on the surface Outland is comparable to Super Metroid-esque open worlds, its modular strucutre of its levels which rarely ever rely on backtracking makes it progress more like your standard level-based platform fare than its more openly designed brethren.  And it’s to the credit of the design team that Outland’s connected but modular world feels as epic as it does.  The levels themselves are simple in their construction but because of clever and well-thought out placement of enemies and obstacles, always feel larger than they actually are.  The worlds are littered with enemies that are interesting, but not deadly, and traps that are devious but not impossible.  If not for the polarity system, whereby you can shift your ‘polarity’ from light to dark to avoid damage from projectiles and obstacles of the same colour, Outland’s levels would be dull and boring.  But the way that mechanic is incorporated into its level design is genius and gives it that cerebral edge over your standard platformer.  Its not solely about measuring your jumps perfectly and avoiding enemies when you’re having to navigate your way through intrinsic bullet patterns.

Of course none of this would matter if the game wasn’t as smooth as it is.  Its precise controls make playing it feel natural, and while there are devilishly difficult parts of the game (many of them boss fights) you’ll never be in want of a better control scheme.  Expletives will be tossed around the room at times as the game demands almost superhuman dexterity and hand-eye coordination, but they will never be levelled at the game, and every time I fell foul to the game’s at times devious design, it was always pretty clear that I had made the mistake.  Practice makes perfect though and Outland’s smooth pacing and well-balanced difficulty, spikes and all, make getting through difficult passages always seem within reach.  For a game that lives and dies by how it controls that is high praise indeed.

Outlandscreen1

But like Limbo before it the first thing that will strike most people is how strikingly attractive Outland is.  A far cry from the detailed and painterly qualities of Rayman Legends, Outland employs a silhouette style that keeps things stylistically simple, but infuses it with intricate detail in places to give the game a real sense of place.  The trible images of otherworldly beings and powers that are strewn across the pitch black architecture, all contrasted against simple yet beautifully animated coloured backgrounds is nothing short of striking, and give Outland a unique identity amongst the swag of pixel-laden indie games populating download services across all platforms.  Whether it was intentional or not Outland’s story, as bare bones as it is, is told almost all through the world itself.  So while you don’t have more than a couple of pages of story, the story of the world is constantly unfolding in front of you, almost like wandering through a foreign city and imagining the place’s history.  If you go into Outland looking for an epic story you’ll be disappointed, but come for the atmosphere and you’ll leave well and truly satiated.

The greatest testament to Outland’s quality though is that I just could not put it down, ostensibly finishing it up in two sittings.  The game’s bite-sized design would make it equally easy to play in small chunks but its rhythm just felt so good that it became hard to put down.  The game never really surprises you with new things to do, but its how it mixes its core polarity and platforming mechanic to offer challenge that will keep you on your toes.  There is a sense of accomplishment that comes with what basically boils down to multi-tasking, as your fingers almost instinctively move from button to button in an almost impossible manner, changing polarity, jumping, dodging and weaving, sometimes all at the same time.  But its testament to developer Housemarque that, like in its other titles Resogun and Super Stardust, the difficult that can make playing the game infuriating at times, is the very same thing that will keep you coming back for more.

OutlandScreen2

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Prototype spoke to me (amongst the bloodshed)

prototypeIt took me five years to finish Prototype and while I don’t necessarily want to review it the game did provoke me to think about what games have become, where they’re going, and why Prototype is perhaps one of the more important games for me of last generation.

I am almost certain that Prototype is the ten year old version of me’s favourite game.  The game in some ways feels like a conversation with an adolescent boy, explaining what he’s seeing on the playground, or about the abstract picture he’s drawing in crayon.  It has that unbounded outrageousness about it that the 30 year old version of me would struggle to think up without trying to rationalise it.  Kids on the other hand are pretty amazing architects of worlds, mainly because they aren’t confined to what we know to be the rules of the world, but also because they don’t ask questions of their own thought processes.  “What if your hand turned into a blade and then you could make spikes come out of the ground and then run really fast and you’d kill them and blood and guts would go everywhere but you’d just eat monsters and be better.”  

Prototype reminded me of how I used to enjoy games.  As a pure piece of entertainment Prototype is almost flawless as it gives you the means to not only run riot through a recreation of Manhattan but also to regress to an almost primal sense of enjoyment.  It was like being transported back to my childhood bedroom where I would spend hours upon hours playing Turrican, entranced by everything that was happening on the screen, absolutely unaware of what was happening in the outside world.  Prototype was simply an escape from reality and a meaningless power trip that allowed me to be someone I’m not.  Whenever I’d play the game it was almost like a reverse version of the storyline of the film BIG in that for those moments I was playing it I was given the opportunity to be a kid again and let my imagination run wild to surround myself in a fantastical and faraway land. Prototype truly was escapism at its very best.

I’m not the same person that sat in my room playing games and enjoyed them for what they were rather than what they weren’t.  The adult version of me would write that the narrative wasn’t fully formed.  The adult version of me would write that the game’s controls were sometimes fiddly or its difficult curve erratic.  But while the adult version of me can’t always turn off the critical parts of my brain or divest myself entirely from his responsibilities, he can learn from that more innocent and less tainted version of myself.  I’m not a religious man but perhaps the one thing I can get behind is recognising and being thankful for the things we do have rather than lament the ones we don’t.  Never did I think that would be my take away from a game that took such joy in giving me countless ways to mame and massacre thousands of mutants.  But it is a takeaway nonetheless and for that I’m grateful.  So thank you Prototype for those ten hours I was allowed to be a kid again.

Proto360screen

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Human Devolution: Deus Ex Already Dated

deus-ex-wiiuI played Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Director’s Cut immediately after finishing The Last of Us, and I have to say the comparisons are unkind to the former. Then again, seeing as we voted The Last of Us as the second best game of this generation, anything that I played immediately afterwards was probably going to feel lacking in comparison.

Whereas The Last of Us felt like a glimpse into the future, Deus Ex: Human Revolution in many ways feels like a relic from the past. I haven’t played any of the earlier games in the series, but I know that the first game was pioneering in its use of binary choices, allowing you to pick the path you took through the game and ultimately determine the ending. Since the first Deus Ex was released in 2000, player choice has become a staple of many video games, but in Human Revolution I had the distinct feeling that my choices made absolutely no difference. The main choice is whether you take a stealthy approach or go for all out assault, but either way the result is the same, the only difference being the amount of body bags needed.

Early in the game, however, you really only have one choice: stealth. Any attempt to take on enemy guards with your woefully underpowered character in these early stages will inevitably end in failure, so you have little choice but to creep around in the shadows. This proved incredibly frustrating, and at one point I was ready to give up. The biggest problem is the horrendous loading times – taking a stealthy approach inevitably means restarting from an earlier save point after you’ve been spotted and summarily murdered, and I found myself staring at a loading screen for periods of time that were reminiscent of the bad old days of the PlayStation 1’s dawdling CD drive. Getting through each stage was a dismal exercise in death by a thousand cuts, and I began to realise that perhaps I’m not cut out for stealth games – I never got into Metal Gear Solid for the simple reason that I quickly got bored of hiding in cupboards.

Deus Ex Wii U Directors Cut 1

Thankfully, Deus Ex does give you a choice in this regard – if you opt for the more combat-oriented augmentations you can mostly do away with stealth and just launch into each level guns-a-blazing, but it takes a helluva long time to unlock those essential augs. It was only about a third of the way into the game that I actually started having fun, taking out groups of bad guys with my Typhoon ammo system and generally causing havoc. But this fun was a long time coming – whereas The Last of Us promotes stealth but gives you the tools to deal with being spotted by the bad guys, Deus Ex dictates stealth by making it ridiculously easy to die until you’ve played the game long enough to beef up your character. It’s a game that definitely falls into the ‘hardcore gamer’ category.

You could argue that perhaps I lack the patience for stealth games, so in this sense it’s not the game’s fault that I struggled to enjoy it in places, but then that’s not the only thing that I found troublesome about the game. For a start, the conversation cut scenes border on the hilarious. Adam Jensen’s gravelly voice is Christian Bale-ridiculous, and for some reason all of the characters twitch and shake during conversation like they’ve got Parkinson’s disease – I found this very distracting, especially after the silky smooth cut scenes of The Last of Us. Plus the plot, with its gumpf about the Illuminati and shadowy corporations, feels cliched to the point of absurdity – this kind of story was all the rage back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but nowadays it seems very tired. How quickly we move on.

One of the things that the game has been lauded for is its realistic depiction of a near future in which society has been split between the augmented elite and the resentful ‘naturals’, and in this regard there are seemingly thousands of emails and books that provide information on the society at large. The trouble is that there’s too much of this stuff – after I’d hacked my hundredth computer to read emails on cleaning rotas or some other such b****cks I’d completely given up caring about the game world. World-building through in-game texts is a laudable idea, but information should be sparse enough that it makes you want to read it – Dishonored had the level pegged about right, but Deus Ex deluges you with info, much of it meaningless.

Deus Ex Wii U Directors Cut 2

I played the Director’s Cut version of the game on the Wii U, which came out in November last year with several improvements over the original, most notably the loving integration of the Wii U gamepad. Indeed, so useful is the gamepad in this game, with its handy map overview and inventory system, that I struggled to imagine how anyone could have played the game without it. Apparently the boss fights have also been improved in this version but, in addition, the Director’s Cut manages to introduce a flaw that is UTTERLY UNFORGIVABLE. The designers have taken the optional DLC level of the original game, The Missing Link, and shoved it into the main game around three-quarters of the way through, which makes some kind of sense in terms of narrative. But because the DLC was meant to be a standalone level, you begin it with all of your weapons and augmentations being taken away from you. And yes, that is as annoying as it sounds.

I’ve played a few games that take away your powers/guns at certain points in the game, and I continually marvel at why game designers think this is a good idea. Let’s just get this straight: IT IS NEVER A GOOD IDEA. Usually though, the game-makers have the good sense to return all your hard-won powers to you shortly afterwards, but in Deus Ex you don’t get them back for OVER THREE HOURS. A handful of guns and augs are returned to you after about 15 minutes, but the rest don’t turn up until the end of the DLC chapter. One of my guns was a heavy rifle that I’d lovingly upgraded over the course of a few hours, but now I found that it had been returned sans ammo. Even worse, because my ‘strength’ aug had been removed, I didn’t have room in my inventory for all of my upgraded weapons, so I was reluctantly forced to dump a few of them. I clung onto my favoured heavy rifle for a few hours, but I eventually realised that the game wasn’t going to give me any ammo for it, so I ended up having to dump that too to make room. Plus because my fancy augs had been taken away, I was suddenly a sitting duck again, forcing me to go back to tedious creeping around like in the first part of the game. “Not this sh*t again,” I thought.

By the time I got everything back I was thoroughly dispirited – imagine spending 15 hours patiently doing side missions to gain experience and upgrades only for all that to be taken away for the sake of shoving in some DLC. I trawled through the remaining levels, but by that point the joy had gone out of it for me. The last level proved to be a crushing disappointment – I’d finally become a fully-tooled-up, death-dealing cyborg again, but for the final part you’re faced with crazed civilians rather than evil corporate mercenaries. After being forced to crawl around for hours avoiding conflict, I’d looked forward to cutting swathes through ranks of bad guys with my futuristic weaponry in a grand finale, but my moral compass refused to allow me to turn the barrel on the innocent. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys gunning down civilians you might have enjoyed it, but if you are that kind of person then please seek help.

All in all then, Human Revolution was very much a mixed bag – enjoyable in places, but utterly frustrating in others. If you’re a huge fan of stealth games then you’ll no doubt get a kick out of it, but everyone else should probably steer clear. Just play The Last of Us instead.

[As penned in frustration by Lucius Merriweather.]

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Why I don’t like Saints Row IV (but can totally understand why people do)

SRIVcoverI really loved the Saints Row franchise.  It may have followed (closely) in the footsteps of the Grand Theft Auto but the first Saints Row on the Xbox 360 was an admirable attempt at bringing that style of game into the next generation.  Many people criticised it for that and for that reason it perhaps is remembered a tad more harshly than it deserved to, but despite the calls that it was derivative of the GTA behemoth that had won over millions of PS2 (and later Xbox) owners, developer Volition proved that it was more than capable of bringing to market a cracking open world crime-’em-up.

Not content with resting on its laurels, Volition blew out of the gate in 2008 with the vastly improved sequel Saints Row 2, which took everything from the first game and made it more ridiculous and the process more fun.  At a time when Rockstar was experimenting with mature and adult themes in a more grounded playground, it also brought into stark contrast the differences in approach to both tone and gameplay from both developers, and in doing so set the tone for the franchise for future games.  Saints Row: the Third  upped the ante again and went on to gain both critical and player acclaim, selling over 4 million copies in the process.

And then there’s Saints Row IV.  The only game in the series I haven’t been able to finish.

Saints Row IV is the most ambitious game in the series and  right from the start its ludicrous premise makes it blatantly obvious that Volition didn’t pull any punches, and if the Alien invasion doesn’t give it away the superpowers you acquire early on certainly will.  Saints Row IV is the series’ equivalent of the fourth and final season of The OC in that any semblance of sensibleness and continuity is thrown out and the writers and designers seem have been given absolute creative freedom.  The Third was a bit crazy, sure, but next to Saints Row IV it looks positively tame.  It seems that the mantra behind the development of the game was throw everything in the mix and hope for the best.  It is an admirable approach and one that resulted in probably the most interesting and feature complete game in the series.  But it also makes it perhaps the most inconsistent and underwhelming from where I sit.

I appreciate how much thought went into making this game as fun, as ridiculous and outrageous, and as humourous for the player as possible.  In most of those respects Volition have succeeded admirably.  If you’re into open worlds that throw everything but the kitchen sink at you, Saints Row IV is your game.  If you like dick jokes, Saints Row IV is your game.  If you like travelling into the mind of a creative madman, Saints Row IV is ABSOLUTELY your game.  Dildos, pimps, dubstep guns, arse jokes, transvestites – they’re all here.  You will fall in love with Saints Row IV and have the same great experience that I had with previous games in the series. 

But for the same reasons many people will love Saints Row IV I was left wanting.  It felt like the game was brainstormed but never designed.  While there have been countless great ideas added to an already sound game, there doesn’t seem to have been the same amount of thought put into how to actually make them work and fit in the broader context of the game.   The superpowers are the game’s biggest additions but like so many other ideas they never feel like they’ve been integrated into the overall design of the game.  Not only do they make travelling by vehicle redundant but they are taken away as soon as you enter a mission meaning they never feel fully integrated into the game and are left feeling like a gimmick thats function is never fully explored.  So while the game in the over-world is something new and exciting when it comes to actually progressing through the linear mission-based storyline you’re relegated to a regular joe in a regular third person shooter.  So while the designers show off their ideas in the open world and unstructured Steelport, none of that translates into the game proper. leaving you with nothing more than a new and remixed version of its predecessors.  While the game’s concept easily explains away this strange design decision, at least where I got up to, it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with the fact that Saints Row IV is just a mutton dressed up as lamb.

But the bigger problem for me was that while Saints Row IV introduces a whole swathe of new powers and ways to traverse the world, it is constrained by an engine and control scheme that wasn’t build for it.  Jumping hundreds of metres in the air is a great feeling but you never feel fully in control of your character when you’re doing it.  So while ridiculous feats of athleticism feel natural in games like Assassins Creed IV where the game is  built from the ground up around that type of player movement; in Saints Row IV it feels amateurish and tacked on.  Rather than a sequel with refined gameplay so much of the game feels like a third party mod and that’s rarely seen as a compliment.  The superpowers should have been the biggest strength of the game but rather their poor implementation makes them its biggest liability.

Saints Row IV is different things to different men.  Some people loved that the unarguably talented men and women at Volition turned it up to 11 (for want of a better cliche).  But I couldn’t get past the fact that while some things change, something things remain the same.   It isn’t very often I can’t pull myself through a game but SRIV unfortunately found itself on that very short list at the beginning of the year.  Quite simply after a good six hours flying around a virtual Steelport I lost interest in what it had to offer and haven’t returned since.  A flight of fancy turned to frustration as the smoke and mirrors fell away and revealed a game that was confused about its identity, something the over-the-top and often times laboured humour can never make up for.  SRIV had all the markings of a game that had evolved into something new, something bigger, something more magnificent.  But the marks just covered up old scars that although hidden still held the game firmly in the past.  Saints Row IV isn’t necessarily a bad game; but its one thats schizophrenia didn’t allow me to embrace the game its developers aspired for it to be.  And that’s a real shame because somewhere amongst the mish mash of ideas is the makings of one unbelievably great sandbox game.  It just needed more designing.

The greatest compliment I can pay the game is that although I didn’t like it; I can absolutely see why scores more people did.  And that is the wonder of video games in a nutshell.

SaintsRowIV

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