Category Archives: From The Armchair

From The Armchair: Stealth, How I Hate Thee

What ho, chums!

I’ve been thinking of giving my Xbox 360 the old heave ho for a while now. But before I let the old girl go, I wanted to sample some of the handful of games I’ve procured for it that I’ve yet to cast my critical eye over. I blew the dust out of the old dear’s vents and fired up the white 12GB beast. A quick look at my profile revealed it’s been a whole year since I last switched her on – how time flies.

Of all the unloved Xbox 360 games on The Mantelpiece, Metro 2033 was the one that most intrigued me, so that was the one I reached for. Based on a Russian novel, the game tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic Moscow, where the survivors of the disaster have formed a new society in the city’s metro system, safe from the radiation and mutant horrors above. But mutant attacks are on the increase, and new, mysterious entities known as ‘Dark Ones’ have appeared on the scene.

It’s an intriguing set-up, and it’s wonderful to see a post-apocalyptic game that – for once – isn’t set in America. In the sense that it features mutants and is set in an underground ‘bunker’ of sorts, Metro 2033 bears close similarity to Fallout 3. But the Russian setting really makes it feel different, and this is a much more linear adventure – a first-person shooter full of corridors rather than a full-blown RPG.

The characterization and atmosphere are simply excellent. Each station is dripping in detail, packed full of eye-catching posters and NPCs going about their daily business of survival. I spent a good while just listening in on their conversations and taking in the lore of this subterranean world. Individual societies have sprung up at each station, and traders trek back and forth between them. Some have been taken over by communist or fascist ideology, and have started wars with their neighbours. It’s a fascinating world to take a glimpse into.

The gameplay, too, is clever. Bullets are scarce, and the weapons you find are often cobbled together from spare parts. Cleverly, the currency of the metro is military-grade bullets that have survived from before the war – which are really too valuable to fire. Instead, you mostly have to rely on weak ammunition that’s been fabricated in makeshift factories across the underground. I love the fact that there’s no HUD to speak of, too – things like objectives can be found on a clipboard that you hold in front of you, using a lighter to illuminate it.

So, a great game then. Or perhaps not.

It all fell down at the point when my companion Bourbon was incarcerated by bandits. I started the level in the air vents, as a guard walked by whistling on a set patrol pattern. “Shit,” I thought, “It’s a bloody stealth level.”

And it was all going so well, too.

I hate stealth games. I simply don’t have the patience for them, which is odd because I’m usually a very patient person when it comes to pretty much everything else. Perhaps it’s because I play games for escapism, for the feeling of exploring exiting new worlds, discovering fascinating stories or embodying an all-powerful avatar. Not skulking about in the dark and hiding in drains.

I’ve always felt like this. I remember playing Metal Gear Solid for the first time (on the Dreamcast, interestingly enough, thanks to Bleemcast), and just wondering what the fuss was all about. I found the game thoroughly irritating with its endless monologues and boring sneaking, and gave up on it after no more than a couple of hours.

I found Deus Ex: Human Revolution similarly frustrating. Thankfully though, that game at least let you beef up your weapons to the point where by the end I pretty much ignored stealth tactics in favour of going in guns blazing. It was a similar story with Dishonored – the game gave you the option to focus on sneaking or all-out warfare, and I unfailingly chose the latter. Sure, I might start off being a bit stealthy, but by the end of a level I’d always be relying on brute force to finish off my objective.

Sadly, the brute force method is highly unreliable in Metro 2033. After about 12 attempts, I finally managed to get to Bourbon by mowing down all the guards in the way, but it was very tricky. Artyom, your character, can’t take many hits before buying the farm, so it took a long time to carefully work my way through and eliminate all the guards without dying myself.

Still, I finally did it, and the next level was a treat. One of the things I really like about this game is that it’s not just mutants you face – there’s all sorts of really weird paranormal shenanigans going on too, and no-one really knows what’s causing it. I lapped up all the bizarre phenomena, and when that ended, I found myself on the front lines of a war between Nazis and Communists.

And then there was another f***ing stealth level.

This time, the ‘non-stealth’ route was practically impossible. Faced against a legion of armoured Nazi guards with shotguns, I died continually. Eventually, enough was enough. I turned off the Xbox and vowed never to play Metro 2033 again.

It’s a real shame, because it’s a beautiful game (if you can call a post-apocalyptic subway beautiful), and it does a superb job of conjuring atmosphere. But unlike Dishonored (and to a lesser extent Deus Ex), stealth is pretty much required, rather than an option.

F***ing stealth.

I think I’ll just read the book instead.

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From The Armchair: Fire Emblem FTW

What ho, chums!

First of all, a big thanks to everyone who has contacted me about writing for A Most Agreeable Pastime, it’s great to hear from you. Sorry for my lack of replies so far – I’ve been hugely busy over the past couple of weeks, but I will get back you all eventually. There are exciting times ahead in The Manor, watch this space!

Last week I wrote about The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons, as The Year of Zelda got off to a cracking start. I actually finished that game quite a few weeks ago, and I fully intended to slide straight into Oracle of Ages – but Fire Emblem leapt into my face like a barking Chiahuahua with ADHD and insisted that I play with it.

It all started with Fire Emblem Heroes, that gacha-style mobile game that, to all intents and purposes, is a sort of ‘Fire Emblem Lite’ with added gambling. I was sceptical of its tiny maps and lack of permadeath at first, but it soon had its quasi-medieval tendrils hooked into me. In fact, I’ve been playing it every single day, often multiple times – the tiny maps and constantly refreshing quests are perfect for quick five-minute breaks during the working day. I’ve been tending to my ‘A’ team of Lucina, Ephraim, Camilla and Setsuma like a digital shepherd with an overly fond and possibly questionable appreciation of his flock.

And as sure as soft drugs lead to hard drugs and The Beatles led to dance music (FACT: without ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ there would be no Chemical Brothers), my time with FEH spurred me into buying Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright, and now I can’t put the damn thing down.

I’m still not sure whether it’s better or worse than Fire Emblem: Awakening, but I’m certain that it’s damn good fun. The story is compelling, the little support vignettes between the characters are almost always endearing, and the swoopy 3D of the battles genuinely made me gasp the first time I saw it. I also liked the fact that they’ve done away with weapon durability – swords, axes and lances are now effectively unbreakable – but I miss moving characters over the map world, as it’s hard to get the same sense of progression.

Anyway, I’m almost done with Birthright now, but I’ve already downloaded its companion game, Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest, and I’m keen to see the conflict from the other side. Not only that, you wouldn’t believe the number of hours I’ve been putting into Xenoblade Chronicles X… but more on that another time.

All in all, it means that The Year of Zelda has been put on hold briefly – at least until I can liberate the residents of Nohr/Hoshido and New Los Angeles, that is.

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From The Armchair: Old Man Lucius

ArmchairWhat ho, chums!

Friends, I’m growing old. As I near the end of my fourth decade on this planet, my listening predilections are veering from rock and roll towards radio plays, and my shoes are getting comfier and less fashionable with every passing year. I’m wholeheartedly embracing it – bring on the grey hairs, I say. I now actively look forward to receiving new socks and slippers for Christmas.

One change I’ve noticed is that my choice of games is getting more sedate as my body withers into middle-aged podginess. My extended time with No Man’s Sky has been so relaxing because that game is essentially an enormous galactic toolshed, and I’ve been pottering around it happily while avoiding doing the dishes. One of my biggest regrets so far in life is that I don’t own a shed of my own, but thankfully gaming can fill the void with virtual sheds like this one, in which I can make useless things and let my mind wander freely.

No Man's Sky is essentially a space shed.

No Man’s Sky is essentially a space shed.

I’ve also been playing a lot of Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones on the Wii U, a Virtual Console version of the old Game Boy Advance game. (God knows why they didn’t release this portable game on the 3DS as well, Nintendo works in mysterious ways sometimes.) I think turn-based strategy games are probably my all-time favourite game genre, simply because they give me the space to sit and ruminate on what I want to do next. It’s truly relaxing, and these days that’s what I really play games for – to take a break, and lose myself in another realm. Or shed.

Which brings me to Bayonetta 2. I finally finished the game this week, and I think it’s brilliant – right up there with the first one, and between them they represent the absolute pinnacle of the hack ‘n’ slash genre. Superbly crafted, ambitious in scope, incomparable in depth and simply gorgeous to look at. But quite often I found I was simply too exhausted to play it.

Bayonetta 2: exhausting.

Bayonetta 2: exhausting.

I’d often fire up the Wii U and thrash through a level or two, only to turn it off about an hour  and play something a bit less taxing on the old thumbs and fingers. Bayonetta 2 is a game that demands lightning reflexes and constant attention, and my ageing brain is far too addled with years of coffee and biscuit abuse to take that kind of strain for long. An hour is about the limit before my failing cortex demands a game that has in-built coffee breaks – i.e. turn-based strategy.

I’m already glancing through my game collection and mentally discarding titles that look like they might be a bit too much like hard work. Crysis 2 seems like it might require too much running around. Child of Eden is basically a headache inducer. Zone of the Enders needs to just slow down and smell the roses once in a while.

Phew, all this typing is hard work. I think I’ll just close my eyes for a few minutes…

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From The Armchair: The No Man’s Sky Plateau

ArmchairWhat ho, chums!

I’ve finally reached what I suppose is the No Man’s Sky plateau: I’ve maxed out the slots in my exosuit and multitool, I’ve almost maxed out my spaceship, and I’m starting to notice a fair bit of repetition in the planets I’ve been visiting. After my initial fever of exploration, it feels like the game is winding down into the all-too-familiar.

As the scathing criticism that the game has received from some reveals, it’s clearly not for everyone. Even our own Sir Gaulian bounced off the game hard. But I’ve found it to be right up my street. It’s just so relaxing – I’m essentially pottering around space, doing whatever I feel like and satisfying my insatiable curiosity about what’s around the next corner. It’s wonderful. I can happily spend hours just pootling around planets and scanning weird animals.

But sadly, the returns I’m getting from it are getting weaker and weaker. The animal scanning is getting less and less rewarding as I notice the same creature parts recycled again and again. But even so, occasionally the game will throw up something truly odd that demands my attention. Just the other night, I came across these huge bear-like things that fluttered around on utterly tiny wings – something truly unlike anything I’d seen before. Yet these kinds of discoveries are becoming rarer and rarer.

It was a bit like this thing, but without the weird legs and face...

It was a bit like this thing, but without the weird legs and face…

It’s time to start winding down and aiming to put this thing to bed. I’m still eons away from the centre of the universe, but before I committed to gathering the necessary resources to head there, I thought I’d check to see whether it’s worth my time. It turns out it probably isn’t. So instead I’ve rejoined the Atlas Path, and already my game has been reinvigorated by a few all-new sights and encounters. It helps that I’ve already maxed out most of my exploration stats, so I can speed through the path to something that acts as a conclusion of sorts.

It’s been a fun ride.

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From The Armchair: Getting Mobile

ArmchairOne consequence of getting sucked in by Pokemon Go is that I’ve ‘rediscovered’ mobile gaming, to an extent – just as Eurogamer predicted. Bar the odd game of Threes, I’d pretty much given up on mobile games before this summer, but the Pokemania earlier this year prompted me to see what else the App Store had to offer.

I’d been put off before by various scrounging free-to-play games that constantly needled me for money. Plants vs. Zombies 2 was a prime offender in this category. I absolutely adored the first game, but the sequel switched to free to play and consequently walled off the more interesting stuff behind microtransactions – a sure way to kill all the enjoyment. Pokemon Go, for its sins, also adopts the free-to-play model, but in a much more acceptable way – everything is available to everyone, but those who choose to pay can get it a little quicker. Still not as satisfying as a one-off fee, but a decent compromise.

Thank heavens, then, for Square Enix’s ‘Go’ series – not to be confused with Pokemon Go, which cheekily seems to have ripped off the ‘Go’ suffix. (The first in the series, Hitman Go, came out back in 2014, so it pre-dates Pokemon Go by at least 2 years. But I presume that it was too difficult to copyright the word ‘go’, as King found out when they tried to copyright the word ‘saga’, as in Candy Crush Saga.) Lara Croft Go and Hitman Go were recently bundled together and put on sale on the App Store, so I quickly snapped them up. One price, everything included – lovely.

lara-croft-go-3

I’ve yet to play Hitman Go, but Lara Croft Go has been an absolute delight. I wasn’t sure how well Tomb Raider would translate to a slow-paced puzzle game, but it’s managed to keep the feel of the series intact while offering an interesting new style of gameplay. Each level gradually introduces a new puzzle element – salamanders that follow you around, for example, or torches that repel monsters – and these elements neatly combine and intertwine as the game goes on, so by the end there are some real head scratchers to solve. On the strength of this, I can’t wait to play through Hitman Go – and I’ll almost certainly pick up Deus Ex Go, the latest in the series.

I’ve also been playing Really Bad Chess, which I sought out on the strength of this recommendation. It’s free to play with adverts, but you can pay to get rid of them – again, a good compromise, and much better than locking away content for cash. The game itself is a very basic representation of chess, but with the twist that you have a seemingly random mix of pieces. For example, on my first game I found I had four queens, while the computer opponent had 5 knights.

4ktdg5k

As a result of this simple change, the games are enjoyably chaotic, and it made me completely rethink how I approached the game. Interestingly, despite having four queens, I still lost that opening game – it turns out that having a phalanx of knights is awesome for defence if they’re arrayed together. The game also progresses pleasingly, just like Lara Croft Go – as your rank increases, the computer starts off with better and better pieces, while your own pieces get progressively worse.

If you’ve played any amazing mobile games recently, let me know!

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From The Armchair: Twin Peaks Revisited

ArmchairWhat ho, chums! This week I was excited to read about the new game Virginia – or rather to read a tiny bit about it and then completely avoid reading any more for fear of spoilers (it appears that the game relies heavily on keeping its surprises hidden). Yes, Virginia is yet another must-buy indie game to add to the many notable recent releases, such as Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and The Witness. We truly are spoiled for choice when it comes to quality indie titles these days…

Anyway, the Eurogamer review of Virginia compared the game to Twin Peaks, that wonderful early-90s TV show helmed by David Lynch:

Intuition. Intuition is an interesting one. It’s everywhere in the kind of TV fiction tradition that Virginia belongs to, but it’s nowhere in most narrative video games where every player must be treated as a generic entity to be prodded through the gauntlet with tips, rewards, and brisk, formative punishments, like a sort of space chimp. It’s a reminder that most narrative games do not have the ambition to do any justice at all to one central character – the player. (And if they do, they generally fumble it.)

And yet look what intuition gives you when you get it right. It gives you Dale Bartholomew Cooper, FBI Special Agent on a dangerous mission to Twin Peaks. He’s a figure that looms over Virginia, much as Twin Peaks itself looms over Virginia’s town of Kingdom. And yet it can be hard to pinpoint why this is exactly. There’s the agency, of course, and the investigation at hand and the coffee in diners and the occasional glimpses of the artfully inexplicable. But there’s something deeper: that world that runs on intuition rather than reason, and wrapped up inside that world a wonderful and refreshing absence of ironic distance.

This is what people always get wrong about David Lynch. He’s witty, perhaps, but he’s never ironic, and he’s never removed himself from the center of things to mock and smirk from the wings. He means it, every bit of it, and his strange world is all the more frightening because it does not seem to be strange to him. What would it be like to be inside that head, eh? And what sort of reticule might allow you to make the best of what you saw in there?

Or, to put it in other words, Virginia is a marvel crammed into a neat two-hour running time, and you must play it.

I came to Twin Peaks fairly late on, after I’d seen several of David Lynch’s films, and I was amazed by how ahead of its time it was. Well, perhaps ahead of its time is the wrong phrase – there’s very little like it out there even now. The mix of the mundane and the downright weird, the humour weaved into an overarching theme of terrifying malevolence, the characters so far along the scale of quirkiness to be almost caricatures… It’s simply brilliant. Watch it, if you haven’t already.

A damn fine cup of coffee.

A damn fine cup of coffee.

Anyway, reading this reference to Twin Peaks inspired me to take a break from planet exploration and dive back into Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut, a PS3 game that’s heavily influenced by David Lynch’s show. And I mean HEAVILY influenced, right down to the coffee and the Log Lady (although here she’s got a pot).

In some ways, it’s a hard game to love. ‘Rough around the edges’ is too kind a way to describe it – it basically looks like a PS2 game, with production values so low you can see the joins held together with sticky tape. Driving around town is a good example – the cars have a top speed of about 50 mph, and once you reach it, you’re treated to an engine-sound loop that evokes an asthmatic lawnmower, cycling endlessly over and over. And the handling is simply atrocious, like fighting a supermarket trolley with a bent wheel.

deadlypremonition2

But if you can look past things like this, the game is an absolute gem – especially if you’re a Twin Peaks fan. The writer and director, SWERY, has meticulously recreated the TV show with recognizable but different-enough-so-they-don’t-sue characters and locations, and exploring it all is a joy. The dialogue is deliciously bizarre, especially the interminable monologues about Hollywood B movies from Dale Cooper stand-in Agent Francis York Morgan.

And speaking of B movies, Deadly Premonition is one of the last of a dying breed of ‘B games’. This type of ‘middle-budget game’ was everywhere back in the PS1 and PS2 days, with cheap and cheerful titles like Destroy All Humans! doing pretty well. But since the PS3 era we’ve seen the rise of the console indie scene, which has split the market between AAA titles and low-budget, super-cheap indie games. This has killed the market for mid-price games stone cold dead. Games like Dark Void and Dark Sector, both of which I enjoyed despite their flaws, simply wouldn’t get made now.

Still, at least the spark of originality is burning brightly in the indie scene. And we have a new love letter to Twin Peaks in the form of Virginia. It’s just a shame that the constraints of indie budgets mean this particular letter is necessarily short – by comparison, Deadly Premonition is more like a love encyclopaedia.

“Do you feel it, Zach? My coffee warned me about it.”

Click the link to buy Twin Peaks or Deadly Premonition on Amazon, and we get a little cash. Ta!

screenshot_x360_deadly_premonition001

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From The Armchair: Breezing Through The Backlog

ArmchairThe traditional ‘summer games drought’ comes as something of a relief for those, like I, who are imbued with a phenomenal gaming backlog. It’s a chance to dust off some unplayed titles and finally give them some time in the gaming spotlight before the inevitable deluge of games arrives in time for Christmas.

Then again, the summer games droughts of today are nothing like those in the past – even during the hottest months (or coldest months, if you’re down under), we still have a steady dripfeed of decent games thanks to the astonishing proliferation of games in recent years. A couple of titles have piqued my interest recently – notably Fire Emblem Fates and Tokyo Mirage Sessions: FE. In fact, I was most annoyed to have missed out on buying the lovely special edition of the latter (Amazon link here), only learning of its existence after it had sold out. I don’t normally go in for these types of thing, but I loved the Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water special edition, and I’m most miffed that the Tokyo Mirage Sessions one evaded my grasp – and now goes for silly money.

Look at it. It's so beeeaaauuuutiful.

Look at it. It’s so beeeaaauuuutiful.

Still, I’ll get around to buying both games eventually – along with No Man’s Sky, which I’m fairly certain I’ll enjoy, even if it utterly failed to float Sir Gaulian’s boat. And speaking of No Man’s Sky, one reason that I’m racing through my backlog is to sell my finished games and put the money towards buying a PS4, so I can finally, FINALLY, join the current generation.

I wrote about Journey and Uncharted 2 earlier this week after finishing them, but I’ve also dipped back in to Killzone 3, which came bundled with my PS3. I’d previously played about two-thirds of it before eventually drifting away, and I headed back in last week with the idea of finishing it. But in the end I decided I just didn’t have the patience to see the whole thing to the end. It’s an odd game really – despite being set in space, it feels more like a Call of Duty game thanks to its preoccupation with military tech, and the way it features lots of soldiers shouting at each other in military speak. It also reminded me a little of Gears of War, except the protagonists are instantly forgettable, unlike Marcus Fenix and company. It also sorely lacks great big ugly aliens.

Pew pew pew pew pew pew!

Pew pew pew pew pew pew!

Still I was grinning at the ludicrousness of the Helghast, a.k.a. Nazis in space. The ridiculousness of the setting made it feel like an entertaining B movie, along the lines of Iron Sky. I was also impressed with the graphics, which still look astonishingly good after five years. But in the end, as I fought my way through various factories and corridors, I just realised I wasn’t enjoying myself very much. It felt like a battle of attrition, lacking the light touch of Halo’s better entries, and not sufficiently OTT to rival Gears of War‘s better moments.

It’s basically just OK. Not bad, but not amazingly good either. And judging by my reaction to it, I doubt I’ll bother playing Killzone 2, which I picked up for an absolute pittance a couple of years ago.

Last week I also dived into Sonic Generations, which is reputed to be one of the better Sonic games of recent years. The hook this time is that you get to play as classic Sonic on 2D levels as well as modern Sonic in 3D, the latter with his trademark skinny legs and beach-ready tummy.

"Where are we going?" "Do you mean direction-wise, or as a franchise?"

“Where are we going?” “I don’t know!” “That’s the problem!”

It’s no secret that Sega have struggled to recreate the highs of 1990s Sonic games, but I’m of the opinion that even those early efforts weren’t all that great. They were fun to play at the time, but ultimately the gameplay is incredibly shallow. And the concept also seems to be fundamentally flawed – the main fun to be had is in going really fast, but going at any sort of speed in the 2D levels means that you simply can’t see any obstacles in your way. Sonic Generations‘ solution is to feature lots of on rails segments where you travel at phenomenal speeds but basically have little or no control of where you’re going.

I played through the first few levels, and they were pretty good fun, but I felt my interest fade very quickly. I bought the game a while back, thinking that perhaps this would be the one that might finally make me ‘get’ Sonic. But I’m still mystified as to the appeal. And as I finally realised a while ago, I just don’t like 2D platformers that much.

So, having knocked off a few games from The Mantelpiece, I’m scanning the teetering pile for my next target. I’m on a roll now – could this finally be the year when I clear out my gaming backlog? Possibly. Although there’s always the danger that I’ll just end up buying more… Ooooh, look, Virtue’s Last Reward is down to £9.99 on the Nintendo eShop!

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