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Excuse me, I think I’ve got something in my eye…

Warning: spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins, Red Dead Redemption and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

We all know that video games can be emotional experiences. The exhilaration of taking down a boss by the skin of your teeth, the excitement and wonderment of a new adventure begun and the sheer pride in a perfectly executed headshot that wins the game for your team. But one emotion that video games aren’t very good at producing is sadness. To be fair, most games aren’t even aiming to give a kick to our oxytocin levels and ratchet up our empathy but I wonder why this is. Are video games not expected to be a suitable medium for this kind of emotion in the way that films or novels are? There aren’t many games that have moved me to tears but the ones that did have stuck in my mind as they provided an experience that was somewhat unique within the medium.

Here are a few games that have brought a lump to my throat:

Dragon Age: Origins – asking Alistair to cheat on you

Ah, Alistair, my favourite fictional boyfriend. I originally started to “romance” him on my first play through of Dragon Age because I wanted to be Queen of Ferelden but his superb characterisation won me over. He was funny, honorable and rather charming. Once we had the “lamp post” conversation there was no turning back, I was determined to make sure Alistair and my character got the happiest possible ending. This turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. Near the end of the game, you discover that either you or Alistair must die in order to slay the Archdemon. There is one way out – Alistair can perform a ritual with the character Morrigan (whom he dislikes greatly) in order for you both to live. Unfortunately, this ritual involves him impregnating Morrigan. I have never felt more guilty playing a video game than when I asked Alistair to sleep with Morrigan. After everything we’d been through and all the conversations we’d had it felt genuinely painful to ask him to something I knew he’d hate. At this point in the game it wasn’t an easy decision to make but this is exactly why it has remained such a powerful moment in my mind.

 

Red Dead Redemption – there are no happy endings

John Marston is a former outlaw that has been recruited by federal agents to round up his old gang members under threat that his family will be hurt if he does not. You spend the whole game playing through various missions to this end but the game never lets you forget that Marston is doing so under duress. After Marston finally catches up with the gang leader Dutch and kills him in a climatic moment, he is finally allowed to return home. At this point the game gives you missions that revolve around every day activities – herding cattle, hunting with your son and generally allowing Marston to settle into family life. The game gives you the opportunity to see Marston happy and to get to know his family. And sure, Marston could be pretty unlikeable some of the time but it’s hard not to get at least a little attached to a character you’re playing so it’s almost heartening to see him finally free. It also helps set the scene for what comes next and give it pathos. The serenity does not last. US soldiers and federal agents surround the farm and Marston sends his son Jack and wife Abigail to safety whilst he prepares for one last shoot out. After all, Marston IS the last member of the gang and must meet the same fate according to the law. At this point the player realises that Marston never stood a chance. He was simply a pawn to be used. There is no happy ending to be found here. Marston cannot escape from his past. The only redemption he can achieve is to save his wife and son by sacrificing himself.

 

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – the horror of war

The CoD games aren’t exactly known for their deep plots or well-rounded characters. This isn’t a criticism because CoD is very, very good at what it does. However, there was one moment in the first Modern Warfare game that gave me pause to feel something amongst all the bullets and explosions. In the first act of the game during a search and rescue mission there is a lot of foreshadowing that the major terrorist threat has a nuclear bomb. Well, so what, that’s just about the type of thing I expect out of terrorists in these games and I am fully looking forward to kicking their asses before said bomb goes off. Just need to save a few more and then hop back onto the chopper and speed away. Except, instead of escaping, you are suddenly faced with a massive detonation, a mushroom cloud in the air and as the blast catches up with your helicopter you know there is no way anyone is surviving this. I wasn’t expecting it. The game hands control back to you once the chopper has crashed and you make your character crawl his way out. The entire scene is red and the mushroom cloud looms large. Your character can barely move and his breathing is becoming more and more laboured. Everything is silent. It’s horrific. It’s a moment in the game when it’s not simply about killing AI characters or enjoying raining down merry hell on pixels below – it’s a moment about death as it often is in war; frightening, painful and horribly pointless. I’ve forgotten many of the moments in CoD games but not this one. It stuck with me.

 

What games, if any, have made your bottom lip wobble?

JenJenRobot


A Heavenly Feast for the Eyes

With all the AAA games being released at this time of year it can be easy to miss the smaller titles. It’s a shame because it can mean that more inventive or eclectic titles don’t get the attention they deserve. I think this is probably going to be the fate of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron so I’m glad I got the chance to play it before I become distracted by Batman: Arkham City and Battlefield 3.

El Shaddai is inspired by the apocryphal Book of Enoch. Enoch is the great-grandfather of Noah and the book describes the story of the Watchers. The Watchers are fallen angels who created children with mortals; the Nephilim. The plot of the game is very simple. Enoch must defeat seven fallen angels and the Nephilim in the Tower of Babel in order to prevent God from issuing a great flood to destroy mankind. The Nephilim are odd yet cute looking creatures who have the unfortunate habit of eating one another until they become flaming giants. It’s difficult to follow what is happening at times. It doesn’t matter very much though. The truly stand out feature of this game is how it looks.

You can’t talk about El Shaddai without talking about the visuals. The environments of each level are astoundingly diverse. Each level in the Tower of Babel looks like it was pulled from a different game and all of them are beautiful. You will find yourself in realms that look like they were made from fireworks, levels that bleed cutting-edge future tech, places that feel like you’ve been transported into a candy-striped Super Mario World and worlds that are ethereally breathtaking. Seriously. Take a look.



The fallen angels that inhabit the Tower can create any worlds they want and each level is a reflection of them. Imagination runs rife through this game and the visuals are important. You won’t find a Heads-Up Display on your screen to tell you how much energy you have left or how close you are to gaining an Overboost attack – these things are also represented visually by how much armour you have on or how…on fire you seem to be. Every so often you’ll run into Lucifel (basically Satan before he stopped being on speaking terms with God) who is chatting away about how you are doing on his mobile phone to God. He acts as your save point and narrator. At one point he even cheekily tells you how long it’s going to take you to complete the game…if you’re good enough, that is!

The gameplay is split into two parts. You have your platforming segments and your combat segments. The platforming is a lot of fun. It feels like a throwback to games of 15 years ago and is varied and tricky enough to be enjoyable. Sometimes, however, the heady visuals of the game can impair how well you judge distances and you will find yourself leaping into thin air when you were sure you were going to land on solid ground. This can be annoying but most of the platforming sequences are well designed.

The combat is based on a rock, paper, scissors mechanic. You have three weapons – the arch (offensive melee), the gale (distance projectiles) and the veil (defensive shield) and will need to switch between them in order to defeat the enemies who will be weak to a specific weapon. However, you can only carry one weapon at a time. To switch you must steal your opponents’ weapons! You also need to keep an eye on your weapon’s “purity” because if the weapon becomes corrupted the damage of your attacks will drop to nothing. Despite Enoch’s attacks being basically mapped to only one button do not think that you can get through the combat simply by bashing. You will need to learn to delay, to combo, to counterattack and defend in order to exploit your enemies tactics. I hard won battle can feel extremely satisfying.

Unfortunately there is not much change in the enemies. You will meet the same ones through-out the game – in later levels there is normally just more of them. The boss battles are mainly a matter of observing the pattern and figuring out when to hit them and with what. The battles aren’t easy but it feels like there is a lack of imagination in the combat. This is a shame since it feels like the rest of the game is over-abundant in it. It doesn’t stop them from being fun but it does make the game feel somewhat lacking.

I would still highly recommend renting or picking up this game if you have the time (it’s only £17.95 at Zavvi right now). It’s a bit of an odd and disjointed experience (there is one particular boss battle I will never get out of my head!) but it will be an experience unlike anything else you’ve played this year. It’s not perfect but it is unique. And that’s worth a lot.

JenJenRobot


Solving puzzles from a new dimension

Remember when games made the shift from 2D visuals to 3D? Your entire childhood had a birds eye view of all the action surrounding Link but in the next console generation you were thrust into the midst of the action yourself. Of course, some games still benefit from 2D gameplay, such as Street Fighter or certain platformers, but overall it was a big change. Marc ten Bosch is taking things one step further though. Gaming in the fourth dimension.

Miegakure is a platform game where you explore the fourth dimension to solve puzzles. The concept was inspired by Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott. A 3D being would be able to perform acts that seemed like miracles in a 2 dimensional space. Similarly, a being that could access 4 dimensions would be able to do many impossible things in a 3 dimensional space.

The puzzles in Miegakure will require you to think and move in this higher dimension. Using the fourth dimension will mean that the player can see inside closed objects, walk through walls, inter-link objects without breaking them and much more. Limitless clever puzzles can be created from such a set-up and should create some pleasing “eureka” moments for the player.

Miegakure is currently still in development but worth keeping an eye on. It looks like it promises to be an intriguing game and unlike any puzzler you’ve played before.

JenJenRobot


FFXIII-2 at E3

Final Fantasy continues it’s assault on the world “final” with more information emerging about FFXIII-2. E3 has given us an extra taste of the new game.

The story is going to be following a new character known as Noel (who looks very similar to FFXIII’s Fang – coincidence?). He’s dressed quite unpractically so should fit in well with the FF oeuvre. Noel and Serah (who spent most of the previous game as a crystal) are tasked with taking down a colossal titan called Atlas. The story seems the typical mixture of earnestness and fighting large monsters. I admit that it’s the fighting part that I’m most interested in!

I’m happy to see the paradigm shift combat system is still in place. It was one of the best new features of FFXIII; a battle system based on roles rather than actions that allowed a surprising amount of strategy formation. Now we have the addition of Cinematic Actions. This basically seems like the “press X now!” instructions seen in games like Kingdom Hearts 2. I hope the game will make you work in order to activate this mechanic rather than just gifting it to you after a certain amount of damage or time.

In addition to Cinematic Actions there is another new mechanic called Feral Link. When you beat monsters they may sometimes drop all crystal which will allow you to add that monster to your party. Which monster fights with you depends on which paradigm you shift into during fights. This should create tons of new strategy options during battle and I can’t think of another Final Fantasy game that allowed you to fight alongside monsters. It seems like a really fun addition.

In other good news, it appears that the game will not be as linear in nature as it’s predecessor. I don’t expect it to be fully removed from FFXIII’s horrible corridor system but it will be nice to have more than once choice on which corridor to take!

All in all, FFXIII-2 seems to be offering tons of monsters, lots of grinding and battles with enemies larger than air ships. If this is your sort of thing or you enjoyed the previous game then FFXIII-2 is shaping up to provide a first class gaming experience. I just wouldn’t expect anything ground breaking to be found here.

JenJenRobot


Fez – more than just a fancy hat

Xbox Live Arcade often has some fantastic indie games published on it, some of them showing more imagination and innovative gameplay than you can find in mainstream releases. Whilst that isn’t always the case, it’s good to keep an eye on Arcade to see what gaming gems may appear. As it turns out, it looks like we might get one later this year.

If you haven’t already, meet Fez:

Pretty to look at, no? And also pretty clever. 2D platform gaming taking place in a 3D world. By shifting the perspective you can rearrange the world, putting new platforms within reach and opening new paths. An idea that is so simple you wonder why no-one ever thought of it before and will probably put indie platform developer Polyton on the map as the M.C.Escher of video game design.

Fez has been in development for nearly 4 years now but it looks like all the hard work has created something sublime. I can’t wait to play!

JenJenRobot


Duke Nukem Forever – exchanging flags for “babes”

Duke Nukem Forever has been in development since 1997. There are a lot of people who a pretty excited about it’s upcoming release. I admit I’m not one of them (I always preferred Doom) but have been interested to see how Gearbox have updated the franchise. It seems they’re going for a hefty dose of controversy (or stupidity?).

Check out the “Capture the Babe” multiplayer mode:

Duke Nukem Forever’s “Capture the Babe” CTF variant requires you to abduct a woman to score. The mode is revealed in the latest issue of Official Xbox Magazine US where they explain that Gearbox will give the option to give her a “slap” if she “freaks out” as you drag her across the map.

I…see. Excuse me for saying so, but doesn’t that sound a bit…sexist? Women becoming literal objects to be won and who just need a reassuring slap as their womanly hormones make them hysterical when captured? Oh I know, I know, it’s meant to be ironic and Duke Nukem is a satire of the whole guns, women and glory genre. But I don’t get the joke. Usually a satire makes a comment or pokes fun at the original. This is just straight up sexism – or a really lousy joke.

But perhaps it makes sense in context of the game?

Speaking to the magazine, Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford said: “Our goal isn’t to shock people, but I think there’s some stuff that’s a bit uncomfortable. I mean, the alien’s plan is to capture our women and impregnate them to breed an alien army, so you can imagine some horrible shit happens.”

“Our women?” Hmmm.

Just for the record, if alien’s invade Earth with plans to capture, rape and impregnate women I won’t be standing around, swooning hysterically, waiting to be saved. I’ll be armed to the teeth!

It’s not like I’m particularly offended by this game mode. More disappointed. It feels like the chance for actual irony or parody has been missed and the game has become exactly what it set out to mock. Like Kurt Vonnegut said “Be careful what you pretend to be, because in the end, you are what you pretend to be.”

JenJenRobot


How Phoenix Wright Stole My Heart

I have to admit, I never thought that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney would be my sort of game. I spend a lot of my gaming time on FPS’s and RPG’s and I haven’t played a point and click adventure in a long while. Also, it’s about lawyers…which didn’t seem like the most exciting premise. However, Capcom were offering the first Phoenix Wright game on the iPhone for 59p so I thought I would give it a go. I now find myself having completed the game, it’s sequel and am now well into the 3rd game in the series.

I have been completely won over by Ace Attorney.

The game is divided into 2 sections; Investigations, where you explore crime scenes and question witnesses and Trials, where you cross-examine and navigate through conversations in order to find contradictions. Once you’ve found a contradiction you can present evidence by yelling “Objection!” None of this remotely resembles a sane legal system. But the game does demand you to think critically from time to time about how the case fits together and is pretty engaging.

But, it wasn’t just the gameplay that endeared me to this game, although the twists and turnabouts and ridiculously dramatic moments as witnesses unravel on the stand are a joy to behold. Mainly, I fell in love with the writing. It can be pretty cheesy at times but each character is a very original creation written with depth and humour. Some you may only meet the once and others recur in the sequels but it’s quite hard to forget any of them. The originality of the characters also holds true for their appearance and animations. Each character has only a few expressions but I can’t help but be impressed with how much personality and emotion was infused into these few sprites.

This game made me laugh out loud more times than any other game I can remember playing since Secret of Monkey Island. It made me wonder why I spend so much time playing as silent, grim heroes. Phoenix Wright’s colourful world of flashy blackmailers, Steel Samurais, haughty prosecutors with tragic pasts, spirit channeling teenagers and old ladies who will just not stop yelling at you was like a breath of fresh air.

I should take this as a lesson and expand my gaming horizons more often. I’ve been guilty of sticking to my preferred genres too long and I wonder what other gaming delights I might have let slip me by.

JenJenRobot