Archive for the Button Bashin’ Category

Mass Effect 2

Posted in Button Bashin' with tags , , , on February 4, 2010 by Spike Marshall

The rather enigmatic Collectors

The first MASS EFFECT, released in the shadow of HALO 3, was a game that seemed to be a sleeper hit within my circle of friends. My friends picked up the game in the following years and each found something to love about it but at release it seemed to just get ignored. It’s easy to see why in a pre-COD4 world HALO 3 was the big game for the 360, the first real system seller and everything else paled in comparison to it (the fantastic Orange Box was another casualty of this, it’s amazing multiplayer mode hemorrhaging users almost immediately). It didn’t help that Mass Effect was a distinctly difficult game to get into, it was difficult and at a completely different tempo to what was expected by XBox 360 owners. Compared to the user friendly interfaces and general high production values of HALO 3 the game was glitchy and cumbersome. Menu’s were bewildering and cluttered, the inventory NEVER felt right, the graphics whilst suiting the game were jerky and the frame rate would grind to a halt if you even attempted to run down a corridor. These were problems that were ironed out eventually, the ability to install to Hard Drive countered a lot of the performance issues, but they all helped in making Mass Effect a game you really had to invest yourself in. Of course if you did take the time with the game and had the patience to predict and deal with its niggles and bugs (I must have saved around 200 times when I first went through the game, just to make sure I didn’t end up falling through the floor and having to start again) you were rewarded with a universe that felt vital, characters that were interesting and fun, and a story that just worked. It was a real roughly hewn gem of a game.

MASS EFFECT 2 in comparison is a lovingly and skillfully cut diamond. From the first minutes of the game the production values on show are considerably improved, a yawning chasm into the void of space showing off an overhauled graphics engine and fully implemented physics. It’s tempting to just stand around and watch as debris slowly floats away from you and gets picked up by the gravity pull of a nearby planet, objects slowly fading away into the distant blue of an alien atmosphere, of course whilst this is happening there’s important heroic business to attend too and as such there is little time for idle gawking. In terms of visual design it’s up with BIOSHOCK in terms of making you want to stop and really take in your surroundings and the game never really lets up. In terms of sheer design work MASS EFFECT 2 just towers over its predecessor, but that’s to be expected. Playing Mass Effect 2 makes you understand that MASS EFFECT was more of an exercise in world building than anything else. With all of the basics covered in the previous game MASS EFFECT 2 is far more concerned with plotting and character than set up, it’s central mission being the recruitment of a squad of mercenaries to undertake a task no one expects you to return from. With all the pieces already in place from the previous game MASS EFFECT 2 is allowed to explore the more peculiar, nicher sides of the universe, exploring smaller colonies and seedy spaceports and really expanding your knowledge of how the universe works. Continue reading

Advertisements

Grand Theft Auto 4

Posted in Button Bashin', Review with tags , on June 6, 2008 by Spike Marshall

Link For Soundtrack Excerpts

Jean Michelle Jarre is on the radio again. The sky cracks white as the low boom of distant thunder almost threatens to drown out the plaintive electronica. I watch my employer, a man who has spared my life and the life of my cousin, walk into his grotty little Cabaret Club and I know that he cannot leave it alive. I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto 4 for twenty two hours now; I’ve stolen cars for a crazed roid head, chased and gunned down a Biker Gang in a small idyllic park. I’ve murdered people, destroyed property, delivered drugs, hunted criminals, shot pigeons and driven Taxis.

In short the subsequent flurry of action in the Cabaret Club would be the finale to a great game, in Grand Theft Auto 4 executing this target is merely a prelude. In fact with Seventy story missions still in front of me I’ve barely completed a fifth of the game and still have yet to open up two of the three islands that makes up Liberty City. But this moment in the rain, on a rooftop with a man’s life in my hands is what defines Grand Theft Auto 4, a moment of melancholic reflection before the bitter end. That is an early defining point of the game for me, the moment in which I realised that Grand Theft Auto 4 was as great as the hype had led us to believe. The first few minutes in Liberty City were always going to be a cold shower of sorts, a harsh wall of reality to the preconceived expectations that had been built.

I will admit to being briefly disappointed by the way main character Niko Bellic lurched around the screen, and the way that objects in the distance popped in and out of reality, the heavy handling of the cars and the plodding pace of the initial missions. Every GTA game would start with its basic tutorial missions, but with such Grand Theft Auto 4’s depth of content the numerous tutorials and options threatened to choke the first few hours of the game. Certainly running errands for your cousin, buying some glasses to impress a date and beating up some wannabe hoodlums wasn’t what I expected of the game, but even San Andreas was cursed with a cumbersome start.

In looking at what makes GTA4 work it is probably wise to reflect on its predecessor San Andreas. San Andreas would represent the natural evolution of the GTA3 series, Rockstar confident enough with their engine to create a sprawling and immense game. Everything about was huge, from the county wide play area to the cinematic scope of the missions. Naturally the move to the Next Generation would mean that San AndreasSan Andreas’s follow up would be a slighter game, but whereas other developers would have panicked at this proposition Rockstar made it GTA4’s greatest virtue.

The dichotomy of the game is that Niko is a character far more willing to resort to crime but also a far more human protagonist than San Andreas’s Carl Johnson. CJ would represent a burgeoning humanity within the series, a central character who looked after his own and questioned the crimes he was forced to commit for his own survival. Unlike Vice City’s psychotic Tommy Vercetti, CJ was noticeably troubled by his actions and actually represented a man trying to keep above the mire he found himself in. Niko Bellic has this same kind of characterisation, he is a man haunted by his past and stuck in a mindset where he accepts what must be done. His interactions with his cousin, his friends and his employers all help to flesh out a truly human character and Niko becomes at once both likeable and sympathetic. However he also embraces his nature as a hired gun, working for anyone who can afford his services and it creates a character constantly at odds with himself.

Niko Bellic is a Serbian immigrant who has travelled to Liberty City to live with his rich and successful cousin Roman Bellic. Fleeing a life of violence for purported comfort Niko instead finds Roman living a ramshackle life and finds himself having to delve into the murky underworld to keep his heavily indebted cousin alive. Through conversations with Roman we learn that Niko is a veteran of the Bosnian War and later dialogue reveal the horrors he witnessed during his service. If nothing else Grand Theft Auto 4 is a pinnacle in videogame characterisation, the story and dialogue helping to craft a character who is perhaps one of the first truly sympathetic protagonists in videogames and certainly one of the most fully formed. This is largely down to Michael Hollick who provides Niko’s voice and much of the characters motion capture. Niko is undeniably an anti-hero, charismatic but also unpleasant. Hollick seems to understand this perfectly and consequently there is a genuine humanity to Niko which gives a real sense of weight to the serpentine plot.

The core of the game is the friendships that Niko fosters during his time in Liberty City. Niko is given a mobile phone at the start of the game and every character he meets adds their details to his phonebook. Certain characters even strike up friendships with Niko and will call up to ask to hang out. These friends will regularly call you up to suggest hanging out, you can either choose to fob them off or pick them up and hit the town. There is a pleasing range of activities to choose from, certainly you are never stuck for something to do be it bowling, playing darts, going to a comedy club, playing pool, frequenting a strip club, grabbing some fast food or just getting hilariously drunk, but more than anything it is the conversations on the way to these activities which makes the endeavour worthwhile. Your friends and associates have hundreds of lines of dialogue and are so well crafted that it is easy to get attached to them.

In gameplay terms the friend system represents an evolution of the property ownership segments of Vice City: Stories. In that game you could raid other businesses, turn them into your own real estate and then play minigames to ensure a constant supply of money. In GTA 4 catering to your friends needs does not supply you with money, but instead gives you access to individual perks. Getting your cousin to like you is simplicity itself and nets you the free use of taxi cabs around the city whilst another friend will provide his services as a mobile arms dealer. The perks themselves are always helpful but they are just additional to how much story and character is formed through these impromptu activities. As stated earlier each character seems to have hundreds of lines of dialogue and they’re almost always interesting and usually hilarious. It is ridiculously easy to get attached to these characters and you almost feel guilty after a particular nasty crash or incident sends one of them to the hospital.

Realism is a buzzword being used to describe Grand Theft Auto 4 and to be honest I can see where people are coming from but the idea of a realistic Grand Theft Auto is patently ridiculous. Certainly in comparison to San Andreas (with its city wide gang wars, alien artefacts, casino robberies, airfields, and government funded missions) Grand Theft Auto 4 has a more realistic take, but it is also a game where you race sports cars through Times Square and engage in spectacular helicopter battles above Manhattan. Whilst realism is a misnomer it is safe to say that Grand Theft Auto 4 is a more grounded experience than either Vice City of San Andreas. Whilst Vice City, San Andreas and the two PSP spinoffs all told a rags to riches tale, GTA 4 is content with moving its protagonist from squalor to comfort. There are no mansions in GTA4, you can’t buy businesses in the game, you will barely make a million dollars and Niko Bellic will rarely rise beyond his station as a hired gun. What this grounding does is ensure that each mission is important. The brutish gunplay, more realistic handling of vehicles and strength of characters makes even a simple escort and kill mission kind of exciting.

The gunplay in GTA 4 is a definite highlight, taking the usual GTA mechanics and adding a Gears of War style cover engine and a Crackdown derived auto aim system. It is still not perfect, having free aim be activated by the same trigger as auto aim can lead to the player wrestling to pull off headshots, but it is a massive improvement over previous games in the series. In particular the cover mechanic adds a new dimension to the games usual run and gun style. Niko is far more susceptible to fire than his counterparts and as such the only way to ensure survival is by adequate use of cover. Of course this cover mechanic isn’t perfect, you can sometimes get stuck on the wrong side of a wall, but it is a great addition to the game. What really makes the gunplay in GTA 4 work is the sound work. Sure shooting from cover is cool as it the way that gunfire will realistically damage cars and walls but what ties it all together is the booming sound of gunfire. Even the pistol in the game has power to it and later missions can sound like something from a Michael Mann film as M-14 fire echoes around city streets. This sound work is just one of the things that makes Liberty City feel far more alive than previous environments, even little things like the way your phone ring will echo if you’re under a tunnel help to create a true sense of immersion.

Immersion is a key word with GTA 4; it is a game that almost demands that you become invested in its world and its characters. I’ve already touched upon the characters and story that help to create such a robust and vibrant world but it is the little touches which really bring Liberty City to life. The internet in the game is a great example, you have to use it now and then but mostly it is just for sending and receiving emails. If you start to explore GTA4’s internet you’ll come across a wealth of viewable sites. Most of them are straight parodies of existing sites, but the depth of content on each page is enough to make it seem almost real. What’s great is that as you complete missions the internet constantly updates with news sites offering reports on your crimes and internet blogs updating (sometime with information about Niko if you date the right girl). What the internet does is give context to your actions, plotlines are setup and resolved through the news sites and often news stories you’ve read will be worked into a mission later on in the game.

Liberty City is given even more life by its inhabitants, a diverse bunch who will quite happily go about their daily routine whilst Niko does his murdering. Just watching the crowds can reveal how much care and attention was put into the game. People interact with each other, mobile phones go off prompting conversations and the emergency services are constantly operating around you. Pick any Ambulance in the city and you’ll be able to follow it to someone who has been hurt, watch a street fight long enough and you’ll see police break it up and drive the felons off for processing. Even the city itself is given its own personality with different districts having distinct visual styles and residents. Liberty City is an obvious facsimile of New York and its design goes a long way to establishing that New York. It is at once both cosmopolitan and utterly dangerous and Rockstar seem at home both in the squalor of the projects and the decadence of Times Square. Whilst it doesn’t offer a diverse environment as San Andreas it creates a singular environment which is utterly cohesive and at times is quite staggeringly beautiful. Certainly driving across to the central island as the sun rises over a phalanx of skyscrapers is kind of awe inspiring.

Of course the problem is that without these little touches the game can become very sparse to the unobservant. Being brutally honest the missions do often devolve to a simple formula of going to a location, scaring a guy, pursuing him, waiting for his car to stop being invincible, and then shooting the holy hell out of his vehicle until he’s dead. There are some apparent little touches (often in chases a stray bullet will score a headshot and your quarry’s car will just swerve off the road as its dead driver lies slumped on the horn) but if you choose to ignore the news reports, and the internet, and the friend activities the game can become almost alienating. There are moments of inspired mission work (an epic bank heist is one of the best missions in the entire series and another mission where you’re chasing a helicopter through times square, you’re passenger launching rockets with reckless abandon, is kind of awe inspiring if the weathers right) but unless you’ve truly connected with the characters there’s nothing here that we haven’t done before. Similarly those just wanting to go on a kill crazy rampage might find their efforts thwarted by Niko’s apparent lack of health and some overly diligent cops. Firefights in the open generally don’t end well and even vehicles don’t offer much protection from bullets. As such unless you’re constantly on the move your rampages will likely not last all that long.

GTA4 is far more concerned with telling its story and its later missions whilst not offering new game play options have thrust and weight due to the narrative. Those expecting a next generation version of Vice City are going to be undoubtedly left wanting as GTA4 even eschews that games use of music. GTA: Vice City was a revelation to many due to its use of licensed music (GTA3 had a smattering of music, but aside from its opera selection it was all rather obscure). Playing a game with Gary Numan, Blondie, Ozzy Osbourne, and Jan Hammer on the radio was something a bit new. Whereas Vice City went for easily recognisable hits of the 1980s GTA 4 took a different view on its radio stations.

The Triangle

As such a lot of the songs you hear on the radios are not what you would consider well known, the classic rock and hip hop station have perhaps the most recognisable songs, but fit the game perfectly. Each radio station is just expertly put together and truly suits the game. Everything from African Jazz to Hardcore Punk is represented and the track listing for each station has very few duds. Driving around in the rain to Philip Glass is fantastically evocative, whilst the indie rock beats of Radio Broker provide a suitably tense score for some of the pursuit missions. It is a testament to the design and structure of each station that barring the Hardcore Punk station I listen to and enjoy each station in the game. As well as suiting the game world completely the game also manages to create its own iconic songs. Certainly its use of Arm and Arm and Get Innocuous! (click the link at the top to hear them) has given new context to those songs, whilst taking off in a Helicopter on a stormy night as Queen’s One Vision kicks in is as iconic as anything in Vice City.

So what we have is a witty and engaging update of the Grand Theft Auto ideal, a game where morality is given centre stage and the decision to kill is actually given dramatic weight. It is surprisingly complex for a videogame and some of the decisions you take later on actually transcend the usual gamer think (i.e. What is of most benefit to me as a player? What allows me to get an achievement) and actually force you to think emotionally about what you are doing. Of course if you buy Grand Theft Auto to have sex with hookers and go on rampages you may find yourself disappointed, unless you go online.

The drop in online multiplayer of GTA is perhaps one of the biggest revelations in the game, by bringing up your in-game mobile phone you can access a variety of online modes and drop right into the action. There are a variety of game modes from a free roam mode which drops you and up to fifteen other people in Liberty City to standard death matches and races. There are some well designed co-op missions and even a King of the Hill variant. However the three game modes that seem to get the most play are Cops n Crooks, Mafiya Work and Car Jack City. Cops n Crooks splits players into two teams, one team are crooks and have to get their boss to a designated extraction point, one team are the cops and have to kill the boss before he escapes. Despite some fundamental design problems (the lack of rounds means that most games end in draws or are won by the smallest possible margin).

Car Jack City has teams of players scouring Liberty City for designated cars to take back to a lock up for Cash, whilst Mafiya Work has teams working for a powerful mob boss who is constantly phoning in missions. Mafiya Work is probably my favourite mode for two reasons, for one it forces the two teams to converge on singular goals and as such it ss almost always incredibly hectic and often the jobs you are undertaking are ridiculously hilarious. One task has your mob boss explaining how his ex-girlfriend wants to be an actress, he promptly asks you to pick up his laptop to take to somebody so some pictures of her can be distributed to ruin her career. As such the game type becomes a mix of sheer slapstick lampoonery with an undercurrent of black GTA humour.

Of course the problem is that your opponents are often not interested in having fun. In fact the GTA online community is perhaps one of the most hostile communities around, with all of the worst players from Halo and Call of Duty migrating over. In the month that I have been playing the game online I have not come across a single other team who did not embody the very worst that Xbox Live has to offer. From people team killing in co-op games to sheer hostility in pre and post match lobbies (“If this was real life, we’d murder all of you” is ridiculously common expression at the moment) it is almost intolerable.

Worst still are the gamers, who are intent on taking off the auto aim function of the game. If GTA was a straight shooter I would probably agree with turning auto aim off to and have more skilful games but GTA isn’t a straight shooter and all that having auto aim off does is slow a hectic game down to a crawl. Games with auto aim tend to be all kinds of chaotic, with explosions and vehicular homicide abound, games without auto aim tend to devolve into teams slinking across the ground and trying to merge into the background. It takes a game that was a little unique and turns it into a poor COD4 clone, but that is the nature of Xbox Live and online gaming in general.

Still if you are playing with friends and hosting your own games GTA’s multiplayer can be an absolute blast. Even just driving around Liberty City in Free Mode can be hilarious when you throw some like minded individuals into the mix.

Grand Theft Auto 4 is not a perfect game but it is also a game deserving of a 10/10. It represents a will to change by Rockstar and whilst the nuts and bolts of the game are largely the same, there is enough evolution to make GTA 4 feel completely fresh. There are some fundamental flaws in the game, not least the way the game handles money forcing you to nickel and dime at the start and then giving you hundreds of thousands of dollars with nothing to spend it on, but the positive outweighs the negative in nearly every instance.

Spike’s Underrated Games of the 360: Part 4

Posted in Button Bashin', Review with tags , on April 23, 2008 by Spike Marshall

The Criteria: Due to the fact that Just Cause was for all intents and purposes a port of a PS2 game its 360 iteration was largely ignored by the gaming media. The few magazines and sites that did review gave it a cursory bad review and the game kind of got lost in the shuffle.

The Game: Just Cause starts off big, laying its cards on the table from the off. You are given a half minutes worth of expository cut scene before your character sky dives to the island paradise below. Whereas other games would relinquish control, showing your characters descent to the island through cut scene, Just Cause puts the player in control from the off. As you control your decent you are given a marker to aim for, a plume of red smoke drifting off a beach directly head. A plane drifts by as unknown attackers below unload their machine guns at you, pulling your legs in for a controlled landing you hit the ground with a roll before dispensing with the soldiers who had been trying to end your mission before it starts.

Barely stopping for breath the game urges the player to take the gun in a mounted car as it speeds through a section of the island towards a secluded base. Military cars and helicopters attempt to thwart your escape and meet suitably fiery ends. One long car ride and demonstration of American taxes at work, F-16s vs. a Bridge is a pretty great example of the inherent goofiness of the game, and you arrive at your base. You can now go and continue your pitched battle against the police forces or continue onto the next mission, a siege against a well fortified detention centre.

Or you could have, whilst skydiving down, gone and latched onto the passing plane and took it for a tour of San Esperitos many islands and come back to do the car chase later. Admittedly this takes a little practice, throwing yourself out a plane and onto another plane isn’t something you’d qualify as an exact science, but the way the vehicle sort of swoops past your peripheral vision demands you at least make an attempt to hop on board. You will be given many opportunities to use planes later on in the game, but the general tone of the game almost compels you to make a mad grab for it. Just Cause is a Hollywood blockbuster of a videogame, a slab of goofy, visceral fun which abandons notions like physics and practicality to further its own entertainment value.

You are Rico Rodriguez, an American Black Ops agent who has been tasked with bringing about the downfall of a Caribbean dictator by the name of President Mendoza. You are dropped onto the islands that make up San Esperitos and through collaboration with rebels, drug cartels, and the United States Government you affect change by the barrel of a gun. Just Cause is segmented into just over a dozen main story missions, which are all the big set pieces of the game, but these missions are bolstered by the ability to help rebel factions take over more of the island.

When you start San Esperitos is under government control, as you complete missions more and more islands become destabilised allowing you to take part in pitched battles to shift the area into rebel hands. As well as this you can opt to help a drugs cartel who is in direct opposition to another drugs cartel, supplying Mendoza with money. These involve you attacking villas and mansions and allowing your drugs cartel to overrun them.

What Just Cause has in large quantities is panache and style. San Esperitos, despite being a port of a Playstation 2 game, is a stunning backdrop its tropical loveliness rendered with painstaking care and attention. The 360 still suffers from games with drab visual patterns so the deep verdant greens and crystal blues of Just Cause are a welcome change. In addition the game, as stated before, eschews a lot of reality to create an experience that is largely about mindless fun. In keeping with the mindless fun I’m not going to go into the moral quandary of a high octane action game inspired by the real world invasion of Panama.

In my first hour of play I managed to wind up the local law enforcement to a point where I was speeding around the island with helicopters on my tail. My motorcycle got rammed into a tree and I jumped from it to the roof of a truck, sliding from the roof into the driver’s seat and commandeering the vehicle whilst it was still bombing down the highway. The chase finally ended when I drove the truck off a Cliffside and parachuted to safety as my pursuers fell to a fiery death. Moments like that define the game and use its own hair brained logic to great effect. When it wants to Just Cause can be iconic and grand. A mission involving an assault on a building inside a volcano is a great example of this, the meandering road to the rim of the volcano and subsequent explosive firefight being a truly inspired moment in the game.

The problem is that the sheer scale of Just Cause works against it. San Esperitos is massive, probably one of the biggest open worlds I’ve seen in videogames, and as such losing a decent vehicle can set you back a good half an hour as you lug around the island looking for something to steal or ground flat enough for an air shipment. There is also too great an emphasis put onto the liberation missions which all devolve into simple checkpoint battles in villages and mansions. Whilst some spice is added by the larger scale city battles, lots of tanks and helicopters making the game exceptionally hectic and uncommonly challenging, you are generally forced to do the same thing close onto fifty times. When you are commandeering jets and blowing up drug plants Just Cause is a blast, when you are liberating your forty seventh town it is kind of a drag.

Another of the areas that Just Cause really falters in is its use of music. The games soundtrack consists of the same piece of Robert Rodriguez inspired Mexican guitar and it never really seems to have any oomph to it. Certainly it is one of the few games where I felt compelled to use a custom soundtrack, usually something I only do when playing online. Just Cause is a game that demands a high energy soundtrack to justify the inherent insanity of the gameplay and a repeated riff just doesn’t work.

But the problems fade into insignificance when the game lets you do things your own way. One mission tasked me with subtly assassinating a military leader holed up in a heavily defended base. I rode back across a few islands to an airport I had liberated from its dictatorial occupiers and got myself a small commercial airliner. I then proceeded to fly the jet over to the base and drop it on my targets head before making a quick getaway on a motorcycle.

All the quibbles don’t make the game bad; indeed as a piece of entertainment it is great to pick up for an hour or two. Rico is a capable enough main character and the enemies lunk headed enough to allow you to do pretty much whatever you wish. There is a certain thrill to base jumping off of a kilometre high mountain into the beautiful blue ocean below and leading a rebellion in a busy city centre is thrilling.

Simply riding around on a motorcycle can be joyous in itself thanks to the pleasingly responsive controls. There just really isn’t enough to justify the sheer size of the game though and I’m hoping that its upcoming sequel will give you a greater range of things to do.

Spike’s Underrated Games of the XBox 360:Part 3

Posted in Button Bashin', Review with tags on April 21, 2008 by Spike Marshall

The Criteria: Condemned: Criminal Origins would be one of the better games released during the 360’s launch. However its unassuming marketing campaign and lack of media attention would make it something of a forgotten property. That the games inferior sequel would receive far more attention is indicative of how underappreciated Condemned is.

The Game: You pick a doubled barrelled shotgun up off of the floor and click open the barrel, two shells lodged in place, straight away you hear that all too familiar gibbering. You draw the gun up and level the sights at the frenzied mass of a man charging you down, the first shot just annoys him, the second puts him down. His body crumples at your feet as his friend forces you to use the depleted gun as a club. You lash out at your attacker until the gunstock splinters over his head, the shattered remains doused in blood and viscera. You stand above your fallen foe and without hesitation snap his neck before picking up the piece of piping he was wielding and bracing yourself for the next assault. Such is the nature of Condemned’s combat.

There is an uncommon brutality to the action in Condemned, the squalid locales and brutish combat helping to create a particularly unique tone. On a conceptual level Condemned is deceptively simple, the central thrust of the game being to guide your character around a city and beat up crazed attackers. What Condemned does is layer on the atmosphere from the off and in doing so it creates one a world that is lucid and palpable. From the Se7en inspired opening credits to your opening chatter with a beat cop Condemned is more concerned with setting and maintaining mood than anything else.

You are Ethan Thomas a man cursed with two first names and a sixth sense for solving murders. Rather than spend his time spoiling crime films, which I totally would do with those powers, Ethan is working for the FBI as a crime scene investigator. All is fine and dandy until a crime scene investigation goes awry and Ethan is suspected of shooting two police officers. You see Ethan has found himself a nemesis that makes up for his lack of psychic powers with sheer insanity. This killer is targeting other Serial killers, offing them in the way they murdered their victims, and is the person responsible for Ethan’s current predicament. So Ethan finds himself isolated from the FBI and wandering through the nastier sections of Metro city in a bid to prove his innocence. Unfortunately Metro City’s transient population have gone and got themselves crazified and are thus making a nuisance of themselves.

The nuts and bolts of the game are thus, you enter dingy environment, walk around dingy environment and beat down anything that gets in your path. At the end of dingy environment you will find a corpse to investigate dutifully you get out your CSI kit and get a clue to the next location in the game. What makes the game great is how alive and real everything feels, it is all due to sound effects really. The sound of laughing enemies in the distance, the creak of floorboards above, the distorted screeches of Ethan’s visions, the dull thud of a metal pipe bouncing off of a skull. They all conspire with the constant gloom to make a game that just gets under the skin.

Part of the visceral charm of the game is the lack of any video gaming signifiers. If you want to see how much ammo your gun has you have to check the magazine, your screen is largely free of clutter two bars in the top left corner being the only obvious distractions from the world. It is a brave choice and it closes the gap between players and the game, refusing to allow detachment from what is happening on screen. Again this is a major part of Condemned as it is a game which seeks to draw horror not only from the environment but from your own actions in game.

Guns are scarce in the game and the few times they do appear they are generally being wielded by a psychopath. Disarming them before they eviscerate you is a challenge in itself and every shot they get off is a shot you won’t be able to use when you finally obtain the gun. Seeing the gloom of an abandoned railway station pierced by the muzzle flare of a shotgun is a terror almost unique to Condemned and it sets up guns as being dually dangerous. When enemies use them they are a natural threat, but also wielding guns forces you to ditch the melee weapon you are currently using and once you’ve used up your clip you are effectively defenceless.

As such players find themselves gravitating towards the metal pipes, signs, fire axes and sledgehammers dotted around the levels. But without the detachment of firearms and the HUD the combat becomes almost horrifying in its brutality. There is a base primality to all of the action scenes in Condemned, combat is never cool or well orchestrated it is just plodding and vicious. The chunk of metal and bone and screams of pain and whimpers of mercy are legitimately disturbing and the fact you become almost inured is one of the cleverer elements in a game that is often a little lunk headed. The thematics of the finale are all about the lure and destructive power of violence, but before this is made overt the player is already becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the violence presented in the game.

There are several neat touches to the game, the aforementioned investigation sections are a novelty but they are used infrequently enough to never outstay their welcome. In fact they make a nice change of pace from the constant blunt force trauma. The game also does away with artificial locks, requiring players to find fire axes, shovels, crow bars and sledgehammers instead of keys. Whilst there are some logistical problems, apparently a sledgehammer that can pulverise a metal door can’t damage the fire axe only wooden doors, it gives yet more reality to the game. Despite the inherent dinginess the level design in the game is also fantastic, a welcome change from Monolith’s previous bland work on FEAR. Taking us from derelict buildings to train stations to deserted apartment stores to besieged libraries and finally the home of our nemesis the game never fails to create lucid, believable and thrilling levels.

Where the game falters is in its last sections where the plot takes a turn for the supernatural introducing elements which just don’t work in a story. The beginning of Condemned is far scarier than the end simply because of how little we know about the situation. People are going crazy for no reason, the city is slowly decaying around you, and birds are dropping dead from the sky for no reason. To have the plots be tied up with Dan Brown style mythic cults is a little neat and concise but it is not enough to dent the horrifying viscera of its opening chapters.

In fact the last section abandons the tone of the rest of the game, with combat becoming less and less fierce and pitting players in a final battle where ultra violence is prevalent. Certainly ripping the final bosses jaw out of his skull is in stark contrast to the rest of the game, especially in regards to how much the game suddenly revels in the destruction. The sequel would take this further, abandoning the grit of the first half of the game and instead focusing on over the top ultra violence and escalating insane plot twists.

Spike’s Underrated Games of the Xbox 360: Part 2

Posted in Button Bashin', Review on April 14, 2008 by Spike Marshall

Crackdown

The Criteria: It is easy to be suspicious when you are a gamer. If you are a gamer you have three choices about who you buy your console off of. You either side with an American company known for its underhand business tactics and infamous for its steamrolling of smaller companies, or you side with a Japanese conglomerate who have shown remarkable disdain for its user base and untold arrogance, or you go for the small company who actively hate Europe and have been shown to cut off their nose to spite their face. If, as the movie The Corporation told us, all corporations are psychopaths then Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are the kind of nutjobs who wear their mother’s face as a blanket and make chairs out of human femurs.

So when a game is packaged with early access to the multiplayer element of a game EVERYONE is waiting to play it is easy to get a little sceptical about the quality of the game in question. Not only was Crackdown shipped with Halo 3’s beta, but a demo was released onto Xbox Live which effectively condensed every aspect of the game into an hour long portion. Microsoft had essentially created a game whose main focal point was a demo of another game. It wouldn’t be the first time this was done, Sony would pull a similar trick with Zone of the Enders and Metal Gear Solid 2, and the result was to create general suspicion about the quality of the game. Indeed so cynical was the majority of the game world that the initial tone of reviews of the game suggested genuine surprise that the game was actually as good as it was.

The Game: Crackdown is a futuristic open world game; players are dumped in the heart of Pacific City and after a short expository cut scene told to rid the city of scum. That is pretty much a summation of the game; you kill criminals and generally restore law and order to a city in the grips of anarchy. Of course a game can’t subsist on just shooting criminals in the face and as such Crackdown adds a wrinkle to the open world formula. This wrinkle is manifest deification. You see you aren’t just some run of the mill futuristic law enforcer, you are a super sized super soldier law enforcer and as such you five essentially stats that you can level up. These stats are Agility, Strength, Driving, Guns and Explosives. Each stat has four separate levels each level giving you increases pertaining to the stat. So train up your strength stat and you will become stronger and stronger, your character who could initially just about handle himself in a fight gaining the strength to lift articulated Lorries and hurl them hundreds of feet at any gangster foolish enough to look at you.

Similarly your grenades start off worryingly ineffectual but after a few levels have gone into explosives you can create explosions that make the Dresden bombings look a little limp wristed. Every skill can be increased in this way and soon enough your weedy character is leaping 50 foot into the air and hurling Buicks at pimps whilst exploding small housing estates with heat seeking missile launchers. It is this sense of all pervasive power that is Crackdown’s greatest strength, bounding around skyscrapers and bringing down Old Testament style wrath is a joy in of itself and few games can replicate the weight and feel that Crackdown has. Lobbing crime lords off of skyscrapers is far more satisfying when said crime lords have a sense of weight and inertia, especially when they get hit by a lorry on the way down.

Of course physics alone don’t make a game and if Crackdown has one failing point it is that it lacks definition. The central thrust of Crackdown is your mission to destroy three criminal gangs Los Muertos, The Volk and Shai-Gen. Each gang controls one of Pacific Cities three islands and you can attempt to take them on in any order you like. Each gang is made up of one all powerful crime lord and his lieutenants who all bases of operation on the island. The idea is that you kill the lieutenants to weaken the Kingpin and then go and administer the coup de grace. The problem is that the only real variety to these attacks is if a boss is inside or outside.

There are no real tactics involved, you can’t manipulate gangs into fighting each other, you can’t act covertly, and in reality the most you can really do is attack a base from a different angle and take out 75% of the guards instead of 100%. When you are clearing the first island this is fine, the shock and awe of your constantly evolving agent enough to deter from the fact that essentially the only difference from boss to boss is cosmetic. So the fight against the gang’s vehicle expert will be exactly the same as the fight against the gang’s weapon supplier and exactly the same as the fight against the gang’s fitness trainer. The only difference is that one fight takes place in a garage; one takes place in and around a lighthouse and one takes place in the grounds of a health club. You won’t meet specific enemies, you won’t see tactics, the only increase in difficulty is the number of people shooting at you and the accuracy they have. In fact the developer seem to understand all to well the ease in which an upgraded agent can swoop in and destroy everything he sees and as such as you progress through the game there are artificial bumps in difficulty.

The most evident is the fact that after the first island the bosses are largely found indoors effectively nullifying your agility skill and your explosive skills (if you max out your explosives you become more of a danger to yourself than anything else in tight confines). It is these later interior missions which almost prove Crackdown’s undoing, the finesse and grace of movement required showcasing just how unwieldy the character is. When you are leaping tall buildings in a single bound the floatiness of the controls is never really an issue, each movement is big and grand and very rarely requires deft control. When you’re attempting to scale a gigantic wind chime to continue an ascent up a skyscraper and your character over jumps or simply fails to latch onto a perfectly graspable ledge the control problems become infuriating.

If that makes it sound like I don’t like the game then it shouldn’t, Crackdown really is quite immensely fun to play it just suffers from the kind of teething problems you’d expect from any game engine trying to do something vaguely new. What Crackdown feels like at times is a test run for a continued series, an attempt to iron out any kinks and see what works before they move onto a fully fledged product which may explain Microsoft’s decision to package it with Halo 3’s beta.

Despite the nebulous missions there is a lot to love about the game particularly because the developers saw fit to add a lot to distract gamers from the campaign missions. Exploring Pacific City is a joy in of itself with activities littered all over the place. When you are not busy committing acts of genocide against the criminal fraternity you can amuse yourself with races, either on foot across the rooftops of the city, or in the multitude of cars which can be found and commandeered around the city. The rooftop races are probably my favourite thing about the game, perfectly showcasing the freedom of movement offered to the player. Making a pitched leap off of a construction tower, landing heavily on the ground (the sheer force of your impact throwing cars off the road and causing general havoc) before climbing up a skyscraper (King Kong style) is genuinely exhilarating and a noteworthy predecessor to the similar free running of Assassin’s Creed.

Driving, at first, can be a bit hit and miss in Crackdown. Like everything else your driving skill has to be levelled up and as such until you are level two or three most cars handle like bucking broncos dovetailing off the road at the slightest provocation and having the unfortunate knack for seeking out large clusters of civilians. Criminals when presented with a speeding vehicle have such well honed reflexes that it is almost impossible to actually run them over, civilians however tend to actively seek out your car as if being run over was some sort of new extreme sport. It wouldn’t be a problem if the game didn’t punish civilian deaths by stripping back your hard earned levels, as a result increasing your driving skill can be arduous task. As you level your driving skill up it becomes exponentially easier to actually control vehicles and certain cars start to gain new abilities such as bonnet mounted machine guns (think the Batmobile and you’re halfway there).

See, just like the Batmobile

Crackdown is good for short, sharp, bursts of fun. It is a game built on its little moments like the way your boss lovingly explains “Skills for Kills Agent. Skills for Kills” when you are doing well or the way you can use an observatory globe as a bowling ball, or the way you can kill one gangster by picking up another criminals car and using it as a projectile weapon. What makes Crackdown truly great however is its implementation of co-operative play. If you can find a like minded friend on Xbox Live then the whole world of Crackdown is open you to explore together. There really is nothing like watching two fully levelled agents completely obliterate wave after wave of criminals.

That is what  is at heart, a fun game whose priority is entertainment. With its comic book tonality, bright and colourful visual palette and propensity for ridiculously over the top violence Crackdown is a game that should have been a must buy but was instead largely forgotten by the videogame world.

Spike’s Underrated Games of the Xbox 360: Part 1

Posted in Button Bashin', Ruminations with tags , , on April 5, 2008 by Spike Marshall

There are few phrases as loaded as ‘underrated’. Primarily it is dangerous because of how you justify the phrase. What criteria do you set yourself? Do you measure success in financial or critical terms? Do you look at cultural impact in the mainstream or how affects the hardcore fans? In gaming terms the lines are even more fraught, the division between the financial mainstream and the mainstream epitomised by specialised publications wider than anywhere else. Take for example the Need for Speed franchise.

In the United Kingdom the Need for Speed series is financially dominant topping the Christmas charts each year with its annual updates. Despite this success the gaming media tend to avoid the games, devoting single page reviews to the series and generally approaching the series with a palpable sense of nonchalance. By the same token The Orange Box adorned various magazine covers and received numerous lengthy articles and reviews. In the gaming media world it was a sensation, one aspect of the game creating a dozen memes, but it was a flop in terms of sales. Even its multiplayer element dropped off the map, its community dwindling to less than ten thousand (in comparison to the half million of its competitor). Yet the idea of calling The Orange Box underrated would be ridiculous, the media focus and flurry of positivity about the game dampening any nagging concerns about its lack of a userbase. As such I’m going to approach each game on this list with its own unique criteria.

So why am I even attempting to write about games that are underrated? Well for one it is a great writing device, which essentially allows me to ruminate on six games without the need to devote page after page to my thoughts. As such it is a way of allowing me to write about games that I really, really, like but couldn’t justify a full one and a half thousand word post to. Essentially it is a mix of desire to talk about games and my own innate laziness.

The list of course is made up of games I’ve played and they are all here for wildly different reasons. There are a few exceptions, these are the games which I assume to be underrated but haven’t had the chance to get around to yet. Games like Eternal Sonata and Earth Defence Force will not be appearing on this list purely because I haven’t had them sent out to me yet. So without further ado lets get started, I will also reiterate that this is a personal opinion and as such is not a statement of fact. I fully expect people to disagree with what I write. This of course is only the first part, the other four choices will be revealed over April.

Saints Row

Saints Row CoverThe Criteria: Saints Row was doomed from the start really. An upcoming challenger to the monolithic Grand Theft Auto series its aesthetic similarities were enough to have it labelled as a rip off as soon as it was released. Most reviewers weren’t particularly kind, taking exception to the elements cherry picked from the GTA series and as such it gained a reputation as a pale imitation.

The Game: In a lot of ways Saints Row is a pale imitation of Grand Theft Auto. Certainly from its mission structure, to its sense of humour, and even its aesthetic it was a game that looked remarkably like Rockstar’s immensely popular series. It wasn’t the first time a game had taken a shot at copying the GTA formula, but it was probably the most overtly similar to the series. Previous attempts at replicating GTA had changed certain details to maintain at least a hint of individuality. But where many viewed the games similarities to GTA as a sign of plagiarism I viewed it as a mission statement as such.

Conceptually Saints Row is Grand Theft Auto brought to the next generation. All of the elements that made the GTA series popular are in the game from the diverse radio selection when you enter cars to the general misanthropy of the main hero. Saints Row emulates GTA in every way possible and then refines these elements to perfection. What Saints Row represents is an evolution of the concept more than anything else.

What this means is that Saints Row took the elements of the GTA series that worked (the sprawling open world, the ability to perform petty crime, side missions, a progressing storyline, the sense of humour) and then adds elements to replace the things which were innately broken about the series. The key triumph of Saints Row is its combat engine which when combined with a newly implemented Havok physics engine made the games action scenes have far more punch. Combat in GTA was always ropey, forcing players to use a lock on mechanism which was usually far more intent on shooting some civilian in the back of the head a few blocks down the street rather than the miscreant attempting to extinguish your life with an AK-47. Saints Row gives a lot more control to the player in gunfights and as such it becomes far more of an action game than Grand Theft Auto ever was.

Things go boom down the row

The main thrust of the game is its central story missions which concern your character’s induction into a dwindling gang and his subsequent war against the three dominant gangs in Stillwater City. These story missions once again highlight the action adventure nature of the game with a reliance on firefights and stunt heavy driving sections. A lot of your time is spent taking over enemy compounds and wrestling control of turf away from your rivals. What makes this interesting is the respect factor, respect is a currency of sorts in Saint Row and it is earned by dressing right and completing side missions. Without respect you can’t unlock missions and as such you find yourself forced into completing some of the side missions available to you.

These side missions take many forms (each with varying levels of difficulty) and are generally all great to play. Some require you to chauffeur around VIPs, some require you to be a wheelman in drug runs, some require you to destroy as much property in a set time limited as you can and others require you to fake brutal accidents to claim large amounts of insurance money. Once again they are all designed to work around the improved play mechanics of the game, the insurance fraud mode in particular taking advantage of the Havoc engine to allow your character to be realistically affected by gravity. It is hilarious to jump in front of a police car and make your character limp, watching as the impact propels his prone body 20 foot through the air and into the windscreen of another car.

That is probably the defining aspect of Saints Row; it is a game that is fun to play. It actually fails in trying to emulate the more ethereal qualities of GTA, the series much vaunted wry humour lost on Saints Row. The game is never particularly funny, well not in the way that GTA is, and its more outlandish attempts at ironic humour are so forced as to become a potential threat to the game. Conceptually the idea of getting involved in street wars to capture prostitutes is hilarious, but the game overplays its hand and as such the side mission involving this activity come across as disturbingly misogynistic rather than tongue in cheek.

Earning your colours in the Row

Also despite implementations of physics and a next-gen coat of sheen, the single city of Saints Row seems retroactive and claustrophobic after Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas sweeping country roads, tiny towns and big cities. No matter how pretty the game looks it just can’t compete with the fact that San Andreas replicated an entire state and the result is that the game often feels pokey and encroaching. The games music also suffers when compared to GTA. Vice City redefined the way licensed music could be used in videogames and provided a perfect 80s pop background for the action on screen. San Andreas would expand the concept, mixing legitimate classics with more obscure stuff to create a perfect mix for a game that was expansive both spatialially and tonally. Saints Row attempts to emulate this with its own licensed music but the songs chosen neither have the iconic appeal of the Vice City or perfectly synch with the world like San Andreas. Whilst it is nice to have nearly a hundred songs on the soundtrack it would be even better to have at least one song worth listening to.

Despite some ridiculous difficulty spikes (something else borrowed from Grand Theft Auto ) the game maintains a giddy sense of fun and grandeur. It is a game not meant to be taken seriously and as such the missions tend to focus more on wanton destruction than anything else. Gunplay is fast and frenetic, enemies are everywhere and explosions are numerous. At its heart Saints Row is a deeply silly game, it’s a game where you can unlock gold plated pistols and shotguns concealed inside walking sticks. It’s a game that has missions involving chasing an armoured lorry down a highway, or mounting an assault on a jet as it taxis through an airport. It is a game meant to be bold and brash and bright wearing the clothes of a game made famous for its cool, detached and ironic stylisation.

Viva Pinata

Criteria: Despite the pedigree of Rare, its very own TV show and the fact it was one of the few games on the 360 which didn’t involve shooting people in the face Viva Pinata just didn’t sell well at all and was never really adopted by the gaming community despite overwhelmingly positive reviews.

The Game: Rare are probably best known for their endeavours as a second party developer for Nintendo. Certainly the games spawned whilst they were bound to the N64 were all fantastic pieces of design, a lot of which followed a specific template. Banjo Kazooie, Diddy Kong Racing and Starfox Adventures all followed a similar design ethos in that they retooled one of Nintendo’s own games with their own characters and level design. Banjo was an approximation of Mario 64, Diddy Kong Racing was Mario Kart with monkeys and Starfox was an infuriatingly uneven homage to the Zelda series.

When they were bought up by Microsoft this process had to come to an end. Rare would drag their feet whilst working on games for the Xbox, eventually creating the short and uninspiring Grabbed by the Ghoulies and porting over N64 game Conkers Bad Fur Day. Of course by this point the original developing staff at Rare had haemorrhaged, David Doak setting up his own production company Free Radical with existing Rare staff had drained the company of a lot of its talent base.

Cute but deadly

Surprisingly Rare were first out of the gate with the launch of the Xbox 360. Renowned for dragging their feet the developer was able to get two games out of the gate for the console’s launch. Unfortunately one of the games was pretty banal and the other was a sequel to a popular game that  succeeded in excising everything people had liked about the original game. Rare would only really find their feet a year after the console launch, the release of Viva Piñata marking the first bonafide great game they’d made since the N64.

Viva Piñata was a colourful and bright children’s game, a nurturing simulator not unlike the absurdly popular Harvest Moon series. Launched in tandem with its own cartoon series the game should have been massive, but never really took off the way it should have done. I found my copy of Viva Piñata about four months after it had been released; it was in the Pre-Owned section of my local Gamestation and was being sold for about half the price of everything else there. My copy was not the only one there; an entire shelf was devoted to copies of the game that had been traded in over the first few months.

I was going to speculate that the game failed to catch on because the Xbox 360’s userbase just wasn’t compatible with a bright and colourful game where you raised Piñatas for no discernable reason. Whilst there probably is some truth to this I think the underlying problem for the game was quite simple, it was bastard hard.

Before I continue I’m going to qualify some stuff so you can better understand my position. I’ve been playing games for nearly a decade; I’ve completed countless games through sheer determination and patience. In particular I’ve devoted far too much time to various shades of RTS and Resource Management games. Settlers have been settled, Commanders have been conquered, Civilization has been civilised and giant stompy robots have been Totally Annihilated. But apparently all of this time orchestrating ever growing war machines and constantly diversifying civilizations was for naught, my attempts at leadership thwarted time and again by a game which had its own tie in cartoon on Saturday morning TV.

Viva Piñata is essentially a community simulator, mixing elements of garden design with a social simulator. I would draw comparisons to Animal Crossing but only if in Animal Crossing Tom Nook had a bit too much to drink and burned all of his neighbours houses down every once in a while. The challenge from the game comes from luring in and looking after the Piñatas that roam around the outskirts of the garden. At first this is easy with critters being attracted to the garden for seemingly innocuous reasons. Soon you’ll be setting up homes and vegetable patches and watching as your community swells. What makes Viva Piñata so uncompromisingly evil is that the game gives you the rope to string yourself up with.

A commonly observed mating ritual in the world of Viva Pinata

Certain Piñata types are mortal enemies and will start fighting as soon as they lay eyes on each other, other Piñata are naturally predatory and will take any opportunity to eat your prized creatures when your back is turned. What this leads to is a constant stream of messages explaining how two piñatas are fighting, one piñata is sick, and your precious bunny rabbit piñata has just been eaten by a snake. There is a sort of lull and chaos dichotomy to the game, moments of calm punctuated by frantic attempts to call in doctors and break up fights before the damage done to both creatures is too extreme.

What this leads to is a need to micromanage every aspect of your gardens and be able to keep track of the situation across several different habitats. Essentially Viva Piñata is a business management simulator dolled up to appeal to children. The demands of the game, its methodology are all strokes of brilliance and defining aspects of a game which is aesthetically for kids.

The Art Of Killing Properly: Halo 3

Posted in Button Bashin', Review, Ruminations with tags , , on March 27, 2008 by Spike Marshall

halo3_002200692510555.jpgNote: This is not a review as such as it is my thoughts on the game in general. It has been written with knowledge of the game as a criteria.

Friends and Firearms

My first experience with the Halo franchise was on New Years Eve of 2001. At the time I was still the proud owner of an N64 and PS1, but my friend had made the first foray into the then next generation of games consoles. I’d be another year until I’d be given my GameCube and another two years until I’d get my PS2 and as such Halo would be my first real showcase of Next Gen power. Me and my friend would ring in the New Year taking on the campaign in co-operative mode, him keen to show off his new console and me keen to play a game that didn’t have the N64’s soft core gauze. We played for seven hours, with only minor pauses for drinks and food, storming through the first half of the campaign until our natural competitiveness forced an impasse of sorts.

You see like most people my closest and dearest friend is a person who would be my mortal nemesis if we hadn’t become friends. This unfortunately leads to an inability to co-operate in any manner, unless the ends truly justify the means. So essentially unless we are working towards an endeavour of pure focused malice we tend to lose our ability to cooperate very quickly. Such was the case with Halo, our initial teamwork quickly descending into farcical fights over who got to use the Rocket Launcher. Over the next few weeks and months I’d slowly pick my way through the game, beating the campaign on Normal and Heroic mode and even dipping my toe in the multiplayer waters. Halo wasn’t a big multiplayer game, Perfect Dark still being preferred for split screen thrills.

27302910-full.jpg

The times I’d attempt to play a Halo Deathmatch against my friend would all end exactly the same way. I’d skulk around for a weapon for a while, my finding of which would coincide exactly with my sudden death at the wheels of a Warthog. Certainly getting run over by a futuristic beach buggy every time I laid eyes on a weapon wasn’t probably the best introduction to Halo’s rich and varied multiplayer, but it would have to do.

By the time Halo 2 was released passion for the series had quelled in my friends house. Timesplitters 2 on the PS2 and Team Fortress on the PC making the game effectively impotent. Whereas Halo had enraptured my entire friends household, his mother, father and sister all having saves to attempt the campaign Halo 2 was largely untouched. Even I only managed to get two thirds of the way through the game before my passion for it was quelled. I would play a few Xbox Live games on various friends’ copies of the game, but I never got particularly into it. My inability to understand the mechanics of the weapons and shield system making my few forays online a brutal experience.

By the time Halo 3 came around I was the nervy owner of an Xbox 360, a console which had been bought for Oblivion then largely ignored until the months leading up to November 2007. BioShock would be the game to get me back into the console and from that point on I’d get drawn into the hype of Halo 3 even purchasing a Gold account so I could attempt to play online. Halo 3 would be a game that I would grow to loathe intensely, and it would also be a game that I would play every night for nearly a month. Only the Orange Box and specifically TF2 freeing me from its pervasive grasp.

It was only after nearly five months of constant play on TF2 that I decided to give the game another go. The five months away from the game confirmed my low opinion of the multiplayer but allowed me to appreciate other elements of the game I’d largely ignored before.

STFU N00B HAL0Z FTW

2782408-full.jpgI’ll make this clear now, when it comes to Halo 3’s multiplayer I’m just downright bad. Tracking my stats online I have a usual kill/death ratio of -5 which effectively means that everytime I don’t kill someone in the game they kill me five times. Through sheer force of will, and the tactic of aligning myself with people who are good at the game, I was able to drag myself up through the ranks. Obtaining a grade of lieutenant which was probably not all that deserved. Back in the day being a lieutenant meant something (the 150 wins and skill rank of 10 required for it generally meaning that it meant you had no social life). Still objectively speaking I could never function in the deathmatch modes.

The main impediment to my killing prowess was the fact that the guns used in multiplayer seem to work less as armaments and more as practical displays of probability. The damage caused by weapons is largely variable in Halo. Sometimes a clip of assault rifle fire will finish off an enemy combatant, sometimes you’ll get a drop on someone shoot them in the back with a full clip and as you’re reloading your opponent will turn around and gun you down with maybe half a clip. The principals of combat are never fully explained in the game, the vagaries of why your shotgun can sometimes kill a foe in one shot and other times requires three or four point blank rounds just to mildly inconvenience them never fully explained.

In comparison to Call of Duty’s one shot kills and Team Fortress 2’s strictly regimented damage system Halo 3 just seemed far too random. With players even walking off rockets to face like it ‘ain’t no thing’ it leaves precision killing to either snipers or brawlers. What this essentially meant was that Halo Deathmatches turned into melee competitions more often than not, with beam swords, hammers and the rifle stocks being used far more than actual ordnance.

27040025-full.jpg

As you progress through the ranks of Halo’s deathmatch you’ll start to notice the effects of the randomised weapons. Early on you’ll be involved in tense firefights and you’ll actually be involved in skilful competition with your opponents. As the ranks go up however you’ll notice the arenas become more and more sparse as traditional Halo tactics are utilised. You see the key to winning in Halo is in ambushes, what this leads to is players rushing to get effective close range weaponry and crouching in corners (so they don’t appear on radar) so they can shoot people as they walk past.

Whilst it is hilarious to watch replays of your opponents skulking around in corridors like a cybernetic Preying Mantis these tactics rob the game of a lot of its fun. When combined with the flakey weaponry it made the deathmatches almost unplayable for me. Of course this problem was compounded by the constant assertion that I was a ‘nigger faggot’ and that I ‘failed at life’ after being shot to pieces by the majority of Halo’s populace. In the world of Halo being brutally insulted isn’t a possibility, it’s an eventuality and it is another element of the game which rears it head in the more straight forwardly misanthropic deathmatches.

Like Mad Max, but without the Mohawks

Halo 3’s multiplayer has a saving grace in its variety. Killing each other only makes up a small section of the game options available, with tactical map variants offering scope for enjoyment for those not truly blessed in the killing arts.

Some of my fondest memories of Halo 3 are based around epic Control Point games on Valhalla. With two teams taking it in turns to capture and defend set control points, and with a full array of vehicles to use, the Control Point games were always the funnest facet of the game for me. They also inspired genuine combat, with people being spurred on to face the enemy instead of being allowed to lurk in the shadows. These objective based maps, especially when played with like minded people, would become the heart and soul of the Halo experience. Halo’s multiplayer in my mind would become defined by the vehicular carnage wrought by these games. Banshees duelling in the sky as down below the teams raced from point to point on Mongooses and Warthogs. Certainly it was all a bit George Miller but the accessibility of the vehicles and their practicality led them to become an integral point of the game experience.

6544406-full.jpgThe only mode to ever challenge the sheer joy of these Control Point games was the awe inspiringly crazy Rocket Races. Rocket Race essentially involves teams of two people (one to drive, one to shoot rockets), dozens of Mongooses, invincibility and a relay of ten checkpoints. It is basically a race, but the fact that you couldn’t be killed combined with the Mongoose’s propensity to shoot off into the air at the slightest provocation would make everything far more Mario Kart than Gran Turismo. Invariably you’d get a sad sack more intent on finishing the race than partaking of the carnage, but most people would be far more interested in the sheer spectacle of propelling futuristic quad bikes across the level with rockets.

Oh God! The Bloom, IT BURNS!

When I got Halo 3 the Single Player was largely an afterthought, I got up to the third mission and just moved onto exclusively playing the multiplayer. What happened was that everything that I had loved about the original Halo, the feeling of discovery, the feeling of being in a large expansive world was stripped away for the first few levels. The openness of the earlier games only coming into effect in two of the nine missions. In particular the first level of Halo 3 is almost hateful in its mechanics forcing you to confront hordes of enemies and ill equipping you for the job. In a mission desperately crying out for a sniper rifle you’re only given one towards the end of the level, at the point in which its theoretical usefulness had already expired.

4120175-full.jpg

The game would gradually improve as the missions went on, kicking into gear from the fourth mission onwards, but its floundering first steps would initially mar the entire campaign. It was only when I picked up the game again that I was able to appreciate how well the campaign had been designed. Previously I had got through to the penultimate mission on my own in heroic, finishing the game on legendary with a few friends on co-op. I’d been rushing to get through the game and as such I failed to appreciate the little touches.

Given a second shot I took my time with the missions and slowly began to appreciate the rhythm and mechanics of each shootout and set piece. Even my earlier gripes with the game were generally dulled by how much the campaign enraptured me on the second play through.

I still found the faux-wackiness of the game to be utterly irritating. The pithy dialogue of your comrades and ironic comedy of your enemies giving the game the feel of a bad Joss Whedon fanfic. It was a game that cribbed from numerous sources without any thought or care, even making one of the main characters a composite of three Carl Weathers characters and Sgt. Apone.

27302233-full.jpgOther problems however became nonexistent as I started to pay attention to the game. Where once I would have criticised the game for its functional graphics and over reliance on eye searing bloom effects, I started to understand what the developers were trying to achieve. The beauty of Halo 3 came across in its minutia, little details only noticeable in the games revolutionary theatre mode. Watching individual shell casings career from your rifle, or watching AI characters work their way through areas of a level you weren’t even in gave a credibility and stability to the world that made me forgive its lack of graphical umph. I could still do without being blinded with each explosion, but generally speaking I grew to love the design ethos of the game.

With its pounding choral score and set piece led design Halo 3 was the equivalent of a summer blockbuster. It was designed to be entertaining and over the top, and that is another area the first few levels faltered. In a game that had aerial assaults on fortified installations, fights against skyscraper sized insectoid battle platforms, and the ability to punch tanks to death the first few levels of skulking around a jungle canopy/military installation just felt lacking. The Halo series operated on shock and awe, grandeur above all else and the claustrophobia of the opening levels almost betrayed this ethos.

I think this disparity between claustrophobia and grandeur is the key dichotomy in play in Halo 3. I’m a fan of the big operatic moments of destruction in the campaign and as such I move towards the grander elements of the multiplayer. Those who like the tense silence and stalking of the first levels will probably find themselves far more comfortable with the deathmatch aspects of the game.