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Reach for the stars

October 18, 2010

Reach, like Band of Brothers for the overstimulated generation.

Conceptually, Halo has grown immeasurably in the last decade. Ostensibly about shooting cartoon aliens in the face with cartoon guns on a cartoon planet, Halo has evolved into some sort of crazy sci-fi tour-de-force with the fate of humankind in the hands of one man. One seven foot tall man with hands of guns of fire, obviously – the Master Chief, an ugly robot man with little or no appeal.

But Halo Reach isn’t about the Chief; it’s about his best mates, Noble Squad. This brave collection of seven-foot tall GM troopers is the last bastion of hope against the Covenant, who happen to be hanging around Reach looking shifty and spoiling for a huge fight. Luckily, Noble Squad likes nothing better than beating up blue aliens.

Reach is a prequel to the whole Halo thing and sets the scene for the main trilogy by depicting the last, desperate stand of a few good men on the doomed planet. By the end of the game, when all is lost, you’re helping the Master Chief escape Reach to … dum, dum duummmmmm… discover Halo itself. It’s a tale drowning in pathos and respect for the Chief, its setting and all the other associated characters. Clearly, Bungie wants you to burst into tears at the end of Reach.

This is so sad. Poor robot.

And that’s all fine, except that Halo is still about shooting cartoon aliens in the face with cartoon guns on a cartoon plant. This whole plot thing just doesn’t feel right, and while the aliens are smart cannon fodder, they are also inescapably bright blue. At times it feels like fighting it out in a Mario level against King Koopa and his cronies. It’s stupid at best and utterly unfathomable at worst. I had no idea what was going on for the most part, and it’s not helped by pretty but poorly directed and acted cut scenes.

Putting all that nonsense aside though and you’re faced with an enjoyably stupid rollercoaster ride. Unlike Infinity Ward, Bungie understands how a good shooter should work and mixes clever pacing and scripting with unpredictable battlegrounds where the outcome is rarely as straightforward as you’d think. This is a good thing and it allows you plan ahead more clearly. If one approach doesn’t work, try something else. CODMODWAR doesn’t get this.

Bungie has also got smarter with the art direction in Halo: Reach so you’re not always fighting it out across the Mushroom Kingdom. The cities are stunning, as are the military bases and some outdoor areas are larger and more dramatic than in previous Halo titles. It all looks higher resolution too, making the whole cartoon thing more palatable for an audience with CODMODWAR on the brain. There’s even a pretty decent attempt at a space battle that, although short, sounds and looks brilliant. I’d like some more of that please Bungie.

The multiplayer is OK too, especially firefight (survive as long as you can against increasingly tough waves of enemies) but none of it is particularly original. There are also loads of fat teenagers playing it, so I’d probably stick to the single player if I were you.

Thankfully given that this is Bungie’s Halo swansong, this is by far the best Halo game. For those of us that abandoned the series way back in 2004, it’s probably time to come back to it. As long as you ignore the terrible cut scenes and just get down to some cartoon blasting, it’s a purchase well worth making and easily one of the best console shooters out there at the moment.

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Don’t believe the hype?

October 17, 2010

An iPhone 4. YOU WANT IT. ADMIT IT

You’ll hate me for it, but I’ve owned an iPhone since summer 2009. Originally, I wanted to use it purely for looking cool – which worked, I can’t go anywhere without people commenting on how awesome I look – but in recent months I’ve been using it to play games on.

That’s a bit weird, not only do I look cool – but I look cool playing games. When was the last time anyone said that about a Wii? And it works too. In recent days I’ve played on Worms, Sonic 1, 2 and 4 and a brilliant – if short adaptation – of Mirror’s Edge. These are AAA games made by AAA developers, and all on a phone, a freaking phone. Ten years ago you’d have laughed at me and then mocked my Nokia.

But does this make it a genuine competitor – and a genuine innovator – in a market already filled with noise?

The easy answer is yes, the iPhone (and the iPad and iPod Touch) is no less a ‘console’ than the Xbox, Playstation and portable companions the DSi and PSP. Surely if it plays games, then it must be considered a gaming device?

It even has a successful (perhaps worryingly so) distribution system that can be accessed almost anywhere: iTunes and the AppStore. These tools allow users to plug in, pay and play any game on the AppStore whenever they can be arsed.

The games aren’t bad either. Albeit a bit on the short side, Mirror’s Edge is a smart, pretty and slick piece of gaming that’s addictive and entertaining, everything a good game should be. Using the iPhone’s multi-touch screen as an input device, you have a range of control options available to guide Faith across the six or so levels. It feels oddly immersive for such a simple system, like games used to…

It’s the same story with the spiky blue hedgehog who feels more at home here than he has done for the last decade and a half. Sonic 1, 2 and 4 all control well and look good here, and – thanks in part (again) to the control system – feel fresh and new.

Of course, it’s not all good news. The iPhone and iPod are still multi-purpose gadgets, not wholesale gaming devices, meaning that no-one really wants to part with more than £3-4 for a game. And rightly so, content wise, the games above have limitations. Sonic, for example, is ancient in gaming terms and despite being rather good, it’s hard not to see it as anything other than a retro blast. The same is true of Worms, Doom, Sim City and a whole host of other games. These are pre-millennium titles. To pay more than £3 for any of those seems a bit ridiculous.

Consequently, there’s a booming trade in 59p games. Doodle Jump, Angry Birds, Motocross X, all 59p and range between addictive and crap. Admittedly, 59p isn’t much for a couple of hours of gaming, but it underlines the restrictive nature of Apple’s toys.

So should you buy an iPod, Phone or Pad to game with? Well… no. It’s hard not to be wooed by these fancy pieces of kit, but they’re not for us types. Not if you want to game properly. There might be some gems – Mirror’s Edge and Plants Vs Zombies for example, but these are available (and better) elsewhere.

So the next time you see someone squinting at their fancy iPhone while trying to play Farmville, snort in derision, they’re not real gamers.

Cinemania

March 1, 2010

Sam gets down "to business"

Increasingly, games – particularly first-person-shooters – are guilty of using two words: Realistic and Cinematic. They’re kinda paradoxical in many ways, but used often nevertheless. Case in point: Far Cry 2, a great, albeit flawed shooter that trades on both its cinematic values and realistic combat. Of course, it fails somewhat at both, being neither cinematic nor realistic. But it trades on them all the same. Picking holes in realism is pretty easy. How can a game, for example, possibly be ‘realistic’ if it asks you to fix every single engine ever made with a short twist of a magically appearing screw driver? Only a mini-game would be less stupid. Cinematic meanwhile, is less easy to fault.

The obvious contender is – as always – Call of Duty, a game that actually requires fairly little input to look impressive. Take away the mighty graphics and the noise, you’ve got a game of very little brain. This must be ‘cinematic’. It’s big, dumb and (mostly) fun, but what started with scripted sequences in games like Half Life and Gunman more than ten years ago has been stretched and stretched until you’re left with games that have six hours of gameplay and two hours of ‘cinematic’ mission briefings. Like blockbuster action movies, these games confuse cinematic intentions with real depth, but while ‘real depth’ in a movie means character, narrative, script and so on, in a game it means gameplay.

Rather nicely, this brings me on to Serious Sam HD (HD means High Definition, fact fans), which has recently been re-released both on PC and via the Xbox Live Arcade. It is splendid, and it’s splendid because it reminds of everything that used to be good about first person shooters. SSHD doesn’t claim to be ‘cinematic’ or ‘realistic’, it is a game, and it makes no bones about it. Whereas Half Life says, “How can we make this bridge explode realistically”, Serious Sam laughs and blows it up by throwing angry exploding skeleton horses at it. When Bioshock asks, “What separates a man from a slave”, Serious Sam guffaws and fights hordes of men with exploding hands. Yes, there’s a theme here, and the theme is blowing shit up.

It’s twitch gaming at its utter best – a form of gaming that died out with Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament – and it doesn’t care. The irony is that had this been released at the turn of the last decade, it would have been panned as stupid and backwards, but now that all we ever get is ‘cinematic’ and sodding ‘realism”, it’s like breathing pure oxygen. Just don’t have too much, right?

Guess who’s back?

February 19, 2010

What, you may ask have the Romans ever done for us? Well, for me, very little. But the British discovered mathematics, literature and Islam. The French discovered industry, the Americans the internet and the Romans? Well, they discovered horses, bloody horses. They did build the Eiffel Tower though.

This nonsense means one thing though. Civilisation is BACK.

EDR & The Kings of the Decade – Part Two

January 29, 2010

Here it is then, the final piece of the jigsaw. But before I begin, I need to flag up those games that fell before us; the games that so nearly made it in, but just fell short of expectations. The games that caused me some sleepless nights (or not) include the brilliant Okami, Ico (mentioned before), Morrowind, Baldur’s Gate 2, Pyschonauts, and World of Goo. Then there’s the games I wished could have been better; Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, Fable 2, Oblivion, Doom 3 and The Sims 2. To those games, I raise this mug of tea… but, for me at least, Game of the Decade can only go to…

Voltaire leant his views to Deus Ex. That's how important this game was. He liked the shooting bits the most.

Deus Ex!!!!!1LOL!

I can say, and have said, a lot about Deus Ex because there’s a lot to say about it. It’s an enigma wrapped in a conspiracy draped in a blanket of shooting people in the face, and it is wonderful in every way. Even now, when I cast my mind back to the opening level – the one that takes place on Liberty Island – it sends shivers down my spine. Up until that point my experience with shooters had been shoot first, don’t bother asking questions, and my experience with RPGs had been dark corridors and trap spells – not that either was ever a problem. With Deus Ex however, the game had changed.

Less than a minute into the game you’re presented with a benign choice, but one that proves that Deus Ex is serious about changing your perception of gaming: What weapon will you choose? Gun, stun rod, or rocket launcher.

Born and raised on a diet of double-barrelled shotguns and the BFG, I opted for the rocket launcher and failed. Quickly. But – and this is crucial – just because I chose the rocket launcher didn’t mean I was wrong to do so, I just wasn’t good enough. I like to think that someone somewhere did pick it and survived to tell the tale, and that was a founding belief of Deus Ex, that choice – however minor – was what defined ‘gaming’.

This hybridisation of Deus Ex is fundamentally what makes it my game of the decade. No other game has done so much for – or has had quite such an influence on – the industry. By this I don’t mean the carbon-copying we saw as a result of Doom, Half Life and Grand Theft Auto, but through the cross-pollination of different gaming styles. If we’d not had a Doom, we wouldn’t have seen Serious Sam. If we’d not had Half Life, we wouldn’t have seen Far Cry. But if we’d not have seen Deus Ex, we wouldn’t have seen Morrowind, Mass Effect, Dawn of War, or any other number of phenomenal games. Deus Ex was that important.

It was also smartly designed, and even now – nearly ten years later – the levels still manage to convey a sense of futuristic claustrophobia unmatched by any other game of its type. Each location, whether it’s New York’s underbelly, Honk Kong’s business district or a Parisian suburb, feels like a living, breathing – albeit coughing and spluttering – place. It was in this respect a very convincing game, and one that was recognisably ‘of it’s time.’

In saying ‘of it’s time’, what I mean is that Deus Ex was probably the first game to ever mirror the sort of fin de siècle seen in literature. Augmented reality, nutty AI, nanotechnology, and synthesised viruses tapped into a sense of post-millennium paranoia and growing disenchantment with western political systems. It was surprisingly mature and well-realised in this respect, gaming was no-longer genre-led, action-orientated, childish nonsense; it was a cultural keystone.

So there we are. Deus Ex is one of two EDR Games of the Decade, and it damn-well deserves to be here. If you’ve not played it, and I’d be surprised if you haven’t (and think you’re a stupid durr-brain), then get it now. It’s awesome.

EDR & the best games of the decade. Part VIII

January 22, 2010

The excitement is growing – even the FTSE 100 leapt up by some points and stuff earlier today when I leaked an early version of the below to The Financial Times – and we’re getting closer and closer to the last two Games of the Decade. It’s too much to bear, but damn it, we won’t rest until every game has been revealed. Up next is…

"Let's be fwends." "No. I'm going to stab you in the eye."

Shadow of the Colossus!

My very-nearly-the-best-game-of-the-decade is a beautiful game and the first – and last – game on my list to feature solely on the Playstation 2. Shadow of the Colossus is both a stand out title and, weirdly, one that seems oft forgotten despite its brilliance. In truth, SOC probably didn’t really do anything radical, but it’s how it did it that mattered.

Essentially a mixture of action and platforming, SOC was a close companion to Ico (also very good) and a recognisably Japanese game. Your avatar was Wander, aptly named because it was your job to roam a forbidden land seeking out sixteen colossi with the intention of destroying them to bring a young girl, Mono, back to life. Deceptively simple, both in terms of plot and structure, the game was astonishingly touching.

Your role in the game world is never truly clear. Your goal may be to revive Mono, a no doubt honourable thing, but it’s never explained quite why you’re doing this. Is it because of lost love? Is it guilt? Is there something darker lurking beneath the surface? In any other game, this could be passed off as a poorly written script, but in SOC, it’s more subversive.

The sixteen colossi (what a great word, by the way), for example, are completely innocent. They’re beautiful, magnificent and endangered beasts that pose no real threat to you or to the world. And yet you destroy them. Considering that Wander’s own motives aren’t clear, this task seems senseless and is compounded further when your own trusty steed, Agro, sacrifices herself to save your life. It’s one of the saddest moments in gaming, and comes as complete surprise given the relative lack of exposition on offer.

In truth, to play SOC isn’t to play anything particularly revolutionary. The controls are well implemented and the style of play is imaginative, but it can’t compete with Prince of Persia or Assassin’s Creed for sheer joy of control. Not that this is a problem, its more than competent at holding its own against more expensive games, and the sheer scale of the world is a real surprise – especially when you realise that this is a Playstation 2 game.

SOC is a rare gem in a quarry of gravel and is so close to being my absolute game of the decade it even surprised me, but it really shouldn’t do. It’s a mature, confident and very nearly perfect. If you’ve not played it, you’re missing out. Big time.

That’s Entertainment

January 21, 2010

Just Cause 2 is likely to be bonkers. Looks pretty too.

We’re taking a (hopefully) short break from gazing endlessly into the past just to bring you a quick look into the future – or at least into 2010, any further would be crazy talk.

The next year is set to be more of the same, that is to say, great. 2010 is chock-a-block with cracking titles that could prove to be pretty trailblazing for the future and – even better – it all begins in January.

As Paul pointed out last week, Mass Effect 2 is out at the end of the month and could prove to be a monster hit. If I’m completely honest, Bioware’s enormously ambitious space opera hasn’t quite delivered. The story and characters have been decent enough, but the choices are largely redundant (at the moment) and the control system a little cumbersome. But the signs are good. Bioware has been talking up the changes they’ve made to the way the game plays, and that could be crucial; Mass Effect was surprisingly old-fashioned when it came to the combat sequences and was – at times at least – difficult to enjoy. If they can crack the control system though, this could be an early contender for game of the year.

In early February, Bioshock 2 should arrive and will probably sell like hot cakes, if those hot cakes are called Call of Duty Modern Warfare Cakes, and with good reason too; the first game was one of the highlights of the last half-decade. But while it’ll sell – there’s no doubt there – commentators are concerned that the developers are removing stuff that actually worked in the first game. Why, for example, has the excellent hacking system been replaced by a ‘real-time’ system? And why have the musical announcements from ammo dispensers or Gene Banks been abandoned? Tiny changes like that can ruin a game. There was even a piece in Rupert Murdoch’s hateful IGN last week that warned that in the first few hours, the developers used a particular lighting trick on three separate occasions. That’s not good; but expect a review on this very website as soon as one of us can be arsed to buy a copy.

Good news next: Call of Duty is back (probably)! Infinity Ward are unlikely to be on the case this year though, rumours suggest they’re busy trying to find a bank large enough to house their money, but Treyarch are. This is likely to mean that we’re not going to be seeing a Modern Warfare title (technically these titles aren’t “Call of Duty” related), so it’ll be at some point in the past. At a guess, it’ll be Vietnam because World War II titles are seriously running out of steam. Traditionally, Vietnam games are terrible so EDR doesn’t hold out much hope this’ll be any good, but it’ll sell well. Meanwhile, in EA towers, the Medal of Honour team is following Infinity Ward’s lead with the re-launch of that once-hallowed title. This could turn out to be a reasonably good thing, while MW2 was just a series of cinematic vignettes; the Medal of Honour games have always been less sugar coated. It takes place in modern Afghanistan so it needs to be handled sensitively. Fingers crossed then.

We should also be expecting Max Payne 3 and Alan Wake to hit the PC and consoles. The former was always going to turn up and looks like it might be pretty good – Max is now addicted to painkillers, which is awesome – and the latter is looking interesting, but no one has seen enough of it to comment. Our guess: Max Payne 3 appears first.

Massive money maker Halo also returns this year (again) with Halo: Reach, which is a continuation of Halo lore and takes place on the aforementioned planet. There’s quite a bit of information of this and apparently it’s good, but EDR refuses to get excited about endless sequels unless it’s Aliens Vs Predator, which does look splendid.

If you’re a Wii fan, this year could be pretty good because EDR favourite, Super Mario Galaxy is back and promises to be very good indeed, but it may also be worth watching out for Red Steel 2 because it might finally deliver the first-person goods.

In our view, RPGs are going to be dominated by three names, Mass Effect 2, Fable 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. We know the Fable 3 will probably be a key title for Microsoft’s new Project Natal system and will likely appear at the end of the year, but Fall Out: New Vegas is likely to be expanded upon and will dominate the airwaves for a while. EDR can also brazenly state that an Elder Scrolls MMO will be announced this year, although it won’t appear until 2011 at the very earliest.

Talking of MMOs, 2010 could be an interesting year seeing at 2009 wasn’t. First up is APB – something we’ve mentioned before – which promises to mix GTA with Crackdown and add a sprinkling of user-generated content. It’s completely mad, but the levels of game customisation could prove to be a winning formula and could even see the generation of entire sub-games like some sort of crazy Escher painting. Alternatively, Lego: Universe could stamp all over it when it comes to user generated content. The last game could be the Game of the Year if done properly.

WOW is back too, this time with Cataclysm. Not my cup of tea, but it does sound absolutely fascinating. Completely destroying the game and then brining it roaring back to life? That’s one way to recycle, I suppose.

No doubt 2010 will also see a lot of strategy developers talk up “doing something different” and then just do the same thing endlessly. This year keep an eye out for Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight, Supreme Commander 2 and Starcraft 2, none of which will do anything different. Napoleon: Total War will be out by Christmas though, and that features short, angry French men. What could possibly go wrong?

Deep breath now – let’s all keep an eye out for Just Cause 2, Epic Mickey (although it’s looking a bit pants), Super Mario Galaxy 2, Crackdown 2, Heavy Rain, Mafia 2 and Red Dead Redemption – especially that last one, it could be the first truly awesome Wild West game. They all promise a lot and many of them could deliver.

Finally, what won’t be appearing? Well, EDR’s crystal ball says that we’re unlikely to hear from Rage this year because now that Bethesda own Id, it’s just too similar to the current crop of apocalyptic shooters – including Fallout. That’s a shame; Rage was looking like Id had finally got their mojo back, but that’s the way with corporate take-overs.

And what about Valve, eh? We wouldn’t be surprised to see that lot show up with something worth waiting for.

Anyway, have a good year everyone.