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Looking for Burnout

Burnout 3: Takedown cover (PS2, EU)
Burnout 3: Takedown. It’s the first console game I bought on launch day, at full price. (Actually, still the only one.)

The best car/ driving/ racing/ speeding/ adrenaline/ wheels game of all time is Burnout 3: Takedown (2004, PS2, Xbox). Its impeccably crafted highways that demand excessive speed or you feel like you’re doing them a disservice, its kilometer-long drifts, its picture-perfect scenery blazing by, its blink-and-you’re-gone, laughter-inducing crashes with cars flying hundreds of meters into the air – it is the perfection of the arcade racer form. The other contestants (Ridge Racer, OutRun) are good in some things, but they can’t offer the breadth and depth and generosity of Burnout 3. It’s perfect. I’ve completed it three times. My favorite game industry geek-out moments have been those spent working and hanging out with guys who crafted it.

I’ve been looking for a replacement ever since. I even made a game in the same vein (Ridge Racer Unbounded, 2012, PS3, X360, PC). While as I wasn’t in a creative lead position, I put everything I had towards recreating the sensation I had when playing Burnout 3. You could call it my personal tribute. But regardless of how we did, since it’s my own game, it can never be a replacement for the original for me.

What has the studio behind Burnout 3, Criterion, been up to since and how does their later output compare to the classic? With the recent news of Criterion now downsized to just 16 people with the majority of the former team now comprising Ghost UK (working on Need For Speed: Rivals under their Sweden based parent studio), it is a good time to review what became of the ultimate arcade racer.

EXHIBIT A: Burnout: Revenge

A direct sequel to Burnout 3, Burnout: Revenge (2005, PS2, Xbox, X360) just does not scratch the same itch. Revenge is of the louder, faster school of sequel development and in Burnout’s case, they went too far. It was always supposed to be over the top, but it becomes so far removed from the notion of speeding in a car on a highway with its vehicular pinball and dark color palette, you start wondering if they played the same Burnout.

The level design has become muddy and you spend too much time afraid, not looking forward to the next moment. Lots of satisfied grins, yes, and I did complete it, but it never made me smile.


EXHIBIT B: Burnout Paradise

Burnout Paradise (2008, PS3, X360, PC) is these days widely considered the best entry in the series, even if it never reached accolades quite as high as Burnout 3. The shift to an open world is initially bewildering. They let you free to go anywhere, but it can easily feel like you’re lost and wandering aimlessly. For a long time I couldn’t get on with the design and felt abandoned on its lifeless streets and it’s easy to start stressing about the approaching turns and racing with more attention paid to the map than the utterly lethal traffic. But if you just trust the game to lead you to great fun and experiences you want anyway, it works.

The level design is masterclass, again. While the city is wide open to explore, just about anywhere you might want to head means you’re on an expertly crafted race track that just happens to weave in and out of countless other race tracks. The city isn’t very believable, but then that’s not the point. It’s an oversize motorized playground for having fun with cars. The decision to have all events end at one of the eight corners of Paradise City means that you get a grip on its layout far better than in any other open world racer.

It only stumbles when you find yourself far away on the mountains at the end of a race with no quick way to get back to the more fruitful intersections of downtown, and any time you want to change your car – the trip to the junkyard to pick up a new ride feels just obnoxious.

Out of all the games they’ve done since, Paradise best captures the carefree, feel-good atmosphere and arcade-perfect, fast and delicate handling of Burnout 3.


EXHIBIT C: Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010)

Criterion was no longer working on Burnout, with EA now focusing on Need For Speed, Criterion appointed to helm the series. They released two NFS games: Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010) and Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2012). Can the Burnout I seek be found here?

It’s interesting that they’ve chosen to go back to old titles and themes with the new games. I’ve been conceptualizing action driving games for the past five years and I know it’s difficult to come up with relatable, understandable themes in that context. Cops and robbers is pretty much the only one with enough built-in drama and wide appeal to make sense, so it’s no wonder EA has doubled down on it. Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted are both cops and robbers speeding on highways, but they’re very different games and that’s not just because the latter is an open-world game and the former isn’t.

Hot Pursuit (2010, PS3, X360, PC) takes one half of the Burnout promise – the endless highways in majestic landscapes – and adds police chases to it. It is an alternative take on Burnout 3. What you do is the same, high-speed racing on closed tracks in larger than life environments, now with added weather and night time, but two major things make this a different experience – plus obviously the whole cops and robbers mechanic, which could work very well with Burnout, too.

One, the introduction of real life cars. You might argue that speeding and crashing real cars is preferable to doing the same in make-believe cars, but I would say you’re wrong. The real life branding makes the whole game taste faintly of marketing and mundane fantasizing about unattainable objects of desire, whereas all I want to do is scream down a highway, head-first, daring myself to not let go of the boost button. That has nothing to do with real life. Assembling a fleet of real life supercars is very appealing, but it takes away from the Burnout dream.

Two, a very different handling model. I really like the handling in Hot Pursuit, but the remarkably heavy steering and drifting makes this something antithetical to the arcade esthetic. There’s heft to it that does feel good, but just doesn’t fit the arcade vision. Taking out other drivers is also a far too rare, not nearly as guilty pleasure as in Burnout, in part thanks to the severely limited damage simulation.

It’s a beautiful game, often breathtaking, bravely stylized lighting and visual cues making for impeccably readable tracks. While lacking much of the Burnout playfulness, the tracks are still great fun to blast through.


EXHIBIT D: Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2012)

The thing that most baffles me about Most Wanted (2012, PS3, X360, PS Vita) is the presentation. There’s that Mirror’s Edge -esque title and then you’re hit with a parade of James Bond summoning gratuitous event intro movies. They are supremely moody and stylish and entirely pointless. I can’t quite tell what they’re trying to go for, but I’d like much more of that in the game all the same. There’s a moment when it threatens to completely win you over, with a mass of police cars inexplicably assembling a gigantic wheel that chases you as you’re transported as by expensive music video logic on top of shipyard containers and given the wheel. I was really disappointed that wheel didn’t continue chasing me once out of the cutscene.

An open world racer, Most Wanted’s structure is neat. You can change into any car you’ve discovered in the game world instantly, and each car is its own career with events tailored to it, wins netting you upgrades and options for that car. No longer wondering if you’ve got the right car for the event. This basically fixes all that was wrong with Burnout Paradise – no more taxing trips to the junkyard to change your wheels.

But being an open world racer that has level design not on par with Burnout Paradise, the racing part of it… kind of sucks. The world is indeed much more realistic, but that does not make it any more fun. Nobody asked for this map-reading bullshit. It is completely against the notion of a need for speed. One late turn and your race is screwed. Everything that they got right in this respect in Paradise is just missing from here. At least you do get a GPS route drawn on your map, but you’re not warned of approaching exits, nor the routes ever start to make sense to you. There is inconsistent use of big HUD arrows to signal turns – for a long time I thought they didn’t use them at all, until they were suddenly there in one event. Using these in every unclear turn would help the game a lot.

The game world is so beautiful you do forgive a lot. They’ve done a very good job of including pretty much everything that’s neat and enjoyable in urban driving in the US, at least from my experience all over the West Coast. There’s the Seattle tunnels, the Golden Gate, that other bridge in SF… The rural parts aren’t quite as successful, probably because they’ve had to loop everything back into the city within reasonable driving times. But let go of that and man, it can be awfully pretty. Criterion has some of the best and boldest color palettes, effects and lighting around.

As is a big part of a Need For Speed title, the cars are all real, with all the benefits and flaws that implies. Discovering cars that are only available through purchase of DLC is so disappointing that you start to let yourself down before driving up to them. Presumably because of the real world basis, in addition to the sometimes frustrating racing, what really pushes this away from a true Burnout experience is the sad lack of car damage. You’re just not allowed to have fun crashing cars, and that’s at least half of the Burnout fun.

The handling, on the other hand, is a step back towards Burnout. There’s still heft to it, but it is an arcade heft, not without lightness to it. It’s immediately responsive. When you’re retrying speed challenges you’ve just missed, over and over again, you do get back into that good old Burnout 3 hunger, especially since now you can just retry events at any time, regardless of where you are on the map – again, fixed what was wrong in Paradise.

Driving through the gas stations at ridiculous speeds to have your car repaired, nitro refilled and paintjob changed without slowing down feels like Burnout. The problem is that at race event speeds, it is way too hard to read which way you’re supposed to enter, too likely resulting in a crash and a restart.

The roads are sensibly empty during events, with just enough civilian traffic to keep those blind corners tense. Then again, telling the prey-like hostile racers apart from the backlights of utterly lethal civilian vehicles is too hard, and crashing becomes just a sad fail state.

And so it goes – everything that Most Wanted gets right, sometimes enthusiastically so, it fumbles something else, and the end product feels like something that wants to be Burnout Paradise, but isn’t allowed to.



Gone Home (PC)

Gone Home title screen

Gone Home is a game about revisiting a past you can’t really revisit. It feels like when you’re all grown up and you’re standing in the same yard you grew up in and you reach out and almost, but not quite, reach yourself, decades ago.

Gone Home is a game where you arrive home from a year abroad, only to find your house empty. Where is your family? What’s going on? You can’t really talk about the game beyond this without spoiling the experience. It’s only around one hundred minutes long and if you’re at all intrigued, you should play it instead of read about it. I usually consider videogames immune to spoilers as their stories are so often simply not worth caring about, but in this case: spoilers from here on.

Gone Home’s most superficial success lies in its environmental, or world, storytelling. You do not engage in dialogue nor make dramatic choices in the heat of a tense moment. It’s all in the details. What you’re doing is exploring the house and uncovering details, and all that you’re witnessing tells the story. Or stories, plural.

Gone Home’s environmental storytelling is leagues beyond what we’ve become to mean by it. Half-Life 2 was a giant in this playground for a long time, but its splashes of blood and scrawled graffiti now seem trivial in comparison. (That Lambda symbol is still genius, though.) Simply by witnessing their everyday environment, you put together a dramatic, compelling picture of this (your) family and the people involved.

This sort of storytelling means audio recordings. I hate audio recordings. They never work in the fiction and it’s tedious to wait through the “color” bits to get the clues to open the safes and doors. They’re lazy. Gone Home is audio recordings done right. There’s two kinds. One is your sister, Sam, talking to you as if in a letter, at key points during the story. They’re not explained, they just sort of overlay the narrative, much like a movie narrator. It doesn’t make sense, initially, but it’s all brought together beautifully in the end. The second kind is tapes (C-cassettes!) in the game world. Whereas you have to stretch your sense of disbelief a lot in most games to accept the audio messages, unlikely as they are, here they are mixtapes left by one teenager to another. If you ever were a teenager in the 90s, you very likely did this yourself. They don’t contain nonsensical messages, they contain music, reinforcing the story and the time and the place. When you find one, it’s useless before you find a cassette player (which are always at hand). Just this act of taking the object to the player and playing it back grounds it. You’ve done this countless times in the real life, turned a cassette around in your hand to deduce what might be on it and playing it back by pressing a satisfyingly clunky mechanical button on a deck.

To be fair, all the written material, moody and scene-setting as it is, is a bit of a crutch. It’s too conveniently laid out and chronologically ordered, and while the mid-90s explains why they’re writing things down in the first place (instead of typing it on Facebook), this dysfunctional family is really bad at leaving evidence of their doubts and transgressions lying around for anyone to see. But you accept it all for it is a game, after all.

Gone Home has exceptional characters. The family feels like your own and the characters, especially Sam, the protagonist (not you), becomes someone you want to hang out with. Much like a good movie or book, then, but that never happens in games! As the story races to its completion, you start to really care for them and want the best for them. There is genuine worry about their fate, far transcending the horror game tropes the game – misleadingly – starts you on. It is character building without ever meeting the characters. Any game writer should study this as a case of building characters and player interest in them.

Speaking of characters, there is an escalating, deeply personal drama here, without any character interaction or conflict in place. None. Yet it wouldn’t really work as non-interactive fiction, either – the player’s presence and agency is required for the story to work, but puzzlingly his input isn’t required. On paper it doesn’t sound like it should work at all, but it does. The story is completely reliant on the player caring and letting the story take place between the lines, in his own head. That’s a massive leap of faith, really, but one Gone Home works on building up to, all of the way.

The game is essentially only playable once. Its reliance on playing with the player’s expectations veers close to being a gimmick, but arguably just avoids it. They’re trading on the gothic horror cliches and videogame vocabulary to make the player except ghosts and demons – and monsters of a more mundane kind, as well. At the very least you expect a sad outcome – I know I had a suicide in mind at the end – but the emotion they’ve built up in you carries it through. You’re so relieved at the conclusion that you don’t mind the smoke and mirrors. It was all for a good cause, after all – that smile on your lips.

Gone Home does the micro meaning better than any game before it. When Heavy Rain proved that you could make a Hollywood thriller work without all the gunplay and fantasy cliches in a videogame, it was still relying on serial killers and weird dreams. It took you far out of the ordinary. Here the power of the mundane proves far more effective. The sense of place and time are meaningful. You are in this house, inhabited by this family, and it’s taking place in 1995. The world is not filled with incidental details – all the details are there to support the story. It’s a case of game – or rather narrative – design dictating visual design. They evoke the time with powerful details you had no idea you recall anymore, things like how the tape box hinges work and what’s the packaging of various items like. Nirvana and the X-Files on the walls of a teenager’s room.

I was born in 1978 and Gone Home often feels like visiting the houses of my friends in the late 80s and early 90s – and sometimes also like revisiting home. I didn’t know many girls at the time, and the feeling of trespassing on a teenage girl’s territory and thoughts in the game makes a powerful connection to my younger self. I shouldn’t be here, but it’s very interesting. What is Sam thinking about? What drives her? What does she want?

It’s easy to liken Gone Home to a movie, with its grown-up, mundane story with scarce videogame trappings and its length of barely two hours. But this is a game experience and like the best games, it only works as a game. Even though you engage in very few mechanics and you could argue that there are no meaningful choices in the game, it’s all a big meaningful choice. The game doesn’t exist without interacting with you – your youth, your childhood, your teenage hopes, dreams and struggles. If you start to take apart the story or the mechanics, it all unravels. But if you’ve connected with it, like any art, it proves impregnable to corruption or doubt.


Papers, Please (PC)

Papers, Please (PC) gameplay screenshot
The visual style is very effective and strangely affecting.

I’ve been playing Papers, Please. It’s a very intriguing game.

It makes you roleplay a border inspector who mostly worries about his own dreary life. By processing people, stamping them with an “approved” or “denied” stamp on their passport – or by detaining them if they’ve broken the law – you make money. You have to process about ten people per day or your family starts to suffer because you can’t afford rent, heat, food or medicine.

Inspecting papers is a matter of spotting discrepancies in the documents. Just as you master the previous set and become quick enough doing it to feed your family without making mistakes (you’re fined for mistakes), the bureaucracy adds complications. You need to remember what citizen IDs, work permits, visit tickets and so forth look like, and how their official stamps should look like. Doing all that, you also need to cross-reference the passports numbers and names, where it’s not rare to find a single letter that’s a little bit off, or an expiry date long gone by. You’re so immersed in the details that sometimes the obvious pulls one over you; I’ve often forgotten to check gender, height and weight, not to mention the mugshot.

The interface can drive you crazy, but that’s very much the point. You never have enough room to lay everything open conveniently, and that adds to your stress level. But you become better at it. If only it wasn’t for those damn foreigners from that one country that are always subject to “random searches”, which slow you down, you could be a great father. Or all the criminals trying to get in… You normally wouldn’t bother to detain them (as that takes more time and is more stressful to you), but you really need the kickbacks from the guards who are also paid by people processed.

You flip between efficient bureaucrat, desperate father, hopeless citizen and a human being just trying to do his best in a bad situation. Maybe you think you can afford that one citation, because you really feel like this one guy should be let through despite his documents having expired yesterday.

The people coming through your inspection post are not faceless. All of them tell some story, and even as you’re inspecting their papers you have to listen – for one part they may be criminals who might make mistakes in their story, and on the other hand your work is boring and it’s nice to feel like you’re dealing with people. Sometimes, when you’re denying every other applicant and detaining everyone you don’t let through, you pretend they’re not people.

Papers, Please is a great example of telling a story through gameplay, setting, interface and your own feelings. The couple of shortly worded splash screens that set the scene are not cutscenes and you’re not bombarded with dialogue. This is one of the very few games in which you can’t skip the dialogue, because it’s so integral to what you’re doing – all the while telling the story.

It isn’t a fun game, even though you are likely to laugh out loud at some of the characters and interactions. Mostly it feels stressful and somewaht disappointing. But at the same time you do get better at it and you do take pride in being a super efficient official and a dependable father, until something new comes along to spoil everything. Again. It is a very powerful emotional rollercoaster, all without voice acting or screens of text or outwardly emotional content. You are just inspecting papers.

There are a lot of similarities to Cart Life, but Papers, Please is much more approachable and accessible. It doesn’t make you guess as much, and the whole is just more polished. Cart Life is wider in its handling of the human condition, but it asks a lot more of you to get to it.

The creator also has some other intriguing games that I have yet to check out.


Medal Of Honor (PC)

Medal Of Honor (PC) screenshot
Running on mountains with the boys.

EA set to reboot their military shooter series with Medal Of Honor (2010). It didn’t work out to their satisfaction as they’ve now (sensibly) decided to focus on Battlefield as their shooter franchise. As its name implies, Medal Of Honor was always about the heroes of American wars. After its origins in the relatively black and white world of World War II (1999, with Steven Spielberg on board), the wars of today are fought on mountains and in valleys most people would struggle to place on a map, against foes most of us don’t really identify with at all.

I recently re-watched Rambo III (1988) and for all its blatant anti-USSR propaganda, it actually paints the people of Afghanistan and the surrounding regions in a sympathetic, relatable fashion. I haven’t seen Western protagonists having fun with these little understood tribal peoples in any other major movie since.

I’ve shot virtual tribesmen in the hundreds and thousands, though, and I’ve come to associate their language with war grunts and screams of pain, all through our disturbingly warped media about the wars of today. I don’t know if it’s all that different to othering WWII era Germans, really, but it strikes me as much more dangerous because this isn’t history we’re dealing with. This is largely the reason I’ve stopped playing modern military shooters.

Where Call Of Duty is about making as big an action movie out of an imagined war as they can get away with, Medal Of Honor attempts to stay true to its inspiration. On the cover, that inspiration is the so called “Tier 1” special forces units of the United States military, including the household names of “SEAL Team Six” and “Delta”, who operate very deep in hostile territory with little in way of support from their mighty military machine. Later on the game branches out to the Rangers, but the mystique of Tier 1 is very much present all through.

It’s a breed of soldier popular in fiction and non-fiction, operatives who value being able to work alone and sidestep all rules to get the job done, whether it has to do with appropriate clothing and facial hair, official tools or rules of engagement. They are the modern ninja, shadow warriors of which very little is known and much imagined. Ideal videogame subject matter, in other words.

Medal Of Honor (2010) manages to stand apart to a degree by keeping the action small and inconsequential. You’re chasing informants in confusing, poor villages and seizing barely functional airfields, none of which counts towards stopping a major world-threatening plot. You are merely surviving and doing your part in a war. This side of the game is refreshing in its focus.

They could’ve done a much better job of it, though. You don’t get to know these operatives beyond their callsigns, whereas the most impressive and relatable depictions of these men are always in contrast to other soldiers and civilian lives. Instead, you’re given a wholly uninteresting and throwaway story of the operatives Getting The Job Done when men in Washington don’t know better. I guess the problem was that the somewhat believable scenarios didn’t amount to much and the developer, Danger Close, felt that there had to be a bigger story.

The problem isn’t just on the level of themes and storytelling. The gameplay would’ve been better off abandoning the corridor shooter formula, which only really works when you keep thinking of increasingly implausible scenarios, and opting for something a little more open – allowing you to stay more grounded. To date, the best portrayal of special forces operations is the original Ghost Recon (2001).

Medal Of Honor had the opportunity to be a big budget story about people in war. Instead it opts to be a slightly differently flavored, less polished version of Call Of Duty. There is a genuine respect that comes through, but I still feel like it’s doing a disservice to the men it’s depicting.

The operations and all the trappings feel authentic in their banality. The drama is about getting the job done, even if you have no idea how the job matters in any way beyond yourself not dying. This is honest, in a way, but it leads to scenes where you just don’t plain care about the drama they’re pretending to be weaving.

The illusion falls apart because the other operatives treat you as a kid – like the gamer pretending to be one of them. “Rabbit, come here!” “Rabbit, take the shot! Take it! Come on, Rabbit!” And you’re the only one ever hit. You’re refreshingly fragile, but you see the death scene a lot during the campaign. “Rabbit’s down!” is something you’ll grow very used to.

Medal Of Honor (PC) screenshot - player death scene
You’re dead. Again.

It’s hard to understand the callout graphics for headshots that you’re seeing all the time – it’s the most often seen piece of HUD feedback you’re getting during gameplay. Where everything else is doing its best to bring a coherent, somber mood to the proceedings, this detail completely undermines the effort. The lazy PC port doesn’t help things as the HUD elements are ridiculously oversized for PC resolutions.

It would all work a lot better if there was less characterization – not that there’s a lot – and a more of laser focus on the missions. Look at the original Ghost Recon to see how this could’ve been done. Of course that had a much more open structure, but really nothing in Medal Of Honor would be in contradiction with that. They often present things like they weren’t a corridor shoot, but in reality they are. You can see the Frostbite engine chomping at the bit to be let loose when looking over the expansive mountain vistas.


Receiver (PC)

Receiver (PC) screenshot
Receiver doesn’t look like much, but it makes you see things you think you know in a very different light.

I have fired off millions of rounds in games over my gaming life. I have killed some number of virtual people that’s perhaps in the region of one tenth of that.

I have gone to a real life shooting range twice and discovered I’m a pretty good shot with a pistol. I also discovered that the gun is a tool that you need to learn how to safely opeate.

Receiver is a game that brings these two separate things together. Astonishingly, as far as I know it’s the first game to take this approach. It’s simple, more a toy or an experiment than a game, really: you’re given a random gun out of a couple of different models and tasked with finding a set of randomly hidden tapes in a randomly created building. A group of robots are on watch, out to kill you on sight. A single hit kills you and resets your progress. This game part of the whole is not very interesting nor good – the game was created in seven days and this is where it shows.

The point of Receiver isn’t that game. The point is what you’re doing in the game, which is operating a gun. The developer, Wolfire, has gone to unprecedented detail in how the gun is handled and in doing so discovered something profound about our relationship with virtual tools – and, yes, especially our virtual guns.

Instead of hitting “R” to reload a gun, you need to eject the magazine, hold it out, holster your weapon and insert bullets into the magazine one by one. Once done, you manually insert the magazine.

There is a separate button for all of these operations. On your first attempt you’re likely going to just drop the magazine on the floor. The game doesn’t tell you how it all works, you’re supposed to work it out on your own. (It does highlight the sensible options at any moment.)

After minutes of fumbling, you get pretty good at this. You’re going to be unnaturally fast, a virtual gunman, in no time, but it still feels like the real thing – like manipulating a magazine and preparing a gun for firing really feels like. They’ve managed to make a meaningful experience out of that most banal of all videogame activities; the reloading of the gun. Under stress, it’s very difficult indeed to recall how it was all done.

Instead of pointing a cursor at a guy and clicking to kill it, your mouse moves your gun hand (if holding the gun in ready position). You align the target using the gun’s sights and pull the trigger, perhaps hitting your target. It’s often hard to tell if you’ve even hit as there’s a loud report and your gun is jerked upwards and you need to re-orient before firing again. Sometimes a bullet misfires and you have to clear it by pulling back the slide and checking the chamber. All this, too, gets fast with practice.

Interesting things happen when so much attention is paid to operating the gun.

It becomes a meaningful skill. You get enjoyment out of operating the firearm, much like you do in real life. You might argue this is a perverse enjoyment and I wouldn’t object, but it feels profoundly good to get good at something so core to many videogames, but on a much deeper level. Encountering a new gun is interesting as you want to see how it feels to operate it.

The act of shooting becomes deliberate, not automatic. Even after you get good at the act, just because there’s so many steps to it and so much skill involved, you have an understanding of what you’re doing.

The gun itself gains weight. You stop think about it in terms of gameplay value or statistics. Exactly as in real life, you start to think about it as a lethal tool designed to destroy whatever is in front of the barrel. Having the gun makes you feel powerful, but also somewhat scared of that power in your hands.

Receiver makes you think about what else is so automatic in games, yet could be laden with meaning if more attention was paid to it. Receiver actually goes further than just the gun – running is simulated by pressing buttons alternatingly to pound the ground. It feels somewhat like running, unlike just pressing “W” does. (You can’t operate the gun while running.) Might a brawl be somehow simulated in real time using a more involved system than what you see in fighting games? Could sneaking be made more active and skill-based? What about talking?

I would be very interested to see a more fully fleshed game made with this kind of gun manipulation. Learning to operate a gun in Receiver essentially prepares you for shooting a real gun and you could argue it would be a disturbing murder simulator and if they were humans you were shooting, I might agree. Regardless, something like Metro 2033, Stalker or Far Cry 2 would be very interesting with this logically extreme dedication to gun fetishism.


Dishonored (PC)

Dishonored (PC) screenshot
Dishonored (PC). There’s a lot of waiting in shadows. But it’s active waiting, if that makes sense…

I’m sure we will achieve photo-realism one day, but it’s a race I’m not very interested in. (The most interesting bit is whether we can figure out a way around the insane amount of manual detail work required.) It’s rare to be impressed by graphics anymore – even great graphics come as expected these days. When you start to consider games’ relationship to film, things become worrisome. Our biggest budgets are thrown into an effort to emulate film as best as we can, when we are still far from photo-real. Following this curve, returns are diminishing every year as we get closer to photo-real and still merely attempt to do what film has been doing since the advent of color film. Ever since we could capture moving pictures of what’s in front of the camera, movie creators have been thinking about how to stand out from everybody else capturing what’s in front of a camera. For a while it was enough to think of new things to put in front of the camera, and new faces, and scandals and spectacle. But soon they started to think if they could make the visuals more interesting. And while they got a little side-tracked with the advent of high definition and the return of 3D, movies are still very much about establishing their own visual language, quite separate from the reality that’s there as a benefit of the medium. (Big budget movies have the same issue as big budget games, though – playing it too safe to create anything worth any consideration beyond the moment. Orange and teal, set-formula trailers and posters and a very limited cast of accepted faces – none of it is a benefit.)

Dishonored is a relatively big budget first-person game that takes a lot of risks, but the biggest chance it takes is arguably its art. Stepping into it, you’re not looking at an emulation of a photograph. You’ve stepped into a piece of concept art, exactly the expensive, high-end stuff you see covering the printed art books of big budget games. Except for once, that glorious vision built on the merits and goals of visuals alone has not been diluted by a later, conflicting desire to emulate life. Looking at a wall in Dishonored, you’re not looking at a photograph of a wall, palette-shifted to the game’s color tone, you’re looking at a painting of a wall. The same goes with faces and water and skies and wherever you care to look. Every image you frame in-game feels like it was built as a fixed camera point showcasing a beautiful, standout location in the game – except they’re all that good. The level of art direction in this game is so phenomenal, it makes you stop in awe in every corner.

Even though the team has surely known they’ve created something that stands out and is beautiful and effective on every level, they must have had some uncertainty about how it’s going to be received. Because it sure doesn’t look like Call Of Duty or any movie.

The art is not the only risk here. The mental barrier to entry is quite high as the game’s marketing doesn’t really explain what’s going on. There’s an intimidating masked man with a knife, and the title. Some sort of alternative to Assassin’s Creed, then? And indeed it is. Dishonored is a game about being a man capable of assassination, but given the freedom to go about it however he chooses to, including the very real option of not actually killing anyone. Where with most games this comes down to a binary choice, Dishonored builds that core conflict into all of its systems. You’re not encouraged to go either way. Killing tends to be somewhat easier and not killing isn’t really rewarded in any concrete way. There exists a lot of gray between the extremes of not killing anyone and being a murderous bastard, feared by all. Your supposedly more merciful choices carry their own consequences – an early example left me wondering if it wouldn’t have been the more humane, kinder option to just kill them, considering the fate awaiting the men I spared. I was left with clean hands, but not a clean conscience. In terms of storytelling via the player’s own actions, this is unparalleled stuff.

Dishonored (PC) screenshot
If you decide to play it more straightforward or just fail to sneak through, the action works really well, too. Another thing they use effectively is never taking you out of the first person perspective.

Not that the actual gameplay falls short in any way. You’re given a lot of tools and avenues to approach and explore. Where I was left frustrated by the neatly boxed systems of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, here they’re all bouncing happily off each other, creating a believable illusion of a living world. It feels like your choices matter. You own your solution to any situation in the game – it’s not picking one of three choices the game designers have offered you.

It also feels fresh. What you’re doing is a high-speed version of Thief, essentially, skulking in shadows and waiting for your moment to strike unseen, except you’re now given the tools to move very quickly from shadow to shadow and scale tall walls. Nobody has done that Thief experience in a long time and it feels as new as it once did. The new Thief has a lot to match if it hopes to one-up Dishonored in its own game.

A game designer colleague described Dishonored to me as a great game, an honest game. I agree in the sense that Dishonored knows it’s a game, not a story. You’re introduced to all of your tools very quickly and given enough motivation to go on your business. The game’s opening scene, up until the prison escape, is easily my favorite game opening ever. Arkane takes a bit of a gamble, risking losing you in terms of what’s commonly accepted from big budget games, but it all works out like any modern TV drama does: the audience left wondering, wanting to know more is a very powerful tool.

There is actually quite a lot of exposition, but none of it feels forced. I’m genuinely curious to learn more. The secret is that while there’s exposition, you doubt everyone’s word and always get the sense you’re not being told the whole story. Nobody tells you how you should feel. Dishonored knows to leave more out than what it lays out. All of it serves to create a world much bigger than what’s on the screen. If you tell us everything, you can be sure that most of us won’t care. It can never be as interesting as what we imagine.

This would’ve been my game of the year if I had played it last year. The confidence with which Arkane makes a whole out of gameplay, storytelling and new, exciting visuals is intimidating. This feels like the next leap forward from the original Bioshock, a similar game in many ways. I am very excited to see what Arkane does next, hoping dearly it isn’t a sequel.


Metro 2033 (PC)

Metro 2033 screenshot (PC)
I love all the analogue, in-world stuff like the maps, watches, compasses and air-pumps.

I was disappointed by the “scary” action of the FEAR titles – action wise they’re fine but despite a strong scenario they just fail to build any atmosphere to speak of. The problem is that they’re trying to imitate movie techniques and in a videogame that’s not necessarily the most effective route. The movie cliches stand out from the interactive experience and end up as canned cinema sequences where you can flail around like an idiot, with the game designers behind the scenes hoping really hard you’ll look in the right direction to see the scary bit.

If you want to see an example of atmosphere done right, Metro 2033 is your game.

I don’t much like Metro 2033 as a game. The guns feel seriously underpowered, the feel of movement and fighting is just off and everything is clunkier than I’d like. But as an experience, something you plunge into to have an intense ride in a cruel world, it shines. Without using movie techniques, it actually fills the role of a horror movie, except being interactive in a meaningful sense.

The game’s structure is interesting. Instead of being a sandbox (Far Cry) or a linear rollercoaster (FEAR), it’s a bit of both, except cut up into bite-sized vignettes. You go from scene to scene, and the game often judiciously cuts right to the next interesting bit. Games rarely do this well, and it’s a joy to follow along on the ride. The first-person perspective doesn’t mean you should be forced to take every single step and be “immersed” all the time.

Metro doesn’t have a story as much as a world. You’re cast into a world that you perhaps feel like you know – a post-apocalyptic underground complete with comic-book mutants – but that manages to surprise you in every turn. Some of it comes from its details – bullets as currency so you’re effectively firing money at the enemy, constantly running out of gasmask filters, the Russian vibe of the society – but mostly it’s the atmosphere. Being in this world is so oppressive, you’re thankful for the breaks the vignette structure offers. It’s oppressive in a way the ultra-violent fantasy of the Fallout games doesn’t ever reach. I had to stop playing Fallout 3 because I just didn’t want any more of the hopeless grey wasteland, but Metro manages to out-do that in every regard, yet still keep me coming back.

The secret is that its threats are believable and relatable. As a movie analogy, Metro is The Road – it will make anyone quiet and relate, whereas many won’t watch a splatter movie and those that do, enjoy them for the laughs. Where Fallout shocks you with a super-mutant’s super-bag dripping with body parts and gore and eyeballs sailing through clouds of blood in (super) slow motion, Metro has you freezing and choking on polluted air, your breathing heavy and pained in the echoing gasmask you’re wearing most of the time, its cracked glass and scratches a plexiglass you’re thankful is separating you from your immediate surroundings. You’re checking your analogue wristwatch to see how much time you have left before you need to replace your mask’s filters. You’re turning over the bodies of scavengers that you haven’t killed, but who have rather frozen or starved to death on the surface. There is no music to get your blood pumping. It makes you quiet.

And then, when you’re safe, Metro isn’t afraid to make humanity worth something clinging to. When you’re running with the stupidly serious, cookie-cutter soldiers of FEAR, or hanging out with the circus crowd of Fallout, being a clone amidst men doesn’t mean anything. There is nothing to relate to. Metro’s world is one of people: prejudices, injustice, children and parents, tea and vodka and getting by, sharing stories and being afraid of losing it all.

From contrast arises meaning.

Freeware PC roleplaying tabletop games

Card Hunter and digital vs physical gaming

Card Hunter wallpaper
Card Hunter has the best visual design for a game I’ve seen in years.

As a regular reader might know, I play a lot of roleplaying games of the paper-based, face to face variety, as well as other tabletop games. So I pay attention whenever digital games approach this realm.

Obviously tabletop Dungeons & Dragons has had a major effect, inspiring digital games from 1970s onwards, and that inspiration has flowed the other way, too, with the current edition of D&D taking a lot of design cues from digital online RPGs (MMOs). My currently running D&D campaign uses a lot of very structured play – rules – and we spend the majority of our time at the table hunched over a map, pushing miniatures around. It is, essentially, a tactical exercise. If you leave out the human interaction and just hanging out with friends, is this something that could be adequately replicated in a digital game? One might think you could even improve considerably, what with today’s 3D rendering and computers taking care of the number crunching.

There is a very interesting case in point in Card Hunter, the beta of which is currently opening up. It makes an infectious, charming effort to take you by the hand and recreate that 1980s kitchen table where you sat down with your teenage friends to play (A)D&D. Even if you never did, I believe the feel-good warmth of it comes through. If you did, it’s equal parts endearing and maddeningly nostalgic. Those days may never return, but this is probably the closest you’re going to get. Card Hunter goes as far as including a newbie game master that stumbles through explaining the game to you, his more experienced, obnoxious older brother, and a pizza delivery girl the GM has a crush on. The game is presented as laid out on a table, surrounded by dice, cheese puffs and soda cans. The actual game components are cardboard, representing collectible cards and cardboard cutout characters on little plastic stands. I find the aesthetic completely irresistible.

Interestingly, Card Hunter’s approach mirrors what’s been happening in the tabletop roleplaying scene for some years now – a return to the simpler pleasures of hitting monsters with a sword and taking their stuff. There’s been a wave of retro-revival games, some of them very good.

Card Hunter is not roleplaying per se – all you do is fight exquisitely balanced tactical battles. Character development is all about equipping the gear you want, which in turn grant you more cards for that character’s deck. Mechanically, it combines the best elements of tabletop roleplaying by way of Dungeons & Dragons and collectible card games. But what you actually do at the table – fight battles over a grid-based layout, considering positioning and powers – resembles our bi-weekly D&D sessions very closely. It’s missing the real life banter and color you get from the characters’ long histories, loyalties and conflicts, ongoing jokes and drama, but the rules level and tactical space is similar.

Card Hunter screenshot
Card Hunter gameplay.

So does the tabletop experience have anything over the digital adaptation, on a mechanical level? You do get to play faster, and the fights resolve much quicker on the sceen, after all.

Even if you count out the face to face interaction, there are things digital games just can’t do, which turn an hours long tabletop confrontation with monsters into a memorable scene, whereas any given fight tends to be forgettable in a videogame – even if the fighting itself is very enjoyable, as is the case with Card Hunter.

I have a longer post coming up on this – the systemic differences of digital and tabletop games – but it’s interesting to see the differences just on the tactical level: grid and characters and powers. Because a videogame rarely relies on imagination, what you see is what you get. Characters on a grid are just characters on a grid, they aren’t actually just representations of the real game that’s taking place in the shared imagination of the players at the table. There are rules for movement and line of sight, but the digital game can’t adapt to surprising changes. You can’t suddenly bring in elements from above the flat game board or change things – unless, of course, they’ve been planned that way from the beginning. As the intensity ramps up in a tabletop fight, the players get crazy creative, using their powers in surprising ways, trying to find a way past their circumstances. In Card Hunter I must pray for the right combination of cards to get me through my “single hit point left and three foes standing” predicament, whereas in a tabletop game I might run away or improvise with a magic missile, perhaps bringing down the roof to buy some time.

And that element of the unknown is what keeps me coming back to the tabletop experience. Even if things start from an equal setup, a different group of players is always going to shape it into something new.

There are things I believe digital games could add to have a better chance of replicating that tabletop freedom of creative play despite basically quite strict and clear rules. But more on those in that longer post.


Tomb Raider (PC)

Tomb Raider screenshot - title scene
This is my favorite in-game title scene to date.

The main screen makes it look like a B movie, with the blunt, effective, high-contrast, attention-demanding typography and the cheap, brash attitude: lightning strikes on the high tide of a forgotten, foreboding island, with the remains of a shipwreck on the front. I mean that in the best possible sense. It bodes well.

Tomb Raider’s subject matter is entirely “B”: genre fiction that promises adventure and excitement in a straightforward fashion. If it’s dumb, you’re perfectly welcome to say “that’s all right – come on, it’s Tomb Raider!”

Except the game is not “B” in any sense, but pushing the limits of the vaunted triple-A club, with production values through the roof, all without losing a strong emotional connection with the player. As a developer, I’m scared to think of the amount of effort, people, care, risk and money it’s required to create. I can only think of two games that have been as impressive: Uncharted and Arkham Asylum, and neither of them manage this level of intimacy, which just makes me care more. I am there in the jungle with Lara.

Maybe this is just indicative of the place videogames inhabit in the current cultural field and in our lives. It would feel out of place – inappropriate – to expect anything but “B” from the subject matter of a major release, compared to any other sort of mainstream entertainment. But here it becomes a strength, for Tomb Raider owns its subject matter with rare grace and an air of genuinity.

There is a lack of non-interactive sequences. Even unique stuff like this unlucky descent is usually interactive to a degree that it retains the feel that you're in control.
There is a lack of non-interactive sequences. Even unique stuff like this unlucky descent is usually interactive to a degree that it retains the feel that you’re in control.

Things start off weird when you realize that right from the first moments, Tomb Raider makes you care. You care about survival, you care about yourself as Lara, you care about her distress. You came for the popcorn entertainment or perhaps the mystery of Lara Croft, once gaming’s most visible and unattainable female icon, since fallen off-stage, and it’s surprising to realize that the game is working very hard to make sure it gets under your skin between all the death-defying stunts and countless fights.

For a remake of a conceptually thin action adventure series, Tomb Raider packs a lot of emotion and heft to its opening hour. You get why Lara feels bad about herself – it’s not just about survival, it’s also about feeling responsible for the plight of the others. The only place where the writing falls short are the other characters – you just don’t care about them. There’s a problematic scene halfway through the game where you’re supposed to really care for someone else, and even though they do all the right things – make you play the game with him, have him help you out, give him added narrative heft with motives and flaws – it just doesn’t work. Luckily the script knows to focus on Lara, and that works all through.

The game has been accused of exploiting Lara's troubles and physical discomfort. I feel they manage it commendably for the most part... only going overboard with the death sequences.
The game has been accused of exploiting Lara’s troubles and physical discomfort. I feel they manage it commendably for the most part… only going overboard with the death sequences.

Uncharted made its hero look human, dodging fire and leaping around. Tomb Raider takes that and ups it: it makes Lara feel real, someone that’s thrust into a situation she can’t control. With the great sound design and camera work, it’s very immersive. They use the elements to a great effect and the cold and the wet gets to you. Lighting that first campfire to take shelter from the storm feels like a real achievement.

The animation is amazing. Lara is still a videogame hero, defined by her super-human action, but they bring a physicality and plausibility to her that’s just unprecedented. Where many games have attempted an “I’ve never done this kind of thing before” scenario, Tomb Raider pulls it off, even hours and dozens of killed enemies later. It’s like Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard: you buy into the character. You believe in her.

It’s hard to find any reasonable fault with the execution. Even though the game is packed with features, from exploration and scavenging to hunting, they’re all delivered on a level where everything just works, unlike for example Assassin’s Creed III. The design doesn’t miss any beats, only slightly fumbling with a couple of quick time events, but even those are redeemed by master class use of mechanics to make you star in seriously bonkers, seat of your pants sequences where you’re left feeling “holy shit! Did I just do all that? Yes I did!” If only all of the sequences were the same.

There are enough tombs and raiding.
There are enough tombs and raiding.

There is a rare seen confidence in the environmental design. They hold actual puzzles in check without losing the sense of adventure. Moving through the large open hub areas feels like making your own way, not following a prescribed path, even when they pull in the edges to make sure you get to the plot-critical events. It feels like an adventure in a way Uncharted never manages, even for all its flawless writing and pacing. It lets go of the reins just enough for you to feel like being your own master, responsible for your mishaps. In a triumph, all the puzzles are environmental and based on lines of traversal and physics, no antique keys to hunt for.

Even while the game is a triumph in marrying gameplay and narrative, there is a stunning discord in the way violence is displayed. The Indiana Jones style visits to skull-adorned temples and torture chambers, even complete with pools of blood, are perfectly in-genre, and the focus on intimate combat fits the survival theme perfectly with its messy, sloppy, desperate tone. But I can’t see Lara Croft as a character whose final skill unlocks are all vicious executions. The first (and only) time Lara put a shotgun barrel under a stunned enemy’s chin and pulled the trigger, I had no idea what the hell I was playing anymore. In addition to the combat, there are disturbing scenes of Lara dying violently due to the player missing a QTE prompt. It’s baffling, and a shame because due to the excessive violence, I just can’t recommend this to anyone.

Lara goes through quite a transformation in the game, even if it isn't visually as extreme as Batman's or Spec Ops The Line's.
Lara goes through quite a transformation in the game, even if it isn’t visually as extreme as Batman’s or Spec Ops The Line’s.

For all of this generation of gaming consoles, Tomb Raider was an example of a series fallen out of touch with the times. The Uncharted series owes a lot to Tomb Raider, and it utterly outclassed it in every regard. Now the tables have been turned. I’m excited to see both what’s going to be Uncharted’s answer and Lara’s next adventure. Truly a legend reborn.


Alpha Protocol (PC)

Alpha Protocol screenshot (PC)
Alpha Protocol. You will wait behind corners quite a bit. I’m a fan of the surprise attack from the front – if you’re decisive enough, you don’t have to creep up from behind guys to surprise them.

The “Espionage RPG” starts off very clumsy. I expect a lot of people to stop playing before they’re even properly out of the tutorial, because for the first couple of hours all you see is a cheap, not up to par third person action title with dodgy mechanics and unsatisfying, vague interaction. The environments couldn’t be more generic, and even those are delivered inadequately.

But by the time you get to Rome, after the first major plot twist, Alpha Protocol finds its stride and things suddenly become interesting.

I was a big fan of the TV show Alias and at times you reach that sort of experience here – a not quite so glamorous take on James Bond’s antics. At other times it defaults too much on its at best adequate, most often just frustrating action. You will be much happier if you play it with maxed out stealth, martial arts and pistol skills instead of the more aggressive combat skills, because as long as there is no alarm raised, it works well enough. The problems become more evident in heated combat, with the supposed super spy unwilling to get behind cover and unable to land hits despite aiming carefully. Maybe it’s because of that painful and awkward looking “crouch” walk he’s doing all the time.

Crucially, it’s mixed up enough to keep you on your toes. There is a variety and depth to the simple missions. Sometimes all you get is a cutscene with one or two decisions to make, sometimes a multi-level sneaking mission or a drawn out firefight. Sometimes all you do is get in, identify people, and get out – or decide to take someone out since you have the chance.

Compared to most games of this sort – Splinter Cell being perhaps the closest competition – there’s a clarity of purpose and a personal touch to everything. You know why you’re doing things and for the most part you care about it. In most important decisions you’re given a choice, which is impressively often not quite black and white. I don’t think it would really work if you decided to play it for laughs, portraying an utter bastard in all situations, but it manages that Mass Effect sort of approach where your choices feel realistic and in-character.

Alpha Protocol screenshot (PC)
The gigantic TVs in all the safehouses are a bit much.

I’ve been thinking about systems driving drama and narration in games a lot recently and Alpha Protocol does interesting things here, even if they feel like the beginnings of something that could’ve been much more involved. Almost every decision you make affects your relationship with the other characters. For a long time my best relationship was to my nemesis, which is great. I actually care more about what my enemies think of me than what my allies do!

High and low relationships result in a variety of mechanical effects, but the problem with those is that you don’t know when they’re going to be unlocked. The system would work much better if there was a map of everything you could be awarded so you could work towards them, much like the license board in Final Fantasy XII (what can I say, I love everything about that game). It’s still good, because having those effects in place makes the relationships feel more worthwhile, more real. Cause and effect. We understand that.

The network of characters and the options given to you are complex enough to make things that I usually pay zero attention to, like handling in-game email, interesting. You don’t just passively (not) read the email, but you can act on it: sell compromising information to the source, the black market or the press? Be a nice guy, a professional or (justly) defensive? When it works the best, you’re defining your goals on your own, and they’re all based on how you feel about yourself and the other characters. This makes the “RPG” part shine in an unexpected way.

Where the system doesn’t really work is the focus on your inventory. The most concrete awards you get are about your tactical options: active skills and gear. A lot of time and attention has gone to the equipment, but there is no way to make that anything but impersonal. The gear focus means that money is the main means of rewarding you, and that is never interesting. Binding the good stuff to your relationships would’ve been more in-genre and feels like a missed opportunity. The amount of focus you spend on acquiring stuff and finding bags of money and rare kit out on the field can make the missions feel like high-tech D&D dungeons, which isn’t really what I’m looking for in an espionage RPG.

The game design completely drops the ball with the bossfights. I almost lost heart in the museum fight and just altogether gave up. Once you figure out how easy it is to just bide your time until your special abilities have recharged and skill-pump them to death, well, it’s just about bearable as an experience, but it’s neither fun nor challenging. If you’re not confident you know what you’re doing when designing a bossfight, perhaps you shouldn’t. (Since then I’ve upgraded my pistol skill so that later encounters have barely registered, which is I guess fine. I’m okay with being a super-powered super-spy.)

While the writing is for the most part good, there are both interminable de-/briefs – if you lost the “I’m standing in front of the ridiculous TV, chatting to my allies” scenes, it’d be fine – and weird tonal inconsistencies with out of place, sleazy sexual overtones and a particular highlight in an astonishingly juvenile gay joke. A secret agent is supposed to be sexually aggressive, yes, but not dumb.

All told, it’s a “modern-day” D&D  take on Mass Effect, and I’m enjoying it a lot. You could spend your time much worse, even if it looks bland and lazy and plays like a My First Action Game. Except those times when it’s a unique experience that makes you wonder what could’ve been.