Categories
PS3

Far Cry 3 (PS3)

Far Cry 3 PS3 cover
Far Cry 3 cover, with surprisingly relatable poster boy Vaas. The protagonist is hidden in the sand, which speaks volumes of his stage charisma.

What is Far Cry? It is Ubisoft’s open world shooter series where you also explore a wilderness setting while having freeform firefights in the first person. First (2004) it was an unbearably pretty tropical paradise with thematically nonsensical, design-wise questionable content. Then (2008) it was an immersive, compelling depiction of war-torn Africa with hypnotic, if flawed systems powering a feverish descent into madness. And now (2012) it’s back to the tropical paradise.

On the surface, they’ve gone back and done a better job with just about everything they established in the previous games. The first game was too reined in, hinting at a larger world – now it’s wide open, with a textbook open world. The second game had a lot of very neatly intertwining systems with sometimes questionable execution, and those are now all refined to something very close to perfection. Both previous games have thematically been about a clash of Western values and worldview with a feral world, and here Ubisoft dives deep into the theme.

Or rather, pretends it does. The theme is a good place to start discussing Far Cry 3’s merits and issues. When you first load up the game, you’re presented with an animated butterfly icon as a loading symbol. It takes you a second to realize the image is formed from gun silhouettes, which also animate between various guns. Perhaps you see it the other way around, first making out the guns, but immediately it feels like the game is trying too much. The sensation continues on to the minimalist title screen with its distorted close-ups of different dudes and vaguely threatening electronica. It’s like the game is telling you that shit is going to get crazy. You sigh and cringe and press start.

You’re then presented with a cast of seriously obnoxious young Californians partying in a paradise archipelago. It’s like the opening of Dead Island without the softening effect of that game’s obviously B values, seriously off writing and over-acting, and interesting narrative. It’s hard to tell how much of the bad taste in your mouth is intentional. Being a generous kind of guy, I assume it’s wholly intentional and you are supposed to hate these idiots. It then turns out you’ve been captured by an insane pirate and his crew and whereas less worthy hostages are tortured and killed, you’re going to be held for ransom. The crazy pirate Vaas is immediately likeable and manages to make you pay attention until the college jock douchebags start talking again. You’re imprisoned with your brother and you’re both so worthless, you completely wish them ill.

Your privileged white youth is then thrust, whimpering, into a bloody escape from the pirates. Once out, you’re free to do what you want on the Rook Islands. You are immediately transformed into jungle superman, only falling back on your airhead days whenever you open your mouth, which is mercifully rare.

The supposedly profound contrast between the sad protagonist’s sheltered life and his new life as a noble savage wannabe (and I mean that in exactly the offensive manner) in the islands never works. To the developer’s credit, most of the time they’re not even trying to get you to care, but when they do, it’s cringe-inducingly bad. The only good bit is the hero’s weak stomach for the animal-skinning he’s doing all the time – his retching and expletive-laden distaste for the job never gets old.

Where the original game didn’t really bother exploring its everyman hero’s psyche, that was never a problem as all the development (or lack of it) happened in the player’s head. Here they’re trying to let you know how you should feel, and unfortunately that tends to be “would you shut up, please, nobody is listening”.

The problem is not at all what you’re doing. What you’re doing is awesome, in many ways a perfect distillation of what’s been best in the series. Far Cry 3, like Far Cry 2 before it, is great at making you tell stories. I fell in love with it the time I was hiding in the bush, out of ammo and limping back to a safe place, mortally afraid of the animal sounds around me as I was in no condition to ward off an angry tiger (or dog, for that matter) (let’s face it, a pig would’ve done me in), when I could hear a jeep closing in. There was nowhere to hide as I had foolishly wandered into the open. The jeep spotted me, slowing down, with the pirates shouting at me, climbing out, brandishing their AKs. That’s when the tiger leaped from the bushes where it had been following me, tackling both pirates. Blinking once, I ran toward safety and left the melee behind. That sort of stuff happens all the time, the various factions and mechanics colliding in unpredictable ways, and it’s sublime every time.

Far Cry 3 has almost all the great systems from the previous game, and they’re all working perfectly in unison here. You don’t get the interesting buddy rescue system, but pretty much everything else is here. You’re liberating outposts, except now they become manned by your guys. When you remove the pirate threat from an area, the islanders take over in a believable fashion, with civilian life thriving and patrols making sure no more pirates sneak in. As changing open worlds go, it’s surprisingly easy to buy into the fiction and it’s very gratifying to see your actions having such visible effect in the world.

Stealth is now both fun and functional, and my preferred way of taking out outposts John Rambo style is so much fun it’s hard to stop doing it, emerging unseen from the bush to stab someone in the neck, dragging their bodies into hiding, then proceeding to a tin roof to jump down on somebody else. It makes you feel like the hunter you’re supposed to be becoming in the narrative, with your magical tattoos.

Firefights feel more like a game of survival than before. Playing on “Warrior” (I guess “hard”) difficulty, enemies go down in a shot or two, and if you’re ever caught without cover, you’re basically done for immediately. It feels like the way the game was meant to be played. With inventory space and ammunition in short supply, you have to be careful and it increases the intensity and weight of consequences satisfyingly.

The thrill of checking out your map for the next thing to do never gets old. You want to do everything, because most of it is a lot of fun. (The driving bits are not fun, but they’re just about passable, too.) It’s like you’re in a tropical boys’ adventure Disneyland, except with guns, and you’re being ushered from this one thing to the next fun thing, typically almost within line of sight. All that’s missing are water slides down the mountains, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was one masquerading as a waterfall somewhere.

The game never cares about real world limits when there is a more fun option available. You can always fast travel to any of the unlocked outposts, all friendly buildings come with utterly ridiculous gun vending machines (which handily also buy your bloody animal skins and pirate knick-knacks) and there are lots of mini-missions available that are structured like arcade challenges; you’re transported to a custom level, given a set of weapons and asked to kill as many enemies as you can within the time limit, complete with exploding blue barrels of plus ten seconds. It breaks the already fragile fiction in an astoundingly straightforward manner, and the game is all the better for it.

It is all delicious fun, then, but it’s also completely at odds with what the narrative is trying to do. Some of the issues are on a mechanical level. You have a crafting system that’s supposed to make you feel like a jungle warrior in the making, but in practice you only harvest healing herbs for a couple of hours before unlocking an unlimited “heal for free” button that doesn’t require medicine.

You’re made to traverse the land and look for interesting stuff on the map, but the downside is that there is nothing else of interest going on. It’s a big, pretty world where everything is marked on the map for you. Where in Far Cry 2 you hoped for more stuff to do while wandering its epic empty stages, here you’re drowning in stuff to do but the world is just never that interesting.

And then, inevitably, you get to the really bad stuff. Continuing the positive, awkward Disneyland reference from before – imagine walking into Disneyland and instead of being able to head for one of the attractions you want to check out, you are assaulted by a couple of dudes who get up in your face, screaming at you about all the possibilities you’ve got in the park. This continues for fifteen minutes, the dudes highlighting every attraction and option until they are sure you have zoned out, leaving you covered in spit. You have no idea what they said after the fact, and you wish you could just punch them in the face and leave you be to figure it out. This is the experience of starting to play Far Cry 3 and it’s very bad indeed. For a game about exploration and discovering your own self, it is hysterical about not letting you take one step without guidance.

Thankfully you can go into the options and turn off pretty much all of the bullshit instructions you don’t want to deal with. The game becomes immensely better the moment you do. Everything is so user-friendly and so clearly signposted, you have zero chance of not figuring out how it all works on your own anyway.

The biggest issue with the presentation isn’t something you can bypass. A lot of the game happens in the menus and the menus don’t even try to maintain immersion. Far Cry 2 is still a shining example of how to do in-world orienteering and pretty much everything else, as well, but Far Cry 3 is content with chucking you out to spend some time in abstract blue screens every couple of minutes, whether it’s stocking up on ammunition, customizing weapons, organizing your loot or crafting stuff. Your immersion and buy-in into the world is broken every time. At least the menu experience is as smooth as everything else, going out of its way to make sure you get your stuff done efficiently and with all the information you might want.

Whereas the most offensive presentation migraine can be fixed, the technical side of things can’t. For the most part the game is pretty in the way a modern PC FPS with graphical options turned way down can be. Quite frequently, it’s shitty. They have some very questionable ambient occlusion going on that should’ve just been turned off, often resulting in comical stencil-style outlines for all characters. I could deal with the looks if it wasn’t for the framerate. Passable when you’re on your own, it plummets to at worst single digits in big fights or surrounded by lots of stuff – which is “all the time” you’re not in the jungle on your own. The performance is so disappointing I’m probably going to buy the game again on the PC one day. All told, visually it’s just not as nice as Far Cry 2 was on the PS3, no matter how enticing the tropical setting is. You never shake the feeling of being in a purposefully built tropical theme park, where the predecessor’s Africa was something you could get lost in and enjoy every moment of it.

It’s a really great game, an open world crammed full of fun stuff, with only good and fun mechanics powering it – if you take it as a game. If you start paying attention, like it sometimes – meekly – wants you to, it all becomes incoherent and borderline offensive. Which makes for an interesting game at the worst of times.

Categories
Games PC PS3 Xbox 360

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.

Verdict: THREE OF FIVE BURNOUTS

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.

Verdict: FIVE OF FIVE BURNOUTS

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.

Verdict: FOUR OF FIVE BURNOUTS

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.

Verdict: THREE OF FIVE BURNOUTS

Categories
PS3

Vanquish (PS3)

Vanquish (PS3) cover art
Vanquish. This sliding is what you do in the game pretty much all the time, even if the the actual in-game position is more outrageous.

I thought Vanquish was the most impressive game at E3 2010, and promptly forgot about it for the following years. I only got into it thanks to it being featured as a free title on PlayStation Plus. Turns out my initial impressions were right, and also that they are somewhat worrying in today’s videogame market.

Vanquish really is an impressive game. On purely the level of spectacle, the audiovisual show on offer is top shelf. This easily stands up to something like Halo and Gears Of War as action entertainment. Indeed, as an action title, it is in very rare company as an impeccably designed skill game.

Vanquish is like I imagined the videogames of the future would be, as a child pounding away obsessively at his Commodore 128D. If you take a game like Turrican (1990) and just keep upping the graphical fidelity and control scheme, what you end up with is Vanquish. It is a demanding, relentless game that presents itself as a challenge. You are required to learn how it plays and use all the tricks it gives you to overcome what it throws at you. As another wave of killer robots advances on you, you can almost hear the game’s director, the esteemed Shinji Mikami asking “are you having fun yet?”.

Unlike something like Gears, the enemies don’t much change, but the pacing keeps things refreshing. Nothing gets in the way of playing the game, which is really welcome in today’s overly hand-holding gaming space. From the opening camera pan to the initial menu selections, Vanquish throws you into the deep end and asks you to swim. Pauses in the fighting are not drawn-out affairs – Marcus Fenix walking slowly with your hand to your ear, I’m looking at you – but quick breaks to merely tell you that you’ve survived the challenge and are going to enter the next one in a few seconds. The second the action ends, the hero lights up and asks “where do I go next?”. There is no pretension of character drama and only the lightest of facades that suffices for motivation. It is the EVIL WALRUS STOLE YOUR FRIENDS of the modern age. RUSSIAN ROBOTS ON RAMPAGE, go make a mess.

The setting and cast are glorious. You are a DARPA prototype test man attacking a Russian robot force that’s taken over a colony cylinder in Earth space. As settings go, it is a triumph: it’s believable, huge yet easy to understand and ready to be blown to bits. Its off-white hues delineate everything in easy to process shapes and channels. As a game space, it shines. You accept ever more ridiculous robot bosses rising from its depths at face value. It is the tightly edited 1980s action movie in a world of bloated blockbusters more concerned with being “entertainment” and “value” than being out and out spectacular games. You don’t need anything but the lone hero against an army of killer robots. Just keep upping the tempo and the speed and things will sort themselves.

Gameplay is of the “take a formula that works and tweak one single thing” school of design. You’re basically playing a cover shooter in the vein of Gears Of War, but instead of the impossible to direct, protein-powered charge-through-anything-in-your-way style “roadie run” to move between cover, you get… entirely reckless ankle rockets.

Press L2 to boost and the hero drops on his knees, leans back and rockets forward. It’s reminiscent of water slides and snowboarding and skating, except at stupid speeds. The boosting is so much fun you do it all the time, even if only to move a couple of meters. This joy of movement is further evoked by your dodge move which is a flamboyant somersault. When you’re out of rocket juice, what you do is somersault all over the place, more often than not under heavy rocket fire. It’s glorious, and what happens is you never just walk or run around. Getting around becomes the lizard-brain satisfying activity, not shooting. You laugh at outmaneuvering your foes at rocket speed and (rocket) punching them in the face instead of lining up shots.

If I were to criticize something, the weapons are not very interesting or satisfying. There’s some joy in figuring out how they work, but nothing really compares to rocket punching guys up into the air.

Vanquish is an excellent game and we should cherish it. I can’t help but think that games like it are becoming more elusive by the year.

Categories
culture Games PS3

Narrative and context: Thomas Was Alone/Catherine double feature (PS3)

Thomas Was Alone
Thomas Was Alone

THOMAS WAS ALONE (PS3)

Thomas Was Alone is a simple puzzle platformer in which you switch control between different shapes and sizes of moving rectangles to navigate through a side-scrolling maze. It’s one of the most important narrative achievements in games.

The power of abstraction is not to be dismissed. If you pay attention to it, I guarantee that Thomas Was Alone is going to make you care about a square in under five minutes.

It wouldn’t work without the brilliant narration and the leagues above average writing. It wouldn’t work without the music. But most interestingly, Thomas Was Alone wouldn’t work if those rectangles were anything else, or if they represented something else.

It would be exceedingly difficult and expensive to make this exact same story work with a higher fidelity graphical represenation. You could envision that, because the story of these blocks is indeed so universal and human that it’s easy to imagine it in another setting. But actually making that version would be nigh impossible. Because it’s so simple, nothing is contradicting with the way you interpret it.

A big part of why the story is so effective is that it dares to be about simple emotions. Being alone, coveting the girl, wanting to find your own place, looking good in the eyes of others, being useful. These are the things we reflect ourselves in and through. The stories we tell and consume should be about these things. And videogames so very rarely are.

I am not a fan of the puzzle platformer style of gameplay. I think it’s okay, but I couldn’t really tell, because I just don’t care about it. It’s something I go through because I want to hang out with these rectangles, but I wouldn’t do it for any other reason. That said, for this specific game, for these rectangles and the story we’re telling together, it’s perfect.

Thomas Was Alone is a videogame single that makes you think about a time you’ve lost and the people you’ve grown up with.

Catherine
Catherine

CATHERINE (PS3)

Where Thomas Was Alone is about real people, represented by rectangles, Catherine is about a movie rendition of real people, represented by you.

It places a lot of trust in counting on you being able to relate to its protagonist, a software developer in his early 30s, scared to death of having to grow up and take responsibility of his life, and the life of his long-time girlfriend. These are the stories of real people, told through the medium of videogames. You may not have had Vincent’s exact dilemma, but surely if you’re beyond your early 30s, you’ve gone through something like it.

Catherine is brave for making a videogame out of the anxiety to grow up in today’s society. It dresses it in just enough make-up and costumes to not make it too banal, presenting itself as a cheap late-night TV show, something along the lines of Twilight Zone or Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark.

After my first session with the game, I was frustrated by the actual gameplay of surviving Vincent’s nightly nightmares by climbing a crumbling tower made of blocks you move around to scale. It’s surprisingly difficult for me. I grew so frustrated I had to give up, never making it past the second night and thus barely out of the story’s introduction. While thematically there’s some point to what the nightmares are about – Vincent’s anxiety – in purely mechanical terms they have absolutely nothing to do with the narrative’s pull and tension. It feels needless and in the way.

At the same time, the other interaction on offer is replying – or not – to text messages you’re getting while sitting in the bar at night. Writing the text messages line by line from multiple options perfectly captures the feeling of replying to sensitive communiques. This part of the gameplay is utterly captivating.

Categories
PS3

Sleeping Dogs (PS3)

Sleeping Dogs
Sleeping Dogs box art is striking, bold in its black and white comic book look.

I’m not a fan of the open world gameplay and worlds popularised by the GTA series. That’s what I tell myself, and here I am, enjoying the hell out of Sleeping Dogs, which is basically a by the numbers GTA clone. What’s going on here?

In terms of structure and what you do, the games are nigh identical. You exist in the criminal underworld of a major city, drive around, do missions which involve beating up guys and driving, and look for hidden stuff in the open sandbox. But where I’m frustrated by GTA’s lack of direction, here I find it liberating.

There’s three major components in play.

One: where GTA is obsessed with American culture, Sleeping Dogs puts you in Hong Kong. I‘ve never been to Hong Kong, but I feel like I know the city. I’ve watched movies and especially played roleplaying games set in Hong Kong – Feng Shui’s HK movie fantasies are what first got me interested in the city and come to think of it, Asian culture in general. Being a life-long game master, I’ve gone through hundreds of articles, books, image collections and travel guides, getting as close to the city as I can without setting my foot there.

Now, the city depicted here doesn’t feel as accurate or brilliantly realized as the New York of GTA IV does. But that’s not needed because it manages to convey a feeling that is unlike a Western city. Seeing the familiar names on the map, taking in the street ambiance, I feel like I’m a tourist in the city I always imagined. I’m eager to see what’s behind the corner and to learn the lay of the land.

I imagine I would be infinitely more into GTA IV if I was more into New York, but that city just never interested me in the same way. Virtual tourism is a powerful force, but only if you want to be there.

Two: Sleeping Dogs is a good game, whichever part of it you want to look at. The driving, shooting and especially fighting has always been dodgy in GTA, and here all of it works. The fighting is so good that I actually go out of my way to look for fights with hostile gang members. Their kung fu system is good enough to put you in the pants of Bruce Lee or Jet Li, ruthlessly putting down gangsters. It’s never a pushover, though, as you need to be careful with the wrestlers and the rare foe with a weapon.

Something as simple as working controls is a huge thing in my enjoyment of a game and here Sleeping Dogs does everything right. It just feels good to play, at all times. Missions are never frustrating (so far) and checkpoints are sensibly placed.

Three: the storytelling works because it’s about what you do. Whereas in GTA IV you have to lie to yourself to preserve the fiction while the gameplay undermines it, here what you do feeds straight into the fiction. You are a martial arts (movie) star who just beats up bad guys and shows off. You are an undercover cop with conflicting motives.

The theme of being an undercover cop in Hong Kong is very powerful. The game doesn’t do a lot with it, but what’s here is enough to make me care. You’re doing missions for both the police and the gangsters, but also for the general public, as part of your image of a liked martial arts hero (and gangster). Just this double role brings a welcome tension to the drama. Bringing criminals to justice is new in this type of game. The relationship between the public and the gangsters is interesting.

The fantasy of being a martial arts movie hero is also very powerful, reinforced by the martial arts school plotlines.

It’s all strongly backed up by being in Hong Kong. You don’t handle guns all that much – I encountered my first gun some ten hours into the game, and even hand-held weapons are rare. Handling things with fists and generally just not killing people all the time feels fresh and helps preserve the fiction.

CONCLUSION

So even though everything you do here is stuff I’ve done in other open world city sandboxes, here they work because the theme speaks to me, because the mechanics support the storytelling and vice-cersa, because they’ve differentiated by making you a (potentially) good guy, and because they’ve done their core job of delivering a good playing experience much better than might be expected. You don’t need a ton of new tricks, you just need your own voice.

If you take away the love for Hong Kong, if you disregard the power of the themes, you would still have to say that it’s better than GTA at many of the core things.

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PC PS3 Xbox 360

Ridge Racer Unbounded

Ridge Racer Unbounded screenshot
My favorite screenshot. I knew we had nailed the look at this point.

I’ve been working in the games industry for four years now at Bugbear and on the last day of March, my first game was released for the PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360 and the Windows PC. It’s a re-imagination of the fabled Ridge Racer series called Ridge Racer Unbounded.

Having finished the final product a couple of times now, I can breath easy and say I’m happy with it. I’m certainly happy with the critical reception – basically all of the media I care for liked it, which is so much better than I was hoping for, years ago, thinking about the critical reception of my first commercial game. Although there’s always a lot of things you want to do better, I have no regrets. And in creating entertainment, that’s really the standard we should go for.

I worked as a lead producer, among other things responsible for giving the game and the team a face and a voice. I thoroughly enjoyed the touring, meeting the fans and the doubters and hopefully converting quite a few of them to our side.

When we first set on creating the game, I had this image in my mind of how I’d like the final product to play and feel, and it’s just like I imagined. I did not work in a creative director role, but a game is more than any single person. Everyone who puts their heart into it does mold it in their image. I feel like it’s my game. So there’s those hard to master, larger than life drifts with blazing light trails, there’s a flaming wreck flying just over you in every single race, there’s more gas explosions than you can wish for. And if it all brings to mind Burnout 3: Takedown? Being the best car game ever published, I’m just fine with it.

Making games is awesome. Releasing them is better.

Categories
PS3

Dark Souls (PS3)

Dark Souls (PS3) cover
Dark Souls

I had to have Dark Souls on the PlayStation 3 instead of Xbox 360 because of the free multiplayer. (I gave up on Xbox Live Gold due to over a year of not using it.) This is surprising considering that there is little direct playing together with other people going on. I’ve played for over 30 hours and had one invasion where another player enters your game with intent to kill. Aside from that, I’ve had other people helping out with boss encounters a couple of times.

Dark Souls is an oppressive game, but don’t believe the marketing: it’s not as difficult to approach as Demon’s Souls.

Part of it is due to the world structure. It is a big open world without loading, and from the beginning, you can go in so many places. Many of them are insurmountable until you’ve gained a lot more experience. As you find how places relate to each other and find shortcuts, you gain a mastery over the virtual world that you never reached in the previous game. It feels like drawing back curtains to reveal new sets.

The other thing is that the game is just not as difficult as Demon’s Souls. The checkpoint system (bonfires) give you a fair bit of freedom to control what happens when you die. The health system with the health potions which refill automatically upon death makes things a lot less grind-y.

Still, the atmosphere is one of being alone against a very hostile world and its hellish denizes. Even if you’re not playing with the other people all that much – aside from being invaded sometimes and summoning help with the bosses at times – you really appreciate the knowledge of being connected, sometimes seeing ghosts of other players resting at the same bonfires you are. The otherworldly messages can be very helpful, too. It’s dangerous to go alone.

I would have perhaps expected From to make playing together between friends easier in the sequel. No such development is evident and although I sympathize with the internet crowd’s frustration over this, I get it: being able to effectively co-op would destroy the game’s mood.

But the reason Dark Souls is the most social game in years for me is that its lack of hand-holding and instructions, even with key game mechanics, forces you to talk to other players. You go on the forums and you talk to your colleagues, figuring out how to proceed, because you don’t really have an alternative. Conquering this game alone, back before the internet, would’ve been a Herculean task. I don’t feel like I’m cheating when I go on a Dark Souls wiki – to me it feels like the way the game was meant to be played. It’s a gauntlet thrown down (lovingly) by From, and we take it up as a community.

Categories
PC PS3 PSP roleplaying tabletop games Xbox 360

Games of the year 2010

Heavy Rain

As usual, I’ve missed out on several “game of the year” candidates in 2010, only getting to them some time later, if ever. These include Red Dead Redemption (which I will get), Mass Effect 2 (will play), the new Call Of Duty (was it Black Ops in 2010? Not interested), Civilization V (not interested, never was into Civ beyond the original), Minecraft (probably won’t play, too time-consuming), Starcraft 2 (not my kind of game), Super Mario Galaxy 2 (the original was enough for me and I don’t have a Wii). Regardless, here’s the stuff that stood out for me over the past 12 months.

Games actually released in 2010

Heavy Rain – Is it possible to make an “adventure game” without any videogame logic entering the scenario? People solving problems by talking and making decisions, not finding and using objects? I have been wondering about this since I played my firs’t King’s Quest and it’s turned out that yes, it is. It’s also possible to make a videogame thriller without any fantasy elements. It’s also possible to make a videogame sex scene that I did not smirk at and a plot that I actually cared about on a personal level. I can’t wait to see the next game like this. I’ve been pimping this to folks and dragging them over to our home just to play this game, it’s that good.

Peace Walker – Delivering on the PSP promise of bringing big screen entertainment into my palm and actually being the best game of the huge series, in all respects but name “Metal Gear Solid 5”. Peace Walker wins its big screen big brothers in plot, storytelling, mechanics and fun hands down, not even stumbling on controls. If you’re into MGS, you need to get a PSP for this game alone.

Alan Wake – Mature action adventure with a psychological bent that does a better job than Heavy Rain in remembering it’s a videogame and isn’t any smaller for it. Alan Wake uses its North-West US setting to a great effect and lays its plot with master class writing and editing. You get the sense they’ve cut a lot and there’s a much bigger world than what you get to experience out there. Indeed, some of what’s going on elsewhere and with other people in the city is more intriguing than Alan’s story. Shame about the mechanics becoming a bit stale towards the end, but the story beats are worth your attention all the way through. Also, best forests and darkness ever.

Halo: Reach – The first Halo sequel to capture the energy and emotion of the original, effectively turning back time a decade, except with today’s production values and technology. The storytelling is surprisingly good, the other Spartans you’re running with a great bunch, and the drama of the situation carries you on a tidal wave to the bitter end. A fitting, moving ending to the space saga of today’s kids, growing up without Star Wars.

Rock Band 3 – That Harmonix can keep improving on their already unconquerable game is awe-inspiring and exciting. The keyboard adds substantially to the game, making you learn an entirely new skill, and the Pro mode (drums, guitar and keyboard) is the logical conclusion to the journey myself and thousands of others began with the original Rock Band. I’ve picked up a real guitar since, but that doesn’t put a lid on my enthusiasm for a good Rock Band party.

Dawn Of War II – The Chaos Rising expansion was released in 2010, so I guess this counts. A bold re-imagination of the hero powered RTS, using the license in a fitting manner, Dawn Of War II dares to jump sideways from its roots, making a computerized Warhammer 40K a thing of its own, and not a schizophrenic imitation of the tabletop original. I never would have imagined a leveling and looting formula would fit 40K, but it does, and with a fearsome grip on my attention.

Neptune’s Pride – It’s a sign of the times that a free to play browser game would enter an end of the year list. Neptune’s Pride strips strategy and tactics down to their skeletons and diplomacy is but a clumsy inbox. The game is changed because all of the mathematics are transparent – there is no random element whatsoever and the only second-guessing you’re doing is what lies beyond your sensor range and what are your neighbors thinking. The whole game ends up taking place inside that inbox, with nervous checks during the day to see how the real-time but glacially slow space war is going. My office game ended with guys wanting to not play again because it was too exhausting. I’m on my fourth game now, the game open in a tab right now as I’m typing this. (It looks like I might win for the first time.)

Older titles I only got around to in 2010

Gratuitous Space Battles – Released perhaps some time last year, I’m not sure? A unique blend of tactics, design and passive watching, it’s smart TV for gamers. If you’re into gratuitous space battles, you need to play this game.

Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition – All the way from 2008 and I’ve been interested in it ever since, but only got to playing it late last year. The combat centric, mechanically very definite gameplay just works. It’s realizing what I feel D&D always tried to do, which is only logical considering the game’s wargame roots in the seventies. A more surprising change is taking on videogames face-on, characters full of color and fantastic powers, energy beams flying every which way in a fight. It’ll be interesting to see how it translates to an actual videogame.

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PC PS2 PS3 Xbox 360

From the trenches

Gratuitous Space Battles

I’ve been playing quite a bit lately, but nothing in the lot has really ignited me enough to write about it. It does feel like a shame to not at least note down what these games are, if only for the fact that they’re worth playing.

007 Blood Stone

Bizarre’s possibly last game is a great Bond experience. It falls short of being a great game, if you take out the Bond trappings – actors, writers, plot, and the best action sequences from the past two movies. But those trappings are there and you know you love them if you’re playing this game in the first place. I enjoyed my two nights with this game a lot, even though it is rather skinny and even though the driving sequences never shed their trial and error design. A rental, then.

Need For Speed Hot Pursuit

Despite making driving games for a living, I never could get into driving online. It’s such a merciless affair. If you’re not at the top of your game, you’re driving alone and feeling miserable, and if you’re at the top of your game, you’re feeling miserable because the others are not playing along. It’s so easy to spoil the experience for others. Criterion makes Hot Pursuit a close-knit team sport – cops versus racers, contact very much encouraged, a scenario you get immediately. It just works. This is very much the current-gen Burnout I was left wanting in Paradise.

I canceled my Xbox Live Gold account late last year ago due to simply not playing anything online. This is the first game that makes me regret that. Luckily I can always get it for the PS3.

Dawn Of War II

I don’t like real-time strategy. That strikes me as odd when I think about my love for Ground Control, Company Of Heroes, Homeworld and Total War. It’s the old school I can’t stand – Starcraft, Warcraft, Command & Conquer and, yes, Dawn Of War. I’m such a Warhammer geek that I really tried to love the original Dawn Of War, but I couldn’t get past its genre tropes.

Dawn Of War II blows those tropes off their hinges with its carefree marriage of action RPG loot and leveling with RTS mechanics. Its streamlining of the futuristic war machine into just four squads at a time works well, allowing you to concentrate on just one screen’s worth of information at a time, effectively micro-managing your squads. The RPG elements make you intimately familiar with those squads. The plot I couldn’t care about, but my commanders I love.

The Last Stand co-op mode is the only RTS multiplayer mode I’ve played more than once.

Gratuitous Space Battles

I keep coming back to this game whenever I want to play something for under half an hour. You build your space fleet, give it commands and then just watch what happens. It is a thoughtful process as you encounter new scenarios and try to figure out which changes to your so far successful design would see you through.

The new campaign mode adds a lot of challenge and complexity, which I’m not sure I actually like yet. The human authored fleets you’re fighting against seem to be decidedly above my level so far.

Final Fantasy XII

I will finish this jewel of a game. It keeps getting better, the story captivating in its maturity, the mechanics flawless and still deepening, the world breathtaking. If you haven’t played it, it’s worth getting a PS2 for. The visuals absolutely stand up to the best today has to offer despite being last-gen.

Bayonetta

I’m not sure what I think about Bayonetta. I want to love it, but it’s a bit much and I didn’t finish it. Maybe I’m just getting old, my fingers unable to take the beating for more than one level at a time.

Categories
DS PC PS3 PSP Xbox 360

What I’ve been playing this summer (part II)

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer
Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer
Brütal Legend
Brütal Legend

Alan Wake (Xbox 360)

Alan Wake finally came out and for me, it was well worth the wait. Top of the line storytelling all through, with unparalleled pacing and cinematic conventions. Great setting, great writing, great characters and good gameplay. It could have used a bit more variety in the combat mechanics towards the end, but aside from that, this is one of the best adventures I’ve been on in years. One of the setpieces is an instant classic (the farm fields), and the other scenes don’t fare much worse. They have clearly cut all the fat and only kept the very best parts. Remedy are really the masters in what they do. Must play, if you have a 360.

I’ve recently been replaying Max Payne 2, and everything that’s great about Wake is evident there. It may be hard to recall what an ambitious step in storytelling the sequel to Max Payne was, despite a short development time. If you’re thinking about a revisit, for a seven-year old game, on the PC it has stood up graphically amazingly well.

Dead Or Alive 4 (Xbox 360)

I initially disliked (whoah, four years already!) DOA4 because the computer is super hard. But this time I stuck to my guns and learned how to play it. It’s easily the best title in the series, in every way an evolution. I’ve been playing single player and grown to not be frustrated with the CPU. My wife has become rather proficient in it, as well, usually soundly beating me. (I think I’m thinking too much.)

I’ve also played some online, but that’s just harsh. The guys still online are way too hardcore for me.

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer (Nintendo DS)

All the way from 1995, this DS port of a 15-year old SNES game just sucks me in. It’s a graphical, less complex roguelike, which does not make it the slightest bit forgiving. A really hardcore experience, you’re supposed to perish dozens if not hundreds of times before making it to the end. Every time you die, you start from the beginning, although if you’re clever, you can carry over some of the stuff you’ve accumulated in your previous adventures. The narrow scope with lots of depth makes it very compulsive to play.

Soul Calibur Broken Destiny (PSP)

Still a great game. Both the fighting and the character building are fun and really at home on the PSP. If you have a PSP and like fighters at all, I’d say it’s a must have, even if you don’t have anyone to play it with locally.

Brütal Legend (PS3)

Tim Schafer’s heavy metal tribute is built for guys of my age (born in late 70s). I can’t help but smile! Right from the start menu, you’re in a world of metal, and it feels good. The writing is very good, often laugh out loud funny, and very well acted. The gameplay works, although it isn’t anything really special. If you’re into metal, you need this game.