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.


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.


Xbox 360

Halo 4 (Xbox 360)

Halo 4 cover
Halo 4 cover. It’s very Halo.

Day 1. Campaign.

This localisation thing is beyond stupid. Forcing Finnish players to use the Finnish text? Really? Fixed by changing your console’s locale to, say, the UK, but come on. It would be a single menu option to change the language used.

Seeing Cortana’s more human features – weird, it feels out of place to see her concerned and sad. Not a fan of all the added detail, especially the face.

From the overblown flares you can tell it’s a new game. Also, looks really good!

Immediately when you start moving you can tell it’s Halo. So comfortable, like well-worn jeans.

Compared to most FPS experiences, Halo feels very human, just thanks to Cortana’s and the Chief’s dialogue. Cortana sounds too emotional, though.

First-person climbing and what amounts to a simple QTE before I get to shoot an alien? What have you done to my Halo? It’s inoffensive, in any case.

Same great Halo combat: no leaning or stopping to aim down the sights. Perfect movement, placement, situational control. Great enemy design. The start is pretty much a retelling of the first game’s opening.

The spaces are obviously created for co-op and bigger amounts of enemies, but that doesn’t bother the single-player exprience. And what arenas they are! Compared to the on-rails shooters of the day, these are nothing short of a revelation. It’s all about finding your lines of movement and adapting to what the enemy is doing – which tends to be not “pop my head out behind cover so you can shoot it”.

Love love love the return to single guns and the proper goddamn Halo bag of guns – magnum, assault rifle, plasma pistol, needler. No weird rifles or scopes to mess around with.

Hard combat! Playing on Heroic, every Elite requires attention.

Halo uses color so much better than other shooters. It conveys a lot of information.

Same great, chunky, cool blues spaceship interior design. But it does look a bit empty these days, you can tell these designs originated in the beginnings of the last generation.

Fighting Covenant on a deteriorating spaceship and then being rewarded with a free-fall into an alien planet without a ship? That’s Halo!

Cortana, weirdly emotional. The plot wouldn't work without it. You get used to it pretty fast. Aren't stories about people changing?
Halo 4 Cortana face

Oh I guess Cortana’s emotional state was part of the plot after all. I’m still struggling with her face. Also boobs. Why does the AI have big boobs? “Don’t make a girl a promise you can’t keep.” I love that. Points for the writer. Also way cool to be fighting for someone for a change, and not “the human race” or whatever.

Christ this crash site looks nice.

Halo AR’s display is the single most comforting piece of UI design in existence. I’m really happy they’ve kept the digital, 8-step compass instead of making it smooth.

Well hello space city fortress thing. Looks like Forerunners, with the levitating skyscrapers. Against nice, Earth blue skies, I like that. Cool way to keep it grounded. And the contrast with the ruins I’m running through currently, nice.

Is that a ruined Warthog? That is a ruined Warthog. Oh man. And INTACT WARTHOGS. OH MAN! Driving the Warthog feels curiously like driving an RC car. Could be the high engine noise.

Goddamn it’s a beautiful Halo, though. I may need to check out that HD remaster after all.

Love it how the aliens have made space roads for me to ride in my cool new Warthog on. Warthogs are still the only driving experience in a shooter that I actually like.

It would be much nicer if someone was operating my Warthog’s gun. Much nicer. Feeling like I’m playing this wrong, solo.

This place we’re fighting in – with the lighting and the colors, it looks like I’m in a piece of concept art.

I thought I was done with shooters, but I could (and will) shoot up the Covenant all day. Part of it is just that it’s great design, both audio-visually and gameplay wise, but the bigger part is I think Halo’s attitude and pacing. It feels considerate, thoughtful, even at its most hectic. I move, you move, that kind of thing. The shooting doesn’t feel violent, in a sense. It’s more like a game you might play as a kid, and a videogame challenge to you, the player. Maybe that’s it – Halo talks to me as a player of its challenges, taking care to present me with new and interesting scenarios all the time.

I never change guns so frequently as in Halo. They’re very good with rationing out the ammunition. Also lots of favorites! I don’t dislike any of them.

It feels more Halo than Halo 2 or 3. Probably because they’ve stuck to the pure design – single guns, no weird armor abilities – well I’ve run into an active camouflage ability since, but I can live with that.

The shield depleted sound is so Halo. Also the slow shield regen rate forces the fighting to take breathers after every intense moment.

Being able to jump high really makes the experience of being Master Chief stand out among other shooters. I can’t help but think that would never make it in, if the original game was conceived now.

What is it with Halo and campaign progress? I never could figure out how to continue Reach except mission by mission – not as a continuous campaign – and this time I walk away from the game in the middle of mission three, almost all the way through, the Xbox powers down at some point, and I lose all progress in the mission. What’s the deal with the “checkpoint saves” if it doesn’t actually let you continue from there? We struggled with this even way back in the original Halo, never able to figure out when it actually saved our progress in the campaign. A stupid thing to get wrong. — Oh, looks like it only saves your progress if you quit to the main menu. How is that logical? Who even “quits” games these days?

“A Star To Steer By”… Finally some classic Halo level names! The original’s names rocked all the way through, really adding to the overall atmosphere and sense of grand space adventure. Those and the ship names, which are Banksian awesome, with obviously “The Pillar Of Autumn” the best.

Day 1. MP.

Taking a break to check out “Infinity” in the main menu, looking for multiplayer. Oh I guess it’s a ship, Infinity. Pretty cool, the Halo ships always ruled. Is this some sort of practice mode? I customize my guy – well, just the colors as everything else is still locked – man it took forever to unlock anything in Reach, I hope this is not quite that slow. Looks like they’ve integrated the MP into the game fiction, so it’s supposedly war games played by the Spartans onboard the UNSC Infinity. A 1.91 GB install that isn’t progressing at exactly lightning speed.

I have played Team Slayer (Deathmatch). It’s fun! I do like it a lot more than something like COD or Battlefield, which are so chaotic. Halo has such clear visuals it’s easy to read. And the action just flows. It’s smooth. Let’s try again.

Okay, that is goddamn distracting. You can be another color (red or blue) in the next match. My brain is totally confused. But the friendlies still read as blue on the HUD! That is so stupid.

You get the hang of that after one match. Still stupid. One victory, one defeat. I did okay in the first game and really sucked in the second one. I do like Halo vehicles in combat.

The framerate can’t always keep up with the fast vehicles in MP.

God I love the catapult teleports, slingshotting you into the fray.

Defeat, but I did good. I leveled, unlocked something. Actually looks like I’m level four already, didn’t notice that before.

Alright, top three, headshots galore. I’m surprisingly handy with a medium-range scoped rifle, generally I’m just lost trying to orient myself through a scope in combat. Also six guys in a row!

This Big Team Infinity Slayer I can get behind.

Okay, the next match’s worst player. I’m done for now, let’s see what I unlocked. Also took this long until some fucking brat started talking nonsense. Oh wait is it Chinese? Now wait what is this, we’re back in the game? And it stopped after one or two kills. Weird.

Alright, level six in one sitting. 21 new items. “Spartan Points”, what is this crap? I can’t see how many points I have. Looks like they open equipment options and guns fast and skimp on the armor visuals, which I have unlocked none of. 14 new armor items, 12 new “Spartan ID” items, which is basically just emblems. I’m a rooster now. I can’t figure out which new armor items I have, since they’re all locked still. Oh, there it is, the number of Spartan Points I got. Two left. That would mean you get around one per level?

Then there’s something called “Spartan Ops” in the Infinity menu. Guess I’ll look at that after the campaign. “Waypoint”, what’s that? This is a serious case of not being able to understand most of what’s going on in the freaking main menu of the game. At least there’s the “resume campaign” option now – it is now that I knew to quit the game and not just turn it off as you do with every other game.

As it’s downloading the Waypoint – whatever it is, it weighs in at 402.40 MB – I think I’m done with Halo for this session. Can’t take a shooter all day long anymore. Got a headache coming on.

Day 2. Campaign.

Oh, new armor ability. A “hardlight” shield. Maybe that’s of more definite use than the active camouflage, which I’m not at all sure actually did anything.


Alright, might’ve been a total of eight times. Good ol’ plasma pistol overcharge to deplete shields, assault rifle rush finally did it.

This whole bridge assault feels like something designed for co-op. Really hard to approach the fortified bastards, hardlight or no. Seriously, flying assholes on top of the army on the bridge? Out of ammo on everything but needlers? Jesus.

Neat how your tactical problems are completely flipped when you’re out of ammo, or have a needler against shielded Jackals, or have no rockets against vehicles.

Well that was a “heroic” fight alright. Sheesh, I’m out of breath, and just crossed one bridge.

Yep, definitely huge, symmetrical arenas for fighting in a big team.

A rushing Elite with an energy sword really blows. Can’t take him out fast enough.

No, seriously. There’s no way I can drop that asshole fast enough!

Ooo, Hunters! Two at a time is a bit of a rough reunion, though. With Sentinels shooting them up, keeping them distracted, shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, though.

I remember a time when I could’ve circled once around these bastards – in a fight, with other enemies around – and one-shotted them in the back. Now I can barely see their backs! Ooh, a fuel rod cannon… And that’s right, run at them, leap over, turn around, shoot in the back… both down. Like a dance I used to know!

The Halo alien interiors always bring to mind futuristic churches. Cathedrals of light and metal. Hey, first gigantic elevator!

Oh, right, the place is actually called a “Cathedral”. Figures.

Master Chief sure looks hot in these cutscenes. Hey new aliens! In a cutscene. Kinda like Sentinels meet Elites. Or robots and monkeys. But that’s an Achievement and a wrap for the night.

I kinda like how they reset your gear for a new level without any sort of in-game explanation. It’s old-school and a little comforting – as long as you can make it to the end, trust in the cutscene and the Achievement to see you through to a new beginning.

Day 2. MP.

The Infinity’s announcer dude is ridiculous. Can’t take it at face value that’s he’s some proper military guy.

We won again, but I still can’t figure out why it takes like a short break, then resumes, and says that the team to get to five kills is actually the winner, when we already won by points. Weird, confusing.

Shooting guys in Halo MP feels really good. The way their jumps hang in the air a moment, the way it’s easy to line up long-distance shots and rack those headshots, it makes you feel like a hotshot supersoldier. Special. Is this why it’s so popular? It certainly makes you feel great.

Two nights of Halo MP in a row and I haven’t heard any jackasses online. Is the reputation for trash talking 12-year olds unwarranted after all?

Day 3. Campaign.

Looks like I need to take out two things to contact that Infinity ship. Familiar ground, then. Already losing that personal drive to fight, they should do a better job of holding on to it.

Disappointed at taking a teleport to the pylon I’m going to destroy… The original game did a great job of grounding the halo construct like a real place, this feels more haphazard, elusive, lazy. The marines running around with you added a ton to that game.

In a purple canyon, encountering the new aliens for the first time. Otherwise fine – climbing the walls is new for Halo foes – but did they have to have another of those QTE like close encounters? Couldn’t I just find a dead alien instead and analyze that? Anyway, kind of a cool way to ensure they’re kind of familiar, with the bit about their “mimetic” nature and showing a glowing human skull in the guy that gets up to my face.

Dropping the small, dog-like dudes is fun enough – they make a nice splash and being bombarded by their bright red laser beams is neat. But with the single bigger guy around, so far this feels exactly like Elites plus Grunts, except without the funny chatter. I die.

Oh, it’s actually the Elite stand-in with the laser beams, the dogs shoot yellow blasters, reminds me of being in a firefight in Star Wars. The dogs’ behavior isn’t very convincing. I would’ve expected them to converge on me, and instead they… kind of… run around, taking potshots. Dropping them with the magnum is easy and fun.

There’s more big dudes looking in on the fight. The dead big guy – this one, too, is weirdly laid back and not confrontational like you would expect from a Halo alien – drops a “light rifle”. I start making with the big laser gun, then.

So the new Elites are called “Promethean Knights”. Okay. The big laser gun blocks my view uncomfortably, but it’s got a nice zoom. Not a fan of the lame low-power laser shots.

Giving a pass on the other alien guns for now – a “boltshot” and a “suppressor” – even though they’re offered in familiar enough gun cabinets. One new toy is enough to get me in trouble!

Oh come on, they’re packing freaking energy swords, why are they not aggressive? I’m able to just pot-shot them, one at a time.

Alien grenades (they pack a weirdly static light show, it feels entirely non-threatening) and the suppressor, then, as I’m out of ammo with the light rifle. By looks the suppressor is basically a re-skinned human assault rifle.

Oh I do like the yellow, liquidy splash the small guys make when they die.

The big dudes warp all over the place. That’s nice, but I hope they warped to more sensible places, say behind me or on top of something where I can’t reach them in hand to hand.

The alien (and by alien I mean “Promethean”) guns assemble themselves on command. It looks cool, but feels a little out of place in Halo’s tactile world. Okay, the alien shotgun is loaded… just like a human shotgun. That’s just weird! I would have an easier time accepting it’s a wide-beam, alternating frequency beamgun. Instead of a glowing shotgun.

Hey that was pretty neat! And horrible! Chief tried to limp away, dying, before, well, dying.

The glowy dogs are hard when they gang up on you.

But those small flying vertical drones that basically look like two discs glued together? Those are just stupid. Who likes trying to hit small flying targets? But hmmmm… looks like they’re doing something to the knights… maybe healing them? Also cool: the knight uses the same sort of “light shield” I’ve got.

Oh no checkpoint for destroying the second power core? But yes for the first one? Ah. Third try, I just lingered around for long enough after destroying – and, hey, checkpoint! Seems a bit bugged then.

I have no idea where I’m supposed to go. “Top”? What? Running around on my third attempt, looks like there is an objective, after all, the game is just not crazy about showing it until you see it.

For fuck’s sake, that’s a lot of goddamn aliens to get through. One-shotting the dogs with the rifle feels great.

These flying fuckers are really goddamn aggravating. As long as you have rifle, fine, but when you don’t, fuck those guys! They take way too much damage for what they look like. Also this fight is fucking hard. Again I kind of feel like I shouldn’t play solo.

The alien AR doesn’t do shit against these guys.

I ended up running past quite a few of them to get to the light elevator. Not very satisfying.

The delay in “hold X to activate” is too long, feels sticky and unresponsive.

Well, that’s cool. The hollow interior of the Requiem planet is so big that Covenant ships are jumping into the planet. Rock’n’roll! To be honest, I’m looking forward to fighting them, these Promethean motherfuckers have left me winded and aggravated.

Day 4. Campaign.

Mushrooms and volcanic rock, what’s not to like? It’s a new type of environment for the series. Also lightning in the distance. The Promethean bastards work immediately better when there’s Covenant to back them up, in terms of gameplay.

This arena is (again) confusing… it feels like 343 is not nearly as good in directing the player as Bungie was. I’ve been lost far too many times. Fighting when you have no idea where you’re supposed to go is just frustrating.

Oh okay, now I actually finally saw what those flying things actually do – they re-animate Promethean Knights I’ve taken down. Fuck that. Need to concentrate on them first from now on, aggravating little fucks they are.

Feels like a fucking skeet shoot when you’re supposed to be fighting all the guys around you… I really hate their design, in every aspect. Who the fuck thought this was a good idea?

I’ve killed every moving thing in this volcano bowl and circled it twice. WOULD IT KILL THEM TO SHOW ME WHERE TO GO?

Whoops, wasn’t every moving thing, after all…

I have emptied a “suppressor” twice and three clips of Covenant carbine into three of the flying fuckers and NONE OF THEM HAVE DIED. Jesus Christ I hate these guys. A fucking frisbee shouldn’t be this goddamn hard to kill, techno colors or not.

OH. The “boltshot” has a charged firing mode, too, like the Covenant plasma pistol. Sure took care of that Elite in a flash.

Interesting. Is it actually the flying bastards that are doing the most talking among the Prometheans?

Seriously, for fuck’s sake, would it be heresy to give a checkpoint at some point during this massive fight? I’ve killed two of three troops and the last one is giving me trouble. Then again, I’m getting much more adept at killing these other guys.

Okay, with those sorted out, now there’s the beacon/searchlight/turret thing on the wall with scant cover between me and it. Hmm.

Right, sprinted past it… finally, checkpoint!

Ooh, I get to ride a Covenant Ghost hover-motorbike thing. I never really liked them as much as the other vehicles, but I take what I can get.

For once, they let you ride in a vehicle up a tower instead of legging it. As it should be.

It’s the exact same “detroy the power cores in this arena” game as before, but with the Ghosts it’s a completely different scenario. Good, economic design, there.

Oh wow, having nabbed a Banshee flying Covenant thing, coming in down and low, an Elite jumped my craft and pulled me out! That was neat. But again – it’s the original Halo palette I’m having the most fun with.


FOUR out of FIVE Halos
Plus: I love Halo again
Not: I still love Bungie more

culture technology Xbox 360

Rocksmith (Xbox 360)

Rocksmith Xbox 360 PAL cover
Rocksmith. The guitar is what it’s all about.

Rocksmith’s appeal is entirely up to your background. Mine follows: when Rock Band came out in Europe in January 2008, I first picked up a plastic guitar controller. (I’ve had four since.) Two years ago I picked up a real guitar, all thanks to the game. I’ve been noodling with it once a week. It’s just not enough practice to really progress in the art, but I do have the basics of picking and chords and tuning down. I realize that I need way more practice, and it’s just not happening. I would need either friends to play with or lessons to motivate myself. Rocksmith sounded like just the thing – and the cheapest option, to boot! (“Friends” option would also mean getting a practice space.) It’s been a frustrating year, waiting for it to come out in Europe.

Rocksmith is basically Guitar Hero played with a real instrument. The skills you build can be transferred as-is to the real world. Just plug into an amp instead of your console (or PC).

The first and lasting revelation comes right in the first loading screen. You’re plugged in and during loading you can play whatever. The game and your AV system works as a  virtual amp. Just with the default settings – which you can mess around with much as you please – you sound great. The tools do matter. The game is doing some magic to mask your noise (unwanted sound you’re producing), but really just the right effects, guitar sound and amplifier make you sound so much better than through your likely cheap home amp, it motivates you to no end. I’ve been thinking about getting a virtual amp and right now I see no reason to.

Moving on to the game proper, it works like all music games do. You’re presented with songs to master and you tackle them one by one, playing virtual gigs to virtual venues. Here lie the game’s problems – it probably would be better off not calling itself a game. Games are supposed to be rewarding. Learning to play an instrument is rewarding… in the long term, but in the short term it demands patience. The way the game constantly ups the difficulty as you’re making progress, all the time keeping right out of reach of your abilities, is great for learning, but makes for poor gameplay. When you’re missing notes, you’re not “making mistakes” or losing points, you’re learning. The game does not reprimand you for mistakes, rather just politely pointing you at the right way, rather like a teacher would. It’s only a problem of perception.

The mini-games are designed to teach you basic skills like positioning. Can’t say how long I’ll play them, simple as they are, but as warm-ups they work. I’m more confident in some of my core skills already (finding the blasted 10th fret).

The way the game makes you learn everything through playing actual songs at real speeds does wonders to your sense of rhythm. It forces you to start reading with your fingers, because at real speeds you just don’t have the time to check both your hands. Compared to how I’ve been training by myself, this is nothing short of a revolution. Playing on your own, it’s so easy to play just a tad slower to keep up.

As a teaching aid, Rocksmith has just one problem and another potential one. The real problem is that the game’s Guitar Hero-y way of displaying the songs you play does not correspond to any real world way of noting music. You won’t be able to read songs based on your time with the game. That’s something you need to learn the hard way.

The potential problem is that maybe you’re not keen on the game’s selection of mostly classic rock. I’m fine with it – I don’t actually care all that much what I’m playing, as long as I’m making music. There’s plenty more options available on the download store, too. It’s nowhere near Rock Band levels of choice, but it’s choice.

The way you start from single notes, upping the amount of strings and notes as you go, moving on to chords and eventually combinations, allows you to practice at a level that’s most useful to you. Even the single note versions do sounds like music, when played correctly.

There’s been talk of lag. Can’t say it’s a problem. I did switch out the HDMI for component cables as instructed and used an analogue cable to my stereo. Apparently the loading times grate some folks, too. Again, can’t say it’s a problem. Maybe if this were a party game, but to me it’s something you fire up instead of grabbing a sheaf of tabs and plugging into my amp. You can play through the virtual amp as it’s loading. The user interface is a bit of a laugh, especially compared to Rock Band 3, but it gets the job done while looking cool enough.

Likely if you already can play a number of songs at full speed, Rocksmith won’t be anything beyond a way to master a few more songs to you. It’s been made for guys like me, who just need a little more kick to keep playing. If you were to pick up your first guitar with the game, I think you’d do okay. The game does cover the basics of tuning and holding a pick and so forth.

All told, Rocksmith is everything I wanted it to be, and more. I am psyched to get back on the guitar tonight.

Xbox 360

Max Payne 3 (Xbox 360)

Max Payne 3 cover art
Max Payne 3

Hong Kong cinema blood spurts. That’s what it all comes down to. All this technology and setting (gloriously riffing off Man On Fire) and accomplished storytelling, and it’s the theatrical blood spurts that bring it home. Max Payne 3 is a Hong Kong action tragedy, a John Woo piece made interactive.

It is as well written and plausible as a game with a bodycount this high can be. Set mostly in Brazil (with flashbacks in New York), Max Payne wades through hundreds of goons, shooting his way through cemeteries, slums, airports and police offices, a white man lost in a strange world, stumbling through, munching painkillers and gulping booze whenver he’s not pulling a trigger or staring at a mirror, contemplating whether things can go any worse. The script plays this all the way, commendably so, reaching almost but not quite Kane & Lynch levels of tragedy.

However, there’s a fundamental issue with the story and thus the whole experience – I just can’t bring myself to care about any of the supposedly important characters, aside from Max. When there’s a pivotal reveal and confrontation, I just don’t give a shit. It doesn’t move me one bit, and I’m a sucker for appealing to my emotions. The only conflict that works is Max’s relationship to alcohol, and they almost make that carry the whole game. It’s just not quite enough, erring on the side of window dressing when it should be core.

A large part of that distancing myself from the game’s emotional attempts is the fact that it’s really bloody hard. I am decent in this sort of game and completely expected to want to play through again on a harder difficulty level, but as it is, I really (really) struggled to complete it. There were scenes I had to replay dozens of times just to get through. I applaud the decision to make it challenging, but it proves counter-productive to what the game is trying to do elsewhere.

Shooting takes place over too great ranges – aiming with a pad is tricky and just not satisfying when you can’t properly see what you’re hitting, your cursor obscuring what’s going on, because the target is so far away. Most of the time the only way to fight is to take cover, pop-up by taking advantage of the generous auto-aim at the target nearest to center of the screen, squeeze off one shot, and take cover again, not manually aiming at all. It feels like running on automation. Close quarters, shoot-dodging all the way, it’s very good and satisfying. It feels like the game was developed with a mouse in hand, not a controller.

Avatar changing throughout a game’s arc is not used enough. Batman getting all used up during the course of Arkham Asylum was great. Here we get to see and play as Max in various points of his story, never managing to get off his rollercoaster. He goes from bad to worse, and they use his wardrobe and hair to tell a story. There’s a gravity to his descent that the wardrobe, hair and makeup departments convey very effectively.

In the end, though, it’s just too long. I would’ve been ready to pack it in at the halfway mark, as much as I enjoyed it. John Woo knows when to send in another wave of bad guys, and when to let the doves fly, the tears fall, the blood to pool, and the story come to a close. This is the best imitation of a John Woo tragedy we’ve seen in videogames, but it’s still not good enough.

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.

culture Xbox 360

Skyrim (Xbox 360)

Skyrim wallpaper
Skyrim. Hot damn they've improved from Oblivion's tasteless fantasy tropes

My wife got me Ready Player One for Christmas. It’s pretty good for a kid born in the 70s, and its themes of virtual worlds and their relation to the real world gels really well with a science fiction thing I’ve been working on. Then I started playing Skyrim and any of my doubts about where we’re going were swept away.

Forget virtual and real.

When I started walking in Skyrim, immediately after exiting the introductory dungeon, instinctually knowing where to look for specific plants, how to fight, and what kind of moons to look for in the night sky – it’s a (real) place I’d stepped into. This is the third game I’ve played in this world, having spent hundreds of hours in Morrowind and Oblivion, and that’s really the thing for me: it’s not so much a game series as a world, a place, to me. The world in Skyrim is just as I remember it from my previous adventures, only prettier, up to today’s standards. In the case of many other games, I would say lack of progress and feeling of familiarity are negatives, but in this case it’s a major pull for me.

There will be ever more of these virtual worlds with so much personal and cultural relevance – be it through Minecraft or World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls – that they really do transcend being “games”. When it feels like you’re logging on or booting up to be somewhere else, to meet people and go about your own ambitions instead of a traditional single player storyline, that’s a place, a world we’re talking about.

I don’t think it needs to be an MMO to do this. Guys talking about Skyrim never talk about the storyline – they talk about their own ideas of how to play the game. I’ve spent hours crafting jewelry and armor, really proud of my work and figuring out stuff on my own.

I think the key is giving the player enough freedom to find their own way and view the world from their own perspective.

I’m still trying to get around my general distaste for sandbox experiences. The thing about the Elder Scrolls series may be that they go to an awful lot of trouble to make it feel like a cohesive place instead of a virtual playground (think GTA, Saint’s Row, Mercenaries).

Xbox 360

Kane & Lynch 2 (Xbox 360)

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days cover art
Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days

I found the first Kane & Lynch an important game. It was not very good as an action title – although by no means bad, either – but it was very interesting.

Games should generally be more interesting.

What made it interesting was its sad bastards of protagonists. These guys are the same in the sequel. They’re bad guys, but human. They’re trying to do right by their own, skewed perspective. They’re trying to meet their own gaze in the mirror, no matter all the shit they’ve gone down with.

What made it interesting was the setting. They used that Michael Mann cool, hard criminal urban aesthetic really effectively. Despite sometimes lackluster graphical technical quality, that game had atmosphere and cool more than it knew what to do with. The sequel does the same thing, only this time with Shanghai’s exotic underground, and nobody can fault their technical execution. It’s a gorgeous game.

But its ultimate triumph was the narrative. Riding as Kane, a morally bankrupt gangster trying to do right by his family, but only knowing his criminal ways and violence, makes a sad mess of his already messed up life, and every attempt he makes, he just draws himself and everyone he loves deeper into a hopeless situation. It was intense. Games are rarely intense on a narrative level.

It is this last point IO Interactive fumbles in the sequel. It is still an interesting title and well worth the ride, but the narrative just doesn’t have the same gravitas.

The problem is that the protagonists are mostly reacting to stuff happening to them. They don’t take action. They don’t plan. Run and gun can never replace intent. When you decide that you are going to do a Bad Thing and then you carry it out, that’s powerful stuff. When dudes show up to shoot you up, shooting them up isn’t very interesting.

They do still know how to use their setup for very effective scenes. There are multiple memorable moments in the game. But the shocks are never as effective as in the first game, and that’s because you don’t have a similar emotional bond to these absolutely flawed protagonists. You don’t care.

I felt very conflicted about playing the first game, because on a level I did sympathize with Kane’s plight, but goddamn, he made a lot of very bad calls and did a lot of very bad things. This was not an easy man to like. In the sequel, mostly because the guys are constantly under fire and on the run, it’s easy to side with them. Of course it’s okay to shoot at guys who are shooting at you. Of course it’s okay to blast some guys who have just tortured you and killed your girlfriend.

While the central conflict is not as engaging, the gloriously improved, stylized presentation makes up for it. This is a journey well worth taking, if not living up to its full potential. Kane & Lynch titles are some of this medium’s bravest writing and for that alone they’re worth your time.

Games rant roleplaying Xbox 360

What’s wrong with Bioware? (Mass Effect 2)

Mass Effect 2

I used to think that Bioware was the coolest studio out there. They were putting out games I absolutely loved: mainly Baldur’s Gate and its sequel. I always forget that the AD&D game I liked the best, Icewind Dale, was not a Bioware production despite using their Infinity engine in the Forgotten Realms setting – it was Black Isle’s (of Planescape Torment and Fallout 2 fame).

Up to Knights Of The Old Republic – still the best Star Wars entertainment out there apart from the original trilogy – they could do no wrong. I fell in love with Star Wars all over again because of that game.

I skipped Neverwinter Nights due to not having a gaming PC at the time. From what I hear, it suffered from a lack of focus. MDK2 was alright. I was a big enough man to allow them this sidetrack into action.

Then there was Jade Empire, which was good, but not what I was expecting. The mechanics were weird. The fighting worked, but it never felt good. As ever, the world and the characters were very cool and inspired. I did not mind the smaller scale and overall I really enjoyed my time in the kung fu epic.

I am a big fan of Mass Effect, but that’s the point I realized Bioware is not something I can unconditionally trust anymore. The inventory was broken, most of the mechanics were poorly implemented (poower use, Mako driving), inadequately explained (grenades) or just broken (skills) and the fighting was never fun in and of itself.

What they got right was a super cool science fiction world, characters, and dialogue. My FemShep kicks all kinds of ass and I love her for it and Bioware for letting me do that. The story held me all the way, even though it contained only new space opera cliches. I didn’t care about the problems, because the narrative completely seized me.

Considering that Mass Effect 2 got even higher praise than the original game, I was ready to get it on. About ten hours in, I completely lost my interest.

It’s the same world, much of the same characters, same good dialogue, improved combat and somewhat improved mechanics, but they’ve completely dropped the ball with the story.

I have no idea what I’m doing and why (I guess there’s a gate I should jump in), and I don’t care. I’ve been told to go and collect all of my missing friends, gotta catch ’em all style, and then talk to them and talk to them until they offer me a mission to get them to trust me. This is not what I imagined the second chapter of saving the goddamn universe (again) to be like!

It’s like an endless sequence of those pointless fetch-a-thons that comprise the side quests of most RPGs (Bioware’s included). Even though the missions are generally well put together, well framed and well acted, I just don’t give a shit. Getting my crew together should be a side order, not the main course.

Apparently the game ends in a cliffhanger once you’re finally ready to go to the gate and jump in to tackle the actual threat to everything in existence. Sorry, a game of cloned preludes cannot hold my attention. I don’t think I’m going to complete the game, and probably will just skip to Mass Effect 3.

We’ll see how Mass Effect 3 manages to resolve these issues, if at all. At least my damn group should be together already. And based on how much the fans of the original Dragon Age hated the sequel  – which I haven’t played already, but I very much mean to, precisely because of the internet furore – maybe they’ve learned some lessons.

Less is more: Dragon Age has a lot to learn here with its swathes of uninteresting content. Show, don’t tell: Mass Effect’s best stuff is hidden away in a codex. I need a motivation to do stuff: Mass Effect 2, I’m looking at you. These are cliches because they’re true. They’re also simple rules which Bioware used to know. Previously they’ve only struggled with mechanics and game rules – initially helped by using an established ruleset when working on Wizards‘ systems – now they’ve started to stumble on their unique strengths. It worries me.

Xbox 360

Driver: San Francisco (Xbox 360)

Driver: San Francisco

Before Driver: San Francisco, I thought that maybe you just can’t do engaging storytelling in a car game. Rockstar had given it a shot, and while I really enjoy Midnight Club: Los Angeles, the storytelling is really very bad and uninteresting. If Rockstar can’t do it, who can? It turns out that Reflections can.

The initially bonkers story taking place in the protagonist’s head as he lies in a coma is a stroke of genius. They’ve decided to incorporate their crazy gameplay gimmick of “shifting” between cars on the fly into the story, and in my opinion it really shouldn’t work. It’s too out there, combined with a realistic world.

But it does work. The characters spout good dialogue, rarely missing their mark. Why it works and something like Midnight Club: LA does not, is because it’s all about the game. They’re discussing what’s happening in the game, even if it’s something videogame loco like the bad guy throwing cars around the expressway by force of will. When you’re shifting around, the characters talk about it. Very quickly, you start to take it at face value.

The other thing they get so right is that it’s all happening inside or right around the cars. The characters are essentially extensions of their vehicles. There was one inconsequential scene with a couple of meters of running outside of a car, but that’s it. Everything of consequence happens in a car, with the player driving. The really well done CGI characters help, of course, but I’d say the sharp focus on the cars and the guys driving the cars is the key here. No, it wouldn’t work in a movie (I think… might be interesting to see someone try), but as a videogame, it’s a masterclass act in writing.

The big open world I’m not a fan of. It works as a mission selection screen, but I fail to see the point of the open world, as it’s just a sequence of missions to me. I like the real life San Francisco a fair bit, but I couldn’t really get an SF vibe from the game. It makes me think what they could’ve done if it didn’t have to be an open world experience.

Videogame first, then, but a coherent narrative experience at that, Driver: San Francisco has been the year’s biggest surprise to me so far. Great stuff, really looking forward to what Reflections does next.

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.